Instrument Training - Why?

Printed in EAA Sport Pilot - July 2008

“Hi.  My name is Bob, and I would like to get an instrument rating.  I heard that you can teach me.” I probably hear this about a dozen times a year, and that always prompts a discussion about the reason for this rating, and what the training involves.  The ability to fly an aircraft certainly gives one a much greater degree of flexibility when planning aircraft use.  And instrument training, like any kind of aircraft training, gives a person more confidence in his ability to fly aircraft, and to use the aircraft in wider variety of environments.

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As a part-time, free-lance flight instructor, my students fall into two broad categories.  First of all, I see young men and women who have dreams of a professional flying career.  Secondly, I talk with older men and women who just want to get additional use out of their aircraft. 

For people in the first group, the expectations of the training are pretty straightforward.  They intend for the instrument rating to be a step in their education for their flying career.  They expect to attain a commercial license, and a multi-engine rating, and eventually type ratings and an Airline Transport Rating.

For others, the expectations are a bit murkier.  When questioned, I often hear that they want to be able fly unrestricted.  They don’t want to have to cancel business flights because of weather considerations.  Conversations with these people can become a bit of a counseling session, a bit of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

There are advantages to learning to fly on the gauges that go beyond flying “hard IFR.”   While most non-professional pilots do not expect to fly to minimums on the proverbial “dark and stormy night”, here is a common scenario for us in the Midwest.

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Weather at the departure point is 1,500 overcast, tops at 4,000 feet, with two miles of visibility.  This weather extends for about 200 miles along the route of flight, and then breaks into a layer of scattered clouds.  For a non-instrument rated pilot, this is a no-go forecast.  For the instrument-rated pilot, this will involve about five minutes of flying in actual clouds.  And while the flight may be conducted above the clouds without seeing the ground, the instrument pilot is relieved of that anxious feeling that comes from wondering if there will be a hole in the clouds when arriving at the destination.  The instrument pilot knows that this will not be an issue.  The training and aircraft capabilities will allow a smooth, regulated decent through any clouds that might exist at the destination.

Weather at the departure point is 1,500 overcast, tops at 4,000 feet, with two miles of visibility.  This weather extends for about 200 miles along the route of flight, and then breaks into a layer of scattered clouds.

 For a non-instrument rated pilot, this is a no-go forecast.  For the instrument-rated pilot, this will involve about five minutes of flying in actual clouds.  And while the flight may be conducted above the clouds without seeing the ground, the instrument pilot is relieved of that anxious feeling that comes from wondering if there will be a hole in the clouds when arriving at the destination.  The instrument pilot knows that this will not be an issue.  The training and aircraft capabilities will allow a smooth, regulated decent through any clouds that might exist at the destination. 

Here is another reason for learning to fly by the instruments.  Think about the last time you flew at night.  For those of us who fly at night, low and slow over the Midwest plains, the horizon can disappear and the lights on the ground start to blend with the stars.  The ability to fly by instruments can make an anxious hour a lot more comfortable..

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Another advantage of instrument training is improved radio skills, and a greater degree of comfort with a wide range of airports.  I teach in the Kansas City area, and we are blessed with a variety of airports.  We have towered airports, including Kansas City International and several reliever airports.  Pilots who use these airports learn to talk to FAA controllers, and become comfortable with communications skills that are required.  And, they learn that the fact that an airport has a control tower does not mean that it is always busy.  All towered airports have their busy periods, but all will allow multiple landings in their slower periods.

In addition to these towered airports, we have a large number of non-towered airports.  Some busy and some less so.  And pilots whose training took place at these airports are generally very good at using other non-towered airports.

When pilots talk to me about instrument training, I find that they are generally comfortable with one type of airport, but not with the other.  Through the course of instrument training, they will become comfortable with both types of airports.  They will be able to work with FAA controllers, and will also be able to operate independently as they take off and land at airports without a tower.  And these are skills that will carry over into non-instrument situations.

Without throwing cold water on the dreams of new instrument pilots, I often have to talk about the limitations of instrument flying.  This is a limitation based on the skills of the pilot, but also a limitation on the aircraft capabilities that we generally fly.  Most of my non-professional students are flying single-engine, reciprocating-engine aircraft.  These are aircraft that generally do not have anti-icing or de-icing capability and this is a definite limitation in winter flying.  Additionally, no aircraft has thunderstorm capability.  The lack of anti-icing and de-icing equipment places limits on the instrument situations that are safe for us to negotiate.

But, I also discuss with potential instrument pilots that the reason that corporate and airline pilots fly in cruddy weather to very low altitudes regularly is because they train and practice.  Professional pilots, flying for the airlines, as a charter pilot, or as a corporate pilot, are flying several days every week.  They are taking recurring training annually or more often, and they undergo an FAA flight review annually or semi-annually.  Very few of who fly for our own purposes are willing to make that level of commitment.

So my recommendation to potential students is, “Yes, let’s try this.”  I won’t promise that every student will master the skills necessary for instrument flight, but most who determine that they want the rating will attain it.  And those who do attain their rating will find an increased level of confidence and enjoyment in their own capabilities.

foggy runway

Don’t Practice Until You Get It Right - Practice Until You Don’t Get It Wrong