Maintaining IFR Currency In Your Comfort Zone!

Harold Green

by Harold Green, CFII

Maintaining legal IFR currency can be a challenge if we are not flying frequently. Hopefully this discussion will assist in reducing that challenge. First, let’s make a distinction between “legal” and “safe.”

Legal is defined in FAR 61.57(c) and basically requires that every six (6) months instrument-rated pilots accomplish six (6) instrument approaches, holding procedures and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigational systems. This can be in an airplane, simulator, or flight training device. If you have not done this you may do so with a safety pilot on board within the second six (6) month period. If not accomplished within a twelve (12) month period, you must receive an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) from a Certificated Flight Instrument Instructor (CFII). We will have more to say about the requirements on the safety pilot later.

Now consider what constitutes safe: Safe is when you can complete your flight within your comfort zone with the issue never in doubt. Let’s face it, the legal requirement of an average of one (1) approach a month with one (1) holding pattern in six (6) months is not very conducive to peace of mind while flying actual IFR.

The first step in reducing tension is to maintain familiarity with the IFR environment, both regulatory and actual. You can do this by always filing IFR whenever you fly cross-country, even short trips. This keeps you current on radio procedures and working within the system.

The second step in keeping instrument safe is to fly in actual Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) whenever possible. No matter how long you have been flying, flying into actual IMC gives you a mental hiccup at first. The more frequently you fly IMC, the less the transition time to a comfort level. Therefore, when you have an IMC day within your personal limits, go ahead and file and fly even if it’s to get a $200.00 hamburger. Of course, consideration for the possibility of thunderstorms, ice, fog and low minimums must be taken into account. You are gaining valuable experience and confidence, even if the ceilings are high at your destination, or your destination is in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC). If you want to take along a friend as safety pilot, fine. Just remember, if you are planning on using a vision restricting device or if you are six (6) months out of currency and therefore require a safety pilot, that pilot must be able to act as Pilot In Command (PIC) in the aircraft under the conditions of flight. NOTE: That’s anytime you are unable to fly by visual references, whether you are using a vision-restricting device or are IMC. This means the safety pilot must have a current medical, be rated in the aircraft and, if you are IFR (not IMC, because at this point the safety pilot must be qualified to act as PIC), the safety pilot must have an instrument rating.

Now let’s look at methods to make your currency efforts more effective, less stressful and hopefully less costly. The following information assumes you are going up just to maintain proficiency, but the principals apply to cross-country flight as well.

There are two things that grow rusty first. Actually, they are two branches of the same tree. “Scanning” the flight instruments goes rapidly unless practiced. Most occasional pilots need to work on restoring their scan. Next, when training for your ticket, you developed the habit of reaching for something, like a radio without looking until you touch the controls, then you glanced, with minimum head movement, to make sure you were touching the proper control. Then without looking, you turned the knob and again glanced momentarily at the result until you achieved the setting you needed.

This accomplished two things for you: It enabled you to keep your scan focused on the flight instruments, and reduced the possibility of inducing vertigo.

Plan your flight in advance because just like a good landing begins at pattern entry, a good instrument flight begins before you get into the airplane.

It is best to visualize the entire flight in general terms. If you are planning on a series of approaches at the local airport, know which approaches are in use and the sequence in which you intend to execute them. If you plan to ask Air Traffic Control for a full missed approach sequence, have that in mind also. In doing this you have relieved yourself of a great deal of stress, minimized surprises, and will likely get what you request from ATC if traffic permits. Once you have a plan, you can develop alternate plans as you go.

Of course you have to check weather in advance and listen to ATIS or ASOS so you know what runways are in use, and what the wind and local weather are like. Also, you have to conclude that the ceiling and visibility are within your personal minimums.

Enroute charts tend not to be so intimidating as approach plates. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that unless you are a frequent flyer, a review of the charts and particularly their legends, is much in order. Even if you are just going to a nearby airport, use of the enroute chart will keep you on top of the situation and the FAA will like you a whole lot more should you be part of a ramp check.

Approach plates offer a final road map to your destination, and there are a few things to consider.

First, recognize that the airport to which the approach applies is irrelevant until you are on the ground and you can worry about taxi routes later. That’s because approaches are the same anywhere in the U.S. So studying approach plates is the same everywhere. If you feel you are uncomfortable with the documents, then sit down and study them. If you use National Aeronautical Charting Office (NACO) charts, better known as simply “government” (issued) charts, a good place to begin is with the information at the front of the book. (Jeppesen charts have the same information, but we will limit our discussion to NACO charts. All the symbols are interpreted there and you will be amazed at what additional gems of information you may find.

For example, departure minimums and alternate minimums are there, along with other good things that will delight and amaze you. So if you don’t understand every little symbol on your approach chart, you can go there and find it. Come to think of it, you should understand every little symbol on the approach chart. When you become adept at reading charts, you don’t have to plan that far ahead, but until then, a bit of a head start can’t hurt.

Well, what things are important? Remember your initial instrument training: missed approach procedures, altitudes, radios and radials, headings, times if appropriate, and communication frequencies all count. These things are all right before your eyes. Study them before each flight and you will soon become adept at reading new charts quickly and accurately. The briefing panel along the top of the chart is a good way to start. Just have a method and use it.

Before reaching the final approach fix, my instrument students are to know the first stages of the missed approach sequence, including the missed approach point; time from the Final Approach Fix (FAF), if applicable; and the appropriate minimum approach altitude, along with the number and methods of identifying step down fixes before the missed approach point and the necessary course. Because the step down fixes have a clearly marked minimum altitude and are usually a ways out on the approach and not too close to the ground, I only require that my students know how many and where. They can always check the altitude before they get there. If you have done this properly, the approach will hold no mystery for you.

Next, having decided what we are about to do, we need to decide whether or not we should file a flight plan. If it is VFR and we have a safety pilot, we can always ask to do the approaches VFR. Since we are trying to maintain our currency and hopefully our competency, why not just file IFR? You can do this in the manner appropriate to your airport. I have found it helpful to make a notation in the remarks section of the flight plan stating the purpose of the flight if it is not for travel.  This alerts controllers to what you are about to do and ATC will usually be quite helpful. A notation such as: “training flight” can be quite helpful.

Before the flight think about cockpit organization. While this is a mundane subject akin to cleaning house, it is one of the most important to smooth IFR operations. Most of us had reasonable cockpit organization during our IFR training, but all too often it is forgotten when we haven’t flown for a while.

First, arrange charts so that there is immediate access to those you know you will need and reasonable access to charts you MIGHT need. (Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to reach something in the back seat?) Make sure your charts cannot pop out of the holder and produce a rain of charts within the cockpit.

Second, a knee board or some equivalent which requires a minimum amount of head turning to access for reading or writing is invaluable. NOTE: A string attached to the knee board and a pencil prevents minor disasters.

Third, a yoke clip or other means of securing charts in front of you is very important. Remember, turning your head, especially while looking down, is an excellent way to induce vertigo. If you have never experienced vertigo, you are missing one of life’s truly attention getting moments, which can lead to total disaster in the air. Therefore, try to set up everything to minimize the need to turn to see approach charts or whatever.

Fourth, if you are flying with a non-pilot passenger, explain to them that there are times when you won’t be able to talk to them. If your audio amplifier has a pilot isolation switch, there are times when this can be very handy.

The following assumes, for illustration purposes, that we are going to Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin (KMSN) from Middleton Municipal-Morey Airport, Middleton, Wisconsin (C29) to practice approaches.

Before leaving the ramp, set up the navigation equipment. This includes frequencies in the order you intend to use them. Then set up the navigation equipment for the first anticipated approach including Omni Bearing Selector (OBS) settings to remind you of the final approach on an Instrument Landing System (ILS). This includes cross checking VOR radials, etc. Note: After takeoff and picking up clearance, we can shift the radios around if we want, but this set up gets us into the system with a minimum of knob tweaking during the very busy first stages of flight. Then, since you know what approach you are going to fly, set up the navigation frequencies, or if it is a GPS unit, load the approach including the anticipated transition waypoint. Lastly, just before takeoff, make sure your gyro has been matched to the magnetic compass. If you know your initial heading, set the heading bug to this heading.

If you fly out of a controlled airport, picking up your “clearance” is simple. You talk to clearance delivery or ground control. If you fly out of a non-towered airport, picking up your clearance is different. Generally, you can pick up your clearance via landline, by radio on the ground, by remote communication outlet (RCO), or in the air after departure if conditions are VFR.

Let’s assume you have elected to depart VFR and pick up your clearance in the air. This typically creates tension for pilots. The secret here is to rehearse in your mind what is going to happen. Your clearance will contain a time limit, an altitude, a route and a squawk. There are minor variations such as “Maintain 3,000, expect 5,000 10 minutes after departure. Just fill it in on your kneepad. You can even develop a shorthand of your own. Then since we assume we have picked up the clearance in the air, we usually hear “1234A, can you maintain your own obstruction and terrain clearance up to 2700?” Of course if you can, you say “Roger” or “Affirmative.” Then you will hear something like “1234A, upon reaching 2700, turn to heading 360 and expect vectors for the ILS 18 at Madison.” You are then off and running.

Now let’s talk about flying the airplane. First, remember the old adage: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. One of the most frequent problems I find is a tendency to drive the airplane. That is, pitch it up or down while adjusting power to produce the speed and climb or descent desired. Make it a rule to trim the airplane to produce the speed you want with the power setting in use. Typically we only work with a few power settings: full power for climb, a cruise power setting, a cruise descent, and an approach setting. If you do this you have reduced your workload mightily. If you know the power setting for each phase of flight, you can trim for the speed you want. If you don’t know these numbers, make it a point to learn them. This reduces your workload significantly, and the airplane will require a lower scan rate allowing you to work with navigational equipment or copy clearance amendments if necessary. All general aviation aircraft are inherently stable — some more so than others — but all can be trimmed to perform as you want. So as you climb out, you have trimmed the airplane for the desired climb speed at the power setting. Now the airplane is relatively stable and you can listen to ATIS and proceed with your approach procedures and communications.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a CFII at Morey Airplane Company, Middleton, Wis.

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