The art of instrument approaches – 7 tips for proficient flying

Instrument training is demanding, but at its most basic the goal is quite simple: keep the wings level and the needles crossed. Do that a few times with an examiner and you can pass the checkride. But if your goal is to use your instrument rating for real (and do it safely), there’s a lot more to consider.

As usual, it’s the little things that count, and many of them aren’t found in the FAA textbooks. Do them all and instrument flying becomes a safe, smooth and downright graceful experience – more art than science. Do none of them and you still might find the runway, but the safety margins will be awfully thin.

Instrument approach G1000
You found the runway – but the work isn’t over.

Here are seven of my favorite tips for better IFR approaches.

1. Be comfortable at the final approach fix or go missed. Descending from the final approach fix towards the runway is a critical time in the life of an instrument pilot, since you are deliberately flying low to the ground without any visual references. Before you cross that fix and start the descent, take a deep breath and be absolutely certain that all is well. Are the avionics set up just right? Do you know your MDA or DH? Are the needles reasonably steady? Do you feel like you’re in control of the situation? If the answer is no to any of these questions, execute the missed approach and get things squared away before trying it again. It’s far easier and safer to go around at 3000 ft. than 300 ft.

2. Have a heading hypothesis and test it – don’t chase needles. When you’re flying an instrument approach, ultimately the goal is to keep the needles crossed, but the polished instrument pilot doesn’t blindly chase the gauges. Instead, he will start the approach with a hypothesis in mind: “given the strong wind from the west, I’m going to start with a 15 degree wind correction to the right of the 190 inbound course.” He will fly that heading and see what the result is, then adjust his hypothesis given the new evidence. Too much of a correction? Try cutting that angle in half. This approach is subtly different compared to the needle chaser, but it’s supremely important when the weather really stinks. Fly a heading you think will work, and observe the trend – you’ll learn a lot.

3. Make small heading changes with rudder only. Inside the final approach fix, most heading corrections are small (see above). If you’re only taking out 5 degrees of crab angle, try a little rudder pressure instead of rolling into a bank, then rolling out. Most airplanes respond quite well to this trick, it’s more stable and it will prevent you from over-controlling. This is especially true as you get close to the runway on an ILS – a one dot correction is tiny.

4. Know your profiles. This goes right along with the advice about having a heading in mind before you start the approach: don’t chase airspeed and sink rate. Instead, you should know the profile ahead of time (power setting, flaps/gear configuration, sink rate and airspeed) for both a non-precision approach and a precision approach. Start with that known profile, then adjust as needed. Strong headwind today? Add an inch of manifold pressure or 100 RPM. But don’t be a throttle jockey.

RNAV approach minimums
MDA or DH? Make sure you know before you start down.

5. Brief every approach – even if it’s to yourself. 400 ft. AGL is no place to be reading an approach plate. Take the time in cruise to read over the chart and memorize (or at least highlight) important numbers: minimums, missed approach procedure and minimum safe altitude. This is especially true for WAAS approaches, where the type of minimum (precision approach with a DA or non-precision with an MDA) is critically important. If you have a co-pilot or passenger, talk this through with your right seater. If not, brief yourself out loud.

6. When you break out, do nothing for a second. After a well-executed approach, there’s no better feeling than seeing the runway lights emerge from the gray. But many pilots get so excited at the sight that they duck under the glide path and get perilously close to trees or other obstacles. It’s a hard reaction to fight, so the best advice is to do nothing for just a second. If you flew a good approach, your airplane should be on glide path and on speed – so why mess with it?

7. Practice missed approaches – after using the autopilot. Lots of pilots practice flying missed approaches, but most often this is after a hand flown approach. A more realistic scenario is one where the autopilot flies the approach but you have to take the controls at minimums when you start the missed approach (most autopilots won’t fly a coupled go around). Do you know how your autopilot reacts? Do you know what it feels like to punch off the autopilot and start hand flying at low level? It’s worth practicing.

There are dozens of other “little tips” that go into a perfect instrument flight, from a thoughtful weather briefing to smooth level-offs. But it’s the approach where things matter most. Any other tips you would add?

3 Comments

  • I hesitate to comment because I have only flown 103 approaches in instrument conditions so I am not an expert by any means. I have never had to go missed in actual when it wasn’t practice. But, on the plus side, 101 of them were solo, no instructor.

    So, for what it is worth:

    When I brief the approach I write in HUGE letters on the map view of the plate on the iPad the course,the MDA/DH and first step of the missed. I also have a form I fill out on my kneeboard that has the
    Airport Elevation
    Circle Minimums
    Approx time from FAF to DH/MDA
    ATIS / AWOS / Tower / CTAF / Ground / Last Approach Control Frequency Before Tower or CTAF Switch
    Baro Setting and Other Weather Report

    RE: 2. Have a heading hypothesis and test it – don’t chase needles.

    My instructor passed along a tip for this I use without fail – use the heading bug for your estimate and if you are not moving the Heading bug (Changing the Hypothesis), use your feet to turn the plane within the 10 degrees (5 each way) the bug covers. In a 182 I can get a three degree turn with feet only and not feel too uncoordinated. More than that and I just get uncomfortable flying that way and have to center the ball.

  • “Have a heading hypothesis” – “Fly a heading you think will work”.
    I don’t think that works too well. I’ll never forget when a fellow flight school pilot shooting the LDA approach ahead of me turned inbound on what he thought was the right heading. He was immediately blown off of the localizer and had to go missed. The crosswinds at intercept altitude at that moment were out of sight. That’s not too unusual during IFR weather where shear levels are more common. If I remember correctly, to initially track the localizer, I needed an unheard of 50-60 degree crab to the left. As the descent progressed, the crab angle transitioned to what you would expect given the winds reported on the ATIS. My point is don’t guess on headings. The CDI shows you exactly what you need to do.

    “Make small heading changes with rudder”.
    Most aircraft have pretty good directional stability. When the nose is yawed and pressure relaxed on the rudder, the nose will return toward the prior heading. When the heading is changed with coordinated aileron and rudder, the aircraft will stay on the new heading. The rudder is the basic control to keep a heading, but not change a heading. It’s definitely worth developing the touch on the controls to accomplish very small heading changes with coordinated aileron and rudder.

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