Learning to Fly IFR First

The new IFR training rules means that students can start on their instrument rating while still working toward their private certificate.

Whenever I talk to a person working on their instrument rating I tell them that learning to fly IFR will change the way they fly more than any other training or rating in their flying career. And now a rule change from the FAA makes it possible to earn the IFR rating and private certificate concurrently.

When I learned to fly many years ago the IFR rating was a distant goal, something only a minority of pilots ever achieved. The normal progression was to get a private, then commercial, build some time, and then go for an IFR. 

Eventually the FAA reduced the total time requirement for the IFR rating by half and made the commercial certificate almost worthless without already having the IFR rating. The change worked and for a number of years more than half of all pilots have been instrument rated.

But the training process still didn’t make total sense for people starting out who want to become professional pilots. The rules still required new pilots to earn the private with all of its visually based maneuvers and then, after logging at least 50 hours of cross-country time as pilot in command, they could go for the IFR rating.

The reality is that flying for an airline, or charter outfit, or for a business, is an IFR activity. It’s impossible to maintain a reasonable travel schedule flying only VFR, and any higher performing airplane needs to be on an IFR clearance to climb above 18,000 feet. When airplanes are used for purposeful travel, it’s an IFR activity.

Aspiring professional pilots will benefit from the new rules, which in essence streamline training for those who are destined to be working pilots. Photo: golfcharlie232.blogspot.com

Forcing pilots who only want to fly for transportation to delay IFR training is counterproductive, in my opinion, and with the rule changes the FAA agrees. The new rules are very specific on how a person trains concurrently for the private and instrument, and it can only realistically be done in an approved flight school with all of the structure that goes with that approval. But it is the right way to go for the flight training academies and universities that offer programs designed to train the next generation of professional pilots.

I know there are some, perhaps many, who will bemoan the loss of training emphasis on flying VFR only. And looking out the window on a nice day is a most pleasant way to fly. But the view out the window won’t keep you on course and altitude when flying in the flight levels, or even at a few thousand feet in a high-performance airplane. The ATC system depends on the flying precision that can only be done by reference to the instruments and electronic guidance.

IFR flying in today’s environment is mostly by electronic means, but there are still some required visual elements.

There are also many who believe looking out the window is essential for traffic avoidance, which is true in the VFR world, but not in the structured flying of airline jets and other high-performance airplanes. The reality is that electronic onboard traffic detection systems “see” airplanes at distances that the human eye simply can’t manage. And the traffic systems required in airlines and business jets calculate a “resolution advisory” that commands the pilots to climb or descend to avoid a possible collision.

If you don’t believe the electronic collision avoidance systems work, check the accident record. Before collision avoidance systems were perfected and then made mandatory there was a tragic series of collisions involving airliners. Since the electronic systems went on watch there hasn’t been a midair involving an airline jet.

What the FAA finally did with the new rules on IFR training is recognize that aviation functions as two distinct activities and what works for personal flying in piston airplanes is not always best for airlines and business jets. The concurrent private and IFR training helps prepare a new pilot for the airline world while people who want to fly for their own reasons are not affected by the change. Logical rule changes from the FAA – I like it.

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19 Responses to Learning to Fly IFR First

  1. Brian OConnor says:

    Mac’s points are very well taken. When taking my initial training over 25 years ago, there was no question that the goal was the Private Pilot’s License (VFR) first followed by the IFR rating as soon as possible. Quite a number of hours were spent after receiving the initial license to gain the hours, with trips for $100 hamburgers, to move forward with the IFR training. While my long-time flight instructor and CFII harps on keeping a very close watch outside the windshield, he is very sensitive about the training and performance for the IFR environment.

  2. Dave Prizio says:

    It is undoubtedly true that airline pilots who routinely fly in and out of Class C and B airspace can function very well with no regard to VFR procedures, but there are many pilots of regional carriers who routinely operate in Class D or even Class E airspace where they must fit into the VFR environment and play by those rules.

    I for one do not think that spending 50 hours in the VFR world is a waste of flight training time for anyone. See and avoid is still needed while landing and taking off from uncontrolled fields, which regional acrriers do every day. And basic stick and rudder skills, the lack thereof is now the object of FAA concern, is not learned by looking at the gauges.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Dave,

      There is a great deal of attention recently on airline pilots basic flying skills. The two frequently mentioned accidents are the Dash 8 turboprop at Buffalo and the Airbus that crashed into the Atlantic. In both instances the pilots were flying IFR at night so looking out the window would have done zero to help their situational awareness. So, looks to me like we need to practice avoiding or recovering from stalls totally on instruments, not by looking for a horizon that can’t be seen. That’s why I think a pilot destined for a career of professional IFR flying needs to get on the gauges as soon as possible in training.

      Mac Mc

  3. Pingback: New Rules for Pilot Training | High Altitude Flying Club

  4. bushpilot says:

    “The reality is that flying for an airline, or charter outfit, or for a business, is an IFR activity.”
    I disagree. I think this article is just another example of the FAA trying to jam all pilots into one box, the career track of an ATP pilot. Here in alaska many commercial bush pilots fly 20,000 hours or more in their career and never fly an IFR hour after they get their IFR rating. These pilots are mainly flying wildlife surveys and hunters in thier own 2 or 4 seat aircraft. IFR training did not improve their safety, it was just a government whoop to jump through. Should we really require commercial pilots that will never use instrument flight during their operations to be IFR certified? Most of the planes of their trade have the legal minimum of instruments (not IFR certified). Many dont even have an electrical system. Aviation is immensly important to Alaska since the most of our communities and resources do not have roads to them. Why not recognize special circumstances and allow for some flexibility in the regulations?

    • Mac says:

      You’re right Bushpilot. The new rules is aimed at enhancing the training of airline and other pilots who intend to fly their career in the system. It would be good to have a method to train those such as bushpilots and dusters who will never fly in the system. Two very different worlds.

      Now that the FAA has changed to recognize the training needs of future airline pilots, maybe it will do the same for those who will never fly on the gauges but still get paid to fly.

      Mac Mc

  5. Patrick Barrett says:

    I’m with you except for the part about downplaying visual traffic avoidance. TCAS has saved lives- sure, but it’s far from perfect. Something as simple as an altimetry error (or an airplane without mode C) is all it takes to completely defeat the system. Looking out for traffic is at the very core of good airmanship. Let’s not take the stance of “the computer will keep us safe, we don’t have to worry about that anymore”. Sorry to say but that’s just poor airmanship. If we applied that logic to all technology we’d be in deep trouble. I can see it now- “we don’t need charts, the EGPWS will tell us before we hit something”. Not to mention- these pilots have to get to that jet without running into someone before they get there!

  6. Borneo Pilot says:

    I’ve never flown a plane with TCAS with RA’s, but its little brother TCAD is far from perfect. One of our pilots, flying a TCAD equipped Caravan, had a near miss with another TCAD equipped, G1000 equipped Caravan not too long ago. There are plenty of turboprops and light twins out there used for transportation by professional pilots that typically have TCAD at best, if any traffic avoidance at all. I’m with you Patrick; it’s just good airmanship to “see and avoid.” And the last I checked aspiring airline pilots in the US still have to transition their way up to flying the big jets, many flying hundreds or thousands of hours in the “little planes” with no TCAS. So until those pilots are flying the heavy iron right from the get-go, let’s hope see-and-avoid is still taught in the US. I’m reminded of an article written by Rod Machado not long ago about pilots who fly GA planes like they’re in a transport category plane. His point: they’re not the same.

  7. victoroneill says:

    Got my Private 20+ ago at KSMO, in and under Class B airspace. I spent countless hours flying around at 70 indicated, to a dozen or more airports, just to record hours. It was a waste of time and money and like having to ‘take a number and wait to be called’ to get my Instrument Rating. The rating was the best thing that happened to my and my flying attitude and abilities. The delay was useless and inexcuseable. I was glad to see the process corrected to encourage new pilots still in the learning mode to have a goal and opportunity to keep on learning. I think more IMC emphasis should be part of primary instruction and recurrency training. Maybe part of the Wings Program. Instrument training and awareness can keep pilots alive and help recognise the situations that exceed current capabilities. If you can’t fly insturments you are an airplane driver rather than a Pilot.

    • Thomas Boyle says:

      “If you are flying on instruments, you are an airplane driver rather than a Pilot.”

      - There, fixed it for you.


  8. Sierra says:

    I taught students under a special part 141 combined private/instrument syllabus about 3 years ago. It was born from the new approach to flight training called FITS with proficiency and scenario based training. While a good idea in concept real results were disappointing. After ~6-7mos of concurrent training the students went on their private and instrument checkride at the same time and the pass rate was under 20%… It was an information and work overload during training and checkride, and only a few die hard and exceptional pilots thrived in the environment. The average ones finished, but with more struggle. Maybe those exceptional few are the ones we want flying the heavies?

    A flight school couldn’t survive with a success rate like that so the syllabus reverted to separated private and instrument training… I can expect the first attempt of such a syllabus to have its difficulties. Although, after a few generations of instructors it would be more successful as more pilots became instructors and grew up with the FITS and combined training mindset. Proper training of instructors would really accelerate the process but it’s still hard to break the old guard…

    After teaching that syllabus I’m still (and probably more so of) a staunch believer of stick and rudder first. Stick and rudder is really the way it should be all the way through solo and xc as the minimum. However, I also feel the more one knows the better pilot they’ll be which could help them avoid or get out of dire scenarios. So, I’ll still teach some instrument approaches to private students to expand their skillset and sharpen their 3 hours of instrument flying.

  9. Mike says:

    Aren’t 737s flying commercial routes with 137 people on board considered commercial aircraft?


    While I agree this is a good thing for aviation, it’s fallacy to suggest that EVERYONE in the air, commercial or private pilot, doesn’t need to see and avoid. TCAS is to help in situational awareness, not to replace the pilots or remove their duty to be watchful. Technology fails, and nothing is 100% reliable.

  10. Eugene says:

    IFR and VFR flying skills undoubtedly supplement each other and both make flight safety

  11. Matthew Kent says:

    I had heard about the proposed change to allow for a concurrent private and instrument rating, but didn’t realize it had already taken effect. Thank you for sharing this blog post. I think the new rule will make it more feasible for a lot of pilots to get an instrument rating; it was hard to get the 50 hrs of cross country required when the weather was often bad, and I couldn’t file IFR, because I didn’t HAVE an instrument rating. The only thing I’m thinking with the concurrent rating is that it’s going to make for one heck of a tough checkride to do at once…

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