Is newer technology necessary for IFR flight?

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I was just part of a "heated" debate about pilots who are unwilling to fly without technology
above what is required as minimum equipment. This would include autopilot, GPS, XM,
stormscope, TCAS, etc. This came up because I cancelled a flight due to an inop. autopilot
(I know I am conservative). I don't own an aircraft at this time so I fly both old and new
aircraft depending on my needs. I have noticed during IFR operations that I don't feel
comfortable without most all the items I listed above. I don't care about the autopilot as
much for the approach as I feel comfortable hand flying, but I really like to use it to focus
during certain phases of flight on navigation, briefing, high workload with ATC, etc. Also,
just having the flexibility to make sure I am ahead of the aircraft and if needed to have
help at the ready. I also just got an appreciation for stormscope as I am used to having it,
but found out recently just how necessary it is. I was flying a Bonanza that didn't when I
came very close to flying into a large imbedded CB. ATC was very busy, but luckily took
the time to warn me or I could have been in real trouble. Anyway, its funny how you fly
with a certain set of equipment and feel fine until you upgrade and then it seems
dangerous to fly without it.


-- Alex Baker, July 8, 2010


I think that it depends a lot on what kind of IFR operation you're talking about. If it is getting above a marine layer in California where the ceiling is 800 overcast and there is no convection within 700 miles, I would feel comfortable with a steam-gauge airplane and hand-flying for 1-2 minutes of IMC on either end of the flight.

Certainly most airline pilots would feel very uncomfortable without two of everything! An autopilot would be required by the FAA for Part 135 single-pilot IFR operations and generally speaking anything that pushes beyond the Part 135 limits is risky.

-- Philip Greenspun, July 9, 2010

To Alex's follow-up below: What advice do I give my newly minted IFR students? Lately all of them have been in the helicopter, so I advise them not to go into IMC until they've been hired on an S76 in the Gulf of Mexico (long wait for that now!) or in a Medevac operation where they have an IFR-certified helicopter! (the Robinson is legal only for training in simulated IMC)

I guess I would advise pilots who were going to fly real-world single- pilot IFR to insist on a reasonably modern airplane with a competent autopilot. Now that an all-glass Cirrus can be purchased for $150,000 I'm not sure why anyone would need to fly a plane less capable than an Avidyne PFD-equipped Cirrus.

-- Philip Greenspun, July 9, 2010

I would consider a functioning autopilot (and knowledge of how to use it) a requirement for safe IFR flight. Cancelling a flight (if you anticipate IMC) due to an inop autopilot seems to me to be the absolutely right decision.

I look at it like the take-off minimums. They don't apply to Part 91 operations, but you would be equally foolish to take off when take-off visibility/ceiling requirements aren't met. What are you going to do if you have to turn back to your departure airport and the weather is below approach minimums? How can you see animals/obstacles on the runway?

Similarly, for Part 135 operations, FAR 135.101/105 specify that either a second pilot or an autopilot are required for IFR. What if you get disoriented? It can happen and usually when the conditions are bad and you would need to be at your best. The autopilot will save you while you get yourself back together.

Most Part 91 pilots fly less than commercial pilots. While they aren't required to by the FARs, these pilots should in general not fly in situations where Part 135/121 pilots would be prohibited.


-- Todd Ramming, July 8, 2010


I couldn't agree more. In my mind this goes to Philip's point about not trying to be better than an airline pilot.

I own a hanger at a small airport with no Instrument approach. I have driven there on days the IMC was so low I had a hard time seeing 20' of road in front of me, only to arrive to several aircraft roaring off into the mist. It's also the only place I've seen 4 200 pound men get out of a 172, but that's another story. When I talk to these pilots they say I have no business flying IFR because I am dependent on technology you don't need.

There does seem to be two schools on this issue. I wish there were some better data on accident rates as it relates to aircraft equipment.

-- Alex Baker, July 9, 2010

It seems to me that there are really two questions at work here.

1) Should you be able to fly IFR without the technology?
2) Should you actually fly IFR without the technology?

The answer to #1, to me, should unquestionably be yes.

-- Joshua Levinson, July 9, 2010


Agree on point #1.

You didn't answer point #2 yourself. How about it?


Good point it does depend. I fly mostly in TX, NM, and CO so IFR usually means IFR and the things that go with it. What guidance with regard to equipment, if any, do you give one of your newly minted Instrument pilots?


-- Alex Baker, July 9, 2010


I didn't answer #2 because I dont have my instrument rating yet. I started training for it, and decided I wasn't really ready yet, and needed some more VFR experience.

So, without any instrument flying experience, it's a tough question for me to answer. I'm not in the financial position to be buying an airplane, nor will I be any time soon. So, any flying I'm going to be doing will be in a thirty year old Cherokee with steam gauges, a single vacuum pump, and no autopilot.

I don't know that I'd ever feel comfortable taking passengers up in IMC cruising conditions in that sort of aircraft (a departure and approach, maybe, once I've gotten some real IMC experience solo). I probably would fly in those conditions with a second pilot in the plane, either a CFII or another instrument pilot with a good amount of experience, to monitor. Solo, probably not, at least not before getting a LOT more "easy" IMC flying in.

-- Joshua Levinson, August 10, 2010

I would always cancel if my AP was not functioning. I fly at least once per week, always travel IFR and I am very comfortable hand flying the airplane in any condtions. However, flying single engine IFR I want every possible advantage including XM weather, GPS (always current) and AP. I fly with back up radio and GPS. ATC can be a lot of help but are best when relaying a pilot report. If no one flew through it before you, you are often the experiment. I've had to program some pretty extensive route changes especially into larger cities and the AP sure makes that about 300% less stressful.

-- Fred Rohlfing, September 1, 2010