Using the Rating

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The difference in the next steps for newly qualified commercial and private IR holders is stark.

Commercial airline pilots serve an apprenticeship as First Officer for many years, sitting beside an experienced Captain and learning many of the practical aspects of their trade before taking command. By contrast, private pilots use their ratings immediately in single pilot operations involving many aspects not covered in the formal theory or practical IR training syllabus.

PPL/IR seeks to fill the gap, providing guidance and support throughout the private IR pilots "career" - from filing their first airways flight plan, selecting new aircraft or equipment to researching new destinations. The members Forum holds an enormous wealth of knowledge that can be easily searched.

The sections below provide a range of general knowledge relevant to all members.

 

Private IFR in Practice

Version 1.1 - June 2015 Paul Sherry and Timothy Nathan

INTRODUCTION

This purpose of this document is to assist the pilot in safely and effectively planning a general aviation IFR flight.

Most pilots, as they work toward achieving an IFR qualification, understandably focus on improving their technical performance. They know that during the skill test they will be expected to demonstrate to the examiner that they can fly the aircraft to the required test standards. IFR flight training is costly, both in terms of time and finance, and most training organisations are acutely aware of the pressures. Time spent flying is precious and the instructor will naturally focus upon the skills needed to ‘pass the test’.

But what then?

The general aviation pilot with their newly awarded IFR qualification is suddenly faced with planning and executing their first flight. And for the first time a friendly and supportive ear may well not be available in the right hand seat, or indeed even at the planning stage.

Commercial pilots, once appropriately qualified, are usually introduced to the IFR environment in a graduated and progressive way. They will often fly ‘two crew’ (accompanied by a more senior and experienced colleague) as well as being supported by an Operations Department. The primary function of the Operations Department is usually to ensure that the pilot is supplied with a suitably equipped, fuelled and properly maintained aircraft as well as providing all the necessary information – flight plans filed on an acceptable and valid route, weight and balance calculated, weather and NOTAM data summarised – as well as dealing with all the other many and varied matters arising.

PPL/IR Europe cannot act as an airline operations department, but one of our stated Aims and Objectives is to support the private IFR pilot with similar information that the professional pilot would usually obtain from such a facility.

This guide has been constructed to assist in planning an IFR flight. It contains information shared by many of our members, which has often been learned as a result of ‘hard’ experience. By definition it cannot cover every possible combination of circumstances, but has been prepared to act as a checklist to try and ensure nothing important gets missed.

As your experience grows, IFR flight planning, certainly on routes that you fly regularly, will increasingly become second nature. But you may still find it useful to refer to this guide from time to time especially if you are planning to go somewhere new and unfamiliar.

For the purposes of this document we will divide the flight planning process into three sections –

  1. The Pilot
  2. The Aircraft
  3. The Flight

1. The Pilot

Are you appropriately licenced, qualified, trained and sufficiently current to carry out the intended flight?

1.1 Licence, Ratings and Medical – this document assumes that you have the appropriate licence and ratings to fly the selected aircraft on the intended route, and they are valid and in date.

Check the dates on your ratings and medical as it is very easy, as busy months pass by, to suddenly find that that an expiry date is just around the corner. PPL/IR Europe recommends that you set up an automatic alert system (possibly in a smartphone or similar) to alert you in sufficient time to contact your local examiner, training organisation and/or medical examiner and take the necessary action.

Check that you have your licence and ratings documents with you in the aircraft as well as acceptable documentation of identity – usually a passport. It is legal requirement to carry your licence (including medical and relevant ratings) on an international flight.

On arrival at your destination take your licence and passport with you on leaving the aircraft. Experience has shown that they will rarely be formally checked on leaving airside, but they may well be required to gain access to the aircraft on your return. It is more than a little embarrassing to have to leave all your passengers in a deserted terminal building for more than an hour whilst you are formally escorted airside to collect the relevant documents. There have been reported cases of a complete refusal to allow access airside without the appropriate documents. Similarly, you should ensure you have a high visibility jacket in case it is required. Members who wear spectacles have occasionally also been asked to produce their second pair!

1.2 Operational Training and Qualifications – in addition to the licences and ratings required to fly the intended route, some countries require additional training (and documentary evidence that such training has been satisfactorily completed) to fly certain routes and procedures.

An example of such additional requirements is that associated with Performance Based Navigation (PBN) – specifically the use of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems). Some EASA member countries require documentary evidence of the pilot having completed appropriate training to fly RNP approach and departure procedures – RNP APCH, SIDs and STARs. A ramp check is statistically unlikely, but from time to time it does happen.

Therefore be aware of these requirements when planning the flight. Take a moment to check if any of the likely procedures to be flown (for the chosen route) require such approval. This particularly applies to pilots flying under the FAA licensing system. At the time of writing, formal written FAA operational approval may be required to fly some RNP procedures – for both the pilot and the aircraft.

If you are uncertain of the requirements, or need further guidance, then feel free to post a request on our forum at www.pplir.org. Access to the forum is a member only privilege and is therefore an excellent reason for joining the organisation. Our members try to respond to any such enquiries in a prompt, supportive and helpful way.

1.3 Currency – there is a notable difference between being qualified to make the flight and being ‘current’.

There is clearly no universally accepted definition of currency. It requires insight on behalf of the individual to assess whether the circumstances of the flight (pilot, aircraft and proposed route including a suitable assessment of the likely weather) are appropriate, and this will differ widely between one pilot and another and from one day to the next.

A balanced assessment of whether you are current enough to make the flight on your own will depend on many factors. There is a world of difference between an IFR flight ending at a familiar airport in a familiar aircraft under VFR conditions below Minimum Safe Altitude, and an approach to weather minima at night and at an unfamiliar location in an aircraft to which you are relatively new.

The privilege of flying IFR means that, unlike commercial flight operations, relatively few hard and fast rules are imposed. However the enviable safety record of commercial flight arises partly from a rigid adherence to pre-defined Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – many of which are designed to address the human factors involved.

Accidents and incidents involving GA aircraft flying IFR are fortunately relatively rare, and therefore statistical analysis can be misleading. However there is some evidence to support the view that higher risk surrounds the transition from IFR/IMC to VFR (or from VFR to IFR/IMC) when below MSA (Minimum Safe Altitude) and particularly in unfamiliar locations. CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) appears to be more frequent in these scenarios. A significant proportion of GA IFR flights will either begin or end with such a transition and special attention should be focussed on this phase of flight.

The GA IFR community can and should learn from the experiences and discipline of commercial air traffic.

1.4 Assessment of Your Personal Well Being – be realistic and check whether you are personally fit to fly the intended route. PPL/IR Europe works hard to ensure you do not become another accident statistic.

The FAA promotes the checklist I’M SAFE and this may be helpful –

I - Illness 

M - Medications 

S - Stress

A - Alcohol 

F - Fatigue

E - Eating/Emotion

The most important safety aid that a pilot must develop is ‘insight’ into his or her own personal circumstances. This in turn enables a proper risk assessment and risk mitigation plan for each flight.

There are many and varied definitions of ‘insight’ but one that might apply in this situation is ‘the ability to discern the true nature of a situation’. To some extent this comes with experience, but not always.

2. The Aircraft

Is the required aircraft documentation present and correct and is the aircraft ready and equipped to make the flight?

2.1 - Aircraft Paperwork

Conscientious owners (and flying schools) usually maintain an aircraft document file that contains at least the documents listed below. Some are a legal requirement, and some are just sensible. The ability to quickly supply the appropriate document may ease a somewhat difficult situation in the event of a ‘ramp check’ or when visiting certain countries and/or airports.

If you are nervous taking the originals with you then (in most circumstances) a high quality scanned colour copy will normally suffice. You would be extremely unlucky to have an official demand to see the original.

Documents that you should be able to produce include –

  1. Certificate of Registration *
  2. Certificate of Airworthiness *
  3. Current Airworthiness Review Certificate *
  4. Current Maintenance Certificate (sufficient to show that the maintenance is ‘in date’) **. Also checkthat the maintenance will not expire (hours/date) whilst you are away from your home base.
  5. Certificate of Insurance **
  6. Aircraft Radio Licence/Certificate *
  7. Noise Certificate (almost routinely requested on 1st visit of your aircraft to an airfield in someEuropean countries – notably Germany) ** (and may save you from significant additional costs)
  8. Weight & Balance – up to date **
  9. Interception procedures *
  10. Crew Licences *
  11. Crew Medicals *
  12. Passports/Photo ID (as required) *
  13. Confirmation that importation duties were appropriately paid on entry to the EEA. **

* LEGAL REQUIREMENT

** GOOD PRACTICE

For aircraft which been at some time in their existence imported into the EEA (European Economic Area), PPL/IR Europe would suggest that you carry sufficient proof that appropriate importation duties were paid on entry (even if such duties were subsequently recovered through standard VAT registered company processes). Anecdotal evidence suggests that foreign registered aircraft (usually N-reg) may be specifically targeted in this regard and the lack of ability to produce such a document on demand might at the very least cause significant delay. At worst it may prove very costly – in terms of both time and money.

2.2 - Weight and balance

Flying an aircraft outside the weight and balance limits invalidates the CofA, reduces the safety margins to you and your passengers, and may well invalidate the aircraft insurance.

2.3 – Range and fuel calculations

Has the aircraft sufficient range to make the planned destination in a single leg? If yes then how much fuel should you carry?

The following is a direct extract from ICAO Annex 6, Part II -

A flight shall not be commenced unless, taking into account both the meteorological conditions and any delays that are expected in flight, the aeroplane carries sufficient fuel and oil to ensure that it can safely complete the flight. The amount of fuel to be carried must permit:

  1. when the flight is conducted in accordance with the instrument flight rules and a destination alternate aerodrome is not required in accordance with 2.2.3.5, flight to the aerodrome of intended landing, and after that, for at least 45 minutes at normal cruising altitude; or
  2. when the flight is conducted in accordance with the instrument flight rules and a destination alternate aerodrome is required, flight from the aerodrome of intended landing to an alternate aerodrome, and after that, for at least 45 minutes at normal cruising altitude; or
  3. when the flight is conducted in accordance with the visual flight rules by day, flight to the aerodrome of intended landing, and after that, for at least 30 minutes at normal cruising altitude; or
  4. when the flight is conducted in accordance with the visual flight rules by night, flight to the aerodrome of intended landing and thereafter for at least 45 minutes at normal cruising altitude.

For IFR flights the fuel planning needs to include sufficient fuel to fly the initial approach, which might be radar vectored (and therefore more track miles), the instrument approach procedure, the missed approach then (for a propeller driven aircraft) the flight to the alternate airport followed by the capability to hold for 45 minutes at normal holding speed.

However, as a cross check for common sense, most PPL/IR Europe members would plan to land with not less than 1 hour’s fuel on board, perhaps considerably more for remote destinations. It is also wise to consider an en-route alternate and include it in the filed flight plan. Should your fuel burn prove greater than expected (perhaps headwinds greater than forecast) and it becomes clear that the fuel at destination is getting marginal, then tell ATC of the problem and head for your en-route alternate in good time.

2.4 – Cockpit and Avionics

It is becoming increasingly common for even relatively low cost aircraft to be fitted with sophisticated avionics. The most common GNSS capable IFR panel mounted navigator for the last 15 years – the original Garmin GNS430 – remains perfectly functional for the vast majority of IFR flights. That is testimony to the foresight shown by Garmin so many years ago. However technology does move forward and all the major manufacturers of IFR approved panel mounted avionics (Garmin, Bendix- King, Avidyne, Aspen) continue to bring increasingly sophisticated products to market.

Although one of the advantages of operating a smaller aircraft is the relative ease of upgrading components progressively over time, this does carry some risks in the area of human factors. The combination and permutations of various panel mounted GNSS NavCom units with the many and various primary flight instruments available (both traditional 6-pack and electronic) can lead to a bewildering number of buttons, switches and various modes of operation. Add to that mix the wide range of autopilots that have been fitted to GA aircraft over the years and there is plenty of scope for many a ‘WIDN’ moment – ‘What’s It Doing Now?’

‘WIDN’ moments are a learning experience (and indeed to be encouraged) in VMC, uncontrolled airspace and preferably with an instructor or knowledgeable colleague in the right hand seat. However they are not a good idea when departing from a busy European airfield in controlled airspace when flying in close proximity to commercial air traffic. Unsurprisingly if ATC ask you to turn right and the aircraft suddenly turns left, all sorts of problems can arise.

It is therefore incumbent on all who fly IFR to ensure that they are adequately familiar with the avionics installation in the aircraft they plan to fly before the planned departure date. Make use of any ground training aids available and, if in doubt, take a knowledgeable friend (or instructor) along on the flight to support you. Having an extra pair of eyes and ears in the right hand seat may prove to be invaluable (which is why the airlines do it). However remember that you need to consider the implications of, and brief for, what may effectively become a two crew flight. Smaller GA aircraft are usually designed for single crew operation.

It is appropriate to touch upon the increasing presence of the touch screen enabled tablet computer in the IFR cockpit. With thought and preparation the use of such devices can bring significant benefits. They may be used for preparation and flight planning prior to the flight as well as being an invaluable source of in flight information. Many PPL/IR Europe members use them to store scanned copies of Flight Manuals/Pilot Operating Handbooks as well as avionics manuals which can often be accessed online and saved in PDF format. Those with inbuilt GNSS capability (or which can access GNSS data via a wireless link to a separate receiver) offer back up navigation capability using the increasing number of apps that include moving map options. The increasing availability of portable AHRS (Attitude and Heading Reference System) sensors has now reached the point where a tablet could, in theory at least, act as an emergency back up to a primary flight display.

However the increasing dependency on such devices (which is understandable given the functionality available) does introduce new risks and two should be mentioned here – battery life and heat sensitivity.

With regard to battery life, the use of apps that constantly update their location from GNSS sensors and redraw the screen repeatedly in real time significantly increases power consumption. Add to that the fact that in a bright cockpit it is likely that the screen will be running at maximum brightness and possibly permanently on, then it is not unusual for a pilot to find that battery life will be substantially shorter than might be anticipated. Be aware of this and plan accordingly. Many aircraft are fitted with sockets that may be used for low current power supplies thus consider sourcing a USB charging capability. For 12v aircraft this is usually straightforward. For 24v aircraft such devices are available but test that it works before departure as experience has shown that not all work as advertised. Also be aware that some of the cheaper ‘cigar lighter’ USB power supplies generate RF interference.

On the matter of heat sensitivity, many tablets have a sensing system which may auto-enable a ‘sleep mode’ should the internal sensor detect an over temperature situation. The cockpit of a small aircraft can get quite hot especially if the sun is streaming through the windows. Minimise exposing the tablet to direct sunlight so as to avoid a shut down at a critical phase of flight and give consideration to back up systems.

3. The Flight

Most PPL/IR Europe members report that the airborne section of an IFR flight is the easy part. By the time you get in the aircraft (start up, taxi out and take off) most of the work has been done and it is then just a matter of following the directions given by ATC. They know where you want to go and at what altitude/flight level. However you are the aircraft commander so work to maintain situational awareness alongside monitoring progress against the PLOG so as to ensure fuel burn and thus fuel at destination is broadly as predicted. The vast majority of IFR flights can be described as uneventful – which is exactly what most pilots (and passengers) desire. Indeed most of the flight is likely to be in VMC.

The following is a distillation of the shared experience of PPL/IR Europe members.

3.1 - Destination

The selection of the planned destination airfield may be straightforward, but there are many factors which may influence the final decision.

The ideal GA IFR airfield is one that is close to your eventual destination, with all the facilities you need, at sensible cost. However almost inevitably there are compromises to be made and these include –

3.1.1 - Opening Hours (smaller ‘GA’ airfields may be more restricted)

3.1.2 - Availability of approaches/weather minima

3.1.3 – GA ‘Accessibility’.

This includes a wide range of factors –

  • Mandatory handling (or otherwise). (At a larger airport, it is often worth asking the airport operations department as to whether handling is mandatory. It is not infrequent to find that the airport operations department will offer close to as good a service as a handling agent for a fraction of the cost.)
  • Customs & Immigration availability and hours
  • Fuel availability and cost
  • Ease of access to the aircraft
  • Ease of ground transportation
  • Location, availability and cost of hotels

 

3.1.4 - Cost vs Convenience. For a European city destination it is often true that there will be a trade off between these choices. It is common (but not inevitable) to find a well served busier and more expensive airport near to the city centre or a quieter ‘GA friendly’ airfield at perhaps some greater distance.

There is no single right answer to the question of what is the ‘best’ airfield for a given trip. As an example when flying on your own (or with another pilot) you might be prepared to put up with a little inconvenience on arrival and ‘self-handle’ should the option be available. However if you were arriving with passengers, or perhaps on a tighter business schedule, the convenience of a handling agent to arrange taxis, fuel, parking, Customs and Immigration, etc. might justify the additional costs. Each case is judged on its merits.

The United Kingdom (also Channel Islands and Isle of Man) is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement. A GAR (General Aviation Report) must be therefore be filed for flights to the geographical areas above. This gives UK Immigration (and Customs) prior notification of the flight and the people on board, whether or not the airport of destination has immigration and customs officers available. This is probably easiest done online either free through the AOPA UK website (www.aopa.co.uk and click on Online GAR) or via the Online GAR at www.onlinegar.com which is a subscription service.

A few tips from PPL/IR Europe members though –

1. Where possible, fuel the aircraft on arrival. It is amazing how, on return to the aircraft after a few enjoyable days away, the fueller is at lunch/fuelling the one commercial flight of the day/doing something else. And it will almost certainly be when you have been given a CTOT/your destination airfield closes soon after your planned arrival, etc.

2. At medium sized regional airports, it can be advantageous to find out the times of commercial movements, and consider avoiding those times, so as to minimising both aircraft handling and passenger access problems.

3. Check what payment is acceptable for the fuel. Some fuellers do not accept credit cards and want their own company’s fuel card or even, exceptionally, cash. There may be a work around solution but it may involve a significant delay (perhaps an unplanned trip back to the handling agent).

4. Try and work out where you will be parking before arrival. Look at the airport plates and/or try and get a briefing. It is often said that the hardest part of the flight is the taxi from the runway exit point to your parking stand!

5. Give early consideration to the logistics of the return flight. Consider the following practical points:

  • If you have an early departure then what time does the hotel serve breakfast?
  • Will you have access to the internet at your hotel or at the airport? Most handling agents will make this available but if you are self-handling then, if you need a printed PLOG, how will that be done?
  • How will you get access to the aircraft and what documentation will be required to do so (usually a pilot’s licence accompanied by a passport)?
  • How far is the car hire return from the departure gate?
  • Where should the taxi drop you off? Experience shows that even local taxi drivers often do not know the location of the GA Terminal.

6. If available, get a briefing on local airport start and departure procedures. At most locations it will the standard process – get the ATIS, call for clearance and start on Ground or Tower frequency and you are good to go. However if you are looking for an early join to controlled airspace from a VFR airfield close to a busy IFR one (Egelsbach near Frankfurt is a notable example), then a briefing from the tower can be crucial so as to avoid an (at best) embarrassing moment.

7. At many airports, especially in Germany, France and Switzerland, there is a requirement for the pilot to initiate the frequency change from Tower to Radar either immediately after take-off, or perhaps when passing a certain altitude or waypoint. This may well be expected without prompt from the tower. This information will usually be found on the SID (Standard Instrument Departure) plate. Another good indication is if the Tower says “Cleared for take-off, Good-bye”. Thus it is a good idea to scan the SID plate fairly carefully before cleared to line up on the runway.

3.2. - Route

Many of the more ‘mature’ members of PPL/IR Europe can recall the days when getting an IFPS (Integrated Flight Planning System) approved IFR route was a black art which usually took a whole evening and was accompanied by many expressions of frustration. Fortunately those days are behind us now and GA pilots have access to sophisticated flight planning tools which will generate and file an approved route as well as supplying an accurate PLOG incorporating predicted winds alongside fuel plans, the ability to book handling, etc. – all at the click of a mouse, or the tap of a tablet screen.

Whilst some are low cost (or even free), solutions that offer extended functionality are available for an annual subscription.

The following is based on feedback from our members as to the perceived strengths and weaknesses of some of the more commonly used online systems and apps (as of June 2015). PPL/IR Europe makes no recommendations as to which is the ‘best’ system, especially as features available on many of the commercial products are constantly being updated and improved. However our members are usually willing to share their personal experience and give guidance. Another very good reason to join....

PPL/IR Europe welcomes the diversity in the market for flight planning applications – competition is usually a good thing. Our apologies if your personal favourite planning tool is not included in the list. Please feel free to email chairman@pplir.org with your suggestions and analysis of ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’.

Pros Cons
AeroPlus SkyDemon Integration Some fiddly aspects of user interface iOS only
Effective route generation, but perhaps not quite as good as some others No real time support
Free
Generally easy to use
Reasonable support (by email)
AutoRouter Very easy to get new route Optimal route generation dependent on accurate performance model of aircraft. Time consuming to get this right.
Free No real time support
Effective
Reasonable support (by email)
GRAMET embedded (see below)
RocketRoute Good results Sophisticated Polished At the upper end of the price range compared to other options
Good real time support
(24H by phone and email)
Requires higher internet bandwidth. Struggles a little if only 3G available
Can seem complicated to some (because it is feature-rich)
EuroFPL Low bandwidth Fast The first system really accessible to the GA market, but user interface now perhaps a little dated.
Good notifications Results sometimes not as good as others
No internal route generation (depends on routes previously generated)
No real time support Moderate cost

Again some feedback from PPL/IR Europe members -

3.2.1 - % GC. The majority of the flight planning tools will show the Great Circle (GC) distance between departure and destination airports. However a note of caution – the approved route from the flight planning system will be greater than the GCD, sometimes substantially so. It will often be quoted as an overhead in percentage terms of the GCD.

Certain areas of Europe have significant restrictions in available routings and flight levels. One good example is the meeting point of France, Germany and Switzerland. The route generation tools available have to work within the restrictions of the RAD (Route Availability Document). The RAD is a fiendishly complex publication in a state of almost constant change.

Thus plan your fuel requirements in the light of the accepted route, and not the GCD between departure and destination.

3.2.2 - Planned vs Flown. Taking due note of the comments in Para 3.2.1 above, it is the experience of most members that the route actually flown may be significantly shorter than the one filed. Our experience of ATC almost right throughout Europe is that shortcuts will often be provided, especially if you ask for them politely. Remember that airspace tends to be divided up into sectors and that your current air traffic controller can usually only clear you DCT to a reporting point on the edge of his/her sector. However at quieter times (often at night) the sectors may well be merged operationally, or controllers have time to liaise, so long DCTs become increasingly common.

3.2.3 - Fuel planning. The reader is referred back to Para 2.3 above for the specific rules with regard to fuel planning. Where the flight requires an alternate, then sufficient fuel must be carried for the flight to the destination airfield (including the initial, final and missed approach) then to fly to the alternate, then for a further 45 mins at normal cruising speed.

However for most of Europe, a sensible cross check is to plan to land with not less than one hour of fuel on board at your primary destination. If you are concerned that fuel is going to be marginal then flight plan an en-route alternate as a tech stop. Monitor your in flight fuel burn against ground speed and take a sensible and appropriate decision to stop if needed. Tell ATC and divert in good time.

3.2.3 – Comfort (of both pilot and passengers). The majority of the aircraft that are flown by PPL/IR Europe members do not have easy access to in flight toilets, so plan appropriately. You might be lucky and have a 4 hour capability between comfort stops, but those flying with you may not be so fortunate. Give consideration to their well-being. Also, being very practical, flying a challenging approach to weather minima whilst having one’s mind significantly distracted by the need to go to the toilet does little to aid concentration and attention to detail. There are commercially available products, such as the unisex “Little John”, which can be a great relief in an emergency.

Similarly, ensure that you have sick-bags for passengers, but in our experience it is not a good idea to mention to passengers that they are there as it “puts the idea in their minds.”

At higher altitudes (especially using oxygen supplementation), dehydration will quickly occur in a dry atmosphere. Thus it is recommended that you take some water with you in the aircraft. Those that come with ‘sports caps’ are useful as they can be opened easily, drunk and then sealed again with minimal risk of spillage. Canned drinks are problematic in this regard as once they are open they cannot be resealed. Carbonated drinks and hot drinks in vacuum flasks are not recommended for high altitude, non pressurised flights.

With regard to food, a snack is often welcome in flight. Give some thought to food that is easy to access and unwrap in flight, and that will not generate a mess if dislodged during turbulence. Packets of crisps seem particularly capable of distributing debris all over the aircraft.

Take a plastic bag sufficient in size to collect all the accumulated paper, wrappings, bottles, containers and other associated debris. Consider perhaps keeping a roll of such bags in the aircraft. This facilitates removing any waste material from the aircraft at the end of the flight and disposal into a suitable receptacle.

3.3 - Weather planning & NOTAMS

With the advent of on-line flight planning, there are now so many ways to access this data that a comprehensive review here would almost certainly be immediately out of date.

Almost all of the online subscription-based flight planning tools currently used by PPL/IR Europe members automatically include TAFs, METARs, Synoptic Situation including Weather Warnings, Winds Aloft, etc. Most also include a collated version of the relevant NOTAMS.

With regard to an overview of the likely enroute weather in a graphical (and thus easy to interpret) display, many of our members now use GRAMET and PPL/IR Europe considers this a useful aid to flight planning. The OGIMET website may be found at http://www.ogimet.com/gramet_aero.phtml.en (and is also available on as an app on the iPad).

https://www.autorouter.eu/gramet uses a slightly more sophisticated model for low-level clouds and our experience is that it may be a little ‘pessimistic’. It is also easier to use.

GRAMET uses the data in the GFS (Global Forecast System). This is a computer model of the earth’s atmosphere generated by the US National Weather Service. The model is run 4 times a day and produces forecasts for up to 16 days in advance, but with decreased spatial resolution after 10 days. The data generated by the model is open source.

The instructions for how to use OGIMET are on the web page but are summarised here –

SITE or SITES (ICAO) - insert the ICAO designators of the route to be flown, with each designator separated by ‘_’.

START – you are likely to want the prediction for the time of flight. The web page is based on the current time (as displayed next to START). Therefore add the number of hours into the future so as to match your predicted take off time.

END – to get the appropriate model for the predicted flight time, add the flight time (in hours) to the hours inserted in the START field

FLIGHT LEVEL – enter the flight level that you are planning for the flight. A worked example –

It is 09:00 on Sunday morning 22/03/2015 and we are planning a flight from Liverpool (EGGP) to Sion (LSGS) leaving Liverpool at 15:00 on 22/03/15 (later the same day). The flight time is predicted to be just short of three hours.

Enter ‘EGGP_LSGS’, in the SITE field, ‘6’ in the START field (we are currently at 9:00 and the flight will depart in 6 hours), ‘9’ in the END field (6+3), and 150 in the FLIGHT LEVEL field.

The following is the graphic display produced for the quoted date. In this case it looks like it will be a flight in VMC the whole way, with some possible moderate turbulence at FL150 mid flight -

For longer term forecasts, a useful data source is MeteoEarth which is available on a website as well as an app on Windows, Android and Apple devices. The system generates a rich graphical display which, with the premium service, can deliver forecast up to 5 days in advance.

3.4 - Inflight Reference Material and Weather

The development of the touch screen tablet has, for many pilots, changed the way they fly when giving consideration to the display of inflight reference material.

The discussion here will focus on the electronic display of in flight charts and approach plates. In essence there are essentially two choices to the pilot flying IFR – either to use the plates published in the AIP of individual European countries, or to have that data processed through a 3rd party supplier and presented in a consistent and easy to read format.

For the latter, realistically the only option is go with the products published by Jeppesen. By common acclaim the approach plates are excellent – well designed, easy to read and consistent throughout Europe (indeed throughout the world). However that ease of use and consistency comes at a price. If a pilot would like the Jeppesen approach plates displayed on a panel mounted MFD (Multifunctional Flight Display) then the annual cost can easily reach several thousand Euros per year.

Increasingly vendors supplying either flight planning and/or en-route mapping capability (RocketRoute, EuroFPL, SkyDemon, Garmin, Blitzplan to name but a few) are including AIP plates as part of the package. The AIP plates are essentially available ‘free’ and are often packaged as part of the flight planning capability. In general, the AIP plates are considered perhaps more difficult to use. The design of the plate varies between countries, and sometimes some of the relevant information is missing. For example the UK AIP plates do not include Runway Visual Range minima. The pilot has to calculate the minima for the approach from several factors included the approach system minima, obstacle clearance heights, etc. Fortunately there is a free app to do this, AeroPlus IFR Minima – designed by one of our members.

This document has been written as more an aid to real time flight planning and execution, so a detailed analysis of the various ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of each individual system would be inappropriate. Also, as previously noted, this is a fast moving area and comparing features between one system and another would almost instantly be out of date.

The final choice is up to the individual pilot having evaluated their own needs. A poll of PPL/IR Europe members reveals a broadly even split between those using SkyDemon and RocketRoute for the display of inflight approach plates, with a substantial number using Jeppesen. But a significant number continue to print off approach plates and use the paper version in the cockpit – on the principle that paper cannot overheat and switch itself off, nor can the battery go flat!

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but summarises the feedback from our membership.

Pros Cons
Jepp FD Excellent Plates - Georeferenced Expensive
Reasonable IFR Chart VFR information at extra cost
No Small Airfields
Fiddly interface
SkyDemon Excellent IFR/VFR integration AIP Plates- partially georeferenced
Excellent VFR charting German and Swiss VFR plates at extra cost.
Charting Airspace warnings
Vertical profile
W&B, Fuel Planning etc
Good Weather integration
GAR Integration
FPL Integration
Small airfields (Pooleys etc) Cost effective
RocketRoute Plates well integrated into the in-flight app AIP Plates
Garmin Garmin Pilot app relatively new to the European market AIP Plates
Smooth interface Some of the advertised features only work in USA (such as inflight weather)
Ability to enter flight plans directly into Garmin panel mounted GNSS navigators (via Bluetooth device fitted as extra)

 

In recent years the ability to download weather updates in flight has started to become a realistic option. The ability to see ground based weather radar data allows for more informed tactical decisions in flight. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into a detailed discussion of the merits of the various systems.

Both Garmin and Avidyne have sophisticated in flight weather products that work well. However some of our members have installed the ADL120 system from Golze Engineering – www.ing-golze.de. This device, once installed in the aircraft, generates a local WiFi signal in your aircraft and will download weather data as requested via the Iridium satellite network. It offers a cost effective way of accessing in flight weather data – weather radar, TAFs, METARs, and Winds Aloft – as well as an SMS option to communicate directly with those on the ground.

SUMMARY

There is no perfect and universally agreed method of planning an IFR flight. However this document (and the associated checklist – see Appendix) has been produced based on the experience of members of PPL/IR Europe gained over many years.

Some of the points noted here have changed substantially in recent times – notably the introduction of the tablet computer and the huge functionality increase it has brought to the cockpit. The advent of internet based tools has revolutionised some (but certainly not all) of the tasks involved in planning and executing an IFR flight.

However many of the tasks remain, in essence, much the same and a methodical checklist based approach is likely to be successful. Planning and executing an IFR flight is emphatically not inherently difficult and is well within the grasp of the properly trained GA pilot.

With the passage of time, and the gaining of experience, then much of what is involved becomes second nature. However in the early years following the gaining of an IFR qualification it is easy to forget a vital item. So please feel free to use the supplied checklist to make your life easier.

Paul Sherry
Chairman – PPL/IR Europe (chairman@pplir.org)

Timothy Nathan
Board and Executive Committee Member – PPL/IR Europe

With thanks to the many members of PPL/IR Europe who have contributed to the preparation of this document

APPENDIX CHECKLIST FOR AN IFR FLIGHT

IFR FLIGHT PLANNING CHECKLIST

PILOT

Licence - present and current

Ratings - current

Medical – present and current

Passports/Photo IDs (inc Pax)

I’M SAFE?

AIRCRAFT

DOCUMENTS

Certificate of Registration

Certificate of Airworthiness

Radio Licence

Interception Procedures

Noise Certificate

Maintenance Status – Airworthiness Review Certificate Certificate of Release to Service Hours remaining for trip

Weight & Balance

Import Taxes Paid - Confirmation

COCKPIT AND AVIONICS

Glass cockpit, SynVis, TAS, Weather avoidance/downloads

Databases up to date

Portable electronic devices – fully charged and inflight/destination recharge capability (power adaptors)

EQUIPMENT REQUIRED FOR ROUTE

Oxygen requirements

8.33, RNP, HF, ADF, Mode S, ADS-B, Satphone

OUTBOUND FLIGHT

DEPARTURE and ARRIVAL AIRFIELDS

Opening Hours

Accessibility to GA

Fuel availability - Cost & Payment

Customs, Immigration, Police –

Notice required (Tech stop to facilitate clearance?)

Approaches available & Minima

Runway slot booked (if required)

Ground Handling

Parking the aircraft – where?

Overnight protection – ice, winds, hangarage available if needed

Ground Transport

Hotels – internet, late food, early starts, costs, proximity

Costs – considering all of above

Alternates – considering all of above

WEATHER

TAFs and METARs

Winds Aloft

Freezing Levels/Icing

Convective Activity

ROUTE

Levels – optimal/available (including MSA and MEA)

IFPS Acceptable Routing

% Great Circle Distance

Planned vs flown

Fuel planning – consider destination/alternates/ time of day/night

COMFORT

Toilet Stops/Inflight facilities

Food & Drink

DEPARTURE and ARRIVAL AIRFIELDS

Early departure, food and drink, ground transportation.

Internet availability

(Weather, NOTAMS, Route generation, Flight plan filing, briefing, printing of PLOG)

Opening Hours

RETURN FLIGHT

DEPARTURE and ARRIVAL AIRFIELDS

Customs, Immigration, Police – Notice required (Tech stop to facilitate clearance?)

Approaches available & Minima

Runway slot required?

Alternates

Airport/Handling Agent – opening hours

Security/Handling/Access to aircraft

Fuel availability on departure – cost and payment methods

Departure/runway slots required

WEATHER

TAFs and METARs

Winds Aloft

Freezing Levels

Convective Activity

ROUTE

Levels – available/optimal (including MSA and MEA)

IFPS Acceptable Routing

% Great Circle Distance

Planned vs flown

Fuel planning –
Consider destination/alternates/ time of day/night

COMFORT

Toilet Stops/Inflight facilities

Food & Drink

Until a few years ago, information in the cockpit on weather conditions was limited to radar, reserved for twins and high spec single engined aircraft such as the Daher Socata TBM and Piper PA46 range, and the ubiquitous Stormscope.

The Stormscope first appeared in the 1970’s and used a similar method to ground based lightning detectors at the time to determine the bearing and range of lightning strikes. Bearing accuracy was quite good but range determination rather less so. Since the Stormscope designed by Ryan first appeared, major improvements in both design and data presentation have made it a much more reliable aid; data can be presented on a heading stabilised dedicated display or more commonly these days, integrated into one of several third party MFD units. However, it still only displays lightning strikes and/or stormcells and while this is an important weather element, there are various weather elements posing other potential dangers to light aircraft that we need to know about.

I am indebted to Graham Whittle for these two pictures, taken near Durham/Teeside. You can see the storm out on the starboard side and the Stormscope depiction on Graham’s MFD.

Avidyne was the first manufacturer to produce a box (the MLX770) which made possible the download and display of other recent and forecast weather data. The MLX770 is linked to the Iridium satellite network and subject to geographical area, allows some or all of the following to be downloaded and displayed on its MFDs:

  • Rainfall data
  • Lightning data
  • IR Satellite data
  • METARS and TAFS
  • Upper winds at selected points

 

Cockpit Weather

 

Likewise, when available, and this is limited broadly to NW Europe, areas of rainfall will be displayed. Green indicates light rain, yellow – moderate rain, red – heavy rain and purple – very heavy rain and/or hail. I set the data update for every 20 minutes, which works well for me; you can refresh more or less frequently than this.

What this means in practice requires a wider understanding of the weather on the particular occasion. If the precipitation is showery, then green indicates light showers and experience shows that on the whole in the UK flying at FL100 or above will top the precipitating CU cloud. ‘Yellow’ rainfall indicates a deeper CU layer giving a moderate shower which in my bonanza indicates avoidance vectoring will be necessary to keep clear of larger CU and TCU associated with the shower. ‘Red’ or ‘purple’ rainfall indicates heavy rain associated with CBs, which definitely need a wide berth.

In frontal weather conditions, the analysis is different. If inflight conditions are IMC and the OAT is < 0ºC and > -12 to -15ºC, then penetration of any rain area is likely to mean icing conditions and therefore avoidance is necessary, unless your aircraft is equipped with the appropriate deicing equipment. Again, by practical experience, I have generally found that IMC flight when the OAT is below 0ºC is possible without picking up ice in rain free areas as shown on the MFD.

The rate of refresh of picture data and corridor width of METARS/TAFS is user selectable; it is also possible to send and receive SMS texts using the same data link.

I was first introduced to the MLX770 when I installed it on my Cirrus a few years ago and I was so impressed that when I acquired my Bonanza in 2011, which anyway needed a major avionics refurbishment, I chose the Avidyne EX600 MFD and installed the MLX770 as part of the upgrade. At that stage, the MLX770 was being sold with two years or two hundred hours free data but normally there is a monthly charge for data used.

Loading the flight plan, in my case via a Garmin GTN box, it is transmitted to the EX600 MFD and within a few minutes, TAFs and METARs are available in text form for the destination and other airfields close to the flight planned route. METARs can be displayed in flag form on the MFD map display screen with a blue flag indicating good VFR conditions, green – less good but adequate for a VFR approach, yellow – poor but suitable for a non precision instrument approach, red – bad needing a precision approach and purple – awful and a diversion required. All this can be taken in at a glance with the detail gleaned by switching to the appropriate page and reading the METARs and TAFs as one normally does on paper or electronic format.

The picture right shows the weather on one of my “milk runs” northward to Carlisle. The W/NW polar maritime airflow is generating a number of light showers, shown in green, with a couple of heavier ones shown in yellow, including one at DENBY on my route (from the MFD, you will see that I have been vectored off to the west). Flying at FL120 should overtop the ‘green’ showers but the ‘yellow’ ones will be associated with bigger CUs and will need ‘weather avoidance’ deviations. The ground speed shown on the GPS indicates a 27kt headwind.

A switch on the EX600 allows the download of lightning data when available – again broadly for NW Europe and this correlates well the Stormscope data, which in my aircraft is on a separate dedicated display.

12 - CockpitWeather1-3.jpg
12 - CockpitWeather1-4.jpg Equally useful is the satellite IR display, which is available much more widely – I have used this throughout Europe and parts of Africa. This displays the temperature of cloud detected; high cold clouds are depicted in white while warmer low clouds are grey. Again, knowledge of the overall synoptic weather situation is helpful in understanding the IR picture.

This IR picture was taken over western Spain on a flight from Cascais in Portugal to La Rochelle in France at the end of February this year. The synoptic weather map showed a long trailing cold front from a depression over the northern UK. Over Spain, you would expect it to be a weak affair and so it turned out to be. No rainfall radar picture is available in Spain but the IR picture depicted the cold front well; I was IMC at FL110 in thin AS with no icing; this AS was layered and some time later, I broke out into a clear layer with an undercast as the photograph below shows.

Note that, in the IR picture, there is a blue flag south of ZMR at Salamanca airfield depicting good VFR landing conditions and a similar blue flag at Valladolid airfield to the north east of ZMR. The cloud continued to break up behind the front – see the photograph below – but at La Rochelle, low cloud off the sea required an ILS approach to minimum, as predicted from the TAF available before departure at Cascais (although a slightly higher base was forecast) and confirmed by the METARS received en route.

Had the flags at Salamanca or Valladolid been red or yellow and METARs shown precipitation, then icing at FL110 would be expected and for me, that would have required a re-route to keep me clear. In those circumstances, I would have expected the IR picture to be much more uniformly white. There is no doubt that the availability of this weather information and continuous update in the cockpit during flight make for a much safer and more confident flying regime, particularly when flying over unforgiving terrain.

12 - CockpitWeather1-5.jpg
12 - CockpitWeather1-6.jpg The other weather data available on the TAFs/METARs page is the display of upper wind forecasts for specific locations on the flight plan. The availability of this forecast data is very random; for example, on my regular London to Carlisle run, it is only available for Carlisle, hardly a centre of meteorological importance! However, when available, it is useful to have to update any forecast wind obtained in advance of the flight.

Much more recently, Garmin have introduced a similar satellite based weather download system using their GSR56 box. I have not heard from anyone with practical experience of this [Editor: if any member does have such experience, please write an article about it]. Both Avidyne and Garmin units are relatively expensive and need to be properly installed in the aircraft. For some time past, pilots have been exploring other ways of getting current weather data into the cockpit at more reasonable cost. A year or so ago, Golze Engineering, a German company, produced their ADL120 box which, with an iPad, provides an inflight, data link, weather download facility.

Golze ADL-120

In the previous part of this Article, Anthony Bowles discussed his installation of the Avidyne MLX770 in-flight data link transceiver and having flown with Anthony in his Bonanza and been very impressed by the on-board weather, I decided that it would be a useful addition to my flying capability to install a similar system in my own aircraft. However, installing it in my Mirage was not an economic option, despite already having a suitable MFD (Avidyne EX500), because the installation requires an Iridium satellite antenna installed externally on the fuselage and since the Mirage is pressurised, this would be an EASA major modification, resulting in significant additional cost. The ADL120, made by Golze Engineering, seemed to be the perfect solution – display of weather data on my iPad mini which I already carry for approach plates and a very “clean” installation based on an EASA minor modification, almost as tidy as a built-in system. In fact, the unit is all but completely hidden from view; it is installed behind the instrument panel (close to the bottom so the USB port is easily accessible for upgrades), power is connected to a spare location on the fuse panel, connection to the iPad is by WiFi and the only visible item is a very discreet Iridium satellite phone antenna mounted on the coaming close to the copilot windshield. The ADL unit is wired to the GPS (in my case GNS530W) so that the flight plan data can be downloaded to the iPad App.

Like other apps, the iPad client, “ADLConnect app”, is downloaded from the Appstore; installation and configuration is straightforward. A subscription to the DWD weather service (https://www.flugwetter.de), a service I would recommend regardless because of the European icing forecast charts and a subscription to the Golze/Iridium service are required. The details of these subscriptions are then entered into the App and once in the aircraft, you initially need to connect your iPad to the WiFi generated by the ADL unit but subsequently they connect automatically. The App can also be used with WiFi at home (without any configuration changes) to download weather from the internet. Golze also provides periodic updates, free of charge, to both the firmware on the unit and the App which have included additional functionality – the most recent being version 6 which added satellite infrared download. The firmware updates can be downloaded from the Golze website and updated directly from your laptop via USB.

At the start of the flight, after entering a flight plan into the GPS, selecting “Activate FPL download” in the App causes the flightplan to be downloaded from the GPS; subsequent, in-flight, route changes are automatically downloaded. I then go to the download page in the App and select “Copy FPL airports” which copies the destination airport to the App and I manually enter the ICAO for the alternate into the App. The data (Radar image and quality, Infrared image, Lightning Strikes, Wind/Temperature and range of flight levels, Airport minima, TAFs and METARs) that you would like to download is selected next. Your data selections are remembered so you do not need to do this every time you want to download the weather. You then simply press either the “Download Single” button or repetitive download button and after a few minutes the requested data is available. Using repetitive download causes the weather to be downloaded every 15 minutes until you cancel the operation. I have found this function unnecessary as a periodic update is enough to get the broad picture.

The picture right shows my typical download: radar rainfall, lightning strikes, winds for FL160 and airport minima during a recent flight from Augsburg to Biggin Hill (enroute from Rome to avoid severe weather from Corsica up through the western side of the Alps); the purple area at the bottom of the picture (the downloaded area is defined in black) represents an area of intense lightning strikes. Our rather indirect route was planned on the ground to avoid the areas of weather you can see in the picture and the in-flight verification of our plan made for a stress free (and almost cloudless) flight at FL180.

CockpitWeather2-1
CockpitWeather2-2 The date and time of data is displayed on the panel inset on the map and with the exception of the airport minima colour coding, the data is 30 minutes older than the current time displayed in the panel insert. It is likely that I took the screenshot some minutes after the data was downloaded but the key point is that the data is not absolutely current. The colour coding of minima at enroute airports ranging from blue for airports with cloud base greater than 2000ft and visibility > 8km to red for airports with cloud base less than 200ft or visibility < 550m may also be useful in selecting alternates should the need arise (the ICAO codes can also be displayed adjacent to the airport symbol). The forecast winds and temperatures are also displayed for the selected flight level – although one must remember to select the desired flight level before downloading. The data to overlay on the map is selected using the buttons in green text along the top of the image – everything downloaded is displayed by default, which is how I invariably leave it. The “Update Weather Data” link on the inset panel enables the last weather download to be quickly repeated.

The images left and below show the situation a little later on the ADL120, the stormscope depiction on the GNS530W (and our 190nm direct to VATRI!) and view out of the pilot’s window.

CockpitWeather2-3 CockpitWeather2-4
The ability to download infrared images has been recently added to the ADL and a screenshot I made at home some days later is shown to the right. The colour scheme is not the same as you are probably used to when viewing IR images and it is easy to confuse the two grey colour levels; the key is shown below.
CockpitWeather2-7
CockpitWeather2-5
CockpitWeather2-6 If the radar image is displayed at the same time, the rainfall somewhat obliterates the IR image, so if you toggle this off then you can get a clearer idea of whether you are going to simply overfly the precipitation or whether there is actually any icing risk.
TAFs and METARs can be optionally downloaded for any airport; the destination can be copied from the flight plan at the click of a button but alternates need to be added by their ICAO. The current data is displayed clearly and a button allows you to quickly clear any old reports from the display should you wish. This can be very helpful when the weather is marginal and you are out of range of the ATIS (or there is no ATIS) or helping you determine which runway is likely to be in use and therefore prepare the likely plates for the corresponding arrival/ transition/approach. CockpitWeather2-8
Coverage

As you can see from the pictures below, most of Europe and North America is covered as far as radar rainfall is concerned and most of Europe for infrared, wind and lightning strike data. The METARs and TAFs are pretty much global.

CockpitWeather2-10 CockpitWeather2-9

Other functions

The ADL120 includes a couple of other useful features: firstly, the ability to send and receive text messages from mobile numbers in your address book – particularly useful if you are going to be late and have arranged transport and secondly, an optional automatic position report – the ADL sends out your position, speed and altitude every 10 minutes and a near-real-time plot of this data can be viewed by your family, friends, etc. as shown below.

CockpitWeather2-11

Costs

The purchase cost of the ADL is €1,950 + VAT and installation. In my case the final bill, was around £3,000 including the EASA minor modification fee but clearly that might vary from aircraft to aircraft. In addition, the DWD subscription is approx €68 + VAT per annum and the cost of the Iridium service €25/month + VAT plus €0.25 + VAT per packet of data. The data I select typically requires 2-3 packets per download. To avoid paying bank charges for transferring money to a foreign account on a monthly basis, I pay a single larger amount in advance and the monthly charges are then just deducted; Golze provide a monthly statement so you can keep track of your balance.

Summary

To a large extent, preflight planning, utilising the significant weather charts (and I particularly like the one produced by the MeteoFrance Aeroweb service) enable us to avoid the worst of the weather by selecting an appropriate routing and/or flight level. However, there are situations where, perhaps due to the timing of the flight, the position and/or intensity of heavy rain, thunderstorms or potential icing is uncertain and our planned route is in relatively close proximity to such weather. Without doubt, to penetrate such weather, on-board weather radar and stormscope are essential tools but regardless of whether this equipment is available or not, the overview picture provided by weather downloaded to the cockpit in-flight is invaluable in that it allows us to avoid the riskiest areas by a wide margin. However, it must always be remembered that the rainfall, infra-red images, etc. uploaded to the cockpit can be up to 15 – 20 minutes out of date by the time you see them and so cannot be relied upon for tactical avoidance and an appropriate margin should be applied for any avoidance based on this information.

Even though my aircraft has WX500 stormscope and RDR2000 weather radar overlaid on the MFD, I think the ADL120 is one of the best purchases I have ever made for my aircraft; the App is very reliable – it always has a connection to the Iridium network despite not having a roof mounted antenna, it is very simple to use and the display is clear and unambiguous. Provided you keep in mind that it is not up-to-the minute accurate, the weather data provided is, at the very least, reassuring that you have planned your flight well and certainly most helpful in that it provides the big picture for in-flight re-routing options without having to extrapolate where the weather you wanted to avoid may have moved to based on a forecast several hours old. On longer flights, in-flight TAFs and METARs are a marvellous aid to planning your arrival and give you time to think well ahead about what you may do if the forecast is different to that received before you departed.

Golze Engineering also produces the ADL110 which was reviewed in IP102 / May - August 2014 and features a small display mounted on your instrument panel and also the ADL130 which is a portable version of the ADL120.

Radar

I owned a radar equipped aircraft for about three years and while I could display nice coloured patterns on the PFD, the honest truth is that I did not really understand what I was doing. There is some excuse for this. The advice one gets from fellow pilots, books and indeed the manufacturers’ handbooks is to varying degrees outdated, contradictory, impractical and just plain wrong. From this, the reader will be clear that I make no claims to being an expert but I can perhaps help other pilots make their own judgements. In very simple terms, let us think of radar as a torch scanning ahead of the aircraft looking for the reflections that come from rain drops. For the altitude and speeds we are interested in, we can forget about the curvature of the earth. Let us also assume a modern radar which is gyro stabilised so we can forget about the beam pointing in funny directions when climbing or banking. While we are forgetting things, let us also ignore ground mapping and tilting the beam way up to estimate the cloud tops. Rain itself is not dangerous. The assumption is that there is a relationship between rainfall and turbulence. The radar displays rainfall intensity generally using five colours. The validity of this critical assumption will need further consideration.

The bulk of existing literature is written from a US airline perspective. This introduces certain issues irrelevant to us. We are unlikely to be troubled by the risk of being at FL400 and pointing the beam too far up thus looking over the top of dangerous weather. The literature often proposes quite time consuming ways of operating on the basis that the PNF in a two crew cockpit devotes a lot of time to radar interpretation. This is obviously useless for single crew. Other assumptions are more subtle. They base their analysis on an average freezing level of 15,000ft. Think Texas in the summer, not Yorkshire in the spring. I will return to this point. Since their groundspeeds are high, they want to look further ahead and as the antenna may be bigger their beam width may be greater. Actually my radar, an Allied signal RDR 2000 has a 12 inch antenna, which is about as large as GA aircraft get and produces a beam 8 degrees wide. It will also scan in the vertical plane so one can take a cross section through a cell but again this process takes significant pilot involvement.

The critical adjustment available to the pilot is the ability to tilt the beam up and down and doing this correctly involves understanding what is going on. A typical explanation of radar use involves pointing the beam at the ground. In an extreme case this fills the whole screen with reflections (clutter). If the pilot gradually tilts the beam up, the clutter retreats to the top of the screen and if a narrow line of ground returns are left at the top anything ahead of them must be a return from real weather. Indeed if you can see the weather emerge from the ground return, apparently marching down the screen, this will fairly definitely be weather that needs your attention.

In the literature another school of thought just points the beam up by some magic angle. This is intuitively attractive for those of us flying in the lower teens. We know that for weather to be threatening, it needs vertical development. Meteorologists grade storms according to the returns from around FL180 to FL250. I wondered if this would be the basis of a ‘point and forget plan’ that would work for me. I really wanted to believe this but nagging doubts were caused by Allied Signal, who had kindly provided me with a cardboard computer to calculate tilt angle. This seemed to regard an unreasonably high freezing level as an important factor but did not explain why. I then came across a proper explanation and it is all about calibration. The radar manufacturer needs some standard in order for the colour of the returns to have some consistent relationship to the volume of rain. This standard storm has an assumed ‘bright band’ in which the greatest rainfall occurs and the radar beam needs to point at this area if the colours of the returns are to be calibrated. This band is thought to be about 8000ft deep starting just above the freezing level since frozen water gives low or minimal returns compared with water in its liquid state.

12 - CockpitWeather3-1.png Rainfall data download showing TS/CB with lightning strikes.
The same storm as depicted by the onboard weather radar on an Avidyne MX500 MFD. Actually, the storm is two cells close together. 12 - CockpitWeather3-2.png
12 - CockpitWeather3-3.png Cockpit view of the cells.

Thus we can at last understand the problem. We can point the beam up a little and at piston aircraft levels, say FL100 to FL180, we are unlikely to look over the storm and any returns we get will almost certainly be weather we would wish to avoid. If we adopt a sensible tilt angle at the ranges we are interested in, there need be few ground returns since the bottom of the beam will not intersect the earth at all. However, the colour of the return will not reflect the intensity of the storm as we are not looking at the calibrated area. I guess it is theoretically possible to have no returns at high level when a lot is going on lower down in the CB but I have seen no reference to this being an issue. However, scanning too low when flying at a low level has caused major loss of life. The limitation of the radar’s ability to tilt up means that at low level it is simply impossible to shine the beam high enough to see the dangerous weather. Aircraft have flown though yellow returns when on final approach that were painting magenta at the higher levels.

Having a stormscope, downlink weather capability and state of the art radar left me like a teenager discovering sex. I was pretty sure I had the necessary equipment; I had a vague idea of its function but was clueless about to how to use it to best effect.

It is time to move on, so based on my own very limited experience of flying in bad weather, here are some tentative conclusions about what best to do at around FL140 in Europe.

The published advice is to avoid red and magenta returns by 20 nm going upwind if possible. If you apply the 1 in 60 rule, you can see that this makes for pretty large deviations unless the heading change is made early. In reality, at GA speeds, I have found that if you deviate too early, the weather you have been trying to avoid may move or dissipate. ATC are pretty accommodating with 10º deviations but they do need some idea of where and when you will be back on track. The RDR 2000 has a useful ability to show a bearing line from the aircraft to the storm thus making the heading change estimation easy (this also functions to identify the location of a vertical slice if you want to take advantage of the vertical profile function). For these reasons I do not feel that making tactical decisions more than 50 or so miles ahead is likely to work. So, if we tilt up 1º, the centre of the beam at 50 nm will be 5,000 ft above FL140. (Add two zeros to the range in nm to get the height in ft); however, the limits of the 8º beam will be just above ground level to 35,000 ft. This means that anything you see at that range is weather. As it happens this is also not bad for calibration if you believe a more realistic European 5,000 - 8,000ft freezing level. The radar is looking up a bit too much and perhaps underestimating the intensity of the rain. Ideally we would also integrate information from other sources into our decisions. Presumably one would not fly without some feel for the overall weather system and the down link may be giving us a radar picture from many miles ahead. At the very least it shows the METAR colour codes for the whole route. If there is the potential for a major re-route, landing now or turning back, then this is the best information source. However, I have never had to do this in practice, since my flying is not mission critical, so I would probably not have set off in the first place. I have not had a lot of success in coordinating the other tactical tool, the stormscope, with the radar. Obviously, if it’s magenta and there are loads of strikes, it is time to run away. However, the more common situation is a yellow with a hint of red radar return with zero or few strikes or a collection of strikes without much of a radar return. Another factor is the passenger and crew attitude to turbulence. I have found that few pilots, myself included, are rational in assessing risk. They tend to relate to events that scared them early in their career. Thus some avoid fronts, some ice and others any hint of turbulence. The later tendency is exacerbated by the airlines who, quite reasonably in the interests of passenger comfort, try to avoid every bounce but thus tend to ramp up the feeling of impending doom by the constant requests to deviate. I am quite comfortable skirting or even going through yellow and green returns but possibly this attitude will change if I get a scare. I have relatively little experience of the Florida afternoon kind of thunderstorms. I am sure that the 20NM avoidance advice is appropriate but they will be painting red and magenta.

12 - CockpitWeather3-4.png The same storm as above at closer range after turning to avoid it. This would not be drawn on the weather radar because it only scans 45º either side of straight ahead.
The weather radar showing the storm cells at closer range. 12 - CockpitWeather3-5.png

So, with lots of caveats, here is a suggested radar strategy for European flying in the mid teens with gyro stabilised radar. Set the tilt to +1º and consider the 40-50 nm range. (At FL100 you might tilt up 2º). Use the overlay on the MFD as this enables you to clearly see the returns relative to the flight planned route. There should be no ground returns at this scale and you are pointing at the active part of the CB’s although your returns may underestimate the strength of the storm. For yellow and green returns, avoid them where possible but there is no need to make heroic efforts. If the radar and the stormscope agree, then upgrade the yellow to red. Red returns must be avoided by say four or five miles. If you can confirm by inspecting the CB visually then do so but I have to say, that most thunderstorms are very unhelpful and rarely look like the pictures in the text books.

At very low level it is impossible to point the beam high enough to get a really good handle on the weather. The advice is to make your assessment about anything really dangerous when 15 or 20 miles away. That said, if you point up say 10º or more then you will not be getting ground returns and you may be able to see and avoid some of the heaviest rain and minimise discomfort but you will not see any dangerous CBs at under about 7 nm. Please note that this simplistic approach is not going to get you thorough really serious weather or even the kind of isolated severe storms US pilots regard as flyable with care. I have ignored the characteristic radar signatures of heavy hail and tornados. I have not considered attenuation where heavy rain may absorb all the beams energy thus hiding even worse weather just behind the first shower. However, taken in its context, it is at least a practical understandable course of action which has some theoretical justification.

On one occasion, I did penetrate a storm line in the USA which was painting significant amounts of magenta. We were heading from Florida to Nashville having abandoned our planned East coast offshore route due to the appearance of the first potential hurricane of the season a month early lying just off the East coast. Initially, the more developed storms were in a N–S line located to the west of our track and were no real threat. Ahead, there was severe weather but we could see from the downlink radar that it was isolated. ATC started issuing a lot of SIGMETs and we could hear commercial aircraft running for cover. Weather data downlink can be anything from a few minutes to 15 minutes old and this needs to be kept in mind. There appeared to be an area of weaker rainfall pretty much on our track so we kept going. We knew we had an out by retreating to the south east. Throughout this incident almost all airfields were still VFR on their METARs and it is perhaps surprising to realise that an airfield can still be showing VFR even though it is right under a serious storm. We were not fooled, having had a vivid illustration of what serious rainfall meant a couple of days before on a tourist boat trip, when we had had to wrap towels round our heads to avoid the pain caused by the impact of the large drops in a downpour. As we got nearer to the gap and were able to look at it with on board radar, it became evident that it was closing. It was also clear that the storms ahead were becoming ordered like those to the west and were forming a second storm line east to west across our path. The north south line was also thickening, becoming more intense and ordered and but the worst of this was now behind us. We asked ATC for a 90º heading change to the west for about 30 miles to enable us to parallel the line and look for a gap. One was vaguely visible on the downlink and ATC also mentioned that they could see this area of lesser returns. Since we were now paralleling the storms, our on board radar was not of much help. The stormscope was showing a fair amount of activity but was hard to correlate with the radar.

When we judged we were abeam the ‘gap’ by reference to the downlink we decided to go for it and turned north again and the downlink picture was confirmed by the on board radar. Not without some trepidation and a tightening of seat belts, we penetrated the line and in the event, experienced only light rain and turbulence. ATC asked for a PIREP and other commercial and Coastguard traffic followed us. Beyond the line the game was not over. There were lots of isolated returns round Nashville some of which were magenta. All this had eroded our fuel reserves so we decided to quit while we were ahead and diverted to a nearby airfield where we spent the night.

12 - CockpitWeather3-6.png Bendix King RDR 2000 Radar installed in a pod hanging below the right wing on a PA46 Mirage. The antenna diameter on the PA46 is 10 inches.

I have since thought about this incident and wondered if we took a foolish risk. I find myself comfortable with our decision process given the fact that there were two experienced pilots, that we were largely VFR on top and could eyeball some of the weather and almost always had options. That said, if I had known exactly what we would face I would not have departed. I also hope that if our capabilities had been reduced, for example no downlink or being single pilot, the decision would have been different. Due to practical difficulties at the departure airfield we did not leave with full tanks. Although we were only 1.5 hours from full and had just adequate reserves in normal circumstances, in the event, fuel was an additional pressure. On the other hand, if we had been carrying more fuel we would probably have decided to brave the storms at Nashville so perhaps it was all for the best.

If you are going to fly in some parts of the world with any degree of utility, you have to accept that continuing when thunderstorms are forecast is inevitable in the same way you fly in the UK when freezing conditions are forecast. The sort of technology that makes thunderstorm avoidance easier and safer is becoming available on portable devices so this sort of decision process may become relevant to more pilots in the future.

Operational Working Group Advisories

Introduction

The regulatory requirements for converting to new types of aircraft are varied depending on type and jurisdiction. Sometimes, no formal requirement exists and members are required to self-brief on a new type of aircraft or a variant of a type that is already familiar to them. PPL/IR believes that robust systems knowledge can improve single pilot performance in normal, high workload and emergency situations and prevent pilot-induced complications which have been seen in several general aviation accidents in Europe.

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Introduction

 

By way of introduction: I am a GA pilot with about 4500 hours. About 2500 is private touring and training and about 2000 is providing instrument instruction at IR and IR(R) levels. Most of my flight time is IFR and about 1400 hours is flight by sole reference to instruments.

This article concentrates on basic IF flying – i.e. not on flying procedures or even on flying en-route. It is aimed at newly-qualified instrument pilots and pilots who do not fly many hours in IMC each year. Many pilots will practice approaches from time to time, but having to fly an approach in minimum conditions is not common, whereas every instrument flight will include basic IF.

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Introduction

Many of us have been instructed for our instrument qualifications at an IFR airfield. This has made our lives very easy, as we have been able to plan and fly Standard Departures and Arrivals, and never leave the ease and protection of an IFR environment. Even if the IFR airfield is outside controlled airspace there are normally published procedures to get in and out of the airways system which, although they are in Class G, have much the feel of a full IFR environment. However, it is a common experience that, once qualified, pilots operate to and from VFR airfields and have to find their way into the airways system and/or out of the system into a VFR airfield. In the UK, others have qualified at a VFR airfield, but for the IMCR or IR(R), which means that they will be executing the enroute part of their flight, whether VFR or IFR, outside the airways structure, but still need to depart and arrive. This is a living document for PPL/IR members to contribute their knowledge and experience both of the general issues of making the transition, both ways, between VFR and IFR, but also to share their knowledge of how the rules and best practice vary between countries. So the first few sections provide general advice, and this is followed by a table of every European country, as a reference as to how the system works there. Join PPL/IR to read more ...

Electronic conspicuity is changing very rapidly at the time of writing and this paper is designed to be a living document updated on a regular basis as technology, regulation, advice and best practice evolve.

The case for electronic conspicuity

Mid-air collisions continue to dog GA. They have always been a small but significant contributor to accident statistics. Although they produce fewer fatal accidents than, for example, loss of control and CFIT, they tend to create more fatalities per accident and create much more news coverage.

Ironically, mid-airs seem to stimulate a greater visceral fear than other, much more likely, fatal scenarios. Part of that might be because we feel more in control of whether we hit the ground or run out of fuel, whereas our ability to control the actions of other pilots, and the care they take, is very limited.

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Autopilots are one of the greatest tools for safety and convenience in our aircraft. They can make the difference between an easy flight and arriving completely exhausted. Especially in single pilot IFR/IMC operations they can markedly enhance safety when under high workload. This is especially true in an emergency, where the pilot can be relieved of the task of handling the aircraft and can focus on managing the situation. Join PPL/IR to read more ...

Introduction

PPL training seldom explores flying at altitudes above a few thousand feet; the legal side (need for oxygen) is covered but why and how you should go to 10,000, 20,000 or above is a topic essentially ignored. This is true also for IR(R) training. For the IR, the need to fly airways on a portion of the test drives a limited amount of higher altitude experience, but very rarely above 10,000 feet. There are however many reasons to want to fly higher.

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The Requirement

Many of the minima to which pilots are required to operate are prescribed in the various regulations. They are expressed in terms of minimum levels of horizontal visibility or RVR and minimum altitudes at which visual reference with the runway environment can be established and maintained.

The bulk of this article is concerned with minima for IR-rated pilots operating single-pilot private flights. Minima for IR(R)/IMCR pilots are also covered at the end.

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Introduction

The intention of this document is to make you think about how your fuel system works, what can go wrong and how to prevent that. Any of the accidents quoted below would have been easily prevented with proper understanding and planning. Join PPL/IR to read more ...

Scenario vs Skills Based Training

 

Traditionally ab-initio training has been undertaken as a series of exercises to teach different skills which, when added together, constitute the competencies required to fly an aircraft. Thus, someone who can take-off, climb, fly straight and level while navigating, descend and land, and can handle the problems of engine failure, stalling and inadvertent entry into IMC is deemed suitable to hold a PPL.

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