Ticket to Ride: Why IFR Training Makes Sense
by Paul Engstrom
A smart move? Or an invitation to trouble?
VFR pilots weighing the pros
and cons of stepping up to an instrument rating are likely to encounter this
debate sooner or later. Most conclude it's a good insurance policy, but
occasionally you'll hear something like this from naysayers: "The rating
instills false confidence. It increases the likelihood you'll get into a
situation way over your head."
Instructors, examiners, and
long-time aviators of all stripes wouldn't deny that flying in instrument
meteorological conditions is risky business. But it's also true that flying any
type of aircraft under any conditions increases our mortality risk to some
Does that keep us on the
ground? Obviously not. We choose instead to manage the risks as best we can by
using sound judgment, paying special attention to safety, and honing our skills.
And that's where the
instrument rating fits in'even if you never have to use it! IFR training doesn't
just make pilots better able to handle instrument meteorological conditions; it
also improves their overall approach to flying, says Cary Mendelsohn, an
FAA safety program manager in Florida.
William K. Kershner, an
aviation educator in Sewanee, Tenn., and author of numerous books, including
The Instrument Flight Manual, agrees. He advises pilots to think of
instrument training in a broader context'as one additional way to stay in the
training loop and leverage their "license to learn."
In any case, there's no
question that private pilots with the IFR rating have fewer accidents compared
to private pilots without it, regardless of experience level, according to
The Killing Zone, a book by Paul A. Craig. Statistics from the National
Transportation Safety Board bear this out. In 2004, for example, there were 594
accidents among that first group vs. 636 among the latter.
Getting an instrument rating
requires a substantial commitment of money, time, and sweat. It could easily
cost $5,000 and take the equivalent of 10 or more days to complete, depending on
your learning speed and motivation, a flight school's fee schedule, the type of
aircraft you train in, whether the plane is a rental, and other factors.
Moreover, you must have at
least 50 hours of cross-country time as pilot in command before training can
even begin. And to earn the rating, you will need to have logged a minimum 15
hours of instruction with a CFII and 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument
time, passed the FAA's written knowledge test, and passed the check ride.
But let's assume these
requirements, along with the expense and time, aren't too daunting for you.
Let's also assume there are things an IFR rating can't do, like transform
an idiot into a competent pilot or compensate for rusty skills or poor judgment.
What are the potential
As the NTSB data suggest,
increased safety is one. Two big dangers for VFR pilots are continued VFR flight
into deteriorating weather and spatial disorientation while flying at night,
when it's almost impossible to maintain visual separation from clouds. In both
cases, instrument know-how can prevent disaster.
A second benefit, as
Mendelsohn, Kershner, and many other experts would argue, is that IFR training
polishes your piloting skills. It teaches you how to maintain a precise compass
heading and altitude, and how to make more-precise landings, among many other
things. By necessity, you also become more adept at handling multiple tasks
Those gains alone are enough
to counter the argument that "there isn't much adverse weather in my part of the
country" or "I fly for pleasure, not business, so I feel little pressure to fly
in marginal conditions."
Third, if you do fly for
business or enjoy extended cross-country flights with family or friends (when
"get there-itis" rises a notch or two), an IFR rating gives you more
flexibility. In less-than-ideal weather, you are better equipped to be on time
for important business or personal commitments, can get more use out of your
airplane, and have more options for landing at the original destination or one
Finally, IFR pilots can take
greater advantage of'and they become more savvy about'the national airspace
system. They never have to plea with air traffic control for permission to pass
through an airport radar service area or terminal control area. And where radar
service is available, ATC automatically provides radar separation from other
With an instrument rating under your belt, you'll
need just three additional things to make the ticket worth its weight in gold:
practice, practice, practice.