Surviving while Flying Single Pilot IFR

I probably picked too dramatic of a title but there is a huge danger zone when flying Single Pilot IFR.

Currently, I fly aircraft ranging from Citation Sovereign to the Piper Seneca, I’ve learned that the most dangerous flying I do is single pilot IFR.

I remember when I first earned my instrument rating. At least I had some basic personal minimums, but I thought I was immune to the threat of single-pilot IFR flying. When I earned my instrument rating I had around 200 hours of total time and earned my rating in a 1980’s Turbo Piper Arrow. This airplane had no autopilot and no GPS. I was proud to not be a “child of the magenta line.” If you have a written or checkride soon, you need to check this out.

Back then, I thought that IFR flying was all about shooting approaches safely but I was really lacking in flight planning. I really could have used One of These for situational awareness and These Apps for flight planning. Ok back to the story.

Although some think that more experience leads to more safety, I also believe that more experience leads to complacency. The best of my instrument, commercial and private pilots are the lower time pilots. They have an understanding of safety, planning and personal minimums. I like to meet up with these students every three-four months to make sure they haven’t entered the danger zone.

Warning Sign One

Last summer my wife and I were to use one of my client’s airplane to visit family in North Carolina for July Fourth. The original plane was a Cessna 414AW that would get us from GRR-TRI in around two hours. This airplane was just being returned to service from an extensive annual inspection and was luckily already flight tested.

If you’re not using this program for ground school, you deserve better!

Warning Sign Two

Of course, the airplane was stuck in maintenance. This changed all of my plans. Now I had to drive to another airport to rent a local school’s Diamond DA40.

I wasn’t required but chose to fly with a CFI for a quick thirty minutes to make sure I would be comfortable in the airplane. Finally at 18:15lcl my wife and I began the slow crawl to North Carolina at 135 knots.

Warning Sign Three

The bad luck continued, at 19:45lcl a solid line of weather was forming. When the lighting was getting a little too close I diverted to the middle of nowhere Ohio. This weird airport had an old trailer for the terminal area that smelled of mildew and no chairs. But at least there was a new ping pong table. Looking back I should have just called it a night, but after the weather passed at 20:45lcl I decided to push on. Into a comfortable thousand foot ceiling, we launched for NC.

Warning Sign Four

We had to change altitude to stay out of a trace of rime ice but the trip was mostly uneventful. Things were finally looking ahead, with better winds than forecast I would be landing around 23:00lcl. When I realized I wouldn’t be flying the Twin Cessna I chose a smaller airport in the hills with a shorter runway. That was stupid. Near the top of descent and watching the terrain started to pop up on the G1000, I finally realized I was an idiot if I tried to land there. Disengaging the autopilot I made a quick 180 and diverted to an airport, not in the hills.

Did I have get-there-itis? Maybe, I really think complacency was a factor. Just because I can fly a Jet or a King Air it doesn’t mean flying a smaller airplane will be easier. I will always be looking for warning signs. When you’re used to flying in a crew environment there to back you up when you’re flying Single Pilot IFR.

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