We are moving into the “instrument time of the year.” It is a precarious season, a season in which the weather can be capricious at best and downright dangerous at worst. Caught in the middle with everything to lose or gain, is the newly instrument-rated pilot.
Many pilots think the most important thing to learn in working on an instrument rating is how to control an airplane on instruments. Actually, flying an airplane “on the gauges” is a skill which a pilot can learn over time, but the more important talent is knowledge of weather.
Before launching out on a flight, the pilot needs to know what to expect regarding the weather. This is easier for pilots who have lived in a particular region for any length of time as opposed to pilots who must operate in a place they have never before flown. In other words, local pilots have a good feel for how the weather will behave while transient pilots should pay more attention.
Since airplanes have the capability of going great distances in relatively short times, pilots have to be on guard. Instead of being familiar with only their local weather, pilots need to get a feel for the dynamics of the weather happening within 500 miles or so of their position. Additionally, they need to analyze the type of weather they can fly in safely.
Every pilot knows the basics of weather, but the instrument pilot has to know the difference between inclement weather which is safe to travel through compared to dangerous weather which could prove to be deadly. For instance, working through an area influenced by a warm front with poor visibility, stable air, and stratus type clouds is a perfectly safe operation for a proficient instrument pilot. At the other extreme, trying to push through a cold front consisting of highly unstable air and associated thunderstorms could prove lethal to any pilot – and their passengers.
In addition to enroute weather, pilots must have a very serious look at the forecasted weather for their destination at the time of their expected arrival. More importantly, they need to be capable of shooting the approach for the actual weather on their arrival.
For weather consisting of semi-low ceilings requiring a non-precision approach, the ability to fly instruments down to 400 feet or so is not as critical as the skills required to fly a precision approach down to minimums of 200 feet with one-half mile visibility. The most dangerous difference between the two types of approaches is the time made available to the pilot to set up for the landing after “breaking out,” or acquiring visual cues to the landing area.
With the non-precision approach, minimum visibilities typically are in the range of three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half. On the precision approach, a pilot breaking out at 200 feet above the elevation of the runway with one-half mile visibility flying an approach speed of 90 knots has only 20 seconds for visual acquisition and transition to the landing.
While the flying side of the equation requires a high degree of knowledge and skill, the weather side of the equation can be much more critical. Knowing the weather also involves a lot of knowledge about weather systems, but it also requires judgment.
For the pilot who has attained a skill level to allow comfort flying blind coupled with the knowledge of weather, there can be a no more versatile traveling vehicle than the private aircraft.