What Next? Consider An Instrument Rating by Jerry Plante

The transition from student pilot to certificated pilot commences with the designated examiner handing you a temporary certificate with the usual warning; This is a license to learn.” Some of us take that statement to mean that we’re not quite ready for prime time, and others grab anyone who will go flying and buzz around the local area. At some point we wonder if that’s all there is.

One way to use your private pilot certificate to continue learning is to seek an additional rating or endorsement. You can check out on a tail wheel to hone your crosswind skills, or a complex, retractable gear or high performance aircraft to make your cross countries to grandma’s house go by faster. You can also go for an instrument or seaplane rating. All of these pursuits will result in pumping more of your money into the pockets of an FBO and flight instructor. An instrument rating will give you the most bang for your flying buck.

Instrument Rating Requirements

FAR 61.65 lists the requirements for obtaining an instrument rating, but the basic airtime requirements are;

40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time, 15 of which must be in an airplane with a certified flight instructor, instrument (CFII). You can do up to 20 hours in an approved simulator with a CFII there to torture… I mean, guide you.

50 hours of cross country time as pilot in command. Note that cross country is considered a flight with at least a 50 mile leg and a landing. The local cross country flights your primary instructor signed you off for do not count unless one leg was at least 50 miles. The long cross country you did for your private certificate does count towards this 50 hour requirement.

A 250 mile, three leg cross country in the ATC system under instrument flying rules (IFR). The three legs must end in 3 different types of instrument approaches, such as a VOR approach at airport A, an ILS at B and an ILS back course at C.

3 hours of practical test preparation within 60 days of your check ride.

You must also pass a written test that covers instrument flight rules, weather, flight planning, ATC procedures and flying on the gauges. This may very well be the hardest test you’ll ever take in aviation, but the purchase of a test prep book or software will go a long way in preparing you for the written exam. Some test prep. software packages allow you to emulate the specific test you’ll be taking (such as LaserGrade), and being comfortable with navigating the test is almost as important as the material.

Choosing An Instructor or School
There are two ways to get your instrument rating. You can slog it out 2-3 hours at a time flying the system “under the hood”, or you can take a vacation and spend it at a part 141 school, where most of your flying will be on a simulator. It all depends on your budget for this rating. Taking instruction from the local FBO is usually less expensive, but will take longer. This may actually work out better for your flying budget, because you can stretch the money out over a year or so. The 141 school route usually costs more, but you’re done in 7-10 days. If you already have the 50 hours PIC cross country requirement done, the instrument rating school route may be the best. If, however, you still need to build up cross country time, flying under the hood could kill 2 birds with one stone. You can plan your instrument training flights to be longer than 50 mile legs with a landing at the intermediate airport, making each flight a cross country. When flying under the hood with a CFII, you are pilot in command.

There are a myriad of web resources to assist you in the selection of a part 141 school or a local CFII. Check Landings at www.landings.com and the web site for the National Association of Flight Instructors at www.nafinet.org, and, of course, www.studentpilot.com.

Budgeting Considerations
Cost of Flying Time Required – Being a newly minted private pilot, I’ll assume that you don’t have 50 hours of cross country PIC time and that the local CFII route is the way for you. A fresh private pilot usually has 5 hours of cross country time that qualifies toward the 50 hour requirement, and 3 hours of instrument time logged. This leaves 45 hours PIC cross country and 37 hours of instrument training, plus the 3 hour practical test prep.

The cheapest way to get the required number of instrument hours would be to do 15 hours in an approved simulator and 22 hours in a plane with an instructor. Some of these 22 hours will be shooting practice approaches at local airports, but a good portion can be “file and go” flights where you fly IFR to and perform an approach and landing at an airport more than 50 miles away. This flight would then qualify as an instrument training flight and a cross country. You can log the entire duration of the flight under cross country, whereas only that portion of the flight where you were under the hood is logged as instrument time. It’s reasonable to assume that you can get 10 hours PIC cross country from instrument flights alone, and you can finish up your cross country requirements with $100 hamburger flights.

Plane rental and instructor fees vary greatly throughout the country, so these numbers will be different for you. I’ll figure the cost using $75/hour for the plane (a Cessna 172 or Piper Archer), $25/hour for the instructor, and $50/hour for simulator time.

22 hours instrument time $2200
15 hours simulator time (includes instructor) $1125
35 hours cross country $2625
3 hours test prep $ 300
Total for flying time requirement $6250
Don’t forget the $70 for the written exam and the $200 for the checkride.

Of course, these times will vary based on the steepness of your learning curve. You may need or want more hours in the plane. I like to fly, so I’ve done all my instrument time in an airplane.

Here’s what you’ll need to add to your flight bag for instrument training:

Approach plates for your flying area. The NOS plates are $16, where the Jeppesen Airway Manual is a bit more. I use the Jepp Express which cost $78 the first time and $17 a year. These plates are updated every 56 days, so doing the math, Jepp Express is a better deal. I also found the Jeppesen plates easier to read and contain more of the relevant information of the approach plate itself. There’s a lot of page flipping using the NOS plates, something you don’t want to do when flying an approach in bumpy clouds.

Books. Instrument ground school is not required and most FBOs don’t hold them often enough to be useful, so a home study course with instructor signoff is the typical method of attaining the aeronautical knowledge. King has an instrument training package that includes Martha’s instrument checkride video, a text book by Trevor Thom, and the practical test standards. I also picked up Rod Machado’s “Instrument Pilot’s Survival Manual” for some additional pointers and a few laughs.

Gadgets. Your instrument instructor will probably have a view limiting device (a.k.a. the hood), but you might like the Foggles better. In early training flights, the hood kept slipping down my sweat drenched forehead on approaches, completely blocking my view of the panel. Foggles are glasses that have a small clear patch at the bottom, with the rest of the lens etched over in a cloud-like gray. A word of caution – some designated examiners don’t allow Foggles, so take a hood along on your checkride. I jam a chart in the side windshield of the 172 I use for training to prevent peeking. You should also have an accurate timer and a holding pattern computer (whiz-wheel) to help you with holding pattern entries.

Software. Although the ASA written test study guide is cheap, there are 900 possible questions in the instrument written, making the paper version of the study guide a bit cumbersome. I suggest the Gleim test prep CD instead. This excellent software also allows you to take practice exams emulating the actual look and feel of the popular test software (such as LaserGrade). In addition, a flight simulator package such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 or Sierra’s ProPilot will allow you to practice approaches from the comfort of your home computer.

The Process
Some seasoned IFR pilots recommend taking the written test before starting instrument flights. I would agree if a large portion of the written test material directly applied to instrument flying, which it does not. You can obtain useful information from one of the many text and technique books on the market, and study for the written test on days when the weather is not good to fly.

The first few lessons will be getting you used to flying under the hood and interpreting from the approach plates how an approach should be flown. Flying by reference to instruments only requires a pilot to develop “the scan”, which is a systematic method of looking from one gauge to the next to determine exactly what the plane is doing. It will be drummed into your head that the instruments are the only reliable source for this information, and that if you believe one of the gauges is lying to you, an instrument cross check must be used to verify or dispel the notion. You should not use the subtle hints your inner ear are giving you to determine the plane’s attitude, because this will surely lead to a lesson in recovering from usual attitudes under the hood. During this phase you’ll learn why you should have been making coordinated turns, why you should periodically align the directional gyro with the compass, and why you should apply right rudder during a climb. You’ll also learn the 4, 5 or 6 Ts; turn, time, throttle, twist, talk and? I guess I only learned 5.

After you’ve developed your scan technique, you’ll move onto flying IFR and making ILS, VOR and NBD approaches at various airports in your area. This will require you to become comfortable with communicating with air traffic controllers. The first hurdle in this area is properly repeating an IFR clearance. There’s no reason to memorize the instructions, just write them down. I use the front cover from a loose leaf binder (the kind with the clear plastic overlay to slip title pages behind) and a grease pencil. A clearance is in the same format every time, and the acronym CRAFT will help you get it right.
C – cleared to (the destination airport or an intermediate fix)
R – route (as filed or via the most indirect route ATC can think of)
A – altitude. usually an initial altitude and an expected altitude after a certain time period
F – frequency to contact departure upon entering controlled airspace
T – transponder code

Approaches require a considerable amount of pre-planning. While being vectored to an approach, remember “vectors mean vacation”. Use this time to set up the radios for the approach navaid frequency, tower frequency, outer marker frequency and the navaid for the missed approach. Study the approach chart and turn the VOR’s OBS to the inbound course. Make sure you know what the decision height or missed approach point altitudes are, and where on the approach path to start your timer. Memorize at least the beginning of the missed approach procedure. Never let the airplane take you somewhere your head hasn’t already been.

The first time the approach controller turns you onto an intercept course for the approach, you’ll believe that you’ve somehow flown into a foreign country. The instruction comes fast and furious right at the point when your cockpit workload is the highest. A compassionate CFII will reply to the first few if you exhibit enough confusion, but after a couple of approaches, you’ll realize that they always say the same thing. It goes something like “Skyhawk 1234, turn right to heading 080, maintain 2000 until established, cleared for the ILS 5 approach, report when established.” At this point you can mumble something back that closely approximates the instruction, and everyone listening on the frequency gets a good laugh. Been there, done that. Start your turn before you formulate your reply or you’ll overshoot the approach.

Soon you’ll be flying in the simulated clag, talking to ATC like a pro and flying the wire down to a runway like you were born to be an IFR pilot, dreaming of the day when you become a freight dog and do this for a living. Then Mother Nature throws you a little spatial disorientation, and it’s time for the “recovery from unusual attitudes” lesson.

Currency vs. Proficiency
Which brings up something I’ve always wondered about. How can you get a rating to fly in clouds if you’ve never flown inside a cloud? The same way you can get a 737 type rating without ever having to fly a 737?simulated actual flying. The assumption is that flying under the hood is the same as flying in a cloud. You can go all the way to your instrument checkride without logging a single hour of actual IMC. In fact, pilots in the sunny southwest do exactly that. Even my CFII took his instrument training in Hawaii. Does that mean that after you get your instrument ticket, you should go out and shoot an ILS approach to minimums? Legally you can, but logically you should not.

To stay instrument current, you must have 6 instrument approaches in either simulated or actual instrument conditions within the past 6 months. You have another 6 months in which to get current, but you can’t file and fly IFR until you do. See FAR 61.57 for the full requirements. These are the minimum legal requirements, but most IFR pilots believe that you should set more restrictive personal minimums, say ceiling at 1000 feet and visibility of 2 miles, and gradually lower those numbers as you become more proficient. Actual IMC is not the same as flying under the hood. You still get subtle visual clues from the shadow of the glare shield and the corner of your eye. Here’s an example. I took an instrument training flight to Keene, NH (EEN). The enroute portion was about an hour, and I happily tracked VOR radials, flew directly to the VOR, tracked outbound on the ILS, made the procedure turn and intercepted the localizer and glideslope. Stabilized on the approach, we entered a cloud for about 200 feet. My CFII said “Remove the Foggles” and the resulting disorientation sent an otherwise excellent approach into an ILS needle sword fight.

Ask your instrument instructor to take you into some real IMC. If he/she shies away, find another instructor.

An instrument rating will be the hardest rating you will do, but the benefits are great. Does an instrument rating make you a better pilot? Not necessarily, but it will make you a safer pilot. The biggest side benefit is an increased confidence when dealing with air traffic control. And for anyone who has had to rent a car to return from a long cross country where the weather went bad, or worse yet, had to fly back at 1000 feet, the benefits are obvious.

Jerry Plante