There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has knocked us all for a loop, and not in the fun aerobatic way, either. But for many of us who have extra time on our hands because of social distancing, voluntary or otherwise, we’re presented with the perfect opportunity to get some flying goals done, or at least get them going.
A question that always seems to start a healthy debate is, “What’s the best rating to add after your Private?” And we’re not just throwing it out there. We have an answer, though it is a qualified one: It’s the instrument rating.
The qualification is this. Which rating you choose will depend on…well, it will depend on you. To state the obvious question, what ratings do you already have? What do you fly? Where do you fly? What are you looking to get out of a new rating, and what are your flying goals? All of these questions matter to one degree or the other depending on…again, you. But if you don’t have an instrument rating, my view is that any other rating is icing. The IFR ticket is the real deal. Here’s why.
When I started working at a large aviation brand in the mid-’90s, my boss at the time told me that he expected me to get an instrument rating. He told me that on my first day on the job—and he was right. There’s no rating that comes close to offering you the benefits of an instrument rating because it lets you fly more often and fly with less risk.
Fly More Often: I’m not sure which reason is more important than the other. Again, it really depends on you and your usual flying mission profile. But if you’re a pilot who uses aviation for personal transportation, whether you rent or own your plane, an instrument rating is the ticket, as they say, as it gives you the power to fly more.
Here’s a scenario. You get to the airport, and those low clouds that were forecast to burn off, haven’t. Let’s say it’s a thin layer of broken-to-overcast at 300 feet or so. Here’s the VFR answer to that problem: You sit on the ground. The IFR answer? You go flying. In many cases, it’s that black-and-white. What might this look like in real life? You file a flight plan with the FAA, which you can do from your phone or tablet in a matter of minutes, get your clearance before you take off, and after a great pre-takeoff check, you’re on your way. On takeoff, you fly as you normally would but soon after you rotate, you transition to flying by sole reference to the instruments. At, let’s say, 700 feet AGL you pop out of the clouds and are greeted by an amazing sunrise that earthlings and non-IFR rated pilots will only know about through your Facebook account.
But the reliability of the departure is probably only part of it. You’ll most often be glad for that instrument rating when you’re en route and you encounter unforecast or different-than-forecast weather conditions. Depending on the weather, you can either fly right through those clouds—knowing weather is a big part of instrument flying knowledge—or you can divert around them or even go land somewhere if need be, even if it means flying an instrument approach to that diversion airport.
Being able to fly an instrument approach at any one of hundreds of airports along your route of flight is also priceless. On a trip back home to Central Texas from Florida a few years ago, I was battling non-stop storms from North Florida west, but made it to Louisiana, where I’d planned to stop for fuel anyways.
My original destination, New Orleans Lakefront, was below minimums, but there were good options a little farther west. I wound up choosing Hammond, Louisiana, as a nasty front grew closer. The weather at Hammond wasn’t bad, though it was IFR, and I flew the RNAV approach to the south, breaking out at well above minimums—around 400 agl if I recall.
I taxied to the FBO and tied down the plane as the rain began, and the line guy topped off the Cirrus. Fifteen minutes later, I was a few hundred bucks poorer, but the storm had moved through and the skies were blue. It was windier than all get out, but before you knew it, I was back in the air and looking at a nonstop trip back home. I didn’t even mind the headwinds…well, at least I didn’t complain too loudly about them.
Greater Safety Margins: There were two big things that gave me pause before I got my IFR ticket. I was concerned about all the details of it! And to some extent, those concerns were justified. Instrument flying is a complex subject. But all of it makes sense, and there are better options than ever before to learn in ways that, dare I say it, almost make it fun.
My other fear was that flying IFR would introduce new risk into my missions because I’d be flying with greatly reduced margins. This is a common fear. One imagines that because you’re flying in conditions that are often far worse than you’d tackle if you were VFR, then you must be at greater risk. Right? One also might imagine that flying on the gauges is so difficult that any little screw-up will kill you.
Both assumptions are wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Having the ability to go on to the gauges in a heartbeat (literally so) if you encounter any uncertainties is, here’s that word again, a priceless skill. With loss of control because of inadvertent flight while VFR into instrument conditions being one of the leading causes of fatal accidents, the obvious solution is to be able to continue safely flying under control even if you do encounter those conditions.
And the truth is, flying by sole reference to the gauges is easy, once you get good at it, that is. Juggling paper charts, figuring out where you’re based on needles that you need to set and interpret properly based on arcane craftwork. I struggled with all of it in training and only got really proficient with much practice after I had earned the rating.
In today’s high-tech world, everything is so much easier. The major obstacles to safely conducting an IFR flight are largely gone. With panel-mounted or tablet- displayed moving maps and flight plans, excellent lower-cost autopilots and great weather in the cockpit, most of the things that bedeviled my training are orders of magnitude easier to deal with.
If you’re looking to get started on that rating, great options abound, including several for in-home study. Sporty’s has a great new Instrument Rating Course that we recently reviewed that you can access on your phone, tablet, desktop computer or, even your TV. And materials available from ASA and Aircraft Spruce, among many others, offer a variety of multimedia and old-fashioned paper options.
For me, my dog-eared and heavily highlighted copy of William Kershner’s Instrument Flight Manuals is one of my fondest possessions. And it still contains a lot of wisdom. Leafing through it just now reminded me how important it is to stay proficient. So even if you’re already got your IFR ticket, now’s the ideal time to sharpen those skills.