The Inner Game of IFR

There exists an extremely high level of instrument competence that requires precision flying, but also the ability to understand not only what controllers say, but what they really mean. Maybe there is a better ideal, but this is how the reality is played. There exists a mental state of instrument flying that I call The Inner Game.

Physical: Many years ago Timothy Gallway wrote a book titled The Inner Game of Tennis. The premise of the book is that really good tennis players eventually reach such a high level that winning relies more on thinking skills than physical skills. I don’t play tennis anywhere near that level … when I play tennis I usually beat myself. I hit the ball out of bounds, or into the net, or I never hit it at all. But when two really good tennis players get together neither can rely on the other to mess up. If you are playing either of the Williams sisters, for instance, you cannot expect them to give you any points by messing up.

Mental: So how is it possible to beat a player at that level? The only way to beat them is to outsmart them. You must think better than the opponent. You must have a plan … a strategy. You need to think two and three shots ahead even as you react to your opponents return. If you and I were to watch two players on that level we would be seeing two physical athletes in action, but the athletes themselves would be in a mental duel.

FLYING THE GAME: There is a level of instrument flight that is very much the same. In early instrument training, pilots are shown how to fly the approaches (how to make the shots). We have NDBs, VORs, ILS, and GPS, just as tennis players have the backhand, net charge, and forehand volley. At some point, the pilot becomes proficient at performing the approaches. But just like a tennis player who learns all the shots, they can still be beaten — and beaten badly — on the mental level.

A pilot who only manipulates the airplane’s controls is an ‘approach pilot,’ but not yet an ‘instrument pilot.’ The true, real world instrument pilot flies the airplane physically, but operates on a higher mental level. On this higher level, controllers and pilots communicate with more than just words. The difference is this:

  • The pilot is always aware of other traffic simply by listening in on ATC conversation.
  • The pilot always knows his or her own place in the ‘big picture.’ Any airplane problems that might come up can be dealt with because there is mental capability to spare.

A pilot in control of this inner game is flying the physical airplane, but in their imagination they are viewing a ‘mental radar screen’ that depicts their own location, other airplanes, and the airport or instrument approach ahead.

Notes from the real world — Case Study #1
I was flying into Washington National Airport recently. The radio work was rapid so I was careful to listen to the urgency in a controller’s voice and act accordingly. I was still way back in the sequence to the airport and planning to maintain my cruise speed all the way to the threshold when I heard this question asked of a Bonanza pilot. His aircraft was in front of me, but also inbound to National.

Controller: ‘Bonanza 1234A, at what speed will you fly your final?’

What was the controller really asking? It’s unlikely that a controller at Washington National airport is a rookie — he had probably controlled thousands of airplanes like a Bonanza before. If the controller already knew that answer, why did he ask the question? The controller was speaking in code — he was telling the Bonanza pilot to keep his speed up to keep up with the flow of traffic. Unfortunately, the pilot did not see the big picture … he was not playing the Inner Game. He said, ’90 Knots’ which, in code, told the controller what kind of pilot he was dealing with — someone who could fly the airplane (hit the shots) but was in over his head, because he did not or could not play the inner game.

Notes from the real world — Case Study #2
I was testing an instrument student when we were handed a radar vector for an NDB approach to runway 18. The vectors led us East of the airport — and the final approach course — on a heading of North. We were essentially flying a wide left downwind to the approach. The NDB pointer crept from a relative bearing of about 300, past our left wing and then behind. Based on our position to the approach I was expecting a left turn to a heading that would aim us at an approach course intercept. At about this time, the controller addressed us and said, ‘Turn left heading 040.’

A left turn to 040 degrees could not have been correct. The controller had made a minor slip of the tongue. (Even if he had actually wanted us to go to 040, he would not have turned us to the left from 360 to 040.) I reasoned that he probably meant 240 degrees instead of 040, since that would have been a good intercept vector, but the student I was with was not playing The Inner Game. The student made a left turn all the way back around to the heading of 040 and sat contentedly as we flew off in the wrong direction.

Result: Within a minute the controller saw us striking off into uncharted territory and turned us around. Later, I asked the student why we made that turn. ‘Because the controller told us to!’ he said. I tried to remind him that there is no such thing as ‘Controller in Command‘ and that every ATC assignment given to a pilot must be evaluated. Yes, the controller made a slight error, but the pilot had made the larger mistake by blindly adhering to it.

Better: The student should have been seeing our position in his imagination and our relative position to the anticipated approach intercept. If he had done that it would have made no sense to him when we were asked to make a 320 degree heading change to a direction that took us away from the approach. He could have responded to the controller’s request to ‘turn left to 040‘ by saying, ‘OK you want us to turn Left to Zero-4-0?’ with emphasis on the words Left and Zero and end with a question mark in his tone. The controller would have certainly interpreted our code — ‘Hey, didn’t you mean 240!’ The controller would have made the correction, the intercept would have gone smoothly, and we would not have flown off in the wrong direction.

BOTTOM LINE: There are countless examples of The Inner Game that take place everyday and on every flight. When the sky is filled with pilots who know how to play the game and are being controlled by controllers who also play the game, the airspace can be a perfectly timed symphony. Nobody misses a beat, everything blends together, and everyone knows what the other will do next. Unfortunately, many pilots are unaware that the game is being played around them. Learning to play The Inner Game is really the final exam for the instrument pilot. It takes practice and exposure to the system. Isn’t it time you got in the game?