For Fun Flying Try IFR

This RV is ready for IFR flying

My other passion is sailing. Stancie and I love to sail, but we’re not cruisers. We’re racers. Our objective is to use the natural action of the wind and water on the hull and sails to beat sailors in other boats. It’s sailing with a mission where hundredths of a knot of boat speed count, and where judging (guessing, maybe) where the wind will shift makes the difference between winning and not.

We have many sailor friends who couldn’t give a hoot about racing. They just want to enjoy the general peace and quiet of a sailboat on a nice day. They sail to escape, while we sail to be intensely involved in a mission.

It’s the same with flying. I love to fly, but I fly to complete a mission which is to travel where I want to when I want to on the most predictable possible schedule. Many of my pilot friends fly to enjoy the view and spend time with friends who love airplanes, often old or unique airplanes. Flying someplace on a predetermined schedule—except maybe to fly to Oshkosh every July—just isn’t on their radar.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to racing sailors versus cruisers. Or traveling pilots versus those who are out for a ride on a sunny day. But I do try to convince my cruising sailor friends to give racing a try, and I also try to talk my sunny day only pilot friends into giving IFR flying a try.

The reason I enjoy both racing and flying IFR is because both give you a continuous standard to measure your performance. In the boat you are either ahead or behind which is pretty conclusive evidence of how well you are performing. Flying IFR demands precision in all aspects of flying, and the controllers with their radar—and radar recordings—are keeping tabs on your performance for every moment of the flight.

There’s an old saying among sailors that when two sailboats are in sight of each other there is a race going on in at least one cockpit. Because you both have the same wind and waves to move the boat, even when it is not a structured race, you don’t want the other guy to get ahead of you.

I find it much the same when flying IFR—I am competing with myself to try to fly the most perfect flight. I am not a perfect pilot, and even after all of these years I’m horrified if I somehow bust the plus or minus 100 foot altitude standard that is required for top level flying. Or if I wonder off heading or course by more than the few degrees tolerance expected. Flying IFR is a continuous measure of your precision and long before the controllers spot a deviation from your cleared flight path, you will know if you screwed up.

And when flying IFR the weather, just like in sailboat racing, is always the unknown that spices the challenge. Of course you use all available information to understand the weather conditions ahead—and with up to date weather in the cockpit there is a lot of information—but you still don’t know for sure if that cloud will be bumpy, or icy or close to the ground until you punch into it.

Over half of all active pilots have an instrument rating which I find to be encouraging. But the best estimates are that fewer than 15 percent of pilots are up to date on the various currency requirements to legally make a flight under IFR tomorrow. That shows me that pilots make the effort to earn the IFR rating but many don’t then routinely fly in the system.

I’m interested in the development of a new group called the IMC Club that is forming chapters around the country to get together and talk about flying IFR. The IMC, of course, stands for instrument meteorological conditions which are the restrictions to visibility that prevent you from seeing the horizon so you must rely on your instruments to control the airplane. IFR stands for instrument flight rules and they apply any time you are operating on an IFR clearance in the system no matter how good or bad the weather. Even if you fly IFR all of the time as I do, mostly in unpressurized airplanes at the lower altitudes, you won’t log much over 10 percent of your time as IMC, if even that much. So IMC is clearly the somewhat rare and challenging part of flying IFR.

I think the IMC Club goal of getting pilots together to “hangar fly” their experiences in the system and in the clouds is terrific. Training for the IFR rating is almost entirely artificial with a hood blocking your view outside, but that’s a poor substitute for real IMC flying. And the only way to learn about really flying in the clouds is to do it, and learning from the experiences of others who fly IMC is a big help.

For more information on the IMC Club see I think you will enjoy the challenge.


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20 Responses to For Fun Flying Try IFR

  1. Steve Ingraham says:

    <<But I do try to convince my cruising sailor friends to give racing a try, and I also try to talk my sunny day only pilot friends into giving IFR flying a try.

    Ha! Let me know the next time you are able to convince someone to give it a try. Another question I might pose to you is how successful are those pilots at convincing you to give their perspective a try?

    I gather from this post that you must consider high stressed strict adherence to standards and protocols situations as a barrel of laughs. That truly does put you in a very small minority.

    • Craig says:

      Hey, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Flying IFR is definitely a challenge, and some of us really do enjoy stepping up to it. You think everything has to be ‘easy’ to be enjoyable? You passed your PPL checkride, right? That wasn’t ‘easy’ was it? But didn’t you feel some satisfaction when you were done?

      • Steve Ingraham says:

        Well, I have tried it so having done so I am ‘knocking it’.

        I hope you are not inferring from my statement that I think only things that are “easy” can be fun. You are totally off base if you think that. I promise you I don’t think that in the least! I have worked my way through a great many tasks in my life that were extremely difficult and FUN. That was not my point.

        I was responding to the statement that flying IFR is FUN. You are talking about the fact that IFR is ‘challenging’. I totally agree it is challenging but I do not agree it is FUN. I further made the point that I doubt there would be a majority who would think it is FUN either.

  2. Bob Turner says:

    Not sure a very small minority – is so, I’m one of them. I’d say it’s like playing chess. No one would say it’s relaxing, nor a “barrel of laughs”. Yet people do it for their own sense of pleasure and accomplishment.

    Also, I’m a cfii, and none of my instrument students has ever spent $10,000 to get their rating. It’s not cheap, but it’s not that expensive, either.

  3. Reid Sayre says:

    “…Half of all active pilots have an instrument rating…”

    Well, yes, but…..

    FAA keeps a whole bunch of statistics. Go to and look at table 1 and table 10. For airplane only and airplane combined with another aircraft, not including student, recreational, and sport (as of 12/31/2010):

    – There are about 142,000 ATP pilots, all of whom have instrument ratings as it’s part of the ATP rating.
    – There are about 124,000 Commercial pilots, 90 percent of whom have instrument ratings.
    – But there are about 202,000 Private pilots, only 28 percent of which have instrument ratings.

    So I assert that most of the instrument rated pilots earned them because they had to in order to have a pilot job (ATP and Commercial certificates).

    • Mac says:

      I know many pilots who like me have ATP and commercial licenses but don’t fly for a living. Most earned advanced ratings for the challenge not because of a requirement. Both the ATP and commercial groups continue to increase as a percentage of all active pilots but the number of flying jobs is not going up so that tells us something.
      Mac Mc

  4. rdt7 says:

    I agree. My two favorite forms of flying are instrument flying and aerobatics. Breaking out at 200 feet and 1/2 mile visibility on an ILS at night is a thrill and one of the most beautiful sites in the world. It rivals the satisfaction of executing a perfect loop, spin or roll.

  5. PhD_aero says:

    I like to fly IFR, too. And I like good food, music, lots of things — but none of them are what EAA is about. Nobody joins EAA to find out about IFR. Mac, get with the program! Take your own advice and go find out what else is going on in EAA instead of telling everybody else to do it your way. And maybe you’d learn that there’s more to IFR in a homebuilt than having the right instruments in the panel.

  6. Fred Stadler says:

    I have found IFR flight greatly satisfying over the years, but improvements in technology have reduced some of its special challenges.

    Before GPS and nearly complete RADAR coverage, IFR flight involved almost continuous mental concentration. I enjoyed calculating groundspeed, making time estimates to the next fix, navigating like a road rally along twisting victor airways, and visualizing position in an intersection hold using two VORs. Now all that is done far better by a few AA batteries in a handheld GPS, most clearances are direct, and routine navigation can be done simply by keeping the course line straight up on the moving map.

    Don’t get me wrong — the new technology is a huge improvement in safety and utility. But as technology continues to improve with more widely available synthetic vision, IFR flight will become increasingly more like VFR flight. Fortunately, VFR flight is a lot of fun, too!

  7. larry maynard says:

    Boring, boring, boring. That’s what IFR is. Just sitting there staring at instruments. I was trained as an Army Helo Pilot. Yes, we trained on instruments frequently, mostly in simulators. Real pilot skill is stick and rudder. Especially down low where we flew with the skids inches from the ground or other obstacles. That’s real flying. A lot of fun. It also calls for constant attention unlike IFR flying where you can set up the airplane and just sit there fat dumb and happy. Glad some folks enjoy it but I will always think of it as just plane boring and not very challenging.

    • Mac says:

      I agree IFR, like all types of flying, flying in the clouds can be boring at times. But throw in the ice, thunderstorms, approach visibility at minimums, and the boring part is over. Those things actually make me wish for some boring flights, at least sometimes.
      Mac Mc

  8. Doug Fortnam says:

    Great article Mac. Since I am a recreational pilot and don’t fly IFR/IMC every day or even every week, IMC Clubs helps keep my head in the game. We have a very active chapter at KASH (Nashua NH). The discussions usually cover little nuances that you will never discover in the manuals or regulations. Or beetr ways to do various tasks. I highly recommend getting involved or contacting Radek to start your own local chapter

  9. Charlie Gibbs says:

    I’ve always enjoyed mental challenges, and I’ve always felt that flying IFR would be one of the ultimate experiences. Unfortunately, I’ll probably never do it. It’s not the cost of training – I could probably fit that in somehow. But it’d cost me an additional $10K to upgrade my aircraft to IFR standards. And even if I did that, there are not a lot of places in the area around Vancouver, B.C. – with its 14,000-foot MEAs – where you could go in a Cessna 172. That’s where you midwestern types have a definite advantage.

  10. Bill Berson says:

    A younger friend proudly achieved his IFR rating last year. He recently mentioned to me that it is just too hard to stay current now with limited time. Keeping up with ATC procedures was an issue, he said.

    I agree with what PhD-aero said, this IFR business is not the role of EAA. EAA was founded for the needs of part time VFR pilots that were also experimenters, builders and home restoration mechanics.
    Now it seems EAA is just another typical aviator group that glorifies pilots and has limited writer staff with actual aircraft experimenter/maintainer experience.

  11. Peter Zajkowski says:

    Hi Mac. I’m not sure the EAA and AOPA would agree that flying IFR can be recreational in any sense. Otherwise they might not have excluded IFR flying from their request for the third class medical exemption for recreational flying. Perhaps they have other reasons for excluding it, but it was a disappointment for me.

  12. Steve Pierce says:

    This is kinda like your article many years ago about flying into OSH IFR and hitting your time slot. I can see this in Flying Magazine but Sport Aviation? Give me the Fisk arrival in something low and slow.

  13. Frank Giger says:

    “I’m interested in the development of a new group called the IMC Club that is forming chapters around the country to get together and talk about flying IFR. ”

    This is the heart of the article, IMHO. For the IFR guys, it’s probably the best way to stay current and on top of changes.

    Reid Sayre hit the nail on the head – the stats are not in favor of the statement that “half of all active pilots are IFR rated” when the target audience and membership of the EAA is non-commercial pilots.

    Indeed, if we drilled deeper into the numbers I’d wager that only 20% with the rating are actually current at any given time.

    Heck, I’d wager that less than half of all current GA pilots are current enough to take a passenger on a VFR flight (three landings in the last 90 days).

  14. Thomas Boyle says:

    I’m a yacht racer and I like to have a mission when I fly, but add me to the list of those who don’t find IFR flying fun. Challenging, yes. Interesting, maybe. An addition to flying skills, of course. Fun, no. I enjoy flying for the view out the window and the sense of freedom. I find IMC leaves me blind, claustrophobic, and uncomfortably aware that I am hurtling through space, following procedures that have a very low level of redundancy. But, I can also appreciate the sense of accomplishment for those who do enjoy instrument flying – it’s a pretty cool capability, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

  15. Thomas Boyle says:

    P.S. I do NOT agree that IFR is not “recreational” or part of EAA’s mission. I am disappointed that it was excluded from the medical petition, and that makes no sense to me.
    Instrumentation and autopilots that provide capabilities in IMC are one of the hottest areas of progress in Experimental aviation today, much more so than airframes. We are seeing synthetic vision and are moving toward full automation of IFR flight and even approaches – a huge step forward for those of us who don’t enjoy “traditional” IFR.

  16. Josh Johnson says:

    I believe the reason that IFR operations were excluded from the medical waiver request was that AOPA & EAA are looking to get something approved by the FAA this time around. The FAA is as slow as molasses to make changes in policy, and there will be a political price to pay if there are a slew of accidents while pilots are operating under a medical waiver, assuming one gets approved. Assuming a positive safety track record, I would expect an increase in the number of privileges allowed over the next few years.

    As far as I’m concerned, flying IFR is lots of fun and quite a challenge to do well!

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