Training in Actual IFR Can Be Good for You

There’s no rule that says you must fly in the clouds, but, if you need to, an instrument rating will allow you to do so legally and safely.

Having an instrument rating can give you more confidence in the airplane and can also reduce your insurance costs. [Credit: Shutterstock]

"Get on the gauges, you're going to feel a little bump."

These were the words of my CFII (certified flight instructor-instrument) the first time he took me into the clouds. He is ex-Air Force and taught me to fly the AF way. The acronyms MARTHA, the UPs and the 5Ts were all part of my training—as was going in and out of clouds. "Nothing but water vapor!" he declared. We always double checked the temperature because flying through a cloud in freezing conditions would turn us into a Cessna-cicle or Piper-cicle in a hurry, something we wished to avoid.

Although there is no requirement for the instrument rating candidate to log time in actual conditions, I wanted at least 15 hours of "actual" before I took the instrument check ride. When I trained for the instrument instructor rating I did the same thing—delaying the check ride until I had time in the clouds with the most experienced instructors I could find, because I wanted to be sure I could fly in the clouds and more importantly, that I could teach in the clouds.

You've probably heard the warnings of how quickly a non-instrument rated or out-of-proficiency instrument rated pilot can get themselves into trouble when they enter instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The ability to obtain and correctly interpret a weather report, plus good situational awareness are the most helpful tools to keep a non-instrument rated pilot out of IMC, but sometimes it can manifest abruptly and suddenly—such as when smoke from a forest fire suddenly pops up.

I had this experience one summer when a sudden and fast-moving fire and a wind shift resulted in smoke covering the airport. I was flying with a private pilot candidate. The smoke and haze obscured the airport despite the 6 miles of visibility the one-minute-weather advertised. The learner put on the view-limiting hood and we picked up an IFR clearance for the RNAV 35 approach into the airport. He did the flying, and I stayed on the radios. He was stoked to get actual IFR experience—and had a new respect for the requirement for private pilot candidates to log three hours of flight by reference to instruments only, the idea being that should they enter a low visibility situation they will be able to maintain control of the aircraft—and exit IMC.

Benefits of an Instrument Rating

Having an instrument rating can give you more confidence in the airplane. There's no rule that says you must fly in the clouds, but, if you need to, you can do so legally and if you maintain proficiency, safely. Holding an instrument rating can also reduce your insurance costs.

If you intend to be a flight instructor for private pilots and above, you will be required to have that instrument ticket. Keeping current and proficient, especially in the "good weather months" is another thing—do your best to do this—because instrument skills come in handy on days when the airport is IFR, but surrounding areas are VFR, and the client is a private pilot candidate. The CFI can file IFR and depart to VFR conditions, then reverse the process for the return if necessary, including an IFR approach, if appropriate. This will likely result in the learner wanting to earn their instrument rating.

Into the Soup

The first time you intentionally enter a cloud, it can be spooky. Because you are going from an area of relatively warmer air into cooler air, there will be a bump, like tripping when you go up a flight of stairs. If you are anticipating it, and are relaxed, it is a non-event. Your instructor will caution you to stay on the gauges, because it's that look out the window, then look back to the panel move that can introduce disorientation.

Developing a good scan—that is observing, correctly interpreting the information and acting on the information provided by the instruments, is critical. I compare it to watching a box of kittens—if you fixate on just one, the others are going to get out and cause mischief. So don't stare at Whiskers the altitude kitten because Fluffy the attitude kitten and Tigger the airspeed kitten will get away from you. In the clouds, it is more difficult to notice uncommanded heading, attitude, or altitude changes because outside visual references are limited.

Oddly enough, there are some schools that either prohibit or strongly discourage their CFIIs from taking the IFR applicants into actual IFR conditions. In addition, there are instrument-rated pilots and CFIIs who, because of where they trained for their IFR and or CFII ratings, have never had the opportunity to log actual IFR flight time. This can work against them. A friend who owns a flight school told me she doesn't like to hire the instructors that came from a particular college because she knows they are prohibited from flying in actual IFR, and her flight school is in the Pacific Northwest where MVFR and IFR conditions are as common as Starbucks and flannel shirts.

If the school you are training at has a similar rule or is geographically located in a place where flyable IMC is rare to non-existent, it behooves you to go someplace where you can get this valuable experience.

Training for the IFR Rating

Training for the instrument rating can be intense, but it is likely the most useful rating you will earn.

The experience required for the instrument rating can be found under FAR 61.65. It includes:

  • 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time in the areas of operation listed in paragraph (c) of 61.65, of which 15 hours must have been received from an authorized instructor who holds an instrument-airplane rating, and the instrument time includes:
  • Three hours of instrument flight training from an authorized instructor in an airplane that is appropriate to the instrument-airplane rating within two calendar months before the date of the practical test; and
  • Instrument flight training on cross-country flight procedures, including one cross-country flight in an airplane with an authorized instructor, that is performed under instrument flight rules, when a flight plan has been filed with an air traffic control facility, and that involves-
  • A flight of 250 nm along airways or by directed routing from an air traffic control facility;
  • An instrument approach at each airport; and
  • Three different kinds of approaches with the use of navigation systems.

If you train under Part 61, you will need to have logged at least 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross country time—at least 10 of which are in an airplane to be eligible for the instrument rating—this requirement is waived for applicants enrolled and training in Part 141 programs.

This sounds great, unless the applicant is also in pursuit of the commercial certificate which requires a minimum of 170 hours under Part 141 (250 hours under Part 61). The post-IFR candidates often spend a few months building time post-check-ride to be eligible for the commercial certificate.

Don't Neglect Your Landings

Most of your IFR approaches during training will be "missed approaches," which is basically a go-around with specific instructions printed on an approach plate. Unlike training for the private or sport pilot certificate, there will not be repeated takeoffs and landings with each lesson. Remember this, and be sure to keep track of both currency and proficiency as you train.

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.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter