The Basics of IFR Flying

FSA Learning Flight 2

Fun Fact

Established in the 1930s in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole Airport (KJAC) is the only commercial airport in the United States located entirely inside a National Park. Amongst other things, this means the use of salt or chemical treatments on the runway is prohibited, limiting the condition of the runway during winter operations.

Screenshot by Kells M.

Flight Summary

In this second FSA Learning Flight, you’ll become familiar with basic IFR operations by flying from Jackson Hole Airport (KJAC) to Salt Lake City International Airport (KSLC). Along the way, you'll learn about Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs), navigation along Airways, Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STARs), and how to fly an ILS approach.

Concepts Discussed in this Flight:
  • Intro to IFR Flying
  • Departures (SIDs)
  • Airways
  • Arrivals (STARs)
  • ILS Approaches

Airports Visited in this Flight


If you’ve completed Learning Flight 1: VFR Introduction, you should have a good understanding of visual flying. Now, we’re going to move into the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) world. Under IFR, pilots use instruments to navigate without visual reference to the ground. Because IFR allows pilots to fly without being able to see outside, air traffic control (ATC) plays an important role in keeping aircraft safely separated from hazards. As a result, all pilots flying IFR follow a series of structured rules and procedures to ensure they fly safely, without being able to see terrain or other aircraft that would typically be avoided visually.

Ground School Seminar: IFR Procedures
To learn more about the concepts introduced in this Learning Flight, consider Boston Virtual ARTCC’s 40-minute IFR Clearances Ground School. In that video, real-world flight instructors will walk you through SIDs, STARs, IFR clearances, and other procedures in more detail.

This first IFR flight will focus on "conventional" navigation: navigation that uses ground-based aids and that doesn’t require a GPS or add-on navigation data. Starting with Flight 3, we’ll introduce the more modern concept of Area Navigation (RNAV).

As a reminder, if you're planning to do the Learning Flights offline in single player mode, be sure to disable the default ATC. IFR arrival and departure procedures, as well as several other concepts discussed in the Learning Flights series from this point forward, are not simulated well (or at all) by default ATC. Attempting to fly these flights using default ATC will likely leave you and the virtual controller very confused!

Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)

Objective 1

Locate and Fly a Standard Instrument Departure (SID)

A Standard Instrument Departure (SID) is an ATC procedure used to provide an orderly transition from the airport to the enroute environment, while offering obstacle clearance. You’ll find SIDs at most controlled airports and some smaller, uncontrolled airports. An ATC clearance must be received prior to flying a SID.

Using your charts source of choice (recall that we introduced you to AirNav in Learning Flight 1), view the available instrument procedures for Jackson Hole Airport (KJAC). You’ll see that the only SID available is the ALPIN# departure. You may also notice the GEYSER and TETON procedures. These are Obstacle Departure Procedures, not SIDs, and we'll cover them one of the next flights.

For SIDs and STARs, the FAA denotes changes by updating the version number. The first version will be ALPIN1. When the procedure gets updated, it will become ALPIN2, and so on. After the ALPIN9, the number resets and the procedure returns to the ALPIN1. In these materials, the format "ALPIN#" will be used to reference the currently-published version of the procedure.

Download and open the ALPIN# departure. The chart includes a plan view that depicts the lateral routing along with a “Departure Route Description” providing further details. Sometimes this information will be split across multiple pages. Reviewing each page is important because significant obstacles or limitations are sometimes included. On this SID, you can see that departures from Runway 1 are not authorized ("NA") and that departures from Runway 19 need to climb at least 341 ft. for every nautical mile up to 15,000 ft. in order to avoid the nearby mountains. You’ll also notice the top altitude—the maximum altitude you can climb to until given further instruction—is to be "assigned by ATC" in your IFR clearance. Other SIDs will include a specific top altitude to climb to; we’ll see that in the next flight.

You can think of a SID as a set of instructions to get you flying along your filed/cleared flight plan. On this SID, as you can see from the description, after departing Runway 19, a pilot would track the JAC VOR/DME radial 192 outbound to KICNE (identified by the 27 DME) and climb to cross KICNE at 15,000 ft. or higher. Remember, you can only climb to the top altitude given by ATC in your IFR clearance. For the purposes of this flight, we’ll plan 16,000 ft. as our cruising altitude and assume that ATC has given us this as the top altitude as part of our clearance.

Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)

From KICNE, a pilot either follows the IDA transition (turning direct to the Idaho Falls VOR) or the SWEAT transition, which involves navigating to the Big Piney VOR (BPI) before flying outbound on the 080 radial to the SWEAT intersection.

We won’t cover how to navigate using VORs in these flights. The general concept is that you tune the published frequency into your navigation radio and then use the course or OBS setting on your VOR indicator to establish a direction. From there, you reference the instrument to make slight corrections. If you’re brand new to this type of navigation, there are a number of tutorials available online that can be found using a simple web search; check out this one from FLY8MA. Or, if you’re already comfortable navigating using a more advanced form of navigation like GPS, that works too!

Objective 2

Navigate Using Airways

In the last flight, we used two forms of VFR navigation to get from Bozeman to Jackson Hole: pilotage and dead reckoning. Now that we are IFR, we need a form of navigation that also works if we are in the clouds and unable to see the ground. Airways are IFR routes established to provide safe passage over obstacles, and exist all across the country. Historically, these airways only connected ground-based navigation aids like VORs. More and more, airways are now being established between GPS-based points. It’s also more possible than ever to fly "directly" between two points or even straight to your arrival airport.

The advantage to using airways is that obstacle clearance is built in. For example, if you decided to fly directly to KSLC from KJAC, you would be flying over peaks higher than 13,000 ft. with no reliable way of knowing how to avoid them. Airways provide safe passage over terrain by establishing a Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) that, if flown, guarantees obstacle clearance, as well as radio and navigation coverage. Finally, airways are used by ATC to establish orderly routes in busy airspace.

Remember how we used SkyVector’s sectional chart to navigate in Learning Flight 1? We can do the same thing to plan this IFR flight. Go to SkyVector and locate KJAC. However, instead of viewing the VFR sectional chart, click the "Enroute L-11" tab in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

The "L" in the chart name indicates that it depicts low altitude airways, also called Victor airways, which are used for flights below FL180. Just west of Jackson Hole, you’ll see IDA—the Idaho Falls VOR that is also one of the transitions on the ALPIN# departure. From there, V21 (and T331, the RNAV/GPS equivalent) connects IDA to the Pocatello (PIH) VOR.

You can plot this route on SkyVector using the "Flight Plan" feature by typing "KICNE" and "IDA" from the SID and then "V21 PIH":

Let’s look more closely at V21 between IDA and PIH. We can see the chart provides information about which VOR radials to track, the distances between waypoints, and the MEA to fly between the points that ensures obstacle clearance and radio reception.

Pilot Tip
If you’re ever unsure about a symbol on a chart, just zoom out. Each SkyVector chart has a side panel with a legend explaining what each of the published symbols mean. You can also find more information on chart symbols in the FAA’s Aeronautical Chart Users' Guide.

For IFR flying, the same "direction of flight" rules apply to altitude as VFR, but 500 ft. is not added:

  • For IFR flights eastbound (0° to 179° magnetic track), fly at an odd altitude (i.e. 7,000 ft. MSL; 11,000 ft. MSL).
  • For IFR flights westbound (180° to 359° magnetic track), fly at an even altitude (i.e. 8,000 ft. MSL; 12,000 ft. MSL).

When selecting an altitude, look through all components of your route (the SID, airways, and STAR) and determine the lowest MEA. At KJAC, the ALPIN# departure requires pilots to maintain 15,000 ft. between KICNE and IDA. The V21 airway MEA is 7,000 ft. Finally, the BEARR# arrival has an MEA of 15,000 ft. until BEARR. Thus, although it would be possible to fly as low as 8,000 ft. along V21, you would just have to climb back up to 16,000 ft. before PIH.

The lowest safe altitude, corrected for direction of flight, is 16,000 ft., and that’s what we’re using as our cruising altitude on this flight.

Objective 3

Fly an Arrival (STAR)

Now that we’ve discussed departures and enroute navigation, let’s look at the Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR). Like a SID, STARs are published to provide a transition from enroute navigation (on airways) to busy airport or terminal environments.

An international airport like KSLC has several STARs, offering various arrival paths from different directions. You’ll find the list of available STARs for KSLC on AirNav or anywhere else you access IFR charts.

Locate the BEARR# arrival. Conveniently, the Pocatello (PIH) VOR is an available transition. From there, pilots navigate to the Malad City VOR (MLD), then BEARR. Once you have joined the STAR at PIH, navigating along it is very similar to navigating along Victor airways. You’ll notice radial information and MEAs are published and, just like on airways, MEAs are simply there to tell you the lowest safe altitude you can descend to along the segment. They are not descent instructions and, in general, you would never fly a STAR at the MEA.

The BEARR# arrival is a two-page STAR. Looking at only Page 1, it’s not immediately obvious what pilots do upon reaching BEARR. However, on Page 2, the STAR explains that pilots should:

  • When "landing north" (i.e., Runways 34L/34R/35), cross DYANN at or above 11,000 ft. and then fly heading 160 until ATC gives vectors for an approach to Runway 34L.
  • When "landing south" (i.e., Runways 16R/16L/17), fly from BEARR to the Ogden VOR (OGD), cross it at or above 11,000 ft., and expect the ILS RWY 16L approach.

If you’re flying with ATC, you can expect to be provided with information about which runway to expect (and therefore which "spoke" of the STAR to follow) as you approach the area. If not, follow the route and waypoints that match the direction you plan to land in. You’d make the choice of runway for landing based on the wind, as you did in Learning Flight 1.

Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)

On a STAR like this one, ATC would provide descent instructions. If you’re flying offline, you can use the altitude information on the chart to help structure your arrival. Since the MEA on the arrival is 15,000 ft., leaving 16,000 ft. any time before BEARR doesn’t make much sense. However, the arrival instructs you to cross either OGD or DYANN (based on your landing runway) at or above 11,000 ft. Thus, descending from 16,000 ft. to 11,000 ft. after you cross BEARR (when the 15,000 ft. MEA ends) would make sense.

Objective 4

Fly an ILS Approach

The Instrument Landing System (ILS) is one of the most common instrument approaches used around the world, especially at large, international airports. Although more modern, GPS-based technology exists, commercial aircraft in the United States still most commonly use the ILS as an instrument approach, even in the worst weather conditions. Of the 8 runways at KSLC, 5 of them have an ILS.

The advantage of the ILS approach is that it is a "precision approach", meaning it includes both vertical and lateral guidance. Effectively, the ILS is a "cone" into which the aircraft flies that leads directly to the runway. The localizer works much like a VOR, providing lateral guidance to the runway. The glideslope provides vertical information to allow the pilot to remain on the intended glide path right to just a few hundred feet above the ground.

All ILS approach charts provide the same general information. For this flight, we’ll look at the ILS RWY 16L approach. However, based on the runway of intended landing, you can review the actual approach you plan to use at the time in a similar fashion.

Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)

For this flight, we’re looking at the ILS RWY 16L at KSLC. For now, the important things identify on the chart are:

Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)
Pilot Tip
Like at KJAC, KSLC sits at an elevation of over 4,200 ft.. When you cross the OGD VOR at 11,000 ft., you’re less than 7,000 ft. above the ground. Keep the high-altitude considerations applicable to your aircraft in mind. That could mean adjusting mixture settings or considering a reduction in aircraft performance as you plan your takeoffs and landings in each of these flights.

When flying the approach, the first step is to become established on the localizer (the lateral portion). You should join this approach north of IRRON, at least 22.4 DME from the localizer (and about 20 miles from the runway). Once you have joined the localizer, you can descend below 11,000 ft. by following the glideslope. Once you reach 4,427 ft. (or 200 ft. above the ground), you're at the "decision altitude": if you have the runway in sight, you can continue and land. If not, you need to commence a missed approach.

Pilot Tip

A "missed approach" is a set of published instructions for what to do in the scenario where you don’t see the runway at "minimums". This will involve a climb and set of lateral navigation instructions to get to a safe holding location. Pilots can initiate a missed approach at any point along an approach.

A "go around", instead, is simply a decision to break off the approach. If you decide to "go around" (for traffic, an unstable approach, or any other reason), you should initially follow the published missed approach instructions. If you are flying with ATC, you will normally receive immediate headings and altitudes for a second approach.

Objective 5

Land and Taxi to Parking

We’ve discussed FBOs and taxiways before but things can get a little more complex at this busy, international airport. A first look at KSLC’s Airport Diagram might leave your head spinning! But remember that this is the exact same concept we dealt with at KBZN and KJAC. The most important thing is to have the Airport Diagram for KSLC ready to go as you’re flying the approach. That way, as soon as you land, you can flip to the map and have a reference for where you’re taxiing.

Professional pilots look over not only the approach but also the planned inbound taxi instructions when they are doing their arrival planning. As you are reviewing the STAR and ILS, also look at the Airport Diagram and think about where you’ll want to go once you exit the runway. For example, if you plan to land on Runway 16L and are parking at an FBO, it would make sense to exit the runway to the left on either “Q” or at the end on “M”. From there, it’s a quick taxi to either of the FBOs:

If you landed on Runway 16L but instead exit to the right, your life will get a lot more complicated!

Go Flying

To complete Flight 2, start at the FBO at KJAC. Fly IFR, using the V21 airway to KSLC. Safely fly an ILS approach, land, and taxi to either the “Atlantic” or “TacAir” FBOs located east of taxiway “K” at KSLC.

  1. Load your aircraft at KJAC and set the weather.
  2. Plan your route: look through the ALPIN# departure, the V21 airway to PIH, the BEARR# arrival at KSLC (based on the runway of intended landing), and the expected ILS approach. For this flight, 16,000’ would be a good cruising altitude to select.
  3. Air Traffic Control (Click to Expand) (Click to Collapse)
  4. Depart KJAC, following the ALPIN# departure.
  5. Navigate along V21 to the PIH VOR.
  6. From the PIH VOR, join the BEARR# arrival for KSLC.
  7. Determine the landing runway and navigate following the guidance: “landing north” means you’re landing on Runways 34L/34R/35 while “landing south” applies to Runways 16R/16L/17.
  8. Fly the ILS for the runway you choose to land on.
  9. Taxi and park at the FBO at KSLC.

If you were able to safely navigate from KJAC to KSLC—and especially if you did it in IMC with ATC—you’re ready to move into some of the more advanced IFR topics we’ll cover in Learning Flight 3.