Tips to Help Streamline IFR Training

6 min read

When stressed learning to fly approaches, it is very easy to get behind the airplane.  During my IFR training, it was not uncommon for my instructor to ask me, “What is the next thing to do?”  And sometimes it was difficult, if not impossible, to answer!  In any stressful situation, the human mind easily can become a blank slate.  Obviously, this can be a dangerous situation while flying an airplane in the clouds.

Staying ahead of the airplane is much easier if the IFR pilot realizes that 1) there is a generic basic flow to every IFR flight and 2) when the items in the basic flow are memorized, mistakes are minimized.   Furthermore, if the IFR pilot knows the items that are needed to fly a specific type of approach (e.g. GPS, VOR, or ILS), stress and mistakes are further minimized.   In my experience teaching IFR flying, requiring students to memorize these items results in students having less difficulty learning approaches.



Each IFR flight terminating in an approach has the same basic elements, as outlined below.


1. Get started.  Obtain clearance and follow ATC instructions for climbing to a specific altitude and heading.  Upon reaching desired altitude, level off and complete the cruise checklist.


2.  Run through the approach briefing.   Set up for the approach via an approach briefing.  Although there may be other useful checklists, my choice has been the WISP and ICE ATM checklists (see below).  Each checklist emphasizes different items and, therefore, it may be helpful to run through both checklists to double check that the set up for the approach has been thought through completely and properly.


I – Enter the Localizer or VOR frequencies and identify them via the Morse code or enter the approach into the GPS.

C – Set the inbound course using the OBS knob on the VOR or HSI.

E  – State method of approach entry (full or vectored) and make sure it is properly entered in the GPS if flying a GPS approach.   If a full approach, make sure to run through the entire procedure (holding pattern, DME arc, etc).

A – Run through the altitudes used in the approach, i.e. 1) initial altitude at start of approach, 2) step down altitudes if present, and 3) MDA or DA altitudes.

T – Is the timer needed – is it a timed approach?

M – Run through the missed approach instructions.

This list is followed by the nice-to-dos, such as: listen to the weather, make sure the marker beacon is on if needed, and make sure the CDI of the VOR or HSI is slaved appropriately to either the VOR or the GPS.


W – Obtain the weather.

I – Make sure your flight instruments are set correctly (e.g. set barometric pressure, and CDI correctly).

S – Go through the avionics stack from top to bottom and make sure everything is set correctly (e.g. slave the CDI to the GPS or VOR, activate the marker beacon, tune in radio frequencies, tune in and identify VOR frequencies, or load the GPS approach into the GPS).

P – Run through the approach procedure, including the missed approach directions.



3. Expect missed approach instructions.  Expect ATC to deliver these instructions prior to joining the approach course.  Be ready to copy them down.


4. Join approach course.   Anticipate joining the initial or final approach course.  Instrument scan elements that need particular attention include, 1) distance to IAF or FAF shown on the GPS, and 2) CDI movement.  Vocalizing the distance to the IAF or FAF aloud each time the eyes look at the GPS during the instrument scan is very helpful in maintaining focus on the IAF or FAF.  This minimizes flying past these fixes without realizing it.  If flying a full approach, once the IAF has been reached, running through the five Ts is helpful (as it is when passing any waypoint) (see below for the five Ts).  For this portion of the approach, the clock becomes a necessary part of the instrument scan.  When the time is vocalized aloud each time the eyes look at the clock during the instrument scan, the pilot remains focused on the endpoint of the leg being flown.  Again, the mistake of flying past the waypoint and not realizing it is minimized using this technique.

Time – start the clock (or note the time)

Turn – turn to the new heading

Twist – turn the OBS to desired course

Throttle – change power setting if needed

Talk – talk to ATC if necessary


5.  Run through the SADS checklist 2 miles prior to reaching the FAF.  Two miles prior to reaching the FAF, it is prudent to run through this checklist to ensure a smooth transition to the approach course.

SSlow down to appropriate speed (e.g. 90 kts for Cessna 172).  Incorporate looking at the distance to the FAF into the instrument scan and say the distance aloud each time the eyes look at the GPS during the instrument scan.  Again, this keeps the focus on the FAF, making it difficult to fly past it without starting the descent on time.

A Altitude check.  Is the current altitude the altitude allowed in this segment of the approach (i.e. is a descent allowed to a lower altitude?) and reread the DA or MDA.

D – Descent checklist.  Perform the descent checklist.

S – Set-up for descent.  When arriving at either 1) the FAF for a nonprecision approach (VOR, nonprecision GPS, localizer, or NDB approach), 2) the glideslope of a precision ILS approach, or 3) the glide path for an APV approach, lower the flaps, decrease the power and pitch down to attain the proper descent rate for the approach leg.  The pilot should know the approximate pitch and power settings that will result in the airspeed/descent rate needed for a precision and nonprecision approach (e.g. in a Cessna 172 put in 10 degrees of flaps, pull the power back to about 1600 RPMs and pitch down about 4 degrees to maintain 90 kts while descending in a precision approach).


6Descend to MDA or DA.  The instrument scan now should include calling out altitudes as the descent is made down to the MDA of a nonprecision approach or a DA of a precision approach.  If the airport environment is not detected at the DA, a missed approach should be initiated.  If flying a nonprecision approach, once the MDA has been reached, 1) the distance to the MAP or 2) the clock (if a timed approach) should be included in the scan.  As stated previously, it is helpful to say aloud the distance or the time each time the pilot looks at the GPS or clock so that the pilot does not fly past the MAP.


Staying ahead of the airplane is key to reducing stress and successfully completing an IFR approach to a runway environment.  Use of the above techniques aid in minimizing errors in flying approaches and similar techniques can be useful in flying holds, as well.


Wishing you safe and enjoyable IFR flights!

1 reply
  1. Greg v says:

    I would just add this – hitting the gps/nav switch is critical on a gps approach. There’s a reason it’s called the kill switch. Having the switch set to nav on a gps approach will lead you where ever your nav was last set instead of the next gps waypoint. That error in any other area than the flat lander central us could result into control flight into terrain. Yike.

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