Letter to Pilot

Occasionally I get a note from another pilot asking about my flying, my training, the plane, or the airport. Usually the advice is too specific for general readers, but my reply to this one was long enough that it was worth posting on the site.

Pilot, who wrote, owns his own little Piper airplane and received his private pilot certificate about a year after I did. He wants to start instrument training, but hasn’t yet found an instructor. He wrote:

In talking to our mutual friend today, he feels one needs about four hours per week to maintain proficiency after getting the IFR certificate. Seems like a lot to me. I know there is proficiency and then there is really, really on top of the subject. Any thoughts?

Regards, Pilot

I replied:


Yesterday evening I flew the ILS onto runway 7 up at Santa Barbara. The clouds were from 1,100ft down to 200ft over the runway. Not a long time to be in the clouds, but not a long time to find the runway, either. I set it right down.

This morning I had to move the plane from VNY back to SMO, because last night for the return from SBA the ceiling at SMO was only a hundred feet so we didn’t make it in. The ceiling at SMO was five hundred to six hundred feet, which are closing in on the bare minimums for the approach. As I entered the clouds at seventeen hundred feet the fog bank tossed the plane around a little. I took it off the autopilot because I can fly smoother in turbulence than the autopilot can, but that meant I was more task loaded and as I glanced down to confirm the minimums (680′), the plane dropped the left wing a little and I picked up nearly twenty degrees on the heading. It was a small correction to get back, but if my attention had drifted a little longer, I would have been lost in the clouds pretty quickly.

If you get lost on the approach you “go missed,” but that requires knowing where you are to begin with. (You have to fly over the airport, which means you have to know where the airport is.)

I fly all the time. All the time. I try really hard to challenge myself, to go up and shoot an approach to VNY and back if there’s any IMC at all. I fly twice a week at a minimum and if I haven’t been flying, I do a little pattern work and stay off the autopilot.

You can’t get a plane more advanced than the DiamondStar and it’s all working to help me in that very situation in the clouds. It’s gravy when I am VFR, it’s in the soup that all that stuff is critical and it builds a picture of the situation so that I can remain aware.

People talk a lot about “personal minimums.” There are guys I’ve talked to about IFR that say that they won’t shoot an approach to minimums. If the ceiling isn’t a thousand feet at SMO they will go land at VNY and take a taxi. They won’t fly IFR at night or do IMC over mountainous terrain. They don’t plan flights where they are going to be in IMC for more than the departure and arrival. They just don’t have the skills to remain comfortable.

So that’s one way to do it.

I subscribe to the NTSB reporter, the Aviation Safety, IFR Refresher and the IFR newsletter. I participate regularly on the AOPA Cloudbusters forum and talk IFR online with the other Diamond pilots. To remain safe I continue learning all the time. And it is hard work. Because I read the accident reports all the time I know that the alternative is drilling the plane into the ground. It happens in less than a minute. When you go down into the clouds in the day time the light in the cockpit strobes, your senses tell you something different is happening and if you don’t focus intently on the instruments you will stall the plane and spin into the ground. Experience piloting the plane in VFR won’t help you. A guy up in the Bay area just drilled his Cirrus into a mountainside even though he had a glass cockpit, an autopilot and six hundred of time in the plane with an instructor. He was just in the clouds for a moment.

Last night departing SBA in the dark and the fog, there was no reference as we climbed above the fog bank, so I stayed on instruments. It would have been really easy to lose concentration, pull back on the stick, stall it and spin into the ocean. Experience, recent experience, means that you have the confidence to handle the situation and the skills to manage it without undue risk. I would not have made the flight if I had not been flying as much as I have been flying recently. I would have spent the night in a hotel in Santa Barbara and flown back in the morning.

I don’t pretend to be really, really on top of the subject. I can no longer tell you the four formations of clouds or the standard lapse rate for unstable air. I don’t know the legal requirements for filing an alternate airport, but I don’t care because I always file an alternate airport. For flight planning I usually have three alternates examined.

I do what I do in order to stay safe. People get their IFR all the time and instantly lose their currency and stop flying IFR. I guess it makes them safer VFR pilots, but that next time they decide to shoot an approach it seems like they should be with a CFII to make sure they are still sharp.

The government currency is so low that I think it would kill most pilots.

Proficiency is decided by the pilot, so whatever you need to feel comfortable.

To me, it reminds me of a friend asking another friend who was a dentist, “I know the ADA recommends two minutes of brushing to kill plaque, but does it have to be a full two minutes?” The dentist said, Well, to kill the plaque, yes. The guy wanted a short cut.

The shortcuts in IFR lead directly to a smoking hole in the ground.

Blue skies,


About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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