Round Out Your Pilot Skills with an Instrument Rating

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6 min read

For many, the thought of getting in instrument rating gives thoughts to flying an approach to minimums in hard IFR conditions after never seeing the ground since shortly after takeoff. Perhaps those thoughts include dealing with inclement weather, or even icing conditions. It harkens many to think of some of the most challenging flying pilots do in some of the most challenging conditions.

But this isn’t how it has to be. Instrument flying certification and skills can be something that a pilot can use even on good VFR weather flying days. The process, and the skill set that comes with being an instrument pilot, and even a proficient one, can be a set of tools that makes any flight safer and more predictable.

When I look back at my own flying that I have logged, I find that a relatively low percentage of the time is in actual IFR conditions. I regularly fly both personally, in some volunteer flying, and for some personal aircraft operators in conditions that we would go if the weather was IFR and safe to fly. But even with that “need to fly” sometimes, I find that a little less than 14% of my actual flying time in my now just over 30 years of flying has been in actual IFR conditions. Great amounts of the time, the conditions have been VFR.

This is not to say however that in the remainder of my flight experience I haven’t been operating under the IFR system when I fly. Those are different things, and, they are worth discussion when we consider why someone might want to become an IFR rated pilot or get back current if they have allowed those skills to lapse


Flying IFR but Maybe Not Always IN Actual IFR

Filing and flying in the IFR system doesn’t necessarily mean you are flying in the worst of weather. You can file and operate “IFR” even on good weather days.

There are lots of benefits to doing this. When flying IFR, ATC is working with you for the entire flight, from the clearance before you depart or slightly after you takeoff and pickup up a clearance in the air until you land, get close enough to your destination to cancel your IFR, or choose to cancel at some intermediate point. This means ATC is expecting you along a route.

This can be especially helpful when you are travelling to or from a busier airport. Getting sequenced into a busy Class D, C, or even B airport gets much easier when you are doing so on an IFR flight plan. Just “popping up” VFR outside their airspace boundaries and asking to come in can be more likely to get denied, or at least increase the operational challenge of mixing your desired flight into their normal operations. Being “in the system” gives ATC a heads up you are on the way and may even generate clearances back to you with adjusted routes to make your flight into or through particular airspaces and to or from destinations more efficient while at the same time avoiding potential traffic conflicts. In essence, you become a known quantity instead of a wildcard they have to manage.

Garmin G1000 equipped Cessna with pilot flying high in the clouds.

Operating in the IFR system can offer lots of benefits when it comes to avoiding any TFRs, special use airspace, or when travelling to or from an international destination. You become a part of the system, not just a VFR target out there that ATC is hoping won’t get in the way of the traffic with whom they are working.


Those Marginal Days

Not every IFR flight will be “hard IFR to minimums.” In fact, most of them won’t be. For many IFR pilots, becoming IFR certificated is about allowing them to fly more safely and comfortably on those “marginal days.”

Pilot eye view approaching to land under overcast skies.

There are lots of days where there might be a couple thousand foot ceiling, and while you might be able to fly VFR below the clouds, scud running as many say, climbing through a thin layer to a higher altitude would put you on top in the clear. Having this extra altitude to go on top gives you more obstacle clearance, avoids a need to navigate visually in marginal conditions, and gets you away from the places where someone else might be doing exactly that.

Many times, IFR pilots keep higher personal minimums and basically only use their really hard IFR skills to climb through or descend through a layer to or from the enroute environment. There is nothing wrong with this at all! In fact, it is a great use of the IFR system to make your flight operations safer.


Learning More About Navigation and ATC Systems

There can be no doubt that becoming and IFR pilot or brushing up your dusty IFR skills makes you learn more about navigation and ATC systems. You learn more about how to navigate to or from locations using ground and satellite based navigation systems. You operate and coordinate more frequently with ATC personnel and other traffic. Becoming an IFR pilot introduces these systems to a pilot in much more detail than is accomplished in the private pilot training.

Knowing more about ATC systems and what navigation systems are available and how to use them simply makes a pilot more well rounded in their skills. While many of us operate mostly on GPS based navigation systems in our current system, even that has multiple different types of approaches, arrival and departure procedures, and processes we might use in our flight planning and operations.

More knowledge about these systems helps us navigate more efficiently, become more stabilized in our approaches to airports, understand better how ATC  manages traffic flows, and keep ourselves from busting any airspaces along our travels. What can be bad about that?


Having Another Safety Layer in Your Flight Operations

I alluded to this earlier, but having ATC “watch your back” while you are operating under IFR clearances can also help coordinate your flight with other traffic. When in controlled airspace, IFR operations get ATC services for traffic separation. While we all do the best we can to look outside, and many of us have great traffic awareness systems in our aircraft, this doesn’t mean you will catch everything. Having ATC watching your flight path will give one more set of eyes to help alert you to any possible traffic conflicts.

There is additional safety added in the event that you encounter any in-flight abnormalities or emergencies. ATC knows where you are at all times, and if you need to divert, or in a worst case scenario, put the plane down somewhere in an emergency, you will already be in communication with ATC who could quickly rally some resources your way if needed.

The extra safety layer that ATC coordination when flying IFR is well worth having the skills and proficiency that allows you to take advantage of this service.

A friend used to say, becoming a private pilot teaches you to fly. Getting an instrument rating makes you a pilot. I kind of agree.

I don’t mean this to degrade anyone who isn’t an IFR pilot, but there is no doubt that becoming an IFR pilot and keeping those skills strong adds some degree of well-rounding to a pilot’s skill set. Many pilots have flown years and years safely without an instrument rating. But few who have instrument skills and fly actively have said those skills were not worth having.

Even if you don’t plan to fly in IMC conditions regularly, or even at all, strong instrument rating skills can only make you a better pilot.

Jason Blair