Digital photo titled flying-bobs-plus-two-thirds

Instrument Flying

by Philip Greenspun, ATP, CFII, updated October 2005

Site Home : Flying : One Article

Digital photo titled clouds The first part of this article is devoted to the best means of learning to become an instrument-rated pilot. The second portion is an ever-expanding collection of tips on making Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flights.

Why Get an Instrument Rating?

If you are using an airplane for transportation, you won't need a lot of motivation to get your instrument rating. Without the IFR certificate your 500-mile cross-country trip could take half a day or half a week. Suppose, however, that you learned to fly in order to enjoy the view. You really don't want to be flying in clouds. You're flying for recreation. If the weather is bad you'll find something else to do with your day(s).

Flexibility remains the best reason to get an instrument rating. Suppose that you flew in for an overnight stay with your cousins Mildred and Ethan. After 20 hours they are really getting on your nerves, but there is a 500' ceiling at the airport where you parked your plane. The weather above the low layer of clouds is good. Your destination airport is VFR. But you're stuck with Mildred and Ethan because you cannot legally punch through that ceiling.

An IFR rating won't, by itself, make you into SuperPilot. Plenty of IFR-rated pilots succumb to spatial disorientation in actual Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). On the other hand, if you do encounter clouds unexpectedly, the skills developed while getting and keeping current an instrument rating may save your life.

Insurance companies have a profound fear of VFR-only pilots. You need the IFR ticket if you want to get a "smooth $1 million" policy, i.e., one in which the liability per passenger is not limited to $100,000. If you want excess liability, e.g., up to $5 million, you also need the IFR certificate.

Pass the Knowledge Test First

Try to pass your knowledge test before getting into an airplane or simulator. Start by ordering the following books: All of the information that you need to pass the knowledge test is in the preceding books. Unfortunately, if you're like most people, your eyes will start to glaze over and your head will begin to droop when trying to study this stuff. It is tough to stay motivated and concentrated when (a) you're not in an airplane, (b) you're not actually going anywhere, and (c) the sun is shining outside. It doesn't help that much of the knowledge seems completely irrelevant, e.g., that you can't go faster than 265 knots indicated when holding above 14,000 feet MSL. A brand-new IFR pilot isn't very likely to find herself at the controls of an aircraft capable of flying at anywhere near 265 knots.

The at-home solution to this problem is the video course. Sporty's Pilot Shop produces and publishes its own lectures on DVD. These won an award from Flying magazine, whose editor, Richard Collins, makes some cameo appearances on the DVDs. In granting the award, Collins must have limited his viewing to his own segments, which are reasonably interesting and inspiring in a "voice of experience" sort of way. Collins's vignettes won't help you pass the FAA knowledge test but they serve as interesting background. Sadly the bulk of the Sporty's DVDs is a parody of pedagogy. The pace is slow. If the instructor is saying "straight and level, climbing, descending, in turns" each of these phrases will be illustrated with a bit of stock footage: an airplane executing these maneuvers on a sunny day. Ten minutes later you're invited to press "Enter" on your DVD remote control. FAA knowledge test questions come up. Nothing in the preceding lecture segment has prepared you in any way for the questions. You start guessing, taking wild stabs with the menu keys on the DVD remote. Eventually the sluggish lecture starts up again. Instead of blackboards and diagrams, most of the video time is taken up with footage taken from a camera mounted in the right seat of a real airplane. If you've never been in an airplane, this might be interesting, but presumably most people studying for the IFR knowledge test already have at least 100 hours or so of time. Then another knowledge test fragment for which the viewer is completely unprepared. If you enjoy feeling bored 90 percent of the time and bewildered and stupid 10 percent, Sporty's DVDs are for you.

The most popular IFR video course is produced by Their DVDs feature John and Martha King, the founders of the school. The King videos have the advantage that they actually teach something. The Kings put a lot of effort into producing explanatory graphics, and they spend most of their time pointing out various details of these graphics. I scored nearly 100 percent on the FAA test questions included on the DVD. The King DVDs can be used on a computer, in which case you get a more thorough grilling and the program tracks which questions you got wrong for later review. But, personally, I've spent enough hours of my life sitting at a desk in front of a computer monitor so I greatly preferred to watch the DVDs on a standard television.

How effective is the King video course? I watched the videos, spent eight hours with the included sample question book, and scored a 98 on the IFR Airplane knowledge test. This is without ever having taken an IFR flight lesson or any one-on-one ground instruction related to the questions. You could sit a monkey down in front of the King videos and it seems likely that he would score at least the required 70.

Practical Study

In getting the practical training necessary for an IFR certificate, there are the following axes to consider: Measured in terms of calendar days and flying hours per IFR certificate, the folks at Professional Instrument Courses, Inc. ( have come up with the most effective method. The PIC method involves a lot of simulator time. The PIC method is mostly local, i.e., you stay in one city most of the time. The PIC method is intensive, lasting only about 10 days from start to finish (they assume that you've already passed the knowledge test). How good an instrument pilot will you be after 10 days? The folks who've done it report that, although they passed their checkrides, they barely scratched the surface of IFR flying. When asked, however, "Could you have learned more about instrument flying by doing anything else for those 10 days?" the answer is "No."

If you're worried about the total cost (minimizing rental airplane hours) and are happy to let the process drag out in terms of calendar weeks, it is probably best to set a medium pace, use the simulator a fair amount, and stay mostly local.

If you have your own airplane, however, my vote is for the following plan: (1) airplane only (no simulator), (2) long cross-countries, (3) fairly intensive. Let's take these point by point.

Most instrument instructors sing the praises of the simulator. It is quiet. You can pause. You can back up. It is efficient. However, chances are that the simulator available to you will be very different from your own airplane. Modern avionics are complex and non-standard. Why not get as much time as you can in your own airplane learning to apply your own avionics to the challenges of instrument flight?

Flying around locally is comforting and safe. But it is poor preparation for learning how weather changes and develops. Flying into familiar airports is poor preparation for flying into unfamiliar airports. If your goal is to be a safe solo cross-country IFR pilot, why not practice dual cross-country IFR as much as you can? This is the theory behind Field Morey's well-established training program ( As part of a ten-day program, Morey takes students on a seven-day 5000-mile trip in his Cessna 182, and 90 percent of them pass their IFR checkride upon completion. Ask around your local FBOs to find a CFII who wants to spend a few long weekends touring the region with you.

Field Morey and the PIC folks have demonstrated that intensive training works as far as getting the IFR certificate. It makes sense to push through the IFR-certificate training as quickly as possible. It also makes sense to continue your training after getting the certificate. Plan some dual instruction in actual IMC in the weeks and months after you get the IFR certicate.

How I Did It

My personal experience with instrument training started at 130 hours in the clouds in Boston. I then proceeded west in a Diamond DA40 to Alaska with a CFII in the right seat. We never flew the same approach twice. Every day was a new aiport or two and a few new approaches. In addition to learning about instrument flying, I learned a lot about precision operations in general, e.g., "turn on your taxi light when you're cleared to land." I learned about mountains and high density altitude operations. Upon reaching Alaska, I finished my training in a week of daily lessons with Tom Wardleigh, a 77-year-old with 51 years of flying experience within Alaska and 33,000 hours of experience (including 15,000 float hours!). Tom got me over a plateau that I'd hit by encouraging me to be more precise and tell myself "the width of the needle is all of the tolerance that I need on altitude or heading." I took my checkride at about 42 hours of actual and hood time. The checkride experience was tiring because the examiner insisted on flying the no-gyro nonprecision approach first. The probability of losing both HSI and Attitude Indicator in an all-electric airplane such as the Diamond Star is incredibly slim. Nonetheless, due to the prevalence of crummy old-design airplanes with vacuum gyros out there, a no-gyro nonprecision approach is required for the practical test.

[If you're interested in doing a cross-country training flight, I've got my CFII now and am always ready to go on a trip in a Diamond or Cirrus. Email to if interested.]

Fly with a Copilot or an Autopilot

"In the complex world of instrument flight, an autopilot is almost a requirement; some day they will probably be standard on all except pure sport airplanes; they are certainly very desirable, as they turn a busy hand-flying task into a relaxed experience where the pilot is well in command of the situation and always ahead of the airplane. The lower a pilot's experience level, the more an autopilot becomes a serious need, or, or course, a good copilot." ...

"A copilot during serious instrument flight is a necessity - not required by regulation, but without a doubt, flying instruments without a copilot is a very tough job. I've flown small aircraft in serious weather, on instruments, alone and it's much more difficult than flying a 747 with a crew."
-- Robert N. Buck, retired TWA captain, Weather Flying, pages 91 and 102

The Europeans require a two-axis (altitude and heading) autopilot for an airplane to be IFR-certified. The Federales require an autopilot for single-pilot IFR operations under Part 135 (air taxi) and a copilot for Part 121 (airline) operations. Under Part 91 in the United States, you're legal to go out and fly single-pilot IMC without an autopilot, but that doesn't mean it is smart. Keep in mind that the regulations are designed to ensure safety for the best pilots. They don't provide a safety margin for novices. You can build in your own safety margin by ensuring that your plane has a rock-solid two-axis autopilot.

Do make sure that you are proficient in your use of the autopilot and keep in mind its limitations. Cheap light airplane autopilots circa 2003 have a couple of shortcomings. First, with the possible exception of the autopilot made by, they don't take into account attitude information and hence tend to "overfly" the airplane through turbulence. The FAA says to hold attitude rather than fighting for a constant altitude and heading during turbulence. A KAP or S-Tec autopilot ignores this advice and strives to hold altitude and heading very precisely, regardless of how bumpy it is outside. Instead of riding the waves and letting things average out, they'll be constantly climbing, diving, and banking. If you're in VFR conditions and passengers are feeling queasy, try disconnecting the autopilot and handflying for awhile.

A second major issue with cheap autopilots is that they don't understand airspeed and airspeed limitations. You can tell a KAP-140 autopilot to "climb at 700 fpm and level out at 7,000'" for example, but if you haven't set the throttles to achieve this climb rate or the airplane is incapable of this climb rate, the autopilot will keep pitching the nose up until the plane slows down below stall speed and spins. Maintain a basic scan of the attitude indicator and the airspeed indicator, even when the autopilot is engaged.

[If you're flying an experimental airplane, you can get an autopilot from that incorporates attitude and airspeed information and won't slow the plane down below Vy. The price will break your heart if you own a certified airplane... $3500 in 2005.]

Don't Mess with Ice

You got an instrument rating so that you could fly in clouds. Where there are clouds, there is moisture. Where there is moisture and cold, there can be ice. Oftentimes you don't have to climb very high before the air temperature falls below freezing. When ice forms on the wings, it degrades the airfoil, and the airplane loses efficiency. This results in stalling at higher airspeeds. A secondary effect is that ice adds weight to the airplane, which also increases stalling speed. You really don't want to get a little airplane anywhere near ice.

How do the airlines manage to operate on cloudy winter days then? A jet has big engines and is capable of climbing very quickly through layers of ice-forming clouds. A jet has a very high service ceiling and can fly over the tops of the clouds, which very seldom get above 20,000' or 25,000'. A jet is pressurized and can descend at 4,000' per minute, thus dropping through layers of ice-forming clouds very quickly. A jet may thus see a moment of ice on the way up to clear high altitudes and then a moment of ice on the way down. Should the jet be unlucky enough to be stuck in ice-forming clouds during an approach, for example, the leading edges of the wings and tail are heated with hot air from the engines ("hot wings").

One way to avoid ice is never to fly in the clouds when the outside air temperature is below freezing. You'll essentially be grounded on cloudy days for about half the year in the northern portion of the U.S.

A slightly less conservative approach is to limit your cloud flying to days when (a) it is above freezing on the surface, and (b) the minimum enroute altitudes (MEAs) are below the freezing level. If you should get into some ice, you know that you can safely descend to the MEA and the ice will begin to melt away. You won't be able to fly in mountainous terrain under this system.

Ice and your mission may dictate the kind of airplane that you buy. If, for example, you live in the Midwest or Northeast and intend to use an airplane for business trips, then you're going to be flying IFR on days when icing is possible. You'll need an airplane that has reasonable climb performance up to 25,000' and is certified for "known ice". The climb performance and high ceiling are available on turbocharged piston airplanes or any turbine-powered airplane. With engine performance that doesn't fade as you climb, you're almost guaranteed to be able to get on top or at least between layers. With a hot prop and some sort of wing ice protection system, you've got time to explore different altitudes. Examples of reasonably modern planes that offer turbocharging and certified ice protection are various turbocharged Mooneys (unpressurized) and the Piper Malibu (pressurized). An example of a plane that sounds suitable but would probably get you killed if used for IFR commuting is the Cirrus SR22 (see my review of the SR20). The SR22 has a service ceiling of 17,000 feet and, though it can be ordered with some ice protection, has never been certified for "known ice". The SR22's problems begin with its lack of turbocharger and consequent reduction in power when it might be needed most. An additional problem is that ice protection comes from TKS antifreeze fluid squirting out on the prop and wing leading edges. Supposely some of the fluid will end up on the tail, but if not, you are risking a tailplane stall. During a tailplane stall, the airplane will dive out of control because the horizontal stabilizer has stopped pushing the plane's tail down. The Columbia 400 is an unpressurized turbocharged plane that can rocket up to 25,000'. Columbia offers an innovative electric-powered system for hot prop, wings, and tail. The system is not certified for flight into known icing, but from an engineering point of view is extremely appealing.

Don't Mess with Thunderstorms

Turbulence in a thunderstorm can be sufficiently severe that you lose control of the airplane and/or that the airframe becomes overstressed. If you're flying VFR you can see the rain showers emanating from the bottom of thunderstorm clouds and divert around them. If you're IMC, however, by definition you're in a cloud and can't see anything. You run the risk of entering an embedded thunderstorm. If this is a very common weather condition in your area, it might be worthing investing $10,000 or so in a Stormscope or Strikefinder that shows you where the lightning is happening. Big planes generally have an onboard weather radar that shows precipitation. The little plane equivalent is a satellite datalink to ground-based weather radars and lightning detectors.

Generally, however, the powerful thunderstorms build up during summer afternoons, and thus the best policy with a small airplane is to fly during the morning hours or in the evening after the weather briefers say that the storms have dissipated.

Don't Plan to be a Better Pilot than an Airline Captain

During your instrument training you will fly nonprecision approaches down to minimums, perhaps in a mountainous area. You will practice circle-to-land approaches in which you approach toward one runway then, once you break out of the clouds, fly tight slow circles around the airport until you can land on a different runway. You will do all kinds of difficult IFR stuff as a single pilot in training. All of this is legal in real clouds (instrument meteorological conditions) but is it smart?

The airlines don't think so. Airliners fly from Instrument Landing System (ILS)-equipped airport to ILS-equipped airport. If there is no ILS at an airport that an airline wishes to serve, it twists the government's arm into installing one. The airlines have a safety record roughly 50 times better than privately operated aircaft.

First, a little background for the nonpilots.

Background on aerodynamics: Airplanes hold themselves up by pushing air down. In flight, an airplane's wings are angled up. As the plane moves forward this angled surface pushes air downward and, as a reaction, the airplane rises up (Newton's Third Law). Air weighs a lot less than the metals and plastics in the airplane, and therefore one must push a lot of air down in order to pull the plane up, which is why wings are so physically large. An airplane must maintain a reasonably high forward speed for the wing to do its job; a wing that isn't moving pushes no air down. If a pilot, in attempting to slow down for landing, slows down too much, the plane will "stall" and become hard to control. If the pilot does not immediately push the stick forward to pitch the airplane down and pick up more speed, the plane may go into a "spin" and start to fall out of the sky. A plane can be recovered from a spin, but usually this requires more altitude than is available if the spin happens while approaching to land. Turning an airplane uses up lift that would otherwise be available to hold altitude, and therefore an airspeed that works for level flight will result in a stall in a tight turn.

Background on flying in the clouds: An ILS approach is referred to as a "precision approach". Under normal circumstances, the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) give you radar vectors and altitudes to fly until you intercept the radio beams of the ILS. They are required by regulation to set you up so that you need not make more than a 30-degree turn to get onto the ILS, i.e., ATC points your airplane more or less straight in toward the landing runway. Once established on the ILS, you make very small adjustments in pitch and bank to keep the needles centered and reduce the engine power so that your airplane holds a slow steady speed. Notice that at no time on an ILS is the airplane required to make a turn; the airplane is going slow but flying straight.

At most airports an ILS approach lets you go down to 200' above the ground without seeing anything, then, if you can see the runway lights, you're allowed to go down until you're just 100' above the ground. In an emergency you wouldn't worry about ever seeing the runway, but would keep flying the needles until the wheels slammed down on the pavement (Europeans actually do this in training).

Not only does an ILS provide low minimums, but it also generally comes with assistance from ATC. If you've somehow gotten very confused, or your equipment isn't working right and you're off-course or at the wrong altitude, they'll probably call you on the radio. They are invariably polite and ask you to "say altitude" or "say position", hoping that you'll discover your mistake, rather than blurting out "you're in the wrong place, bozo".

A nonprecision approach is a much more complex procedure that (a) requires a bunch of turns in the clouds, fairly slow and low to the ground, (b) makes the pilot(s) solely responsible for the airplane's position, and (c) requires the airplane to stay at a higher altitude if the pilot cannot see the runway. The good thing about nonprecision approaches is that they enable you to get into small airports on bad-weather days.

One often hears of very capable airplanes, such as King Airs, piloted by two professional pilots, crashing while attempting nonprecision approaches. In NTSB case IAD03FA043, for example, the pilots lost control of the airplane after breaking out of the clouds. They were attempting a circle-to-land approach at a smallish airport. It is worth noting that most scheduled airlines have found that they are unable to train their pilots to perform with adequate consistency on circle-to-land approachs and therefore these maneuvers are simply not authorized. They land straight in, almost always on an ILS, or they go elsewhere. Senator Paul Wellstone died in a King Air during a nonprecision approach in which the pilots apparently became distracted in the clouds and failed to maintain sufficient airspeed (see Star Tribune archive).

How can one apply this philosophy to Part 91 single-pilot operations in which almost everything is legal but almost nothing is safe? If the weather is bad and there is a bigger ILS-equipped airport near your destination, land there and drive an extra 45 minutes. Set minimums for yourself on nonprecision approaches, e.g., "I will go missed [abandon the approach] if I do not break out at least 100' above the nearest terrain or obstruction within 10 miles of the airport". This kind of minimum implies that you are only going to land out of a nonprecision approach in fairly flat terrain and/or with fairly good weather.

VNAV/LNAV Approaches and WAAS

Adding an instrument landing system to an existing airport can cost up to $2 million. Once installed, the ILS must be monitored continuously to make sure that its radio beacons are operating. Periodically an FAA flight check aircraft will fly the ILS, in visual conditions, to verify its accuracy. An ILS does not make financial sense for small general aviation airports and the only time that the FAA puts one in is when a member of Congress earmarks funding for a specific airport.

In 1995, the FAA decided that it might be time to use the GPS system to bring ILS-style approaches to small airports at which it did not make sense to install ground-based navigation aids. The GPS system, as designed in the 1970s, is very accurate for lateral navigation (LNAV, or your latitude/longitude). It is not so great at vertical navigation (VNAV, or your height above sea level). The Wide Area Augmentation System or "WAAS" is a system of satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal corrections and enable accuracy to within roughly 10 feet vertically and 5 feet laterally. Given WAAS, it is possible to design a "LNAV/VNAV" approach that will take a pilot safely down to within 250' of the runway, using only equipment inside the airplane. The new more precise approaches are referred to as "LPV", which stands for "localizer performance with vertical guidance".

As of 2005, the WAAS system is more or less available everywhere in the United States and is used with great results by automotive GPS navigators. The FAA has a $14 billion annual budget and a new approach supposedly costs around $20,000 to develop. VNAV/LNAV approaches do not seem to have been a priority, however, and there are only 292 LPV approaches as of October 2005. Only 80 of these approaches are at small general aviation airports. Except for the Garmin GNS 480, a product acquired by Garmin from UPS/Apollo, there are no panel-mount GPS units certified to fly the LPV approaches.

Eventually, you won't have to choose between the safety of an ILS and the convenience of a smaller airport near your destination. Given that the U.S. has more than 5,000 airports with paved runways, and that the FAA is talking about developing 100 new LPV approaches every year, it could be a long wait. The popular Garmin GNS 430/530 units are supposed to be upgradeable to WAAS capability, but not until the third quarter of 2006.

How a 10-Year-Old Will Outfly You in 2010

Suppose that you've spent a decade or more becoming an expert with instrument scanning, NDBs, VORs, ILSs, and approach plates. How would you feel if a 10-year-old could fly 100 miles through fog and clouds and land with ceiling and visibility of 0'? You're going to find out pretty soon.

By reference to the GPS receiver, your airplane knows where it is. By reference to a slaved HSI, your airplane knows in which direction it is pointed. By reference to a digitized topographic map (sectional chart), your airplane can know the shape of the surface of the nearby earth and the locations and heights of obstructions. With Skywatch, Mode S, or TCAS, your airplane knows the location of nearby air traffic. Suppose that your airplane integrated all of this information and used it to project images on the insides of your windows, just as a flight simulator would do. Even in the middle of a cloud, you'd look "out" your window and see a mountain or a Cessna 172 500' above you heading west. Holding short of Runway 29 in dense fog, you'd "see" the B747 on short final out your side window. The technology to do this is no more advanced than what is included with Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Responsibility for making this happen falls to the Synthetic Vision Systems program at NASA Langley (see They don't seem to be in any hurry to turn this fairly obvious idea into a reality. The FAA is planning to decommission NDBs and VORs in 2010 (in favor of GPS). A shift to "VFR all the time" avionics, flight training, and certification would make sense as VORs get shut down.

See for a certified implementation of the NASA idea. An inexpensive system for experimental airplanes is available from


Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2002 Philip Greenspun.

Reader's Comments

I also took a 10 day IFR course by going to a commercial flight school. I took two weeks off work and signed up with a flight school in Ft. Worth for their 10 day course, and stayed with a relative while there. Each day consisted of an hour of classroom work with the instructor, time with their simulator, a review with the instructor, then time in their plane, then a debrief and review. Evenings consisted of study of the procedures and regulations, although I had passed the IFR written exam before starting the course. The school also let me come in early each day and get some free simulator time on my own.

This was one of the most difficult things Iíve ever done. There were high winds and turbulence the entire time, the plane seemed to be all over the sky, and thereís just so much to learn.

Even though I already owned a plane, I had to use their plane for the course. In hindsight, that was good because it had all the instruments needed, including an NDB that I donít have. By the end of the course, I could keep the needles centered through all the procedures, and passed the check ride without problems.

Did I feel confident and competent on graduation? No. Not even close. Still, getting the instrument rating improved my flying substantially, and gave me more tools and options. There are a number of larger commercial flight schools around the country, and I suspect they all offer a similar IFR training program. This is an alternative to the PIC approach that you might consider.

-- Ed Owens, April 15, 2002

Ditto. Just passing a test means very little -- and 10 days is hardly enough to count for real experience. To pass a test, perhaps, but not much more than that. Instrument training is truly something to be undertaken deliberately. To race through it is to rob yourself of the ability to develop instincts. Robotic responses and rote answers you might have, but real situational awareness...that's another can of worms.

-- george day, May 1, 2002


>> Most instrument instructors sing the praises of the simulator[...] >> However, chances are that the simulator available to you will be >> very different from your own airplane.

I disagree with this comment for a few reasons.

First, debriefing is an essential part of the learning experience. A huge benefit of the simulator is the ability to review what you've done and where you spectacularly screwed up. WHen you're initially learning the basics of the system, you'll benefit less from being in the noisy cockpit (and actually having to fly -- instrument procedures are less about flying than they are understanding systems).

Second, a simulator lets you experiment without breaking anything and spending an excessive amount of money. You get an infinite amount of "do-overs." * Want to fly the step-down approach into Medford Oregon? The LDA into Vancouver Pearson? The ILS into Boston's 22L? Just pull the chart and dial up the right frequencies. * Wondering why you couldn't intercept the NDB during holding practice? Check out the printout of your course trajectory and the relative wind. * Want to make the weather really marginal?

Third, electronic simulators such as ELITE provide accurately depicted avionic displays for a variety of models of aircraft. For example, you can fly a turbo arrow, Bonanza, or a Cessna 182. (There are others.) You can configure the simulator to generate random failure after failure. For example, you can see the DG and/or AI slowly tumble (as they do when vacuum gradually declines). Once you realize it's broken, you have to adjust your scan. (or take the easy route and cover the thing up ;).

Finally, most folks don't own their own airplane, they rent. Even similar models have nuances in their layouts - you just need to deal with that. There is certainly a benefit in being comfortable in your airplane, but you also need to be comfortable with the system and cockpit resource management. That's where a simulator helps.

Jim Carson

-- Jim Carson, May 2, 2002

As a flight instructor and president of SPIFR Flight Training, LLC I would recommend readers consider the many accelerated instrument programs available. Accelerated training may not be for everyone but I have found most pilots train better under full-time, intensive training. In fact, the military and airlines have always trained on a full-time intensive basis.

I personally have experience working with two national university flight programs and two national accelerated programs (including SPIFR). I find the applicants trained under an intensive program are equal to, if not usually better than pilots trained under rigorous part 141 programs.

The problem most general aviation pilots find is that they do not have access to the best 141 flight schools. Pilots are left training at local FBOs with a constant rotation of young flight instructors trying to build time (although there are many good instructors at FBOs--they just don't last long). Lessons are often cancelled due to weather or aircraft delay or the lesson is ditched for a more lucrative chance for the instructor to fly charter. It is very beneficial to train with the same high-quality instructor all the way through a certain rating. Accelerated programs will usually pair a client with one experienced flight instructor for the entire training. In our program, for example, we dedicate one flight instructor to each client until that client has completed the rating. Our instructors do not fly charter or have any other students during the training. I suspect this is true of most accelerated programs.

The other benefit of accelerated training is that some programs allow the use of a clientís personal airplane. Using your own airplane will allow you to train with specific equipment and develop an instrument scan that is unique to your airplane. Whether you have Garmen 430 GPS units or KX-155 King radios, the training will show you the full potential of your equipment. Becoming fluent with tuning radios, swapping frequencies, setting the autopilot, and knowing where various gauges and switches are located on the panel are all essential IFR skills. Also, if your aircraft has retractable gear or a constant speed prop, the training will help you know at what point to put the gear down during the approach and what power settings to use.

If a pilot has average flying ability and can meet at least the Private Pilot standard of flying and knowledge, that pilot is a perfect candidate for accelerated training. If a pilot has not flown for a long time or just purchased a new airplane or equipment, I recommend becoming completely VFR current and familiar with all equipment before attempting a new rating.

Many pilots ask me how much they will retain if trained over a short period of time. Pilots will retain all flight skill that they use on a routine basis whether those skill were learned over 6 months or 7-10 days. A real life IFR flight is actually quite simple usually involving very little IMC conditions. An IFR flight mostly feels like VFR flight-following with automatic hand-offs along Victor airways or direct routing. Most IFR flights for general aviation pilots end up with visual approaches. However, during training pilots must be prepared to handle all kinds of weather conditions and ATC scenarios so we spend most of the time learning approaches, holding, and weather decision making etc. It is also important for pilots to continue to practice skills that are not routinely used. This means a pilot should request an instrument approach rather than accepting a visual every time. Holding will need to be practiced with a safety pilot because holding, while important, is rarely used in real life (Ask airline pilots).

The final advantage of accelerated training (that I'll list here) is that pilots are often trained for single-pilot, general aviation, and real world conditions. Most traditional flight schools, unfortunately, are designed to train pilots who are heading to the airlines and expect to have a copilot. In the real world, general aviation pilots must handle everything on their own. I believe it is essential to train at a program that teaches Single Pilot IFR techniques that are unique to general aviation. If these techniques are not learned from the beginning of training, pilots will often find themselves with a useless IFR rating or at least very little confidence. General aviation pilots should learn to fly on instruments in a way that minimizes the workload and stress in the cockpit. All techniques should be simple and organized with clear goals and objectives always in mind. A pilot should always know what is coming next during an IFR flight and be prepared for the next action.

Search the web for "accelerated instrument training", "instrument flight training" or similar phrase to find an accelerated program near you. Or like the article mentions, you can have the convenience of an instructor coming to your house like PIC offers, as long as your home or office is a suitable training environment and your home is not too far from the airport. Pilots living near Ohio, or that are willing to travel to Ohio, are welcome to visit our site at (we provide accommodations and a vehicle). Regardless of the place you choose to train, I believe quality accelerated training is the wave of the future and will thoroughly prepare you for real world IFR flying. Always choose a course that understands the unique dynamics of accelerated training and has a custom accelerated syllabus. Extended courses that are compressed into a week do not work at all.

I hope this helps and good luck with your training.


Andrew Ike, President SPIFR Flight Training, LLC

-- Andrew Ike, February 25, 2003

I am currently a commercial rated pilot and like most of the rest of the comments listed on this page I agree with the fact that just having the rating does not prove that you have the experience necessary to fly in all conditions - especially IFR.

Being an avid reader of NTSB reports and Aviation weekly I have learned that all too often a pilot that otherwise would be very safe and confident in his abilities gets himself into precarious situations due to the ever changing conditions of weather. Before you know it the family is thinking of what to put on his epilogue.

I would also like to comment on the advice of firewall training at part 141 schools. I totally disagree with this approach/attitude for a few reasons. #1 is the fact that it can be very dangerous. # 2 is the fact that the military uses veteran pilots with extensive experience (20+ years) and all of the tricks and tools needed to ensure the highest quality of instruction.

Flying has been in my family since I was born. My father (an Air Force pilot and now a Fed Ex Captain) has told me of countless horror stories of the fact that much of his training did little to prepare him for the actual situations encountered in flight. One example of this was when he was forced to fly a Non-precision NDB approach. It almost killed our family as a result on a personal flight cross country - this occured after he had the experience of having flown in the Vietnam war and recieved countless medals of honor for his abilities. This goes to show that even after 5 years of experience flying miltary jets, there still may be a situation that you are not prepared for - don't let this be you.

Also, in response to the comments on the firewall school, I personally attended what is now considered to be one of the top rated scholls out there - Delta Connection (formerly ComAir).

They use this approach of firewalled training where I would have to say that the majority of the students in this program not only failed countless profeciency checks and spent thousands of extra dollars in the process, but also a majority of them graduated on to the next program with such a deficiency that I became uphauled by the standards being upheld by such a large organization. This is not to say that the organized method of learning is not better than the un-organized method. Only that in many of these cases, the "pipeline" of instructors available within these programs are just 6 mos beyond the students capability.

There where many groundschool lessons where I was actually teaching my instructor a thing or two, instead of the other way around. This makes this avenue a poor relation to military training. Period.

Now, as for the commercial training (done by Commercial airline companies) - again I must remind all readers that this is like graduate school. By this time all pilots must have the basics down - SOLID. The process of spoon feeding information is too costly and should not be needed at this point. But to compare this to the process of getting the basics that may one day save your life is very short sighted to say the least.

Hope this letter helps someone currently in the process of learning to fly. I know from experienc,pain and enjoyment that this is a long journey of learning you have embarked on - the best part of it is the fact that the ride is so enjoyable. But the day you stop learning more could lead to your last day of learning - so continue to thirst for knowledge... and try to keep your head above them clouds.

Sincerely, Matt Dee

-- Matt Dee, November 1, 2005

I recently found your article on "IFR flying" and find it very interesting and helpful. I had actually begun to formulate a plan for my future IFR flying, given that I fear that I will quickly lose those skills if I don't fly every few days. I looked up the FAA's listing of ILS & LPV approaches and there are nearly 4,000 of them, up from the 292 LPV that you cited in 2002. I believe that I have interpreted the FAA data properly, but confirmation would be nice. So, I hope that you will update this very important topic, and add some additional insights from other IFR pilots with similar concerns. I had also been wondering when (or if) the FAA will abandon NBD and VOR approaches. I have made the decision to only fly a plane with a glass cockpit, and I find those extra approaches and being forced to learn them to be a drag on my wallet, but no benefit to me, as I don't plan to use them. Ever. And now, due to your article and access to 4,000 ILS and LPV approaches, I might never need anything but ILS or LPV, so if I buy a plane, it will have a WAAS receiver. For two years now, I have been planning this purchase, and every once in a while an article like yours appears and creates a new and unexpected decision point. I have yet to buy.

One more thing. One of my CFIs showed me how to fly safely in clouds in the Winter. This consists of making sure that the air is below freezing during the entire flight, checking the FAA ADDS Flight Path Tool, and checking PIREPs for icing conditions. Our flight school does not allow flying if there is any probability of icing, but if all indicators just mentioned are positive, we are allowed to go, but must be vigilant and check the wings often for any build up while in the clouds. And of course, exit immediately and land, if there is a build up. Your comment and feedback on this method would be appreciated.

Thank you very much.

-- Ronald Smolinski, November 11, 2014

Add a comment

Related Links

Add a link