Getting It Wet

You spent a lot of time and money getting your instrument rating. What’s next?


Congrats on your new instrument rating! You’ve spent a lot of time, money and energy accomplishing something only a very small portion of the overall population ever will. With your well-earned privilege comes great responsibility and flexibility in your flying, and possibly a rung in the ladder to some additional certificates. The thing is, though—perhaps more so than even the private certificate—the instrument rating pretty much nails the common definition of being a “license to learn.”

That’s a paradox in some ways, since on one hand you’ll rarely be more legally current to file and fly IFR. On another hand, even if you did most of your instrument training in actual conditions instead of simulated, the rest of your IFR flying will be completely different. Why? Because you’re now on your own, for ill or for good, and there’s no double-I looking over your shoulder.

Since you’ve yet to fly IFR solo or as pilot-in-command, what comes next? How will you begin to use the rating, and under what circumstances? Have you thought about how you’ll maintain currency? And just because you’re now legal and presumably safe to go blasting off into low overcasts and shoot approaches to 200 and a half, should you? Maybe.

No Virtue In Virginity

The thing about the rating is that you have to use it to have it, since specific recent-experience requirements are imposed on instrument flight. “Use it or lose it” rarely is more accurate than when considering the instrument rating. The requirements are not necessarily onerous or difficult, but they do require regularly committing the same resources you employed to get through the checkride: time, energy and money.

So there’s no real benefit in putting off your first flights in actual instrument conditions. In fact, many pilots, once they obtain the rating, join the so-called IFR everywhere club, where anything more than a trip around the traffic pattern calls for filing. And that’s not a bad way to keep learning about the IFR system, with which you probably have little experience calling the shots, despite that new piece of paper in your pocket.

Over the long term, we’ve found it impractical, however, at least over familiar territory, to go everywhere on an IFR flight plan. That said, when going someplace we’ve never been before, filing and flying IFR is essential.

The ways you’ll use your new instrument rating depend on a variety of factors, but one thing we’re pretty sure about is that having it will change how you fly, and probably in ways you never thought about. That day trip to visit Mom likely is a lot less uncertain now, for example, thanks to your ability to essentially discard any concerns about low ceilings at either end. In fact, day trips of any kind now are more feasible, since you’ve just eliminated all but the worst weather from the equation when calculating if you can get back home and be at work tomorrow.

At some point, though, you’ve got to take a deep breath, put on your adult underwear and go lose that IFR-without-an-instructor virginity you’ve been storing up.

Not Just IFR, But IFR

Let’s clarify something: There’s a big difference between filing and flying IFR on a good-weather day and doing it when the ducks are walking because it’s too bad even for them. My logbook doesn’t reflect whether or not I filed, but the several flights I made in the first weeks after earning the rating presented ample opportunities to file IFR as PIC, and I logged simulated IMC on a few of them. By the time of my first flight in IMC as PIC, I had flown a couple of hours under the hood, to keep my hand in. So we should make a distinction between filing and flying IFR, and doing so in real IMC.

The punchline is that your first IFR flight doesn’t have to be in IMC. There’s great value in just filing and flying IFR in severe clear—all by yourself, if needed—and doing so is a great way to make your first IFR flight as PIC. One of the obvious-to-us variables you should think about is how much time you’ve spent in actual IMC with your double-I or someone else. Recognizing that some locations simply don’t offer instrument conditions except in rare circumstances, we nonetheless strongly advocate training in IMC. And this discussion of getting your new instrument ticket wet is one reason why.

Without having flown before in instrument conditions as a student, we think it’s a bad idea to make your first flight in IMC without another instrument-rated pilot aboard. Ideally, your double-I would have picked a few relatively benign weather situations to put you in cloud or low visibility—preferably both—before turning you loose for your checkride. I don’t recall how much actual IMC I had logged before mine, but there are a couple of logbook entries that include some real IMC. I also don’t recall shooting any approaches to minimums in IMC as an instrument student, but that’s not the full point.

Real IMC is substantially different than when, say, wearing a hood or Foggles. For one, there’s always that little bit of the sky or ground you can see with your peripheral vision, or the way shadows shift across the instrument panel, that provide clues to the airplane’s attitude when simulating IMC. There can be little of that, if any, in the real thing. If you’re not familiar with that nuance, or you’ve been cheating a bit to get through the hood time, you may have difficulty the first time. Too, the realization that you can’t see the ground and getting back to it in one piece is all on you might come as a bit of a shock. We hope not.

If you’ve not flown in IMC before getting your rating—and you don’t live in Hawaii—track down your double-I and smack him or her over the head with a rolled-up en route chart (if you can find one).

Current And Proficient

Thinking a bit beyond your first IFR flight, how do you intend to stay current on instruments? Right after the checkride, you might be as proficient as you can be. But maintaining that skill level requires practice, and you’re no longer in the more-structured environment of flying regularly with a double-I for the express purpose of learning and practicing how to fly instruments. How do you plan to keep that edge?

The quick answer is you need to fly a lot. Looking back through my logbook, I was flying airplanes from two different clubs, plus with the odd friend in his or hers. Most important, one of my favorite pilot-friends was a retired USAF instructor pilot and civilian CFI-I. He liked shooting approaches as much as I did, and we had some epic hood sessions together. When I needed an endorsement, I paid him for his time, but we mostly just flew a lot together. Thankfully, he was in one of the same clubs as I was so, in many ways, we were able to kill two birds with the one stone.

Having access to a range of airplanes from different sources was a big help. Not only is scheduling your plans easier, but you’re exposed to that many more pilots, many of who are in the same situation—trying to maintain instrument currency as effectively and inexpensively as possible. So it’s often a no-brainer that you fly together, switching off as safety pilot, with a couple of like-minded members from the club(s). Flying clubs aren’t for everyone, of course. On the other hand, neither is the…rigidity of renting from an FBO all the time.

Meanwhile, there’s a difference between training and practicing to get through the instrument checkride, and operating in the real world. Even if you fly a lot and you always go IFR to get from A to B, it’s not at all uncommon to see six months go by without six hours or six approaches in the logbook. An instrument proficiency check is one solution, but so is putting in the time and effort to not need one. So the kind of flying you do with a safety pilot needs to be thought through to maximize the airplane’s use and leverage your safety pilot’s experience.

One of the secrets about instrument flying is that we’re rarely on the gauges throughout the flight. Even if it’s 300 and one at both ends of the trip, we’re likely in bright sunshine while cruising at altitude. While that’s good experience, it’s not the kind we really need to stay sharp on instruments. To me, the best bang for the buck is to just go out and shoot approaches for an hour. If ATC isn’t too busy, you can knock down four or five in an hour. Land, switch seats, rinse, repeat.

Finally, don’t leave simulators out of your equation, even those on which you can’t log the time. With the right accessories—and often without them—a flight simulation like X-Plane can help you re-establish and hone the procedures needed to fly consistently smooth IFR, even while previewing next week’s planned arrival at an airport you’ve never visited before. And approved simulators with the right instructors, scenarios and price often can offer far better bang for the buck than the real thing.

Dipping Your Toe

Putting aside the weather conditions, when, where and how you fly your first IFR jaunt as PIC can be important. On one hand, there’s an unassailable logic associated with your first IFR flight being to and from the same airports and using the same approaches you flew during your training. After all, you already know them, they’re likely close to your home base and they won’t require much planning. Using the same facilities at which you trained can be rather boring, but maybe that’s a good thing. Only you can decide what’s appropriate (and you shouldn’t let anyone else decide for you).

We don’t always have to have a mission in mind for our first for-real IFR foray. That flight can be a simple round-robin to nearby airports and back, or a lengthier example of how we intend to use the rating. On the other hand, one feature of the instrument rating is how the greater confidence it affords can open up a whole new set of circumstances for you. Why not capitalize on these new opportunities immediately? You’ll have ample time to fly your normal routes with your new ticket later; go do something new.

Again, congratulations.

Personal Minimums?

A lot of people might recommend that, until you get some experience as a new instrument pilot, you formally adopt some kind of personal restrictions that are higher than those legally allowed, not unlike how the airlines place a newly rated pilot on “high minimums” status. You certainly can do that, but we prefer a more nuanced approach, since the real world rarely fits into an artificial framework.

One idea of personal minimums might be adopting a policy against anything lower than, say, 500-foot ceilings and/or two miles’ visibility. We find that a bit shortsighted, since variables like turbulence or crosswinds, thunderstorms and icing, night operations and the familiarity you have with the airplane, the route and the airports also should be factors, along with a bunch of other stuff. As an IFR rookie, we’d be much more sanguine about shooting an ILS or LPV to 200-foot minimums in calm winds with good daytime VFR underneath than if we were trying to get into a remote, unfamiliar airport at night with showery precipitation all around.

Our point is that adopting hard “rules” against specific examples isn’t as productive as considering the relative risks posed by a potential flight and how many challenges you’re going to accept at the same time. Don’t stack the deck against yourself just because it’s legal to do so.

When I Got Mine Wet

Image: Aleksander Markin

When did I earn my instrument rating? Let’s just say it was before GPS. What is now one of the busiest airports in the U.S. was Practice Approach Capital of the World, and it seems that, for a few months, I spent more time over the outer marker (remember those?) for Runway 1R than I did sleeping. Other than about two hours of hood time, it was four months after passing my checkride before I used my instrument rating in anger.

I was flogging a Cessna 172N Skyhawk southwest from the Washington, D.C., area to Asheville, N.C. Departure weather was fine, but there was a front moving in from the west, and with it a headwind, ushering in a dark and stormy night. The 160-hp ’hawk’s DME must have been showing highway numbers, as I logged 3.9 hours before needing to stop for fuel in Hickory, N.C. Since the airplane only carried five hours of gas, and I logged yet another hour getting to Asheville, it was a prudent move.

I had to shoot the ILS to near-minimums to get into Hickory, where the fuel guy and I heard arriving traffic before we could see it. After topping off, I launched on the final leg. At night, over the mountains, in a piston single, hand-flying in hard IFR. I was on the gauges from the moment I lifted off from Hickory into the dark night to breaking out on the backcourse localizer at Asheville. The airplane was solid, I was as instrument-proficient as I could be, I knew the route and, after topping the tanks, I had plenty of options, including going most of the way back home. Your first for-real IFR flight needn’t be as dramatic.

Getting Practice Without A Safety Pilot

Depending on your situation, it may be cumbersome to maintain your instrument currency by only flying simulated IFR with a safety pilot or CFI-I. Again depending, there may be an easy answer: Use actual IFR to practice in and maintain both proficiency and currency. In fact, I welcome certain kinds of instrument conditions as perfect flying weather.

My ideal is something like 800 overcast and 10 miles’ visibility underneath a stratus deck that tops out at, say, 4000 feet AGL. That allows you to take off in decent conditions, enter IMC and maneuver, perhaps to a nearby towered airport, and shoot approaches to your heart’s content. In a couple of hours on such a day or night, you can knock out a significant portion of the six hours and approaches, plus course intercepts, you need to keep ahead of losing currency. Be sure to ask for a hold or two along the way, then land back at home plate and fill out your logbook.

With your new rating, you can do these kinds of proficiency flights all by yourself, or bring along a friend. You’ll likely be doing so at the same airports you used during your training, and everything should be familiar. If approaches aren’t what you need, hand-fly a hundred miles or so out and then back; you’ll get proficient quickly.

Don’t be afraid to use the rating in instrument conditions, even if it’s only practice. The more exposure to the system you get, the better you’ll be.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


  1. Unfortunately there is no requirement to actually fly in IMC to get an instrument rating. If you didn’t get some real cloud time in your training then you are, IMO not competent to fly actual IFR. You must get some real world cloud time with an experienced mentor pilot.

    It is also important that newly rated IFR Pilots understand that the purpose of the IFR training is to pass the flight test not necessarily to teach you how to fly a real world A to B flight.

    Real world IFR flights have a rhythm from departure to en-route to arrival to approach that you need to learn, and that you probably won’t get in your training. Failure to understand the how do I get there from here in going from cruise to final approach track is the root cause of many IFR accidents and something you need to help to learn on real world IFR flights.