Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Power of MS Flight Simulator

If you’ve been in flight training for any significant amount of time, and haven’t ever been much of a user of Microsoft Flight Simulator, now is the time to make that change. Even if you don’t have a computer that can take advantage of all of the fancy graphics and visual effects, you can still use this as a valuable tool while learning to fly.

It is “unreal,” how realistic this “game” has become. The truth is, it’s not a game if you make it into something more. This program has advanced into an almost lifelike and very realistic simulation. I mean check out this YouTube video to get an idea how cool this program is.

Pretty awesome, huh? I have owned MSFS 5, 98, 2000, 2002, and 2004 versions. I haven’t branched out and bought FSX yet, mostly because 2004 is so realistic that it still serves all of my purposes. The power, really comes in when using it to work on instrument training. You can set weather conditions to anything you want. I would never take my students out and takeoff in zero zero conditions, but hey, why not try it on FS?? You can really put your skills to the test. I like to set it to low ceilings and visibilities, but also throw in some nasty crosswinds or turbulence as well.

You can then file IFR on the flight planner, and get some really good practice with ATC procedures. Pull out your approach plates, and request practice approaches. Get vectors, or why not do the full approach? Request a hold, fly the published missed, take a cross country, or anything else you can conjure up in your mind.

The point is this. While physically you’re not sitting in an airplane, you are still practicing nearly the same procedures that you will in real life. And for you VFR only guys, there’s no reason why you can’t practice your slow flight, stalls, steep turns, or even take VFR cross countries. Branch out to other areas and fly at basically any airport in the world to break up the monotony and get used to procedures other than your home airport.

You can pick up FSX on eBay for less than $20. If you have a computer, make the investment. It's worth it. So long.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

IFR Workload Reduction

Becoming a solid instrument pilot is all about becoming a master at workload management. Picture this. You’re being vectored for an ILS approach, and you’re in the soup (instrument meteorological conditions, “IMC”). ATIS has reported ½ mile visibility with heavy rain, and you hear the controller speaking with other aircraft as they execute their missed approach procedures because the visibility was too poor to land. You can’t see a thing outside your windows except the color of dark grayish rain filled clouds, which are soaking the windows quite nicely. You’re getting knocked around pretty bad in the clouds, and you look out the window and see a thin layer of ice forming on the wing strut.

Sounds like a good time doesn’t it? I guess that all depends on what you consider a “good time,” but let me ask you this. What’s the first thing you should be concentrating on at this point? Let me answer: FLYING THE AIRPLANE. What’s the last thing?? How about fumbling around with approach plates, twisting dials, trying to identify a localizer, trying to brief the approach just before crossing the final approach fix? I’d rather focus 100% of my time making sure I was flying the best approach I could, so I had a good chance of getting the bird on the ground safely.

You absolutely must have every single task completed that you can possibly complete as early as possible when flying IFR, so that when the time comes that the weather turns sour and the stress level starts to rise, you’re prepared mentally to handle it.

What does this mean? For starters, pick up ATIS for your destination airport ASAP. Before takeoff, I put the destination ATIS/ASOS in the COM2 radio so I can listen in as soon as possible. This can literally mean on short IFR hops that right after takeoff I’ve already got the destination ATIS/ASOS while we’re still in the climb. That way, I know what approach to expect, and I can begin studying the approach plate shortly after.

I like to scan the approach plate for my frequencies and the final approach course so I can get that all punched in. After the initial scan and frequencies are set, I conduct a thorough brief of the whole approach, and commit some items to memory. This includes minutes, minimums, and missed. This includes minutes from the FAF to the MAP, DH or MDA, and the missed approach procedure.

For the approach plate itself, make sure you have a technique to hold the approach plate, so it is not a distraction. This can be on your kneeboard, a clipboard on the yoke, etc. Just holding the approach procedure booklet in your lap usually won’t do.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you on your way to reducing your workload as approach time rolls around. The approach is usually the most stressful of the entire flight. Help reduce it, by following this advice. I’d love to hear your comments or suggestions. Feel free to post comments. So long.

IFR Radio Communications, A Whole New Ballgame: Part 3

Well you’ve managed to catch your clearance on the ground to your destination airport or some other clearance limit. Up until this point, you’ve most likely spoken with the ground/clearance delivery, tower, and departure controllers working the airspace at your departure airport.
Now let’s look at how to handle the approach and landing communications while on an IFR flight plan.


As you proceed closer to your destination airport, you will eventually be handed off to the facility which serves your destination airport. On your initial callup, be sure to tell them you have the current weather, and tell them which approach you’ll be expecting to conduct. Here is an example callup.

Hulman Approach, Cessna 536HF, level 5,000, with Delta, looking for the back course 23 approach.

You will either be on radar vectors or be conducting the full approach, depending on where you are or what you’ve requested. Be sure to adjust your avionics accordingly to have them set up for the approach as soon as possible.

ATC may also require you to report certain positions during your approach (especially during practice approaches). This could either be the IAF, procedure turn outbound or inbound, FAF inbound, etc.

While approaching a controlled airport, ATC will simply hand you off to tower, usually somewhere around FAF inbound. When approaching an uncontrolled field, you’ll be instructed to change to advisory frequency.

Eventually you will be given your approach clearance which allows you to conduct the procedure published on your approach plate. This will usually consist of a turn to a certain heading, and an altitude to descend and maintain until you are established on a segment of the approach. They will then clear you for the approach. Be sure to read back the heading, altitude, and the approach you are cleared for. An example clearance could sound like this.

Cessna 536HF, turn right heading 330, descend and maintain 2,200 until established on the final approach course, cleared for the NDB Runway 36 approach at Sullivan County, change to advisory frequency is approved, cancel IFR on the ground via this frequency or Flight Service.

Your readback should sound like this.

330, 2,200 until established, cleared for the NDB 36, change to advisory, and we’ll cancel on the ground, 6HF.

This gives them everything they need to know. You would then conduct the procedure on your approach plate, and call up advisory frequency and announce your location and intentions just as you would on a VFR flight.

If you are at a controlled airport, they’ll instruct you to contact tower sometime after clearing you for the approach. If you’re doing the ILS 5 at KHUF, your initial call could sound like this.
Hulman Tower, Cessna 536HF ILS 5.

Tower would then eventually clear you to land or give you missed approach instructions if you are doing practice approaches. Repeat back your instructions.


After being cleared to land or given missed approach instructions, you will continue the approach and either land, or go missed if the weather is bad enough. Practice approaches will always terminate with a missed approach unless it is your last one.

Always report going missed to tower if at a controlled airport. Tower will then tell you to contact departure. If going missed at an uncontrolled field, announce this via CTAF, and contact departure (the last controller you spoke with) as soon as possible (before entering controlled airspace again).

If you are able to land, you need to make sure your IFR flight plan gets cancelled. At controlled fields, tower will close the plan for you. At uncontrolled fields, you need to make sure it gets cancelled yourself. You may cancel IFR when you are on the ground or in VFR conditions. Cancel using the frequency ATC told you to use, or call Flight Service to cancel.


There it is. That should hopefully get you on your way to sounding like a seasoned professional. Take pride in your radio communications. As time goes on, you'll get more and more satisfaction and confidence from working with those guys on the ground. They are what make the system work like it does. As we say on the radio, So Long.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

IFR Radio Communications, A Whole New Ballgame: Part 2

If you’ve read my last post about IFR radio procedures, you should have a bit of a better understanding of ground communications before departure. Now let’s take a look at right after takeoff, and the enroute phase of your flight.

After Departure

At some point after becoming airborne, ATC will instruct you to contact departure. The whole idea when being handed off from one controller to another is to inform them of the instructions you were assigned by the last controller. This gets you both on the same page as to what you are doing and what you are expecting as your flight progresses.

You will then switch to the departure control frequency assigned in your initial clearance, and tell the departure controller you are flying the instructed heading and altitude. When IFR your initial callup should sound like this.

Hulman Departure, Cessna 536HF if climbing through 1,500 for 4,000, heading 180.

When conducting practice approaches VFR, you were most likely not assigned an altitude, so you can say this.

Hulman Departure, Cessna 536HF climbing through 1,500, VFR, heading 180, looking for vectors for the ILS 5.

If you are on VFR flight following on a cross country to Champaign, you could say this.
Hulman Departure, Cessna 536HF is VFR to Champaign.

The idea is to just communicate and let them know you are complying with the instructions given to you by the ground and tower controller.


Enroute communications is pretty straight forward. Usually you will just be handed off from controller to controller as you pass through the different terminal areas or ARTCC sectors. The procedures are similar to the departure controller. If you are still in a climb or descent, while being handed off to another controller, be sure to state this in your first transmission. If you are at your assigned cruise altitude, perhaps 5,000, say you are “level at 5,000.”

Before you reach the ATC facility which serves your destination airport, you need to listen to the weather at your destination airport. This will either be ATIS or ASOS, and the frequency is listed on any approach plate for the destination airport. It is a good idea to copy this information down on your kneeboard, and if the airport has an ATIS, take special note of the current approach in use, so you can begin to set up your avionics and brief the approach. Commit as much of that approach to memory as possible in the enroute phase while the workload is still low. The more time you have to study the approach before you conduct it, the better approach you will fly.

The next post will pick up with the approach phase and finish up after the landing. So long.

Monday, October 27, 2008

IFR Radio Communications, A Whole New Ballgame: Part 1

It seems like one of the biggest problems my instrument students have is learning how to communicate with ATC in the IFR environment. After all, learning to talk on the radios in certain phases of a flight can be a little intimidating to a private pilot, who is just starting to work on their instrument rating. (I know it is because I remember how tricky it was for me.)

I'll start by saying that the biggest way to become smooth on the radios is practice, practice, practice. But beyond the act of doing it yourself, you can gain a tremendous amount of help with your "lingo" by listening to the pros. Check out and navigate to any Class B airport's Clearance Delivery or Approach/Departure section. You can hear clearance after clearance and readback after readback until you can't stand it any longer. This will get the pilot's language burned into your brain.

I've also decided to post a guide that I typed up for my students that should ease the learning curve when getting started on your way to that instrument rating. Let's start with discussing ground communications, and I'll post the remaining phases of flight in the next couple of posts.

Before Departure

If flying on an IFR flight plan, the first thing you’ll need to do is pick up your IFR clearance. Listen to ATIS, and call up ground (or clearance delivery if the airport has one) and tell them you’re ready to copy your clearance. An example call up would sound like this.

Hulman Ground, Cessna 536HF is at the Air Center ramp with Alpha, ready to copy IFR to Evansville.

Your clearance will contain certain elements using the CRAFT acronym.

C – Clearance limit. This is the furthest point which ATC will clear you. Most of the time it is your destination airport, but if delays are expected, it will be a fix where you’ll be expected to hold.
R – Route. This is the route in which you’re supposed to fly to your clearance limit. Many times they’ll say as filed, but sometimes they will give you instructions such as radar vectors to an airway, or a certain published departure procedure.
A – Altitude. Usually ATC will clear you to an intermediate altitude, and tell you to expect your requested cruising altitude (from your flight plan) in 10 minutes.
F – Frequency. This is the departure frequency.
T – Transponder. Your squawk code.

Here is an example of a clearance.

Cessna 536HF is cleared to Evansville as filed, climb and maintain 4,000, expect 6,000 10 minutes after departure, departure frequency is 125.45, squawk 4523.

Copy the clearance on your kneeboard using some form of shorthand, and then repeat the clearance back to the controller. If you repeat it correctly, they’ll say “readback correct”, and give you taxi instructions.

If you are at an uncontrolled airport, you should contact the clearance delivery frequency on your charts, or you may even have to pick up your clearance on your cell phone, if you cannot reach ATC from the plane. They’ll give you a release time, which means your clearance is released into the system and you are allowed to takeoff. They may also give you a clearance void time, in which your clearance will be void if you do not takeoff and contact ATC before that time. A clearance from an uncontrolled airport will sound something like this.

Cessna 536HF is cleared to the Evansville as filed, climb and maintain 4,000, expect 6,000 10 minutes after departure, contact departure on 125.45 before entering controlled airspace, squawk 4523, clearance void if not off by 1930Z, time now is 1910Z.

After reading back your clearance, you’ll then switch to CTAF and communicate with other aircraft in the vicinity of the airport announcing your intentions. After departing, you should then contact departure before entering controlled airspace (usually before climbing through 700 ft AGL, the floor of class E, consult the sectional chart to be sure).

For practices approaches, just call up ground like any other VFR callup and tell them you would like practices approaches, and give them your first approach request.

For VFR flight following, ATC needs your destination airport, and your cruising altitude. They will then give you a squawk code and a departure frequency.

For IFR departures when clearing you for takeoff, ATC will always give you a heading to fly after takeoff. Sometimes it is “runway heading.” In this case, fly the heading of the runway you just departed from. Do not compensate for wind drift to try to maintain runway centerline, just fly the heading you are instructed to fly. As usual, wait until you are 500 ft AGL, or beyond the departure end of the runway (whichever comes last) before turning to your assigned heading.

That should help you while on the ground. Check back for my next post on the other phases of flight. Before long we'll have you sounding like the big dogs ; )

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hello, and thanks for visiting!

Hello fellow aviators, and welcome to my blog! I've started this mostly as a hobby, that will hopefully allow me to meet and connect with other pilots that fill the skies, such as yourself. I also would like to help pilots improve their flying skills by sharing what I know.

I don't know it all my any means, but I do feel like I have gathered a decent amount of expertise in my years of flying that I believe would be valuable to pass along to others who may be working on that next certificate or rating. I look forward to hearing from you all, so feel free to post comments, or write me.

Happy flying!