Clouded Thoughts: Thinking like an Instrument Pilot

Flying in the clouds may be the most demanding of pilot skills, but does flying IFR stretch a pilot’s capabilities beyond the limits of safety? Are the demands of IFR more than we can expect a single pilot to manage? The answer depends on your ability to think like an Instrument Pilot.

I was in San Francisco several years ago and saw a street performer juggling. This guy was good — he was riding a unicycle and tossing a bowling pin, a bathroom plunger, a rubber chicken, a hammer, and a flaming torch … all at the same time. The objects were constantly in motion and ever changing. The juggler had to control every item — even though they all had different weights and shapes — with the same accuracy. If the juggler had made a mistake, that mistake could have quickly snowballed and all the items would have dropped. He could have easily been hit by the hammer and burned by the torch.

As I watched, it occurred to me that flying an airplane in the clouds and juggling have a lot in common. Instead of objects to catch and throw, the pilot has altitude, heading, radio communications, charts, and power to monitor and control. To concentrate on any one item for too long is a mistake … as it is for the juggler, too. For either activity to be performed safely, the performer’s attention must constantly be shifting from item to item. If the juggler had turned his attention exclusively to the rubber chicken, he would soon have lost control of everything else. Likewise, if the pilot were to concentrate attention to only the altitude, while neglecting the other factors, radio calls would be missed, the aircraft would wander off heading and positional awareness would be lost.

You have heard people say, ‘I can only do one thing at a time.’ Well, it’s OK to do only one thing at a time, but to be a good instrument pilot … or juggler … a person must be able to move from one thing to the next and perform each task very quickly and very well –without becoming fixated on any one thing.

OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR… In the cockpit, one must often complete tasks in several parts, because priorities change from moment to moment and may not be enough time to complete an entire task before something else demands your attention. You cannot look up a frequency in the chart book and dial the radio to that frequency all at once if, in the time it takes you to do that, the heading and/or altitude wander off. You must sectionalize your thinking and divide up your task completion, while consistently re-checking the results of your previously completed tasks.

Keeping track of all the items that an instrument pilot must monitor is like herding cats – each one requires continuous attention or they will go astray, but you only have two hands so you must constantly be moving from cat to cat to keep them all going the correct direction. Did you ever see the episode with Lucy in the candy factory? This is the same thing…

Instrument flying would be easy if you had plenty of time to handle just one thing, but then it wouldn’t be instrument flying … in the same way that juggling a single tennis ball wouldn’t be juggling. When you begin instrument training, it feels like it takes 100% of your mental energy just to hold heading and altitude. The capacity of your mind gets all used up and you struggle to keep pace — this is what is meant by the phrase, ‘being behind the airplane.’ It feels like paddling upstream against a strong current — no matter how hard you work you never seem to make any headway. This is why good VFR pilots will miss radio calls, forget altitude assignments, and descend through MDAs when they begin IFR training.

How can you ever get ahead of the airplane? You must work quicker and smarter. The process can actually be divided into three parts: scanning, understanding, and controlling the airplane.

  1. Scanning is the art of looking across the instrument panel and picking up timely information. Much has been said about how the instrument scan should be conducted. I don’t believe that there is only one correct way to do it and I don’t think it is practical to ‘teach’ a particular scan pattern. I think that the instrument scan is a highly personal action that improves with practice and more practice. I hate to admit it, but the instrument pilots I work with today, who spent their adolescent afternoons honing their hand-eye coordination with Nintendo and Play Station, have a great natural instrument scan. They can develop their instrument scan about four times quicker than their instrument pilot forefathers did twenty years ago.
  2. Understanding requires that the pilot is able to make deductions from what they see as they scan. No single flight instrument will give you the whole picture. Only combinations of instruments can safely tell the complete story of airplane trends, positions, and attitudes. And beyond what the instruments are saying in an instant, the instrument pilot must interpret and then predict what will happen next. A sustained negative vertical descent shown on the VSI will soon create an altitude problem if left unchecked.
  3. Controlling the airplane is accomplished by taking action to remedy any ‘bad’ trends. Pilots must manipulate the airplane controls based on what they understand is happening to the airplane. Information that is first seen by the eyes must be processed by the brain and put into effect by the hands and feet. Instrument flying is not the ability to make a standard rate turn, but the art of monitoring that turn while everything else is going on. Eventually, the mind will be able to monitor and control a turn while using less and less of its capacity and, with practice, the physical chore of flying the airplane in the clouds will take up less ‘brain-space.’ The leftover brain-space affords the instrument pilot the time to complete other tasks and have the luxury to ‘think ahead of the airplane.’

BOTTOM LINE: To become a safe IFR single-pilot, one must become proficient enough that the tasks of flying take up less than 100% of your mental capacity. The airplane can then be flown on a ‘mental auto-pilot’ that allows its pilot to keep all the other objects he or she is juggling in the air. When you begin to think like an instrument pilot, then you will have the ability to tackle tricky hold entries, ATC route changes, and ILS partial panel approaches like a pro. Anyone who can’t think like an instrument pilot, but attempts to fly like one, will get burned by that flaming torch!

Before I walked away, I put a buck in that juggler’s jar — the lessons he taught me about flying were more than worth it.