Should You Add-on the Instrument Rating?

Do the skills required to earn the Instrument Rating make for safer Private Pilots, or does the rating lure good pilots into dangerous situations, making them less safe? What do the statistics indicate?

In the early 1980’s, the Instrument Rating had a minimum flight time requirement of 200 hours. Then in 1986, the FAA reduced the total time required for IFR to 125. Today, and since 1997, there is no minimum total flight time requirement — as long as a Private Pilot meets the IFR training requirements, they can take the Instrument Practical Test. These changing flight time requirements are important when comparing accident rates between Private, Instrument Rated pilots and those without an ‘IFR rating.’ For the sake of comparison, we’ll look at a range of 100 to 149 flight hours as the first range where it is possible to have an IFR rating.

When Private Pilots with an IFR rating are compared, head-to-head, with Private Pilots without an IFR rating — the IFR pilots have fewer accidents at every level of pilot experience
. In other words, Private Pilots with no IFR rating who have accumulated between 150 and 199 flight hours, for example, have more accidents than Instrument Rated Private Pilots with the same total number of flight hours.

From 1983 to 2000, Pilots with less than 1,000 total flight hours:

  • There were 2,501 fatal accidents involving Student and Non-Instrument rated Private Pilots.
  • There were 365 fatal accidents involving Instrument Rated Private Pilots.

But wait! Is that a fair comparison? There are significantly more non-instrument rated Private Pilots. It makes sense that we should expect more accidents from a larger population, right? Yes, but when we take these accident numbers and then compare them with the number of pilots in each pool we get information that is even more intriguing:

From 1983 to 2000, Pilots with less than 1,000 total flight hours:

  • 1 out of every 120 non-instrument rated pilots was involved in a fatal accident.
  • 1 out of every 150 instrument rated pilots was involved in a fatal accident.

These accidents took place in both IFR and VFR conditions for each group. These numbers clearly indicate that Instrument Rated Private Pilots had fewer fatal accidents.

The same evidence in favor of adding on an IFR rating held true for non-fatal accidents over the same time period.

From 1983 to 2000, Private Pilots with from 150 and 1,000 flight hours

  • This group suffered 3,060 non-fatal accidents involving injury.
  • Of these accidents, 85.4% were non-instrument rated Private Pilots
  • Only 14.6% of the accidents happened to IFR pilots.

Again, IFR equals fewer accidents.

In 1990, only 17.1% of all Private Pilots were instrument rated, but through the 90’s more pilots were becoming instrument rated than ever before. In 1998, the number of Instrument Rated Private Pilots had climbed to 21.8%. The statistics over this same time frame show that these IFR rated pilots were also involved in fewer accidents. Plus, over the same time period, General Aviation accidents declined, on the whole — I don’t think that that was a coincidence. I think there are fewer General Aviation accidents because there are more General Aviation pilots who have earned an Instrument Rating!

BOTTOM LINE: Inexperience can be a killer, and the ‘Catch 22’ question remains: The more experience you have, the safer you are … but how do you gain experience, safely? The answer is not just to accumulate flight time, but to accumulate quality flight time. Adding an Instrument Rating can do just that, because to become an Instrument Pilot you must also gain precision skills and grow system-savvy. The IFR rating adds ‘seasoning’ to a Private Pilot faster than anything else! The numbers point to only one conclusion — if you’re a Private Pilot, it’s time to add the instrument rating.

Note: Statistics used in this article were derived from the National Transportation Safety Board accident data base and taken here from The Killing Zone by Paul A. Craig and published by McGraw-Hill.