Flying Experience

The more experience a pilot has in VFR and IFR flight, the more proficient a pilot becomes. VFR experience can be gained by flying in terminal areas with high traffic activity. This type of flying forces the pilot to polish the skill of dividing his or her attention between aircraft control, navigation, communications, and other flight deck duties. IFR experience can be gained through night flying which also promotes both instrument proficiency and confidence. The progression from flying at night under clear, moonlit conditions to flying at night without moonlight, natural horizon, or familiar landmarks teaches a pilot to trust the aircraft instruments with minimal dependence upon what can be seen outside the aircraft. It is a pilot’s decision to proceed with an IFR flight or to wait for more acceptable weather conditions.

Recency of Experience

Currency as an instrument pilot is an equally important consideration. No person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft under IFR or in weather conditions less than VFR minimums unless he or she has met the requirements of Part 91. Remember, these are minimum requirements.

Airborne Equipment and Ground Facilities

Regulations specify minimum equipment for filing an IFR flight plan. It is the pilot’s responsibility to determine the adequacy of the aircraft and navigation/communication (NAV/COM) equipment for the proposed IFR flight. Performance limitations, accessories, and general condition of the equipment are directly related to the weather, route, altitude, and ground facilities pertinent to the flight, as well as to the flight deck workload.

Weather Conditions

In addition to the weather conditions that might affect a VFR flight, an IFR pilot must consider the effects of other weather phenomena (e.g., thunderstorms, turbulence, icing, and visibility).


Inflight turbulence can range from occasional light bumps to extreme airspeed and altitude variations that make aircraft control difficult. To reduce the risk factors associated with turbulence, pilots must learn methods of avoidance, as well as piloting techniques for dealing with an inadvertent encounter.

Turbulence avoidance begins with a thorough preflight weather briefing. Many reports and forecasts are available to assist the pilot in determining areas of potential turbulence. These include the Severe Weather Warning (WW), SIGMET (WS), Convective SIGMET (WST), AIRMET (WA), Severe Weather Outlook (AC), Center Weather Advisory (CWA), Area Forecast (FA), and Pilot Reports (UA or PIREPs). Since thunderstorms are always indicative of turbulence, areas of known and forecast thunderstorm activity is always of interest to the pilot. In addition, clear air turbulence (CAT) associated with jet streams, strong winds over rough terrain, and fast moving cold fronts are good indicators of turbulence.

Pilots should be alert while in flight for the signposts of turbulence. For example, clouds with vertical development such as cumulus, towering cumulus, and cumulonimbus are indicators of atmospheric instability and possible turbulence. Standing lenticular clouds lack vertical development but indicate strong mountain wave turbulence. While en route, pilots can monitor hazardous inflight weather advisory service (HIWAS) broadcast for updated weather advisories, or contact the nearest FSS or En Route Flight Advisory Service (EFAS) for the latest turbulence-related PIREPs.

To avoid turbulence associated with strong thunderstorms, circumnavigate cells by at least 20 miles. Turbulence may also be present in the clear air above a thunderstorm. To avoid this, fly at least 1,000 feet above the top for every 10 knots of wind at that level, or fly around the storm. Finally, do not underestimate the turbulence beneath a thunderstorm. Never attempt to fly under a thunderstorm. The possible results of turbulence and wind shear under the storm could be disastrous.

When moderate to severe turbulence is encountered, aircraft control is difficult, and a great deal of concentration is required to maintain an instrument scan. [Figure 1] Pilots should immediately reduce power and slow the aircraft to the recommended turbulence penetration speed as described in the POH/AFM. To minimize the load factor imposed on the aircraft, the wings should be kept level and the aircraft’s pitch attitude should be held constant. The aircraft is allowed to fluctuate up and down because maneuvering to maintain a constant altitude only increases the stress on the aircraft. If necessary, the pilot should advise ATC of the fluctuations and request a block altitude clearance. In addition, the power should remain constant at a setting that maintains the recommended turbulence penetration airspeed.

Instrument Weather Flying - IFR Flight
Figure 1. Maintaining an instrument scan in severe turbulence can be difficult

The best source of information on the location and intensity of turbulence are PIREPs. Therefore, pilots are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the turbulence reporting criteria found in the AIM, which also describes the procedure for volunteering PIREPs relating to turbulence.

Structural Icing

The very nature of flight in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) means operating in visible moisture such as clouds. At the right temperatures, this moisture can freeze on the aircraft, causing increased weight, degraded performance, and unpredictable aerodynamic characteristics. Understanding avoidance and early recognition followed by prompt action are the keys to avoiding this potentially hazardous situation.

Structural icing refers to the accumulation of ice on the exterior of the aircraft and is broken down into three classifications: rime ice, clear ice, and mixed ice. For ice to form, there must be moisture present in the air, and the air must be cooled to a temperature of 0 °C (32 °F) or less. Aerodynamic cooling can lower the surface temperature of an airfoil and cause ice to form on the airframe even though the ambient temperature is slightly above freezing.

Rime ice forms if the droplets are small and freeze immediately when contacting the aircraft surface. This type of ice usually forms on areas such as the leading edges of wings or struts. It has a somewhat rough-looking appearance and a milky-white color.Clear ice is usually formed from larger water droplets or freezing rain that can spread over a surface. This is the most dangerous type of ice since it is clear, hard to see, and can change the shape of the airfoil.

Mixed ice is a mixture of clear ice and rime ice. It has the bad characteristics of both types and can form rapidly. Ice particles become embedded in clear ice, building a very rough accumulation. The table in Figure 2 lists the temperatures at which the various types of ice form.

Instrument Weather Flying - IFR Flight
Figure 2. Temperature ranges for ice formation

Structural icing is a condition that can only get worse. Therefore, during an inadvertent icing encounter, it is important the pilot act to prevent additional ice accumulation. Regardless of the level of anti-ice or deice protection offered by the aircraft, the first course of action should be to leave the area of visible moisture. This might mean descending to an altitude below the cloud bases, climbing to an altitude that is above the cloud tops, or turning to a different course. If this is not possible, then the pilot must move to an altitude where the temperature is above freezing. Pilots should report icing conditions to ATC and request new routing or altitude if icing will be a hazard. Refer to the AIM for information on reporting icing intensities.


Instrument pilots must learn to anticipate conditions leading to the formation of fog and take appropriate action early in the progress of the flight. Before a flight, close examination of current and forecast weather should alert the pilot to the possibility of fog formation. When fog is a consideration, pilots should plan adequate fuel reserves and alternate landing sites. En route, the pilot must stay alert for fog formation through weather updates from EFAS, ATIS, and ASOS/AWOS sites.

Two conditions lead to the formation of fog. Either the air is cooled to saturation, or sufficient moisture is added to the air until saturation occurs. In either case, fog can form when the temperature/dewpoint spread is 5° or less. Pilots planning to arrive at their destination near dusk with decreasing temperatures should be particularly concerned about the possibility of fog formation.

Volcanic Ash

Volcanic eruptions create volcanic ash clouds containing an abrasive dust that poses a serious safety threat to flight operations. Adding to the danger is the fact that these ash clouds are not easily discernible from ordinary clouds when encountered at some distance from the volcanic eruption.

When an aircraft enters a volcanic ash cloud, dust particles and smoke may become evident in the cabin, often along with the odor of an electrical fire. Inside the volcanic ash cloud, the aircraft may also experience lightning and St. Elmo’s fire on the windscreen. The abrasive nature of the volcanic ash can pit the windscreens, thus reducing or eliminating forward visibility. The pitot-static system may become clogged, causing instrument failure. Severe engine damage is probable in both piston and jet-powered aircraft.

Every effort must be made to avoid volcanic ash. Since volcanic ash clouds are carried by the wind, pilots should plan their flights to remain upwind of the ash-producing volcano. Visual detection and airborne radar are not considered a reliable means of avoiding volcanic ash clouds. Pilots witnessing volcanic eruptions or encountering volcanic ash should immediately pass this information along in the form of a pilot report. The National Weather Service (NWS) monitors volcanic eruptions and estimates ash trajectories. This information is passed along to pilots in the form of SIGMETs.

As for many other hazards to flight, the best source of volcanic information comes from PIREPs. Pilots who witness a volcanic eruption or encounter volcanic ash in flight should immediately inform the nearest agency. Volcanic Ash Forecast Transport and Dispersion (VAFTAD) charts are also available; these depict volcanic ash cloud locations in the atmosphere following an eruption and also forecast dispersion of the ash concentrations over 6- and 12-hour time intervals. See AC 00-45, Aviation Weather Services.


A thunderstorm packs just about every weather hazard known to aviation into one vicious bundle. Turbulence, hail, rain, snow, lightning, sustained updrafts and downdrafts, and icing conditions are all present in thunderstorms. Do not take off in the face of an approaching thunderstorm or fly an aircraft that is not equipped with thunderstorm detection in clouds or at night in areas of suspected thunderstorm activity. [Figure 3]

Instrument Weather Flying - IFR Flight
Figure 3. A thunderstorm packs just about every weather hazard known to aviation into one vicious bundle

There is no useful correlation between the external visual appearance of thunderstorms and the severity or amount of turbulence or hail within them. All thunderstorms should be considered hazardous, and thunderstorms with tops above 35,000 feet should be considered extremely hazardous.

Weather radar, airborne or ground based, normally reflects the areas of moderate to heavy precipitation (radar does not detect turbulence). The frequency and severity of turbulence generally increases with the radar reflectivity closely associated with the areas of highest liquid water content of the storm. A flightpath through an area of strong or very strong radar echoes separated by 20 to 30 miles or less may not be considered free of severe turbulence.

The probability of lightning strikes occurring to aircraft is greatest when operating at altitudes where temperatures are between –5 ° C and +5 ° C. In addition, an aircraft flying in the clear air near a thunderstorm is also susceptible to lightning strikes. Thunderstorm avoidance is always the best policy.

Wind Shear

Wind shear can be defined as a change in wind speed and/or wind direction in a short distance. It can exist in a horizontal or vertical direction and occasionally in both. Wind shear can occur at all levels of the atmosphere but is of greatest concern during takeoffs and landings. It is typically associated with thunderstorms and low-level temperature inversions; however, the jet stream and weather fronts are also sources of wind shear.

As Figure 4 illustrates, while an aircraft is on an instrument approach, a shear from a tailwind to a headwind causes the airspeed to increase and the nose to pitch up with a corresponding balloon above the glidepath. A shear from a headwind to a tailwind has the opposite effect, and the aircraft will sink below the glidepath.

Instrument Weather Flying - IFR Flight
Figure 4. Glideslope deviations due to wind shear encounter

A headwind shear followed by a tailwind/downdraft shear is particularly dangerous because the pilot has reduced power and lowered the nose in response to the headwind shear. This leaves the aircraft in a nose-low, power-low configuration when the tailwind shear occurs, which makes recovery more difficult, particularly near the ground. This type of wind shear scenario is likely while making an approach in the face of an oncoming thunderstorm. Pilots should be alert for indications of wind shear early in the approach phase and be ready to initiate a missed approach at the first indication. It may be impossible to recover from a wind shear encounter at low altitude.

To inform pilots of hazardous wind shear activity, some airports have installed a Low-Level Wind Shear Alert System (LLWAS) consisting of a centerfield wind indicator and several surrounding boundary-wind indicators. With this system, controllers are alerted of wind discrepancies (an indicator of wind shear possibility) and provide this information to pilots. A typical wind shear alert issued to a pilot would be:

“Runway 27 arrival, wind shear alert, 20 knot loss 3 mile final, threshold wind 200 at 15”

In plain language, the controller is advising aircraft arriving on runway 27 that at about 3 miles out they can expect a wind shear condition that will decrease their airspeed by 20 knots and possibly encounter turbulence. Additionally, the airport surface winds for landing runway 27 are reported as 200° at 15 knots.

Pilots encountering wind shear are encouraged to pass along pilot reports. Refer to AIM for additional information on wind shear PIREPs.


Pilots on IFR flight plans operating in VFR weather conditions may request VFR-on-top in lieu of an assigned altitude. This permits them to select an altitude or flight level of their choice (subject to any ATC restrictions).

Pilots desiring to climb through a cloud, haze, smoke, or other meteorological formation and then either cancel their IFR flight plan or operate VFR-on-top may request a climb to VFR-on-top. The ATC authorization contains a top report (or a statement that no top report is available) and a request to report upon reaching VFR-on-top. Additionally, the ATC authorization may contain a clearance limit, routing, and an alternative clearance if VFR-on-top is not reached by a specified altitude.

A pilot on an IFR flight plan, operating in VFR conditions, may request to climb/descend in VFR conditions. When operating in VFR conditions with an ATC authorization to “maintain VFR-on-top/maintain VFR conditions,” pilots on IFR flight plans must:

  1. Fly at the appropriate VFR altitude as prescribed in 14 CFR part 91.
  2. Comply with the VFR visibility and distance-fromcloud criteria in 14 CFR part 91.
  3. Comply with IFR applicable to this flight (minimum IFR altitudes, position reporting, radio communications, course to be flown, adherence to ATC clearance, etc.).

Pilots operating on a VFR-on-top clearance should advise ATC before any altitude change to ensure the exchange of accurate traffic information.

ATC authorization to “maintain VFR-on-top” is not intended to restrict pilots to operating only above an obscuring meteorological formation (layer). Rather, it permits operation above, below, between layers, or in areas where there is no meteorological obstruction. It is imperative pilots understand, however, that clearance to operate “VFR-on-top/VFR conditions” does not imply cancellation of the IFR flight plan.

Pilots operating VFR-on-top/VFR conditions may receive traffic information from ATC on other pertinent IFR or VFR aircraft. However, when operating in VFR weather conditions, it is the pilot’s responsibility to be vigilant to see and avoid other aircraft.

This clearance must be requested by the pilot on an IFR flight plan. VFR-on-top is not permitted in certain areas, such as Class A airspace. Consequently, IFR flights operating VFRon- top must avoid such airspace.

VFR Over-The-Top

VFR over-the-top must not be confused with VFR-ontop. VFR-on-top is an IFR clearance that allows the pilot to fly VFR altitudes. VFR over-the-top is strictly a VFR operation in which the pilot maintains VFR cloud clearance requirements while operating on top of an undercast layer. This situation might occur when the departure airport and the destination airport are reporting clear conditions, but a low overcast layer is present in between. The pilot could conduct a VFR departure, fly over the top of the undercast in VFR conditions, then complete a VFR descent and landing at the destination. VFR cloud clearance requirements would be maintained at all times, and an IFR clearance would not be required for any part of the flight.