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Instrument Training - When Simulation Becomes Reality

Posted 6 years 54 days ago ago by Admin



On 17 October 2017, a flight instructor and commercially rated pilot were practicing instrument approaches at the Molokai Airport (Hawaii) when they were lost from radar. Debris from the helicopter was found floating on the water northwest of the shores of Molokai. Although they were operating on an IFR flight plan, the flight was being conducted under VFR as a Part 91 training flight. (NTSB Identification: WPR18LA010)

Air Traffic Control had cleared the aircraft for a practice RNAV (GPS)-B instrument approach to the Molokai Airport. They were provided instructions for the missed approach procedure, which included a climb to 4,000 feet and a heading of 040 degrees. Following completion of the instrument approach, they reestablished radio contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC).  They were then issued a clearance to PHNL (Honolulu International Airport) with instructions to fly a heading of 260 degrees, then 240 degrees and ascend to an altitude of 4,000 feet. They were to intercept the Victor 8 airway, which they confirmed with ATC. Shortly after, the controller noticed the flight had descended to 3,600 feet before radar and radio communication with the helicopter was lost.

I often conduct instrument training in helicopters and when I read about this accident, it caught my attention. Taking a deeper look at the conditions at the time of this accident, I noticed that sunset for Molokai on the day of the accident was at 6:06PM. The time of the accident occurrence was reported as 7:18PM. This would place the helicopter in Night VMC, a term which may not accurately describe the actual flight conditions the crew was experiencing when the accident occurred.

It is important to note that my reference to this accident is only as an example of potential hazards when conducting night instrument training and does not reflect the actual cause of the accident.

Instrument training in a VFR helicopter is challenging. We as instrument instructors will often conduct instrument training at night to enhance the learning experience as night conditions provide a more limited field of view to the student. The decision to conduct instrument training at night should not be taken lightly. The student, the novice in this situation, is the sole manipulator of the controls and should be expected to make mistakes. The ability for timely and effective instructional intervention when a mistake occurs during instrument training requires the instructor to be fully engaged in the process.

When an aircraft is operated in Night VMC over water or any area with limited visual reference to the pilot manipulating the flight controls, the instructor must maintain solid visual contact with surface references always. Immediate instructional intervention may be required, potentially from an unusual attitude. Allowing both the instructor and pilot in training to lose visual reference to the surface and/or horizon is not only contrary to regulations, but places the flight in jeopardy.

Flight instructors must maintain a high and effective level of situational awareness during all phases of flight. Our students place a high level of trust in the decisions we make during training flights. Don’t let them down. The outcome could prove fatal!