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.
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.
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.