Is “hard IFR” a myth? 5 things to keep it from being that way

To begin, I never knew what people really meant when they talked about flying “hard” IFR. The implication is that there is also “easy” IFR but nobody seemed to know the exact difference between the two.

The nature of weather means that, in most weather conditions, you don’t know what you will find in those clouds until you actually find it. The nature of instrument flying is such that you either can or can’t and the air traffic control system actually works the same whether you are in a busy terminal or out in the boonies or in clouds or in clear sky.

Given that, the most logical thing we can do is examine things we can do to keep instrument flying from becoming “hard” IFR.

Fly IFR on all cross-country flights.

Air Traffic Control
The system is there – use it.

It always made me cringe when someone said “I had to file.” All I could think of was the good experience that was being missed by not using the air traffic control system on all flights. There are two good reasons to do this. One is to learn to operate comfortably in the system and the other is to keep pressure on the system so that it will be there when you need it.

Don’t confuse IFR with flight in instrument meteorological conditions (clouds, in simpler terms). One is about conforming to the rules and procedures of IFR, the other is about flying or operating the airplane when you can’t see outside. If you do the IFR part routinely it will be second nature when you add the clouds.

There might be as many clouds out there as you might think. In an unscientific examination of my logbooks, I deduced that I probably flew in clouds only about 10 or 15 percent of the time I flew on an IFR flight plan. Anyone who knows my history will tell you that I was no shrinking violet when it came to flying in challenging weather.

Work hard on weather wisdom.

Some pilots are content to have only the weather knowledge required to pass the FAA test. When it comes to real weather flying, though, that equips a pilot with a really short paddle. The pilot who goes far beyond the FAA weather knowledge requirements finds that far fewer surprises await when cloud flying.

I spent a lot of time studying weather as it relates to light airplane operation and as a result can make some observations about weather that underline the value of weather wisdom.

Forecast chart
A good pilot will dig deep into the weather forecasts to understand what’s really going on.

Certainly the weather was not always as I thought it would be but I can honestly say that I was never surprised by how weather developed even when it was quite contrary to the forecasts. Why? Because I modified my thoughts about what was happening now and what was about to happen on a minute-to-minute basis. The nature of atmospheric pressure, wind, temperature and moisture, can vary from moment to moment and those are the factors that make weather.

If ever you feel angry or betrayed because of a bad forecast, pick a grungy day, put your zip code in the NWS site, and read the forecast discussion. I learned to decipher these a long time ago and in a changing situation the variables the forecasters deal with are almost startling. The same forecasters who turn out the ones for the general public also do the TAFs.

I can also say that I never considered weather to be “good” or “bad.” Weather is just weather and as pilots we have to deal with it. The level of challenge can sure change but that is what makes weather flying so interesting. I was never concerned about the weather in which I was flying because I was in it voluntarily and on the basis that I felt as if I understood it. Once in a great while I would delay a flight because I just didn’t feel like I fully understood what was going on.

I could almost always tell you whether or not a flight would be turbulent and when my thoughts about that turned out to be flawed, I always learned why that happened. The greatest challenge I found in anticipating turbulence came when a front occluded. That happens when a strong circulation causes a cold front to overtake a warm front. Occlusions tend to show on weather charts only after they have happened so there’s often no advance warning other than the pounding that your airplane is taking right now.

I have heard pilots talk about cells when there is an occlusion but the turbulence is usually wind shear turbulence, not convective turbulence. It can still beat you up pretty badly. Wind shear makes for bumps and airspeed excursions but there are no up- and downdrafts as such. There will be wind shear turbulence in any front; it’s just more pronounced at and soon after an occlusion starts. To understand shear turbulence you need only to look at illustrations of frontal slopes and visualize the different wind flows rubbing up against one another.

Checklists are important.

I always used a printed checklist simply because that suited me better. I took the P210 checklist and customized it for my airplane. That is actually necessary if you fly a mature airplane that has been heavily modified, or, customized, over the years. The P210 I was flying after 28 years bore little similarity to the one I started with except for the airframe and powerplant items.

On the two airplanes I flew a bit after retiring my P210, a G1000 Skylane and Columbia 400 (Cessna 400 then TTx), I used the manufacturer’s checklist and felt it was important to do so, especially in the case of the 400. Both airplanes had important checks of electrical systems which had become even more important with the advent of glass cockpits.

Checklists are increasingly important in airplanes with a lot of glass.

The 400 had a true dual electrical system and there were several things to check on that to make sure it was ready to deliver your money’s worth if something in the system failed.

Some pilots prefer to avoid printed lists in favor of organized cockpit scans. That is okay too but I just always thought I was less likely to miss something with the printed version.

Checklists were a long time coming to private aviation. It wasn’t until the airplanes reached a certain level of complexity, and training got some semblance of standardization, that pilots started using the lists.

There have been a lot of notable checklist related accidents. More than one airliner has crashed because the crew neglected to select takeoff flaps before rolling. That caused enough trouble that in transport category airplanes the function was automated with a warning system as well as a flaps/power lever connection that ensured the flaps were correct when the power was advanced.

In simple terms, a checklist is your last shot at getting everything properly prepared for the flight. That is especially important when there are clouds about. There are also checklists for the various phases of flight but these are generally done from memory with some using crutches like “GUMP” for the pre-landing checklist.

I was searching my memory for a good example to show how important it is to have everything just right before flight when I recalled an accident from over 30 years ago that filled the bill.

The owner of a single-pilot Citation flew the airplane himself, without a co-pilot, even though a professional pilot was part of the operation.

That other pilot did preflight the airplane for the morning departure. The pilot called from home and got an IFR clearance with a void time 21 minutes in the future.

The pilot lived close and reached the airport from five to ten minutes before the void time. Two passengers and whatever gear they might have had were loaded and the pilot made an immediate start and taxied the short distance to the runway and initiated a takeoff.

The ceiling was right on the deck and the visibility was restricted in fog. True cloud flying.

The professional pilot who was watching observed that only two minutes elapsed between engine start and the beginning of the takeoff roll. Four minutes after the takeoff, notification was received that the aircraft had crashed. It hit 1.75 miles from the airport in a 30-degree nose-down 90-degree left bank attitude.

Not only wasn’t there enough time for the pilot to have run any semblance of a checklist, it was noted that it generally took three minutes for the gyros to spin up after the power was turned on.

Yes, that is an extreme case but it is a good example of what it can cost you to not spend the time making sure the airplane is really ready to fly. That is what checklists are all about.

Use your crew.

Okay, I know you might not have a crew but it’s a good idea to think of yourself as a crew. You do, after all, have to do everything from the preflight work to loading the baggage, to, in many cases, getting the airplane out of the hangar and pumping the fuel. Then comes the flying part.

Perhaps the main caution here is to not get in a hurry. When I was instructing and was preparing to go on a dual cross-country with a student I did a simple thing when I felt the student was feeling harried or rushed: I bought him a Coke and we sat and talked for a minute about anything but the upcoming flight.

You can be the best possible crewmember for yourself by being methodical both when preparing and while actually flying.

A good example while flying comes on an approach flown in minimum weather. If there is ever a time when you need to be both observer and pilot, a crew of two in one package, it’s on a low approach.

I would talk to myself on an approach, describing what I was seeing and making the appropriate callouts. Why do this? It keeps your mind active. Forget that passengers might think you are daft. Just tell them what you are doing and do it. It is important to do this even if the autopilot is flying. It helps keep the old brain from fixating on one particular thing.

Perhaps the most important event on a low approach is at the decision height. There you must look up and if the runway and/or appropriate lights are not in sight, immediately call a missed approach and get with that program. I have seen more than one pilot become totally flustered when nothing is in view at minimums and have told more than one that it is past time to push the power up and pitch up.

thunderstorm cloud
Make a grand plan to avoid the whole mess of weather.

Another example of a place where it pays to communicate with yourself is when making both strategic and tactical decisions about convective weather. This depends a lot on the equipment available but for most pilots the strategic decisions are now made using Nexrad information. Make a grand plan with this to avoid areas of weather because it has been proven many times that Nexrad should not be used for close work in convective areas.

There are only two viable things to use in making tactical decisions. They are airborne weather radar and your vision. When doing this, it’s good to remind yourself of one absolute truth: regardless of what the electronic finery suggests if, when viewed through the windshield, it looks mean it is mean. I learned that a number of times before I was convinced that I should never learn it again. Whatever system is used, be sure to ask yourself if you are doing the right thing. “I think I can make it” is not an acceptable answer. Best know you can make it.

Be nice to your crew of one, too, and never fail to buy him a good steak and appropriate potables at the end of the day.

Beware that greener grass.

When the light twin first appeared, in the 1950s, I well remember a lot of pilots flying one and saying they could never go back to a single-engine airplane. When glass cockpits came along, I well remember a lot of pilots flying with that equipment and saying they could never go back to steam gauges. In both cases the people most adamant about not going back were also people who could well afford the latest and greatest.

Despite that, the fact remains that how you fly counts for a lot more than what you fly. Until you get to transport category airplanes, all airplanes are created equal. And a pilot who will do things in a twin that he wouldn’t do in a single, or with a glass cockpit that he wouldn’t do with steam gauges, is actively looking for trouble. The weather doesn’t care how many engines or tubes are on or in the airplane.

Garmin G1000
It really is nice, but it shouldn’t change the way you fly.

I know that a lot of pilots fly with avionics envy and feel that life would be so much easier if they just had that latest piece of gear. I am not saying that it can’t help, just that it won’t change your flying life. The best deal is to relax and enjoy using whatever is in your panel.

Pilots flew instruments for years with basic navigation and communications gear. We had to be able to visualize our position based on the available data and those of us who could do that didn’t have any problems. Maybe the fact that we grew up with no TV and had to visualize everything when reading or listening to the radio helped us to do that. Pilots who could not continuously visualize their position had problems.

There were for a fact a lot of accidents related to pilots losing an awareness of position, especially in the mountains. I am sure you all remember the TWA DC-3 crash that killed Carol Lombard. (If you have to ask, you are under 80.) It happened simply because the crew lost an awareness of their position in relation to mountains. That sort of thing happened a tragic lot in the good old days. The last one like that I remember was the American 757 approaching Cali, Colombia, about 20 years ago. One would think that with the current array of electronic help such a thing would never happen again but saying “never” is at your own peril in aviation.

The point is that you can fly instruments safely with the basics but the art can certainly be dumbed down with equipment if you want to go that route.

I can honestly say that my favorite type of flying was cloud flying in active weather systems. It was as challenging as anything that I have ever done and there is nothing aeronautical that is more satisfying than patting the airplane on the spinner after a good cloud flying workout. I always felt the equipment I had was adequate and if I were still flying, I would fly with any of it today.

To some pilots, though, cloud flying will always be “hard” and they may never be comfortable bumping along with no view outside. The good news for them is that there is plenty of flying to be done on clear days. That takes some of the utility out of flying if you want to travel in an airplane but it leaves all the fun firmly in place. If the weather is bad, that is what you see and experience. If the weather is good you get to see our beautiful country. Go for it.


  • Recency of experience and excellent weather briefing / understanding is a good starting point. Understanding the local weather helps, mountain weather is very different than tropical and both can be surprising to the average pilot.
    I discourage low time pilots from flying into weather, until the acquire proper experience and understanding first in VFR conditions.
    After that, flying with an experienced IFR pilot or CFII on the same make and model is a good safety practice and confidence builder.
    You can always fly tomorrow rather than push your limits and aircraft capabilities.
    For the experienced and proficient : Enjoy the challenge !!!!

    • I agree completely, unfortunately the airspace around DC / PHL / NYC means that going VFR can save you a lot of time and money. I always ask for VFR flight following so at least I keep used to chatting on the radio and get helpful traffic alerts!

  • Like you Dick, I especially enjoy tracking the weather up to my departure, making predictions about what I might find up there, then testing my hypothesis by flying in it. It makes me feel like a scientist, explorer and adventurer. In the Pacific NW we have plenty of weather and geography to contend with and, like you, I like the lousy weather and the challenge of completing a flight by flying through the clouds and ending with an instrument approach.

    I also completely understand how easy it is to become disoriented even with the latest gadgets. Comfort with an airplane and its avionics is absolutely essential to not screwing up while flying single-pilot IFR after something just slightly unexpected happens.

    I am glad I learned about Air Facts and am glad you are still writing great articles about flying.

  • In over 50 years as a licensed pilot, and 40 as a Comm. & Inst. pilot, I have learned a few things: 1. I agree w/you to file on all xctry flights. 2. Don’t put all the time in your logbook, only “actual” IFR. You will only fool yourself into thinking you have lots of IFR time.3. The same weather report is NOT the same in different parts of the country. If your route is new…call ahead for local knowledge.4. Listen VERY closely to instructions being given to other pilots so you don’t miss the controller making a mistake. Remember, radar is two dimensional, not three.

  • Good article, good advice. It’s funny really; I fly Airbuses almost exclusively anymore – I sometimes fly a single-engine Cessna, but not too much – and there is no magical threshold I cross over when it comes to IFR safety and precision when flying a large, transport category airplane. No matter what I fly I find that I must exhibit the same level of concentration and attention in order to keep the airplane right side up and on course; the physiological factors are the same. We hand fly the Airbuses and Boeings in the clouds on a regular basis in order to maintain IFR proficiency, and we must be aware of and battle against the same dangers that befall a newly rated instrument pilot. Even with over 6,000 hours of actual instrument time in all types of airplanes, I find that I still must engage a “total immersion” mind set when I enter the clouds. I have to “let go” of the ground, and of my senses, and concentrate fully on what I am doing and what the instruments tell me. And I expect, even with all the new bells and whistles the modern airplanes have now, THAT aspect of flying in the clouds will never change as long as there is the need for a pilot inside the airplane to control the machine at some point only by reference to his instruments.

  • As usual, Mr. Collins has hit the nail directly on the head with this article. A “new” instrument pilot’s self-confidence should be a necessary part of his or her pre-flight. Without that confidence, entering hard IFR flight is a dangerous undertaking. Confidence does NOT include over confidence, and it certainly doesn’t include conceit. For a new instrument pilot, such a mind set is quite often a dangerous addition to that pilot’s real skill set. Little distractions such as executing a simple missed approach, or the need to fly a holding pattern, may become a surprise that can quickly involve into a real test for the new instrument pilot.

    • Good point, Mort. And as an addendum, remember: Confidence comes gradually with practice and experience. It’s sort of like learning to swim. At first you’re afraid of the water, of drowning. We’ve all seen (some) “virgins” begin to sweat and breath rapidly from fear when they enter the clouds for the first time. But eventually the confidence that’s needed in order for them to relax and concentrate on the task at hand settles in. Yes, I agree. The preflight preparations should include a “confidence level” check. It should be an honest self-evaluation of your skill level at that time. Again, good point.

  • Hard IFR is a bit of a confusing term…. one can fly to 1/2 mile approaches, circle to mins, skirt TRWs and maneuver around ice, or even fly thru the ice, and none of it is hard.

    Hard is when is becomes difficult to make decisions and get the job done…. From experience, it is often what multiple issues are at stake… perhaps low IFR and icing, with a busy ATC, where everyone is stating min fuel…. or your airport goes below mins and no airport has wind that won’t be a problems within your fuel reserves…. or you have a major failure in your plane and need to land now, and there’s no airport close enough with mins.

    But usually IFR is not hard, if reasonable planning is in place, and you have a plan B and don’t wait for plan B until it’s too late.

    Some of us have been lucky (or perhaps paid attention) and have never had “hard IFR”…. like I have, but only have 25000 hours, so still learning.

  • Through 61 years of flying I looked forward to Richard’s comments on how to fly safely in weather. He has the ability to still put all his thoughts in easy to understand and apply prose is appreciated.

    By the way the flight director in the Citation accident described above in the uncaged position before becoming erect screams something is not OK even before viewing all the red flags showing. In the rush to takeoff make sure to make one last cockpit scan.

    Thanks Richard

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