By Nic Highfill, ThedaStar lead pilot
What does IFR mean? It is one of two types of flying we use and, it does not stand for “I Follow Roads,” unless the roads we are referring to are the invisible “Highways in the sky.” Technically, though, IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules as opposed to the other, more common, type of flight that we use – Visual Flight Rules (VFR).
When the clouds are high and our visibility is not restricted by precipitation, mist, fog or smoke, we will use VFR flight, because we can visibly see terrain, obstacles, other aircraft and the horizon so that we can safely navigate to our destination. This also allows us to fly in a direct line from our departure point to our destination
When the cloud cover is low or our visibility is restricted by precipitation, mist, fog or smoke, we must use IFR flight. IFR allows us to safely fly into clouds or areas of reduced visibility by use of our flight instruments. These instruments tell us several things, such as: whether the helicopter is banking left or right, tilted nose up or down, altitude, and heading. There are also instruments on board that we use to navigate since we may not see the ground to navigate by visual reference. We will also be in constant contact with Air Traffic Control, who will provide us with safe altitude assignment and separation from other aircraft.
IFR flight is very safe and because of the separation from other aircraft provided by ATC, it may be even safer than VFR flight. However, flying IFR does have its downfalls. Most notably is the increased time it takes us to reach our destination. This is not because we fly slower. This is because IFR flight requires more planning and possibly putting on more fuel. Additionally, to make sure we are not flying near any tall radio towers or terrain, we have designated paths in and out of airports and some hospitals that we must fly that do not always coincide with the direct heading to our destination. That will add additional miles and therefore additional minutes to our flight. I guess those designated paths really are our ‘Highways in the sky’.
Whether you look at IFR as “I Follow Roads” or “Instrument Flight Rules”, we do it for safety. Because at the end of the day, we all want to make it home.