Your IFR Ticket: The First Year

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Your knowledge and skills are at a peak when you take your checkride. Putting them to use right away will help make IFR flying rewarding and enjoyable.

Sure it's a cliche, but examiners still occasionally offer the comment as they hand over the temporary IFR certificate to the newly minted instrument pilot: "Here's your ticket to learn." The implication is that while the applicant has passed the FAA requirements, there is much more to mastering this new environment.

The first year following the momentous event is a critical one. For too many pilots, the check ride represents a high point in skills and knowledge. It shouldn't be. Earning the instrument rating is a milestone in aviation professionalism and for most, it's a launching pad to more capability and enjoyment in the sky.

How pilots approach the first year may make a lot of difference in their overall enjoyment of flight and whether they stick with it for the long run. Having lived through the period myself (albeit 40 years ago), and having taught the instrument students for 37 of those years, I have a few observations that may prove helpful.

For some, moving forward in the IFR world after obtaining the privilege may be inhibited by a lack of confidence. Perhaps they ventured forth and scared themselves at some point. We'll examine three aspects of the IFR environment to help you understand some of the difficulties in dealing with the wet world above.

Where Did You Train?

An impediment to confidence may be where you earned your rating. The Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes or the Northeast provides ample opportunity to gain experience in "actual" conditions. Having flown in clouds during training seems to matter when it comes to overall confidence upon completing the rating. The reality of being irrevocably committed to the elements has great psychological implications.

Whether you have previously done it or not, getting some time going up and coming down through a benign overcast is an excellent learning experience and huge confidence builder. It starts you well on the way to developing reflexes for "reading" weather and making informed choices. All experience counts.

The "Second Solo"

One excellent aspect of the benign overcast is the ability to achieve what is sometimes called "the second solo," the first time you fly an approach down through the clouds without the hand of god (the instructor) sitting beside you.

My 'second solo' was the ILS 10 into Monterey, California. It was a perfect set-up for the short flight out of San Jose in a new Piper Saratoga with a bunch of guys for a Saturday breakfast. Ceiling and visibility were conveniently reported at minimums. Needless to say, I kept the needles centered but almost flew right into the runway. The "rest of the story" is for another day.

Having others in the airplane on that first IFR flight is not necessarily a good idea.

Become a Student of Weather

Becoming a seasoned IFR pilot is to be a student of the weather. To ramp up the learning curve, plan mock flights to places forecast to get some poor weather. Then, with your computer, watch the METARs each hour during the course of your imaginary flight. Look at the weather depiction charts and NEXRAD along your route. Check for pilot reports.

If you're nervous about flying actual, don't be hesitant to take an instructor along as you build experience. At first, avoid putting your non-CFII flying buddy in the right seat. Two can get into trouble twice as quickly as one.

By the Numbers

You know the fundamentals of pitch + power = performance and calibrating the aircraft for your IFR flights. It is the second critical aspect of IFR competency. In the clouds, simply keep using that skill, you'll be impressed how it makes flying in the clag easier.

When you move up to a faster airplane, make sure your checkout includes the pitch, power and performance numbers so you can transition to IFR in a seamless manner instead of feeling as if you're constantly behind the airplane.

In the System

The third aspect of becoming a 'seasoned' IFR pilot is the ability to use ATC to your advantage. The controllers are there to assist you, the PIC (really). Intellectually, you know that, already. The next step is to internalize it.

If you live in a terminal area, get a scanner, tune in ATC and listen to the banter, especially during bad weather. With your enroute chart and approach plates spread out on the kitchen table, you should be able to follow various flights as they arrive and depart.

Fly every flight that you can "in the system." The more you use it, the more comfortable it becomes.

The three sisters of IFR competence are being able to 'read' the weather, understand the ATC system, and fly the airplane 'by the numbers.' Challenge yourself to address each of these to become a competent IFR pilot. That you subscribe to IFR Refresher is a strong indicator of your commitment.

Ted Spitzmiller is a long-time CFII, aviation author and the editor of IFR Refresher Magazine

You Worked Hard For the Rating, Go Use It

You've earned the "thinking" rating, now go get it wet. Believe it or not, right now your instrument competency is better than it may be again for years. While that is a scary thought on one hand, what's important is that right now is the perfect time to start building confidence flying actual IFR.

The three pieces of IFR competency are understanding weather, working with

ATC and being able to fly the airplane accurately. You can do the first two now, continuing to practice will make those even better and experience will build your weather knowledge.

So, go file and fly IFR on a day when you can get time in the clouds and break out comfortably high on the approach plus have a good alternate. Feel and remember every movement of it and replay it afterward. Then go do it again. And again. You'll love it. -–Rick Durden

Rick Durden is the Features/News Editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot's Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vol. I.

This article and sidebar originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of IFR Refresher Magazine.