IFR: Sweat the Small Stuff

10:18 AM

Yesterday, I completed an IFR round-trip from Eugene to Hillsboro, Ore. There was nothing seriously remarkable about the trip, with one major exception: My back seat passenger:

My wife, life partner, soul mate and business partner, Julie Celeste, has been an aviator's dream throughout my 40+ hours of instrument training. When I needed to lock myself in a room and read about the 1-2-3 rule for the 17th time, no complaints. When I just HAD to go out to the hangar and spend some quality time with Katy just loping around the patch, she has never said no. She finally got a taste of the instrument world I've been living in lately when she rode with myself and CFI-I Jim for the trip to KHIO. Her comment on the phone to a friend after the trip was that there was never-ending work being done on the "flight deck" of the Katyliner, and that the "crew" was non-stop from the minute we launched through the 700 ovc layer at EUG to returning through that same layer to a textbook ILS landing a few hours later.
As with all my training trips these days, I felt that I did most things right, but a few nagging things wrong. Again, nothing that would have busted regs or got anyone killed, just sloppy stuff like missing a few initial radio calls. But when I discussed the flight later with her, I realized something that I have overlooked lately:
As VFR pilots, we are taught to learn primarily the basics of flying safely in the system. But as we build hours, many pilots get "rusty" with some of the small stuff that we are taught, an example being to "ID" a VOR to verify it is the one you want to use. Yes, that is taught in primary training, but think about it, so many VFR pilots these days use GPSs to fly direct, VORs are going the way of the dinosaur. Those that still use them really do not spend much time listening to Morse Code. But in a steam gauge plane like 27W in the IFR system, ID'ing the navaids is an important part of any flight.
As an outsider looking in from the back seat, Julie could see the work that goes into a safe IFR flight. She noticed that there was no time in which we the crew were just sitting there enjoying the view. One of these "small stuff" items she noticed was radio management:
With two King flip-flop NavComms, a VFR panel-mount GPS, two VORs and the S-tec 50 A/P, there is plenty of knobs to turn on the panel of our IFR ship. But when you think about many VFR flights to chase hamburgers, plenty of pilots we all know never go past tuning in the one frequency they are using NOW. In the IFR world, I am being taught to think ahead, and to have all four comm holes and all four NAV holes in the two Kings filled at all times. This is working well, and has taught me to think about what I need to be doing next the minute I change a frequency or flip a flop. And with my "vintage" Northstar M3 Approach GPS, I can also program in two airports, two VORs, two NDBs and two fixes, easily switching between them for additional situational awareness. Great tool, but it certainly ramps up the attention required to manage the avionics.
I am happy to report that at about 46 hours, I am progressing well towards a successful check ride and eventual IFR ticket. I am nailing most of these little "small stuff" items, staying on the airways, pegging the needles damned close to center on ILSs and LOCs, and staying straight and level in the clouds. But I have a client who is also a CFI-I and FAA examiner, and he confirmed last week that the average pilot needs "55 to 60" hours of instruction to really be ready for an IFR check ride. Based on my skills at this point in my training, I think he is right on.

Because in an IFR environment, in the soup, in the same system as the heavies fly in, there is really no room to miss things you shouldn't miss. In this case, it really is important to sweat the small stuff, and the big stuff – those basic aviator skills – need to be performed on instinct. In this IFR world, if you have to work that hard to stay on an airway, your mind is wandering away from that next radio call or that approach plate hanging on your yoke.

Of course, much of this goes out the window with a Garmin 430W or better IFR box. That, however, is far, far of in my future, and frankly I am glad to be learning behind a "old school" panel, so that when the Garmin arrives in due time, the transition will be a non-event.

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