Instrument training, Practical Test evaluation, most instrument flight rule (IFR) practice and the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for recency of experience are measured primarily in getting the airplane down from altitude. There’s very little focus on proficiency for making a takeoff and departure in IMC. 14 CFR 61.57, Recency of Experience, and this tells us to remain IFR current in an aircraft; the only things we need to have recent experience in are: six (6) instrument approaches, holding procedures and tasks, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of electronic navigational systems. The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) and requirements of an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) are similar; there is no specific requirement to demonstrate proficiency in making low-visibility or IMC takeoffs.
Instrument training and evaluation is weighted heavily toward arrival and approach procedures. We log the number and type of approaches we fly and consider precisely flying an arrival procedure the ultimate test of our IFR ability—even if we let an autopilot do the job for us. Way down on the training/evaluation priorities list, if it’s there at all, is recency of experience and proficiency in departure procedures. Low-visibility takeoffs are rare in practice. We probably don’t spend much time training and reviewing them, we’re not evaluated on our ability to perform them, and we don’t track our proficiency in low-visibility departures by logging the number we fly or practice, or when we last experienced one (or six).
Taking off into the murk shouldn’t be any riskier than making an instrument approach. There are other hazards, besides IMC, that pilots face when making a departure in IMC—threats that are greatly magnified when the pilot’s visibility is restricted. Let’s look at four such hazards:
Getting up to speed: You might be a little worn out by the time you begin an instrument approach at the end of a flight, but even if you are, you have plenty of time to get “into the groove” and prepare for a low visibility arrival. You have no way of knowing for certain you’re up to speed for an IMC departure, however, until you’re actually in the air, finding out whether you’re at the top of your game just as you enter a high-workload condition with the airplane fairly slow and at a high angle of attack, close to the ground. Before a low-visibility takeoff, there isn’t any time to catch up to get the feel for the airplane or to detect and correct for any missed briefing or checklist items.
Airplane checks and performance: The airplane may pass all preflight and Before Takeoff checks, but it is only really put to the test when you take off. If you’ve missed a checklist item, you’ll probably find it early in flight. If there is anything that isn’t quite right (or worse) with the airplane or engine itself that is not immediately obvious during the run-up, now’s the time it may manifest itself in decreased or impaired performance.
Fatigue: The hazards of low visibility may be compounded by fatigue-impaired judgment, especially during an early morning departure or late in a duty day.. Evaluating your fatigue state is a factor to consider in all IMC departures.
False climb illusion: Somatogravic or "false climb" illusion is the result of fluid moving in a pilot’s inner ear when an aircraft accelerates. Pilots sense this motion as pitching upward—a false sensation of climb. This can cause a pilot to push forward on the yoke to "recover" from the perceived climb, forcing the airplane downward into terrain.
Perhaps another column is required in our logbooks to record the number and dates of actual or simulated low IMC departures. We frequently have no recent experience in flying the procedure. There’s no recency requirement to take off into IMC. But you can put such a requirement on yourself.
Thomas P. Turner is Executive Director of the American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation and author of the FLYING LESSONS Weekly blog that inspires pilots to pursue Mastery of Flight.™ A prolific writer, speaker and flight instructor, Tom has been inducted into the National Flight Instructor Hall of Fame.