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Challenge Your Instrument Skills

by Joel Pierce

The ability to go flying is a dream come true for every pilot. To climb in an airplane on a rainy day, takeoff and climb up into the clouds quickly followed by bursting out into the clear blue sky above is absolutely awesome! As the pilot in command, we can enjoy this spectacular experience only because at some point in our past we obtained the rewarding instrument rating and have maintained our instrument currency. We gained the knowledge and skill necessary to safely venture into the realm of flying into weather conditions that we once avoided as if our lives depended on it. This instrument flying skill requires ongoing practice just in order to maintain our level of proficiency much less increase it. Although there are multiple methods of fulfilling the FAA’s requirements for maintaining instrument currency, I’d like to recommend using the method that incorporates flying with a certified flight instructor. This is known as the instrument proficiency check, (IPC).

faasafety.gov Automated Course CertificateA brief review of the FAA requirements for instrument currency in FAR 61.57 reminds us that a pilot must have completed and logged at least six approaches, intercepting and tracking courses, and holding procedures in the previous six calendar months via actual instrument weather conditions or simulated instrument conditions through the use of a view limiting device. Let’s say you flip through your logbook (for those of us who still use paper), and you only have two approaches logged for the last six calendar months, what now? You are now restricted to visual flight rules only, until you get the chance to fly and log at least four more approaches. Since you can no longer fly approaches in actual instrument weather conditions, you may elect to find a properly certified “safety pilot” to go flying with you. Your safety pilot will look out for traffic, while you practice flying your required instrument approaches with the assistance of your favorite view limiting device. During the course of flying these 4 approaches, how much will your piloting skills be encouraged, challenged, and stretched? Is it possible that most pilots will choose to fly approaches and perform the procedures with which they are already comfortable performing? By the way, how challenging were the actual instrument weather conditions that you counted toward your currency? Although the regulations are a bit gray on this, it is my understanding that you may count instrument approaches toward your currency requirements as long as you had to navigate onto a published portion of the approach by reference to instruments. Whether you’re actually in the clouds or simply in visibility that requires you to focus on your instruments at least until you’ve started the instrument approach and you continue to fly the approach as publish even after you’ve transitioned to flying by visual reference, you may apply the approach to your currency tally. As a general rule, we set our personal minimums such that we avoid ever having to fly an instrument approach all the way to its published minimums. So, might it be good to practice flying approaches all the way down the the published minimums and even execute a published missed approach fairly regularly? You can do this on a simulator, or in an airplane with a safety pilot.That being said, let me explain why I think it is wise to complete an IPC with a flight instructor once in awhile.

You may have heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” I believe flying in general and for sure flying solely by reference to instruments, requires a fair amount of practice. However, I must agree with the saying that takes this to the next level. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Completing an IPC with an appropriately rated flight instructor is a great step toward thorough and challenging practice. With a flight instructor on board and an IPC endorsement as your mutual goal, you can expect some pretty thorough practice. The ground portion should be scenario based and tailored to the specific type of flying that you frequent. The flight portion must be comprehensive and yet efficient. Not only will you practice the common approaches, but you will perform at least some of them with various simulated equipment malfunctions. This is a good time to work on and reassess your personal minimums. With an instructor beside you, this may be a good time to fly in lower or different weather conditions, higher winds, busier airspace, simulate autopilot, primary instrument, radio communication equipment failure, explore a new geographical location, and the list of possible challenges goes on.

Completing an IPC may sound expensive, but maybe it isn’t. An IPC, doesn’t require that you complete 6 approaches. So, as long as you’re reasonably proficient, an IPC is potentially the cheaper flying option for maintain or regaining your instrument currency. You could even combine your IPC with a biannual flight review, making the instructor’s fee even more justifiable. So, if you complete an IPC every 6 months, you would be flying with an instructor twice a year. This would provide the consistent challenge to maintain a thorough level of proficiency, increasing your safety, and giving you the confidence needed to blast off into the wild blue yonder — even when you’ll have to punch up through the clouds to find it. How awesome is that!

However you choose to maintain your instrument currency, please make use of all the excellent training materials provided by the FAA as well as AOPA. If you haven’t done so already, you can register for free with FAA Safety. This will give you access to their online safety courses. The FAA has a free online course specifically for use in preparation for an IPC. They have an Advisory Circular that is the FAA’s guideline for maintaining currency for both visual and instrument flying. The FAA regulations, the Aeronautical Information Manual, and the FAA handbooks are all online for free. You can download these as pdf documents and place them on your iPad in iBooks. If you happen to use the Foreflight app, you can download many of the FAA handbooks in the “documents” tab. Good luck!

Here is a list of resources to help you prepare for your IPC:

Joel Pierce

General Manager & Chief Flight Instructor

A fan of flight ever since childhood, Joel earned his private pilot certificate in September 2002. In 2003, he attended the International ALERT Academy, where he obtained his instrument rating along with his commercial and flight instructor certificates. After graduating, he joined the ALERT faculty as a flight instructor and an assistant department manager. During this time, Joel met his wife, Laura. They married in 2006 and now have two children. In 2008, Joel became the flight operations director for Smith Field Air Service and now leads the staff at Sweet Aviation. Joel has over 5,000 hours of flight instruction and is driven by a passion for helping customers achieve their dreams. Joel is type rated in Sweet Aviation’s Cirrus Vision Jet, certified to fly a customer’s T-28, able to go fly some aerobatic maneuvers in the Super Decathlon, and on top of all this, he gets to share his intense passion for flying with so many other aviation enthusiasts in the Fort Wayne area.

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