Stuff Your CFII May Not Have Told You*

August 29, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

At AOPA Summit in Palm Springs this year, I’ll have the privilege of pontificating before a group of pilots regarding the real world of IFR. The topic is target rich. An extremely capable and dedicated retired Air Force colonel, who had flown all over the world, was my CFII. Couldn’t have asked for better, but our little airport did not have an instrument approach, so there was very little actual instrument time. The ticket, as with so many of us, was only the beginning. I’m asking for your thoughts on items you learned after leaving the IFR training nest.

I keenly remember the first real IMC flight with a friend, Buddy, who had also been recently trained by the colonel. Piper Comanches were new to me, but Buddy asked if I’d act as co-pilot since he’d committed to fly Sister Mary Catherine from the DC area up to Scranton, Pa. The weather was easy IMC with ceilings of about 800 feet and tops well above anything we could cruise at. No thunder or ice—just light rain. The Comanche had fuel enough for two round trips to Canada with an alternate in Ohio, if needed.

Sister climbed in the back, giving no indication that she felt at all uneasy. As we entered the clouds, Buddy and I looked at each other knowing that this was what we had trained for and wasn’t it cool (secretly being a bit apprehensive—couldn’t put your foot on the bottom of the pool anymore). The flight was uneventful other than the fact that Buddy and I kept the aircraft aloft with sheer energy. Lycoming couldn’t hold a candle to the horsepower the two of us were exuding. He watched me, I watched him, we watched each other, ATC watched us, and we surmised that we should be watching them. We probably could have walked on a bed of hot coals and not felt it. Upon return, we found a hole coming over the airport and landed uneventfully. Maybe all this IFR stuff was a bit overrated, or perhaps Sister MC had exerted some Divine Influence. We’ll never know.

Not so fast! In the coming months and years, I learned about icing, how a sector’s comm frequency can go down, how thunderstorms need great respect, that controllers make a few mistakes and largely put their pants on one leg at a time, and sometimes that the PIC really needs to exercise that authority. I learned that fuel is your friend. So is an HSI. So is an autopilot, but only if intelligently used. I learned that weather is what you find, not what is forecast. Lots of stuff that wasn’t immediately obvious in the training world.

In any case, I’d welcome short vignettes on things you learned flying IMC that your CFI may not have told you. Winning submissions will be publicly called out at Summit or held anonymously if you prefer. The asterisk? Maybe stuff you were told and just forgot—I’m told that happens but always to someone else!


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Mark Fay

    1.) If you do it right, from final approach fix to break out is the most boring time of the flight. Make that the goal.

    From 1 Hour Out Until the Final Approach Fix, You Should be Constantly Doing Something, Checking, Rechecking and Checking Again. If not, you are getting behind.

    2.) Flying every flight in your mind before you go and after you land almost gives you triple the experience.

    3.) Don’t worry! Do the training, stay current, take one step at a time and RELAX – you CAN do it!

    4.) Never, ever, ever, ever go below minimums. Ever. Check the Altimeter setting against the weather NOW and the final course setting everytime you GUMPS.

    5.) Read every Richard Collins book at least 5 times. Then read them again. Distill it down:

    –Try to fly every flight perfectly
    –Always question yourself: What is happening to me, the airplane, the weather?

  • James Carlson

    I earned my instrument ticket in July, and I took the family from MA to PA for my first real IFR trip last week. We had an hour of solid IMC along the way, plus a non-precision approach to minimums at the destination.

    There were rain and a few bumps in the clouds, which certainly made my passengers a little more apprehensive. And there were T-storms north of our route, but I knew where they were and we were along the way.

    In training, I got used to reminding controllers that I was /A and couldn’t go direct to DREEM or to BOSOX, though they almost always want me to do that. So, getting a few changes wasn’t a surprise.

    The part that threw me was my first real routing change, when a controller sent me direct from my present position to Lake Henry. “What?” It was two VORs ahead, and I’d planned everything so carefully that I was looking intently at how to identify my next fix, and wasn’t ready for it at all. “Stand by.”

    It seemed to take forever to figure out what I was going to do, tune and identify the station, and get myself oriented enough to make a coherent response.

    It was a good learning experience. In training, we focus a lot on particular scenarios and skills almost in isolation, but in the real world, there’s a more direct goal involved in getting to Point B, with multiple changes along the way.

  • Claudia Contreras

    When entering the clouds, fog, etc. Although tempting don’t look out your window, especially in a climb. It can be very distracting. Look at your instruments.

  • Bonanza Babe

    My first serious IFR flight, after I earned my rating was slightly unintentional. I was flying for a business trip from Dallas to Williamsport, PA in my Bonanza. An aircraft related delay turned the early morning flight into a late morning departure. My first legs to PKB were marginal VFR and uneventful. However, PKB – IPT was flown in total darkness & in the tops of the clouds (picking up leading edge rime ice). Since it was the first time I had ever flown hard IFR, w/o my instructor, during a black night, picking up ice and anticipating an approach into a mountainous area, needless to say my mouth was a little dry. Potomac Approach kept asking me to repeat my replies because I could only mouth the words.
    Needless to say, I survived – thanks to God’s grace and a good flight instructor.

  • Jay Campbell

    Obtain your IFR clearance before engine start. If given a reroute it allows for a calm and thorough look at the new routing and reorganizing of your charts if necessary.

  • Sam McNair

    During my early instrument training in the Virginia Mountains; there was depressingly little bad weather. It was always more hood time. On a trip down the Appalachians from Blacksburg, Va. to Asheville, NC I finally had hopes of some real “actual” according to the forecast. Distressingly, the trip had to start out under the hood again. After a short leg over to the ridges, I noticed I had to keep turning up the cockpit lights and it was getting a little bumpier. But, hey, I can handle this.
    George, my instructor, finally told me to take off the hood, and all I saw was BLACK. No horizon, not even any wing tips. Then the bumps got worse and I had a feeling of being in a metal garbage can being rolled down a hill. Next came next the sound of what surely had to be demons beating on MY garbage can with sticks, and I lost sight of even the cowl in the heavy rain. A few deep gulps, and a bobble or 2 in pitch and roll, and I was Ok. After all George wasn’t going to take us anywhere unsafe, and after all, I was “in control’ and I could handle this – I thought. I remembered those words and how they tasted as I ate them later. I had no clue yet about how thin the illusion of being in control really was.

    As we flew along the ridge line in heavy showers (ATC called them level 2 and 3, I thought it was Niagara Falls, and ATC couldn’t see much as we were at extreme radar range with more weather between us and the dish), after l being rolled about and beaten on for a while, As it progressed, I started feeling more confident and more in control. As I got my wits about me and got my full scan working again (it had degraded to just the horizon and the altimeter), I happened to look down towards my chart. That is when I noticed a stream of water about the size of my little finger running out the left sleeve of my dearly loved leather flying jacket. And the floor was awash n water. Then I lost that thin edge of control I thought I had and totally freaked. I remember distinctly hollering in a voice that must have sounded like a scared 12 year old girl: “George, George, we are taking on water! What do we do?” And for that moment, and until George ruminateed and replied, I was no longer pilot in Command of that aircraft.

    George who had all the time been watching the rain enter my jacket from the leaky doors on this well worn C-177RG through my coat collar and flood the floor for going on 8 minutes (by his watch) simply said: “Fly the [email protected] thing; it’s an airplane not a submarine!” I had one outburst ofexplosive laugh; then I once again became the pilot in Command. All I needed was that relief from the mental paralysis that was keeping me from doing what I was training to do. Had I not had that one brief respite, just a few seconds to get my head re-arranged, had it been just me flying, it would not have been a good outcome. At that moment I relearned two basic lessons and learned a critical new one:
    1) Never stop flying the airplane.
    2) Never fixate on only one issue.
    3) Never stop thinking. Either you learn to compartmentalize your fear, or you better learn to fly well with only half or less of your brain working, because the other side has locked up with fear.

    When we landed at Asheville, I noticed a sort of sloshy, sloppy action in pitch. After shut down, I noticed a slow drip from the belly. Taking a match stick and opening up all of the belly drains that were plugged with junk, about 10 gallons of water came out of the belly; most of which had entered by way of my coat collar and out my sleeve. On the way back we climbed until we found a thin layer of icing with good air below, and I learned just how quickly it can build, how little that small hole in the ice on the windshield is that a Cessna defroster makes, and just how fast all that extra climbing ability you have goes to nothing with a little ice.

    I got a lot of learning wrapped up in that one round trip flight and in the many others where we sought out challenging weather conditions. We always flew through the bumpy cumulus, and flew real approaches and misses to airports that were below minimums. That little bit of exposure to ice came in very handy several years later as I landed at night at the Charleston, W Va. airport, with a load of ice, and frozen brakes, on an iced over runway. No forecast for any of it that night. And knowing what a real missed approach feels like when you can’t just take off the hood and land. And again later when I got into a bad convective activity over Ohio, knowing that if you think and fly, you will come out OK made all the difference. I learned that weather is not what is forecast, but what you get, and that you had better be ready for the worst.

    Having seen all of the ads for 2 week IFR ratings, and knowing of all of the flight schools located in fair weather areas, both of which mean a pilot can pick up an IFR rating never having flown a single minute of “Actual” makes me wonder about the wisdom of exclusively that approach to teaching. Relating my all hood time getting my commercial multi-engine rating in Florida, to my single engine experience in the mountains, convinced me that there is a real place for some “reality flying” in everyone’s IFR training syllabus.

    I often wonder how someone who had always flown with the hood or maximum simulator time would react to any of those situations for their first time, for real, either solo, or worse with the added pressure of family or friends on board. Even after a fairly realistic simulation of a crash, you just push the reset button and go on breathing. You can’t do that in the real world. In the quest for less time, lower cost, and convenience, do our more modern methods of flight training adequately prepare pilots psychologically for what they will encounter?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Great stuff gang. Keep it coming. Your fellow pilots at Summit will add o the true experiences.

    Many Thanks!