Instrument Flying

Flying on instruments has nothing to do with the makeshift use of musical equipment as aerial transportation. That is something else entirely.

IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules, bascially means that instead of flying the plane by eye, we fly by the readings from our instrument panel. The first thing that strikes most people when I tell them this is that I’m not doing it already. No, the plane does not have GPS. No, it doesn’t have Radar. Yes, I look out the window to see where I am. So the concept of IFR is not incomprehensible in the world of the modern airliner. The main advantage of IFR over Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, is that we can fly in much more limited visibility.

To fly IFR in planned circumstances requires an Instrument Rating on your pilot licence, which is basically a proper course in the techniques. The PPL does however touch on Instrument flight, so that should the need for it arise we at least know a thing or two. Training involves donning a pair of swish goggles, akin to those ones you got in high school chemistry to avoid blowing your eyeballs off. The upper part of them is clouded out to reduce your view to the instrument panel alone. Then, you fly the plane blindfolded. Okay, so maybe not quite, as your instructor is on lookout at all times. Nevertheless, actual flying is an important part of the training.

The primary reason for this (beyond accurate feedback of control) is the disorientation experienced when deprived of visual stimulus. If you close your eyes and let your pilot make a series of turns and moves, then attempt to guage the current angle of the aircraft (what we call its attitude), you’d be lucky to guess even remotely right. The brain’s sense of balance and which way is up becomes totally skewed by G forces and momentum, leading you to think you are flying straight and level when you are in fact in a diving turn. This is why you always trust the instruments! They are right! And you are not!

Luke! Use your instincts! No… wait, ignore your instincts, use the instruments!

Checking them becomes an important routine in patterns; to fly straight and level you must move your eyes as follows: airspeed, attitude, direction, attitude, altitude, attitude. Quick glances to assimilate the information, then on to the next dial. Notice in that pattern, the attitude is checked each time. In just about all IFR manoeuvres, the Attitude Indicator is your new viewport. It tells you what sort of direction you’re pointing. And that is something you need to keep a very close eye on at all times.

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