My students work hard to earn their Instrument Rating. Ask any of them and they will tell you it was 75% determination, 20% sweat, and 5% tears. The instrument rating is just as difficult if not more difficult than obtaining the private pilot certificate. Most find that not only do they struggle with the new learning objectives of the instrument rating, but also remembering the skills from their initial private pilot certificate. After working through the hardest FAA rating there is, these pilots achieve their goal at their personal best. They have reached the mountaintop a little tattered but bask in the satisfying glow of personal achievement.
After my customary steak dinner, and the ink on their temporary airman certificate dries, the inevitable question is asked: now what? My quick answer of "build experience" seems like sage advice at the time. It is quickly forgotten the day after the checkride when the pressures of life return and new opportunities surface. Other times, the hardest thing to do is figure out how exactly to "build experience." The following is my attempt at tackling the question.
Disclaimer: As with all advice, remember your responsibilities as Pilot in Command: You are the final authority as to the operation the aircraft. I accept no liability for those who might use or misuse this checklist. The mere coincidence that you are reading this proves you are a self-driven professional who craves knowledge about aviation. As such, you never take unnecessary risks, and always properly manage the risks of flight. Since this article is not a substitute for competent flight instruction, you understand that you are the ultimate judge of your own performance, accepting responsibility for your setbacks and asking for help to improve your skills while not being too self-critical. With that said, consider these tasks in building your skills as an IFR pilot.
Keep Flying. Now more than ever, seek opportunities to explore new places, visit old friends, and prevent the corrosion from setting in. Remember that flying IFR is a game of rules and repetition... keep your skills sharp by exercising them.
File IFR. Even if your cross country flight is only 100 miles away, File IFR. Even if the weather conditions are CAVU, File IFR. Even if its a Sunday afternoon $100 hamburger, File IFR. Work the system; practice all the skills you learned during your instrument rating training.
Experiment with clouds. Try to punch through small clouds at first before tackling the large ones. Remember your instrument scan and do not allow yourself to become disoriented. Remember the tall, black clouds have the most energy stored inside. (That means you might want to go around those.)
Experiment with cloud decks. When you meet an IFR pilot coming in from a flight, ask him, “How thick was the cloud deck?” A 100-200 foot broken or overcast cloud layer at about 2500 feet with VMC above is a great opportunity to experience IMC then execute an approach back through the cloud deck with relatively good VMC conditions below the cloud deck.
Consider taking a meteorology course at your local community college. A better understanding of weather patterns would go a long way to making your cross-country flights safer and more predictable.
Experiment with low ceilings. Start with some local approaches you know well and work your way down from 1,500-foot ceilings down to 1,000-foot ceilings.
Experiment with weather. Start with a light rain and drizzle. As you become more comfortable, try to combine light rain with a 1,000 to 2,000 foot ceiling. As you become more experienced, you'll easily perform ILS approaches with 500-foot ceilings without even the slightest fear.
Evaluate your personal minimums and review them as your skills increase. Performance and skill levels naturally rise and fall with season, flight time in the last 90 days, and available cash on hand. Appendix C.
Go to safety meetings, seminars, and conferences. If there isn't a local safety program in your area, create one. Get other pilots involved to share their IFR stories and learn from the interaction.
Do more than what it takes to be current. Remember the currency requirements? I'm sure you can easily perform those 6 approaches, a hold, and intercepting and tracking courses in the local area. Reach for a higher standard; do more than the minimums to stay current. Do them partial panel. Do them with one engine inoperative.
Seek additional training. Being current is far different than being proficient. If there is any doubt in your mind, get a CFII to help you. Consider additional training programs such as the IFR Adventure to give you confidence in your skills. See the last few pages of this book for further details on the IFR Adventure.