There’s something very satisfying about instrument flying.
I’m not sure if it’s the precision, the difficulty, the pilot/controller teamwork, or the sheer magic of being able to whisk through three dimensional space for hours on end without seeing anything outside the aircraft, navigating and maintaining ones situational awareness all the while.
Despite what the some would have you believe, all instrument ratings are not created equal. I have yet to see a pilot who earned their rating at one of the accelerated Arizona programs who was able to handle the workload in the L.A. area without some remedial training. It’s not a snub at those programs per se. You just don’t have the exposure to actual IMC and high density operation out there in the desert.
Case in point: I made a literal cross-country flight (Duluth, MN to Orange County, CA) with one of my instrument students in a new SR22. We shot many approaches along the way, and he did a nice job. But nothing could prepare him for coming over the Cajon Pass and being given the following pop-up IFR clearance:
Cleared to SNA via make a right 360, fly heading 175, when able proceed direct Paradise, depart on the Paradise 270 radial, victor 363, victor 8, Seal Beach, direct, descend and maintain 5000, squawk 4672, and contact Socal now on 135.4.
The controller read so fast that my student was only able to write down the first bit. I knew this would happen and was prepared to pick up the slack, because when actual IMC conditions prevail, the controller is swamped, and you’re asking for the favor of a pop-up clerance, you have to make a strong first impression or ATC will simply refuse to give you IFR (as is their right).
Naturally, there were two revisions between Paradise and SNA, and what we actually flew bore no resemblance to the original or amended clearances.
The point is, this is a brutal environment in which to learn. It takes longer, costs more, and is more stressful. But it results in a much better instrument pilot.
Whether you concur with that statement or not, I’m confident most pilots would agree that the instrument rating is the most challenging certification to obtain. And maintain. This is especially true here in the Los Angeles basin due to the traffic density. There are scads of airplanes, airports, and the frequencies are usually jam-packed. This can lead to pilots and controllers attempting to take shortcuts with radio phraseology in order to be more efficient. Unfortunately, this rarely works.
This brings me to the reason for this article. My latest pet peeve is a shortcut that ATC seems to be taking more and more frequently these days: they vector pilots around without telling them where they’re going.
I’m quite sure that this happens to other pilots as well, so I’m curious about why it never gets mentioned. I was taught (and it makes perfect sense) that any time a controller takes you off your clearance and starts vectoring you, they are supposed to tell you where you’re going.
This is important because if you lose communication with ATC in actual instrument condition, you have to know where to go. The regulations state that if you lose comm in IMC during radar vectoring, you should proceed to the that location. How are you supposed to do that if you don’t know where you’re being vectored?
I asked a DPE about this, and was told that controllers often omit the vector limit when they know the weather is solid VFR. On the surface, this seems reasonable. After all, the regulations state that if you lose communication while in visual conditions, you should remain VFR and land. If the weather is good, why bother providion a vector clearance that will never be used?
I can think of two reasons. First, because it’s required. When providing radar vectors, FAA Order 7110.65R states the following in section 5-6-2:
b. When initiating a vector, advise the pilot of the purpose.
VECTOR TO (fix or airway).
VECTOR TO INTERCEPT (name of NAVAID) (specified) RADIAL.
VECTOR FOR SPACING.
VECTOR TO FINAL APPROACH COURSE,
or if the pilot does not have knowledge of the type of
VECTOR TO (approach name) FINAL APPROACH COURSE.
It’s interesting to note that while it says “advise the pilot of the purpose“, four of the five examples given are locations, not reasons. The only exception is “vector for spacing”. All the others are “vector to some location”. While we’re on the topic, “vector for traffic” doesn’t show up on that list. How often have you received that one?
Also, notice that 7110.65 does not make any exception for specific meterological conditions. If the aircraft is flying under Instrument Flight Rules and the controller starts to vector it, as far ask I know, the pilot should be given a vector limit regardless of the weather.
The second, and more important, reason controllers should provide a vector limit is because when they don’t, a red flag should be raised in the pilot’s mind. He should ask where he’s being vectored. As it stands now, pilots are learning or re-learning instrument flight all over the L.A. basin and not asking this question. We’re becoming de-sensitized to the situation.
What’s going to happen when they’re being vectored in actual IMC? Yeah, they won’t know where they’re going.
The larger picture? Pilots are not navigating. “Navigating” is the process of finding your way from one place to another. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not navigating, are you? You’ve effectively abdicated that responsibiilty to ATC, closing your eyes and allowing them to blindly lead you by the hand. This is dangerous, not to mention the fact that you won’t know when you get wherever you’re going! If ATC says “radar vectors to final approach course” and five minutes later you blow through the localizer, you know to speak up. If all you get is “turn left heading XXX”, you are a lot less likely to say something when that needle swings.
The answer to this problem is simple. Insist on a vector limit. I’ve become more stringent about requiring my students to always know where they’re going during radar vectoring. Rule #1 when flying IFR is to maintain situational awareness. You can’t do that if you don’t know where you’re going.