Single Pilot IFR

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 Issue

Those pilots who hold an instrument rating and fly in the United States are some of the most privileged people on the face of the earth. They can climb into an airplane, takeoff and fly into clouds, fly for several hours with no visual contact with the ground, maintain communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC), then fly an instrument approach to the destination airport and, lo and behold, there is the runway within sight and easily accessible. There is probably no other activity, at least legal and moral, which affords the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Yet in the yin and yang of things, this activity also offers the most possibility of disaster. This is particularly true for the majority of personal-use pilots and freight haulers, along with others who fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) with only one pilot, otherwise known as “single-pilot IFR”.

Single-pilot IFR entails a very heavy workload on the pilot, having to fly the airplane, navigate and talk with ATC, sometimes all at the same time. It is to those folks, and those planning on joining those ranks, that this article is directed.

It should be remembered that the ATC system is set up principally to control airline traffic, since these are the folks who carry the most people. Airlines operate with at least two pilots onboard. This makes the task of instrument flight, communications, navigation and systems management much less of a burden than it is for the single pilot.

True, in general, the single pilot is not flying an airplane that operates at Mach speeds and weighs hundreds of tons. However, the number of pilot actions relative to IFR flight that need to be done are the same. It is still necessary to fly the airplane, determine where you are and where you need to go (i.e. navigate), and initiate or respond to communication with ATC. Further, ATC generally places the same requirements on everyone without regard to what type of operation is involved, and that is proper and the only practical way for the system to work.

The burden on the single pilot in instrument operations is intense and requires a high level of proficiency and focused attention. For single-pilot operation to succeed, several things must be in place. The most important are pilot competence and currency. Both require nurturing and practice to achieve and maintain.

Competence in this context may be divided into two categories: 1) Familiarity with the airplane being flown, and 2) Ability to readily assess the airplane flight situation virtually instinctively.

Familiarity with the airplane means operation with automatic response. This includes control manipulation and system operations including fuel system, landing gear, flaps and any other goodies with which your airplane is equipped. In short, airplane handling should be like breathing. The only way to achieve this state is by flying the plane, which may, if desired, include considerable time in a realistic simulator.

While as much time as possible should be in IMC, it is not necessary that all time be in IMC.

Familiarity with an aircraft can be achieved simply by flying it, particularly in unusual situations. Partial panel operations, compass turns, vertical S maneuvers, and canyon approaches are not only good training exercises, they also make for good currency exercises. Also, simply habitually flying your airplane precisely even in non-instrument flight can be a great help.

For a simple example, start setting touchdown targets on every landing, while holding airspeed constant and at a level which should not be measured by a Mach number. Remember when your instructor required this? Those people who fly with precision are usually a step above the herd in instrument flight. Additionally, when changing altitude or airspeed, do so by adjusting the power settings to predetermined levels to accomplish the task. This reduces the amount of attention required to achieve stable flight in the new condition.

Key to maintaining attention on the critical factors is cockpit organization. During flight, the pilot must access an impressive amount of information, record clearances, retrieve frequencies, and utilize checklists. All of this while flying the airplane, communicating with ATC, and obtaining weather information in addition to navigating.

Since flying the airplane includes fuel management, systems review and the mundane task of keeping the dirty side down, it is very important that all documents and information sources are readily available and always in the same place.

Having to search for needed information has two very important negative consequences. First, it distracts from the key task of keeping the dirty side down, and second, moving one’s head around searching for something is an open invitation to “vertigo”. Therefore, having things where one can reach them without looking is far more important than one might first suppose.

How this is accomplished is far less important than accessibility and consistency. If you like the multi-pocket gadget bag attached to your leg, that’s fine. Just keep everything you need on a routine basis in the bag and in the same place in your aircraft. Also, keep a pen or pencil on a string so when, not if, you drop it, you can retrieve it easily.

The equipment in any airplane is only as good as the pilot’s ability to operate it. It is one thing to be able to program the latest whiz-bang electronic toy while in visual meteorological conditions, and while not talking with ATC, but it is quite another thing to operate the equipment in IMC when things have just changed, you are executing a missed approach, and ATC is giving you a clearance to a fix you have never heard of before. This is where single-pilot IFR becomes a challenge.

Add to these duties, additional issues, which can be caused by system failures. (This is NOT a good time to lose an engine in your twin.) You need to know how to handle this situation instinctively and without time to think about how to work the equipment.

Modern avionics requires far more pilot input than legacy equipment. One airframe manufacturer recommends 100 hours of experience with the avionics before flying hard IFR. That’s even with an autopilot. The same manufacturer says the aircraft should not be flown IFR without an autopilot.

Because of the additional pilot workload with advanced avionics under these conditions, an autopilot has become a virtual necessity. An autopilot permits the pilot to reduce the workload while catching up with other things. The downside of this is that the autopilot often changes mode with inputs to the controlling avionics.

For example, the pilot may believe the autopilot is still receiving input from the navigation equipment when in fact it has changed to roll mode as a result of a change made to some other element of the system. Consequently, the autopilot mode should be checked after every input to the navigation equipment. Otherwise, you may be off to unknown parts to the consternation of both you and the controller. It is wise to remember that for the autopilot, approaching the glideslope from above is a no-no. If the circumstances require you to do this, it is best to fly the airplane manually or ask for vectors to go around and try again.

With legacy radios and navigation equipment, life was simple. Changes could be accomplished simply by reaching for a knob without looking, except to glance to confirm you were touching the correct knob. Then rotation of the knob could be done with merely a glance, without turning your head, to see if the correct entry was made. You simply had to select which unit to use, if you had more than one unit, then set the frequency, twist the Omni Bearing Selector (OBS), and you were in fat city.

With advanced avionics, knobs and buttons take on a new meaning, depending on the mode the equipment is in. This means the pilot must be familiar with the equipment to an extent not required by legacy equipment. Further, an erroneous input requires more time and concentration to correct.

I am not implying that modern equipment is inferior to legacy equipment. Quite the contrary. Modern equipment provides many advantages in situational awareness, information access and aircraft operations in general. However, the price to be paid for this luxury is a greater need for being proficient with the avionics and maintaining that proficiency with higher overhead to achieve both goals. As a result, it is more important now to maintain proficiency with the equipment, and it takes much more effort on the part of the pilot to do so.

It would not be appropriate to close this discussion without reference to operating light twins in the IMC environment. While it is true the avionics, navigation and communication requirements are the same as singles, there are a few differences worth noting.

Twins tend to be more massive than singles. That means that even more so than a hot single of the same speed, it takes more time to slow a twin down. As a result, it is imperative to stay ahead of the twin.

While the avionics systems in a twin are the same as a single, the aircraft systems are not.

The principal areas of concern are fuel and electrical systems. Fuel systems generally consist of main tanks, and one or more auxiliary tanks for each engine, and usually there are opportunities for cross feeding between engines. In addition to intelligent fuel management, the best procedure in IMC operations is to make sure that before beginning any approach, the fuel system is set to maximize available fuel so as to minimize the actions required in case of a missed approach. Having to switch tanks and play with boost pumps while executing a missed approach, in addition to handling a dead engine due to fuel mismanagement, is a very good way to get into trouble.

Electrical concerns are also different in a twin. Not only does a twin have the advantage of two sources of electrical power, a twin also has a balancing control that can fail. Therefore, attention should be devoted to the alternator output of both engines prior to beginning any approach.

The increased reliability of a twin requires some additional pilot management to take full advantage of that reliability. Therefore, the six-month, six approaches for currency is, in my opinion, totally inadequate to maintain currency with modern avionics and high-performance airplanes, either singles or twins. A much better plan would be six approaches in two months, and those approaches should require extensive manipulation of the equipment, coupled with active communication with ATC. Further, if the airplane is more than the vanilla Cessna 172, Piper Warrior, etc., or if flying is routinely performed into high traffic density areas, serious consideration should be given to installing an autopilot if one is not currently installed.

While nav coupling is highly desirable, at a minimum, the autopilot should offer heading hold and altitude control, including rate of altitude change. Rate of altitude change is desirable because when executing a missed approach, life becomes very busy and heading, altitude and destination changes are involved, all while talking to ATC.

Should the workload become too heavy, it is fair to admit that fact to the controllers and ask for guidance. They will provide headings and altitudes and let you get yourself together again. This is, fortunately, a rare occurrence.

Does all this mean that single-pilot IFR is only for superhuman folks? Not at all. Many pilots do it every day. Given a pilot dedicated to maintaining proficiency, single-pilot IFR is not only safe, it is one of the most rewarding activities in flying. There are less than 700,000 active pilots in the entire U.S., and an even smaller number who are qualified to enjoy this special activity.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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