Decision Training for Pilots — Flight with reference to instruments

You do not have to be an Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) to give instrument flight instruction? No, the only time a CFII certificate is required is when a person is training for the instrument rating. Initial instructors give instrument training all the time. If you recall, it is a requirement that all student pilots receive instrument reference instruction.

Scenario: A VFR pilot is returning from the practice area to the home airport. The pilot had been practicing stalls and was up at 4,000 feet AGL. The sun was setting and the pilot, while enjoying the sunset, lost track of time. Without noticing it a thin layer of clouds had formed at a lower altitude and then transformed into a thick barrier, which is between the pilot and the airport. The pilot flies toward the airport only to discover that the clouds are covering the airport and, now, have covered everything in sight as well. Now what?

What are the options for this pilot? Fly to another airport? Circle and hope the clouds go away? Fly through the clouds to the airport? Should the pilot have kept a better eye out for cloud cover in the first place? Decisions, decisions… I would hope that the pilot would have been sharp enough to have not let this happen in the first place. But if despite all efforts it happens anyway, I would hope the pilot could fly to another airport that remained in VFR conditions. Sometimes, you don’t plan well, and sometimes things just don’t go your way.

In a worse case situation, if the clouds layer was everywhere and it was getting dark, I guess an emergency descent through the clouds would be the last choice. I would only hope that the pilot had done some hood work before this flight and had practiced a slow rate-of-descent, no turns, let down. Just talking about this dangerous situation will scare a wise pilot into keeping one eye on the clouds while enjoying that sunset!

By confronting the pilot with this story I believe the pilot will see a greater need for instrument reference maneuvers. I also hope pilots will understand that instrument reference maneuvers for the VFR pilot is the last resort and that they should be vigilant to the ever-changing weather conditions.

But do we really prepare students for such an eventuality … and the skills and thought process that may save them?

In the Past: The instructor says, “Here put this hood on.
The student replies, “Why do we have to do this – that hood hurts my head and it’s too hot.
Because we have to get three hours under the hood for the checkride.

BY THE BOOK With regard to “Constant Airspeed Descents” the Private Pilot PTS requires the applicant to:
FAA-S-8081-14A 1-30
REFERENCES: FAA-H-8083-3, FAA-H-8083-15.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to attitude instrument flying during constant airspeed descents.
  2. Establishes the descent configuration specified by the examiner.
  3. Transitions to the descent pitch attitude and power setting on an assigned heading using proper instrument cross-check and interpretation, and coordinated control application.
  4. Demonstrates descents solely by reference to instruments at a constant airspeed to specific altitudes in straight flight and turns.
  5. Levels off at the assigned altitude and maintains that altitude, ±200 feet (60 meters); maintains heading, ±20°; maintains airspeed, ±10 knots.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Again, all pilots should be able to do this, but the PTS does not present the life-and-death reason for doing it like scenario-based training would. If you are learning to fly (as we all are) teach yourself either through practice or mental exercise to apply your training to real life scenarios. You don’t have to be in the airplane to dream up a scenario and ask yourself, “How would I get out of this mess?” If you’re fortunate enough to fly with an instructor, ask him or her to tell you how what your learning applies in the real world … and how it might one day save your life. Remember, while you learn and practice your skills, it’s how you choose to apply them that will make all the difference.