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
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.
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.
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