single pilot IFR
reprinted from AOPA
Is it safe to fly IFR as a single
pilot? This question is constantly debated by pilots. Most would agree that
flying IFR with an experienced and competent co-pilot enhances the safety of the
flight. However, single-pilot IFR flights are executed safely and without
incident hundreds of times every day. As a pilot, what you really want to know
is, how safe is it and can you do it safely? You must first ask yourself how
safe you want it to be. How much effort and money are you willing to invest?
Single-pilot IFR can be as safe as you choose to make it, and there are many
things you can do to make it safer. The purpose of this safety advisor is to
explore some of the things you might do to give yourself the safety advantage.
Although these suggestions are not all-inclusive, they should stimulate some
serious thought and introduce some new concepts. Those things over which you
have control must be controlled, and exposure to those that you don’t must be
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s aviation safety database, which contains more
than 40,000 general aviation accident reports, reveals that single-pilot IFR
flights generate several times as many accidents as those flown with a pilot and
copilot. We know intuitively, but without statistical proof, that most general
aviation IFR operations are flown by a single pilot. Although exposure alone may
explain a large part of the difference in the number of accidents, it’s clear
that single-pilot IFR is an area warranting special attention. When reviewed in
combination with FAA flying-hour activity reports, the database further reveals
that the accident rate at night under IMC conditions is 75% higher than that for
daytime IMC flying. Most IMC accidents occur during cruise (VFR into IMC) or
approach (descent below approach minimums). Not many surprises here, are there?
We would have suspected as much. Yes, there are challenges with single-pilot IFR.
Virtually no type of flying requires greater skill and concentration, imposes
greater work loads and mental stress, and extracts higher penalties for mistakes
than single-pilot IFR. Near-perfect performance is the minimum standard. That
standard can be attained and maintained, but it takes a dedicated commitment on
the part of the pilot to get the most utility from his flying at the highest
level of safety possible.
Distribution of Instrument
Accidents by Type of Aircraft and Number of Pilots (1983-1999)
More than two and one-quarter times as many IFR hours are
flown during daylight than are flown during darkness. More accidents occur in
daylight than darkness; accident rates, however, are based on the number of
accidents per 100,000 hours flown.
What’s the Problem?
A single pilot flying hard IFR is pilot, navigator, radio operator, systems
manager, records keeper, oft-times flight attendant, and sometimes zoo keeper.
It sure helps to have a copilot to share the duties and back up your actions,
but when you don’t have a copilot—and most general aviation single-engine and
light twin pilots don’t—you must cope and cope well. The obvious problem is high
work load, and in high-density traffic areas under very poor weather conditions,
the work load can become extremely high—even to the point of exceeding your
capabilities. Capabilities vary from pilot to pilot and, with a given pilot,
vary with time and circumstances. Let’s investigate those factors that affect
your capability, determine what you have the power to control, and then decide
what you can do to assure that you are operating at peak performance at all
times. You know that you are going to face a heavy work load. You must be
prepared to deal with it so that problems don’t compound to an overwhelming
point. The work load and stress go up dramatically when the unexpected happens.
Any surprise or distraction puts you in the reactive mode and starts to wrest
control from you. The ability to react and regain control is a measure of a good
instrument pilot. A second or third distraction encountered while still
wrestling with the first can rapidly escalate to an out-of-control situation.
The distractions can be as simple as arriving at a fix without having planned
your subsequent actions or as complex as having an engine fail at localizer
interception. Most people can juggle two balls, but three or more?
The obvious solution is to plan ahead in excruciating detail everything that can
be anticipated. Let’s take the airplane and equipment first. Are you planning to
have a vacuum pump fail on this flight? Of course not. But you can make certain
that the airplane was inspected as required, that you preflighted the system as
recommended, that you know how the system works, what the indications of a
failure are, and what procedures are recommended in the emergency checklist. If
you don’t yet have an intimacy with this particular type of airplane or can’t
determine that everything is as it should be before takeoff, then don’t risk an
IFR flight. Don’t gamble. Gambling is based on chance, and chance by definition
means that some percentage of the time the results will favour you, and
sometimes they will not.
Equipment—How Much Is Enough?
Part of planning ahead is making sure your aircraft is properly equipped to make
IFR flight easier. If you own your airplane, this is under control within some
financial limits. Those of you who rent are limited to looking for an FBO that
puts a little extra into its IFR airplanes and your complementing it with
certain portable equipment such as headsets, boom microphones, push-to-talk
switches, stopwatches, intercoms, etc. Today, we generally consider minimum IFR
equipment to be dual nav/coms, glideslope and marker beacon receivers, and an
ADF, although IFR flight can be done legally with less. Let’s look at a few
additions that can be very helpful. A headset with boom microphone and a
yoke-mounted pushto- talk switch are high on most pilots’ lists. The ability to
reply without reaching for the hand mike eliminates a major distraction that
always comes just when you need both hands for something else. The headset that
the boom mic attaches to also solves most of the confusion of missed or
misunderstood transmissions by providing clearer audio reception and shielding
external noise. An autopilot slaved to a heading bug is invaluable in keeping
the airplane right side up and going in the general direction desired while
reading charts, copying revised clearances, tuning radios, etc.
Altitude-hold and coupling features are added
benefits, but even a wing leveller is much better than nothing and can serve
quite well. The minimum aid in keeping you precisely aware of your position at
all times is a DME. A radial and distance and a little thought are all you need
to avoid ever being surprised when it’s time to take the next action. Of course,
an RNAV, GPS, or loran is great and can give you distance information, plus a
lot more. A word of caution is appropriate here. Unless you learn to use these
receivers efficiently and understand their limitations, the potential for errors
exists. Some devices are so difficult to program that they wind up increasing
the work load and becoming major distractions in themselves. The next favourite
item is the ability to preselect frequencies on the com and nav receivers and
call them up with the press of a button. This enables you to plan ahead and
avoid distractions. A much preferred radio is one that displays both the active
and preselected frequencies simultaneously. With this feature, you can be
prepared for the next two or three frequency changes and also return
instantaneously to the last one when no contact is made after a change—all this
without the need to grab pencil and paper. If your wish list were unlimited
(which it isn’t), it would probably include electric trim, an HSI, an RMI, a
remote ID button, an altitude preselect and alerter on the autopilot, a radar
altimeter, and a host of others.
Most pilots are nuts about gadgets, and all of
these things can contribute to easing the work load while providing more
information and avoiding distractions. However, the few mentioned first will do
quite nicely and probably provide the greatest dividends for the smallest
investment. Please don’t think that simply loading the airplane with every
conceivable device you can afford solves the problem. That is not advocated
here, nor will it automatically decrease the work load and enhance safety.
Pilots must thoroughly understand each aid used. Better to be competent in the
essential equipment than confused and intimidated by sophisticated but poorly
understood equipment. Don’t overlook a worthy and relatively inexpensive
addition to every IFR pilot's flight kit: a good handheld nav/com transceiver.
The true value of this item will not be fully appreciated until you suffer
complete electrical failure in IMC conditions. It is also quite useful for
obtaining clearances before engine start, saving fuel when experiencing ATC
ground delays, getting weather reports, and a number of other around-the-airport
Probably the easiest way for an otherwise competent pilot to make single-pilot
IFR simpler is through advance planning and organization. This means having a
cockpit so neat and tidy that your mother would be proud of you. Since there
isn’t room in the cockpit for everything, preselect every chart and publication
you need. Put them in the order you expect to use them and have them open,
folded, or tabbed as appropriate. Put them away when finished. Have pencil and
paper handy. Stick-on note paper is excellent and can also be used to cover
malfunctioning instruments. Keep flashlights, calculators, plotters, etc.,
available but out of the way when not needed. There are kneeboards, lapboards,
clipboards, chart bags, yoke clips, and many other aids to help you
organize—find what serves you best. Some pilots like to have formatted forms
prepared on which to copy weather and clearances. An approach chart holder
centred on the yoke can be invaluable.
What we have been talking about is normally referred to as “cockpit resource
management,” a buzz phrase that simply means: What tools are available when
flying, and how can you use them most efficiently? You should not overlook some
resources necessary to safely negotiate your way through the murk while avoiding
the really hazardous stuff. Real-time weather information comes from both
cockpit located gadgets and the services provided by ground-based systems. In
any case, it is the job of the pilot in command to manage the acquisition of
needed data and integrate it into the execution of the flight—another ball to
juggle. As you planned this flight, you gathered existing and forecast weather
from several sources, from TV to DUAT or the final briefing by the flight
service station specialist. How to best do this is a subject unto itself and is
discussed at length in another AOPA Air Safety Foundation safety advisor:
As we all know, however, once en route the weather
will change, and it will probably not be as forecast. An axiom about a forecast
is that the weather will always be either better or worse than forecast but
never as forecast. As a flight progresses, it is a great comfort to find things
getting better than expected, and you want to enjoy that warm feeling as soon as
possible. On the other hand, if it is getting worse than expected, it behoves
you to know that as soon as possible to avoid those unwanted surprises and, if
necessary, execute a contingency plan in a timely manner. Your best source of
weather updates in flight is from the En route Flight Advisory Service (EFAS),
known as “Flight Watch,” available on 122.0 MHz. EFAS is designed for just what
you want, a continuous exchange between pilots in flight and Flight Watch
personnel. It provides the latest information on current weather reports and
hazardous weather as observed by other pilots or on weather radar.
Here’s where you find out about thunderstorms,
turbulence, icing, low visibilities, and high winds. Often you can get
weather-related assistance from the controlling agency. Ground controllers may
be willing to help you out, but are often unable because of their high work
load. Their primary responsibilities are controlling and separating IFR traffic.
Air traffic radar is not designed to see weather, and what capability it does
have may be suppressed in order to see aircraft. The time that help is most
needed is usually in circumstances when it is least likely to be available. If
you have storm avoidance equipment such as airborne radar or Stormscope, you are
indeed a leg up. ATC is most generous, whenever possible, in allowing route
deviation to avoid hazardous weather, when you can provide your own warning
source. However, possessing a radar or Stormscope is not synonymous with using
them to the best advantage. So take the time to get proper training in their
Avoid Distractions Through Planning
Distractions must be avoided. Passengers are one of the most obvious sources of
distraction. Brief them in advance that there will be times when your attention
will be completely devoted to flying the airplane. They will understand
—especially when they can no longer see the ends of the wings. If they still
won’t leave you alone to concentrate, try sweating profusely in an otherwise
cold cockpit. That will get their attention. Another distraction is self-induced
and comes from lack of anticipating and planning ahead. Advance planning begins
on the ground. Think through and mentally execute the entire flight, at least to
the extent that you look at each phase and say to yourself, “I expect to do thus
and so, and I will need such and such available.” Look at the SIDs, STARs, and
approaches you expect to fly, as well as those you might be given at both your
destination and your alternate.
Stay Ahead of the Airplane While in Flight—Act Rather Than React
In flight, there is a systematic thought process that is especially helpful. It
is similar to position reporting—something we don’t often do anymore. Report
where you are, give the ETA at the next reporting point, and the name of the
subsequent one. This analogy concerns events and actions. An “event” is a
happening such as station passage, arriving at an altitude, intercepting the
glideslope, and so on. When an event happens, “action” is required. Say (to
yourself) what the next expected event is, what action is required, and what
will be the subsequent event (see Figure 1). As an example, think of
intercepting the localizer on an ILS approach. “At intercept, I must turn to the
inbound heading and start a descent to 2,000 feet.
The next event will be arrival at 2,000 feet. All I
have to do in the meantime is track the localizer and descend. When I get to
2,000 feet, I must level off and start looking for glideslope interception.”
After each event happens and the required action has been taken, you mentally
redefine the next event and subsequent one. Some pilots do this aloud, and this
seems to help them. Either way, doing this helps prevent surprises and keeps you
ahead of the aircraft. There are many pilots who can fly precision instruments,
but have no systematic way of anticipating their next move to the extent that
they become ineffective as instrument pilots. Some pilots being vectored to
localizer interception concentrate so hard on the heading and altitude that they
fly right through the localizer. Ever happen to you? Try this thought process
consciously a few times, and see if your preparedness improves.
Know Where You Are—Always
Maintain “positional awareness.” This simply means knowing where you are at all
times. If you follow your position even when being vectored, you know what to
anticipate next and are never surprised. Here’s where DME comes in handy. If
what you hear does surprise you, maybe it’s time to question the controller.
They have been known to make mistakes. To maintain positional awareness,
sometimes it’s helpful to sketch your position on the lapboard or make dots on
the approach chart. A centred OBS needle with a “from” indication, coupled with
a closely approximated DME measurement (radial and distance), immediately
resolves all questions about where you are (see Figure 2). Equally as important
is “situational awareness.” Is the fuel remaining adequate or have routing
changes or extensive vectoring consumed more fuel than planned? Is the current
weather consistent with the forecast for both the destination and alternate or
is the trend better or worse than forecast? Can you expect a straight-in
approach, or will it be necessary to circle to land? You must stay aware of any
changes affecting the safety of flight to make decisions en route. The flight is
not over until the airplane is safely at rest on the ground.
A question that always comes up when single-pilot IFR is discussed is, what
about using a nonpilot as a pseudo copilot? There are many things a second
person can do to relieve the work load. However, there are also some serious
cautions to be aware of when using the help of a nonpilot. First of all, know
who is helping and what they know or don’t know about flying. Know whether they
might be prone to show too much initiative in helping you out. The potential for
disaster is great when using the wrong person and, in the best case, can result
in increased, rather than decreased, work load. Having said all that, yes, a
spouse or companion who frequently flies with you and understands exactly what
you want done, and in whom you have confidence that unwanted actions will not
occur, can be a help. Train them, brief them thoroughly, and use their help with
Currency and Training
Without question, the most essential and important piece of the single-pilot IFR
equation revolves around currency and recurrent training, the key to
proficiency. Do you recall the expression used earlier: “an otherwise competent
pilot”? All of the helpful hints, suggestions, and equipment in the world are
worthless if the pilot is not physically and mentally healthy, knowledgeable,
well trained, skilful, and current. Don’t fly unless you’re physically and
mentally fit. That’s common sense, and we won’t belabour that point. Skill is in
a separate category from the other attributes needed. Skill is a result of some
level of innate ability, intelligence, and motor reactions you possess that are
channelled and directed by training and perfected by practice.
Good training can allow you to make the most of
what you start with, but practice is what results in the highest level of
performance achievable. Remember when you first started flying, and it took 100
percent of your attention to fly straight and level? Only through practice does
flying become automatic, and the level of proficiency required to be a good
instrument pilot is that where basic control of the aircraft requires no
conscious thought. Routine manoeuvres must be instinctive and automatic or they
become distractions that interfere with procedures that do require attention and
All flying, whether IFR or VFR, is a matter of continuously correcting
deviations from the desired flight parameters. How quickly you recognize a
deviation and how smoothly you correct it is a measure of your skill. The Old
Pro, for whom all instruments seem to freeze in the right position, simply
perceives deviations almost before they become apparent and corrects them
instinctively with such small and smooth control pressures that you don’t
realize a correction has taken place. You must reach a level where you interpret
and respond automatically to integrated instrument indications and not to
one-at-a-time interpretations. For instance, if your airplane is below the
desired altitude, do you correct with pitch, with power, or with both?
Obviously, it depends upon other things such as what the airspeed is doing and
what the attitude is. If you have to think about it rather than seeing the
situation as a whole and reacting instinctively, then you are not ready to face
the demands of serious instrument flying, especially alone.
Such skills come only through practice and can be
retained only through practice. Simulators, procedures trainers, or PC training
devices can help to retain and sharpen your basic flying skills. Even though it
may not duplicate your cockpit or your airplane’s flying characteristics, the
basics of instrument interpretation and aircraft control are universal. One hour
in a simple trainer prior to an instrument flight can significantly improve your
scan and technique and will show in your performance. Not only is practice
essential, but every pilot should periodically fly with an instructor to check
habits and review procedures. Choose only instructors who are actively teaching
instruments, for they will be most current themselves. Also, try to fly with
different instructors. You’d be surprised how many new tidbits you pick up, and
a fresh perspective is always helpful.
When you practice, don’t forget the emergencies. These are the ultimate
distractions. Plan for emergencies and practice emergencies. If you use a
simulator, practice to failure. In other words, compound the adversities to the
point you do overload. You can learn a lot about your limitations and also
expand your capabilities. When an emergency occurs, remember to take your time.
Be deliberate, control the aircraft, handle the emergency, navigate, and then
Confidence or Complacency?
The better you get, the more confident you become.
When confidence becomes complacency, you’re in deep trouble. Without modesty,
when you really are good, you know it. Constantly be on guard that your
confidence doesn’t exceed your ability. Unfortunately, our skills deteriorate at
a different rate than does our confidence (see Figure 3). Without periodically
testing ourselves and re-establishing our skill level through currency practice,
we can wind up in exactly that state—confidence well beyond competence.
Consider the following recommendations:
Practice to stay current (include
a simulator or procedures trainer if available).
Don’t let your confidence exceed
Be aware of your mental and
Pay attention to detail when
checking equipment and weather.
Flight plan thoroughly. Walk
through your entire proposed flight, and rehearse alternative approaches,
alternates, missed approaches, and emergencies.
Prepare in advance: Organize
your charts and the cockpit.
Stay continuously aware of your
position in space, the weather, and fuel remaining.
Now ask the question again: Is single-pilot IFR safe? Safe instrument flying is
a matter of attitude and discipline. If you have the proper attitude and the
self-discipline to follow the recommendations made here, you can enjoy a long
and successful career of single-pilot IFR flying.