In some ways, a Private Pilot Certificate with an Airplane Single Engine Land rating is only half of a certificate, with the Instrument rating being the other half. Many pilots yearn to add on an Instrument rating, and for good reason. The rating opens a few new doors for flying in less than VMC weather, and even if the pilot never intends to operate in IMC, the training for the Instrument rating will involve maneuvers that will refine the pilot’s skills and decision making.
Once a pilot has decided to add on an Instrument rating, how should he or she go about it? As an experienced flight instructor and a former Part 141 Chief Flight Instructor, I’ll provide a few tips.
First, take responsibility for your training. This is the key piece of advice that I give all flight training students, but it especially applies to the Instrument rating. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed by your instructor. Come prepared to each lesson, and come prepared to your training as a whole. Since you already know how to fly, you are much less dependent on the instructor for this rating. Part of this personal responsibility vein is choosing the right instructor. Think about personality compatibility, schedule compatibility, and teaching style. Your instrument training is going to be almost entirely dual flying, so take some extra time to find someone who you really like to learn from.
Come prepared. This means being prepared for each lesson by studying the material and “chair flying” or thinking through your tasks for the day, but it also means practicing on your own. Use your computer flight simulator to practice before the lesson. Private Pilot training and other visually-dependent training does not translate well to computer simulators, but instrument training translates perfectly. Turn off the visuals and practice scanning exercises on a panel like your airplane for at least an hour a day. If you get bored with that, cover the vacuum instruments and repeat. If you get bored with that, fail the vacuum instruments so that they are indicating erroneously and repeat. If you get bored with that, then you are either not doing it right, or maybe you are a check hauling freight dog.
Use an organized training strategy. Start with learning to control the airplane by reference only to the instruments. Master “straight and level” and then start introducing other skills one at a time. Mastering “straight and level” might be easier said than done! When you do, start trying to make a steady 500 foot-per-minute climb from one even 1000-foot altitude to another. How long should that climb take? That’s right, two minutes. Next, descend at 500 feet per minute back down to the original altitude. Start the clock when you start the climb or descent, and make sure that you are arriving at the new altitude on schedule. When you can do that smoothly and on a constant heading (+/-5 degrees), try making level, standard rate turns. If you turn 360 degrees of heading change, it will take two minutes per turn. Just as before, start the clock when you start the turn, and keep practicing until you can make a smooth turn on schedule and with less than 40 feet of altitude change.
It will probably take a few hours of practice to master these skills. When you have, start combining them. Climb at 500 FPM for 30 seconds while simultaneously turning at a standard rate to the left. When 30 seconds has passed, you should be 500 feet above your starting altitude and 180 degrees from your original heading. Repeat this combined maneuver with climbs and descents, and turns to the left and right. As before, this is hard! Don’t get discouraged, and don’t try to cheat and do these combined maneuvers until you have truly mastered the building blocks of the last step. Instrument flying is like math. If you don’t have a mastery of algebra, there is no way you are going to understand calculus. You won’t be doing yourself any favors to skip ahead in these sequential steps. The number one reason that students failed holding stage checks with me was that they didn’t have a strong scan, which meant that they really shouldn’t have been holding yet anyway.
After mastering the operation of the airplane by reference to instruments, the next task is positioning the airplane based on radio aids to navigation. This includes tracking and intercepting. You’ll want to have mastered the concepts of these skills long before you get into the airplane, and a parking lot or hangar floor is a great place to do that. Find a concrete floor with expansion joints, and let those joints represent the four cardinal directions. Put a small can of soup or other stationary object at the junction of two perpendicular lines, and then position yourself somewhere around that object. On a blank page attached to a clipboard, draw the OBS or HSI indication that corresponds to your position and heading, complete with the to-from indication. When you think you’re good at this, stand in one spot with your eyes closed, and then let someone else position the object. See if you can draw the correct indication in less than 8 seconds. If you can do that a few times, then you were right, you were good at it! If not, keep on practicing. Odds are good that the rental rate is much lower for the concrete floor than the airplane. If not, I’d suggest looking for another floor.
Once you have mastered the spatial orientation exercises from the previous paragraph, return to your flight simulator and attempt to apply them while you simultaneously control the airplane with your instrument scan. Be sure to have the visuals turned completely off. If you have a hard time with situational awareness, you can use a moving map and/or DME display, but don’t let those tools become crutches. You’ll eventually need to be able to track and intercept without them, especially if your checkride airplane doesn’t have them. Even if it does, tracking without distance information is a crucial instrument pilot skill. When you have mastered these skills in your computer simulator, as before, disable the vacuum instruments and try again. Likewise, if you think you have mastered that, provide yourself with erroneous vacuum instruments and try again.
By this point, you may have somewhere between 10 and 50 hours of practice time on your simulator. But what if you don’t have a simulator? Knowing this, why would you possibly not get one? Even if you have access to an unreasonably cheap instructor and airplane, you will have saved anywhere from $700 to $10,000. If you don’t see yourself wanting to keep the simulator around for practice later, which you probably should by the way, you could sell parts of it when you are done and recover some of your costs. You don’t need anything fancy- not even the latest software version. Much of the advances in PC simulators since 2000 or so have been in visuals and in the parts of flight models that you won’t be encountering in this kind of training. You can get up and running with an old version of Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane and a reasonable joystick for around $100 if you already have a computer. Look for a joystick that has a throttle slider or similar input. Don’t feel like you need to get a fancy yoke and rudder pedals, unless you are also planning to use the setup for dogfighting. All of the exercises that I’ve mentioned so far are very much “center of the envelope” activities for flight simulation.
If you have followed my advice thus far and are able to fly and track precisely even partial panel, then the rest of your training is going to be primarily book work with a few fun hours of flight training. By now you want to be pretty close to passing the knowledge test, which you can do entirely by self-study. You will need to know most of what is in that test before you start putting everything together into holding, approaches, and enroute operations. For flight training, there are two main categories of tasks left: holding and approaches. Some instructors introduce holding first, since a complete mastery of approaches does require occasional holding. Some instructors go with an introduction to approaches first instead, postponing holding until approach procedures require it.
In either case, you’ll eventually need to master holding patterns. That is a topic that warrants an entirely separate article.
The main challenge with learning approaches is becoming able to think about things other than controlling the airplane by reference to instruments only, while simultaneously controlling the airplane by reference to instruments only. You’ll have to make regular checks of your approach chart to remember what you need to be doing, but you’ll have to remember to not get distracted and forget to also fly the airplane. This kind of multi-tasking is what makes single-pilot IFR without an autopilot a daunting job, but it is a skill that you’ll have to master to pass the checkride and be safe. This is also a skill that diminishes if you don’t use it, so don’t forget to focus on this type of practice when you are maintaining your currency in the years after you pass your checkride. The only advice I can give to improve your success here is to make sure that you have mastered the fundamental building blocks before you get to this point. If you can’t control and position the airplane precisely when that’s all you have to do, you certainly won’t be able to do that when you have something else to do.
Also, practice thinking ahead. Some say that the two most important things in instrument flying are “the next two things.” Stay ahead of the current situation, and if you have a moment of spare time, think about what you should be doing next. Eventually you’ll get better at putting all of this together, but it is going to take some practice.
Through this stage of training, just as before, focus on being prepared for each lesson before it happens. Have an understanding of exactly which procedures you’ll be practicing that day, and become familiar with them before your flight. Apply this strategy for IFR flights after you become instrument rated too! The first time to see an approach, arrival, or departure is not in the airplane, and especially not while you are in the airplane executing the procedure!
My final advice is to never stop learning. There used to be a great quote at the beginning of the FAA’s Instrument Flying Handbook about training. To paraphrase, it said that it only takes one harrowing experience to teach yourself the difference between minimum knowledge and enough knowledge to be safe. As with any checkride, the new certificate is just a “license to learn,” so establish conservative weather limits until you become more comfortable with your experience. Remember that low weather is going to clear up eventually, and if it seems like waiting for that better weather is going to totally derail your plans and obligations, creating a smoking hole somewhere is quite sure to derail your plans and obligations to a much greater degree. If you find yourself with significant pressure to get somewhere and uncooperative weather, step back and realize that you have put yourself in that situation, and that you probably should have driven or taken an airline flight instead.