IFR Current Pilots, How “Current” Are You Really?

by HPA · September 8, 2017

IFR Current Pilots, How “Current” Are You Really?

by Jennifer Payne

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) is a set of regulations that dictate how aircraft are to be operated when the pilot is unable to navigate using visual references under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). In order for a pilot to be able to conduct operations in IFR conditions, they must be current in IFR procedures. According to 14CFR Part 61.57 c: “Within 6 calendar months preceding the month of flight, the pilot must have performed and logged at least the following tasks and iterations in an aircraft, or flight training device that represents the category of aircraft for the instrument rating privileges to be maintained and involves having performed the following-

  1. Six instrument approaches
  2. Holding procedures and tasks
  3. Intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigational electronic systems” (FAA).

With all that is required, the question still remains, how current are pilots really in regards to flying in instrument conditions?

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For anyone who has done any simulated instrument training under a hood-training device in an aircraft or even a flight simulator device, it is safe to say that spatial disorientation have affected him or her at least one time or another. The most common illusion experienced is called “The Leans”. This phenomenon is basically an illusion of being in a bank angle when actually in a straight and level position. If the pilot notices the bank on the instruments, and abruptly returns to straight and level flight, there will be the misperception that the aircraft is banked in the opposite direction. The pilot resolves this situation by leaning in the opposite direction, and flying the aircraft in that way (Av Med, n.d.). Any pilot can be susceptible to spatial disorientation, no matter how many hours they have logged. The difference is the training and knowledge that a pilot has that can determine what the outcome will be. When the pilot relies on their instruments and ignores what their body is telling them, they can safely adjust whatever disorientation they may be fighting. However, that does not always happen and this is when a pilot can get in to trouble. It is easy to become overwhelmed by all that is occurring in the aircraft, from approach plates, radio calls to just staying on top of the instrument scan.

Recurrent training, and keeping up with one’s currency is important in aviation in general, but instrument currency plays a very important role in the safety of a flight when operating under IFR. With the advancements in satellite navigation, instrument flight is becoming more technology savvy, yet there are always changes occurring. With the constant changes comes the need for pilots to be aware and ahead of the game. Some of the things pilots need to keep up on is knowing what approaches are available for their route of flight, what their aircraft is capable of, and know it before they decide take off. When filing a flight plan under IFR, there is a good chance that the flight plan can be changed based on weather, traffic, and routing situations. So, although the pilot may think they know the route they are headed, they may be given a new one when sitting on the ramp just prior to takeoff. They have to be able to change their plans at a moment’s notice. Pilots are in constant communication with controllers and they have to trust the changes in vectors and assignments they are being given.

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A newly instrument rated pilot, who is considered current, may not be up to the challenge of a flight in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) even if they have flown their 6 approaches more recently than a seasoned pilot. Weather conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Many of the accidents that are reported by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are flights that started under VFR conditions and resulted in mistakes made in IMC. A less than prepared pilot who is instrument rated, may find themselves in IMC conditions and feel they are adequately trained for the situation. If they are not, this can become the point of no return, when the danger kicks in. According to an article written on VFR-into-IMC accidents, when accident pilots inadvertently enter cloud, they either fly under controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or experience spatial disorientation and lose control of the aircraft resulting in an unrecoverable unusual flight attitude (e.g., spin or graveyard spiral) or inflight structural failure (Wilson, D.R. & Sloan, T.A., 203). Studies conducted at the University of Illinois indicate that for the pilot who does not have adequate instrument flight training, the average time from cloud entry to loss of control or ground impact is 178 seconds (Wilson, D.R. & Sloan, T.A., 2003). 178 seconds is not long, but it is plenty of time to get into a dangerous situation that one cannot get out of. Knowing this, it is even more important to stay up to date on instrument procedures, as well as information of approaches along the route, any advisories and changing weather conditions.

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Even if a pilot can be legally considered “current”, it is a good idea to really look at and assess the conditions before taking off. What is the weather along the route? Could the weather change for the worse? What are the alternate airport choices and is the plane equipped with the necessary equipment for the approaches at all airports of possibility? All of these are good questions to ponder before ever taking off into inclement weather. How recently someone has flown can effect how comfortable they are once the weather conditions decrease and the stress load begins to increase. Ego or “get-there-itis” should never play a role when deciding to fly in conditions that may not be the most safe. Every pilot’s level of “current” and comfort will differ based on experience so it is up to each individual pilot to make that go or no-go decision. Safety should always be priority number one and every decision after that should fall in line.

Jennifer Payne is a technical article writer with experience in flight instruction. She has a bachelor’s degree from Spartan College of Aeronautics and a Master of Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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Flying

The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).

Learning

At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/

 

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