by Harold Green
We have all heard, or even participated in, discussions as to whether or not an instrument rating is a good thing. For those whose flying requires them to be at a specific place at a specific time, the issue is moot. They need an instrument ticket and they know it. For others, the choice may not be so clear-cut. Cost, time and general excuses like, “If I had an instrument ticket, I wouldn’t stay current and then I would get in trouble flying in conditions I couldn’t handle.” The obvious response to this: “You can do that without an instrument rating.” In fact, having instrument capability makes you far safer and extends your flight envelope considerably. Yes, you can fly in weather that can present greater hazard unless the pilot uses good judgment. Exercising good judgment is part of instrument flying.
Even if you do not obtain an instrument rating, there are aspects of the training that will benefit any pilot.
There is another factor here also. As aircraft are equipped with more modern avionics, including GPS, glass cockpits and autopilots, it behooves us as pilots to know how to operate this advanced equipment, and the instrument ticket will help accomplish this.
Even today’s light sport aircraft tend to come with GPS, weather and an autopilot. This equipment provides more capability than most aircraft of any type just 20 years ago. To have that equipment aboard the aircraft and not be able to utilize it in an emergency, would be a tragedy.
The focus of this article is to encourage the acquisition of an instrument rating, or at least some instrument training for those who, for whatever reason, choose not to obtain the rating at this time.
Some people seem to envision instrument flying as a continuous battle with the elements, wherein a struggling pilot with nerves of steel, heroically guides an ice laden airplane through a raging thunderstorm to a zero-zero visibility landing on to a short, ice-covered runway with fire trucks escorting them down the runway.
The truth is far more mundane than this. In fact, instrument pilots avoid thunderstorms and ice with a vengeance. They have a detailed understanding of the structure and danger of these atmospheric beasts because of their training.
Here we need to make a distinction between Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC). The names are self-explanatory, but define entirely distinct situations. Thus, in controlled airspace, one can legally fly IFR in VMC, but cannot legally fly VFR in IMC.
Most instrument flying is actually done in legal VMC, since the only time that can be logged as actual instrument time is defined in FAR 61.51g: “A person may log instrument time only for that time when the person operates the aircraft solely by reference to instruments under actual or simulated instrument flight conditions.” On most IFR trips, the majority of time is conducted controlling the airplane with reference to visual attitude cues. Note: This does not mean that you can use visual cues for navigating since you most likely cannot see the ground. Typically the pilot climbs above a cloud layer into bright sunshine or between layers. Even though there is no visual reference to the ground, this time does NOT count as instrument time. Only that time incurred while in the clouds counts as instrument time. On a flight lasting several hours, actual instrument time may only be a few minutes.
What are some advantages of having an instrument rating?
Well, obviously, it does permit the pilot to operate in weather not possible or legal for the non-instrument rated pilot. This means that you can fly more often than you would be able to otherwise without an instrument rating, whether for business or pleasure. In my salad days, I flew my own airplane in support of my business. At first, I did not have an instrument ticket and my job completion rate while flying around a three-state area in the Midwest was about 84%. Later, with an instrument rating, my job completion rate went to 97% and expanded from the Midwest to the East Coast. In fact, my job completion rate was better than if I had flown on the airlines at the time.
One of the biggest paybacks of an instrument rating comes when the weather is marginal or just below marginal VFR.
We’ve all seen those days when the sun is shining into the haze, reducing visibility to the point that landmarks are virtually impossible to discern, even though the visibility is officially more than 3 miles. Flying under VFR rules in these conditions, while legal, is problematic at best and not safe.
Being on an IFR flight plan enables you to navigate via electronic means above the haze and towers on the ground, and execute an instrument approach at your destination.
It is true that GPS has taken some of the sting out of this situation, but still the loss of actual visual references while flying VFR can be unnerving.
While operating on an IFR clearance, air traffic control (ATC) will provide separation from other IFR traffic, advisories on VFR traffic, and tell you when to contact the tower or next controller, and avoiding a possible violation there also. A further advantage is that you no longer have to worry about Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), violating restricted areas or other controlled airspaces. ATC will not let you into those areas.
There are also less obvious advantages accrued from IFR flight training. The first few hours of instrument training will most likely be how to establish the aircraft power, trim and configuration to do what you want it to do with minimum input from the pilot. The pilot learns how to adjust power to provide fixed airspeed descent and ascent, hold heading and altitude automatically, and generally use the airplanes’ inherent design characteristics to full advantage. Once learned, these techniques stay with the pilot during VFR flight as well. It is not at all uncommon for new instrument students to report that the people they normally fly with tell them how smooth they have become.
A further advantage accrues to those who are uncomfortable with radio communication. Instrument flying obviously requires frequent communication with ATC. Frequent exposure and guidance during training removes any mystery and terror from communicating with controllers.
If you know how to use an instrument approach chart, you can fly the approach when VFR to help you locate a strange airport or, even fly it to the runway. So long as you do it VFR with the knowledge and permission of the facility controlling the traffic and airspace involved, there is no reason why you cannot fly the approach.
As for the question of remaining current, bear in mind that there is a difference between being “legally” current and “proficiently” current. It is easy to maintain legal currency by flying six approaches and a holding pattern while using electronic navigation means every six months. Just remember that if you are under the hood, you need a safety pilot. As long as you are in visual meteorological conditions, the safety pilot does not need to be instrument rated. The only requirement is that he/she should be qualified to act as Pilot-In-Command in the aircraft and the weather conditions.
Then there is the question of where and how to obtain instrument training. There are several different ways to determine this.
First, there are concentrated courses in which the rating is achieved in a week or 10 days by concentrated flying and studying. This approach is best suited for those who cannot, for whatever reason, commit to periodic flying and studying over a period of several weeks or a month.
Second, there are programs in which the instructor will come to you and devote a week or so to helping you obtain your rating. This approach works best if you have your own airplane in which to conduct the training. This, as in the concentrated courses, requires you to devote practically full time to your training until you achieve the rating. Both of these approaches result in a short time to acquire your rating.
The third approach is to obtain your training through a Part 61 flight school. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that I teach in a Part 61 flight school, so I may be biased, and any comparison should be viewed in that context.)
Training at a Part 61 flight school will take you longer than the other two approaches. The offset to this is the fact that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Often this schedule fits the requirements of the student in that time can be scheduled at the student’s convenience without extended time away from work or personal concerns. Personally, I like to have students conduct their training while the seasons transition between fall and winter or from winter to spring or from spring to summer because of the weather differences, particularly here in the Midwest. The student experiences the changes of weather, some extreme, while under the guidance of the instructor. This increases the opportunity to gain real life IMC flying.
It is entirely possible for a student to obtain their instrument rating without ever flying in IMC regardless of the training approach taken. It is also possible for pilots to obtain instruction in stages. For example, getting instruction in reading approach plates and executing the maneuvers therein is perfectly proper. It is not proper to use that knowledge to fly in IMC without an IFR rating and clearance.
Lastly, there is the nasty old “knowledge test.” There are a variety of ways to prepare for the instrument exam, just as there are for the private pilot exam. Of course, you need to obtain an instructor sign off before you can take the exam. The instrument knowledge test is quite comprehensive, but it is not rocket science. Most instructors have their favorite study materials, so just ask your instructor what he/she recommends. Then spend a few minutes a day studying and soon you will have the necessary background.
The purpose of all this discussion is not to encourage illicit IFR operations, but rather to point out that the use of basic instrument flying skills can be a great aid to safe VFR flying and to encourage those who can to move up to that complete instrument ticket.
The final point to be made is that whether or not you decide to pursue an instrument rating, the studying and training leading to it are worthwhile in their own right. Either way, you will become a smoother, safer pilot, armed with more knowledge of weather and the airspace system. With this ammunition, there is no longer any reason for the “I might not stay current, etc., etc.” excuse.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certificated Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Readers can email questions and comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-836-1711