New Pilot

Taking on the Instrument Rating

October 1, 1992

What'll it be? Fast track or slowly seasoned?

You've just passed your private pilot check ride. Your examiner finishes typing out your temporary airman certificate, pulls it out of the typewriter, and hands it to you. More likely than not, his or her next words are apt to be a kind encouragement, tinged with a hint of admonition. The examiner will probably say something like, "Remember, this is a license to learn" — the implication being that there's a lot more to flying than what you've experienced so far and that good aeronautical judgment becomes better with time.

No doubt about it, it's a happy day. But there can be no ignoring the examiner's words of wisdom. The new pilot begins to ask: Now that the lessons are over, how will I spend my flying time? Take my family and friends on cross-country trips to vacation spots? Fly locally to maintain proficiency? Combine pattern practice with an occasional long trip?

Increasingly, more and more newly minted private pilots are opting for an alternative — going straight into training for the instrument rating. This option makes a great deal of sense, and for a lot of reasons. First, instrument flying skills give a big boost to a pilot's overall skill level. Control of the airplane's altitude and heading becomes more precise, as do tracking abilities. Talent in managing multi-task procedures also receives a thorough honing, thanks to instrument training's heavy emphasis on practicing approach procedures. Another benefit of having the instrument rating is the ability to fully use the airspace system; for example, filing IFR means never having to beg for permission to fly through an airport radar service area or terminal control area that may be along your route of flight.

The primary advantage is flexibility. With an instrument rating, clouds, precipitation, and below-VFR ceilings need not cancel your trip. This alone is reason enough to pursue the rating.

In short, instrument training makes you a safer, more highly skilled, system-savvy pilot. It's a logical next step for many new private pilots who fly in or near congested airspace.

So when can you start training? If you're like most of us, the answer is "right away." To be eligible for the instrument rating, you must have a minimum of 125 total flight hours, 50 of which must be earned as cross-country (trips of at least 50 nautical miles from the departure airport), pilot-in- command time (after you get the private certificate).

Now, the regulations say that you must have at least 40 hours of flight experience before obtaining the private pilot certificate. But the Federal Aviation Administration, which keeps track of such things, knows that most of us take approximately 66 hours to get the private. Add the 40 hours of instruction required for the instrument rating, and the typical instrument applicant has just over 100 hours when training is finished. Adding in the 50 hours for the cross-country PIC requirement, the FAA figures that the average instrument-rating applicant should have about 136 total hours when certified as an instrument pilot. So unless you're a 40-hour precocity as a private pilot trainee, you won't have to fly very long until you've logged enough time to be legally eligible.

That 50-hour cross-country PIC requirement is, however, a big hurdle. This rule came about because the FAA wanted to make sure that pilots obtained some minimum degree of independent experience before jumping into the more demanding IFR environment. But if the 50-hour rule feels like a sting in the pocketbook, just remember that the rules weren't always the same.

Before June 1985, the FAA required 200 hours total time for instrument rating eligibility. This meant that pilots would delay starting their instrument training until they built up 150 or 160 hours. For the average private pilot, that translates into three or four years of flying. Supposedly, this extra time would make for more seasoned applicants.

But did it really work that way? The FAA, AOPA, and other industry groups had their doubts. Yes, those extra hours could provide some seasoning. On the other hand, this "seasoning" meant that non-instrument-rated pilots spent up to four years flying without the safety advantages of IFR privileges. The regulatory community began to wonder: Did VFR trips to the beach build quality time, or was it just boring holes in the sky? How many non-instrument- rated pilots were involved in weather-related accidents? Did the concern over pilot error due to lack of "seasoning" outweigh the need to increase instrument competency in low-time pilots? Finally, could low-time pilots (those with as few as 100 hours total time) grasp the fundamentals of instrument flight?

The FAA conducted tests and studies to answer these questions. Not surprisingly, it was learned that the amount of prior flight time had little effect on the acquisition and retention of instrument flight skills. It was also learned that non-IFR-rated pilots had higher accident rates. (In instrument conditions, non-instrument-rated pilots had one accident in 1,459 hours; instrument-rated pilots had one accident in 12,186 hours. In VFR conditions, non-instrument-rated pilots had one accident every 61,900 hours; instrument-rated pilots had one every 94,819 hours.) A review of 5,200 weather-related accidents between 1964 and 1974 showed that 83 percent involved pilots with fewer than 100 hours. Again, no surprises.

The truth out, rulemaking wheels began to churn. The notice of proposed rulemaking came out in June 1983. Two years later, the 125-hour rule was in effect.

Of course, the choice is still yours. You can still opt to build time on your own, but now there's the opportunity to begin instrument training sooner.

Because they observe so many instrument applicants, we asked some examiners what they thought of jumping straight from the private certificate to instrument training.

Ken Medley, an examiner based in northern Virginia, believes that a certain amount of independent flying after the private can be a good thing. "It's important to get some seasoning on your own," he said. "But an overwhelming number of pilots get their private certificate, then fly only 100 or 200 hours. Their skill potential is never fully developed if this happens. Besides, a pilot can develop a lot of bad habits after flying on his own for a couple of years. Then, if and when he does go for his instrument rating, his instructor has to spend a certain amount of time undoing those bad habits.

"One bad habit I've seen is that pilots use too much aileron input, even in straight-and-level flying. And when you pump the ailerons like that, you can't really hold a precise heading — which, of course, is essential for instrument flying.

"Another thing I see is a sort of fear of complicated airspace. I have applicants for other ratings who want to schedule their check rides out of airports far from a TCA or ARSA. They seem to be uncomfortable with the work load created by dealing with controllers."

While Medley endorses the concept of jumping right into the instrument rating, he also feels that building solo time can be productive, as long as it's used wisely. "You have to give yourself some standards to strive towards and have some self-discipline in your solo flying," he says.

Annabelle Fera, an examiner based in central Maryland, agrees. "You have to build the 50 PIC hours on cross countries anyway, so you might as well get the most out of them," she offered. To her, a good idea might be to fly those cross countries with a CFII in the right seat. The prospective instrument student can receive some hood time that way, as well as hone VOR and NDB tracking. "It sure beats just playing around in the sky," says Fera.

Medley also suggests that instrument students use their PIC cross- country time constructively and stresses that, while an appropriately certificated safety pilot (one who's qualified to fly as PIC in the category of airplane you'll be flying) can help students build hood time, there's no substitute for an instructor's watchful eye.

What if you don't fly in areas conducive to a lot of instrument weather, fly only for pleasure, and don't anticipate ever having to meet a schedule? Well, you might think that the instrument rating isn't for you.

Just bear in mind that instrument pilots tend to be more precise pilots, no matter the weather. And that should unexpected instrument conditions crop up on your next "VFR" cross country, you'll be in a better position to deal with weather problems.

None of this, however, is meant to discourage pilots from exercising their freedom to pursue — or not pursue — the instrument rating in whatever fashion they wish. The fact is, according to Medley, "Most of my instrument rating applicants have 175 to 200 hours at the time of the check ride, anyway."

Perhaps aviation educator William Kershner sums it all up best. "No matter what kind of flying you do, you should constantly be setting new goals. The instrument rating is an excellent goal, and working toward it can only make you a better pilot.

"But practicing for the instrument rating isn't the only way to stay in the training loop. Each flight should have some kind of educational purpose, in whatever small way," says Kershner.

The bottom line: Your strategy for getting the instrument rating isn't really important. It doesn't matter whether you take your time or start as soon as the regulations allow. The main thing is that if you decide to earn it, there's no real advantage in waiting too terribly long to begin training.


How It Works: The Money Meter

BY MARC E. COOK (From AOPA Pilot , October 1992.)

Ask any group of grizzled renter-pilots what's the most important instrument on the airplane. Hmm, maybe the oil pressure, altimeter, or airspeed? Chances are that it won't take long until one tells you: "The Hobbs."

The Hobbs, a brand name for what is technically known as an hourmeter, is the very enemy of your credit rating. Every click of its delicate internal heart is another, say, three or four bucks.

When you rent an airplane, you are usually charged flight time against one of two devices — the tachometer or the Hobbs. The two measure time quite differently, and knowing how they work can help alleviate some confusion.

The Hobbs is simply a small electric clock that reads in hours and tenths of hours — a tenth, of course, being six minutes. In the vast majority of airplanes, it is triggered by oil pressure so that it runs only when the engine does. A small sensor on the engine checks for oil pressure, and when it rises above a certain level (which is usually low, around 10 psi), it closes the contacts, and the Hobbs begins emptying your bank account. The meter counts the same no matter how fast the engine is running or whether you are flying or waiting in line for takeoff. It has become so popular as a means to measure an airplane's total hours (for both revenue and maintenance purposes) because it is difficult to fool. It is not usually connected through the master switch, either, so you can't shut down the electrical system and save money.

Measuring time by the tach, on the other hand, is full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies. A tach hourmeter is designed to count up accurately only at a certain engine speed, usually at high cruise or, say, 2,500 rpm in a typical trainer. Which means that as you swelter as number five for the runway, the tach-hourmeter is not ticking off anywhere near real time.

So which is better? Depends upon your point of view. If you want to spend time doing touch and goes, measurement by the tach is best because it will ring up less time than you really flew. That's because you will spend little time at a power setting that makes the tach hour equal a clock hour. On a long cross country, the tach hour is very close to reality, especially if you are cruising at the indicated rpm that corresponds to the tach-hourmeter's set point.

Naturally, you won't likely find an FBO or flying club that charges the same for tach and Hobbs methods. Generally speaking for a training aircraft, the difference between Hobbs and tach time is 10 to 15 percent, with the tach showing fewer hours flown. On cross countries, that difference will probably be about 5 percent or less. You should make sure the variance in rental prices accurately reflects these differences.

Not all Hobbs meters are wired alike, though. In some complex airplanes, it might be hooked to the gear or squat switch, meaning that it clicks along only when the gear is up. Still others might be hooked to an air switch, measuring time only when the airplane has exceeded takeoff speed.

Often, when renting an airplane with both a Hobbs meter and recording tachometer, you are asked to write down both indications. This is a safeguard for both you and the renting agency so that a malfunction of either instrument will be easily noticed, and you don't have to go on your good word that the Hobbs stuck open — and counting — that cold morning. (Which, incidentally, has been known to happen on very cold days after unsuccessful engine starts and the congealed oil held the Hobbs switch open. Be careful out there.)

One final item. Always check the rental logs against the tach and/or Hobbs time before you take off. Few pilots have never had a bookkeeping error or an undocumented maintenance flight show up on the monthly statement. There is, after all, no reason to pay for the good time you didn't have.