Ready to IFR?

If you want to go places, you're going to need the rating

April 1, 2004

One of the most gratifying feelings in the world is that of being a newly minted private pilot. Attaining that goal puts you in some pretty elite company. However, you will soon find that one of the most frustrating feelings in the world is that of being a pilot who can't fly because of weather. It may be something as simple as ground fog that you can't legally fly through VFR. It may be more complex, such as en route clouds, rain, or less-than-VFR weather conditions at your destination.

If you pursued your pilot certificate with the intention of using it for personal or business travel, and you have the typical working-person commitments waiting for you on the road or at home, then you may find that flying VFR all the time is not as efficient an option as you need. Even if you don't fly on long trips, or if you don't fly a lot of cross-country trips, you may find that an instrument rating is something you need to consider because of where you live (for example, frequent fog, or low ceilings, or rain), or just because too many days are marginal VFR or worse.

As an instructor, I am often asked about the best time to get an instrument rating. It used to be that you had to have 125 hours of total flight time to take the checkride, and the standard response was to explain the training requirements with the recomendation that you should try to time the end of training with the 125 hours, and then take your checkride. Now the flight-time requirements have changed, and you can start training right after your private checkride is complete. FAR 61.65(d) requires a total of 50 hours of cross-country pilot-in-command (PIC) time, a total of 40 hours of real or simulated instrument time, 15 hours of specific IFR instruction, and three hours of preparation for the checkride. You also must log a cross-country flight of 250 miles in length in the IFR environment, complete with approaches.

So while you can start your instrument training the same day you take your private checkride, the most honest answer is that you should start on your IFR training whenever you are personally ready. It is something that you should want to do, not something that you feel pressured to do; you might just do it when the time is right to add a new skill or you need a new challenge, not because you "need to." Quite often, the best thing a new private pilot can do is take some time to enjoy being a pilot. Take a few hours and just go fly for the joy of it. You don't have to do any more training, and it will do you some good to relax in an airplane for a while. You might do some short or long cross-country flying, you might stay in the pattern for crosswind or nighttime landing work, or you might go sightseeing. At least for a while, let flying be pure fun.

If you think you want to pursue an instrument rating, it's time to look at the big picture. People generally get an IFR certificate so they can go places. That's going to mean a few things. First, it means you need to have pretty good navigation skills. While you can never let your VFR dead-reckoning skills go flat, you need to be sharp on VOR and, if possible, GPS navigating. You can do much to improve your skills and confidence by flying a series of solo cross-country flights, with each one getting farther than the one before, in each direction of the compass. It's important to add to that solo time because you will not always have the crutch of an instructor to help you if you get lost.

Second, you can't fly IFR without talking on the radio. Communication skills play a huge role in the instrument world. If you have not been exposed to radio work beyond your mandatory landings at an airport with a control tower, you would do well to incorporate flight following into your cross-country flights. Read the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) to learn the proper phraseology. There are also a few excellent books and computer programs available that teach you the proper "lingo" and etiquette of talking to ATC. With practice, you will get comfortable and proficient with the radio.

Third, your basic flying skills need to be sharp. You need to be able to hold heading and altitude within 100 feet and 10 degrees consistently, all while shuffling charts, talking on the radio, and eating a sandwich. You can work on this when flying VFR by yourself, with passengers, or with your CFI while getting some hood time.

Once you feel ready to start a formal training course, it's time to hit the books (again). Hardly an IFR curriculum exists that doesn't start with a few hours dedicated to basic attitude instrument flying. In layman's terms, this means that you work on flying the airplane throughout the flight regime strictly by reference to the instruments, with the view of the outside world removed. Slow flight, turns, unusual attitude recovery, climbs, and descents all are included. You can learn the power settings and pitch attitudes on your own in VFR conditions, and then transfer that knowledge to flying under the hood.

Once you have mastered basic control without reference to outside visual cues, things get a little more complicated. Learning to fly IFR is almost like learning to fly all over again, only different. From this point forward, it is absolutely critical that you stay on top of your academic work for two reasons. The first is overall confidence and enjoyment. If you expect to be able to just show up to the airport and have the instructor brief the lesson before you fly, you are way off base. Flying IFR entails a lot of new rules and procedures, not to mention new maps and charts, and you need to be familiar with them before you get to the airport. The materials aren't necessarily difficult, but they are not what you are used to, and they play a big part in your success. Also, trying to learn in an airplane first and on the ground second is almost always a recipe for disaster and disappointment, and possibly one for quitting. If you know the material, at least conceptually, before flying, it will be much more enjoyable than trying to figure it out while the CFI is trying to explain it in a noisy airplane.

The second reason you need to do your homework is money. Just like learning to fly as a primary student, if you put in the work at home, you will spend far less money pursuing your rating because you will spend less time relearning and reviewing what you should already know.

Once the basics are under your belt, the real fun of flying IFR begins. Just like primary training, you will progress from the simple to the complex. You spend some time tracking VOR radials, and maybe doing some NDB and GPS navigating as well. Usually, holding patterns follow. Holding patterns are not difficult; you just need to get the hang of proper entry, and after a few mistakes you'll understand. From there, VOR approaches, NDB approaches, and maybe some simple GPS approaches follow. The challenge with approaches is learning how to take all the information on an approach chart and pull out the essential information as quickly as possible.

Instructors like to begin with VOR and NDB approaches for two reasons. First, they are a form of navigation that you are pretty familiar with from the private training. Second, the charts (often referred to as plates) are usually fairly simple and uncluttered. The information is easy to digest, and it doesn't take long to master the descents, procedure turns, and other nuances, and the boost in confidence is nice.

The instrument landing system (ILS) approach is the highlight of approach training. You will learn to follow two different course needles. The first is one you are already used to (left and right lateral guidance), but the signal is much more sensitive than a VOR, meaning corrections to your course are smaller. The second needle is the glideslope, which tells you if you are high or low. Once you master the pitch and power settings and associated airspeeds that stabilize your airplane, flying an ILS becomes much easier. The ILS leads you within 200 feet of the ground, so precise flight is critical. Personally, I am a firm believer in allowing a student to fly each type of approach one time without a hood, in VFR conditions. This allows the pilot to see exactly what happens during an approach, and when the transition is made to flying under the hood, it makes it easier to mentally "see" what is happening.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, you need to take the IFR knowledge exam. There are a number of commercial programs available for study, all of which are designed to break the information down into digestible modules. (While the quantity of information at first may seem overwhelming, don't forget that learning to fly did too. You conquered that, right?) Timing the knowledge test is up to you and your instructor, but it helps greatly if you have been exposed to all facets of the material before you make a final push in your studying. You should try to take the test before you start final preparations for your checkride.

Just like your private certificate, you need to take the long IFR cross-country mentioned earlier, an event that is usually saved for the end of your training. The cross-country ties together all facets of an instrument flight: weather evaluation, flight planning, obtaining a clearance (and a void time if necessary), departure and en route navigation, flying an arrival, flying an approach, canceling an IFR flight plan, and radio communications. And, with any luck, you'll get some actual IFR time in your logbook.

The FARs require that you receive 15 hours of IFR training. Realistically, it will probably take you more. Remember, you need 40 hours of total time flying strictly by reference to instruments. You can do a lot of consolidating by flying cross-country flights while accumulating the 40 hours of hood time and the 15 hours of instruction. If you can fly every day or every other day, you can reduce your training time and your costs substantially. If you can't fly every day, you might be able to get some time on one of the many personal computer aviation training devices (PCATDs), which allow you to practice all phases of instrument flight. You can save a lot of time with these, because instead of having to fly the airplane in real time, you can quickly reposition the plane to repeat part of a lesson, and with a mouse click you can see on a computerized map just how well (or how poorly) you flew the procedure. You can also "fly" all over the country, picking more and more challenging scenarios. And you can train on days when the weather simply does not let you fly.

The instrument rating is probably the most difficult rating to acquire. It is a whole new set of skills and techniques, and it is done completely "in the blind." But it is not impossible, and it is actually a lot of fun. At some point you will find yourself shaking your head in utter amazement that you can fly an airplane from one point to another without ever seeing the ground to verify your location, descend from cruise altitude to a height of 200 feet above ground level, break out of the clouds, and see your intended runway at your intended airport. So while the days of weather cancellations will never be totally gone, you'll find that they are much less of a problem. Put on your hood, make yourself blind, and see for yourself.


Charles "Chip" Wright, AOPA 1086994, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a CRJ captain for Comair. He has accumulated 5,700 hours in 13 years of flying and is currently building a Vans RV-8.