Using Flight Simulators for IFR Training (Part 2)

Welcome to the second of a three part series on instrument flying with a home simulator. Instrument flying can be intimidating for many pilots, yet a simulator can build confidence as well as understanding when it comes to the IFR realm. Part two will cover useful tasks to practice in a simulator as well as helpful maneuvers that make use of those tasks. 

Instrument Flight Useful Scenarios / Maneuvers

Flight simulators today are leagues ahead of where they were just a decade ago. The computing power of an average PC paired with readily available graphics cards and simulator programs make it a great time to enjoy at-home training. One of the best categories of simulator that has enjoyed recent upgrades is the weather emulator. We can now control types of clouds, bases and ceilings of these clouds, wind speeds, direction and gust factors. We can control the barometric pressure setting and temperature at our airport (great for density A=altitude experiments) as well as visibility and precipitation. Never has there been such a detailed meteorological simulator for the general public, and we have the ability to critique our instrument flying habits in any situation we would like. Here are a few scenarios or tasks that we like to practice. 

Basic Tasks
  • Instrument Scan – This may seem like a monotonous task but it’s the bedrock of a proficient instrument pilot’s flying. Having a steady technique and understanding what those instruments are indicating, as well as picking up on slight changes before they become significant differences is what keeps you safe. Try flying in the clouds without the autopilot and strengthen the instrument scan muscle. Reduce the workload with a transition to a glass panel from steam gauges. 
  • Avionics Operations – Learning the ins and outs of a computer’s operating logic can be challenging in itself. Trying to learn an operating system while flying an airplane, that’s like reading a book while juggling. Get a better sense of what a GPS unit can do while using a simulator and watch how “Direct To” commands or “Nearest” selections change as your flight progresses. Move on to loading approaches and activating them at the appropriate time, just as you would in the aircraft. The many different aircraft available in today’s simulators provide a wide variety of avionics packages, so you’ll be hard pressed to not find something similar to your airplane. 
  • Autopilot Operations – Proficiency with an autopilot allows a pilot to focus on other aspects of a flight and reduce our workload… but only if they are accustomed to autopilot operations. Better acquaint yourself with the features of an autopilot and how they can assist in flying approaches, entering holds, or assisting on climbs. Dust off the old pilot’s operating handbook supplements. How far into an approach can we use the autopilot? Can we use it on a go-around? Enjoy practicing those legal minimums in the simulator. 
  • Approach Brief – An approach brief helps us to prepare and verify the important facets of a landing prior to descending towards terra firma. Repetition is our friend here and getting to the point where it’s fast and succinct is the goal. Your confidence will improve with a reduction in perspiration when you can quickly brief an approach into unique / new airports, as well as the aircraft’s performance and contingency plans. 
Maneuvers to Practice
  • 0/0 TakeoffThose previously mentioned rudder pedals will come in handy when you need to hold centerline on takeoff and can only see the next 20 feet of the centerline. This maneuver is not an everyday event, but it’s a great one to practice as a student. Speed control, heading control, and lack of reference to the ground is a high pucker factor maneuver when single pilot IFR. This is a good one to practice a few times before real life application. 
  • Course InterceptsProfessional pilots need to be great navigators. Passengers may not notice it but fellow pilots will pick up on the full dot course deflection indication when rolling out on a new heading if you don’t know what you’re doing. Practice this maneuver in a slow flight configuration as well as a fast pace. Next try the maneuver with a paltry 10 degree intercept angle, then take it to the advised limit of a 45 degree intercept. Add another layer by intercepting a VOR radial 30 NMs away and then 3 NMs away. 
  • Holding EntriesWith improvements in the Air Traffic Control system, we hope to never enter a hold… But sometimes Mother Nature requires it if our fuel tanks allow it. Critique holding proficiency by entering the circuit with a direct entry, a teardrop entry, and a parallel entry. Once you have the entries down pat, connect ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot to your simulator and review your consistency in creating a symmetrical race track pattern when viewed from above. For a final challenge, throw a 20 knot wind perpendicular to the inbound leg and work on the wind correction technique.  
  • Approach Down to MinimumsOne of the greatest features of using a simulator for instrument flying is we can precisely set cloud profiles as well as flight visibility for our next mission. Fly a familiar approach with no clouds but the visibility down to the absolute minimum range. Next fly the same approach with unlimited visibility but take the overcast cloud layer down to the minimums for that approach. Lastly, layer both challenges into a single flight and see what it’s like to fly the approach on the worst advisable weather scenario for that airport. It’ll raise your heartbeat a little bit.  
  • Missed ApproachWhen executing a missed approach in VFR conditions it is usually due to a bad approach, gusty wind, or a vehicle/animal that makes its way onto the runway. We have a view of the horizon and we’ll comfortably climb out while retracting flaps for either another lap in the pattern or another airport. When flying IFR it’s a little different: when reaching the missed approach point and having no reference to the airport outside the windscreen, we have to fly a go-around with reference only to instruments, while flying a missed approach route that usually concludes in a hold (hopefully you practiced those entry procedures), also while operating the radios and communicating your intentions. The Aviate, Navigate, Communicate hierarchy is important to remember in these scenarios. 
  • Challenging Approaches!When factoring in approach fixes and terrain, I feel confident saying that no two instrument approaches are the same. Each one will require different briefings, missed approach procedures, comm frequencies, etc. Additionally when transitioning to the approach from the south at altitude X, then flying the same approach from the north at altitude X+2000’, it’s a different start to the procedure. Whether pulling from Flying Magazine’s Chart Wise category or online articles highlighting challenging approaches, there is no lack of challenges for the digital instrument pilot. 

For more instrument content, check out Sporty’s IFR month landing page. Part three of this series will focus on emergencies to practice in a simulator.

Using Flight Simulators for IFR Training (Part 1)

Using Flight Simulators for IFR Training (Part 3)