Strategies for maintaining instrument proficiency

6 min read

While your instrument flying skills, cockpit management techniques, and risk management processes will no doubt be sharp when you earn your instrument rating, like anything in life, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  And let’s be honest: flying IFR doesn’t necessarily mean flying IFR.  How much real opportunity does anyone get to fly in actual instrument conditions followed by an approach down to minimums?  Throw in an equipment malfunction, avionics gaff and congested airspace, and the situation requires an urgent, informed response.

I submit we have two paths to follow with an instrument rating:  1) gain real instrument experience in a controlled environment and commit to maintaining that proficiency level, or 2) commit to personal minimums with honest, consistently-demonstrated abilities.

For most of us, the majority of our instrument training and checkride preparation was spent in the terminal environment.  In the terminal area, we likely were executing a series of instrument approaches, missed approaches and holds while honing our basic attitude instrument flying.  This constitutes a solid foundation from which to build, but there is a wealth of knowledge and skill to be gained from experience during enroute operations.   

My advice for maintaining IFR proficiency to sustain–or gain–utility after certification is to:

1) Plan every flight as if you were flying IFR – Planning for IFR will keep you familiar and current with the products and services available to help you make sound decisions.  Go beyond the regulatory requirement to examine weather, fuel requirements, alternates, etc., allow your experience and common sense to guide your preflight preparation, and embrace the myriad of new products, technology and industry best practices available to you.

Self-briefings are becoming more commonplace with quick, convenient access to a variety of online resources and fully integrated apps.  Shortcomings of self-briefing can be mitigated by following a standard pattern regarding the information and products examined.  When certain conditions warrant a deeper dive, consider supplementing existing information with additional resources, products, or even expert input.  For the self-briefing, similar to a guided briefing, begin with the “big picture” and funnel down to the terminal information applicable to departure and destination, along with potential alternates along the way.

2) Fly IFR even in VMC – Regardless of visual conditions, it’s beneficial to your development as an instrument flyer to operate “in the system” consistently.  Doing so will boost your confidence and will force you to practice managing the aircraft and cockpit resources while adhering to IFR clearances.  It also makes it easier to culminate your flights (even in VMC) with an instrument approach procedure—and not with the same repetitive procedure at the same airport.  Reach outside your comfort zone and gain confidence in managing the intricacies of each instrument approach type capability your aircraft has.  The ancillary benefit of having immediate access to ATC in the event of an emergency should never be ignored.

As part of your IFR flying, and as your comfort and proficiency levels allow, consider incorporating departure procedures (where available) as part of your repertoire.  Departure procedures are designed primarily to provide obstacle clearance and should be used when published for safe transition to the enroute environment.  These procedures come in two varieties:  Obstacle Departure Procedures (ODPs) and Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs). 

ODPs should be considered mandatory in any type of marginal conditions or at unfamiliar airports.  ODPs may be flown without an ATC clearance, provided nothing else has been assigned specifically–although it’s good practice to advise ATC if doing so.  

3) Tame the avionics – Master the technology, regardless of your panel’s complexity.  Achieving the level of proficiency at which control inputs become instinctive literally can save the day.  Instinctive knowledge can fade over time, so study the manuals, stay abreast of software updates, and take advantage of simulator programs available to you.

While the industry is certainly guilty of sending mixed messages when it comes to the proper use of flight deck technology, the basic rule is everything in moderation.  In other words, thoroughly understand the capability and effective use of GPS, autopilot, and other resources, but maintain those basic, hands-on flying skills that represent most critical and effective “technology” available to you.

Consider incorporating a standard set of conditions in which you will commit to flying the airplane manually. An example of these conditions might be daylight, with visual conditions less than 5,000 feet, and within ten miles of the airport. The standards you set for manual operation will depend on your flying experience, the aircraft you’re operating, and your currency.

4) Make use of checklists and flowsUse a checklist and flight deck flow for all of your procedures.  Aviation is at the forefront when it comes to checklist usage.  The safest operations typically use multiple checklist styles and layers that evolve with time and experience for added safety.

To recap, a “to-do” list is just that.  You methodically read through each item on the checklist, performing the necessary task associated with each item before moving to the next.  As you become more familiar with an aircraft, you may consider “flows,” which are organized and consistent patterns of moving around the flight deck to accomplish the items required on the ordered checklist. 

You probably have developed a mental checklist or mnemonic device.  There’s the famous “GUMPS”  before landing (G – gas, U – undercarriage, M – mixture, P – prop, S – seatbelt & switches) and “CIGAR”  before takeoff (C – control check, I – instruments, G – gas, A – attitude/flats & trim, R – run-up).  Committing a checklist to memory may be a lifesaver in a critical situation with little or no time to consult a written list.  The more layers of checklist redundancy you create, the less likely you are to make a mistake.

In the IFR environment, you might consider an “in-range” checklist, at which point you would review the instrument procedures for your destination airport and ensure that avionics equipment is properly programmed.  Anticipation is key to reduction in workload.  For EFB users, proper programming, placement and orientation of your devices can be incorporated here as well.

5) Play the “what-if” game – The preflight and decision making practices should not be postponed until your next flight.  Potential conditions and routes can be planned and analyzed with decisions rendered.  This exercise has the added benefit of rehearsing the preflight routine and adding familiarity with the various flight planning tools mentioned previously.  This “what-if” exercise is scalable. It can be taken beyond preflight planning to analyze changing weather systems, abnormal procedures enroute, emergencies, and ATC variables.

6) Maintain the personal minimums discipline – Finally, regardless of your adherence to a proficiency program, discipline yourself to commit to personal minimums.  Stay within your comfort zone, which is not something you can get from a book.  Continuously question your personal guidelines–an occasional feeling of trepidation is healthy and informs those personal minimums.