Unlike riding a bike, flying an airplane is a perishable skill, and instrument skills might have the shortest shelf life of all. The FAA explicitly recognizes this in FAR 61.57: a flight review is due every 24 months, but instrument currency lapses after only six. Accident statistics support this cautious approach. AOPA data from 2021 show that 17% of fatal accidents happened in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)—not much at first glance, but considering how few hours are spent in IMC it’s quite high. Look at the data another way and you’ll find that 81% of accidents in IMC were fatal. So while the typical VFR accident is a runway excursion that results in bent metal but no fatalities, the typical IFR accident is a fatal loss of control crash.
That doesn’t mean IFR flying should be avoided—in fact, I find it incredibly rewarding—but we have to acknowledge that the margins are simply too thin to tolerate poor performance. Earning an instrument rating is not enough to make you a safer pilot; consistent flying and ongoing training is absolutely essential to unlock the benefits of that rating. But what kind of training?
In a perfect world we would practice everything from RNAV arrivals to partial panel flying to holding patterns. Then again, we should all do five hours of cardio and five hours of strength training every week, but somehow most of us don’t find time to do that either. So assuming you are busy and have to make hard choices about what to focus on, I think there’s a strong case to be made for spending your precious flying time on basic attitude instrument skills. Flying approaches to minimums or practicing emergencies may be more fun, but those procedures are not where pilots make the most fatal mistakes.
From the NTSB reports
For proof, browse through the accident reports. They are littered with IFR accidents in the first three minutes of flight. Right after takeoff, when the airplane has just entered the clouds and perhaps made its first turn, pilots lose control. This is rarely caused by equipment failures or blatant rule breaking. The sad reality is that pilots are failing at the essential task of instrument flying: keep the airplane right side up.
Here are three representative examples, all from the last five years, all fatal accidents in IMC, all shortly after takeoff. You can find many, many more in the NTSB database.
1. In 2019, an A36 Bonanza in Texas took off into a 300 foot overcast and didn’t get far. The weather was certainly low, but the airplane didn’t care. The problem seems to have been the pilot:
“The airplane departed and was seen on radar before contact was lost shortly thereafter; the pilot never established radio communication with air traffic control. The airplane impacted terrain in a near-vertical attitude about 1/2-mile from the departure runway.”
2. Likewise, the pilot of a Grumman AA5 departed from College Park, Maryland, where the ceilings were reported at 500 feet. He had an IFR clearance and made contact with ATC, but then lost control:
“The airplane departed runway 15, maintained an approximate heading of between 140° and 150°, and climbed for about 1 mile as it tracked slightly right of the extended runway centerline. When the airplane reached an altitude of about 1,200 ft the pilot established communication with air traffic control and was instructed to climb to 5,000 ft and turn to a 310° heading once the airplane climbed above 1,700 ft. The airplane then entered a right turn and climbed to about 1,900 ft before entering a right spiraling descent.”
3. A Cessna 182 in North Carolina added the extra challenge of night to the mix, with tragic results:
“The clearance that the pilot received from air traffic control stipulated that after departure, the airplane was to turn about 50° left of the runway heading. Radar data showed that the airplane instead climbed along the departure runway heading for about 1 minute, and witnesses described that the airplane entered IMC around 200 to 300 feet above the ground. When the airplane reached an altitude of about 860 ft above ground level (agl), it entered a right turn. The airplane reached the top of its climb about 930 ft agl, and continued a tightening right turn while descending at an estimated rate of about 6,000 feet per minute.”
Obviously a 300-500 foot ceiling is low, but airline and business jet pilots depart into these conditions every day with a near-flawless safety record. GA pilots don’t do nearly as well at making a quick transition from VMC takeoff to IMC climb. It’s also notable that in many of these examples the pilot seemed to lose control shortly after contacting ATC or making a turn. This suggests a fairly low level of hand-flying proficiency, where a small distraction was enough to start the spiral (in many cases, quite literally).
What about weather?
We often read about how “weather accidents” are a leading cause of fatal crashes. That is true according to the way AOPA and the NTSB categorize accidents, but about half of these are VFR-into-IMC and thus should not be a problem for current instrument pilots. Another 40% are categorized as “poor IFR technique,” like the examples above. That’s 90% of all weather accidents due to pilot error.
So are such accidents really caused by weather? It’s not like the pilots flew into severe icing or a thunderstorm. In those cases, the airplane can get overwhelmed; here, it was the pilot who got overwhelmed. Preventing loss of control on initial climb doesn’t require better weather forecasts, advanced avionics, or new procedures. It just demands better training and more proficient pilots.
Of course some “weather” accidents are less a result of poor skills than outright recklessness. It’s hard to see how this Cessna 172 flight in South Dakota would not end in disaster:
“The airplane was tagged as not airworthy and sat on the ramp for several days until the pilot decided to fly the airplane on the night of the accident. The pilot, who held only a student pilot certificate, had low flight time, and was not instrument-rated, departed the airport in dark night instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). There were no records of the pilot contacting any services for weather reports.”
Don’t be that guy.
What about avionics?
If weather isn’t the main issue, perhaps the avionics are playing a role in these loss of control accidents? It’s a popular theory these days and I think the answer is a qualified yes, but it’s important to be clear about the specific problems and their possible solutions. There are really two scenarios (at least):
- Pilots aren’t proficient with their avionics and this causes a loss of situational awareness—the “old pilots getting behind new technology” theory.
- Pilots are relying too much on autopilots and their hand-flying skills are degrading—the “automation-dependent pilots” theory.
These are related problems, but the second one seems most pressing. The fact that so many accidents happen right after takeoff suggests that the active use of avionics isn’t the main problem. After all, it’s not like the autopilot failed or the pilot didn’t use it properly—it was probably never engaged. But that same autopilot may be on so often that the pilot in the left seat, who may only hand-fly the first few minutes of most flights, has lost proficiency at instrument scanning and interpretation. There are plenty of studies that back up this gut feel, including one from Embry-Riddle that found: “pilots who are more likely to use automated modes of modern ‘glass cockpit’ aircraft have a less effective crosscheck and reduced manual flight skills.”
Likewise, a Flight Safety Foundation report described how pilots don’t know what they don’t know: “Although most pilots in the study agreed that their instrument skills have declined over time, their survey responses indicated that they felt they could still fly basic instrument maneuvers. However, their survey responses do not correlate with their actual maneuver grades, leading to the conclusion that the pilots had a false sense of confidence.”
It’s intuitive that the increasing popularity of autopilots has caused an erosion of hand-flying skills, and it makes a great topic for a hangar flying rant (“kids these days and their gadgets!”). But before we get too carried away bashing modern avionics, some perspective is in order. First, new technology offers plenty of benefits in addition to its distractions. Solid state AHRS systems have saved countless lives by replacing unreliable vacuum pumps, and moving map GPSs have prevented plenty of controlled flight into terrain accidents. That’s easy to forget, but I find it tragic to read about pilots who lost their lives because their attitude indicator died, when that possibility could have been eliminated by a Garmin G5 or even an iPad app. If you can afford to fly IFR in 2024, you can afford an AHRS.
Second, moving map GPS, datalink weather, autopilots, and glass cockpits are not going away, so it’s incumbent upon pilots to learn how to use them. I’ve flown with some pilots who have spent six figures on a new panel, but exhibit shocking gaps in knowledge about their new toys. That’s absolutely inexcusable. Avionics proficiency—and by that I mean really knowing how it works, not just direct-to navigation on the GPS or heading mode on the autopilot—is not trivia or bonus knowledge, it is critical for safe IFR flying. If this isn’t part of your next flight review or instrument proficiency check, you should demand it.
Beyond those obvious points, a more uncomfortable fact emerges from the data: most instrument pilots just don’t fly enough. Two innovative studies by Douglas Boyd, a pilot and aviation safety researcher, tell the story quite clearly.
In the first one, Boyd studied active airline pilots who also flew GA airplanes to see whether it was the airplane or the pilot that made airline flying so safe. As he put it: “are airline pilots superior to their instrument-rated private pilot (PPL-IFR) counterparts as evidenced by a reduced proportion of: (a) accidents attributed to an in-flight loss-of-control in degraded visibility…” Similar GA airplanes, similar weather conditions, but different pilots—is the safety record different? The answer was an emphatic yes: “In degraded visibility, 0 and 40% (χ2 p = 0.043) of fatal accidents involving airline and PPL-IFR airmen were due to in-flight loss-of-control, respectively.”
To put it more crudely than Boyd would probably prefer, it’s not the jet engines or the second pilot or the strict rules that make airline pilots safer; it’s the experience (both lifetime and recent) and the regular training.
If the first study should make us think, the second one should make us blush. Boyd used a novel (if not completely foolproof) method to investigate how many GA pilots actually fly six approaches in six months: “Over the Aug 2020-Mar 2021 period, 1,684 flights involving 106 aircraft/owners were ADS-B-tracked. Of these aircraft/owners, 81.2% completed < six approaches (median = 1.5).” That’s not a great score: the median pilot flew less than two approaches in the six month timeframe, and 40% flew none at all, but most of those are probably VFR pilots. There’s more, though: “Importantly, for aircraft/owners completing < six approaches in the preceding 6 months, 24% departed into obscuration.” So in spite of being legally out of currency, nearly a quarter of pilots still took off into IMC. The study goes on to show that nearly half took off into marginal VFR!
You can quibble with the design of this study (maybe pilots were maintaining currency in a simulator, for example), but in reading the footnotes it’s clear that Boyd went to a lot of trouble to clean up the data. The most likely answer is what many of us know in our hearts: we just don’t fly enough. So before we get too righteous about the crippling effects of technology, we should look in the mirror.
A realistic plan
At some point, next generation software (like FlightOS) might make flying so easy that less proficiency is needed. I actually think this might be possible at some point in the future, but it’s a long way off for GA pilots. In the meantime, the solution is much lower tech: we need to create a culture that supports and demands continuous training. The pros show the way here—airlines and Part 135 operators have incredibly good safety records, and a huge part of that is their rigorous training. This goes far beyond a pencil-whip flight review every two years, with multiple checkrides each year, regular simulator sessions, and line checks with experienced pilots. GA pilots can adopt a lightweight version of this, which many insurance underwriters demand anyway for higher performance airplanes.
It’s not just the formal training events that make an airline pilot safe, though. After all, the pilots in Boyd’s first study didn’t have full motion simulators for their Bonanzas or Mooneys. A key benefit to being an airline pilot seems to be a regular flying cadence. It might be in a jet instead of a piston, but it’s still flying in the IFR system. That suggests that GA pilots don’t need to get too hung up on how they fly or who they fly with. Just go fly.
Flight simulators are a great option if you don’t get to the airport as often as you’d like, and while they can’t simulate crosswind landings very well, they can realistically simulate basic attitude instrument flying. If you want to step it up a level, focus on hand-flying your next flight in VMC, and do it as precisely as you can. Even better, wear a hood or training glasses to simulate IMC—and don’t cheat. Best of all, seek out real IMC on a regular basis, even if you have to find a flight instructor or a freight dog to ride along with you. There’s simply no substitute for flying in clouds and feeling all the sensations that come along with it.
The goal is simple and clear-cut: can you fly to the Airman Certification Standards? They state: “Maintain altitude ±100 feet during level flight, selected headings ±10°, airspeed ±10 knots, and bank angles ±5° during turns.”
It sounds so easy. But as anyone who’s ever logged time in the clouds knows, to do it consistently takes discipline, focus, and practice. Lots and lots of practice.