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Are you ready for the Instrument Rating?

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from IFR Checkride Reviewer, December 2006
CFIDarren Newsletter, December 18, 2010 
IFR Navigation:   General Info Instrument Rating | Instrument Rating Lesson Plans | 7-day IFR Rating IFR Adventure | Instrument Ground School | Safety Pilot | Holding | IFR Risk | Trip Reports | Flight Profiles | Rating Requirements | After the IFR RatingCheckride Reviewer | Are you really ready for an instrument rating?

How do you know if you're ready for the instrument rating?  The short answer is: if you've got the right mindset and the right skill set then you're ready.  The first element, the right mindset, was covered in the companion article: Accelerated Training Programs. This article addresses the practical skills required before undertaking instrument rating training.  There are quite a few hard questions a pilot must ask himself before undertaking a rating which requires such discipline and precision.  The instrument rating is a turning point for the casual flyer -- this rating puts a pilot into the same IFR system that the big boys use.  And the newly instrument rated pilot must perform like the big boys or disaster will surely follow.  

What follows is a discussion of the considerations you will need to explore as you assess your readiness to begin an intense course of study. 

Basic Skills

The very first task for someone seeking an instrument rating is get a ground school or DVD course for learning IFR concepts.  I'm not referring to a "learn-how-to-take-the-written" DVD course, but a real ground school that's going to explain the concepts to a beginner.  Sportys and other vendors have those products available.  As soon as you have a good hold on the basics, get the written out of the way.  There are good written exam test prep resources available in DVD format from King Schools or printed format from Gleim.  After you have the ground school and the FAA written exam completed, start evaluating yourself in terms of practical skills.


What is your motivation in taking instrument rating training?  Are you ready to learn the required skills so you can perform to the FAA's test standards?  If you are, then you're already off to a good start.  Some folks are looking to get by with minimum effort.  Ethical instructors will not likely want to work with that kind of student because of the liability.   Hold no illusion, instrument rating requires a higher level of skill and precision and the reward is better flying skill if you're successful.  Writer Mac McClellan says it perfectly, "flying IFR is about flying with precision at all times."


So more about precision.  What is your level of flying precision?  Can you hold an altitude, heading, airspeed, rate of turn, or rate of descent while VFR?  If you can't do it VFR, there's not much hope that you'll do better with a hood on.  The ultimate test of this is the Bravo Pattern.  Print this page out and take a friend with you to watch for traffic.  Try to execute the pattern VFR and see if you can execute it perfectly.  Sloppy pilots aren't likely to be successful in an IFR training program. 

Are you able to maintain a stabilized approach to a runway?  FAR 91.129 requires pilots to use the visual glide slope whenever a VASI/PAPI is provided.  That's always on a runway with a precision approach.   If you're not able to hold a descent rate which keeps you on the VASI or PAPI, there are significant challenges facing you.  You'll need to develop that skill to maintain an electronic glide slope which then transitions to a visual glide slope for landing.


The IFR system is a series of rules and procedures.  Are you the type that shows up to the airport without the ATIS/AWOS information written down?  Are you the type that makes blind radio calls, "Is anyone in the pattern?"   Are you the type of pilot that shows up at a towered airport without an airport diagram on your kneeboard?  Are you the type that doesn't use an A/FD to help you determine all available information about your flight?  This kind of pilot behaviour hints at an undisciplined approach to flying that leads to limited success in the IFR system.  Lazy pilots who don't enter the pattern properly, take shortcuts, or do just enough to get by, don't make for good instrument pilots.

The Aircraft

What aircraft do you plan to use for your checkride?  Well equipped aircraft with lots of fancy radios & glass cockpits require a better trained pilot to take an instrument checkride.  This can add to your training expense and length of training.  Do you have enough time in that aircraft?  Are you the master of that aircraft?  Are you able to fly it to the standards of the pilot certificate you already hold? 

Nothing puts a stop to an instrument rating than something on the aircraft that doesn't work.  I've experienced it all:  doors that wont open, avionics that don't work, collapsed nose wheel struts, an engine failure, and a cracked main landing gear that the owner never noticed.  Do you want a tip that will save you a lot of money?  Show up with a solid, mechanically sound aircraft.  One that has been through a no-excuses annual might be ideal.  If your avionics don't work, don't bother even trying to get an instrument rating.  If you're lucky to be in the position of purchasing new avionics, stop now and follow this piece of advice:  get a simple panel!  A single garmin 430, with CDI, audio panel and a transponder makes a very simple checkride.  Adding the 2nd comm radio, DME, CD player, etc can come later after your checkride.  Remember, if its installed, your examiner must test it.  So get rid of the ADF!!

Special Emphasis

The FAA has put together a list of items which typically get pilots in trouble.  They called the list "special emphasis" and those items are tested on most checkrides.  Here's is a PARTIAL list of those items (see Are you really ready for the checkride? for a complete list):

  • Proper use of aircraft lighting
  • Proper radio phraseology, complete readback of clearances/instructions related to runways
  • Runway incursion awareness
  • Proper use of flight controls/brakes on the ground - crosswind landings
  • Collision Avoidance, avoidance of objects in the air and on the ground
  • Wake Turbulence awareness
  • Proper use of checklists
  • Low level windshear
  • Use of stabilized approach/flight path procedures
So ask yourself, what exactly do you know about each of these items?  Those knowledge areas can be tested on any checkride and you must be able to demonstrate that you meet the requirements of the ratings you already hold.  For example, if you can't perform a proper crosswind landing, you are not likely to be successful in getting an instrument rating.  The same is true for pilots that don't use proper radio phraseology as described by the AIM and Pilot/Controller Glossary.  Ask yourself this hard question:  can you pass a checkride for the pilot certificate you already hold?  If the answer is no, then don't undertake instrument training.  Instead, become proficient in these special emphasis areas and become qualified for the ratings which you already hold.


Its a sign of a good pilot who decides to undergo a training program to refine existing skills or reacquire those which have quietly departed.  The safe pilot is one who recognizes limitations and seeks a training partnership which facilitates the growth required to undertake a new certificate or rating.  An old sage at the airport told me... the instrument rating is just as hard as getting a private pilot certificate... afterall you're learning how to fly the aircraft again, but under the hood.  For a list of common knowledge area deficiencies for students seeking a flight review or other flight training, see the article: Common Problems - Flight Review.  For more information about Checkrides, read:  Part 1:  About Checkrides and Part 2:  Are You Really Ready For That Checkride?

Get started on your instrument rating with the Instrument Ground School
Complete your instrument rating with a 7-day Instrument Rating Training Program
Want to know more?  Read about Basic Attitude Instruction and Instrument Lesson Plans
Curious about the instrument checkride? See the Instrument Rating Plan of Action

Reader Comments

Date = Saturday, May 23, 2009 6:36 AM   Name = David
Comments = Very blunt article, but he's right.  You might be able to squeeze through with your PPL training, but instrument training will show how hard you've worked as a Private student.

Date = Monday, 23 January, 2012 18:32  Name = Anonymous
Comments = pilots have to learn from the very beginning
Reply:  Thanks for your email.  Let's be clear on the purpose of the article -- what you must know BEFORE you start your instrument rating training.  The instrument rating is not the beginning.  It is the ticket to the same airspace and privileges as major airline captains.  As someone who frequently rides on US domestic airlines, I personally do not want you using the same airspace that I'm in unless you meet the requirements for the pilot certificate you hold, and the instrument rating add-on.  It might seem harsh, but there's nothing more "pessimistic" than a big pile of metal and 200+ fatalities. Don't get me wrong, I love the recreational aspects of General Aviation, but when it comes to flying IFR, its time to be precise, serious, and qualified.  It's our mutual safety at risk.

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