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IFR Fix: Holiday flying in 2020

Consider checking your basic skills before reaching for instrument currency.  If “aviating” is occupying all your attention, IFR navigation could be too much to handle simultaneously.

A reunion with friends or family as a respite from our long personal sequestrations is a wonderful incentive to fly—but don’t let enthusiasm overtax your preparedness. Another word for “incentive” is “pressure,” which can erode a pilot’s normal caution. Risks increase if the merry mission must occur on a tight timetable—a common holiday-season scenario.

You can check yourself for telltale symptoms of taking on too big a helping of risk by assessing with brutal honesty whether you are trying to downplay adverse elements of a preflight weather briefing, or the in-flight conditions. Accident reports commonly describe instances of noninstrument-rated pilots and IFR pilots colliding with obscured terrain or becoming disoriented from maneuvering without visual references or at low altitude.

Thanksgiving Day fell on November 23 in 2017. The previous afternoon, an instrument-rated commercial pilot departed in a Cessna 172 for a VFR flight from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Middlebury, Vermont, for a holiday visit. The Skyhawk crashed in a field in Pittsford, Vermont, about an hour later, in what the NTSB described as a fatal “VFR encounter with IMC” accident.

The pilot “received two weather briefings in the [two] days before the flight, with the most recent briefing (the day before the flight) indicating widespread marginal visual flight rules conditions and mountain obscuration,” the report said. Nevertheless, “the pilot chose to conduct the flight under VFR and indicated to the briefer that he did not want to fly through clouds with potential icing conditions.”

Flight-track data suggested that “the pilot inadvertently encountered instrument meteorological conditions while maneuvering the airplane in deteriorating light conditions near the end of civil twilight.”

The 89-year-old pilot’s recent instrument experience was unknown, the NTSB said. However, “He was likely not prepared for the sudden entry into instrument conditions and the loss of visibility combined with the turns and varying altitudes while attempting to exit the valley resulted in spatial disorientation and a subsequent loss of airplane control.”

An aviation axiom holds that the instrument rating can serve as added “insurance” for a pilot. But the insurance is only valid when a proficient pilot flies published instrument routes in protected airspace.

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