8 SOPs for instrument flying

Do you fly with SOPs? Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are commonly used in the corporate and airline flying world as a way of formalizing the do’s and don’ts of a flight department and making sure every pilot follows the same procedures. I’m generally suspicious of SOPs in life, because they limit your ability to be flexible and react creatively to life’s inevitable changes (we all like our freedom). But when it comes to IFR flying, I believe SOPs are a critical safety tool.

Final approach on the ILS
When you’re flying IFR, it’s a good idea to have some hard and fast rules.

Why? Because SOPs force you to think through what you will and won’t do in the airplane in a disciplined way–but from the comfort of your home or office. Making these decisions at 200 feet and 120 knots is simply not a good idea. It’s best to consider your experience as a pilot, the airplane you fly and the terrain you’re around, then create some black and white rules that you simply follow–no negotiation and no interpretation. An SOP should be clear, detailed and realistic.

Obviously, SOPs can’t cover every scenario, and they shouldn’t try. But there are some key concepts that are fairly universal. With that in mind, here are eight SOPs I follow when I fly IFR:

1. No second approaches. It’s astonishing how many accidents happen on the second attempt at the same instrument approach in bad weather. Often, the pilot will see a glimpse of the runway lights right as he goes missed on the first approach. That makes the temptation to drop down “just a little more” the second time around very strong, and disaster likely awaits if you do. Besides, unless you really messed something up the first time, the weather will not change enough in the 5 minutes it takes to go back around. If you flew a good approach and the weather was simply too low, go to your alternate.

2. No circling approaches at night. Circling approaches in low conditions are a challenge, as you try to stay above minimums but below the clouds–all the while keeping the runway in sight. Add in a dark night and things can get pretty ugly, especially in high terrain. That’s why a circling approach at night simply shouldn’t be an option for you, maybe with the exception of your home airport (since you probably know the approach and the terrain pretty well). The odds just aren’t in your favor.

3. No takeoffs with less than approach minimums. If we’re flying under Part 91, it’s perfectly legal to take off in zero/zero conditions. I’ve actually done that before, but only because the low weather was due to a very localized fog bank and I had excellent departure alternates close by. Other than this specific scenario, there is no reason to take off from an airport you can’t return to in case of emergency. The last thing you need to worry about if you have a fire or instrument failure after takeoff is making a zero/zero landing. A related SOP is that if the weather is below VFR minimums, it’s a good idea to have the departure airport’s instrument approach loaded just in case you do have to return.

4. All approaches must be stabilized from final approach fix to runway. The segment from FAF to the missed approach point/runway is the most critical on an approach, and is the site of a lot of accidents. That means you need to be configured properly before the FAF and be able to focus exclusively on flying the airplane for those few minutes. While different pilots have different definitions of a “stabilized approach,” I aim to never exceed 1000fpm vertical speed, two dots of deflection on the HSI and 10% of desired airspeed. If you’re chasing the needle or going 20 knots too fast, hit the power and fly the missed. This is a time to be extra paranoid.

Fuel gauges getting low
Keep it simple on fuel–always 60 minutes in the tank at landing.

5. Always land with 60 minutes of fuel. This one’s easy, and is valid for IFR or VFR flying. No matter what the FARs say, there’s no reason to land with less than an hour of fuel in the tanks. If you’ve ever seen the fuel gauges at 30 minutes, you know how ridiculously low that looks. Give yourself more options so when the day comes that the forecasts are all wrong you can safely get to an alternate.

6. If it’s really low, let the autopilot fly the approach. Some old school pilots may disagree with this, but I’m a firm believer in it. If the weather is really 200 and 1/2, swallow your pride and let George fly. That doesn’t mean you can’t fly the approach if needed, but rather that you choose to let the autopilot do it. That gives you the time to monitor all the conditions and maintain maximum situational awareness. Two important notes: you need to be proficient enough to hand fly the approach if needed (the autopilot should not be a crutch), and you need to know your autopilot extremely well. But flying isn’t a contest to prove who the best pilot is; it’s about making it to your destination safely.

7. Call out 1000 feet to go on all climbs/descents. Altitude busts are some of the most common mistakes you can make as an instrument pilot, and while they may not cost you your life, they can ruin your day. Almost all professional crews use this one and you can too–even if you’re single pilot. When you’re within 1000 feet of your assigned altitude, you should be focused on leveling off properly. Even if your autopilot alerts you, look at your altimeter and verbally verify “1000 to go.” This is also the time for sterile cockpit rules–you don’t want to be talking about the ball game as you blow through your altitude.

8. Do a takeoff and approach briefing every time. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying single pilot or as a crew, VFR or IFR, home base or far off land–always do a takeoff and approach briefing. This can be as quick as a sentence or as long as a few minutes, but you should have a plan for the two most critical phases of flight. A takeoff briefing usually confirms which runway will be used, what the airplane configuration will be and what to do if the engine fails at different points along the climbout (when is it safe to turn around?). An approach briefing confirms the runway length is appropriate, considers the obstacles/terrain and specifies the landing configuration to be used (full flaps or partial?). Get in the habit of doing a briefing and it will become second nature.

At the end of the day, SOPs are all about building in some margins. Night circling approaches can be done safely, for example, but there’s almost no margin for error. Eliminating this from your flying increases your safety margins and keeps you disciplined. And discipline is what instrument flying is all about–follow the rules, every time, no matter what.

One last tip: SOPs are worthless if you don’t obey them.

Do you have official or unofficial Standard Operating Procedures? Share them below in the comments section.

27 Comments

  • Don’t launch into the clag unless VFR conditions are within your tanks range. Who knows what could fail while you’re in the soup.

  • Have been a fan since Leighton’s small magazine came out many years ago.
    In choosing an alternate, one before the final destination can allow landing with good fuel reserves if the destination is going sour; a moderate delay could permit rest and reassessment – Availability of an airline “out” a plus if trip is critical.

  • John:
    Just curious; why is your rule no. 3 important? Why are you any more likely to need to return to the airport just after takeoff than say, get into an airport while cruising on top of fog for 300 miles to a VMC airport? You cite fire and instrument failure, but my guess is that a real fire is not going to leave time to get vectored around to the ILS. In fact, with a real fire one best shut the fuel off and deal with what shows in the windscreen. Instrument failure – not sure I see why that is any more likely to happen on takeoff than at any time during the rest of the flight.

    • I’d just say that engine trouble at 1,000 ft agl and at Vy is more troubling than at say 6,0000 agl and cruise speed… less time/ options in the former.. personally I’d say no launch when departure airport is 0/0.

    • Steve,

      It’s a fair question, but I think John’s comment here is a start. The moment right after takeoff is a pretty vulnerable time–low on airspeed, low on altitude, the engine is running at 100%. It’s also a critical time for the pilot–going from takeoff to IMC is always a lot of work for the first few moments. There’s more going on and fewer options. To take your example of VFR on top of fog, if the engine quit there, you would have time to get a handle on things while you slowed to glide speed, then maybe be able to dial up a nearby ILS. At 400 feet and Vy, the first reaction would have to be to immediately lower the nose. That’s really hard to do in IMC that close to the ground.

      As I said, it’s all about margins. You certainly can take off 0/0 and be fine (I’ve done it and will do it again most likely). But there are very few margins in this type of operation–one thing goes wrong at the wrong time and you are really in trouble.

      John

      • In your article, you write “create some black and white rules that you simply follow–no negotiation and no interpretation. An SOP should be clear, detailed and realistic.” Yet here in your reply you say you will “most likely” again takeoff in 0/0.

        This is the part that bothers me about making personal weather rules that are more restrictive than the regulations. When a pilot is 1000 miles from home on Sunday, and he needs need to be at work Monday morning, he’s probably going to takeoff even if it’s 0/0. But he may not be mentally conditioned and his skills not fully prepared for this since he’s always told himself that he won’t takeoff into weather that low.

          • Fair point, but I thought I would be honest about this particular rule. I fly out of Cincinnati Lunken (LUK) a lot. 300 mornings a year LUK is fogged in from 6am until 10am. It’s down in a river valley and it’s just the way it is. If I never took off in these conditions, I would almost never fly. But on 295 of these 300 days, the fog is about 50 feet thick, it’s clear above and there are 3 great alternate airports within 2 minutes flying time. To me, this is an acceptable risk because: it’s my home base so I know it well; the weather around is always good; there are good alternates; I almost always fly out of here two pilot.

            It’s sort of like circle to land at night: it’s a never, unless it’s home base and there are no other adverse conditions.

  • Hello,

    I like SOP number three, but my SOP is to never take off in 0/0 conditions and this is why:

    1) I cannot confirm that a vehicle, unaware, entered the runway. In the past few weeks there have been two aircraft/vehicle collisions that I am aware of, both in VMC… I would not want to risk it 0/0 conditions.

    2) I cannot confirm that an animal entered the runway. Anyone close to deer country is at a higher risk for this one than not.

    3) I also want to be able to land where I took off from in the case of an imminent danger scenario.

    4) This one may only apply to a multi engine scenario, but if I lose an engine after refusal I want to be able to use outside visual cues to maintain runway alignment on the climb out, so I don’t drift into unprotected space.

    Another note: The Tenerife disaster may have been avoided all together if the aircrews of the two 747s had been able to see each other, or the tower.

    Very respectfully,
    Michael

  • Great article John.
    I think that SOP’s are best for things that have to be decided in the air and that is why number 3 doesn’t quite fit. Sitting on the ground in the FBO and looking at the fog I have got plenty of time and access to information to make a careful and informed go/no go decision based on a rational analysis. At the bottom of a socked in ILS approach I don’t have that luxury.
    Stephen.

  • I haven’t always done a good job with SOPs, but there are four that I have held mostly firm with, and have served me well in my PA-28-161 since I got my (Canadian) instrument rating in 2003:

    1. Never begin a flight unless the primary destination airport (or a larger very one close to it) is forecast to meet not just regular approach minima but *alternate* minima.

    2. Always initiate an exit plan when the first frost appears on the tip of the OAT probe.

    3. When I can no longer multiply 2-digit numbers in my head, request a lower altitude (hypoxia hits math skills first; however, now that I have a pulse oxymeter, I have a better way to monitor).

    4. Insist that ATC clarify anything even slightly ambiguous, even at the risk of a sarcastic response.

    0/0 takeoffs aren’t allowed in Canada — we need 1/2 SM visibility minimum — so there’s no room for debate there.

  • John,

    I like your SOPs and agree that it is better to create them in your easy chair at home then at 400 feet and 1/4 mile viz on an approach hoping you make it in.

    My other SOP is “Duty Day.” Fractional Operators (Part 91K), and Part 135 operators have a 14 hour duty day from reporting at the airport for duty until the wheels are in the chocks. The accident statistics show a dramatic increase in approach missteps after 12 hours on duty. The crew of two or more has all kinds of support from dispatch, weather specialist, catering and travel support to back them up.

    How do I know about all this? I worked for an Ohio based large Fractional Operation in my past who has an outstanding safety culture.

    As a GA pilot we have to do it all, including the destination logistics. The workload for single pilot operations is significantly higher. For this reason I limit myself to a 12 hour duty day. This includes the time from when I start working in my office until the wheels are in the chocks. The 12 hour duty day absolutely does not start in this situation when I get to the airport after a long day at the office to start a vacation trip and land at midnight. Get up and go early the next morning.

  • This is a great article, and I agree with the SOPs outlined. The author states “create some black and white rules that you simply follow– no negotiation and no interpretation”. Therefore if you decide no 0/0 takeoffs then there can be no exceptions, regardless of the circumstances. No means no. There are a lot of potential pitfalls in 0/0 takeoffs.

    The airlines have absolutely stellar safety records, due to strict adherence to their SOPs, and frequent recurrent training, and a professional disciplined attitude towards flying, that I would like to emulate myself in my GA IFR flying as much as possible.

  • One can also use SOPs during preflight inspections. My personal mindset during preflights is to “pretend” to be an FAA inspector looking for a reason to cancel the flight due to some unacceptable mechanical condition- rather than being focused on finding every escape clause to permit the flight.

  • My SOP is to brief every approach thoroughly, and repeat three critical items at the end of each briefing for memory’s sake:

    -the final approach course
    -the minimum descent altitude or decision height
    -the first step in executing the published missed approach

    Usually, these three things are the only real items worth memorizing once you’re inside the final approach fix. If you don’t have to look down at your approach plate at all during this critical phase of the approach, it makes the flight a whole lot safer.

    • Good points. This is probably the subject of another article, but what goes into an approach briefing is critical. A you say, it doesn’t have to be everything on the plate.

      • Maybe it is just because I am getting old, but I never trust my memory for things like these. I will always confirm courses, altitudes etc by a glance at the plate even if I am sure that I already know them. The consequences of not doing so are too severe. The key is to know exactly where on the plate that information is so that it does only take a glance to confirm what you already know.
        Stephen.

  • I really like all the responses assuming that SOP s come from years and 1000s of hours of experience. As a new Instrument Pilot my SOP is simple.
    IMSAFE and PAVE and AC checklist.

  • As a CFII and member of a flying club and later airline pilot I used to get to fly a mix of fixed gear and retractable gear airplanes. So my SOP is: Regardless whether fixed gear or retractable: After lift off : “Positive rate – landing gear up” and at the appropriate time : “Landing gear down – before landing check” . Visualizing the gear lever and the gear lights – whether present or not. Worked OK in more than 11000 hrs – from J3’s to DC-8’s and a lot of light singles and twins in between.

    • The trouble with this one is that for pilots who fly mostly fixed gear and only occasionally retractable, they get so used to saying “gear up” or “gear down” and doing nothing that the check becomes almost meaningless and when they do fly the retractable they say the words but don’t do the deed.
      Stephen.

  • No matter the weather All flights have a planned alternate. Just before leaving cruise altitude get destination, planned alternate and possible alternates latest weather and notam report.

  • Great article John,

    The only one I don’t agree with is #1. If you have enough gas to burn, then I don’t see the harm in coming back for another try if you had to go missed because of a botched approach, or just a less than perfect approach. Of course, if you went missed because you were still in the soup at min’s then I agree – get on your way to the alternate pronto.

    My personal amendment to the circling SOP is no circling unless the ceiling is at least 1000 ft. Fortunately the circling approach is rapidly becoming extinct with the boom in GPS approaches – I’ve always hated them because turning low and tight in the pattern, with low vis and rain thrown in, perhaps following a bumpy or rough approach, is a recipe for disaster.

  • SOP is an old term that originally meant Standing Operating Procedure. There is nothing standard about SOP’s since they vary from organization to organization and from person to person. They are whatever you decide to do for a particular situation. Standing is a more accurate term. It conveys the nature of the policy as variable.

  • Regarding zero/zero takeoffs. You have your butt exposed to all sorts of dangers. Not mentioned often, especially at non-towered airports, is the possibility of airport personnel, thinking that certainly the airport is closed because of the fog, driving a pickup truck down the runway or across it at just the wrong time.

  • As a high time five and six-day a week working pilot for many years, Richard F. Cooper’s comment on choosing an alternate prior to the destination airport really struck a chord with me. That attitude and practice is a safety game-changer!

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