What to Expect When Earning Your Airplane Instrument Rating

John Peltier

Congratulations, you just got your private pilot airplane license. You want to use this newfound freedom to fly to the family cabin in the next state, but there won’t be any VFR weather between here and there for the next week. Grounded. But what if you had your airplane instrument rating?

Reasons for Getting Your Airplane Instrument Rating

Of course, being able to legally fly in IFR conditions isn’t the only reason for getting your airplane instrument rating. It shouldn’t even really be “the reason” for you to get your instrument rating. You always want to better yourself as a pilot, right? This is a great way of doing it.

There may come a day when you find yourself facing inevitable flight into IMC – the clouds close in around you and there’s nowhere else to go. Having your instrument rating will prepare you for inadvertent flight into IMC and give you the tools you need to safely recover from that dangerous situation.

Even if you don’t accidentally find yourself in IMC, your instrument rating will teach you an effective instrument scan, leading to better control of the airplane. You’ll be better able to hold altitude, airspeed, and heading. And guess what – these are things that potential employers will want out of you as well.

And speaking of employment. If you ever have any desire to fly commercially, most employers won’t even give you the time of day if you don’t have your airplane instrument rating along with your commercial license.

Airplane Instrument Rating Requirements

Getting your airplane instrument rating isn’t as hard as you might think. You may look at the regulations and say to yourself, “wow, that’s a lot, I’ll never get it.” Sure you will! It just looks like a lot on paper.

Summary of Federal Aviation Regulations Part 61, Subpart B, 61.65:

  • At least a private pilot certificate in airplanes, or are currently in the process of getting it.
  • Take a written test (knowledge test) and an oral & flight test with an examiner in either an airplane or FAA-approved simulator (practical test). Your logbook will need endorsements from an instructor stating that you’re ready for both of these.
  • The flight experience you’ll need for the airplane instrument rating is:
    • Forty hours of simulated or actual instrument flying, 15 of which must be with an authorized instrument-airplane instructor.
    • Fifty hours of cross-country flight as pilot-in-command. Ten of these hours must be in airplanes (you can credit helicopter time if you have it).
    • A 250-mile cross-country flight in an airplane, with an instructor, flown under instrument flight rules. You must complete at least three different kinds of instrument approaches and fly an instrument approach at each airport along your routing.
    • Three hours of flight training in an airplane within 2 calendar months from the date of your practical test.
  • The FAA now allows pilots to get their instrument ratings concurrently with the private pilot license. This will speed things up though you won’t have the 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross-country time. The FAA will allow you to credit up to 45 hours of you performing the duties of pilot-in-command (as you do when you’re a student pilot) in lieu of this.
  • If you’re using a simulator, as you most likely will, you can only credit up to 20 hours of instrument time towards your rating – you’ll have to fly the other 20 in an actual aircraft. If you’re getting your simulator time in a structured Part 142 school, you can credit up to 30 hours.
What to Expect

Ground Training: You’ll need a good understanding of academia for your knowledge and practical tests. The amount you spend in academics will vary but it typically runs around twenty hours in the classroom. You’ll learn even more about the national airspace system, regulations, instrumentation, and bringing it all together to fly under instrument flight rules. You’ll also become a near expert at reading the weather and planning cross-country flights. Paying attention in ground school will set you up to do very well during the practical test, which is taken at designated FAA testing centers around the country.

Simulator Training: You don’t have to use the simulator – you can complete your entire instrument rating in an actual airplane, but this will significantly drive the costs up. The other advantage to using the simulator is efficiency of training. Your instructor can replicate conditions in the simulator that you wouldn’t be able to call for in the air. It allows you more room to make mistakes and learn from them, and “start from scratch” if needed. The simulator is where you’ll learn a good scan, preflight instrument checks, communications, and instrument procedures. Exposure to these in the simulator will make them easier once you get to the airplane.

Flight Training: And this is where the real fun begins! You’ll sit in the right seat with a view-limiting device, affectionately known as “foggles”, restricting what you can see to only the instrument panel. You’ll put these on after takeoff and remove them prior to landing. But you’ll wear them for everything in between. Your instructor will have you do some very basic maneuvers like changing altitude, and some more complex ones like recovering from unusual attitudes. You’ll get exposure to different local airports, flying all of the possible instrument procedures that are compatible with your aircraft navigation equipment.

The Practical Test: This is where it all comes together! You and your instructor will go over your logbook to make sure all of your requirements are met and set up an appointment with the dedicated pilot examiner (DPE). The DPE will have you plan a cross-country flight under instrument flight rules, and it may or may not be what you actually fly. But the DPE will want to make sure that you can complete one of these without error. The day will start with an oral exam, and everything you’ve learned up to this point is fair game. The oral exam will vary in length depending on the examiner, but once they’re satisfied you’ll head on out to the airplane! The actual flight itself will be a lot like your instrument training flights. You’ll take off, put on the foggles, and fly under instrument flight rules. You’ll have to recover from an unusual attitude and have another emergency procedure thrown in the mix. After flying a few instrument approaches, you’ll take off the foggles and the exam is over!

Costs of Getting an Airplane Instrument Rating

It’s hard to nail down an actual cost of receiving your airplane instrument rating. There are many different variables to take into consideration – the equipment used, flight time needed, location, fuel prices, extra training required, etc.

A “standard” instrument rating, using a C172 with twenty hours of simulator time will run somewhere in the ballpark of $8,000. If you need extra cross-country time as pilot-in-command, expect these costs to go up.

A good way of reducing overall costs of getting to your goal of being a commercial pilot would be to combine your instrument rating with other requirements of commercial employment. You can satisfy the cross-country time required for your commercial license by taking an instructor or safety observer and flying with the foggles on these cross-country flights, logging this time for both instrument and commercial. You may also want to consider doing some of these flights in a complex aircraft, turbine, or multi-engine.

After Getting Your Airplane Instrument Rating

You can consider your airplane instrument rating as something that dies unless it’s used! You’ll need to stay current in order to legally fly under instrument flight rules. Staying current involves completing six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and instrument navigation within a six-month period. You can complete this in either an airplane or simulator, but you cannot fly under IFR unless these requirements are met.

But these are the minimum requirements to keep your rating current. In order to be a proficient IFR pilot, you actually need to fly in IMC. You need to use your instruments every time you fly, even in VMC. If you’re coming back to the airport on a perfect VFR day, dial in the localizer and shoot the instrument approach back home. It may save your life some day!

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