Instrument Rating: Why Are You Waiting?

The capability and precision that an instrument rating lends to your flying opens up a new world. [Julie Boatman]

Does it make sense to go for your instrument rating after you complete your private pilot certificate? Honestly, I am not sure how you would justify not doing it…

I just completed my instrument rating about 10 months after finishing my private, by training under Part 61 (as opposed to going through a Part 141 curriculum). I can now say with confidence that a pilot can’t really experience all flying has to offer without it. The rating opens up so much more to you as a pilot and ensures you can fly with precision—and it will teach you to think about flying in a different way.  

The training doesn’t present as much of a leap as zero to private pilot does. However, now that I have the rating, flying under VFR feels less complex—which it is—and simplified. The work you do in order to fly under IFR really hones all of your skills, from aviating to navigating and communicating. And it adds to those skills in a way that ensures your piloting remains razor sharp. With better skills, you fly with more confidence, and at a higher level of safety.

One key takeaway for me—and one I plan to drill into my future students—is that I learned to think in terms of a “compass rose” for all my VOR and GPS waypoints. And, well, everything in navigation. But more on that in a moment.

What I Learned Training for IFR

I acquired my private pilot certificate in October 2021, and I jumped right into IFR training, along with doing some transition work in parallel in a Cirrus, covering high-performance and technically advanced aircraft (TAA). This was in preparation to move on to my commercial and, eventually, my instrument instructor certification (CFII).

The author provides a summary of the training flights leading up to his instrument check ride. [Courtesy: Richard Donaldson]

Instrument training presented a veritable firehose of learning; yet, it really felt seamless as a hand off from the private pilot training. The ability to fly solely on instruments (including night time flying) really establishes and refines those foundational piloting skills in a way that seems, well, almost mandatory to me now.

While learning to land an airplane was kind of the key thing in private training, for me, IFR is about precision flying your aircraft through all known conditions: flight into clouds, flight above FL180, and drilling in all those nav functions and the differences between ILS, VOR, and GPS into your muscle memory. You get a good overview of those in private pilot training, but for IFR flying, you have to rely on those instruments exclusively. Thus, when you go back to VFR, it just seems so simple by comparison.

The Hardest Part?

For me, the most challenging part of IFR training was truly understanding how, in flight, you can pick a hold entry—the dreaded teardrop versus parallel versus direct entry as we were taught in ground school and we’re intended to apply aloft “on the fly.”  And this is when I learned to think in terms of the compass rose that I mentioned earlier.

For example, when ATC says to hold on the 125-degree radial of some VOR or GPS waypoint and that you will do right turns, you need to think:

a) 125 degrees is the radial outbound from the center of compass rose (or VOR); therefore, the inbound heading is the reciprocal, or 305 degrees. So my inbound heading on the 125-degree radial will actually be me flying a “CRS” or course of 305. It’s confusing even writing it down! 

b) Right-hand turns from a CRS of 305 into the VOR: ATC might tell you the radial you are holding on, but you need to translate that into what you actually have to fly—on the fly, no less (yeah, I couldn’t resist that pun).  

In short, you have to really train your brain into thinking of all things as related to the compass rose.

Then comes the whole process of selecting and requesting a landing procedure, picking and getting assigned an instrument approach procedure (IAP)—precision or non—ILS or VOR or GPS. Then, you’ll brief that procedure from the chart or display while setting everything up in navs or your flight planner inside your Garmin G1000 (or other EFIS or navigator, depending on what you have). And, don’t forget, you will have to simulate your AHRS or ADC failing when you practice emergency procedures, so get ready to do this “old school” with your analog or backup gauges. Oh yeah, are you still remembering to aviate? And, did I forget to mention you need to hold your altitude and headings precisely?

Phew…a lot, right?

After the IFR Check Ride

On Tuesday, August 23, 2022, I passed my instrument check ride as observed by designated pilot examiner Travis Olsen in Scottsdale, Arizona (KSDL), after training with instructor Nick Fournier at Scottsdale Executive Training. 

Once you master these skills to a point, you are ready for a check ride (and hopefully, do that, obviously). I can attest that your confidence in flying will have gone up immeasurably. For once you take off that “hood” or revert back to VFR, it just seems so much more manageable with instrument training under your belt.

Creating safe and predictable separation of aircraft (and obstacles) is very much part of VFR, yet in IFR it is everything—because you can’t see the ground. So, IFR boils down to prescriptive flight paths and routes with “rules of the road” drilled into you, so that even under the most extreme of circumstances—e.g., lost comms, in IMC while trying to get to your destination—you will know how to handle them. This may sound like a lot to handle, but IFR teaches you how to fly in those conditions safely…and that builds amazing confidence in yourself that you can truly handle anything (short of wings falling off, I guess—it’s hard to train for that).

Now, having completed my IFR and moving on to my commercial training (and evenutally my CFII), I just can’t imagine not jumping into IFR after you finish your private pilot certificate!

Donaldson holds his temporary certificate after the successful ride. [Courtesy: Richard Donaldson]

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