Staying IFR Current — The Hardest Part?

Is it worth it to get an instrument rating — or will it just encourage you to fly in poor weather when your instrument skills haven’t been used for weeks? “I want to continue to improve my skills,” “I want a goal to shoot for,” “I want to add utility to my flying,” said three different pilots — with three good reasons to earn an instrument rating. Yet each pilot followed his or her statement with: ‘But I’m not sure it’s worth it, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain my instrument currency.” That, of course, is only half of the problem — it’ll likely take much more to keep you safe, than it will to keep you legal.

The Feds don’t require much for you to be “legal” to fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). Once you have the instrument rating, though, to maintain the privilege of filing an IFR flight plan and/or flying in IMC is as simple as A, B, C. All you need to do is log — within the last six months — at least:

  1. Six instrument approach procedures of any kind;
  2. Holding procedures; and
  3. Intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems.

No minimum number of instrument flight hours is required for currency. (FAR 61.57).

If your time runs out and you’ve not logged enough of the above to be “current,” you have the option of taking an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) with a Certificated Flight Instructor — Instrument (CFII), an FAA examiner, or one of a very few other sorts of “authorized” persons. Of course, an FAA checkride for an “instrument” privilege (including the multiengine/instrument and ATP practical tests) resets the six-month “currency counter.”

There’s no doubt that safely maintaining your IFR skill is going to take some time … and some money. Here are some things you can do, fairly often, to reduce your investment and increase your ability:

  • Actual Instrument Experience: Fly as much “actual” as you can. Don’t be afraid to fly trips in the clouds — so long as the weather isn’t beyond your capability or that of the airplane. File and fly cross-country trips on an instrument flight plan, even in good weather. Think of flying IFR like speaking a foreign language — sometimes you have to make opportunities to practice, or you’ll forget how to use the skill.
  • Keep a CFII Off the Streets: With the aviation economy booming, instructor pilots are being snatched up by the airlines at a record pace — leaving low-time CFIIs just itching to log a little time with you. Strategy: Hire a CFII for an hour and a half every couple of months and fly a cross-section of approaches, nav-tracking, missed approaches and holds. Take him/her along on one of your regularly scheduled trips and log “hood time” along the way. You may be surprised that even a “newbie” CFII has something to teach you — after all, he or she just survived the FAA writtens and the practical test!
  • Fly with a Safety Pilot: Take a friend along. If he/she is current and qualified to act as Pilot-In-Command of the airplane you’re flying, he or she is also qualified to be a “Safety Pilot.” Put your friend in the right seat to watch for terrain and obstructions, and slap on the ol’ View Limiting Device. Trade off and offer safety pilot services to your friend in return, and learn from the way he or she does things. Important: The safety pilot must sign his or her name and certificate number in the pilot’s logbook … It’s required by the Federal Air Regulations (FARs).
  • Simulators and Flight Training Devices: Most lightplane pilots can’t afford to fly in “true” flight simulators. Approved “Flight Training Devices” (FTDs), however, adorn the desktops in many an FBO, and can be used for much less than the cost of an hour in an airplane. Numerous computerized versions are available as well. To log the time toward your currency it must be under the supervision of a CFII, with his/her endorsing the “dual” in your logbook. Even unofficial time in an FTD, or experience with a computerized flight simulation “game” can do wonders to keep your instrument scan sharp.
  • Using IFR Skills on VFR Flights: Nobody’s stopping you from practicing on your own and keeping your instrument skills crisp by demanding precision from yourself, even in visual weather. Hold altitudes within 20 feet, and headings within two degrees (come on, you can do it!). Use constant-rate or constant-airspeed climbs and descents, and precise, standard-rate turns. Track your course guidance, be it GPS, VOR, or simple deduced reckoning, with the same discipline you need in IMC. Use Flight Following to keep your radio skills honed. Fly the approach into your destination airport — you’re up there already, so the cost of the extra time is minimal. Just don’t forget to watch outside for other traffic, just like you must when flying IFR in visual conditions!

Bottom Line: Don’t let worries about maintaining currency keep you from going after your instrument rating, but understand that being IFR safe when you’re not an IFR ‘frequent flyer’ will take some vigilance. Still, there’s lots of things you can do to keep your instrument skills sharp without adding significantly to the cost of flying if you combine instrument practice with the flying you already do. And hey, if you do feel a bit rusty, you can always brush it off under the guidance of a CFII, without having to “re-do” the whole rating.