President, Sunrise Aviation

This article was originally published in Private Pilot Magazine (June 1998) and is presented here with permission

With so many new pilots moving into instrument training immediately following receipt of their Private Certificates, it is essential to present some basic information about the Instrument Rating in this “Learn to Fly” section.

Over the past thirty years, the FAA has exerted steady pressure on the general aviation flying community to become more instrument aware. In fact, there is a sizeable group of pilots today who believe that earning a flight certificate limited to “good weather” is only half the trip. While this is definitely a distortion, there are undeniable advantages to obtaining an Instrument Rating that should be presented to all those interested or already involved in learning to fly.

The two most significant benefits of the rating are a reduction in barriers created by the weather and an increase in comfort and competence when dealing with Air Traffic Control (ATC). Following closely in third place is an increased respect for the difficulties and challenges of flight in non-visual conditions--an aspect the FAA hopes will keep pilots from taking on more than they can safely handle.

Instrument Rating--
Instrument flight authorization is not itself a level of FAA “certification.” Instead, instrument privileges are termed a “rating,” and, once earned, are added to existing certificates, either Private or Commercial. The ratings are limited to the “category” of aircraft in which they are earned, so that a pilot with certificate privileges in both airplanes and helicopters will have to take a separate instrument checkride in each type in order to have full access to the system.

Often, the Instrument Rating is also restricted to the “class” of aircraft in which it is earned. In the case of airplanes, this means that a pilot with an instrument rating, airplane single engine land, has to take a separate instrument checkride when he or she wants to add multi-engine instrument privileges.

Air Traffic Control is that branch of the FAA given the responsibility of issuing Air Traffic Control clearances for the purpose of avoiding collisions between known aircraft. While operating visually, it is possible to fly without ever making contact with this branch of the government. Once the move to instruments has been made, however, ATC becomes an integral part of every flight. Much of what is learned during instrument training concentrates on the expectations, details, and techniques of the resulting communications.

IFR does not mean “bad weather.” Instead, the initials refer to the “Instrument Flight Rules,” those sections of FAR Part 91 that establish the do’s and don’t’s of instrument flight. Regardless of the weather, any pilot using these rules is required to have an instrument rating, and when operating in controlled airspace, an instrument clearance issued by ATC.

Instrument Meteorological Conditions--this does mean “bad weather.” The initials refer to conditions not good enough to permit flight under the Visual Flight Rules (VFR). In most cases, this means flight visibility less than three statute miles and/or in-flight clearance less than 500 feet below, 2000 feet to the side, or 1000 feet above all clouds.

There are several predictable misconceptions about the Instrument Rating. At one end, those with little or no experience can easily get the idea that the rating is a true “all weather ticket”--that it will permit them to fly in every conceivable weather situation. This is far from true: many weather systems contain turbulence and icing that ground all but the most sophisticated and powerful aircraft, and much of what you will learn about the weather in IFR training will be designed to help you anticipate and avoid conditions beyond the scope of your own skills and the capabilities of the aircraft you fly. Although the rating will obviously increase your flight opportunities, it is not a complete cure-all for bad weather.

At the other end of the spectrum, you will encounter would-be instrument pilots who plan on taking training short cuts, due to their stated intention to avoid really “bad” weather and to limit their flights to conditions barely worse than marginal VFR. These pilots believe it might be possible to learn only the bare minimums of instrument flight procedures and do not anticipate spending much training time on difficult approach procedures, complex navigation problems, and emergency preparedness.

This plan too will fail. There is no “recreational IFR rating,” and the decision to enter non-visual conditions must always be made with an awareness that you are entering a more hostile environment than when operating visually. Once in the clouds, there is often no easy way out, and instrument pilots must be prepared for a host of perhaps unforeseen events; equipment failures, unforecast weather, and ATC delays are only a few of the possibilities. Instrument training, done ethically, must include thorough preparation for the entire gamut of instrument flight situations.

The third common misconception is the most difficult to explain. Many instrument students will give as one of their motivations the desire to become a “better pilot.” In the sense that all added skill, understanding, and knowledge makes one better, there is no argument. But what the rating won’t do in most cases is improve basic “stick and rudder” ability. Those skills are learned and honed in visual conditions, and pilots weak in the areas of basic aircraft control will make little progress attempting to improve while flying non-visually.

The reason for this goes to the heart of what makes instrument activity different from visual flight. Instrument reference is inherently more limited than visual, and although the instruments present all the information necessary, it is natural to avoid aggressive and energetic maneuvering. As an extreme example to illustrate the point, no one I know is a strong advocate of instrument aerobatic flight.

In addition to limiting reference, entry into non-visual conditions places you in a flight environment that requires a significantly increased level of communication, organization, and advance planning. One of the best things you can do to accommodate the changes is to start “flying small”--to limit your bank angles, pitch attitudes, and speed changes to the minimum possible. As an example, in the average instrument trainer it is common to see bank angles no greater than 17°, pitch attitudes limited to 15° above and below level, and virtually no speed changes at all until the landing flare.

Although these parameters will increase somewhat as you progress to higher performance aircraft, there will always be a premium in IFR flight operations for smooth, steady transitions designed to reduce the attention required in maneuvering the aircraft and maximize the amount free for planning and procedure. The result is often an erosion rather than an increase in basic aircraft control skills--a fact that will come as a surprise to many just contemplating starting their instrument training.

There has to be a plus side.

The most obvious benefit of an Instrument Rating is freedom from VFR restrictions. If it is true that not all weather is flyable, it is also true that most is--with the right aircraft and the right training. An Instrument Rating makes it possible to leave while others remain stuck on the ground, and perhaps even more important, to come home again without risk if the weather deteriorates in the interim. To the sport aerobatic pilot or to the glider enthusiast, this might not seem important--but for the pilot primarily interested in aircraft for transportation, these two factors combine to make private aircraft flight practical when it often isn’t without an Instrument Rating.

A second tremendous benefit of instrument training is increased comfort dealing with ATC. With so much airspace now requiring VFR interaction with radar facilities, instrument training pays handsome dividends even when not operating with an IFR clearance. In general, IFR pilots tend to be willing to use airspace when many of their VFR cousins choose to avoid it.

A third benefit stems directly from the use of IFR procedures even when the weather is good enough to permit VFR operations. If you are planning a trip to a busy and unfamiliar terminal area--the Los Angeles Basin would be a good example--it is often easiest to arrive IFR. The instrument enroute and approach procedures work smoothly regardless how complex VFR airspace might appear, rendering it virtually invisible, and saving time and aggravation.

Once you become familiar with an area and comfortable with its airspace design, however, the situation reverses: IFR procedures are almost always more time-consuming than VFR, and the quickest way to get around still remains use of the visual rules.

The FAA has consistently modified the prerequisites for obtaining an Instrument Rating to make the level increasingly attractive and accessible to new Private Pilots. Today, there are no minimum hours of total experience required, a move designed to encourage early starts. Contrast this to past years when the minimum flight experience for an Instrument Rating was pegged at 200 hours and you will see the shift in FAA thinking. Here are all the numbers, as they presently exist in FAR Part 61:

Minimum total hours: Not specified.
Instrument time:
40 hours
15 hours with an authorized Instrument Instructor (the balance does not require a flight instructor).
20 hours in an aircraft (the balance can be in an approved ground trainer or simulator, provided the time spent is under the supervision of an authorized instructor).
Additional required time:
50 hours of cross country as pilot in command.
These flights must all include a landing more than 50 nautical miles from the point of departure.
Time spent in solo cross-country as a Student Pilot qualifies.

Students enrolled in Part 141 training programs have significantly lower requirements, both in total instrument time and in the required PIC cross-country (in fact, the Part 141 cross-country requirements are now so low that it seems possible that the writers either made a mistake or don’t themselves respect the benefits of pilot-in-command experience).

Additional requirements:
Knowledge Test (previously called “written test”).

Before this introduction to the Instrument Rating can be called complete, some mention must be made of the “recency of experience” requirements for instrument flight called out in FAR 61.57. Although a thorough presentation of the rules with all their twists and turns (See “IFR Refresher,” Private Pilot, Jan 1998) would be too lengthy for this piece, it is essential to lay out the basics for all pilots considering instrument training.

FAR 61.57--In order to continue use of the Instrument Flight Rules system, instrument pilots are required to have performed a minimum number of IFR approaches and other instrument procedures during the previous six calendar months. Although the rules were relaxed considerably the last time Part 61 was revised, the required experience will still remain a barrier to some pilots who are inconsistent in their IFR activity. Pilots should familiarize themselves thoroughly with the requirements of 61.57 before embarking on instrument training.

That’s it. If your flight activity is significantly inconvenienced by VFR restrictions, it’s probably time to get an instrument rating. If the airport you frequent features a flight school with a simulator, choose it in preference to almost all others--simulators are a tremendous tool for learning instrument skills. And finally, expect to spend all the required instrument time with your instructor--not just the required 15 hours. There’s a lot to learn, and 40 hours in the hands of even very experienced CFIs is usually just barely enough.