Pilot in Cessna 182
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I have a confession to make: I don’t love flying aerobatics. I have tremendous respect for those pilots who make a lomcevak look easy at airshows, but in terms of pure fun I’d much rather be shooting an instrument approach in the rain. For me, seeing the approach lights emerge from the fog is the biggest thrill in aviation, the reward for a flight well flown.

Part of the reason instrument flying is such a thrill is that it’s hard, a fact that is simultaneously underrated and overrated by pilots. Underrated because really flying IFR (not just earning the rating) is probably the most challenging activity you can do these days, unless you’re a heart surgeon or a Navy SEAL. Flying blind in the clouds, managing dynamic weather, and keeping up with air traffic control is like a mental treadmill that’s permanently set on 10—there is no stopping to take a break, and losing focus can lead to real pain.

That description might send some prospective instrument pilots fleeing, but it shouldn’t. This is the overrated part: IFR flying is indeed a challenge, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Learning hard things leads to new skills, new confidence, and a huge sense of accomplishment. The process of earning the rating–especially if you actually spend some time in clouds—is much more than memorizing a few test questions. It’s really about learning a new way of planning flights, visualizing the world around you, and making decisions. This makes you a better pilot in all phases of flight, VFR or IFR (and in many non-aviation parts of life too). If you don’t believe me, just ask the insurance companies, who routinely lower premiums for pilots when they earn an instrument rating.

What IFR flying really means

Cessna 182 climbing over clouds

Flying IFR often means you’re on top of the clouds, not in them.

An instrument rating is also a great way to make sure you fly more, something all pilots can appreciate. So can non-flying family members, especially if they’ve ever endured a canceled cross country due to marginal weather. Just remember that flying IFR doesn’t have to mean tangling with thunderstorms or shooting approaches to 200 and ½ at night. A typical IFR flight for me might involve climbing through a 2000-foot cloud deck, but spending most of the trip on top and in the sun. The ability to climb through that thin overcast means I can safely fly on a lot of marginal VFR days, dramatically increasing the utility of my pilot certificate. Over time, my personal minimums got lower and I now feel comfortable on low IFR days too, but the vast majority of my time is still in VMC. I use the instrument option to get above or around weather, not necessarily to linger in it.

This element of strategy is part of what makes IFR so satisfying. Yes, it relies on detailed procedures and checklists, but it’s also a craft. A good instrument pilot is not robotic—he or she must think creatively, just within certain limitations. For example, the approach plate demands that you arrive at a specific place (the missed approach point) at a specific altitude (MDA); whether you get there at 100 knots or 80 knots, with an advisory glideslope or a “dive and drive” descent, is up to you. Same for your route on a long cross country: weather conditions might require a large deviation, while still complying with an instrument departure or arrival.

The value of the procedure, other than keeping you safe, is that it offers a real-time feedback loop. Unlike a lot of VFR flying, in the IFR world it’s quite clear if you’re not on the magenta line or at the assigned altitude—there’s no ignoring it when you’re having a bad day in the left seat. But this is essential for evaluating your decisions and improving your skills. For a true craftsman, that process of continual improvement is addicting.

When this process is working the way it’s supposed to, it’s quite literally an adrenaline rush. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously described this state of mind in his book Flow: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Sounds like a good IFR flight to me.

Earning the rating

Getting to that state of flow takes a significant investment of time, effort, and money. The instrument rating is not a “pass the test” ordeal like the Commercial, where most of the questions and maneuvers can be forgotten once you have that new certificate. You have to really learn the material, understanding concepts like weather and regulations at a deep level.

A full instrument rating curriculum will cover hundreds of topics, but to me there are six key skills to master:

  • Aircraft control: know exactly where you are and keep the airplane on course, on altitude, and on speed at all times.
  • Weather: understand the atmosphere you’re flying in, make predictions about it, and react accordingly.
  • Air traffic control: know how you fit into the system and anticipate what the controller will ask for.
  • Approaches and procedures: follow the approach plate with ruthless precision, and watch out for traps.
  • Aircraft systems: maintain an understanding of how the airplane is performing while dividing your attention.
  • Decision making: rapidly evaluate multiple options, be firm in sticking to your plan, but remain willing to change when conditions change (yes, this is hard).

The overarching theme that ties these skills together is the protection of margins. All of aviation, but especially IFR flying, demands the humility to acknowledge that any flight can go wrong. The best way to avoid those problems is to build in margins, including weather (what alternate airports are available?), fuel (do we have enough for that alternate?), performance (can I really get to 12,000 feet today?), and ATC (learning to say “unable”). Building margins means more than just following the regulations—you could legally land with 45 minutes of fuel on board, but that doesn’t leave much room for error.

Pilot in Cessna 182

Managing your workload is one of the most important jobs for an instrument pilot.

In order to protect those margins, you first have to protect your time and attention as the pilot, which makes workload management a critical skill for instrument flying. That’s not easy for single pilot IFR flights, since weather briefings, performance calculations, flight plan filing, passenger briefings, flying, and communicating are all on you as PIC—it’s mostly a self-serve world these days and you’re a flight department of one.

Preparation is the best tool for workload management. Experienced instrument pilots are fanatics about thoroughly planning flights, from the route and altitude to destination airport and en route weather. But preparation also means developing standard operating procedures to make hard decisions while the airspeed is zero knots and the engine is shut down, so it’s easier to make the right call under stress. It also means thinking hard about the human element, especially fatigue. Everyone is different, but flying a three hour flight at the end of a 10-hour workday is not a good example of either maintaining margins or managing workload. Consider this a chance to learn more about your personality and reflect on when you perform best.

The goal is to be prepared for almost any situation, ready to react calmly and decisively when conditions change. Marcus Aurelius was onto something when he wrote, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” I’m pretty sure the emperor wasn’t an instrument pilot, but could have been a good one with that mindset.

Of course none of this hard work matters if you don’t stay current, and far too many instrument pilots earn the rating but let it quickly lapse. The instrument scan in particular erodes much more quickly than VFR skills, so without regular practice your instrument rating is just a participation trophy. Avoiding this trap means planning for proficiency flights even before you earn the rating, and being honest about your ability to fly IFR on a regular basis. Finding time to stick your nose in clouds can be difficult, especially in some parts of the country where severe clear is the norm, but home flight simulators are an increasingly helpful tool. While never a replacement for actual IMC, a desktop computer with X-Plane and a yoke/throttle setup can keep the rust off in between flights if you approach it seriously and religiously debrief your flights.

You were right, I was wrong…

After I earned my private pilot certificate, all the old timers (which, since I was 17, meant anyone over 35) told me that the instrument rating “is when you really learn to fly—it’s the master’s degree in aviation.” Boy did I hate that lecture. Didn’t they know all the stuff I had to learn to earn my license? Airspace and aerodynamics, exhaust valves and emergency procedures, CIGARTIPS and GUMPS. What more could there really be to learn? Besides, I could fly a 1000-mile cross-country trip without an instrument rating so what was the point?

Within a year, I realized—painfully—how right those old timers had been. Earning my instrument rating really did unlock a whole new world of aviation. I became a much better pilot, I flew more often, and I learned how to think more clearly about all parts of life. So take it from this old timer at heart: embrace the challenges, joys, frustrations, and rewards of IFR flying. Get an instrument rating and stay current.

This article is part of IFR Month, a four-week focus on the challenges and rewards of instrument flying. For more, visit Sportys.com/IFR.

John Zimmerman
19 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    I am always amused when I read articles or hear folks talk about about how IFR rating if the ‘real maccoy’ of aviation. Okay, maybe not always but it happens more often than not.

    The amusing part for me is when they make it seem as if a pilot uses half their brain when flying VFR.

    Sure, flying IFR adds some complexities to the equation but that happens primarily, because of the increase in procedures that require precision, such as holding and maintaining specific altitudes, speeds and positions and talking constantly to ATC.

    Beyond that, all pilots end up considering the same factors and applying the same skills needed in order to operate an aircraft safely while conducting flight:

    Aircraft Control
    Air traffic control
    Aircraft systems
    Decision Making

    These skills and considerations are not limited only to IFR pilots.

    A VFR pilot who doesn’t want to find themselves in a ‘sticky situation’ must evaluate and brief the weather much more diligently, before they go flying because their margin for error is much smaller, compared to an IFR pilot who can fly in less than ideal weather.

    One can also argue that a VFR pilot has a much higher risk margin due to the weather limitations and thus their Planning and Decision making would demand more scrutiny and attention.

    Lastly, there is the misconception of safety. We often hear folks claim that having an IFR rating makes you a ‘safer pilot’. I would argue that the jury is still out on that one.
    I don’t believe that merely having an IFR rating automatically makes you a safer pilot. You can have an IFR rating and still take unnecessary risks or fail to maintain good currency and vigilance and hence increase your odds for mistakes.

    That goes for any pilot, regardless of how many hours you have on your log book or whether you’re VFR or IFR.

    Safety to me comes from establishing good habits consistently, learning from your mistakes and being diligent in every aspect of flying. That includes keeping current by taking refresher training from those who are qualified to keep you skills sharp.

    I am not in anyway diminishing the importance of IFR training and rating. I think IFR rating does give you a lot more freedom to fly more often and you also learn new skills, which is pretty cool.

    I also believe that flying can be fun for both IFR and VFR pilots.

  2. rwyerosk
    rwyerosk says:

    I flew jets in heavy IFR and the fact is that that type of aircraft easily handles the problems IFR flying is full off. Working as a crew with systems that handle icing and the ability to divert easily away from hazardous weather is a big plus and make one comfortable and safe……Unfortunately I realized my single engine aircraft was very limited compared tot he jet. One engine, one vacuum pump, one electrical system, no radar and that reliability of turbine engines is well know and necessary.

    I am a CFI and an A&P/IA. I know the risks and have taken them and just will not do it any more.

    Soft IFR with a reasonable ceiling and none of the killers like thunderstorms, icing and fog is okay…….any further and I am uncomfortable.

    Don’t get me wrong, Being in aviation for over 50 years and earning the Wright Brothers Award was no accident!…….but there were close ones and piston engines are only as good as the pilot flying them and caring for them. Ironically some pilots have no clue that they can fail and they fail often,

    Having two engine failures in twins, and off airport landing, control failure along with vacuum pump, electrical and radios breaking goes along with the 50 years. I often wonder what if that happened in IFR ?

    Risks come with life and we all take them.

    • Don W.
      Don W. says:

      Your comments about the risks in flying hard IFR in single engine light aircraft are on the mark. My first logbook entry was in 1972 which is now (how is this possible??) more than 50 years ago. Back then I never considered that a critical part of my flying carpet could just pack it up and quit unexpectedly. After all, they were FAA certified and deemed “airworthy”. Now I’ve read too many stories and seen too many pictures of mangled aircraft to not consider it.
      You can get pretty good backup for your flight critical instruments from something like a Stratus and Foreflight, and since they are battery powered they won’t depend on your vaccum pump or your electrical system. This can get you back on the ground, even though they are not certified for IFR flight. If the engine packs it in up in the soup that little red handle marked ABS will probably get you on the ground and let you walk away from the insurance company’s aircraft.

    SKYKON says:

    Reflecting my thoughts exactly John in that flight in IMC is close to one of the most enjoyable things in life that a person can do. I do however challenge the superhuman attributes that you attribute to those of us who routinely engage in inclement weather flight.

    Instrument flight is enjoyable and relaxing simply because you have trained your mind to be ahead of – and stay ahead of the airplane in all flight regimes using judgements defined by IFR.

    To me, it is not and has never been an exceptional mental stretch to use the same fundamental piloting skills earned as a private pilot and extend them into safe flight in IMC.

    Ensuring that the mind never falls behind the airplane is THE essential skill that keeps airplanes upright in challenging weather. Unlike simulators however, you can’t be wrong in IMC, even once, wherein rebooting is just another option.

  4. Dan Stuber
    Dan Stuber says:

    I’m not a high time pilot, but I do have a couple hundred hours actual instrument.
    The most thrilling thing I experienced was coming home after a golf tournament with my dad in the right seat, his first time in front.
    Missed circling approach at our destination then in the soup to the alternate, ICT. Popped out at minimums, runway and taxiway lights bright and beautiful.
    Dad exclaimed “wow, this takes you right down there!” He loved it.
    I’ll never forget that moment.

    • Duane Mader
      Duane Mader says:

      Late great Bob Buck said that instrument flying is weather flying. Simple but very profound. Before you were instrument rated, you didn’t need to worry about icing or imbedded thunderstorms or too low of a ceiling because YOU WERE VFR. Beyond staying out of those situations, how much weather you can handle is very much tied to your airplane capabilities and your currency and experience. In a CJ that’s probably right to legal mins and anything but severe icing, in my buddy’s 172 it’s probably climbing/descent through a fairly high ceiling with no ice

    • John Johnson
      John Johnson says:

      Dan, I suspect you’re more experienced and skilled than your note would suggest, and I thoroughly understand your delight in that flight with your dad. I and my dad had similar feelings when I first took him up (VFR) in a Cessna 150 shortly after getting my PPL. We flew to Gaston’s Resort for lunch.

      However, I’ve now been flying for 58 years, have owned several single- and multiengine aircraft as well as a surplus military jet, and have acquired a few “rules to not-fly by” during that time: 1) Don’t fly in fog. 2) Don’t fly in thunderstorms. 3) Don’t fly in ice. 4) Don’t do night circling approaches in IMC. (In fact, I will no longer do them in day IMC either.) Although I love to fly at night, I now try to avoid night IMC, although it’s not a hard rule for me—but my personal minimums certainly go up at night. These “rules” developed in part from my Air Force training, in part from learning from my mistakes and those of others, and with advancing age the recognition that I have nothing to prove any more. I teach these rules to my students, and that regardless of one’s experience level or competence, they can be life savers.

      • Dan Stuber
        Dan Stuber says:

        Hi John-
        Thoughtful comment, thank you.
        Couple of clarifying points I left out:
        It was still daylight for the circling approach, and it was broken clouds. But circling is not my favorite approach anyway.
        And, I was flying my Citation II SP, had done a bunch of old approaches to minimums. And for sure I would never have done any of the above in my 1st plane, a Piper Tomahawk.

  5. J Thomas Purifoy, Sr.
    J Thomas Purifoy, Sr. says:

    All the comments are right on except my story is a little different! Got drafted in ‘66 because I lost my college deferment & needed more time so joined the Navy Reserve to finish college then flunked the math to get in Navy OCS & had already passed physical for flight training, so ended up in Vietnam most of ‘68 with SeaBees! After I got out my wife encouraged me to get my pilots license which I did in 1974 under the GI bill, great fun for about 10 years renting planes but never completed IFR(testing not my strong suite & ADD) so quit for 20 years but had worked up to the Bonanza & took some nice trips with fam! 2006 living in MEM, children grown my wife again said why don’t you start flying again; had a friend in the local CAP & up I went & got current, sadly she got cancer in 2008 & died in 09 but as usual said “ go buy you an airplane” & after she died I purchased a 2005 SR22 & away I went but realized I needed the the IFR rating; so got serious about it & on Friday 6/13/2014 @ age 70 took my chk ride & passed the first time! I remember the examiner, also older said “ now Go find some clouds” & I loved it, my personal minimum was 1000 ft AGL, but later had to adjust lower & always was thrilled to pop out lined up on the approaches! Had a few ATC snafoos but all worked out! Just keep talking to them! Had to hang up the headset last year & sell the plane because of some disqualifying health issues, but great while it lasted, I was very fortunate indeed!
    Encourage all to get the IFR!

  6. P.D.
    P.D. says:

    Meh … I’m an ATP SE ME and a couple of types. My preference is clear skies, calm winds, mid-70s, sun just setting, and the “rabbit” in sight from 20 miles out.

  7. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I had a really tough time getting my ticket. Just for VFR flying. I am DONE spending any more time and money than I have to. Just to fly with my head in the soup? I don’t think so. I fly on nice days where I can see. On my long distance cross country flights, I put down when the weather caves in on me. A night in a hotel is certainly a whole lot cheaper than another rating for me at this point in my life.

    Svend HOYER-NIELSEN says:

    I am an old (almost 83) VFR PP who accumulated only about 400 hrs flying single engine land fixed gear when I was in my late 20s. Quit when I got married w/kids and only 1 paycheck, and my wife did not enjoy flying, so I switched to boating. I still fly occationally in the right seat with a friend, or when on a charter out to a remote fishing spot. The question I have for anyone who cares to respond is this: How proficient in IFR conditions are the young feeder-airline and charter pilots, who fly always on autopilot, both in IFR and VFR conditions? I always read the accident reports, and I am apalled at how often the tragedy was caused by blatant pilot mistakes. It seams that these pilots only know how to fly. when every thing is working on the autopilot as intended. When something goes wrong, they crash and burn. I know there are some very impressive tales of excellent pilots, who saved a very dangerous problem from ending in a deadly crash, but they are few and far between.

  9. Hew
    Hew says:

    For 54 years and 3,100 hours I thought IFR was just “too hard”, to contemplate. Now with a further 800 hours mostly IFR my only regret is I didn’t learn the art 3,000 hours ago. I have often flown 1,500 nm in a day, single engine VFR, from one end of Australia to the other. On this continent you can guarantee unpleasant weather in the tropical end in the summer or the southern end in winter. These conditions often dictate flying low, stress full navigation, diversions, unplanned landings and terrain avoidance. VFR (Very Frightening Really) in marginal conditions is very stressful. Any amount of planning cannot anticipate the rapid change in the environmental situation that can occur when trying to avoid the white stuff. If I get above cloud, can I get down? VFR is HARD.
    For me IFR is easy. Weather stress disappears. One only has to contemplate extreme conditions like severe thunderstorms and icing though it is only contemplation. The planning process mitigates those before the flight begins. Of the 800 hours using IFR only about 250 has been in IMC. Then the joy is being in a white bubble, or even a black one with reflections of instruments bouncing off perspex the only company. Knowing that you are following a planned magenta line at a safe altitude to arrive at a destination with a carefully designed profile to get you to the airport is a joy. All this while there is the calm voice of air traffic control following your progress, suggesting changes to your flight profile to avoid other incumbents of the clouds.
    With IFR the pressure is off. The unexpected becomes compliant. Knowledge of procedures and practice gives a certainty to flying that is not available using VFR. IFR is EASY.

  10. James T Lee MD
    James T Lee MD says:

    Nice set of comments with maybe a hint of braggadocio. I no longer fly at age 80 now, but as a retired surgeon I can assure you that cardiac surgery is NOT the only sub-specialty in surgery that is “up there” with being a Navy Seal.

  11. Peterson Conway
    Peterson Conway says:

    Anybody that can quote Marcus Aurelius and pulling a lovcevak at an airshow has my attention! Nice to see our editor sticking his neck out on a topic a lot of us take for granted or wish to ignore altogether. Thanks John –this was an inspiration to read.

  12. Ross
    Ross says:

    Great article ! I particularly like the title “The Joy of IFR.” It is difficult at first, and I didn’t start to feel really comfortable until I had about 100 hours of actual IFR. However, when you fly around the clouds, fog and ice of the Great Lakes, you must have the IFR rating to make any practical use of an airplane. It is enjoyable when you break out of the clouds at KFNT and the tower asks if you are on the ground yet and the FBO tells you that you are the first one in that day. Then there was the time at KIMT with two 135 planes in the hold due to morning fog and ATC asked me if I wanted to try to get in. Sure, the worst that could happen was a missed approach and into the hold with the rest. I got in and told ATC that the fog was starting to lift while I taxied off the runway. The next thing I heard was two other planes landing behind me. Those were just some of my fun experiences with IFR flying.
    I have flown VFR from Michigan to Arizona and back while trying to get to California. Mornings typically had ground fog and afternoons had monsoons (thunderstorms) which made for a very short flying day. Later flights to California, Idaho, and Florida were much less stressful flying IFR.
    While IFR flying opens up many more flights, it also requires more careful flight planning and weather analysis. Still the ATC people are almost always great to deal with and very helpful. It is one big team effort aloft. I almost always file IFR, because it is a lot more fun and interesting than VFR. Yes, the joy of IFR indeed !


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