For pilots making their way through the world of ratings independently, as opposed to through a highly structured training program, the instrument ticket generates more anxiety per flight hour than all the other ratings combined. It should come as no surprise that it does. To go from the world of VFR flight (which is how we all started) to flying solely by reference to the gauges is a huge leap, one that takes training, a good bit of nerve and the wherewithal to learn a new language and navigate a new road map.
It’s been a few years, but I remember vividly making the transition, and it was filled with potholes every which way I turned. What did I find challenging? Not much. I lost sleep over only flight planning, radio communications, autopilot use, weather judgment, instrument interpretation and approach planning. That’s all.
Looking back, I realize I was set up to fail by the training system and by my own weaknesses and inexperience as a VFR pilot, weaknesses I’d seldom had exposed before.
The good news is that the transition doesn’t have to be as hard as it was for me and countless other pilots, many of whom gave up without ever having learned to put their new skills to use.
Instrument flying, like any kind of flying, has inherent risks. That said, there are a few simple secrets that I learned the hard way. Moreover, new tools and new technologies started coming together about 10 years ago that make instrument flying safer, less labor intensive and more easily understandable from early on in the game.
Change Your Thinking
If you earned your rating training with any conventionally minded provider, and that’s most of them, you’re going to have to change the way you approach your flying. Part of that is simply because courses are designed to help students pass the check ride, and check rides are constructed to allow applicants to demonstrate basic instrument proficiency, which is very different from IFR transportation proficiency. By the end of my two-week instrument course at a world-class training organization and taught by a very sharp, smart and experienced IFR instructor, I was absolutely unprepared to launch into the real world of IFR. I was great at flying the ILS to Runway 5 at the airport at which I trained, but when it came to figuring out how to plan and conduct a flight on my own to an unfamiliar destination … let’s just say that I felt as though I were starting nearly from scratch on the process.
I do want to start by saying that, in terms of its major goal, my training provider did a great job. I passed my check ride on the first flight.
However, there were a number of areas in which they let me down, though I wasn’t aware of some of them for some time. And to be fair, I earned my instrument rating 15 years ago, so there were technological areas in which the school was not yet up to speed. Instructors were also laboring under some backward ways of thinking about instrument flying — including outmoded attitudes about technology, such as autopilots, and their rigid, standardized training model — that can be laid squarely on their shoulders. In their defense, they were hardly alone in this regard.
Upon getting my ticket, I was smart enough to know how bad an instrument pilot I was, and I set about to become a better one. As I mentioned in a piece last year about flight planning [“IFR Flight Prep: A Whole New Game,” April 2010], I had some help from friends and colleagues who were smart and experienced instrument flyers.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop me from being very anxious about my IFR trips. In hindsight, it was a natural reaction to stepping into a world that was still largely unknown. But it would have been a lot easier had I been given better tools and more enlightened guidance beforehand. Luckily, today those tools, from handheld weather receivers to affordable panel-mount MFDs, are widely available.
Like many new IFR pilots (and pilots new to flying), I was overwhelmed by the briefing process. The old-fashioned way of presenting weather information left me without a clear understanding of where the real weather was and how I might avoid it. With fronts and airmets and sigmets defined by obscure strings of VOR identifiers, most of them a mystery to me, I was left with a vague sense that there was nasty weather … out there somewhere. So I indulged in long, laborious phone briefings, many of them conducted by specialists who were clearly not pilots. On one briefing, I was never told of a tornado watch that began just a few miles beyond my destination airport. My landing there was one of the wildest rides I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve flown with Patty Wagstaff.