by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI from IFR Checkride Reviewer
How do you know if you're ready for the instrument rating? The short answer is: if you've got the right mindset and the right skillset then you're ready. The first element, the right mindset, was covered in the companion article: Accelerated Training Programs. This article addresses the practical skills required before undertaking instrument rating training. There are quite a few hard questions a pilot must ask himself before undertaking a rating which requires such discipline and precision. In putting together a list of those questions, its difficult not to sound "doom and gloom" to the potential instrument rating student. The instrument rating is a turning point for the casual flyer -- this rating puts a pilot into the same IFR system that the big boys use. And the newly instrument rated pilot must perform like the big boys or disaster will surely follow.
The very first task for someone seeking an instrument rating is get a ground school or DVD course for learning IFR concepts. I'm not referring to a "learn-how-to-take-the-written" DVD course, but a real ground school thats going to explain the concepts to a beginner. Sportys and other vendors have those products available. As soon as you have a good hold on the basics, get the written out of the way. There are good written exam test prep resources available in DVD format from King Schools or printed format from Gleim. After you have the ground school and the written exam completed, start evaluating yourself in terms of practical skills.
The first consideration is your level of flying precision. Can you hold an altitude, heading, airspeed, rate of turn, or rate of descent while VFR? If you can't do it VFR, there's not much hope that you'll do better with a hood on. The ultimate test of this is the Bravo Pattern. Print this page out and take a friend with you to watch for traffic. Try to execute the pattern VFR and see if you can execute it perfectly. Sloppy pilots aren't likely to be successful in an IFR training program.
Are you able to maintain a stablized approach to a runway? All pilots should use the visual glideslope whenever a VASI/PAPI is provided. That's always available on a runway with a precision approach. If you're not able to hold a descent rate which keeps you perfectly on the VASI or PAPI, there are significant challenges facing you. You'll need to develop that skill to maintain an electronic glideslope which then transitions to a visual glideslope for landing.
The IFR system is a series of rules and procedures. Are you the type that shows up to the airport without the ATIS/AWOS information written down? Are you the type that makes blind radio calls, "Is anyone in the pattern?" Are you the type of pilot that shows up at a towered airport without an airport diagram on your kneeboard? Are you the type that doesn't use an A/FD to help you determine all available information about your flight? This kind of pilot behaviour hints at an undisciplined approach to flying that leads to limited success in the IFR system. Lazy pilots who don't enter the pattern properly, take shortcuts, or do just enough to get by, don't make for good instrument pilots.
The US-FAA has put together a list of items which typically get pilots in trouble. They called the list "special emphasis" and those items are tested on most checkrides. Here's a list of those items:
Proper use of aircraft lighting
Proper radio phraseology, complete readback of clearances/instructions related to runways Runway incursion awareness Crosswind Technique Collision Avoidance Wake Turbulence awareness Proper use of checklists Low level windshear So ask yourself, what exactly do you know about each of these items? Those knowledge areas can be tested on any checkride and you must be able to demonstrate that you meet the requirements of the ratings you already hold. For example, if you can't perform a proper crosswind landing, you are not likely to be successful in getting an instrument rating. The same is true for pilots that don't use proper radio phraseology as described by the AIM and Pilot/Controller Glossary. Ask yourself this hard question: can you pass a checkride for the pilot certificate you already hold? If the answer is no, then don't undertake instrument training. Instead, become proficient in the these special emphasis areas and become qualified for the ratings which you already hold.
Its a sign of a good pilot who decides to undergo a training program to refine existing skills or reacquire those which have quietly departed. The safe pilot is one who recognizes limitations and seeks a training partnership which facilitates the growth required to undertake a new certificate or rating. An old sage at the airport told me... the instrument rating is just as hard as getting a private pilot certificate... afterall you're learning how to fly the aircraft again, but under the hood.