Violating Airspace by Cancelling IFR in the Air

Cancelling IFR, Student Overload, Avionics Malfunctions, and bears oh my….

I train students all over the US in Mastering Single-Pilot IFR using Autopilots, Avidyne, Garmin, and ForeFlight.  It’s an intense 3 day program with over 20 hours and there are always pressures to complete the training, make the students happy, and most of all make them safer by using the autopilot more & reducing distractions from knowing the “buttonology”.

At least that’s the plan.  I was training two students recently in Florida at a non-towered airport, KCLW which lies very close to the Class D airspace of KPIE.  The first 8 hour ground instruction day went well and the plan was to fly an IFR XC the next morning.  When arriving at the airplane, I discovered some problems on the preflight inspection.  The GPS unit had a corrupted terrain database and the NAV database was expired. The day was VMC so we were ok, but the student was upset, because he had told the avionics shop to make sure everything was updated when the new autopilot was installed, just a few days before I arrived.  The second item was that the pitot heat was inop, again with a VMC day no problem but the student expected it to be working.  The third item was a no-go item.  The stall warning horn was inoperative.  My trainings include unusual attitude recoveries and it’s a basic safety item.  We scrubbed the flight.  My students were understandably frustrated, because even though the mechanic was able to fix it after a couple hours, with the delays, stress and fatigue they decided to fly the next day.  

The next day, even though forecast to be VMC, turned out to be a low ceiling around the area.  With an out of date NAV database, we wouldn’t be able to practice the GPS procedures in actual IMC using the new autopilot.  We decided to scrap the XC and file to a nearby Class D airport, KBKV. Because of the expired database, we could not proceed into IMC using GPS. We were able to maintain VMC, but the new autopilot yaw damper was malfunctioning and had to be disabled every time we engaged the autopilot.  Determined to get the students some training I forged ahead.  We successfully demonstrated unusual attitude recoveries and were able to complete one RNAV approach while staying VMC.  On the published missed approach we were getting pretty close to clouds so I told the students that we needed to discontinue the lesson and return VMC to KCLW.  I did promise to demonstrate the visual approach feature of the Garmin GTN so they could at least get some value of the time.

This is where the bears came out to play.  Tampa approach was busy and there were multiple people in the pattern, so I made the mistake of cancelling IFR in the air.  The student was frustrated, overloaded and concerned about the way people flew at KCLW.  He then told me that I needed to stay west of a certain highway(Marked in Purple) to be clear of the KPIE Class D(Marked in Green). The problem is that as we made right traffic, we had to turn away and extend twice for other traffic.  As you can see from our blue track log we violated the Class D airspace. 

The student was so frustrated and overloaded that after 20 years of flying at that airport, he became disoriented and couldn’t find the runway just a few miles south. Neither he nor the other student was aware we were in the class D airspace. I was so fixated on providing training that I didn’t watch the VFR map and just tried to stay west of the magic highway that was supposed to keep me out of the KPIE airspace.  The traffic pattern does not allow any room to extend for traffic avoidance while flying the recommended right traffic for runway 34.

So how many mistakes were made?  Just to name a few, I kept trying to get the clients the training they paid for and wanted, even though there were several problems.  I cancelled IFR in the air which exposed us to the unnecessary airspace incursion, and I flew VFR trusting the local knowledge of a pilot more than looking at the chart.  External pressures, stress, malfunctioning avionics, traffic avoidance, and fixation all led to the incursion.

My suggestions to everyone, especially during training is to remember the basic IMSAFE and PAVE tools.  I also recommend using the FAA Flight Risk Assessment Tool(FRAT) app to visualize how stress and other factors increase your chance of having a problem.  My last suggestion is to remember this, it is very common for pilots who have an instrument rating to violate airspace while flying VFR.  Use your skills and keep the safety net.  Get an IFR telephone clearance before departing and cancel by phone after you land.  It’s easier to call and cancel IFR on the ground than to have a telephone “interview” with a FSDO rep to talk about your violation.

About the author:

Gary “GPS” (Guy in the Pink Shirt) Reeves is the 2019 FAA National CFI of the Year, and is a Lead Rep for the FAA Safety Team.  With over 7,900 hours as an ATP and Master CFI/CFII/MEI he is the national training provider for both Avidyne and Genesys.  He has provided his Video and Inflight Mastery programs for Single Pilot IFR, Autopilots, Avidyne, Garmin, and ForeFlight to clients all over the world.  For more information please visit

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