I am happy to report that in my pursuit of a career as a professional pilot, I successfully passed my Instrument Rating checkride a couple weeks ago. Although this is just a milestone along the long road to my goals, I am proud of how far I’ve come from my first attempt at flying an approach. Several pilots warned me that instrument training is more difficult than any other training, and I have to say that I now understand what they meant.
Instrument training was different from private training in a lot of ways. Everything that I had already spent hours learning and practicing was expected to be second nature to me at this point. This really hit home when I executed a poor traffic pattern and my instructor scolded me, saying, "This is PRIVATE stuff! You should know how to land." I could not longer struggle to control any part of my flight operations and blame it on still being a student. In a sense, you change from being a student of the airplane to a student of everything outside of the airplane. Factor in how you cannot see outside, and the learning curve suddenly gets that much more difficult.
Upon landing and being told I had passed my checkride, my DPE told me that he strongly believed that instrument training was more difficult than ATP training. This surprised me, and I will have to report back in a few years on if I find this true for myself or not. Regardless, my previous instructor’s warning that it will be like a "fire hose to the face" when I began training was definitely true. I struggled for months in the ground course and every flight seemed to make me feel more emotions than Private training did. If it was a good flight, I definitely knew it and felt like a champion. If it was a bad flight, it was more difficult to recover from and I felt more like a failure. I am sure this is because the acceptable margin of error in instrument flight is so small.
During my training I jotted down some notes on things I would like to tell other students currently working on their instrument rating. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful for navigating the difficulties you will face along the way.
Accurate representation of what it feels like to study for the Instrument Written.
Knock out the Written Exam
There is nothing more frustrating than getting grounded during flight training because you haven’t completed a written test. It is policy at my school that if you have not passed the written test before you start the second "flight lab" (25 hours of training) then you cannot move forward. Even if the threat of being grounded is not looming over your head, the written is a huge hurdle to pass and I recommend taking it as soon as possible to get it out of the way. Some concepts are more difficult than Private, but it’s nothing that a few extra hours of studying cannot remedy.
Reference the Instrument "Know All" Handbook
My instructor sent me a link to this page early in our training and it was a game changer. It lays out the highlights of regulations and procedures in a way that is easily understood, and it is perfect for printing out and highlighting. I even made some sections into flash cards for further memorization. Being a pilot is about knowing how to use every resource available to you, and this is certainly a goldmine of helpful information.
Memorize Approach Plates you use Often
I would say that in almost every other flight lesson we flew over to KLEX and did an approach into whichever runway they were using. I became really familiar with the VOR-A, ILS, LOC, and RNAV approaches for 22 and 04. Knowing that I frequent these approaches so much, it was extremely beneficial to me when I sat down by myself and mentally flew the approach plates several times. It made the approach briefing less confusing, and helped me to understand exactly what I was doing as I went along. Even before a cross country, I recommend looking over the plates a few times to get familiar with them so that you are never a few miles out and looking at the plate for the first time.
Don’t Stress Over the Brief
When I first began my training, it seemed like every time we were getting close to the airport and I needed to brief the approach to my instructor my palms suddenly got sweaty. There was so much to go over. There is so little time. Don’t let yourself stress over the approach plates, and find an acronym or method that works best for YOU. I always use "FACTM" approach. Frequencies, Altitudes, Course, Time, and Missed. I go over this in my head, and find the information that relates to it on my approach plate.
Invest in Good Foggles/Hood
One thing that I almost got in trouble with during my checkride was the type of foggles I used. They are clear, except for the opaque white around the edges. When I was coming in on my final approach, I experienced a familiar phenomenon: a blinding glare from the sun. As we were coming straight towards the sun, it reflected off of the opaque part of my foggles and I could not see any of my instruments. I had this happen before but never to the extent of during my checkride. My extremely kind check airman held a binder up to block the glare as I finished the approach, and recommended that I look into a hood for future flights. Find what works best for you and consider all the possible negatives of all options.
Get into Actual IMC
Near the end of my training, when I was pretty comfortable with approaches, my instructor called me up on a particularly overcast and nasty looking day. He told me that I had better not think I wasn’t flying that day, and to get to the airport as soon as possible. That was the day that we went into real, solid, terrifying instrument meteorological conditions. Up to this moment I was sure that I could handle it, after all I had about 40 hours in simulated instrument conditions. Immediately when we burst into the clouds my entire body tensed up. It was the most disorienting experience I had ever had. I asked him to please take over the radios so that I could get a feel for it. I highly recommend going into IMC multiple times during your training to truly understand the mental aerobics that come with completely trusting what you see on the panel.
Keep a Reminder of Why You’re Doing it
I won’t lie, I thought about quitting a couple times during my training. Everyone said that Instrument training either makes or breaks you as a pilot, so I thought that if I could not get it down then I was not fit to be a professional pilot. I watched as a few of my friends switched majors or quit their training because it was just too difficult. Every time I had to remind myself that this has been my dream since I was a young girl, and I could not quit until I had given it all that I had. It absolutely pays off in the end if you dedicate the time and effort, and keep motivated.
I wish you all the best in your instrument training, and I hope that these tips will at least encourage you to stick with it. Stay safe and keep working hard towards your goals!