November 2nd, 2014
Total Hours: 95.5
I’ve been meaning to write about my first experiences with instrument flying for some time. My cross-country flights and my exams took precedence when it came to my writing over the last few weeks though. But nothing much happened this week so I’ll finally get to it! First, a quick explanation of what instrument flying is since I’m sure many out there may not have a clear idea of what I’m talking about. Instrument flying is when a pilot flies by reference to the instruments in the aircraft instead of using outside, or visual, references. Why would we want to do that? Primarily when the meteorological conditions don’t allow visual flight references. Let me explain a little more.
There are two factors to consider when we talk about instrument flying. One is whether we actually have weather that requires instrument flying, known as instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and the other is if the flight will follow instrument flight rules (IFR). One might think that pilots would only fly under IFR if the weather demanded it but that is not the case. Instrument flight rules just means that the pilot makes a very specific flight plan, file that plan with air traffic control, and then follow the plan precisely while being monitored and directed the entire time by ATC. Air traffic control makes amendments and adjustments to the plan as necessary to help aircraft avoid weather, keep aircraft separated from each other, and maintain a reasonable flow of traffic around airports. Airlines use IFR for every flight regardless of the actual weather. The reasons are that the rules require filing IFR for flights above 18,000’ MSL and also that it is more efficient for the type of flying they do. Small aircraft and helicopters on the other hand tend to fly under visual flight rules or VFR. This basically means that they are responsible for staying away from low visibility situations and maintaining separation from other aircraft without help from ATC.
When so much helicopter work is done at low altitudes and is dependent on the pilot having good visibility you might wonder why we would need to get instrument training. Well, there are two major sectors in the helicopter industry that do use instrument flying, EMS and Gulf of Mexico oil support. In addition to these types of jobs learning to fly by reference to instruments makes a more rounded pilot. In fact many instructors have told me how much their VFR flying benefited from IFR training. It is along these lines that the commercial certificate requires five hours of instrument flying as a part of the aeronautical requirements. Essentially this is an introduction to instrument flying and helps raise awareness and increase safety for commercial pilots.
So, how do we get our instrument training? We can’t fly in actual IMC conditions because our training helicopters are not equipped or rated for this type of flying. So instead we practice two other ways. One is a simulator and the other is hood time. Hood time means using a sight-restricting device to block our view of everything but the instrument panel. For the commercial portion my instructor and I decided to do a few hours of instrument flying in the sim first so I could get a feel for it and then move into the helicopter. The key to instrument flying is a good scan. You have to keep your eyes moving among the instruments in order to catch and correct any small changes. And the sim is the perfect place to practice that scan before moving into an aircraft.
I’ve been looking forward to instrument flying for some time. Maybe I’ve been looking forward to it a little too much as I seem to have a pesky habit of looking at the instruments a bit often when flying VFR! Nonetheless, I had a feeling that I would enjoy actual instrument flying and this has definitely been the case. The simulator is pretty much what it sounds like, a simulation. It doesn’t compare to actual flying but as I said it is an excellent place to learn how to use the instruments and to learn the scan. The reason is that you can really focus your attention on how the instruments work without the fear of missing something important like flying the aircraft. In fact, home simulators like X-Plane or Microsoft’s Flight Simulator do a great job introducing the instruments. The problem with all simulators is that there is no feedback on the controls. When you push a control in a helicopter or airplane there is a certain amount of resistance. There is also a place that control wants to return to. Basically they have a specific feel. In the sim there is no feel and the movements are unpredictable. Thus it is often hard to know how much the machine will respond to the inputs you make.
Of course the real fun came in the helicopter. Wearing a pair of “foggles”, which are a modified set of safety glasses with the lenses mostly obscured, I flew around while my instructor played lookout. The workload is much higher during instrument flights because you are constantly working the instruments for navigation and also communicating with ATC. I can see that learning IFR procedures will be the hardest part of my actual instrument training. But during my two short hours of instrument flight time I was able to really focus on the flying and I enjoyed it very much. Now I’m looking forward to the rest of my instrument training, which will come around the beginning of next year. There will also be a lot more sim work…not quite as exciting but I’ll get it done. Thankfully there will also be plenty more flying in the helicopter as well. Being a bit of a gearhead I look forward to digging deeper into all the tools that make flying in IMC possible. All in due course!