The three hours of instrument training required for the private pilot checkride serve two purposes. The less important is to give the student a fighting chance to escape an unexpected encounter with instrument conditions by relying on the panel as he or she makes a climb, descent, or standard-rate turn, preferably under the direction of ATC. The more important is to demonstrate just how impossible it is to maintain control of an aircraft without either visual references or an effective instrument scan.
It doesn’t work perfectly. VFR-into-IMC accidents aren’t all that common—usually two or three dozen a year—but they’re almost always fatal, and the aircraft are generally destroyed. One way to look at it is that VFR into IMC kills 10 times as many people as bungled landings. Given that every flight involves at least one landing while few include VFR into IMC, that’s a pretty wide discrepancy.
Unexpected weather in remote areas has caused a few, but in the great majority the pilot either knew or should have known that the weather was marginal or worse. You could be excused for lumping these into just two categories: carelessness and recklessness. In the first you have the pilots who take off without ever checking the weather, or fail to notice that conditions are deteriorating until they’re close to losing control. In the second you’ll find the ones who know the forecast is for three miles visibility under 1,000-foot ceilings, but choose to blast off cross-country anyway. Common to both is the lack of any well-considered plan for how to deal with weather that’s worse than expected.
Sport and recreational pilots aren’t required to get basic attitude instrument training, but they haven’t had disproportionate numbers of weather accidents. The main reason, of course, is that there just aren’t enough pilots holding those certificates to make up very much of any segment of the accident record. But some of it may be that a training program explicitly limited to daytime VFR helps remove temptation by putting a wider range of conditions entirely off limits. Knowing you can’t fly at night is a good argument against taking off in poor visibility at dusk.
Which raises the question of whether the private pilot requirement for basic attitude instrument training really does more harm than good. Does it lead to overconfidence? Are VFR pilots fooled into thinking it will be enough to get them out of situations they should know better than to get into?
Given the obstacles to changing the practical test standards, a more relevant question is how those three hours under the hood can be used most effectively to keep your students out of trouble after they’ve stopped being yours. Teaching the maneuvers required for the checkride is necessary, of course, but its long-term value is limited; the physical skills of the instrument scan decay quickly without frequent practice. More attention to unusual attitude recognition and recovery puts an extra tool in the box, but its greater benefit is probably hammering home the lesson that you really can’t keep the airplane under control by willpower alone. Five or six consecutive demonstrations that a level turn attempted with eyes closed always ends up with the airplane on the edge of a stall or spiraling out of control might make a lasting impression.
Which suggests that the most important parts of private pilot hood work don’t take place under the hood. Frustration and a couple of good scares can ram home the fact that unintended entry into IMC is a genuine, life-threatening emergency. Understanding that adds meaning and urgency to all that boring flight-planning and weather stuff. It reinforces the importance of having several layers of contingency plans worked out before you need them, and it should spark discussion of the difference between saving the airplane and saving a crew. If there’s no clear, navigable route to an airport, an off-field landing may well be the safest option. That’s a fact newly minted pilots can find hard to acknowledge.
Ideally, students will want more than three hours of basic instrument training, and want it badly enough to pay for it. The half or so of all pilots who go on to get the instrument rating will find it immediately useful; the rest might keep in mind that night flights can easily become instrument flights, even when the reported weather’s VMC. It’s those who don’t want any training beyond the minimum requirements who particularly need to get every minute’s worth out of the required three hours. The crucial lesson for them is to plan, monitor, and continuously re-evaluate to avoid any situation that would put that minimal attitude instrument training to use.