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Close Calls - May 2011

Building a Better GA Pilot

By Anthony Nalli

Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. I invite you to contact me at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV to anonymously share your stories. The experience shared and lessons learned will be of benefit to all readers. Confidentiality will be assured and I will not use your name or aircraft ident without your permission. If your submission is used in Close Calls you’ll receive a copy of The Aviators: The Complete First Season on DVD.

A while back we explored VFR flight following from the perspective of ATC. This month we take our discussions on flight following to the next level and we look at flight safety from the inside out – instrument training. As part of getting the Private Pilot License in Canada five hours of instrument time is required. Five additional hours are required as part of obtaining a night rating (a separate rating in Canada NOT included as part of the PPL). The reason for these 5+5 hours is to provide pilots with very basic instrument skills to help them should circumstances arise where situational awareness becomes impaired (such as VFR flight into IMC or instrument meteorological conditions).

Above, I intentionally state instrument training rather than an instrument rating because some may see the latter as rather daunting and may not be as willing or prepared to embark on that journey at this point in their aviating, if ever. But not pursuing an instrument rating is no reason for not getting additional instrument training. As mentioned with some regularity in a number of aviation publications and by several aviation experts, instrument training improves overall flying skills and quite simply makes you a better pilot. Your humble writer agrees.

Today I took a quick flight from Brampton, ON over to Niagara Falls, NY as I like to do from time to time for a Viola’s steak and cheese and pick up my US mail while flying over the long lineups at the border crossings. I went VFR today just for a change of pace since the vast majority of my flights since obtaining my rating have been filed IFR. Naturally, though, I was on a flight plan and was utilizing flight following. My flight home was just at 2,500 feet to avoid the forecast few clouds as it was minus 2 degrees Celsius at that altitude. This made for a short, pleasurable, and peaceful sightseeing flight over familiar territory.

Twice, in the Buffalo, NY area and again near Hamilton, ON, visibility went down to near VFR minimums – about four miles. In the past I might have started to become worried just a little and maybe either turned around or made arrangements to land. While both remained good and viable options, today yet another was to keep a close watch on the instruments, ensure no icing was starting (it wasn’t), and be sure to remain legal VFR. If visibility became further reduced I’d have the further option of requesting an IFR clearance to continue.

Putting aside the full IFR options, my instrument training left me with more options to continue VFR while providing the confidence in my ability to use my instruments to support my VFR flight. Should this flight have been at night or if I ended up squarely in a cloud, I am confident that I’d have known and would have been able to stick with my instruments, take whatever actions were appropriate at the time, and advise ATC, all while keeping my head. Knowledge and experience can help in replacing panic with process.

For those pilots interested in an instrument rating I encourage you to go for it. You’ll find the accomplishment as rewarding as your first solo or finally getting your wings. For the others, I emphatically recommend that you invest in at least five or 10 additional instrument instructional hours - preferably in actual IMC, though any added training is better than none. Believe me, you’ll be a better pilot for it.

Fly safe(r).

Anthony Nalli is the Executive Producer of the hit television series The Aviators (www.TheAviators.TV). Anthony can be reached at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV. The Aviators can be seen on PBS in the United States, Global and CHEK in Canada, Discovery in Asia, and online at

Special note: The newly released trailer for season two of The Aviators can be viewed at http://www.TheAviators.TV

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