As a CFII, I come across various reasons students want an IFR rating. The one that worried me the most was, “so I won’t be held up by weather flying home.” What I hoped to hear was, “I think it will make me a more proficient pilot.” That my friends is a reasonable request. An IFR rating does not make you invincible. In fact, I’m going to upset some people here, I don’t think everyone should get an IFR rating. It’s hazardous when paired with certain personality types. Before you get upset and quit reading, let me share some cold hard numbers with you. In this post I’m going to help answer two questions, are IFR rated pilots safer and is an IFR rating right for you.
What Is IFR?
First, let me clarify what “IFR” means. IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. These are the FAA regulations that kick in when weather drops below certain minimums or when an IFR pilot files and instrument flight plan. Airspace and air traffic control (ATC) are designed around IFR traffic. This is something a lot of pilots don’t fully understand. A pilot operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) is expected to SEE and AVOID traffic. IFR flights are assumed to need separation from each other because the pilots may not be able to see and avoid.
Flying IFR doesn’t necessarily mean the weather is IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions). It means you are on an instrument flight plan. Another common term, “actual IFR” would mean an IFR flight plan in IMC weather. This is where the weather is bad enough that you have to fly solely by reference to your instruments.
The truth is, once the training hood is put away, there are a lot of variations on what you can and can’t see. Sometimes you wish you couldn’t see anything…
But there is more to know about IMC weather. Things like turbulence and ice. These aren’t listed in the FAA regs, but they are part of your considerations as an IFR rated pilot planning a flight into known weather.
I often told my newly minted IFR students to find another experienced pilot or instructor to fly with them into weather until they’ve gotten some experience of their own. That new certificate really is a license to learn new skills.
So, do you need an IFR rating?
This is an individual question. A better question is should you get one? This rating allows you the flexibility to fly in reduced visibility and at flight levels. Is this kind of flying something you would do? Is your airplane capable? Are you the kind of pilot who regularly struggles with “get-home-itis?”
I once knew a private pilot who traveled a lot in his plane. I asked him if he’d thought about taking the next step and getting his instrument rating. His answer, “I’m too distracted and tend to “push” when I should cancel. An IFR rating would set me up for trouble.” I admired his self-awareness. And, he’s still alive.
I’ve found the benefits of an IFR rating to be the following:
- Flexibility to fly in a variety of conditions and airspace, such as Class A.
- Safety in situations, such as marginal VFR, where ATC services can provide separation and radar. Additionally, it will improve your instrument skills making you a more proficient pilot in VMC or IMC conditions. VMC night flying is a good example.
- Personal challenge to improve your knowledge and skills. As you work toward an IFR rating you’ll come to understand ATC and airspace as never before. You will also handle a plane to more exacting standards with a finer touch.
Does it make you safer?
Not necessarily. The stats used to support that IFR pilots were safer, but that has shifted. While VFR rated pilots are 4.8x more likely than IFR pilots to be involved in a weather related accident (NTSB 2005), IFR pilots have equal or higher fatal accident rates in others. For example, IFR pilots have a lower fatality rate on stall/spin/loss of control incidents, yet have a 6x higher fatality rate of mid-air collisions under VMC (study by Dr. Douglas Boyd and Sally Sims).
I was stunned by these statistics. When I first read them, I wasn’t even sure what to make of the information. That said, awareness of hazard areas is information you can use. More simply, if you understand what situations tend to bite IFR rated pilots, you can be more cautious about approaching them. Of course with fatal accidents the information on what the pilot was thinking is hard to come by. What you can do is ask yourself, am I making the safest decisions right now? Am I being vigilant?
A Canadian study found that the 50-100 hours after IFR rating had the highest accident rate. What does this tell us? I can’t say for sure, but my guess is they haven’t had enough experience to stay out of trouble. Back to my advice to fly with a safety pilot for a while. I wish this statistic shared in what phase of flight these accidents occurred.
Back to my initial thoughts….
Instrument training teaches precision and you will become more technically proficient. Overall I’m a big proponent of IFR ratings.
Proficient doesn’t always mean safer. Safety requires more than skill. It has to do with the human condition. The body and the mind. Airplanes are machines, you aren’t. You’re a human with wants, needs, and fears. Your body and mind need to be in top condition every time you get in the left seat, especially in lousy weather. Or in VMC when you need to resist the urge to focus on instruments when you should be looking outside so that you don’t become on of those 6x higher statistics. Also keep in mind there was someone in the other plane in each of those accidents. Tragic.
If you can focus under stress, face the disappointment of scrubbing a flight home, and motivate yourself to keep learning even after your check-ride, then an IFR rating may be right for you.
As I step off my soapbox, I want to reiterate that the rating is a minimum, it’s a good idea to fly with an experienced pilot for a while to gain experience.
If you decide to earn your IFR rating, you will need to maintain currency. Yes, you can log time and approaches per FAR 61.57(c), but consider hiring a CFII to fly with you for a tune up each cycle, even if you don’t have them sign off a currency check. Think of it as investing in yourself. Have fun with it, and see if you can hone some new skills. There is nothing wrong with doing something extra. Also look into the WINGS program for IFR specific options.
I hope that you find this casual post insightful. Sometimes I feel it’s constructive to step back from regulations and talk about what it is to be a human. Albeit a special kind of human…because we’re pilots 🙂
Erika Wiggins, CFII, MEI