If you have a system onboard the airplane that can turn a dark night into a sunny day and turn a cloud layer into clear skies, would there really be a difference between VFR and IFR?
Blending VFR and IFR
One of the great opportunities that we have with the new technology is to move along a spectrum between VFR and IFR. Today VFR and IFR are separate. When you pass the Private Pilot Practical exam you become a VFR pilot. But you are only a VFR pilot – IFR is off limits to you and consequently your available flight opportunities are reduced. You then must pass a completely different Practical Test to be able to fly IFR. The difference in training between VFR and IFR basically comes down to two things. To graduate from VFR to IFR you must: 1) gain the ability to fly the airplane without seeing the ground and/or horizon because you are in the clouds; and 2) gain the ability to determine your location by building a mental picture of where you are. This mental picture replaces your eyesight when you can’t see with your own eyes due to the clouds. But what if you had the ability to see ‘through the clouds’ and what if you always could ‘see’ your location despite the clouds? Then there would be no practical difference between VFR and IFR. The new technology does these things and is blurring the line between VFR and IFR for us all.
One of the features of the new technology that is now available is a ‘see through the clouds’ view of what is ahead that is displayed on a computer screen in front of us. The system shows us the horizon in the same attitude that we would see it if there were no clouds and we simply looked straight out the window – in effect we can now see through clouds. And the system also provides an over-head, looking-down view of our location. We don’t have to gather together a bunch of information from off of dials and pointers to construct a mental image of our location and proximity along the way, the system just hands it to us in living color and in three-dimensions. The new technology solves the two problems that make IFR different from VFR: 1) we can see through clouds, and 2) we can see where we are. With these two problems solved, what is the difference between VFR and IFR? The answer: there is no longer a difference!
But is combining VFR and IFR SAFER?
In the last two ipilot insider articles, I have described the SAFER project. The project combines emerging technologies with beginning flight students. A syllabus is used in the program that incorporates ‘scenario training.’ But there is something else about SAFER that I have not told you about and this piece may be the biggest news of all. The SAFER syllabus is a combination VFR/IFR training approach that recognizes no difference between VFR and IFR. The SAFER students fly their first GPS instrument approach on lesson 6 – well before their first solo! All the skills that are necessary for both VFR and IFR flying are blended throughout the syllabus in such a way that these students, who don’t know any other way, think this is the way everyone gets trained.
When they complete the SAFER syllabus, the students take a single FAA Practical Test that is a combined Private/Instrument test. You are thinking about now – how can this be? Doesn’t FAR 61.65 require a person who is going for an instrument rating to first have a Private Pilot Certificate? Yes, that is exactly what 61.65(a)(1) says, but the SAFER project petitioned the FAA and was granted an exemption from that rule! The SAFER students remain Student Pilots until the day that they become Private/Instrument pilots all at the same time. And remember from last week – the SAFER syllabus has no ‘minimum flight time’ requirements. When a student is ready for the Private/Instrument checkride, they go for the ride regardless of how much or how little accrued flight time they have. When they are ready to become safe VFR/IFR pilots they are not held back by arbitrary flight time minimums. Also remember that the SAFER syllabus, and the exemption that comes with it, has been approved at only one flight school in the USA (Middle Tennessee State University) and only approved there because this is a NASA sponsored experiment. But, hopefully, what is learned about how to blend VFR and IFR in this research project will benefit all pilots in the near future.
The Bottom Line
When we all got our first look at the Internet, we thought that it was ‘nice,’ but we didn’t understand its full potential at first. The new technologies that are arriving in our general aviation airplanes are also pretty nice – but I think its full potential lies in its ability to change how we train to fly and how we think about flying. But, thinking of VFR and IFR as the same thing is going to take some getting used to.