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The Challenge of Single Pilot Instrument Flying

Photo: Greg Linton

When a pilot receives their private pilot’s license they are allowed to fly in VFR, or Visual Flight Rules. This means a pilot must fly outside of the clouds and have good visibility. This is because as a private pilot we are required to keep separation visually. Pilots flying in VFR conditions avoid other traffic using the see and avoid method. They are constantly scanning outside their cockpit and communicating on a common frequency to give position reports. This becomes impossible when bad weather rolls in. When flying in clouds it is impossible to see and impossible to be seen. It can also cause disorientation as a pilot will lose the natural horizon of the earth. Instrument flying, or flying by sole reference to the instruments alleviates this problem.

Instrument flying allows pilot to fly into clouds and in poor visibility. In order to do this pilots are required to get special training to fly in instrument flight rules and obtain an instrument rating. Once a private pilot obtains their instrument rating they are able to fly more freely without fear of a line of clouds preventing them from getting home. However instrument flying adds a lot of work to a pilot’s plate; a two man crew helps this workload, however when flying without a copilot, all that work is on one pilot.

When flying in instrument meteorological conditions a pilot must maintain level flight by using the flight instruments. They must constantly scan between the six main flight instruments and make small adjustments to fly level. This becomes more difficult when flying in rough weather in which the aircraft can bounce around and make it challenging to maintain level flight. When flying with a single pilot, maintaining level flight becomes a demanding task.

The next factor to add to a pilot’s workload while instrument flying is maintaining contact with air traffic control. Because the pilot can’t see outside the window they are relying on air traffic control to provide them with separation with other traffic in the cloudy skies. This is both a help and a burden. It is helpful because it allows the pilot to concentrate on the instruments and not worry about scanning for traffic. In a cockpit with two pilots one can focus on talking with air traffic control while the other pilot can focus on flying the airplane. However with only one pilot the task of communication is added to focusing on maintaining level flight.

Finally the third factor adding to the workload in instrument flying is navigating. When flying in the clouds it is impossible to navigate using visual landmarks on the ground. The advent of GPS has helped pilots in navigation and has helped to reduce the work required to navigate in the sky. However, when not using a GPS or when GPS is not available, pilots use radio based navigation. Using radio based navigation requires using radio beacons and airways to navigate. In multi-cockpit crews, the pilot not flying can tune and help to track these airways. However when flying with one pilot, he or she is responsible for this navigation. Radio navigation is also used to fly approaches. Instrument landing systems are often radio beacons that are much more sensitive. Flying these approaches and maintaining precision on the glidepath adds significantly to the pilot’s workload.

When flying in a multi-crew environment, flying in instrument conditions can be made easier however when flying in a single pilot environment, the workload increases significantly. The pilot then becomes responsible for maintaining level flight on a designated course, while speaking with air traffic control. It becomes a lot to manage for one purpose and can lead to disorientation if not done properly and with proper execution. Having an instrument rating allows the pilot to have more freedom when flying however with it comes a greater responsibility and increased work.

Daniel Morley


  • Daniel Morley

    Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.

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