As summer quickly approaches, weather becomes more unpredictable. From pop-up thunderstorms to low-level haze, it can be difficult to remain in favorable visual conditions—especially over extended flights. If you are a VFR pilot looking to get more use out of your pilot certificate this summer, consider adding an instrument rating.
An instrument rating is added to your private or commercial pilot certificate, permitting you to fly by reference to instruments under instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or on an IFR flight plan. Upon satisfactory completion of your training program, a knowledge test, and a practical test, you will be able to fly through conditions that would be otherwise limited by VFR weather minimums. The instrument rating does not automatically enable you to safely fly in any type of weather conditions. It is crucial to adhere to your own personal minimums and apply sound risk management and decision-making principles. So is earning an instrument rating worth the time, effort, and money? Here are a few reasons why we think an instrument rating is worth it.
Boost your confidence and make better choices.
The most obvious benefit of holding an instrument rating is the ability to fly in weather conditions below VFR minimums. It is particularly useful when you fly long distances because it is frequently difficult to travel far without encountering weather systems requiring instrument pilot skills. On days with a low overcast you can receive a clearance to climb through the clouds and into clear, smooth air. Similarly, if you must fly at a specific time, it may be possible only under instrument flight rules due to adverse weather conditions.
“If you find yourself saying ‘I think it’s okay,’ it probably isn’t.”
Now, that is not to say weather is no longer a factor when deciding if you can make a flight. There are still many dangerous situations caused by the weather that instrument-rated pilots can encounter. While you may not be legally grounded by lingering fog or low ceilings, making a go/no-go decision still requires a thorough analysis of the current and forecast conditions. Factor in your own experience and the equipment you will be operating to come up with definitive personal minimums—and stick to them. Weather will still affect your flying, but the number of days you don’t fly because of weather will be greatly reduced. The additional training will give you more confidence, but do not succumb to pressure to fly if you are not comfortable. Paul Duty, Gleim Chief Instructor, offers the following advice: “If you find yourself saying ‘I think it’s okay,’ it probably isn’t. If you interpret second-guessing as a sign to make alternative plans, you’ll always come out ahead.”
Learn to stay ahead of the aircraft.
Perhaps you have heard it said before: “stay ahead of the plane.” Getting behind implies that things are happening faster than you can handle them. Be prepared to handle any scenario. It is important to learn how to mentally plan for the next steps in the flight before you get there. This is true while flying VFR, but even more so when flying IFR. For many phases of instrument flight, you will have the same task load as when flying to an airport under VFR, such as setting the next radio frequency, listening to the weather, and studying the airport diagram. However, some phases of flight require a greater workload.
You will have to copy clearances (and sometimes amend them on the go), take extra steps to program avionics, brief the approach, plan holding pattern entries, and follow more ATC instruction—all while maintaining positive control of the aircraft and a continual instrument scan. During your instrument training, you must learn how to prioritize tasks and plan ahead to reduce your workload as much as possible. You will learn new skills that will help you to think ahead of the airplane and plan your next course of action, ultimately making you a better pilot.
Fly with more precision.
Flying under IFR requires more attention to staying on course. Since you cannot maintain visual separation with other aircraft, you will need to rely on ATC. Maintaining tighter tolerances when navigating is critical to effective traffic management.
Flying a stabilized approach to landing is important whether you are operating under VFR or IFR. By practicing instrument approaches you will become more proficient at coordinating the flight controls to obtain a desired result. Specifically, you will learn more about pitch and power relationships. Some pilots will debate whether power controls altitude and pitch controls airspeed, or vice versa, but in reality pitch and power must be adjusted together in order to maintain either a rate of climb/descent and a specific airspeed. Nowhere is this more evident than when flying a precision approach, such as an ILS. Tracking the glideslope will help stabilize the aircraft, leading to better landings. The lessons learned will be evident whether you are flying in visual or instrument conditions.
Be a safer pilot.
Ultimately, earning your instrument rating will help to make you a safer pilot. Inadvertent VFR into IMC flight is consistently the leading cause of weather-related accidents. By learning how to fly without outside visual references you are adding a margin of safety for yourself and your passengers. Research indicates that instrument-rated pilots tend to have a better overall understanding of weather. The training required for an instrument rating will increase the effectiveness of your preflight planning and weather decision making, increasing the overall safety of all your flight operations because you will be better prepared to handle unexpected weather conditions. Insurance companies also recognize the additional safety margins typical of instrument-rated pilots by providing discounts that can average at least a few percentage points.
Getting your instrument rating.
An instrument rating is an important and worthwhile addition to your pilot certificate. So, what steps do you need to take to prepare for and pass the instrument checkride? We recommend starting with a ground school to prepare for the instrument rating FAA Knowledge Exam. The Gleim Online Ground School guarantees that you will pass your test on the first try. The Gleim Deluxe Instrument Pilot Kit will provide you with everything you need to pass your test. It contains all the reference materials needed to prepare for your instrument flight training and the practical test, helping save time and money once you begin instruction.
Next, you will need to find a good flight instructor authorized to give instrument instruction (CFII). When selecting an instructor, it is important to ask if the training will include flying in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), not only simulated conditions. Many pilots find there is a noticeable difference between flying with a view-restricting device and actually flying in the clouds. It is important to gain experience flying in actual conditions with an instructor before attempting it on your own. Also, be sure to ask if the course will include training in a flight simulator or aviation training device. A significant amount of time in one of these devices can be logged towards your instrument rating and will make your training flights in the actual aircraft more meaningful, which can save you a great deal of money.
There is no total hour requirement for the instrument rating, but before you can take your checkride, you will need to accumulate 50 hours of cross country PIC time, 40 hours of simulated or actual instrument time, and at least 15 hours of instruction from a CFII. Once you and your instructor believe you are ready, you will receive an endorsement for the practical test. If you learn to fly at an FAA-approved part 141 school, the minimum time requirements can be reduced significantly.
Once you pass the practical test you will officially be an instrument pilot! Your newfound freedom comes with responsibility though. Although you might not need to wait for the fog to clear, be sure to plan for alternatives before you receive your departure clearance. The benefits are many, and you will be glad you put in the work. Now, go get started on your instrument training today! For more information, visit the Gleim Instrument Pilot page or contact an Aviation Training Consultant at 800-874-5346 ext. 471.
Written by Karl Winters, Gleim Aviation Editor and Instructor
About Gleim Aviation
Since 1980, the Gleim Aviation team of pilots, instructors, writers, designers, and programmers has helped aviators pass millions of FAA knowledge and practical tests using the unique Gleim Knowledge Transfer System. Gleim is an environmentally-friendly company headquartered in Gainesville, FL.