The Human Factors In Instrument Flying

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine August/September 2021 online issue

I recently watched a video presentation by AOPA on the “Impossible Turn,” and it brought back some memories of the movie I had seen a number of years ago, “SULLY,” starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III. Most pilots and aviation enthusiasts have seen the movie, which is based on the 2009 ditching of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan after both engines were disabled by a bird strike (i.e. Miracle on the Hudson). One of the things both the video and the motion picture emphasized was “human factors,” which is the focus of this column. 

Today, we have so much information at our disposal in the cockpit with state-of-the-art avionics that we have “brain overload.”

As an instrument flight instructor, I watch instrument pilots push buttons, twist knobs, and configure different views on their touch screens, and when I ask them what they are looking for, they can’t tell me!

I can hand-fly a precision approach (ILS) in my airplane using what is referred to as a “sixpack” with no flight director, HSI or moving map better than they can, and probably equal to what their autopilot can do. “How can this be?” pilots ask. “I just spent 50K on these new avionics and you did that using a King KX-175, designed and built in the 1970s?” There is a factor of too much information and brain overload which is a human factor.

I am not trying to discourage or pooh-pooh that new technology as I am a geek for new advances and love to fly this equipment myself. It is the instrument pilot of today that we have created who has become “A Child of The Magenta” (the subject of one of my previous columns). 

In four days, I will start training a new instrument pilot in a 10-day course. This will be my first full instrument student in over a year due to the pandemic, and I am very excited!

I picked up my syllabus that I have used for over a decade and saw that little has changed in the way an airplane flies: “The Wing Is The Thing, And If You Don’t Understand It, It Will KILL YOU!” We still use the same basic concepts as far as the instruments are concerned, but they may be displayed on a glass screen and driven by an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS), instead of a vacuum pump. I still teach attitude instrument flying, pitch + power + configuration = performance, and instrument scan. Navigation and approaches will still be taught using the VOR, however I have elected not to teach automatic direction finder (ADF) approaches, unless there is one in the airplane, and we have some time to do so. As training progresses, we will teach GPS and the buttonology that goes with those new boxes, if there is one in the airplane (and there usually is). And finally, we will hopefully – weather permitting – be able to give the pilot the experience of flying in real instrument meteorological conditions  (IMC).

Human factors play an important role in instrument flying. Pilots over the years have developed many bad habits that are hard to break. Some of these bad habits must be broken to become a successful instrument pilot. One of those habits is the misuse of trim, especially if the aircraft has electric trim.

Back to basics. Do we trim for altitude, attitude or airspeed? I hope you guessed it right. The answer is “airspeed.” If the pilot has an autopilot with electric trim, I say learn from the autopilot. In altitude hold mode, if you reduce power, you will be reducing airspeed and the autopilot will retrim itself if you are in turbulence. The elevator is used to hold altitude and the electric trim is rarely used and only when the pitch servo calls for help. When trying to hold altitude while hand-flying in turbulence, I see so many pilots try to hold altitude with the throttle.

When learning to drive a car, your instructor told you to put both hands on the wheel, but your flight instructor said one hand on the yoke, and one hand on the throttle. Pilots who use two hands on the yoke forget to use the rudder pedals and cannot hold their heading precisely. Why is that a human factor? Sweaty palm syndrome, I call it. Pilots grip the yoke with a death grip. They are constantly switching hands on the yoke, while they wipe their sweaty hands on their trousers, which distracts from their precision flying.

Finally, they experience “brain overload” trying to fly a precision approach caused by too much unimportant information. When I see this happen on an approach, I take away the approach plate, turn off the moving map, and tell the student to ask me for any information they may need.

While teaching instrument ground school, I tell the class I will flash an approach chart on the screen for 10 seconds and have them tell me what information they need to fly the approach. Try it sometime in a safe environment. Once inside the final approach fix (FAF), very little information needs to be retained to memory. If this is a precision approach, the decision altitude (DA) and the missed approach point (MAP) are the same. We also need to know the initial part on the missed approach – a climb straight ahead or a climbing right or left turn. If this approach is a non-precision approach, we need to know the minimum descent altitude (MDA) and the MAP as we are to descend to the MDA, level off and fly to the MAP. In several instances, I have flown an approach in IMC after declaring an emergency without ever seeing the approach chart and having key information given to me by Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Flight planning is also an important part of any flight. Too often in my life, I have needed to make changes to a route. Weather, mechanical and human factors contribute to the safe outcome of a flight. Human factors also contribute to aeronautical decision-making and is important to the safe outcome of a flight. 

Many pilots feel that their instrument flying skills have deteriorated over time but are too embarrassed to seek the help of a professional flight instructor. Don’t think you are alone, as I see many pilots who cannot hand-fly an approach. When this happens, I encourage you to call a flight instructor for help. You will be surprised at how quickly these skills can improve.

Safe flying and enjoy reading Midwest Flyer Magazine! 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. He conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in many makes and models of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics. Mick is based in Richland Center (93C) and Eagle River, Wisconsin (KEGV). He was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Readers are encouraged to email questions to or call 817-988-0174.

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.

This entry was posted in August/September 2021, Columns, Columns, Columns, Instrument Flight and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply