Essential Rules for IFR Safety!

Successfully meeting the challenge of flying safely in the clouds requires all kinds of technical knowledge, skills, and proficiency. But what often gets lost in this forest of details are the overriding principles that ultimately keep us safe. Missing these larger “big picture rules” leads to failures on flight tests, or worse, accidents. And IFR accidents are not fender benders but tombstones all the way down final (game over, no replay). Let’s zoom out and look at the bigger concerns to be safe.

First, when flying IFR, you are always on some mutually agreed-upon guidance, either a heading or a surveyed route; there is precious little free-form wandering like we enjoy in VFR flight. If you ever do not know exactly where you are and exactly what comes next, figure it out immediately (and don’t be afraid to ask). If you are ever in doubt about a clearance, resolve this with ATC ASAP. Command authority is critical to safety; an IFR pilot must be totally aware and in charge of every flight, not along for the ride. (Maybe “the meek shall inherit the earth” but they make terrible instrument pilots…)

Second, in IFR flying, precision is essential for safety. All the surveyed routes are based on exact courses and clearances, so if you are not exactly on altitude or needle centered, you should be working to remedy this immediately; flying the plane precisely is always job #1. (and as you get better at this, smoothness is valuable too)

Third, maintain the larger picture of where you are at every moment in that larger game plan. Situational Awareness is critical to safety. This means not only where you are in the original plan, but also what the weather is doing, what has ATC assigned and is expecting as well as how our resources are holding out; fuel, data, pilot energy. Monitoring these trends and noting changes is critical to safety. This awareness allows flexibility and resourcefulness rather than slavish conformity to an original plan which might be outdated. Also, “energy management” in IFR is often your own personal endurance and resilience.

Fourth, always enforce a margin of excess capacity/capability when you are in flight. If you are just barely managing the workload or depending entirely on automation where you could not personally hand fly the profile, you are over your head. This means you either need more training to bring up your skills, or you need a less challenging mission (you bit off too much). When you are functioning at full capacity, with no reserve for metacognition (where I am in the big picture and what is next?), you are a “mouse in a maze,” and bad things are probably next- yellow light (master caution) on! It is time to modify the plan and slow down, divert, or land.  Some time on the ground brings a fresh perspective and needed resources: refresh and reboot.

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Fifth, the real rule of alternates is the “essential Rs;” radar, restrooms, restaurants and rental cars. Pick several large and attractive alternates along your route that have big services and good equipment to make your diversion a sure bet and attractive option. Pushing too long and far or continuing into unsafe weather defeats the #1 rule of all flying; stay alive and have fun! It is essential to always maintain this bigger picture of why we fly (we are not at war after all). At every sad accident site I have visited, we were picking up the pieces on a sunny day wondering, “what were they thinking?” Fly safely (and often!)


Join us at our SAFE dinner at Oshkosh (we have a great big room this year!) Admission is only $20 for food, drinks, dessert (and fun)! Come network at the at the Oshkosh terminal, Thursday 6-8 during Airventure. Maybe enough room for some drones in the “Atrium?”


Read the SAFE eNews (and subscribe!) This issue covers the DPE-ARAC and CFI resources from the FAA CFI/DPE Forum in Washington, DC.

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

One thought on “Essential Rules for IFR Safety!”

  1. I love the essential Rs!!

    So much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.

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