Your IFR Ticket
An instrument rating makes every pilot a more knowledgeable, safer pilot. Instrument rated pilots will also be equipped with the aeronautical decision skills to stop and think before you get into a situation where you need to use your instrument flying skills. Attempting VFR flight in IMC is one of the most consistently deadly decisions or mistakes in all of aviation.
History has shown us that weather-related general aviation accidents are often fatal. When pilots cannot see the horizon, spatial disorientation can onset rapidly. When John F. Kennedy, Jr. crashed his Piper Saratoga into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on July 16, 1999, he did not have an instrument rating. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated that Kennedy’s failure to maintain control of the airplane was the result of spatial disorientation, with haze and the dark night being factors.
There really is no downside to getting an instrument rating – just the money and time spent to get it. However, if you are pursuing any career in aviation, an instrument rating is a necessary milestone. If you will be regularly renting an aircraft, or plan to purchase one, you will most likely enjoy lowered insurance rates once you get an instrument rating.
What You Can Do With An Instrument Rating
An instrument rating will allow you to legally fly without the visual reference of the ground or a horizon. In other words, you’ll be able to fly from Point A to Point B without ever looking out your window (except for your take-off and touch-down). You will learn to stay ahead of the aircraft while managing tasks like changing radio frequencies, programming navigation equipment, and briefing and flying approaches, all while continually scanning your instrument panel.
Flight Training Requirements for Instrument Rating
Before you can take an instrument rating checkride, you must meet certain requirements and have logged certain training. One of the first questions that may come up on your instrument rating checkride may be about flight training requirements. The examiner will want to know that you met the requirements and that you understand them. IFR rating requirements can be found in 14 CFR § 61.65 §. To summarize, to apply for an instrument rating, you must:
(1) Already have a private pilot certificate, or be concurrently applying for a private pilot certificate with your instrument rating.
(2) Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
(3) Complete and log ground training with an authorized instructor – Instrument Ground Instructor (IGI) or Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument (CFII) – or accomplish a ground school home study course.
(4) Have a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor (IGI or CFII) certifying that you are prepared to take the knowledge test
(5) Receive and log required training in an aircraft, full flight simulator, or flight training device, including:
- 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command
- Forty hours of actual or simulated instrument time, including 15 hours must have been received from an authorized instructor
- Three hours of instrument flight training within two calendar months before the check ride
- A cross country flight of 250 nautical miles, that includes an instrument approach at each airport, and three different kinds of approaches (for example, VOR, ILS, GPS)
(6) Receive a logbook endorsement from an authorized instructor certifying that you are prepared to take the required practical test;
(7) Pass the knowledge test (unless you already have an instrument rating in another category (helicopter or powered-lift)
(8) Pass the required practical test.
Which is Harder: Private Pilot Certificate or Instrument Rating?
Talk to a few veteran instructors, airline, or corporate pilots, and some will tell you getting their instrument rating was the hardest part of their flight training. Others will tell you it was the easiest. Instrument flying takes a unique set of skills, including multitasking, problem-solving, and time management. Pilots must be able to make decisions quickly and with confidence. Some people adapt and learn instrument flying skills more easily than others. Instrument flying is more about intellectual skills and systems management, VFR flying is more about the kinesthetic skill of flying the plane.
Instrument Rating Ground School
Instrument Rating ground school will get you ready for flight training and help you understand the tools and equipment you will be using to plan your flights and actually fly:
- Approach Plates: These are official procedures for transitioning from a flight to land at an airport when operating a flight under instrument flight rules (IFR). they may include things such as airport lighting to look for, headings to fly, equipment to use, and speeds, and depict topographic features, hazards, and obstructions. Ground school will help you learn how to read and review approach plates.
- Departures & Arrival Procedures: Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) and Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STARs) are published. Part of a clearance may include a SID or a STAR, and pilots must be comfortable finding, briefing, and flying them.
- En Route Charts: After you spent so much time learning VFR sectional charts for your private pilot checkride, you will now be tasked with learning, understanding, and explaining IFR en route charts. These charts depict point-to-point distances on the airway system and altitudes like minimum en route altitude (MEA), minimum obstruction clearance altitude (MOCA), and minimum crossing altitude (MCA).
Tip: IFR En-route charts are revised every 56 days, so make sure yours are current.
- Flight Instruments: You will learn the specific instruments your aircraft must have to be IFR legal (91.205 (d)), and how they work. You’ll also learn what to do if one of several of them fail in flight.
- Flight Planning: You will learn the considerations you’ll make for IFR flight, such as selecting altitudes, and how you’ll determine if the weather will be good for your flight. You will also learn about AIRMETS (Zulu=Icing, Tango=Turbulence, and Sierra=Mountain Obscuration). You’ll learn about SIGMETS (convective and non-convective) and how things like dust storms and volcanic ash can be extremely dangerous.
- Holding Patterns: You will learn the three holding pattern entry procedures, standard altitude blocks, airspeeds, wind correction, and timing.
- Weather: You will learn about applicable meteorology for IFR flight planning, acceptable sources of weather data (reports and forecasts), and how to identify, assess, and mitigate risks.
Choosing a good ground school, and taking the time to learn and understand everything will be extremely beneficial when you start flight training.
The Instrument Rating Knowledge Test
Like the private pilot certification, the instrument rating includes a knowledge test component (a computerized exam). The IRA (Instrument Rating Airplane) knowledge test is historically a challenging FAA knowledge test to take, with a lower pass rate than other FAA exams. You will have 2 hours and 30 minutes to take this 60 question test.
Although you only need a 70% score to pass, you should strive for the best possible score. The FAA has placed emphasis on examiners asking checkride candidates about missed knowledge test questions. Unlike other knowledge tests that do not require an endorsement (specifically, Fundamentals of Instructing, Flight Instructor Airplane, and Flight Instructor Instrument Airplane), you do need an endorsement from a CFII or an Instrument Ground Instructor (IGI) to take your Instrument Rating Airplane knowledge test.
Instrument students are well-advised to get this multiple-choice knowledge test out of the way as soon as possible. Once you’ve passed it, you can focus on your flight training and checkride preparation. Many students choose to take their knowledge test before they begin flight training in an airplane. Your CFII can endorse you to take the knowledge test or an endorsement may be provided with the completion of an instrument rating ground school course.
Preparing for an Instrument Rating Checkride
Before you take a checkride, you should take at least one mock checkride, and watch mock checkrides. Going start-to-finish through a full-length oral exam can help you prepare for any question you may be asked. Although you may be asked to learn IFR acronyms like 6-6-HIT (currency) , GRABCARD (equipment), and AVEF MEA (lost communications procedures) in your ground school, practice check rides can help you anticipate what you may be asked so that you can sail through, rather than struggle through.
Breaking Down The Instrument Rating Airman Certification Standards – What You’ll Be Tested On
The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) establishes the aeronautical knowledge, risk management, and skills, and flight proficiency standards for the instrument rating. The ACS will tell you what is on the instrument rating practical test, and what references you can review to prepare, including:
- FAA Risk Management Handbook
- Airplane Flying Handbook
- Instrument Procedures Handbook
- Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.
The Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) cannot ask you about anything that is not covered in the ACS. Your checkride will cover eight different sections of the ACS:
The examiner will ask you about pilot qualifications, weather information, and cross-country flight planning.
The examiner will ask you about airplane systems related to IFR operations, functions of flight instruments and navigation equipment, and how to check instruments in the flight deck. You may be asked about which equipment needs to be inspected regularly, such as your static pressure system.
Air Traffic Control Clearances and Procedures
The examiner will ask you about procedures related to ATC clearances and your knowledge of lost communication procedures for flights that are outside of radar environments. You will also be asked to discuss and demonstrate holding procedures.
Flight by Reference to Instruments
You may be asked to demonstrate your understanding of attitude instrument flying, and demonstrate maintaining altitude and using proper instrument cross-check. The second part of this section is proper recovery from unusual flight attitudes (nose-low and nose-high)
You will be asked to demonstrate your understanding of ATC routes, including intercepting courses, radials, and bearings appropriate to a procedure, route, or clearance.
Instrument Approach Procedures
You will be asked to explain/demonstrate your understanding of non-precision approaches, precision approaches, missed approaches, circling approaches, and landing from an instrument approach.
You will be asked to talk through a simulated loss of communication, and to fly an approach with inaccurate or inoperative flight indicators.
You will demonstrate procedures for checking the functionality of all installed flight instruments and navigation equipment.
Although the ACS is a “testing document,” it is an excellent study document, and reference, for pilots wanting to do Instrument Rating checkride prep. For example, Appendix 10: Abbreviations and Acronyms is a good list of terms you may be asked to explain your understanding of.
Sample IFR Checkride Questions
Can you answer these ten sample instrument rating checkride questions?
- How much cross country flight time as PIC must an applicant for an instrument rating have logged?
- What “recency” requirements are necessary to be PIC of a flight under Instrument Flight Rules?
- What is a composite flight plan?
- How do the altimeter, airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator work?
- What equipment do you need in your aircraft to fly under instrument flight rules?
- What are the limitations of electronic flight bags?
- How long is an AIRMET valid for?
- When is an Instrument Proficiency Check necessary?
- What is the difference between Decision Height and Decision Altitude?
- What is a Minimum Descent Altitude?
What is an Instrument Proficiency Check?
To maintain instrument currency, you must have, within the last six months, logged six instrument approaches, including holding procedures and tasks, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigational electronic systems. If you do not remain current, you must complete an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) before you can fly under Instrument flight rules again. This can be done by a CFI-I, a DPE, or an FAA inspector.
Unlike flight reviews, an instrument proficiency check is only required if your proficiency lapses (see approach currency requirements of 14 CFR 61.57). The FAA encourages pilots and instructors to use IACRA Form 8710-1 for a pilot’s flight review or IPC, but this is optional. The IACRA airman certificate application updates a pilot’s record with the FAA. Regardless of whether IACRA is used, your logbook must be updated.
What’s Next After the Instrument Rating?
For people on a career path to become a flight instructor, corporate pilot, or airline pilot, the commercial pilot certificate is usually the next step after an instrument rating. Some pilots may choose to do their commercial training in a multi-engine aircraft, like a Piper Seneca or Seminole, or may get their commercial pilot certificate in a single-engine aircraft and “add on” a multi-engine rating later.