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9 Easy Ways To Improve Your Situational Awareness During Complex IFR Procedures

We've all been there... Often unexpected, complex IFR procedures that leave us scrambling to follow every instruction. Here are a few ways to stay ahead of the game...

1) Highlight Only The Parts You'll Fly

If you're using and EFB like ForeFlight or Jeppesen FD Pro, use the highlighter tool over the parts of the procedure you'll be flying. This is especially helpful when one chart has multiple procedures on it.


2) Make A "Cheat Sheet"

Some pilots make their own quick reference "cheat sheet" for departure procedures. Similar to the graphical view of a missed approach procedure on an approach plate, you could write down/draw a few of the most important instructions or notes.

3) Set Up And Brief Approaches Early

When you're flying in cruise, get the local weather or ATIS early on to see what approaches are in use. Set up and brief the approach so you won't have to divide your attention during the descent and arrival procedure.


4) Use Your Speed Bugs

If you can set speed bugs, use one for speed restrictions that ATC gives you. It's a great way to give yourself an on-screen reminder.

Swayne Martin

5) If The Procedure Has "Expected" Speeds And Altitudes, Program Them

"Expected" speeds and altitudes are often given as instructions by ATC but are not mandatory until dictated. Pre-set these into your FMS or GPS so you're ready when ATC gives you the clearance.


6) Use Additional Aircraft Light Switches When "Cleared For The Approach" And "Cleared For Landing"

On aircraft with multiple landing/taxi light switches, dedicate one to flip when you hear "cleared for the approach" and one for "cleared for landing." If you follow this every time, when you need a reminder it's a great way to verify what you have and have not been cleared for. If you're unsure, call ATC to verify!


7) The Autopilot Can Be A Huge Resource

When you're busy, you can use the autopilot to help you split workload. You may find yourself with more time to dedicate to other important procedures once the autopilot is on. If the autopilot does something unexpected, however, you may want to disengage and hand-fly.


8) Use Quick Mental Math To Analyze Your Required Descent Rate

Step 1: Our first step is to figure out how much altitude we need to lose. This is pretty easy. We're at 10,000', and we need to get to 5,000', so 10,000-5,000 = 5,000'. We need to lose 5,000 feet.

Step 2: Our next step is to figure out how long we have before we reach the fix. Since we're flying at 120 knots ground speed, we know we're going 2 MPM. With the fix 10 miles out, we'll divide 10 miles by 2 MPM and get 5 minutes (10/2 = 5). So in this scenario, we have 5 minutes to the fix.

Step 3: To finish things off we'll take the altitude we need to lose (5,000'), and divide it by the minutes to the fix (5). 5,000 feet / 5 minutes = 1,000 FPM. We'll need to descend at 1,000 FPM to make the crossing restriction.

9) Generally Speaking, Stay Ahead Of The Airplane

In the end, the earlier you can set up and review a procedure, the better your situation awareness becomes. It will give you more time dedicated to flying, and less time spent heads-down in critical phases of flight.

Live from the Flight Deck

What strategies do you use under IFR for improved situational awareness? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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