IFR Training: One Guy’s Opinion

Confused VFR Pilot writes: ‘I’m ready to start working toward my IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) rating, but I’m confused by the options available.

I’ve been flying a Cessna 172, and a flight school near my home is renting an IFR-capable 172 for $68 per hour. They also have a Piper Arrow for $95 per hour. Instruction is $35 per hour. Flying the 172 would be less expensive, but the Arrow gives me more flexibility to rent an airplane, and more speed for future business trips. The school’s instructors tell me they plan to fly at least 10 hours of ‘actual’ [in the clouds] time during the training. They also have a desktop simulator and say we’ll use it ‘when I can handle instruments in the airplane’ and ‘if there’s time’ toward the end of my training. Using the simulator toward my 40 hours (the minimum amount of dual instruction required for the rating) would save me a lot of money. I have several questions about working toward my instrument ‘ticket.’

And so follows one man’s opinion:

What do you think about using multiple aircraft, of varied complexity, for IFR training?

Answer: I’d rather concentrate on learning procedures in one airplane, and then getting a checkout in other airplanes as needed following completion of your rating. Minimize the variables and you’ll earn your privileges more quickly — and for less money. In your case, since you’re already experienced with the Cessna 172 and an instrument-equipped example is available, I’d recommend using it for your instrument training. You can get an instrument checkout in the Arrow later if you decide you want to use it for trips, but there’s not much reason to increase your aircraft rental costs by 40% during your training unless you really want to be flying the Arrow.

How much instrument ‘actual’ time do you like to include in an instrument rating course?

Answer: I like to include as much ‘actual‘ time as ‘makes sense‘ during the course of an instrument rating. In my opinion it does not make sense to log much actual time in the first 15 to 20 hours of training? Why? Because before you can work on the skills necessary to safely fly an airplane ‘for real‘ in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) and especially in an approach environment, you need to develop basic skills that can only come from hours of work on basic attitude flying. With attitude skills developed you can then add navigation tasks, and finally approach procedures. You don’t want to be in the clouds without some basic command of all these skills — even with a trained instrument instructor at your side.

In fact, even with highly experienced instrument pilots, I spend easily 20% of a weekend instrument refresher course simply practicing ‘basic attitude flight‘ skills in the airplane — climbs, turns, descents, and straight-and-level flight. If you can’t fly basic maneuvers precisely, without thinking much about how to fly them, you’ll never be able to add the daunting tasks of navigation and decision-making with any level of precision.

By simulating instrument flight in visual conditions, the instructor creates much greater flexibility to train you on a variety of tasks, instead of having to fit into the constraints of an IFR clearance. (Read: This approach also reduces your total instruction expense.)

That said, toward the end of the syllabus I like to give my students as much actual time as weather allows before sending them off for the checkride. The required long instrument cross-country ought to be flown in actual if at all possible. I remember one experienced student’s right leg twitching uncontrollably upon first entering the clouds on an IFR training flight — that’s he sort of thing a pilot needs to get over with an instructor, before flying on instruments alone. I wouldn’t hold up a well-prepared student just to get some actual time if conditions simply don’t allow … instead, I’d recommend some ‘follow up‘ training in actual IMC when the occasion arose.

What do you think about using the simulator for part of my training?

Answer: Not only will it save you a lot of money, but an approved flight training device (the official term for a non-motion, non-visual flight simulator) will probably teach you more about instrument flying than three times as much time spent in the airplane. With an instrument-savvy instructor, you’ll learn the tricks of instrument flight, be able to stop the action for training when the need arises, and repeat items almost instantly to reinforce good technique. A really good instructor will put more experienced instrument students through a series of decision-making exercises, airline-style — Line-Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) scenarios that require you to think as well as to fly.

As for when to use the ‘sim,‘ I’d suggest it be introduced in the first few hours of basic attitude flying practice; when first really buckling down to learn about approaches; missed approach procedures and holds … and in final preparation for keeping yourself and your passengers alive when you can’t see outside the airplane. After all, you can log up to half of your dual instruction toward the instrument rating using an approved, low-cost device and a certified instrument instructor. The ‘sim‘ is a much better classroom than an airplane will ever be.

Speaking of classroom instruction, ‘I’ve already passed the instrument written exam. How much ‘ground time’ should I anticipate?

Answer: As a rule of thumb, a good instrument instructor will spend between an hour and an hour and a half with you on the ground for every hour spent in the airplane (or the simulator). Be prepared to pay the instructional rate for this time as well, because it is valuable. It’s called instrument flight RULES. The physical skills required to maneuver the airplane are no more or less critical than knowing HOW and WHEN to apply those skills. To do this you’ll need to learn a lot in a short period of time — hence, a lot of review on the ground, even after you’ve passed your written.

Important: An instructor who tells you to preflight, meets you in the airplane, and rushes off to the next student as soon as you get on the ground is working to build his or her time, not teach you. Remember, you need to know everything — to survive — in the unfamiliar and unforgiving environment of instrument flight.

Lastly, ‘How frequently should I plan to train while I pursue the instrument rating?

<pAnswer: My experience is that most pilots who can train twice a week can qualify to take their checkride in the minimum time required. Remember that as you progress your average lesson time will increase, because you’ll be doing more cross-country work, or flying the local instrument approaches and holds a greater number of times.

Occasional interruptions probably won’t hold you up too much, but if you’ll regularly go a week without a lesson it may not be in your best interest to work on the rating just yet. Then again, every little bit will help you be safer and more precise even in your VFR flying, so if you’re willing to pay a little more in the long run and work on your skills a bit at a time, I certainly would not discourage you from taking some instrument instruction.

BOTTOM LINE: These sorts of questions are extremely common among pilots ready to take on that next big step — the instrument rating. My opinion is just one of many. My hope is that it will give you some things to talk about with prospective instructors as you map out a strategy for instrumental success. Good luck!