Once you get your private pilot license (PPL) only one obstacle seems to get continually in the way – clouds. Why you ask? Well, with a PPL you are only allowed to fly in visual conditions. That is, you basically need to see where you are going and the ground below you. Plus, there are legal limits how close you are allowed to fly to a cloud. Well you might say, clouds are fluffy, what does it matter if you fly through one? There are several problems with that, but the most obvious one is that, should somebody else choose to be just as foolhardy, you won’t be able to see each other in time to get out of each other’s way.
Another problem is orientation. It’s very hard to imagine, let alone believe (trust me I speak from experience), you can lose spatial orientation in a cloud. Yet the average survival period of an untrained pilot in instrument meteorological conditions (i.e. seeing basically nothing except grey stuff) is about two minutes. While you can usually rely on your butt telling you which way is down, that doesn’t apply to an aircraft because of centrifugal forces. And changes in attitude can be so gradual that you do not notice if you have no reference point. This is one main aspect of instrument training, to learn to use instruments as your reference point and use them often enough, without losing focus on all the rest that you have to do.
The rest mostly consists of navigating, setting the instruments to use the right navigational aids, flying accordingly, step planning and communicating with ATC (air traffic control). In order to do this properly, a significantly higher level of precision is required for instrument flying than for visual flight rules. When you are allowed to descend to 200ft above ground without seeing anything at all, there isn’t much room for error. Also, while clouds are no longer a problem, thunderstorms and possible icing still are.
Regardless of these caveats, I’m convinced that getting our instrument rating has made our flying safer and more consistent. Plus, we got to go on a lot of trips that wouldn’t have been possible without it.
This is how it went down:
As getting the rating wasn’t possible at Hohenems airport, which isn’t equipped to handle instrument flights, we did our training at Altenrhein, with the Fliegerschule Altenrhein.
The theoretical exam for flying according to instrument flight rules (IFR) is considerably more extensive than the PPL. We used a software called aviationexam.com to prepare for the test. The software has a wide range of questions to practice, along with theoretical information for the answer and a blog for further discussions. It isn’t perfect as there are some questions that are quite unclear, but as a whole it’s a very useful tool. The books I used were the Advanced Pilot’s flight manual by William Kershner and the EASA enroute instrument rating EIR/CBIR by Phil Croucher. For private pilots there are two ways of obtaining an instrument rating – enroute (EIR) and competency-based (CBIR). The enroute version allows you only to fly from and to airports under instrument flight rules but not to take off or land, which has still to be done visually. It is thus pretty much useless if you live in a Central European Country. We chose the other version, the CBIR, in order to get the full benefits of IFR flying. After about a month of studying, we took our theoretical exams in Innsbruck, at the end of January 2018.
Night VFR (visual flight rules)
The next step was to obtain a license for flying at night, still under visual flight rules (VFR). This must be done before you take your IFR exams because this license is also required to use IFR at night. I suppose the reason is that even under IFR, you still have to manually land the plane, and the final part of an IFR flight, i.e. the landing itself (below the decision height), is still done with visual reference points.
It’s actually not a lot of effort to get this rating. It only takes 5 hours of flying with an instructor at night, after that you do a couple of solo circuits at night, no theoretical exam and that’s it. The main difference to flying by day is landing the plane with reference to the lights around you instead of your surroundings (which you obviously can’t see properly because it’s dark outside). Our trainer for this part was young, enthusiastic and a great teacher.
The instrument training was partly done on a flight simulator at Altenrhein and partly with a DA40, a 4 seater Diamond plane with G1000.
Honestly, the time spent in the flight simulator was hard work but excellent training. The primary advantage is that when things take a turn for the worse, you can press pause and analyze the situation. In a real plane you don’t have time for that, you still gotta fly. So you only get the chance to try and reconstruct what went wrong much later when you are back on the ground. And that usually leaves room for some uncertainties. In addition, it’s possible to condense the tough phases of a flight when you use a simulator. You don’t actually need to fly to another airport, a few clicks on the computer are enough. That’s also what makes this type of training so tough – you don’t get much rest in between the difficult sections. Our instructor was nearing retirement, one of the guys who have tons of experience. He was also quite strict, for which we are grateful because it pays to be exact in instrument flying. And we never had any trouble figuring out when he wasn’t happy with our performance 😉
After finishing your training, you take a practical exam, fill out all the necessary forms and then your IFR license is finally mailed to you.
In all, it took us 6 months to complete the steps above – a very intense period, in which we didn’t do much else except work, study and fly (you gotta love the flying though).