As nice at it would be to believe that you can just read all the publications listed in the IFR PTS, the fact is that being an IFR pilot by-the-book limits your ability to be the best pilot you can be. You are definitely bound by the FAR’s, and the FAA publications lay a great ground work for which to build your knowledge on, but it is a pilot’s responsibility to go out and learn as many things as possible. A pilot’s license should be seen as a license to learn. And that means reading as many different books / blogs / magazines as possible, flying with as many different pilots (both instructors and non instructors) as possible, attend as many conferences and continuing education meetings as possible, and developing your own way of doing things that combines all these resources. Below are a few of my techniques I use on most flights, and in the order I use them.
Flight planning – Where do you get your weather from? I personally am a huge fan of ForeFlight. Not just that its easy to use, but it gets its weather information from NOAA. I love using the prog charts because I can see the fronts that cause bad weather, and see the isobars so that I can anticipate where the turbulence will be and how bad it will be. The closer the isobars, the worst the turbulence. If I see a large cold front, I can anticipate some bad weather, When I’m planning my route, I can overlay my weather, the AIRMETS, and PIREPS. Yes, there may be an AIRMET for turbulence, but is anyone reporting it? If not, maybe its not so bad. Is a 747 reporting moderate turbulence? If so, maybe I shouldn’t be flying in a 172. Does my route take me right through some bad looking stuff on NEXRAD, or can I go around it?
Filing a flight plan – Do you just file DIRECT to your destination? If so, what would happen if you’re in IMC and have a comms failure? How will you get onto an approach if you filed DIRECT? Because of this thought, I always file to an initial approach fix. I will look at the forecast to see what the winds will be doing at the time of my arrival (ForeFlight and even the weather channel app work great), and this will help me anticipate what approaches will be used when I arrive. This way, if I do have a comms failure, I’m filed to the IAP, and can just pop onto the approach and fly it on down.
Picking up your flight plan – I usually try to do my runup, and plug in my flight plan into the GPS, before I call clearance. This keeps everything running nice and smooth. The great thing about ForeFlight, or Fltplan.com, and I’m sure a bunch of other companies, is that you can get your approved flight plan even before you pick up a clearance. It is very rare now that I call clearance, and they don’t just say “Cleared as filed.” If I’m picking up clearance from a non towered airport, I absolutely make sure my runup is done, flight plan plugged in, and I know which runway I’m taxiing to. That way, when I read back my clearance, I can finish the read back with, “and N1234 is ready to depart now, runway X.” Otherwise, when you read back your clearance and don’t say that, ATC will ask, “how long until you are ready to depart.” And then you’ll answer, “now.” And then they’ll come back with, “what runway are you departing from?” and then you’ll answer, “runway X.” Finishing the read back with “I’m ready to depart on runway X,” keeps radio chatter to a minimum, and increases the likelihood that the controller can get you out faster.
Climb out – Remember, there are a bunch of other airplanes on the radio. So you want to keep your radio communications as concise as possible. Because of this, I refrain from using phrases such as “with you.” The controller knows you’re with them. Theres no need to say those words. Additionally, if you say “N1234 is climbing through 2,300 for 4,000,” keep in mind, the word “for” can also be heard as “four.” Because of this, I really try not to use the word “for.” So my hand off to departure is usually “N1234 2,300 climbing 4,000.” Less words, and less opportunity for confusion.
En route – 121.5 is not just an emergency frequency. Its also a great back up frequency. The trick is to keep it tuned in on your second comm, and monitor it. There isn’t one flight I’m on where ATC isn’t trying to contact someone on 121.5 because a pilot missed a frequency switch. And if that pilot can miss a frequency switch, that means I too am at risk of missing a frequency switch. 121.5 allows ATC to get a hold of me just in case. It is also my duty as a pilot to make myself available to anyone who is trying to get hold of ATC or be of assistance if someone is having an emergency. While en route, I keep up the window on my GPS where the nearest airports are displayed. If something happened right now, where would I go? I also like to check on the weather of airports I’m flying over to see if I could get into them.
Descent – I try to get the weather as soon as possible. This way I can load and brief the approach early on in the process. Even if the airport is VFR, I still like to have an approach loaded so I can follow a glide slope to the runway. Makes for smoother, more predictable approaches, which passengers tend to appreciate.
Landing – If you are following a glide slope to the runway, keep it mind, the glide slope (or the PAPI) usually takes you to the 1,000 foot markers. Not the numbers. I see it all the time where a pilot brakes out of the clouds, and then makes a beeline for the numbers. This turns your nice, stabilized, 500 fpm approach, into a nose diving short final. This makes the landing unpredictable because with that nose dive comes an increase in speed, which increases your float down the runway, and adds some unhappy passengers.
Lastly – Did you close your flight plan? Luckily, if you are landing at a towered airport, this is not a problem. At a non-towered airport, if the field is truly VFR, then I will try to cancel in the air. This also allows other IFR traffic to get into the field. However, if the field is marginal VFR, I’ll wait to cancel until on the ground. What if someone pulls in front of you onto the runway, forcing you to do a go around? That means you’re right back in the clouds, but without your IFR flight plan.