Should every pilot be instrument-rated? The FAA seems to think so, and many in the industry seem to treat non-instrument-rated pilots as second-class citizens. Ever the plain-spoken contrarian, AVweb's Howard Fried says his answer isn't just
January 10, 1999
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
This column was prompted
by a recent enote from AVweb reader Marc Sabransky, who wrote me to ask about the
apparent trend throughout the aviation community (and particularly the FAA) toward
encouraging every certificated airplane pilot to get an IRA (Instrument Rating-Airplane).
He posed the question: "Should every pilot be instrument-rated?"
My answer isn't just "No" but "Oh, Hell No!"
Those of you who have read my column entitled "A Lost Art" may recall my plea
to save some of our precious airspace for the "fair-weather Sunday afternoon
pilot." He's the guy who only ventures forth on CAVU days, who takes his friends or
family for an airplane ride, goes for the $100 hamburger, or simply for the joy of flying.
He's closely akin to the glider pilot, and he needs an instrument rating like he needs
cancer. The airplane he flies may not have an electrical system (battery, alternator or
generator, regulator, starter, lights, etc.), and may have only the legal minimum of
instrumentation for day VFR flying. What purpose, if any, would be served by insisting
that this guy become instrument-rated?
Keep in mind the fact that in the United States there is no such thing as a Pilot
License there are only Pilot Certificates. For practical purposes what this means is
that being an aviator is a privilege and not a right. (It is easier to revoke a privilege
than a right.)
There are five grades of pilot certificates issued by the FAA: Student Pilot,
Recreational Pilot, Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, and Airline Transport Pilot. Each of
these certificates authorizes more and greater privileges as a pilot progresses up the
ladder from one grade to the next. Of course, with each succeeding grade of certificate
goes more responsibility as well.
On these certificates are placed various ratings for category and class of
aircraft and for instrument privileges (except in the case of the ATP, which is inclusive
of the instrument rating), and type ratings for those aircraft that require them by virtue
of being turbine-powered or in excess of 12,500 pounds maximum certificated gross takeoff
The FAA seems to be pushing every pilot to become instrument-rated. I wonder why that
is. Could it be that they want more and more control over more and more airplanes and
airspace so they can hire more and more people? We've seen the bureaucracy grow
exponentially, and it is still doing it. Every year we get closer and closer to the
dreaded "user fees," and if the FAA budget gets much bigger the taxpaying public
is likely to rise up and demand that user fees be implemented, although we are now paying
our way as is.
And, it's not only the FAA pushing all pilots toward the instrument rating. The peer
pressure from other pilots is enormous. As soon as a student earns his/her private
certificate, he/she is urged to start to work on the instrument. All the aviation
magazines also seem to get in the act. Somehow the non instrument-rated pilot is made to
feel like some sort of second-class citizen.
In 1953 I flew an Ercoupe from Cuyahoga Country Airport (in suburban Cleveland, Ohio)
to Lawton, Oklahoma. It had only minimal instruments, and the only radio was a
low-frequency receiver which enabled me to "fly the beam" (the four-course
Adcock Radio Range which put out four legs, defining airways). I made fuel stops at
Indianapolis, St. Louis International, and Tulsa, without ever talking to anybody.
Two years ago I flew in a 310 from Pontiac, Michigan, to Reno, Nevada. I never saw
another airplane except when on the ground at Salt Lake City and Omaha for fuel, yet I was
in contact with ATC every inch of the way.
Now, please don't get me wrong. I have said before and I repeat here: I've got a
fifty-year love affair going with ATC. On the whole, I truly believe that the air traffic
controllers are the greatest public servants in the history of the human race. It's not
the controllers, but the system that has me seriously upset. I really can't see
where Class B and C airspace has added an iota to safety in air commerce. Everything is
now being done for the convenience of the air carriers. What ever happened to the rule of
"first come, first served?" OK, for now I'll get down off the soapbox and back
to the real topic.
The FAA and industry at large seem to assume the posture that every student pilot is
learning to fly so that he/she may become an air carrier pilot. In point of fact nothing
could be farther from the truth. A substantial percentage of student pilots want to become
aviators so they can enjoy the sheer pleasure of flying. Do these people need an
instrument rating? The answer is obviously a resounding NO!
You say an instrument rating would improve a pilot's basic skills? I agree. It would
certainly tend to make his/her piloting much more precise. But, reader Sabranski says
working on a commercial certificate would do a better job of improving a pilot's basic
airmanship skills, and I definitely agree with him on this point as well.
We had a little email discussion about this among the AVweb staff, and
editor-in-chief Mike Busch offered the opinion that we ought to do away with the
commercial certificate altogether. I am usually in agreement with Mike, because in most
cases the only thing wrong with his ideas is that I didn't think of them first. However,
in this case I respectfully have to disagree. Mike maintains that lazy eights,
eights-on-pylon, chandelles and similar "commercial maneuvers" are a waste of
time, since once the certificate is earned a pilot is never likely to perform them again.
While this is certainly true, my contention is that these maneuvers are designed to clean
up a pilot's flying skills and make a much smoother airman out of him/her, and that's just
what they do. Performed within the tolerance of the commercial PTS (Practical Test
Standards), the commercial maneuvers make a much smoother airplane manipulator of any
Whether or not we're being paid to do it, all of us like to give our passengers the
smoothest ride possible. Most private pilots have never been anywhere near the outer edges
of the performance envelope of the airplane they fly, they've never seen what the airplane
can really do, and the commercial maneuvers take them a step closer than they have ever
been before. I have always advised my students to strive for precision, to make every
second that they are at the controls of an airplane a challenge to improve their skill. As
a pilot, this is a policy I have been following for over fifty years, and if I keep it up
some day I may get good at it. Meanwhile, I keep trying.
Has the instrument rating helped? Sure, some, but not as much as basic aerobatic
training, the commercial, CFI, or ATP.
I recently had a discussion of this subject with a young lady pilot who holds a private
certificate with an instrument rating. She never files an instrument flight plan, never
goes into cloud, and has not been current on instruments since she acquired the rating.
She always flies VFR. Yet she maintains that every pilot should have an instrument rating.
She claims it is essential for a pilot to get by in dealing with ATC in today's
sophisticated airspace. I don't believe she's correct, but if she is, heaven help us! I'd
hate to think that aviation in the United States has come to this point.
Marc Sabanski says, "Although it puts me in the position somewhat lower than pond
scum, I've always felt the IFR isn't for everyone, and there ARE folks who would be better
served by simply keeping their VFR skills well polished. (Yes, including hood work.)"
He then goes on to say, "...look at the advantages of getting a commercial rating
(sic) instead of instrument...if you fly for 'fun', i.e. day trips or just getting out to
see the sunset, as opposed to 'destination' flying, the time and expense to get the
instrument ticket may not be justified, even though 'everyone' says it adds to a pilot's
skill base. What about the skills required for a commercial rating (sic)? Would that be
more useful if the reality is you won't be flying IFR? And how many IFR pilots actually
maintain currency by normal flying and don't need a six month refresher?"All good
points, Marc. And I particularly like the way you express the difference between "day
trips" and "destination" flying.
Now back to Mike Busch's idea regarding certification. He lists his reasoning for the
elimination of the commercial certificate as follows.
- I bet you could count the number of bizjet captains who DON'T have an ATP on the fingers
of one hand. It may not be required by the FAA, but it's a defacto requirement of the
industry. (Would you put your $20 million machine in the hands of someone who
hasn't cleared the FAA's highest bar?)
- A commercial pilot can't fly Part 135 without jumping through hoops and taking
checkrides to get and stay 135 approved. Given that, what's the purpose of the commercial
ticket other than just excess baggage?
- I see nothing wrong with a private pilot serving as second-in-command of a two-pilot
aircraft, provided he meets the requisite currency requirements. If the SIC doesn't need
to be type-rated, he sure doesn't need to hold a commercial.
- Here's my main gripe: When is the last time you saw a fly-for-hire pilot fly a chandelle
or lazy eight or eight-on-pylon, other than to instruct another pilot for the purposes of
passing that silly commercial checkride? (Maybe ag pilots need this stuff, but if so
that's an argument for an "ag rating," not for a generic commercial
certificate.) The stuff you learn for the private and instrument checkrides is stuff
you'll use throughout your flying career. The ATP involves basically nothing new
just have to do the old stuff better and smoother. The commercial PTS basically has no
connection with the reality of what a fly-for-hire pilot has to know or do. What possible
function is served by making pilots learn stuff that they'll use only to pass a checkride
and then never do again for the rest of their flying career?
I differ with Mike in that the purpose of the commercial maneuvers is to make a pilot
more precise and smooth in his/her manipulation of the aircraft, and they do just that.
For this reason I'm inclined to agree with Marc Sabanski who says the commercial will do
more for a pilot's basic airmanship skills than the instrument. Precision and smoothness
is certainly a desirable attribute for a fly-for-hire pilot to have, don't you agree?
There is an entirely different class of aviators. These are, of course, those whom I am
pleased to refer to as "rating collectors." They are pilots who simply want to
see a lot of words on their pilot certificates. As a Designated Pilot Examiner I once
wrote a certificate for a pilot that required four pages to list all his ratings
and type ratings for the aircraft he was authorized to fly. There is no way this guy could
possibly keep current in all the aircraft listed on his certificate. I suppose he was just
on an ego trip to see if he could make some kind of record. This pilot, an air carrier
senior captain, is certainly not alone. There are lots of pilots who seek higher and
higher certification simply because it is there, and they want to meet some kind of
challenge, useful or not. I'm not criticizing them. If this is what turns them on, more
power to 'em.
I enjoy getting email and I answer all of it, but if you have a comment about this
column, please share it with other readers. If you have a question, odds are many others
(too shy to speak up) do as well. So, I encourage you to post your comments and questions
using the "Post your thoughts about the column" link below, rather than emailing
me directly. I'll respond to your posting promptly, and others will be able to benefit
from the exchange as well. Thanks!