Any private pilot can get an Instrument Rating

Recently on the same evening, two British TV programmes were shown which brought to mind aspects of the teaching of the PPL IR. In the first a giant African rat, a rather appealing creature not at all like the European rat, was trained to seek out and identify mines. This required a huge effort to get the animal to follow a grid pattern over a field and thanks to its acute sense of smell identify mines. Each mine it found earned it the reward of a peanut. A rat was able to clear a Cambodian minefield in a day with almost zero risk. This contrasted with a dangerous operation by humans using detectors who took a week to cover the same area.

This program, where the key actor was subjected to intensive and difficult training was followed by another making similar demands – Strictly Come Dancing. In the first case the key actor possessed hugely relevant natural attributes and, albeit not to its knowledge, the higher-level objective produced an obviously valuable and beneficial outcome. At a lower level, it obviously felt that being rewarded by peanuts was enough to motivate it to make the necessary effort – a feeling not entirely unknown to instructors.

In the second program, it appeared that some participants had few of the natural aptitudes such as athleticism, sense of timing and natural rhythm which might reasonably be seen as desirable pre-requisites for the task. In spite of these obstacles, individuals put huge effort into becoming able to perform the task adequately. It would seem some less obvious balance between effort and outcome satisfaction was being achieved.

It is both the joy and the difficulty of the CBM IR that it has attracted applicants of widely differing aptitudes and motivations. Inevitably most of those with both the time and the money tend to be older. Many are also aircraft owners in one form or another. Such people tend to have been successful in life and have not exposed themselves to difficult challenges where failure is a real possibility for many years. They are not used to doing things by rote and given their many years of established habits tend to quickly revert to the comfort zone these habits represent.

They are very different candidates to the typical airline cadet who expects to become part of a regimented and clearly defined system. They are not necessarily even similar to the existing core membership of PPL IR Europe. Members mostly obtained their IR under the old system. They for whatever reason were highly committed to the project of getting the rating, understood to a greater or lesser degree the hurdles and did not on the whole expect the system to adapt to them. They knew they were riding on the back of the commercial training process with all the compromises that implied.

This is not to say that the old system was good or the candidates exceptional. Rather for some reason they tended to be interested in flying and instrument flying in particular. In my own case for whatever geeky reason I was hooked. At one time or another I was member of almost every aviation group, subscribed to magazines, bought books etc. I did not find the learning easy but in spite of bankrupt flight schools and repeating exams that went out of validity, the balance between effort and reward somehow worked for me.

One of our longstanding members Nigel Everett decades ago co-wrote a book titled Attitude. It still rests on my bookshelves along with many other aviation related titles. One possibly slightly inaccurately remembered quotation sticks in my mind – ‘if they want you to sing rule Britannia with a banana in your ear don’t moan about it. Take singing lessons and seek out the right size banana’.

Applicants for the CBM IR have on the whole very unrealistic expectations of their own abilities, the magnitude of the task and the nature of the key problems. There is a slight undertone of them unconsciously expecting the system to adapt to them and not the reverse. The IMCR is not quite a negative but it can come close. Pilots think they can fly on instruments but some have never really been taught a proper scan, have no organised approach to the IF process and have flown almost entirely in near VMC. In short they have a VFR mindset. One of our recent candidates, a highly competent professional in his day job with a share in a high-performance aircraft and quite a lot of IMC experience commented ruefully as he left after his first training session ‘I really did not understand what I did not know’

If you read the forums, pilots complain about the difficulties of ADF tracking and the hold and apply energy to trying to find ways of avoiding learning to perform these tasks. Actually, the four key skills which if mastered are most likely to ensure success incur negligible financial outlay. It is not even necessary to be in an ATO or start the aircraft engine

  • Memorise the airborne checks
  • Know the power settings and configuration for each phase of flight
  • Really understand the avionics
  • Know the R/T calls

Most candidates arrive at Rate One Aviation have been provided with pre-course learning material and tell us that they have mastered these four skills. Almost without exception they have not. They cannot fire back a check or a power setting instantly in the way that a child can shout back 4 times 5 = 20. They cannot sit in the cockpit and set up the avionics in a matter of a couple of minutes. Even 30 or more hours into the course their finger still hovers across the various knobs and touch screens like a finger on the Ouija board at a séance. Endless ILS are commenced with GPS selected rather than VLOC, the instructors weary repetition of “Select Identify Display” forgotten yet again.

In part, our instruction is to blame. We are dealing with mature personable candidates and it is quite hard to treat them like junior school pupils. We tend to let them progress to more advanced lessons before they have really grasped the basics. It is quite hard to tell someone who has found a three-day gap in their busy work schedule that they cannot go flying until they can really shout back the checks, power setting or R/T call without the slightest hesitation. There is the old joke to the effect that teachers make the best sexual partners because they making you repeat things time after time till you really get them right. Sadly, it’s hard to see how this motivational technique can be applied to learning checks but I have wondered some computer based system in which candidates compete against the machine would work. This would make it easier to say sorry you cannot fly until you complete this exercise in under x seconds with a score of 90% so that the candidate might be motivated by competing against themselves.

Then we have candidates who are not really interested in Instrument Flight. Indeed, they may not be much interested in pilot skills at all. Perhaps they own a holiday home or have a business reason to travel regularly to Europe. They see the IR as transport and are not keen on learning anything that is not very directly correlated to their transport need. The signs are that they are not members of groups, don’t read the pilot magazines or contribute to the forums. It is perfectly possible to pass the skill test with this attitude but it is unlikely to help pilots develop airmanship or make them competent thinking participants in the overall instrument flight system.

There is a little bit of Frank Spencer (Some mothers do ‘av em’ TV Series star) in all of us but in some people there is a marked similarity. Their own aircraft has the disorganised and messy feel of a shared student flat. They never quite have all the required charts and plates. If it’s possible for some essential piece of equipment to go missing it will. Again, it is difficult for the ATO with mature customers but there is no doubt we would save pilots money and pain if they just abandoned their existing habits and let us specify which knee board to use, the exact PLOG layout and how to tie on their pencil so that it does not go missing at critical moments.

Most pilots R/T is quite poor. They say far too much and give no thought at all to the information that the controller really needs. This has its roots in poor PPL training and VFR R/T is even worse with that additional irritation that much VFR R/T serves little useful purpose. If R/T adopted the principal of the old telegram and a charge was made per word, the brevity and effectiveness of communications would be really enhanced.

On balance, I think that pretty much any one with a PPL can gain an IR. They are aided in this by the very predictable choreographed skill test format. They are also helped by the increasing difficulty in finding beacon slots for training. This means that there are only one or two test routes and they will have been practiced in advance possibly many many times. The instructional hour’s individuals need may vary wildly but if they persist they will get there in the end. The partial pass helps the most challenged candidates since examiners are human and are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt via a partial pass reserving the outright fail for the few unfortunates who make multiple clearly serious errors.

I am much less sanguine about whether candidates who take a very long time to reach test standard will be able to develop into safe and effective participants in the overall IFR system. Here there is not much demand for the precise responses to predictable challenges that characterise the skill test. Rather the demand is for good decision making, an ability to form a mental picture of the likely effect on them of multiple aircraft, ATC and the weather. They need to have enough spare mental processing power to keep track of this big picture and still retain a reserve to be able to deliver prompt effective responses to the unpredictable. This is something that someone who has used up most if not all their mental processing capacity on the basics is unlikely to be able to handle. One might hope that as with the IMC rating, common sense and a sense of self-preservation on the whole prevents pilots putting themselves into situations they cannot handle.