Knocking the Rust Off Your IFR Skills

Instrument flying is a perishable skill. Here’s how to ensure you stay fresh.

If it has been awhile since you exercised your instrument skills, you may want to take a few practice flights with an instructor before you head back into the clouds by yourself. [FLYING graphic]

Many pilots will tell you that the instrument rating is the hardest to get, and the skills learned in the process are the easiest to lose. If it has been awhile since you exercised your instrument skills, you may want to take a few practice flights with an instructor before you head back into the clouds by yourself. Here are a few tips to make the most of your time.

FAR 61.57(c) lists the experience required to exercise pilot-in-command privileges in IFR conditions. In addition to meeting the recency requirements for VFR flight, the pilot must have, within the preceding six calendar months, performed and logged at least six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of electronic navigational systems. The tasks can be accomplished in actual weather or under simulated conditions using a view-limiting device. If it’s been within the 12 months since your initial instrument rating, you also have the six-month window to maintain currency on your own if you haven’t flown the required tasks in those first six months. Go beyond that, and you will require an instrument proficiency check (IPC) with a CFII.

The FARs note that the requirements may be accomplished in a full-motion flight simulator, a flight training device (FTD), or advanced aviation training device (AATD). The latter two may include the Frasca, Precor, Redbird, or OneG devices often found at flight schools.

The regulation states: "To use these devices for recurrency, the devices must represent the category of aircraft for the instrument rating privileges to be maintained, and the pilot performs the tasks and iterations in simulated instrument conditions." Also, "a person may complete their instrument experience in any combination of an aircraft full flight simulator, flight training device or aviation training device," which means you can accomplish some of the task requirements in an FTD, or AATD, then finish up in an aircraft, or vice-versa.

Common Soft Spots

According to Rod Machado, instructor, aviation author, and humorist, if it has been awhile since the pilot used their instrument skills, often the first things to get rusty are mental skills, rather than physical ones. "There is a lack of recall with instrument procedures," Machado says. "Most instructors will gloss over this deficiency, assuming that it’s the IFR motor skills that need the most attention. That’s not necessarily true based on my experience."

Machado suggests CFIIs provide their IFR clients with study materials in preparation for their IPC. "Sometimes you can assign someone chapters out of a good book to read, and they’ll do it, sometimes. Then there are other times when you need to have someone take a good e-course refresher to update their knowledge, especially if technically advanced aircraft technology will be used during the refresher."

Machado adds, the FARs for instrument flight—such as when the pilot needs to file for an alternate (the so-called "1, 2, 3 rule")—should be reviewed. The instructor should refresh the client's knowledge of weather as well, especially icing and thunderstorms. 

Pilot confidence may also be an issue when a pilot is out of IFR currency. According to Machado, the pilots who kept current under VFR may have good piloting skills. However, because they haven't used their IFR skills for so long, they don't trust themselves in the IFR environment—when it comes to their ability to anticipate, plan for, and respond to the demands of flight.

"A rusty pilot might know the mechanics of entering holding, but once he attempts to hold he realizes he’s lost his previous grasp on the physical and mental priorities for doing so. He might not anticipate the turn after crossing the holding fix, or he might forget to reset the OBS to the inbound holding course if necessary, or apply a wind correction after this, or monitor time, or DME, or all of these. You could ask him if he knows what to do in these instances, and he’ll probably respond accurately. What he won’t tell you is that he’s unsure if the next action is the proper action, assuming he can identify the next action at all. Therefore, he is easily overwhelmed, which degrades confidence.”

Machado suggests having the pilot perform an IFR flight in VFR conditions as a confidence builder. If the pilot hasn’t flown IFR in two or more years, "IFR flights without a view-limiting device are essential. [The pilot can] regain familiarity with the IFR system without having to worry about [aircraft control]."

Weather Review and Communications

Weather skills are more than reading a TAF and METAR—the pilot should understand the causes of weather and the patterns for the region in which they are flying. For example, a converging temperature and dew point means a good possibility of fog; and when the winds come from over the mountains, anticipate turbulence, noting that mountains are weather makers. "Pressure falling rapidly (PRSFR)" means strong winds are on the way.

Radio communications for IFR in radar and non-radar environments (under FAR 91.183, cross-referenced with AIM 5-3-3) should also be reviewed. Recall them with the acronym “MARVELOUS VFR C500.

  • MISSED approach
  • AIRSPEED ±10 knots or 5 percent change of filed true airspeed
  • REACHING a holding fix (time and altitude)
  • VFR on top altitude changes
  • ETA change of ±3 minutes (non-radar)
  • LEAVING a holding fix
  • OUTER marker inbound (non-radar)
  • UNFORECAST weather
  • SAFETY of flight
  • VACATING an altitude or flight level
  • FINAL approach fix inbound (non-radar)
  • RADIO or navigation failure
  • COMPULSORY reporting points (non-radar)
  • 500 FPM climb or descent rate not obtainable

Here to There Under IFR

Instrument flight is more than the approaches, notes Jason Blair, a seasoned CFII, designated pilot examiner, and FLYING contributor. Blair notes that the ability to plan an instrument flight—a process much more detailed than VFR flying—can be an area of weakness. "IFR folks get really weak on planning considerations with alternates, weather scenarios," Blair says. Wearing his DPE cap, Blair suggests part of the issue comes from the level of "rote regurgitation in the collegiate/academy style training realm… [Pilots] tend to be able to think point A to B, but not the mix that comes with that. Approach plate details get weak for rusty IFR pilots also. They get the general stuff like frequency and course, but all the notes tend to get missed." Reviewing Blair’s installment of Chart Wise in each issue of FLYING can help pilots recall those details.

Blair adds, the changes in VOR service volumes—as well as their removal—tend to catch pilots by surprise. "Changes in VORs can change alternate minimum planning, especially for non-WAAS-equipped aircraft or during a GPS outage," he says, adding, "The primary navigation range for most general aviation aircraft will change from a 40 nm range to a 70 nm usable range, with 80 nm between VORs to 140 nm between VORs for en route usage below 18,000 feet msl."

Plan of Attack for Rust Removal

If you want to get your IFR skills back, start the process at home. It may be helpful to read chapters 1-4 in the FAA's Instrument Procedures Handbook. This covers departure procedures, en route operations, arrivals, and approaches. Then pick up an approach plate to an airport you wish to study and note the number, location, and names of the initial approach fixes.

Make sure to review the elements of a clearance using the CRAFT acronym: Cleared to, Route, Altitude, Frequency, and Transponder code. With your CFII, you may find it helpful to have a table-top review of a flight—talk through radio calls, procedures, and aircraft configuration such as power settings for descent at specific points.

Don't forget to review aircraft weight and balance and performance so you know what to expect in terms of fuel consumption, time to climb, cruise flight, and endurance.

T-Party and the UPs

When you are being vectored by ATC, recall the phrase “T-Party,” because everything you do begins with the LETTER T.

  • TIMER (start it)
  • TURN (the airplane)
  • TWIST (the new course into the heading bug)
  • THROTTLE (add or subtract power)
  • TRIM (for the flight attitude)
  • TRACK (the course)
  • THE TIRES (gear down for landing if appropriate)
  • THE FLAPS (configure for landing)
  • TALK (report to ATC)

Often the response to these “T” items will be “deferred”—such as you probably wouldn't change power when assigned a vector unless there is an altitude change or you have been instructed to adjust your speed.

When executing a missed approach, use the “UPs” mnemonic to make sure you follow the procedures.

Pitch UP, power UP, clean UP (flaps and gear if appropriate), heat UP (cowl flaps closed if appropriate), and fess UP (report executing the missed approach).

Review the FARs

What instruments have to be in the panel and in good working order for the aircraft to be legal? From FAR 91.205, recall the list using the acronyms "TOMATO FLAMES" and "GRAB CARDD."

For VFR flight(for each engine):

  • OILPressure Gauge
  • MANIFOLD pressure gauge
  • AIRSPEED indicator
  • [Exhaust Gas] TEMPERATURE gauge
  • OIL temperature gauge...then…
  • FUEL quantity gauge
  • LANDING gear position indicator
  • MAGNETIC compass
  • ELT

For IFR flight:

  • GENERATOR (or alternator) as a source for electrical energy
  • RADIOS appropriate to flight
  • ATTITUDE indicator
  • BALL of turn coordinator
  • CLOCK hardwired into aircraft
  • ADJUSTABLE (sensitive) altimeter
  • RATE of turn indicator (the little airplane or stick)
  • DME, if above 24,000 feet msl

If any of those things are missing, you cannot legally fly on an IFR flight plan in the IFR system


You may use acronyms to recall instrument procedures, and back them up with a checklist. I learned IFR flying from a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate (removes cap respectfully)—so some of you may recognize these. First, brief approaches with MARRTHA.

  • Missed approach procedure: Memorize the first two steps; for example, climb to 2,000 feet then turn to heading 250 degrees
  • Approach type (equipment and weather required)
  • Radio frequencies to be used—weather, approach, tower, Unicom—noted and dialed in
  • Radials (from a VOR) that define the route
  • Time (if appropriate)
  • Heading when on final approach
  • Altitude—how low can you go—at the missed approach point

Always file to an initial approach fix, because if you experience lost comms, you know where to go and ATC knows where to look for you—that airspace will be protected for you. It is also helpful to “weasel” (a technical term, according to my flight-academy-trained CFII) by five minutes on the estimated arrival time to the fix, because if you are lost comms in IFR, you want to shoot that approach and get on the ground ASAP—no waiting in a hold for time to elapse.

Be ready for ATC to make alterations to your flight plan, such as alternate instructions for the missed approach. Memorize the procedure for lost comms: Get into VFR conditions immediately—and if that is not an option, follow the procedures for routing and altitude. For routing, use the acronym AVE F: Fly what you were assigned, vectored to, told to expect or filed—in that order. For altitude, use the acronym MEA: Fly the highest of these: the minimum enroute altitude, the altitude you were told to expect, or what was assigned. Altitude is your friend.

Failure Is an Option

I am a big believer in failing an instrument (read that: covering it up) during the flight, to practice when the vacuum system fails and the attitude indicator and heading indicator become unreliable. Throw in some partial-panel during basic attitude practice, or if in an AATD, program the failure so it sneaks up on you. Be sure to practice unusual attitude recovery under partial-panel as well, and when in an FTD/AATD, practice loss of engine power or electrical failure.

Develop a plan to fix soft spots—go out on a MVFR day and while on an IFR flight plan, fly in and out of the clouds. If you cannot fly IFR regularly, challenge yourself in other ways. Find online IFR tech talks or seminars. When new approach procedures are released, compare them to old ones. Pull up an IFR departure or approach you have never used before. And while Microsoft Flight Simulator does not count toward currency, it can help keep your scan skills sharp.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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