The Instrument Rating

Today, on June 24, 2002, I earned my instrument rating, nine months and two weeks after I started studying for it back in September. In many ways, earning this rating has been far more difficult than the private pilot's license I earned a couple of years before.

But why was it so hard? What's so difficult about this new rating, and what does it give me that I didn't have before? Why should I have worked so hard to achieve it? After all, wasn't I already a licensed pilot?

I have found, over the past nine months, that it is very difficult to explain to people what it means to be working on an instrument rating, or what an instrument rating even is.

It's not at all obvious. Aren't the instruments fundamental? How can a pilot fly at all, someone will ask me, if he's not rated to use the instruments? But that's not what an instrument rating means. It's not that I wasn't trained to read the instruments before; the "instruments" that the rating refers to are the same instruments that I have been using all along, although some of them are more important to me now than they used to be.

The actual answer is that having an instrument rating entitles me to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), instead of only under the simpler Visual Flight Rules (VFR). But this answer sheds no light.

The best explanation I have found for the non-pilot is that an instrument rating allows me to fly through clouds or fog, which I wasn't allowed to do previously. This is a horrible oversimplification, but it will have to do.

Most people who have not studied aviation have never heard of the distinction between VFR and IFR. In fact, most people are surprised to learn that anything like VFR flight even exists. They are used to the idea, from movies and television I suppose, that planes must fly from airport to airport under the constant supervision and guidance of the air traffic controllers, the ultimate authorities over the air. The very name "controller" implies a supreme power. Pilots must ask controllers for clearance before they can do anything, and a controller might require a pilot to enter a lengthy holding pattern before landing or even divert to an alternate airport.

That's the popular conception of air travel, and it's not that far off from the way IFR flight actually works. But the vast majority of flights are actually operated under VFR, a much simpler set of rules with no controllers required. People are often surprised to learn that a pilot may freely climb into a plane, slam the door, and proceed to fly wherever he chooses without saying a word about it to anyone or even turning on a radio. But should this really surprise us? After all, it is exactly the same freedom we enjoy when driving our cars.

Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, even complained, "Why is it they allow any plane, to fly any place . . . and no one knows who they are? So I can get a plane and I can fly from California to here, and not one person in Chicago knows about it?" He was responding to a general paranoia about airplanes since the 9/11 disaster, and he was arguing to keep VFR flight permanently forbidden over Chicago. The general feeling, however misguided, is that controllers are needed to keep a watchful eye on the pilots in the sky; any flight not supervised by a controller is inherently unsafe to citizens on the ground.

But that's not the controllers' jobs. In fact, at the heart of it they have only one job: to keep pilots who are unable to see where they're going from running into each other. Their authority over pilots only extends that far; the pilot in command always has the final authority to do whatever he may need to do, should the situation demand it.

Every pilot learns VFR flight first. Learning VFR flight is learning to control the airplane itself; that is, making smooth takeoffs and landings, coordinated banked turns, and controlled straight-and-level flight. It's about flying a standard traffic pattern when landing at an airport, and about navigating from point A to point B without getting lost, and without running out of fuel along the way. It's also about not running into anything, and just like driving a car, the best defense against running into something is to watch where you're going. You're responsible for keeping your own eyes pointed out the windshield so you don't hit a mountain or another plane.

For most pilots, that's good enough. Most pilots are not instrument rated, so they fly VFR exclusively. This means they can only fly when the visibility is reasonably good, and they must stay away from clouds, because they have to be able to see where they're going. Generally, these are the days you'd want to go flying anyway.

Sometimes, though, you really want to get from point A to point B, and there happens to be a layer of clouds in the way. This has happened to me more than once, and this is when you do need an instrument rating. If you don't have one, your choices are either to (a) wait for better weather, or (b) find some alternate transportation.

If you do have an instrument rating, you can file IFR. This means you must first tell the controllers where you want to go, how you plan to get there, and what time you want to leave. They'll make sure there isn't any other IFR traffic that conflicts with your plan, and send you on your way. Now you can fly confidently through that cloud in front of you, knowing there won't be someone else coming through it going the other direction.

Well, what's so hard about that? There is a bit more to it. It's also about learning to follow complex procedures, for instance to navigate down to a landing when your destination airport is under a low overcast. Even with an instrument rating, you can't land on the instruments alone; they're not precise enough. (Even the airlines won't attempt a landing when the ground visibility is too poor.) Instead, you use the instruments to navigate close enough to the airport that you can see the runway, and then you land visually. But to safely get that close to the ground in foggy conditions, you need to be able to follow a complex procedure, unique to each airport, that involves unequivocally identifying waypoints, holding specific altitudes, and making finely-controlled descents.

It's also about simply controlling the airplane when you can't see the horizon. This is surprisingly difficult at first. We humans are land-based creatures, and all of our internal movement senses--including our fundamental sense of which way is up--start from the assumption that we're connected to the earth. Once you break that connection, these senses get terribly confused, and they give our brains all sorts of misinformation. But our visual sense is strong enough that, as long as we can see the horizon, we can maintain a good sense of "up," in spite of the other senses. Once you take away the horizon, the other senses start to become heard, and you may start to believe you're entering a left climbing turn, for instance, even though you're actually flying straight and level. If you succumb to that belief, you might unknowingly put yourself into a right downward spiral while simultaneously congratulating yourself for successfully recovering to straight-and-level flight.

Finally, it's about accurate radio navigation: knowing how to tune and use your electronic navigation equipment, and keeping that "on-course" needle centered. When you are flying through a cloud, you can't just look down and follow landmarks on the ground to get to where you're going; you must rely solely on your radio navigation equipment. This is particularly important when you need to navigate through a pass between two mountain peaks, for instance. A VFR pilot can make use of an airplane's navigation equipment, too, but for a VFR pilot it's just a helpful tool, not essential.

Imagine you are driving your car to a friend's house. Within your car you have a speedometer, an odometer, a fuel gauge, and a few other useful instruments, but most of your essential information comes to you through the windshield: the view outside. Suppose your car also has a fancy GPS unit with a moving map display. This is helpful, but not essential; you can get to your destination without it, since you have a paper map and you can read street signs. Now imagine that all of your windows, including the front windshield, have been painted solid white. You can't see a thing outside your car, and the only thing you have to tell you where you're going is your moving GPS map and your odometer. You'd have to place an absurd amount of trust in that GPS unit to try to drive anywhere now. The analogy isn't perfect, but it does give a sense of what it's like to fly within a cloud.

This is where the "instrument" in instrument rating comes from. To safely fly in conditions where you cannot see outside, you must have the discipline to ignore your bodily senses, and consider only the instruments. You must scan your instruments continually, correcting deviations as soon as they occur, not several seconds later; and you must also check the instruments against each other (there is some redundancy), to guard against the possibility of the mechanical failure of one or more of your instruments. And you must keep all this up while you are also dividing your attention among other tasks, like unfolding charts or copying down a clearance. It is very mentally demanding to do all this for long. It is rare that a pilot will fly in IFR conditions just for the joy of flying, but it is very good to have the skill to deal with IFR conditions should they arise.

That brings us to one more reason to seek an instrument rating: all this practice on control in instrument weather conditions gives a pilot better control of the airplane in any conditions, including when visibility is good. Statistically, an instrument-rated pilot is a safer pilot, even if he never files an IFR flight plan. In one study, instrument-rated pilots were found to be only 65% as likely to experience an accident in VFR conditions as non-instrument-rated pilots. Should the pilots encounter instrument conditions (something which a VFR pilot should never do, but it does happen), the accident rate for instrument-rated pilots drops to 12% of that for non-instrument-rated pilots.

When I was first studying to be a pilot, the people I talked to were very excited to hear about it. "Oh, you're learning to fly? Wow! What's it like? I could never do that!" Everyone had some idea of what it meant to be a pilot, and most people thought it was terribly exciting or romantic.

The political climate changed drastically by the time I started my instrument training. By an unfortunate coincidence, the first day of my instrument class was September 11, 2001. On that day the romantic image of flight evaporated.

Thereafter, when I told people I was learning to fly, the response was usually just "oh." Followed by an embarrassed silence. Sometimes they would make a weak joke about learning to fly into buildings. It was embarrassing for me to be seen in public with my pilot textbook; I felt like strangers were watching me sidelong in suspicion.

It didn't help that the government prohibited all VFR flight for several weeks following the disaster. Never mind that the tragedy involved major airliners on an IFR flight plan; now, small VFR aircraft were the ones not to be trusted back into the air. Since all of our instrument training flights must be VFR (as instrument students, we couldn't yet file IFR), this made it difficult to practice. The whole thing was really pretty discouraging.

The tragedy of 9/11 has changed the world in so many ways, and I don't mean to minimize its importance to all of us. But it would be still another tragedy to blame aviation itself, the triumph of mankind's yearning towards the sky, for the destruction that occurred on that day.

Fortunately, by now the tensions have relaxed somewhat. VFR flight is once again permitted in most places, including Chicago; and people are beginning to recover some enthusiasm for the romance of flight. Now all I have to contend with is people's confusion about what an instrument rating means, exactly.

And now I have an instrument rating myself. After all this preparation, all the studying and all the practice, the actual practical test (as it is called by the FAA) was rather anticlimactic. All I had to do was more of the same procedures I'd spent the past several months doing over and over again, but this time there was an FAA examiner in the right seat watching me and taking notes.

After about an hour of oral questioning and two hours demonstrating my skills in the air, there I was, for the second time in my life, watching an FAA examiner fill out a "Temporary Airman Certificate" in triplicate on a manual typewriter (the permanent certificate will arrive in the mail later). This time, my certificate includes the words "instrument rating."

So here I am: David Rose, pilot, instrument rated. I have worked hard to achieve this, and what do I have now that I didn't have before? I can confidently plan a weekend with my wife at Big Bear or Santa Barbara, knowing I'll be able to get there and back home again even if a cloud layer should happen to settle over the airport. I can plan a long cross-country trip weeks in advance without worrying too much about waking up to clear skies on the day of travel. And I do feel I'm a more confident, capable pilot in general, even when the weather is good.

Who knows? Maybe I'll even fly my plane from California to Chicago one day. Just don't tell the mayor I'm coming.

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