Teaching IFR (and better VFR): “Change/Check!”

As CFIs (and DPEs) we get to see a lot of “imprecise” flying. Some of this is new learners gaining skills, but unfortunately, it often also occurs with experienced pilots who never discovered the secret of precise control. The magic comes from where you are looking when you are moving the yoke (or stick). Proper visual reference must be taught in the very first flight lessons to defeat the negative transfer of “driving” (we all do this more than flying). This important instruction is often missed in early instruction with the “this is so easy” sales pitch (Cessna “drive in the sky” ads). Once a pilot discovers this control secret, the results are dramatic and immediate; it is the magic key to precise control.

It is absolutely critical to have your eyes on the proper attitude reference (continuously) when you pitch or roll an aircraft (either VFR or IFR). New pilots are not used to turning with their feet and people do not sense yaw well. VFR control input requires your eyes to be outside and directly over the nose (until you stop moving the stick). Only when the control input is complete should you “check” your desired quantitative reference (scan).

The same strategy is essential for accurate IFR flying, though the control inputs are more subtle. Proper IFR control requires fixation on the attitude reference whenever the yoke is moving – yes stare, not scan! Only when the control input is complete should the pilot “check” the quantitative or trend instruments. The last step is optimizing and trimming off the pressure – and again this requires eyes on attitude. For VFR, 80% of your time must be outside for accurate control. Similarly, for IFR 80% of “scan time” should be fixated on the attitude reference. These skills are not as different as most pilots believe.

So why is this critical, and what makes this so hard?

Unfortunately, incomplete instruction is the root cause of these problems. Instrument instructors tell new students to “scan,” but never explain how to do this successfully (I just completed a few CFI-I add-on ratings). Secondarily though, humans are predisposed to watch what is moving, so we naturally refer to inappropriate references unless we discipline our scan. A third problem is an urge for immediate perfection, but perfect altitude with lousy heading is not a winning strategy. So first we must get all the darts on the dartboard, and only then move them closer to the center.

One very compelling IFR demonstration involves covering everything except the attitude indicator while your pilot flies a full five minutes. Issue  “no-gyro turns” right and left (and please do this imitating ATC precisely to build your learner’s radio aptitude). When uncovering everything, your learner will be within +/- 20 feet of the starting altitude without ever having a VSI or altimeter reference! Instrument instructors must use this to “prove” this point to the learner and gain “buy in;” it is magic! And ironically, as soon as a new IFR student has all the instruments back, they actually fly less accurately. This is very non-intuitive, but when someone simply instructs you to “scan” your eyes are everywhere except where they should be for precise control. A good CFI-I must discipline the proper scan right from the beginning (just like a new VFR student). For both environments, “change” (stabilize) then “check” (and optimize) is the magic key. Using a glass panel, a couple of post-it notes on the A/S and Alt provide the same scan discipline.

Have you seen how a (historic) Air Force T-38 panel is arranged? The size is in order of priority. The A/I is centered and HUGE! This is necessary to precise flying in all attitudes (even upside down). You had better be flying attitude (with proper trim). The new glass cockpits have a huge attitude reference also, but many pilots fixate on very small (quantitative) indications and miss the bigger (attitude) picture when applying control pressure.

The correct mantra for the CFI-I (and the pilot who wishes to be accurate) is “change” (with eyes on the attitude reference), then “stabilize” (stop moving the yoke) and only then “check” to the most relevant information source to see if the result is working. That final step “optimizing” is the fine-tuning that yields precision.

In VFR flying, you will notice pilots looking over the wing as they roll into a turn This is a natural transfer from driving, and needs to be corrected immediately.  Watching the wing is the primary  cause of poor rudder coordination. With that reference, a pilot never sees the adverse yaw occurring (though the CFI/DPE does continuously). By contrast, is looking directly over the nose while rolling (in any aircraft) they will immediately discern the correct amount of rudder required to coordinate the turn. (Yes, clearing is essential but watch the nose for the roll). Improvement in coordination is immediate, but it takes quite a while to establish this visual habit. Be  your learner has thvery careful also to keep your back against the seat while rolling. Many pilots lean left and right while turning- their body is correcting (inappropriately) for yaw that they sense.

When rolling out of the turn, it is again necessary to direct the visual reference over the nose (or on the attitude indicator for IFR). You will be amazed at how dramatically your flying improves (immediately)! Embedding this new habit takes time (everyone drives). And experienced pilots with the same problem take even longer to build the habit; but the new precision makes it worth the effort. You really will become a smoother, more efficient pilot almost immediately (your back seat passengers will love you). Fly safely out there (and often)!

Enjoy the new courses available to members in the new safe website. And please download and use the (free) SAFE Toolkit App. This contains all the references a working CFI needs plus provides continuously new safety content.

SAFE developed an insurance program just for CFIs! When you are an independent CFI, you are a business (and have legal exposure). This program is the most reasonable but also comprehensive insurance plan you can have (and every agent is a pilot!)

Author: David St. George

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

13 thoughts on “Teaching IFR (and better VFR): “Change/Check!””

  1. Years ago (I remember it well) somebody high up in the FAA decided that there were too many Private Pilots flying into IFR conditions and then ending up in a death spiral as they attempted to return to VFR conditions.
    So almost instantly we as flight instructors were introduced to the much vaunted ” integrated instrument program” where we were “encouraged” to teach visually AND by reference to instruments AT THE SAME TIME.
    It was at this exact time that the basic flying skill set started to suffer and I mean suffer badly. Students were being taught to look outside AND cross check the quality of what they were doing with the airplane by instrument reference.
    I never liked this from the beginning. VFR is VFR and IFR is IFR. The result for me anyway was to separate the two and handle each in their own right. Nowhere was the fallacy of the integrated system more prevalent than with turn. Instead of watching the nose, pilots were becoming fixated on the ball to check adverse yaw, complementary yaw, and the AH for turn quality.
    Once I had shown a student the ball and what it does, I immediately got the student’s eyeballs out of the cockpit and on to the nose of the aircraft. The nose of an airplane is the best “ball” a pilot will ever have when it comes down to building a basic visual flying skill set.
    The problem exists today. Many pilots come out of the system believing that you’re not a “real pilot” until you have an instrument rating so there is a high emphasis placed in this area of the learning curve.
    Not to say that instrument training isn’t important because it is……..but NOT at the expense of the basic flying skill set. That skill set MUST be ingrained into a student from the very beginning. The result of NOT doing this can easily result in a pilot who spends an entire career “flying” an airplane with the buttons under the glare shield.

    1. Hi Dudley, I hated the intro of “integrated control method” also until I finally discovered a way to make it less painful (not sure if this is what the FAA intended…but it works). “Change” with outside (VFR) reference (as above in blog), then a quick glance at ALT (only after yoke stops moving..as in blog) to verify visual input. Never control by AI in VFR conditions though. Using this technique, it is a “short walk” to teach the “IFR scan” of “change and check” with the Attitude Indicator in IMC.

      The latest “dragon to slay” is the ancient VFR into IMC “immediate 180” that usually ends in CFIT…

      1. Hi David; This is almost identical to the method I used. It worked quite well.
        I would initially take the student outside the pit until their airwork was good to get them used to flying this way, THEN when their basic flying was good relying on outside references I would get them cross checking quality with instrument peripheral glances.
        I found this method to be extremely efficient at ingraining into their basic skill set what was needed to BOTH feel and verify what was needed.
        What I stressed during that period was the need to establish a firm foundation of visual reference flying before getting their heads back in the pit. The reason for this was that if this wasn’t done initially students had an almost overwhelming tendency to revert unconsciously to over concentration on the panel for quality of maneuver feedback rather than going outside. Teaching BOTH visual and instrument verification at the same time as the FAA was pushing it before visual cueing was ingrained into the student’s general flying almost always resulted in over concentration on the panel.
        Other than this I think our methods were almost the same.

  2. Great points David; reminds me of many conversations we had when I was on the board of SAFE. I am wondering why I received such forceful pushback from the board when I suggested we incorporate these concepts and techniques into a sort of “code” for SAFE members, a way to gift instructors (and their students) with the “secrets” of success. In any case, I applaud your efforts in this well written article and hope you are able to convert more than a few CFI’s to this paradigm of aircraft control. Sadly, I found that the law of primacy is so strong, that when I had the opportunity to address groups of CFIs, attempting to give them this “gift”, a better and as you so rightly point out instantly effective concept and technique, most couldn’t make the leap. The thorny truth of aviation education is that one can learn, as you point out, wrong control references and still accumulate enough skill to pass check rides. Unfortunately the deficits thus accrued limit ability to adapt when moving up the food chain, and of course are passed along to their students if they become instructors. Unfortunately the effects of FAA emphasis on scenario based (FITS) training and the diluting effect on precise control reference that devoting 1/3rd of ACS content to the subjectivity slippery topic of risk management, has exacerbated the problematic trend you have identified. I am reminded again, when during the NTSB loss of control safety stand down (a few years back), Mr Sumwalt asked Patty W, what new things she thought would improve loss of control. She replied that nothing “new” was required; the 1949 civil pilot training manual included everything we need to make better pilots, I.e, basic and more than basic aerobatics designed to “give the pilot the opportunity to improve his skills throughout the flight envelope”.
    As we hurtle toward fully automated pilot-less aircraft, I think the FAA will continue to champion automation, risk management, scenarios, and other ancillary topics, while continuing to wonder why pilots tend to be less and less skilled at actually flying the darn airplane. And, may I say, that as long as DPEs continue to pass applicants who are controlling the airplane to tolerance while looking in the wrong place, this trend will continue.
    Thanks again for this truly great nugget of knowledge. Any pilot, student, or CFI who wants to instantly flip the switch to easy and dramatic improvement, can pick this up and quickly learn the truth (of correct aircraft control).

    1. Thanks Charlie, I think we always agreed on the method and control objective but differed on how to “sell that wisdom!” A blog (might) work better than a 250 page tome on the subject (though that needs to still be tested)🤣. We need savvy (SAFE) CFIs spreading this method so it can be fully understood then implemented.

    2. Hi Charles;
      Patty and I have been close friends for many years. I HIGHLY recommend her courses to all pilots from student to ATP. She has always stressed the basics as the meat of her courses from basic to advanced acro and of course her upset training.
      Many of the pilots I talk to somehow have the impression, perhaps because of Patty’s stature in our community, that her training is maximized for the highly advanced pilot. NOTHING could be further from the truth. Patty’s favorite phrase when she instructs is “More Right Rudder” which personifies in a few choice words one of the most basic of the basics she stresses to all her students.
      Just think about this single simple phrase for a moment and the times while in flight where right rudder is neglected and it becomes immediately apparent that once understood and implemented so as to become an integrated part of a pilot’s basic skill set, that pilot has instantly become a much BETTER pilot.
      This is really what Patty and her team do for our community. They fill in the gaps that are missing and in doing so make our pilot community better and safer.
      Just imagine how much better our instructor base would be after going through this caliber of remedial education.
      Dudley Henriques

  3. Without a doubt, proper control starts with the correct reference point in the airplane and on the horizon. I would regularly put a small piece of a post-it note on the reference point on the edge of the glareshield (or hold a finger there) and we would make all bank and pitch movements with reference to that point relative to the horizon. And plenty of times (as necessary) I would cover the instrument panel with my sectional to make sure there was no cheating.

    Quite a few times flying even with other CFI’s and fellow part-135 pilots when we were doing annual check flights, I was dumbfounded at how many had never heard of using the reference point on the glareshield that is shown in Fig. 3-8 in the Airplane Flying Handbook. One fellow check-airman had difficulties with steeps in the Navajo because of that. But the worst case was a CFI applicant who used the COMPASS as the internal reference point, something nowhere close to the proper line of vision straight out over the cowling. He got lucky on the steep to the right, but to the left gained 350ft.

  4. David, thanks for the article. Very good. I actually teach this method in my VFR and IFR students (especially CFIs!) and have been working on an article of my own and turning it into a video lesson series on aircraft control.

    I like your terminology better: “change, check.” I have been using “control, performance” terms but with your same definitions. “Control” with the attitude and “check performance” with the other instruments. I’ve found it gives some correlation between the control/performance instruments we teach in IFR training. However, I like your terminology. I’m going to start using that.

    Thanks, friend!


  5. “Dudley Henriques says:
    February 6, 2023 at 1:05 am
    Hi David; This is almost identical to the method I used.”

    Yes – I don’t see how the visual and instrument references can be separated so I feel the integrated control method is the best method while also emphasizing the mantra of attitude plus power equals performance. I want every student to be equally skilled with each method. But as you say a misunderstanding of instrument scanning can lead to too much time with the eyes inside the cockpit so the CFI has to be sure that that doesn’t happen – I did that simply by blocking the view of the instrument panel as needed – i.e. after a quick glance to check altitude, the eyes should immediately go back outside. And if an attitude correction is needed, it should be done with the outside reference first as long as conditions allow. Too much time on the instruments prevents good development of the outside visual skills AND results in inadequate scan for traffic.

    The ‘VFR into IMC immediate 180’ guideline has unfortunately lead to a number of incidents. I think it is closely related to the base-to-final and other similar scenarios where the pilot over-reacts on the controls (the Cirrus LOC at Melbourne FL – Air France 447). I once got into the classic vfr into imc on a training flight getting lower and lower until finally we inadvertently punched into cloud. We were still safely above obstacles but not willing to go lower. We immediately did a 180 and were out in the clear in about a minute. That’s the critical piece – one minute, which meant we simply executed a standard rate turn. ‘Immediate’ in this case does not mean high performance maneuvering near the airplane’s limits. In the LOC incidents, the airplane is most likely rolled into a steep bank with excessive back pressure with no attitude references (here’s where the integrated method is invaluable). That’s not what was intended by ‘immediate’ and what CFI’s have to be sure to explain. In this emergency, it means without wasting time, look at the instruments, carefully establish a standard rate turn (15-17° bank), time for one minute or the reciprocal heading, smoothly roll out.

    1. Hi Warren;
      As always, intelligent comparison when discussing CFI pedagogy can produce useful results.
      My approach to the base turn issue and the LOC issue into IMC was to treat each differently.
      First the LOC into IMC condition;
      Back in the day (as they like to say) many of the textbooks we had to use showed a graphic for the pattern as a rectangle leaving it to the imagination as when exactly to establish your final descent rate. This unfortunately led to many instructors teaching the base to final turn as a LOADED turn, THEN establishing a descent rate that defined the final approach to the landing.
      What I did was take that loaded base to final turn out of the approach equation. I taught my students to plan to be a bit high at the key position then from there to make an UNLOADED turn onto final. This eliminated much of the vaunted issues associated with the “base to final turn” as naturally the solution that solved that issue when encountered was to simply establish positive control by getting rid of the excessive inside rudder and unload the wing.
      The LOC into IMC I treated as a different situation entirely as what happens there is a combination first is a lack of back pressure issue causing the nose to go down THEN IMPROPERLY APPLIED back pressure before getting rid of the bank which of course had the result of tightening the spiral.With power applied this would of course result on into predictable results.
      Naturally the solution there was then (and always will be) to solve the bank issue BEFORE solving the pitch issue along with power control.
      So as we can see here, it is entirely possible for different instructors to use different technique in teaching as long as the end result is totally understood and set as the goal.
      Dudley Henriques

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