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Is experience in actual conditions vital to training for an instrument rating?

Head in the clouds

IMC is essential for IFR training

By Dave Hirschman

The best flight training advice I ever got was to do my IFR training in the murk. “Wait for a week when you know the weather’s going to be awful,” my instructor told me. “Then drop everything else, and we’ll fly two or three times a day in low clouds and rain. You’ll be glad you went about it the right way.”

Simulators can’t induce vertigo the way flying in and out of clouds does, and sims can’t recreate the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you reach decision height and can’t see the landing zone. And let’s admit that most view-limiting devices are a joke. Pilots who get their IFR tickets under the hood in fair weather are in for a jolt the first time they fly an approach to minimums with rain pelting against the windshield.

For me, a gloomy week in a long-ago November turned out to be a blessing: six consecutive days of low clouds and rain, only traces of ice, and no thunderstorms. My long instrument cross-country featured approaches to near minimums on each segment.

The first time I ever had to wear a view-limiting device was on the checkride, and it felt like cheating. Visual cues like shadows moving across the cockpit made flying under the hood a cinch.

Now, as an instrument instructor, I do my best to make sure my instrument students see the insides of clouds. Preferably, hours and hours of them. It’s easy to do since training airplanes are plentiful on cloudy, low-visibility days when primary students are grounded.

It’s common for new IFR pilots to let their instrument currency lapse soon after passing their checkrides—and that’s a shame. But it’s totally understandable, especially for those who didn’t fly in actual instrument conditions in training. Imagine the pressure of making an approach in actual conditions for the first time with family or friends as passengers. Who would want to do that?

Instrument tickets earned in Arizona, Southern California, or Florida aren’t worthless. There’s useful knowledge to be gained about the IFR system, and crafty instructors in such places get their IFR students to fly under the hood at night to make training more realistic. They also seek out bad weather for training—even if that means flying at odd hours or going long distances to find it.

But fair seas don’t make a sailor. If you plan to use an instrument rating to travel, keep a demanding schedule, or go long distances, do yourself a favor and train in low-visibility conditions. If you already have the rating, save your practice sessions for dreary days.

You’ll be a better pilot for it.

Email [email protected]

Clear as day

Clouds are overrated

By Ian J. Twombly

I recall my first solo instrument flight better than my first airplane solo a few years prior. There was a solid undercast of cotton with no vertical development. As I was being vectored for the approach the airplane was gliding along right on top of the white blanket, and turning to intercept the localizer it felt like my wing was slicing through the mist. Then, descending through the layer and seeing the runway? It’s a magical feeling.

It’s possible that one reason I remember this so well was that it was one of my first experiences in the clouds. I trained for my instrument rating in Florida—a state that, with few exceptions, offers black-and-white flying weather. A quick check of the logbook shows only 0.7 of actual instrument time prior to my checkride. That first solo instrument flight more than doubled my total.

In an ideal world we would all learn to fly instruments in low clouds, no convection, and maybe a little rain, but those opportunities are rare. If most of us waited to fly on those days it would take us years to learn. It’s more likely that we learn in a place that gets snow and ice in the winter and thunderstorms in the summer, or a place such as Arizona or Florida, where there is reliably good weather. Given those two choices I would take the southern states.

Learning to fly on instruments takes three core groups of skills: proficiency on procedures, weather knowledge, and judgment. Learning procedures is best done in a structured, repeatable manner, ideally with increasing stress. If I could set up an ideal training scenario it would be based in a place that offers a quick in and out of the airport environment and that is close to a variety of towered and nontowered airports near a busy corridor.

This is part of what makes Florida a great training location. The weather is reliable, especially in the morning, and you can find major Class B airports, busy Class C airports, Class D airports, and sleepy rural spots. By flying often and with increasing complexity the student has a great opportunity to learn procedures. That will keep her ahead of the airplane when things get crazy.

Clearly instrument flying is meant to be done in weather that is less than ideal, so some weather knowledge and experience is helpful. That’s why we have personal minimums. My personal minimums were high on that first solo in the clouds, and breaking out around 800 feet helped me build confidence in actual conditions—something that only happens when you’re flying solo.

Email [email protected]

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