Eye of Experience #10:
Who Needs an Instrument Rating?

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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

Eye Of ExperienceThis 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?

Certificates, Ratings, and the FAA

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 weight.

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.

Yes, Virginia, VFR Still Works

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!

Instrument Rating = Improved Skill?

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 pilot.

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.

Heaven Help Us!

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.

Scrap the Commercial?

Now back to Mike Busch's idea regarding certification. He lists his reasoning for the elimination of the commercial certificate as follows.

  1. 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?)
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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…you 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?

The Rating Collectors

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.

What Do You Think?

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!