Jim’s thoughts on the CBM-IR

The Competency Based Modular IR

The flexibility of the new way of attaining an IR has, as intended, encouraged many pilots who had previously thought an IR beyond their reach to give acquiring one serious consideration. Given my background in the development of this rating and my role in starting Rate One Aviation, the ATO that first gained approval to teach it, I would not wish to discourage anyone from aspiring to an IR. I have spent a considerable time talking to pilots and explaining the issues. I believe that this encouraging interest and optimism in the rating needs to be nurtured with good information and a modicum of realism if effort and money is not to be wasted.

Part of the problem is that the number of people who really understand about teaching the IR to a PPL is small. If you add to that the need to understand how the CBM IR works and how the skill test is changing the number of really well informed sources of advice is very small indeed.  Keep in mind that for the last decade or so very small numbers of PPL holders obtained an IR in the UK.  Only ATO’s could train for the old IR and their focus, if they wished to survive as a business, had to be commercial pilot training. The great majority of candidates were young motivated cadets focussed on their career. The ATO would be likely to have such cadets within its system for 100 or more hours. Their training methods and structures were appropriate to this type of customer.

The contrast with training a mature PPL holder is stark. Now we have pilots of widely varying age and background for whom instrument flying plays one part, perhaps a peripheral part, in their overall family and business life. It is hardly likely that that the methods and attitudes that worked well when instructing full time young cadets will still be effective.

Historically, at least in the UK, the other context in which the PPL encountered instrument flight training was the IMC Rating. Here the candidates came with a much broader spread of abilities and personal characteristics.  Their instructors came with an even wider spread of attitudes, experience and capabilities. The aircraft used for the training were in some cases on the edges of being truly IFR capable.  This is not to denigrate the value of what was a popular rating but in many cases its focus was really enabling essentially VFR pilots to fly in more marginal conditions. In a minority of cases the training was to pretty much IR standards and can be a very sound basis for further IR training but in other cases it can engender habits and attitudes that are difficult to modify and a real hindrance to IR training.

There are of course many highly competent and admirable pilots with backgrounds in the RAF or the airlines. Many of them will have gained a single pilot IR in a general aviation aircraft. Quite possibly that experience was gained twenty or more years ago and they may have done little or no flying of that kind since. The most well meaning advice from this kind of source may well not reflect the situation as it pertains today.

I am labouring the point but it needs the emphasis. There is an awful lot of well meaning but very mistaken advice being given to pilots and this will lead to a lot of heartache and wasted expense.

There are only a very small number of instructors in the UK who actually have real experience of teaching PPL holders for the IR in the context of the skill test and the CBM IR as it now exists.  There are even fewer pilots who have used a single pilot IR to fly extensively using a general aviation aircraft. There are a minuscule number of instructors who have given any real consideration to adapting training methods to take advantage of the changes to the IR in ways that give candidates the best chance of a first time pass.

I have now spoken at length to approaching 100 aspiring IR candidates. The rest of this document sets out my take on some of the misconceptions and gives hints as to the ways in which candidate can maximise their chances of gaining that coveted first time pass.

The Candidate

Candidates are typically middle aged or older. They may have a demanding job. They try and achieve some reasonable life balance.  They want to achieve an IR but some have not really thought through the level of commitment needed.  Anyone who has a PPL could get an IR but in extreme cases it might take 60 or even 80 hours instruction.  Instrument flying skills decay at an alarming rate if they are not used. If you are not willing or able to fly some sensible minimum number of IFR hours a year   and /or make arrangements for ongoing training to maintain currency maybe the balance of effort to reward involved in gaining the rating is not correct for you.  If you are not willing to put some other aspects of your life into second place and devote all your energies to instrument flying while under training your process will be seriously hampered. This is not to say that compromises cannot be made but nothing in aviation comes cost free. You will take longer, perhaps a lot longer to achieve the required standard.

The Aircraft

Many pilots want to train on their own aircraft or the cheapest aircraft they can lay their hands on at their home base. They rationalise this by saying they want training to be relevant to their future flying or that that their familiarity with their own aircraft will give them a head start.  In the great majority of cases this is simply a serious mistake.  An ideal IR training aircraft has a set of inherent handling characteristics and an avionics fit which is targeted on the needs of the skill test.  A good ATO will have spent large sums on acquiring and modifying such an aircraft. They will have developed a set of operating procedures and speeds which ease the task of instrument flying.

“You approach the glide slope at 110 knots clean with power set at 18” and 2300 RPM, with all your checks complete and the localiser centred  when the glideslope shows one dot up you drop the undercarriage and at half a dot up you take a stage of flap. With no need to even retrim the extra drag settles the aircraft onto a three degree slope and only the most minor adjustments are needed to retain the slope down to minima.”

Ok this is an idealised picture but not by very much.

You start with an aircraft that is stable and has adequate flap and gear limiting speeds. You might wish to avoid complexity that brings no benefit in this training situation like turbo charging and cowl flaps. (I will only consider SEP aircraft as the number of PPL MEP pilots is now vanishingly small). The aircraft will have at the very least an HSI. This might be as part of a glass cockpit but the old King KCS 55 is still the best display you can get. Actually glass cockpits have in some ways gone backwards in regard to the simplification of scan but that’s a discussion for another day. You must have a decent ADF and it needs to drive an RMI. You can argue till the cows come home about outdated technology but you are trying to pass the IR skill test as it exists. If you have an ancient ADF that works out to five or six miles and is displayed on a fixed card indicator you can still pass the test but it will be significantly harder and might take you an extra  five or six hours training to reach the required standard.

A panel mounted GPS; say at least a non-WAAS Garmin 430 is essential. GPS navigation is now allowed for most of the test and you cannot be airways legal without one. DME is also essential. An autopilot is not essential but is certainly an advantage as use is allowed on the level airways sector and give you chance for a short breather while you get the destination ATIS written down. A fuel totaliser is helpful as it largely obviates the need for a fuel log and some convenient way of timing is essential. This can of course be a stopwatch on the kneeboard but typically some timer in the panel works better.  A vertical card compass is a final nicety that will make limited panel turns trivial.

Not having brakes on the P2 side may be a showstopper since few examiners are willing to accept that situation. Engines over 12 year’s old running on condition used to be unacceptable but that seems no longer to be the case. Very old panels that have all the necessary equipment but scatter it widely in places that make the scan difficult should be avoided. Overall, unless your own aircraft comes quite close to the ideal it may cost you more to pass the test than if you use the ATO’s own aircraft.

Prior Experience

The value of prior experience is hugely variable. At best it can be entirely helpful, at worse you would be better off without it. In a minority of cases its simply very bad instruction leading to a misunderstanding about what you are trying to achieve.  More common is indifferent instruction subsequently made worse by pilots developing bad habits of their own.  A reliable indicator of this is discussion what you would do if encountering IMC unexpectedly. A well trained pilot will have an IFR mindset, climbing to a safe IFR altitude, having the equipment and preparation in place to recover by means of an instrument approach which they feel competent to complete.  The contrasting attitude will be a general feeling of being able to keep the aircraft vaguely under control while regaining visual conditions.  There is nothing wrong with being a VFR pilot who, thanks to some training, is able to cope with poor visibility or unexpected events.  However that is not the same as being an instrument pilot. The mindset is completely different.

Bad habits can be very hard to break and instructors are faced with a difficult decision in deciding what simply much be changed and what habits are unhelpful but not dangerous and just have to be accepted.  Instructing in this context is much more difficult.

The very worst way of going about getting an IR is not to make contact with the ATO who will finish off your course at the very outset.  If you just practice in whatever aircraft is available using a local instructor or in your local area you are wasting your time and your money. If you do this and roll up to an ATO expecting to pass the skill test after the minimum 10 hours dual you will be sadly disappointed. It takes about two hours to fly a skill test profile and most pilots cannot really manage four intensive hours instruction in a day. Every hour flown required two hours on the ground assuming you already have the full set of knowledge and skills. The most normal pattern for a day’s flying is one test profile and an hour or so practicing those things you got wrong or were less than perfect. So 10 hours will allow you to fly the possible test routes three times perhaps involving airspace and airfields you have never previously visited. If you think this is a poor basis for a first time pass compared with a system that might have had you flying out of the that airfield for many hours you are 100% correct .

If you take nothing else from this note go to an approved ATO very early in the process, do an assessment flight. Get their advice and inform yourself about their standard operating procedures and checks. If you don’t like them for whatever reason go to another ATO and repeat the process. Decide where you are going to finish up your training before you spend much money and effort in any other way.


Only a minority of pilots come at this task with the right attitude. It has to be said that a few should probably not try and achieve the rating. This is not because they are incapable of getting an IR but rather that the effort it will demand is not proportionate to the role it will play in their life overall.

The very best candidates come and stay in a local B& B. They try to the best of their ability to shut out their business and personal life. In the evenings they talk about and think about what they will be doing during the next day. They are realistic and if anything too self critical. Their instructor will rarely have point out an error of which they are unaware more than once. That does not mean that they won’t struggle to get things right just that they will know what they are trying to achieve and will be their own sternest critics.

Checks and SOPS

Probably the hardest thing about an IR is getting the checks and standard operating procedures really understood and memorised. This process costs nothing. Once they have been explained, you simply have to learn them. It will be most difficult with your own aircraft since some aspects of the procedures speeds power setting etc, will need to be developed but even so learning them is the difficult part. Only one candidate in 10 manages to do this without wasting their money and the instructor’s time by perfecting them at the same time as learning to fly the procedures.

When I say learn I mean rote learning in the style of reciting the three times table, the names of your children and relatives or whatever else is second nature to you. This does not mean you can just about recite the checks but only after consideration or going back to items you have missed. When under pressure flying in IFR your brain capability is at best 50% of that available to you on the ground. That capability can easily reduce to near zero.  If you cannot sit opposite me at a desk and talk though the skill test profile telling me exactly what power setting  you would adopt and the  checks you would make at every stage of the profile what chance do you have of delivering an acceptable performance in the air.

There is an inescapable hierarchy of actions in instrument flying.

  1. Do it at home if you can
  2. Do it at the airfield on the day if you can
  3. Do it in the cockpit before you start the engine if you can
  4. Do it after start but before taxi if you can
  5. Do it at the holding point if you can
  6. Do it in the air only if there is absolutely no other option.


In an ideal world you would do all your training at the location from which you will take your test. You might reasonably argue that the IR is a qualification that enables you to fly worldwide so you should be able to fly from anywhere. That is both correct and completely mistaken. You are trying to pass a rather artificial and very difficult skill test. You need every possible advantage. Nothing whatsoever stops you having additional training after you have passed your test. A good ATO will be entirely focussed on getting you a first time pass. The rest can, to some extent, come later. There are a wide range of factors that make some, perhaps most airfields lousy places to learn to fly IFR. They may not have their own instrument approaches, they may be too quiet or they may be too busy. Their access to the airways might be very complicated and for your skill test you must enter an airway. There needs to be a choice of skill test routes but ideally that choice should not be too wide. Some instrument approach procedures have ‘gotchas’ that make mistakes more likely. Of course you can be trained to avoid the mistakes but its best to avoid the situations. Few things in general aviation are  ideal but your ATO instructor should be able to talk convincingly about the sort of routes and procedures you are practicing and how they relate to or ideally are exactly the same as the  routes and procedures you are likely to get in the skill test


You need to start out with the ATO where you think you will be finishing up your training. This does not mean you need to do all your training with them simply that you should understand their system, their attitudes, their test locations and above all their checks and SOPs. You can then do you very best to ensure that in solo flying and when doing any dual flying at your local airfield you operate in that framework. This ensures that there will be the absolute minimum of disconnect when you roll up for the final race to the finish. The very best way to train is in one continuous process leaving a few days free at the end to allow you to choose decent weather for the skill test but very few people are able to adapt their lives to allow for this degree of continuity. Just accept that whatever compromises you make will mean that the amount of training needed will increase. If you spread out your training over a significant number of individual days or occasional weekends the total hours required will increase very significantly indeed,

Theoretical knowledge (TK)

The old advice was to get the TK out of the way at the start. TK is much more achievable and rather more focussed on relevant knowledge and the CAA testing is more flexible so this is not quite as true as it was. It is undoubtedly correct that the theory  needs to be passed well before your final intensive pre-test training but there is an argument for doing some flying along the way so as to keep you motivated and in order to put the TK into some practical context. For continental pilots who cannot build experience it is likely that integrated courses will evolve in which TK and flying are integrated as is the case for some commercial training.


Approved simulators are allowable for a large proportion of the course. However in the UK where candidates typically now come to the process with adequate prior qualifying experience the issue is one of competence rather than building hours. The simulator is a wonderful tool for practicing techniques and procedures but it is becoming questionable, at least in the UK, whether the expense of having them CAA qualified is worthwhile. This is not the case in commercial training where candidates do need to build hours and the cost saving and teaching efficiency of the simulator is valuable.  Nor is it the case in mainland Europe where candidates do not have access to the IR(R) to build hours. The jury is out on this one.

How long will it take?

This is the question everyone asks. There is no simple answer. There is certainly no answer unless you take the trouble to fly with an instructor from an active CBM IR ATO. After such a flight you can expect some sort of answer although it is likely that a degree of uncertainty will remain. Typically skills do not improve in a linear fashion. For some reason almost all pilots have a serious setback along the way. They are progressing nicely, candidate and instructor start talking in terms of probably x more hours to the test and then one flight is disastrous and sets the process back. However, that single assessment flight and a day spent talking about the process and the skills needed still pays huge dividends. You will at least understand the parameters and be able to form your own judgements. We have already talked about the elements that influence the outcome. The older you get the more difficult the process. The more continuity you can achieve, the easier the process becomes. The more training takes place in the context of the eventual test the better. The more training takes place with a really focussed knowledgeable instructor the better. The closer your aircraft characteristics are to the school’s own aircraft the better your chances.


None of this is intended to discourage you from giving the IR a try. Get some good advice, have an assessment flight at an ATO and then if you decide to go for it you will have the best possible chance of a successful outcome. The IR is the most difficult flight test any pilot will encounter in the IR career but the satisfaction when you walk away with that coveted entry on the rating page of your licence will be a high spot in your life.