11 keys to safer instrument flights

When you are doing it by yourself…

What we are going to look at here is instrument flying, as opposed to IFR flying. The latter relates more to the interface with the air traffic control system and is the basis for much instrument training. Flying by reference to instruments in clouds is a whole ‘nother matter and is often not addressed at all in training for the instrument rating which in reality is an IFR rating.

I would like to add one thing about IFR flying. If you plan on doing instrument flying, best fly IFR all the time. By doing this even in good weather, you will be comfortable in “the system” and when clouds come along the only change will be the fact that you can’t see outside. Everything else will be old hat.

Final approach on the ILS

There’s a big difference between flying IFR and instrument flying.

Let’s look at some of the things we can do to minimize the chances of hurt while instrument flying. All along the way, remember that an important part of the operation is to continually ask yourself what comes next and what comes after that, and on and on. You have only yourself to ask, too, because we are discussing single-pilot operations.

1. Be prepared

A scout might check that his knife is sharp. A pilot must check to see if he is sharp. Back in the good old days, being sharp related more to stick and rudder skills but now the subject is much deeper than that.

I think it is probably true that most pilots flying technically advanced airplanes don’t know all there is to know about the equipment in the airplane. The confusion caused by uncertainty about how to operate flight control systems has led to accidents that could have been avoided if only the pilot had been proficient.

In airline and bizjet training, much of the emphasis is on the avionics systems at hand. Gone are the days when a checkout in a new type involved only flying the airplane. Now there is an absolute requirement to deal with the whole thing.

The best way to do this is to get the proper training and then operate the system in good weather. Clouds shouldn’t be entered until it can be operated intuitively. Also, if software is updated make sure you know what changed. Some software updates have been confusing to a lot of pilots.

2. The Plan

Not to belittle the importance of planning to all flights, but it is true that planning is a primary key to instrument flying and it could be safe to say that failing to plan properly is more hazardous when clouds are involved than when they are not.

It is also primary that avoiding surprises is mandatory when cloud flying. Surprises serve up distractions and those are harder to handle in clouds than in clear weather.

The plan for the flight needs to look carefully at everything, and especially at the interface with air traffic control. A flight will always go more smoothly if “cleared as filed” and the way to have a better shot at that is to do a little homework.

The best way to find out what to expect in the way of a clearance is to ask the locals. If there are departure procedures for the airport find out if they are normally assigned to piston airplanes.

Look at the chart (or, more likely, the screen) and become familiar with the area and the route. If busy airports are along the way you can bet in advance that a low altitude IFR flight will be routed around the busy airspace. Word on this is sometimes published but it is still related more to agreements between en route and terminal facilities and these agreements don’t always make it into print.

An important part of the plan relates to a clearance that comes as a complete surprise. In this case, make sure you understand the clearance and have the initial points in the navigator before heading out so the first part of the flight will be covered.  The rest of the route can be programmed once droning along in cruise.

One word on published departures: In mountainous terrain there might well be a minimum requirement for climb capability. This will be expressed in feet per mile so it is a product of groundspeed and rate of climb. That means that the wind aloft comes into play and if there is a strong tailwind in the climb then a higher rate of climb (in feet per minute) will be required.

Weather is a critical element of the plan. Just remember that weather is what you find, not what is forecast, so part of the plan has to be how you will deal with unforeseen weather.

3. Confidence & Comfort

Fuel dipstick

Part of being confident is making sure the airplane passes a thorough preflight.

All the training and all the planning should result in a high level of confidence in the ability to handle the task at hand. “I think I can do this” is not a proper frame of mind. You don’t want to take off unless you know you can do this and unless the airplane has passed an extra thorough preflight inspection. A door coming open right after a low-visibility takeoff can be a fatal distraction which it has even been in clear weather.

Approaching a flight with confidence means you have been methodical and left no stone unturned. The old saying “haste makes waste” is more applicable in airplanes than anywhere else so if you feel rushed, just call a time out and sit quietly for a moment.

If after all this you don’t feel like you will be comfortable flying in the clouds at hand, go to a movie instead.

4. Dealing with the first minutes

The first minutes of an instrument flight see a proportionately high number of accidents. That means you have to be at the top of your form.

On takeoff, the best practice is to check for proper indications and sound when the power is brought up. If a needle is not in the correct place or if the engine doesn’t sound right, abort the takeoff.

I always thought the best place to start the real instrument flying is at liftoff. Go to the instruments then and forget about looking outside to see when it becomes absolutely necessary to go to the instruments.

The sensations of flight at, and right after, takeoff are pretty wonderful but they can also be discombobulating when you are on instruments. That means that absolute concentration is required and it is a good practice to do as little as possible until, say, 1,000 feet above the ground. Retract the gear, if applicable, as soon as a positive rate of climb is noted but then leave everything else alone and concentrate on basic flying. At 1,000 feet the airplane can be configured for the cruise climb and any required turn can be made. In the event that a departure procedure or a frantic word from the controller requires a turn sooner, fly through it carefully and with deliberation, paying attention to nothing else.

Many pilots turn the autopilot on right after takeoff. This is okay but do be aware that an improperly set autopilot can be an ultimate distraction when it starts to do something you didn’t think it was going to do.

5. Busywork in cruise

With a good autopilot, some pilots have been known to read or watch a TV show on an iPod or iPad while droning along at cruise. That is not what it is all about though. Cruise should be a busy time with a constant check of everything about the airplane, the navigation, and the weather.

Cruise is a good time to play “what if” and mentally work your way through every imaginable malfunction or other emergency. There are checklists for this but a good pilot will instinctively respond with at least the first and most important elements of that checklist. It goes without saying that he will keep a running tab on the closest suitable airport in case the need to land as soon as possible presents itself.

Toward the end of cruise is time to prepare for the arrival and have everything ready for that event.

6. Managing the Descent

This sounds quite basic, but a poorly managed or rushed descent can get an arrival off to a bad start.

I always used a rule-of-thumb: five miles per 1,000 feet, on descents. If you start down five miles out (or five miles from a crossing restriction) for each 1,000 feet to be lost, a 500 foot per minute rate of descent would be required at 150 knots groundspeed. Of course it doesn’t happen that way every time, or even most of the time, but that rule of thumb will tell you when a greater (or smaller) descent rate will be required to descend a given number of feet in the distance left to fly. Faster, more descent, slower, less. There are other formulas that can be used; pick any one you like but don’t fail to have a descent plan which could also rely on the Vnav function in a navigator.

7. Into the Terminal Area

I69 RNAV runway 4

A smart instrument pilot will have the expected approach ready to go well in advance.

All the good work done in advance means that you should enter the terminal area with a good expectation of what will happen next and next and after that and with everything set. If there is a change in the approach, don’t let it become a problem. Know whatever navigational system you are using and take the time to make sure the new approach is programmed correctly. If the controller is pressing you, just tell him you need a moment to reset everything.

I have a lot of experience flying with relatively new instrument pilots and they always seemed to have the most problems dealing with what happens in the terminal area. I think the nature of training has a lot to do with this.

You can often hear simulator folks say you can practice more approaches in a simulator per hour but that misses the point. Resetting the sim to a point on the approach cuts the pilot out of what happens when you actually have to fly to that point. For my money, simulators should be used to fly whole flights.

Before navigators, pilots had to visualize where they were sort of like we had to visualize our favorite radio programs before TV. The educators called this “situational awareness” which actually covered everything that went on in and around the airplane.

Even with navigators, pilots get caught up short, usually because the information they put into the navigator is not correct. It is still a requirement to know where you are and how many miles you have to fly until touchdown.  When we got the first Loran C and GPS navigators that started to become easier and as the navigators became more sophisticated it became even easier.

The miles to fly business tells you what remains and when you need to do certain things like configure the airplane for the final approach. On many airplanes that means slowing down and if a pilot blows into the last part of an approach with too much altitude or speed, the approach won’t likely go well. The goal is to stack the deck entirely in your favor before the actual approach commences.

 8. Verbalize the Approach

One thing has not changed with all the latest avionics. The ILS approach works, and is flown, like it has always worked and been flown. The GPS approaches with vertical guidance work the same way though the lateral displacement indications have a different basis.

Whichever type approach you are flying, there is a lot going on. Both the vertical and lateral guidance has to be minded and a keen awareness of altitude is required.

Some pilots find it helpful to verbalize what is going on during an approach. The feeling is that this stimulates the thought process and helps avoid fixation on any one thing.

In a crew operation there are required altitude callouts. In light airplane instrument flying these might well be 500 feet above minimums, 100 feet above, and minimums.

Other callouts that might help could include airspeed, sink rate, heading and needle position, and needle movement. If you don’t want to talk to yourself at least think about all of these things as the approach progresses. When I was flying solo, I would actually talk to myself but did so silently with others in the airplane.

9. Minimums

S-Tec 55X autopilot

Should you use the autopilot on an instrument approach? There are a lot of benefits.

The minimums call is bingo time. The best way is to consider the time when minimums are reached as a one shot deal. Look up, runway, continue. No runway, go around. Sniffing around for asphalt when you can’t see anything is quite dangerous. So is flying another approach at the same airport unless something has changed about the weather.

If the weather is low, should the autopilot be used to fly the approach?

Look at it this way: If the autopilot is flying, the pilot can super-alertly monitor the proceedings. If a single pilot is flying, there is no monitor. Your choice: backup or no backup.

10. Dark? Beware

I have studied general aviation accidents for years and in many different ways. One fact always raises its ugly head: instrument flying at night is the most dangerous thing we do in airplanes flown for transportation. Nothing else comes close.

There are possible reasons for this.

Few pilots fly instruments at night more than occasionally. So, when we do so most of us are inexperienced low-time night instrument pilots. Not a good combination.

Instrument flying is harder at night because visual illusions are magnified and everything is harder to see. Pilots make more serious procedural errors at night. To err might be human and to forgive divine but nobody told the airplane about that.

A pilot flying a night instrument flight is probably a person who has worked (or played) all day. That means fatigue and fatigue breeds errors. There is likely also a compelling reason to want or need to reach the destination that night.

Mechanical failure doesn’t have much more to do with night accidents than it does with day accidents. In either case the end of the flight usually comes when the pilot loses control of a perfectly functional airplane or flies it into the terrain.

11. Debrief honestly

You can wait until you get home or wherever but before the end of the day an honest assessment of the flight should be made. Mistakes? Sloppiness?  Poor technique? Any doubt about the outcome? Certainly if you have a bad taste in your mouth after a flight, that is not a good sign.  You might have used up one of your nine lives. Personally, I used up eight in my first few years of driving and flying so had to be extra careful with that ninth one.


  1. Dick, great article – Pragmatic, interesting and informative. Thanks.

  2. Ken says:

    Great stuff Mr Collins…. Keep them coming.

  3. Mike Chinea says:

    Many thanks!!

  4. Mark Fay says:

    If you liked this article – or loved it like I did – Mr. Collin’s book “Flying IFR – The Practical Information You Need” is on Amazon and is an E Book also. It is great. Just like this article but with a ton more tips and techniques.

    He takes you through every step of an ILS approach to mimimums, and so much more.


  5. Chuck Gaouette says:

    Dick, thanks for another terrific article. It’s good that we live in a time that risk management is such a well-known and emphasized concept. But of course, sometimes one has to take on some degree of risk in order to feel comfortable flying under IFR conditions (e.g., instrument flying at night). I think your point about flying IFR all the time is a great one, particularly if you’re single pilot. Thank you again. Chuck Gaouette

  6. Eddie says:

    Hey Dick,

    Thanks for the always informative IFR information… I have read all your books and own all your videos…

    I was on an IFR flight in my Piper Warrior this summer and had a vacuum pump failure… First thought through my mind was, “what would Richard Collins do?” And behold, I am still here to tell the story… Thanks for that too!


  7. Dan Kap says:

    Regarding Tip #11, “Debrief honestly.” First off, great article! I always learn a lot reading Dick’s articles. A real sleeper app is something called Cloudahoy. It’s free in the Apple Store (Android available?). It very graphically logs and plots your flights, IFR or VFR, and provides more info about them than you can ever imagine. You can literally play back your entire flight. Perfect for CFIs who will never have to argue with their student that they were 100′ below the final approach fix!

    Dan Kap,
    Whittier, CA

  8. Charles Boles says:

    The best advice is ‘fly IFR all the time – to get comfortable in the system’. I was really reluctant to file IFR on VFR days, but one I started doing it I will never file VFR for a trip over 20 miles again.

  9. Javier Acevedo says:

    Mr. I have been follow you along of 30 years. Since you wrote on Flying. I’m 737 PIC. This is the first time I write you. Thanks and have good landings.


  10. Louis Sell says:

    I’ll add my two bits worth, great article as always. I would like to add however, never trust the fuel gages. I always consider a knee board mandatory equipment, writing instructions given. In addition, I always want to know the fuel consumption of my engines / engines. On a A-36 Bonanza, fuel was switched every 30 minutes and a mark made on the knee pad. When switching to the right tank a mark was made to the right. In this way I could tell how long I had flown simply by the marks.
    On a Baron, since no switching was needed, I just made a mark each 30 minutes.
    I find it most important to understand the hourly fuel consumption of the airplane you are flying. When you land and take fuel, if it takes more than you calculate it should, your grey matter should wake up and start wondering why.
    Feeling the airplane should be a priority learning process. Your hands, feet and bottom will tell you quite a bit about the condition of your engine and airframe. Someday, time spent acquiring that feel may save your life. I don’t care if your flying a KC-97 with four R-4360s or a Cessna 182, they will talk to you.