Pilot in Cessna 182
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In John Zimmerman’s thought-provoking article, “What Matters For IFR Proficiency? The Answer Is Quite Simple.”, he highlights that deficiencies in basic instrument flying skills was the probable cause of a lot of accidents in IMC – not the weather, not the airplane, but the pilot, who simply got overwhelmed and lost control. He ultimately concludes that the best way to stay proficient then, all things being equal, is to practice flying in IMC (real or simulated) to ensure you can minimally meet the ACS standards for basic attitude instrument flying.

Instrument approach from cockpit

In John’s article, he ultimately concludes that the best way to stay profiienct is to practice flying in IMC.

Yet there is a certain underlying theme that permeates both John’s article and the many reactions to it that for whatever reason never really gets fully articulated, and it’s this: Instrument flying is just as much a way of life as it is a skill.

Two crew cockpit

For professional pilots, their high cadence of flying coupled with constant recurrent training ensures proficiency.

And that’s why professional pilots, as John pointed out, are statistically safer flying in IMC than their GA counterparts; their high cadence of flying coupled with constant recurrent training not only ensures proficiency, but develops a certain state of mind when they fly – a “zen” if you will. In turn, they don’t see their instrument skills atrophy to the point of calamity nearly as fast as GA pilots do.

Putting it in less mystical terms, everything from their scan to even how they brief an approach is ingrained as behavioral norms and executed out of habit, not concerted thought. And if you have any pro pilot friends like I do, I highly suggest flying with one of them and witnessing it for yourself first hand. It’s pretty obvious.

That begs the question then: How can an average GA pilot like me who flies around a hundred hours a year stay proficient? The answer is quite simple (well, maybe): I incorporate some aspect of IFR flying into every single flight. Every single one.

That means hand flying to within or better ACS standards. That means filing to those hamburger runs in order to practice my CRAFT and phraseology. That means flight planning a VFR flight like an IFR one by reusing Victor airways and programming along track waypoints for descent planning. That means occasionally flying the green needle instead of the magenta one. And in warmer months, it means seeking out destinations with blue or red dots on them, while in colder ones, relying instead on my home sim to do the same. You get the point.

Cockpit simulator

In colder months, I use my home simulator to help stay IFR proficient.

All of the above isn’t me trying to convince you I’m a competent IFR pilot. Instead, it’s to showcase that staying instrument proficient is more akin to a lifestyle choice than a matter of just getting my six HITS in; every single flight is conducted through an instrument flying lens as part of my never-ending battle against weekend warrior rust.

And it is in this aspect that I think a lot of articles about instrument proficiency get wrong: Instrument flying isn’t some kind of switch you turn on because of low ceilings or visibility. It’s a state-of-mind you’re constantly in no matter the conditions. In other words, having your instrument rating doesn’t make you a better pilot because you can read an approach plate or fly partial panel (yet another skill I don’t practice nearly enough), rather, it’s because in order to stay proficient, you need to execute your rating on every single flight – just like the pros do.

Pilot in Cessna 182

In order to stay proficient, you need to execute your rating on every single flight – just like the pros do.

Coming full circle: Is the answer to IFR proficiency really that simple? I don’t know. What I do know is that for the overwhelming pilots I talk to, instrument proficiency is not even worth the effort. Most, if not all of their flights are for the scenery and/or the company, neither of which they feel can be truly enjoyed in the soup. For me however, the answer lies somewhere in that personal commitment I’ve made to myself to execute some aspect of my rating on every single flight in order to stay sharp and be the best pilot I can be. Of course, your nautical mileage may vary. Caveat emptor.

Alexander Sack
Latest posts by Alexander Sack (see all)
10 replies
  1. Joe grimes
    Joe grimes says:

    Good article. Staying proficient is challenging and mandatory.
    Some years back I flew approach when I was “legal” but not proficient. That sobered me up.
    My goal is to get a minimum of three approaches every month. Recent work-commitments have interfered with that plan but hopefully I’ll get back to my happy-place.
    Wishing you blue skies and the occasional approach to minimums.

      • Richard McGinnis
        Richard McGinnis says:

        I agree completely with your every flight practice way of life. I add two additional ideas to my CFII training.

        Prioritize the skills that in which you choose to be proficient. The idea of a three region target diagram is a good model. The center area is skills that are necessary every flight. The next ring area are skills necessary to make a low stress typical actual IMC flight. The third ring is skills that are nice to know but are not really required as the required skills are in the center two ring areas. Since most GA pilots have limited time available for practice, focus on the center two skill sets. The thought process of identifying the skills in the three areas can be very helpful process. Our new electronic equipment has many many features so one can easily spend proficiency time on the third ring skills and neglect the two inner ring skills. Also, the skills in each ring area can be dynamic. Another use for these skill categories is focusing aircraft time and simulator time.

        The second idea is to practice for an IMC flight to your destination, do an approach to minimums, miss and go to a hold, and then go to your alternate. Also include landing from about 200 feet agl. Personal minimums likely will try to avoid this scenario and are useful for go-no go decisions, but “Mother Nature” does not respect your personal minimums once in the air. The stress can accelerate very rapidly in the air if conditions become less than personal minimums. If one has practiced to the lowest possible conditions, the pilot stress level has a better chance of staying low enough to determine and execute a good work around plan in the aircraft while in IMC. Hope these ideas are helpful.

  2. RichR
    RichR says:

    Proficiency is the key to safety in any aviation endeavor…xw landings, acro, form, etc. You can’t just “wing it” you have to put in the reps. The most important safety investment is not the latest panel feature, it’s avgas, hobbs and pilot time.

  3. Brad K
    Brad K says:

    My biggest fear is flying a trip VFR, while the soup is causing me to go lower and lower,
    till doing so is just reckless, and the only rational thing to do is to file, get a higher altitude,
    and be safe, while another voice is saying, “Don’t file, don’t go on instruments, stay VFR
    (or close to it), and take the risk.” Which of course is a bad idea.
    I periodically fly approaches in IMC on the FSX on the laptop,
    with vsby set to 1 mile, which helps, but I know is not as useful as real IMC.
    Thanks for the article.

    • RichR
      RichR says:

      Especially if you’re single pilot when you find yourself struggling with cont’d VFR, land at a VMC airfield, gas up, relook at the wx while you’re not doing the one armed paper-hanger thing…a little decompression time will allow more thoughtful review and extra gas if you do relaunch. If you decide filing is the smartest option, less stress figuring out route on the ground.

      VMC is safer around convective than IMC, you want to be able to see and avoid those cells.

  4. Craig
    Craig says:

    I care about IMC proficiency A LOT. My airplane is a magic carpet, limited by icing and thunderstorms, but all other weather is negotiable. However, proficiency is a constant concern. I work instruments on every flight. More importantly, I file and fly instrument proficiency (holding and multiple approaches) on night flights every couple of months. This renews night quals and keeps instrument currency up to date. Proficiency is reinforced, or sometimes I’m just reminded about my current proficiency state? (disclaimer, I flew 5200 hours in single seat, mostly single engine Navy jets, and now have more than ten years experience in Mooneys. CFI, CFII).

  5. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I am in the 20 hour a year category VFR. I don’t fly enough, long enough, or far enough for justify the added expense of an IFR rating.

    That being said, I plot out the airports on my flight path. And yes, occasionally I’ve had to put down and wait out the system. This works for me.

  6. Charles Lloyd
    Charles Lloyd says:

    Alex you got in right in your story. When we passed our instrument check ride we had to show proficiency to fly approaches down to minimums. You have to keep at it to maintain that proficiency.
    As a CFII training instrument pilots in a Frasca RTD Advanced Aircraft Instrument Trainer, our rental cost are less that you can rent or the direct operating cost of your own airplane. I am baffled why more GA pilots don’t consider this option like the professional do to help maintain and sharpen their instrument skills


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