Proficient Pilot

The darkest day

December 1, 2001

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff is often called upon by the media as an aviation expert.

September 11, 2001, was the darkest day in the history of aviation. On that modern day of infamy, aerodynamic works of art were used as instruments of evil. On that day and in an unprecedented move, the federal government clamped down on civil aviation and mandated that America's entire fleet be immediately grounded. In the weeks that followed, general aviation was slowly and begrudgingly returned to the sky. Particularly hard hit, however, were many pilots whose airplanes were based at airports within or under Class B airspace.

Although instrument flights were eventually allowed to operate to and from airports in what came to be known as enhanced Class B (ECB) airspace, VFR pilots were kept grounded for quite a while longer. The rationale behind allowing IFR flights was that air traffic control would know the whereabouts, intended route, and destination of such aircraft. (Never mind that an evil-minded pilot could deviate from assigned routing before anything could be done about it.) Because the vast majority of these instrument flights were conducted under clear skies and in good visibility, the government was effectively instituting what is known internationally as controlled VFR flight (as well as allowing operations conducted during actual instrument meteorological conditions). Conventional VFR flights obviously are not normally monitored in this way.

It was unfair, I thought, that VFR pilots were frustrated and denied access to the airways on clear days simply because they did not have instrument ratings. Although an instrument rating is required to operate in less-than-VFR conditions, why, I wondered, was it necessary to have an instrument rating to enter and use the IFR system during VFR conditions? This question led me to develop the concept for a new rating, the limited or VFR instrument rating.

To obtain such a rating, a VFR-only pilot would be trained in the conduct of IFR procedures and communications but would not be required to develop the proficiency needed to control his aircraft solely by reference to instruments. Such a rating could serve several purposes. First, it would allow a VFR pilot to file and execute an IFR flight plan should the government again ban VFR flights in and out of enhanced Class B airspace or elsewhere — certainly a contingency restriction in the event of a future terrorist act involving an aircraft. Second, the limited instrument rating could serve as a steppingstone and ease the transition to becoming a full-fledged instrument pilot.

Many pilots find that earning an instrument rating conventionally requires a time and financial commitment they are not prepared to make. But earning a limited rating would pave the way and make it easier to then pursue a full instrument rating. Not only would this take less time and money, but it also would enable pilots to learn the IFR system without having to wear a hood. The student could better concentrate on procedures and communications and, who knows, he might achieve greater proficiency in these skills than is generally obtained while pursuing a conventional and tortuous path to an instrument rating.

After receiving such a limited rating, the pilot could utilize and become increasingly familiar with the IFR system of departures, en route procedures, arrivals, and instrument approaches during conventional VFR flights. By the time he decides to don a vision-restricting device in pursuit of a full instrument rating, these procedures would be second nature and all he would have to learn is to control his aircraft by sole reference to the instruments.

Just think about how much easier it would be to learn to enter a holding pattern, shoot an instrument approach, or conform to a departure procedure without having to wear a hood. A student could initially concentrate on learning such procedures without having to simultaneously worry about keeping his aircraft right side up. Looking out the windscreen at such times also would provide a better sense of what a given procedure is intended to accomplish. Even if the limited rating is never instituted, many instrument instructors with whom I have discussed this concept believe that such a curriculum might be an improvement over the conventional manner in which pilots prepare for an instrument rating.

Third, a limited rating would be of significant benefit to a VFR pilot even if he has no intention of obtaining the full rating. It would expand his navigation and communications skills; he would learn to fly with increased precision; and he would learn to extract more of the services available from ATC. Such a pilot would also gain a better understanding of the procedures utilized by other instrument-rated pilots and be better prepared to mesh with such traffic. This is particularly important when operating VFR at an airport while instrument approaches are being conducted. Such a limited rating would not, of course, allow a VFR pilot to operate in less-than-VFR conditions. He would still have to abide by minimum cloud-clearance and visibility requirements.

Of the seven instrument flight instructors with whom I discussed this concept, none could cite any drawbacks. Those who might not like the idea, however, need not worry; I have no more clout with the FAA than you do.

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