Instrument flight

As a private (VFR) pilot, you are limited to flying in visual conditions. You need to be able to see where you are going, avoid other traffic, and maintain your attitude by outside visual reference. However, you are required to get training and demonstrate proficiency in basic instrument flight. This is not intended to make you an instrument-rated pilot, but rather to potentially be a life-saving skill should you unintentionally stray into a cloud.

Most likely, your instrument training will be done in simulated conditions. This means you wear some sort of “view limiting device” (hood, foggles, etc.) that is designed to focus your attention on the instruments and not allow you to see outside of the airplane.

To start, we’ll make sure you can fly the plane straight and level by reference to the attitude indicator. Once you can do that, we’ll do some gentle turns (approximately 15 degree bank) and then climbs and descents by adjusting power and pitch.

Instrument Scan

Once you can reliably control the plane by reference to the attitude indicator (AI), it is time to start adding back in other instruments. Your goal is to develop your “instrument scan”. In an instrument scan, you are checking each instrument [attitude indicator (AI), altimeter, airspeed indicator (ASI), vertical speed indicator (VSI), directional gyro (DG), turn coordinator, (TC), tachometer] and making adjustments as necessary. The two most common patterns for scanning are known as the “racetrack” and the “star”. In the racetrack, you look at the major instruments in a circular pattern. In the star, you look at the AI and then one of the other instruments, then the AI, then another of the instruments in a pattern like a star.

When you scan, you are trying to determine if there is a need to change. You might notice that you have climbed 50 feet. That means you need to make a correction to the pitch. While looking at the AI, you lower the nose by half a bar width and then continue your scan, until you determine that another change is necessary to level off at the desired altitude (don’t forget to lead a little).

Typical problems

Fixation is the most common problem. In a typical scenario, you notice that you’ve deviated 200 feet from the assigned altitude. A natural response is fixate on the altimeter, while you make adjustments, hoping to get back on the desired altitude. Unfortunately, if you don’t continue a proper scan, you’ll nail the altitude, only to find that heading is off by 30 degrees.

The second most common problem is lack of interpretation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of moving your eyes, but not really taking in what the instruments are telling you and making adjustments. When you look at each instrument, you must interpret the information to determine if a change is needed and then proceed to make the necessary change.

Once you have started to learn instrument flight, it is important that you not apply that skill in the wrong situtation. When flying visually, you still need to spend most of your time looking outside of the airplane to look for traffic, and determine the proper attitude of the airplane.

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