Meg Godlewski, eight-time Master CFI, Gold Seal Instructor, with more than 5,500 hours of instruction given

April 2021

Why do we treat 3 hours of instrument training like it is aviation's version of high school algebra?

FAR Part 61.1091 states that the Private Pilot candidate must have at least three hours of flight solely by reference to instruments. This requirement can be a source of contention for some applicants who stress they plan to only fly in VFR conditions, therefore the three hours of (usually) simulated IFR has the same relevance as high school algebra has for a theater arts major. The argument is often that you will do it because it is required, and then go on to live your life in such a fashion that you NEVER have to call upon those skills again.

However, aviation is not algebra. One day, despite careful planning and good decision making on the part of the pilot, the weather closes in. Usually, it only takes one such occurrence for a pilot to see the value of instrument training.

VFR into IFR is a killer of pilots. A review of the accident reports compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board indicates deteriorating weather often results in the pilot attempting to maintain VFR into IFR conditions.2 This often leads to a loss of situational awareness, ending with controlled flight into terrain which is usually fatal. The details of these accidents often include references to ATC trying to provide the pilot with radar vectors, that is headings and altitudes to fly, but for whatever reason, the pilot is unable to maintain situational awareness and positive control of the aircraft. There is a marked breakdown in communications when the non-instrument rated pilot attempts to fly an instrument approach to an airport. Very often the pilot doesn't appear to understand the instructions supplied by ATC, or the pilot does not comply with the instructions.

The required three hours as listed in FAR 61.109 consists of straight and level flight, constant airspeed climbs and descents, turns to a heading, recovery from unusual flight attitudes, radio communications, and the use of navigation systems/facilities and radar services appropriate to instrument flight. These basic skills are taught with the caveat that the emphasis is for the pilot to get safely out of the clouds. The training is done under a view limiting device -- whereas the ill-fated flights are often in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Indeed, some pilots earn their instrument rating without logging a nanosecond of IMC because clouds are rare where they fly. The first time a pilot enters actual IMC can throw them for a loop -- it's just not the same as being under the hood or using pilot training glasses, i.e., view or pilot limiting device.

For this reason, I suggest all my Private Pilot candidates get a little time in IMC. We do this on a Marginal VFR day and by filing an IFR flight plan, so the pilot has the experience of going in and out of the clouds. This is easy to do, as I am a CFII in the Pacific Northwest and MVFR is as common as a Starbucks in a strip mall.

Just about every airport up here has a story about a VFR pilot who got stuck on top of the clouds and ALMOST didn't get back in. I have worked with some of these pilots. They scare themselves so bad they want to get more instrument training, even if they do not have the time or money to devote to the pursuit of the full instrument rating just yet.

We begin with ground instruction. Many VFR-only pilots are surprised to learn that some of their favorite places to fly around near their airport are in the vicinity of an instrument approach fix. This explains why they often see so many other airplanes at a particular altitude and they are not talking to the tower or on the Unicom frequency. The VFR pilots learn how to read an approach plate, taking special note of the location of the approach fixes, any obstacles, the Minimum Safe Altitudes, weather minimums for the approach, (these are published on the approach plate and show visibility and cloud level required for flying the approach to landing) and altitude for glideslope intercept. We spend time developing an understanding of what ATC is communicating, and finally, the VFR-only pilot learns how to program the aircraft's avionics for an IFR approach -- just in case.

The flight training begins with basic attitude flying using both the pitch, power, and performance concept and the primary/supporting instrument concept. The pilots begin under the hood unless the weather is Marginal VFR, and we can acquire a pop-up clearance. The pilot learns to navigate using radar vectors, VORs, and GPS without outside visual references, preferably moving in and out of the clouds. While there is no FAA requirement for the client to acquire experience in actual IMC for certification, it can be beneficial to the pilot's confidence as the in and out of the clouds action is often what introduces vertigo and disorientation.

Achieving and maintaining situational awareness is a must, particularly if the aircraft has a GPS onboard. Following the magenta line without maintaining situational awareness is a recipe for disaster. This was nearly demonstrated on one occasion when an ATP-rated pilot hit the DIRECT TO button on the GPS, not recognizing that the altitude we were at would conflict with a ridgeline ahead of us. I suggested a climb and learning took place.

The clients are taught how to brief the approach plate (I use MARTHA: Missed approach, Approach type/weather mins, Radios/radials set, Time, Heading on final,  Altitude at Final approach fix.) But whatever acronym or memory aid works for you. The important thing is to consistently brief the approach the same way every time.) They must know how to program the GPS, check RAIM and make sure that the GPS is in the appropriate mode.

The last lesson brings it all together: a clearance is obtained and the client flies both an ILS in LOC mode and a GPS approach, preferably in actual conditions. One of those approaches is to their home airport or the closest airport to them that has an instrument approach. I always teach two approaches to two different airports so the client understands the importance of having options and weather often dictates where you will go.

The idea, I stress, is not for them to break the rules by flying IFR without IFR certification -- it is to give them a better chance at survival should they find themselves in a visually challenging situation.

1 Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR)

2 Aviation: Data & Stats (ntsb.gov)

Meg Godlewski is a Gold Seal flight instructor, an eight-time Master CFI, and an aviation journalist. When she is not teaching people to fly, Meg is the Chief Technical Writer for MzeroA, an online ground school. Meg also writes the “Ask the CFI” column for Aviation for Women magazine. Meg's specialty is getting rusty pilots back into the sky and scenario-based training using Redbird and One-G simulation technologies.

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