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Real IMC for Private Pilots?

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by Chris Findley, CFI, CFII

I recently did an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) trip with a private pilot friend of mine. I had been his instructor through his private training and we had done all the required work for that certificate. This included three hours of flight by reference to instruments only. As a private pilot, this is mainly to allow you to handle an accidental flight into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions). It is in no way designed to make you a proficient instrument pilot. The main idea is to teach you to maintain aircraft control and reverse course to fly to clearer weather.

On this trip I promised myself that I would not train another private pilot without taking them in actual IMC. He didn’t do bad at all, that’s not it.  In fact, he flew well. It was the realization (and I know it’s obvious) that flying with foggles or a hood is simply not the same as flying into a cloud. The sensation is different, the feeling is different, the way your inner ear and body react is different. Psychologically it’s simply a different experience altogether.

He kept turning right. I kept correcting. He said, “Why am I doing that?” And I reminded him about the inner ear and the disorientation that can occur. There before my eyes I saw exactly how a spiral accident forms. The instruments are subtly ignored, and the pilot feels like they are turning. So they bank (and enter a turn). Because of the loss of lift in the turn, they pull back on the yoke, tightening the turn. If not corrected the spiral steepens and the disorientation escalates until control is lost.

There’s something very different about being in actual IMC. So instead of talking about what would happen “If” you flew into a cloud, I’m making a resolution to actually show my students what that feels like and how to handle it.

In no way do I want to encourage them to go scud running and punch holes in the clouds. It’s just that I don’t want their first experience in the clouds to be when they are on their own. I want them to have the confidence of knowing that they can handle the situation and fly their way to clear skies and a safe landing.

13 Responses to “Real IMC for Private Pilots?”

  1. There's that phrase about knowing just enough to get yourself into trouble. The key with this type of training is to emphasize the vast amount of knowledge about IFR flying that the student does NOT know and to steer them toward training for the full instrument rating.
    Some students will take the safety aspects of being able to perform a 180 deg turn to escape unexpected instrument conditions at face value. Others will extrapolate the ability to being able to launch into instrument conditions to find VFR weather.
    It all hinges on the risk-assessment and decision-making abilities of the individual, qualities hard to teach and harder to evaluate.

  2. Agree with both of you. PP students should have to experience real IMC - not necessarily to teach them how to deal with it, but rather to scare the !@*#% out of them so they endeavor to keep out of the soup (although knowing how to get out of the soup is good, too). One more thing - how about a plea for CFII's to spend more time with their instrument students in real IMC as well? I suspect that many CFII's have little real IMC experience themselves, and maybe that's why they don't teach much in the clouds.

  3. Agreed...You both make great points. I hope that I made it clear that I wouldn't do this to create a false sense of security, but to show them how disorienting it can be and, simultaneously helping to not wig out if they accidentally find themselves in IMC. Of course, the risk (and it's always there) is that they'll try to fly in IMC anyway. My thought is that experiencing actual IMC might be more of a deterrent --they see how disorienting and difficult it can be. Students I've done this with always comment that real IMC is much more difficult than the foggles.

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Cary Alburn Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    I agree. My first start-to-finish student some 35 years ago was a very arrogant kid who thought he was a super pilot--and he was pretty good, in all honesty. On his long dual XC, we'd had to divert from his desired destination of Jackson, WY to Casper, had lunch, and then had to file to get home.

    It was easy IFR, in and out of the clouds. I called Denver Center, told that this was an instructional flight, asked if they had any issues with deviating both vertically and laterally. Student didn't hear any of my request (we didn't have headsets in those days). ATC cleared us with a block altitude of a couple thou and 5 on either side of centerline. Each time we entered the clouds, student started looking out the side window and could see the ground, began turning, losing or gaining altitude. I'd tap whatever gauge was most obvious, and he'd correct that one--and the others would get worse. After he'd lost control literally half a dozen times, he asked if I'd fly us back home. Soon we were in good VMC, I had him take over, and he flew us home. But I think he got the message much better that way than all of my previous comments that his 3 hours under the hood weren't enough to be safe in IMC.

  5. I, too, recommend that Private students get some form of actual instruction in IMC. I did my minimum 3 hours of instrument training, but only 2.7 were under the hood. My first CFI had taken me on a night flight to a local towered field to get some pattern practice in. The clouds were high enough, that staying VMC at 2000 AGL wasn't a problem. After we were finished, he called Seattle Approach and asked for an instrument clearance back to our home airport.

    At that point, he told me he was on the radios, I was flying the airplane. We climbed up to 4000 MSL and entered the clag. I can tell you right now, that if you've never before flown in clouds, it is quite a shock. It was like flying through something solid, yet not. Believe me, my head was down and on the gauges fast! I had turned my landing light off, and he asked me to turn it on real quick, to see what would happen. I had to turn it off real quick, before I was blinded.

    We were out of the murk, well before we reached the airport, and more than high enough to finish VFR. He even went so far as to tell me that I had done better on the gauges than some of his beginning instrument students. Compliments aside, I thought it was a fantastic training tool. I have that 0.3 "actual instrument" time logged, and I think it taught me far more, than any several hours under the hood.

  6. Michael Sheridan Says:
    April 6th, 2011 at 12:05 am

    The FCC, AOPA, NTSB, have all weighed in how how fatalities, incidents, and accidents from flight have actually increased significantly in last 10-15 years in spite of all kinds of instrument advances. If these agencies and organization really want to improve this awful rate, something more like 8-10 hours, including real IMC should be required, not to scare the hell out of pilots, but to give them a fighting chance to escape unintentional IMC, the number one killer according the statistics. Also, the Cirrus-like "panic button" that automatically levels and turns 180 should be required on all new planes with autopilots. Cost for implementing this is a about $300.00.

  7. Just a question. Since most instructors (like mine) are CFI's, not CFII's, can a CFI legally take a student into actual IMC for this proposed training?
    Or should I find a CFII for an hour or two while I am working on my PP?

  8. David Moler Says:
    April 9th, 2011 at 2:03 am

    That is a very good question. There was a change to the FARs this year that clarified this question. Basically a CFI can provide training in flight 'by reference to instruments'. It does not stipulate VFR or IMC. So in my opinion either is acceptable. However, you do need a CFII for the 10 hours of required 'instrument training' for the commercial certificate.
    I just took my CFI check ride and had a lengthy discussion about this with the DE. Mostly because I hadn't noticed the change. (I did manage to pass though) :)
    ref 61.109(a)(3), 61.129(a)(3)(i), and 61.195(a)

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