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IFR Fix: An instrument pilot’s holiday

A good start is to get current and proficient well in advance, compute an honest weight and balance for the journey (leaving room to haul home souvenirs), and begin tracking long-range weather.

If your destination is unfamiliar—and isn’t that the point?—the plan may require refreshing on seemingly arcane IFR procedures—for instance, arriving and departing a nontowered airport distant from the nearest air traffic control facility, and figuring out how to close a flight plan or pick up clearances there. While you’re at it, review local terrain hazards.

The arrival scenario may be your first in-flight challenge.

Suppose you near the destination in IMC at 5,000 feet msl with local weather featuring a 2,500-foot ceiling and 10 miles visibility. An instrument approach is called for, but underneath, aircraft are flying VFR—how will you seamlessly slip into the scene?

Despite how some pilots treat this scenario, it’s neither polite nor recommended to get close on final approach and suddenly proclaim your presence and intentions to land, expecting that the surprised flock in the traffic pattern will scatter for your arrival.

Instead, monitor the common traffic advisory frequency well beforehand to learn the active runway and the amount of traffic, and plan how to safely join the local flow; share your intentions on the CTAF 10 miles out (or more).

Keep up the position reporting. Note that according to the Aeronautical Information Manual, for “those pilots who choose to execute a straight-in approach, maneuvering for and execution of the approach should not disrupt the flow of arriving and departing traffic.”

Some airports without operating control towers are worked by approach control facilities; others by air route traffic control centers. Note a difference in service levels.

According to the Instrument Procedures Handbook, center radar is less precise than the surveillance or precision approach radars used by approach controls and does not update as quickly. “Therefore, pilots may be requested to report established on the final approach course,” it notes.

Whether you receive vectors to the final approach course or navigate on your own, when ATC approves your changing to the advisory frequency, remember that radar service goes away too—a reminder to keep eyes outside after breaking out for student pilots, sightseeing flights, and even fellow vacationers who may be up flying on a summer day.

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