After re-commencing flight training, I've been asked many times for ‘free flights.’ Or my personal favourite “when are you going to fly me around?” This is the perfect chance for me to add some clarity to my limitations as a Private Pilot and why my next rating is so important.
What many don’t seem to comprehend is that as a Private Pilot you can only fly in clear weather conditions, or in aviation terms ‘Visual Flight Rules’ (VFR). Fortunately, in California the weather favours flight in such conditions but as San Francisco is located in a Bay, we are accustomed to advection fog which can cause some less than ideal weather conditions. Unless you can stick to the strict regulations governing ‘VFR’ minimums (good weather) you are not allowed to operate as a Private Pilot. Therefore, the next logical step after obtaining a Private Pilot License is to obtain your instrument rating which allows flight into IFR weather conditions (bad weather).
It's important to understand that the Instrument Rating is not a certificate, but an 'add-on' that can be added to a certificate, i.e. Private and Commercial. The majority of the rating is centered around weather and requires specialist training as you are flying solely in reference to instruments in your aircraft. The instrument rating is extremely important to pilots especially if they are pursuing a career in aviation, as the majority of their career will require flight through instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or in layman's terms, bad weather.
The training for this rating is rigorous. In order for you to comprehend what we go through I’ll explain just one aspect. One criterion for this license is, to log instrument flight time we must be able to “manipulate the controls of the aircraft solely in reference to flight instruments.” In order to do this we have to wear ‘foggles', or go ‘under the hood’. The concept behind this is to restrict our vision, we can only see items within the flight deck. We cannot see anything outside. It's basically a poor man's blindfold. The premise behind this is ensuring that we concentrate on our instruments. It’s like driving a car without being able to look outside, luckily in aircraft we have our instruments to rely on. Whilst flying it can be disorientating. We do have a safety pilot with us to scan for traffic and handle the radios.
Flight into IMC is very dangerous especially if the pilot does not have an adequate understanding of what procedures must be followed once entering IMC. Moreover, the AOPA reports that since 2002 more than 86% of all fixed wing VFR into IMC accidents have been fatal. The AOPA goes on to state, “Pilots deprived of visual references while flying can quickly lose control of the aircraft and succumb to one of general aviation’s biggest killers: spatial disorientation.” Spatial disorientation is a horror story when flying. Not only can it be fatal but your senses start to act against you.
During your flight training the phrase ‘always be ahead of the plane,’ is heard frequently. The premise behind the phrase is that you must be able to think ahead of the aircraft, always two steps ahead. This is vital during instrument training. Getting behind the aircraft will insinuate that things are happening faster than you can control them, this in combination with an increased workload can create a feeling of being overwhelmed which can have disastrous consequences.
The sheer knowledge associated with your Instrument Rating is also vastly interesting. Have you ever wondered how an aircraft lands and takeoffs when all the pilots can see is clouds? Using radio waves and ground stations to navigate through some of the worst weather conditions is exhilarating. It's a challenge that makes our training that much more rewarding. I truly was excited to start until Covid-19 struck...