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IFR training gone bad: the real world of IFR flying is out of sync with the way many instrument pilots are being trained and kept current. Here are three areas for improvement.

I originally titled this article, "Why Most IFR Training Sucks," but decided that was both unfair and untrue. It's not that the training sucks, it's that the training is stuck straddling an abyss between what IFR used to be and what it's becoming.

Good instructors are bridging the gap, some by design and some intuitively, because they see a need and provide guidance to address it. But this is haphazard and limited because some fixes will require more resources than a few dedicated teachers can provide. The FAA has tried initiatives like Safer Skies and FITS. But this fix is going to have to come from consumer demand (that's you) putting enough cash on the line for entrepreneurs to step up and fill the need.

WX with Benefits

If I have to point to one place where we fall short in pilot training, it's weather. But that's always been true, and the range of weather phenomena hasn't changed since Orville licked his finger and held it up in the wind. We plowed blindly into weather for years and almost always made it out the other side, so who cares?

What's changed is the weather data that's available before and during a flight. What's failing is how to use that data to drive preflight and inflight decisions. Right now, we let pilots self teach what's safe by experience, and that can lead to some egregious misunderstandings of what really is "safe." What's missing is detail-driven honesty about how experienced pilots use weather tools to their advantage.

Let's start by dropping the rhetoric that NEXRAD is for "strategic" rather than "tactical" weather avoidance. The real-world difference between those two terms is what map scale you're using to view the radar image: Under a 50-mile range is tactical. Before the email blitz comes, I agree to the delay factor and limitations of NEXRAD. That's not my point. The point is that we're talking about making decisions based on the NEXRAD display, be that in the FBO, in the air 100 miles before the frontal line, or deep in the soup when surprise cells pop up around you.

We need to teach interpretation of NEXRAD image shapes, how cells often move along a front at upwards of a 90-degree angle to the movement of the front itself, where "clear" air is more or less likely to contain turbulence or hail, why a storm with tops at 25,000 feet over Florida is less of a worry than tops at 25,000 feet over Michigan, and so on. I'm going to say this is a wee bit more important to today's IFR pilot than a multiple choice question on ADF position or reading a static radar summary chart.

We're also missing the boat on systems integration and limitations. Having a spherics/NEXRAD combination on your display is far different than having datalink lightning plus NEXRAD. And not all datalink lightning is even the same. When is it OK to use the datalink METAR instead of the ASOS and what information needs correcting? (Hint: In the Northeast or the Northwest parts of the U.S., the wind might not be where you expect based on the METAR.)

It's not just cockpit weather where pilots are left on their own. How does the forecast icing tool differ from an icing AIRMET? How many avenues do you have to determine cloud tops? And, most importantly, how should that information inform your flight planning?

Routing Realities

At a fuel stop at Buffalo-Lancaster en route to Oshkosh this year, I was looking at a pile of thunderstorms over our filed route for the next leg to Michigan. I was obsessing over what alternate route would be better, when Bob Miller (it's his home base and he stopped by to say hello) politely asked me what the hell I was doing. He recommended refiling direct and changing it up in the air.

He was right. Stress from a long day and the expectant eyes of the pilots travelling with me had me reverting to my old-school ways--worrying about the planned route. So long as you have GPS and the skills to negotiate in the air, this is a largely pointless endeavor. The GPS can be simply installed, but the skill to negotiate must be taught.

Teaching this is more than, "File direct and work out the details later." IFR pilots need to understand how much they can ask for, or even demand. We changed destinations twice on that leg of the trip to quickly get a rerouting that was favorable without a lot of explaining Then we got a bunch of smaller turns along the new route to steer clear of individual cells. Later on, we negotiated freedom to make right and left turns around small build-ups without asking by promising we'd stay within two miles laterally of the original direct course--easy to do with a GPS. We could have just cheated and jogged, figuring ATC wouldn't notice, but why create strife when accord is just one request away?

Teaching the limitations is just as important. The pilot must understand how airspace is broken up and that some requests will take time and coordination between two TRACONs, or a TRACON and an ARTCC. Some routes are non-negotiable. Don't expect deviations passing over JFK below 7000 feet. There's no room to maneuver left, right, up or down.

I've also seen pilots blindly ask for direct routes with no regard for what the minimum altitudes would be along the way. Sure, ATC should see you're about to drop below their MVA, but that's still a problem if you were counting on a route to take you between weather and now can't climb high enough, and can't accept a left or right turn over lower terrain but into mean clouds.

Corollary to this idea is teaching long-range thinking. We tend to teach IFR locally but use it cross-country. That means we don't get pilots integrating their tools in real-world scenarios. In trying to make a destination with a loaded aircraft, the real-world pilot may be playing actual winds on the PFD against winds aloft forecasts at various altitudes and waypoints along the route, along with the MFD display of fuel at destination. Here engine management, weather understanding and routing all mix to make a mission work.


Systems and Simulation

A major share of IFR teaching today is about using cockpit gadgets to their maximum utility. Even a simple portable GPS can improve your approach prowess to the point where even half-scale needle deflection should be inexcusable. But delivering on the promise of increased mission utility and safety means integrating systems training into the IFR training.

Part of this is tips on operation, like normalizing your EGTs on initial climb as an easy way to maintain the right mixture for max power in the climb. Part is practice of failure modes, like practice flying approaches fully coupled to the autopilot, by hand and in between--using heading and vertical speed all the way to DA. That way the pilot can deal with an autopilot-navigation mixup by reverting to a simpler mode without having to completely disengage the autopilot.

All this takes practice, and practice in the airplane is fine, but serious systems failures, complex air traffic scenarios or weather integration can't be taught reliably in the cockpit. Sometimes it works, and other days the emergency ILS approach you need is against the VFR flow and the whole thing falls apart. It's also expensive and will be more so as fuel becomes more of an issue. And finally, it takes a rare, dedicated instructor to teach this stuff.

Putting this all together, the best solution is simulation at a facility that does it full-time. Only they can afford the simulators and the staff. Simulators have one additional advantage over aircraft: They're a good place to die. Researcher Bill Rhodes has been doing studies into what separates ordinary pilots from expert pilots. The differences don't show up in normal operations, but they do in his hard-core simulator scenarios. The true expert pilots almost always survive. Fifty percent of the "ordinary" pilots don't.

Sins of Omission

As I said at the onset, good instructors already weave what elements of this they can into their IFR teaching. But like the responsible pilots trying to learn as much as they can, the onus is on the instructor to self-select what's useful to add and self-teach to gain the expertise.

I wish pilots of small glass-cockpit aircraft would voluntarily travel for annual or semi-annual training like bigger-aircraft pilots are required to do, but they won't. The average pilot gets 1.3 hours of recurrency training of any kind in a year. More would if there were more convenient options to do it, but more schools won't pop up until there's more of a demand. Classic chicken and egg.

While some FAA-mandated recurrency training to file and fly IFR would probably save a few bent airframes and lives, and fuel a wider availability of simulator-equipped schools, that's probably not a good answer (and unlikely to ever happen). Insurance companies mandating more advanced recurrent training as they do with twins and turbines isn't likely because they lose far more money to basic loss-of-control wrecks than IFR errors.

So the demand has to come from the pilot consumer. Before you give me a "yeah, right" on this, consider that this could actually break even financially for the consumer. Few stats are out there, but what there is suggests that IFR training with an integrated approach that leverages good technical training and simulation cuts the training bottlenecks in half and drops the total training time. It also generates pilots with quantifiably more realistic assessments of their own abilities and their actual mastery of their equipment. So for the IFR trainee, this could pay off.

For the casual, yet current, IFR pilot, the gain is less tangible. What would it be worth to you to have a simulator center where you could run through realistic IFR scenarios with simulated datalink weather, ATC and systems issues, all in the context of maximum-range IFR flights? How far would you travel for that? How much could that ideal training be simplified to make it cheaper and more widely available before it ceased to be valuable?

I don't have the answers to those questions. I know a couple simulation centers are at, or nearly at, this bar. But that still leaves the vast majority of IFR pilots and trainees learning key skills only by experience in the world, which we all know can be a cruel teacher.

RELATED ARTICLE: PODCAST | Are You a "Scary Pilot"?

Researcher Bill Rhodes thinks he can separate the pilots who probably will wreck their craft from the pilots who won't. To see where you fit in, log onto our sister publication, and click the PODCAST button in the upper right of the page.



I was recently talking with a Phenom 100 mentor pilot about the extra work he was doing for his clients. The jet is going through some growing pains that had the Quick-Reference Handbooks (QRHs) completely replaced only a week after training. QRHs are central to operating a modern jet. There were also ever-changing procedures to deal with a flap-circuit problem.


He was spending hours each day keeping up on this--all unpaid. He had to do it to keep current for his clients who paid him hourly to fly with them. We agreed that a better way might be to have two paying relationships. One is as a mentor pilot in-person and the other is mentor on retainer: Several pilot/owners pay a monthly fee to stay in the loop and get updates.

Contributing editor Scott Dennstaedt had a similar service for some clients with weather briefings. He was available to do what we wish Flight Service could do on those really nasty days: Give us advice pilot-to-pilot on how to work through the weather that day, given the equipment we were flying.

As demands on instructor technical currency and fluency increase, this model may offer some relief. Our concepts of what a CFI's job looks like may be as outdated as some of our training content. --JVW
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Title Annotation:POINT O' VIEW; instrument flight rule
Author:West, Jeff Van
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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