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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 extent.

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 payoffs?

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 simultaneously.

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 nearby.

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 aircraft.

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.