Editor's Note: This article is the first installment in a five-part series by Master CFI/CFII/MEI Gary Reeves, which discusses the most common mistakes he sees good IFR pilots and CFIIs keep making (and how you can avoid them).
There are many reasons to start flying under instrument flight rules (IFR). To name a few, getting your instrument rating or instrument instructor rating is one of the best ways to become a better, safer pilot or flight instructor. In Class B airspace, flying IFR tends to be much easier than flying under visual flight rules (VFR). IFR flying is also safer in many ways. For example, flying under IFR at night can help guarantee you have obstacle clearance on a published approach.
Yet to take advantage of the many benefits of instrument flying, you must avoid the common pitfalls. The first of those potential mistakes is flying under VFR when you have an instrument rating.
Although VFR flying has slightly higher risks than flying under IFR, there are times when it is required. Certain airports, especially inside the surface ring of Class B airspace, will not allow an IFR clearance to depart. Bountiful Airpark (KBTF) near Salt Lake City is one example. Occasionally, VFR is also easier and faster.
However, when you have the option of flying under IFR, there are two main problems with filing a VFR flight plan.
Pilots who try to duck and dodge around controlled airspace cause a high percentage of airspace violations, especially when they fly into unfamiliar airspace.
If you fly VFR consistently, you risk quickly losing the IFR proficiency you worked so hard to gain. An instrument rating is among the more challenging ratings or endorsements to obtain as a general aviation pilot, so you certainly do not want those skills to atrophy.
Many of you reading this have never gone missed on an approach to minimums in real life, nor do you probably fly holds regularly (especially if you fly in busy B areas that rarely get solid instrument meteorological conditions [IMC]). Phoenix-area pilots are a perfect example. The weather is usually visual meteorological conditions (VMC), and the airspace is so crowded that even practice approaches may not be available from air traffic control.
However, no matter the typical procedures and weather conditions at your local airport, practicing your IFR skills and shooting approaches regularly — whether at another nearby airport or in a flight simulator — is worth the extra effort to keep your skills sharp and prepare for unexpected events. In many ways, pilot proficiency is similar to fluency in a language. Think about how many people took multiple years of language in high school. How many of them do you think are fluent in that language today?
It takes consistent practice to gain and maintain fluency — or functional proficiency, at least. If you filed an IFR flight plan on every flight — or at least 95% of them — got your clearance before departing, flew a published approach with the procedure turn, and then canceled IFR after landing, you would be much better at IFR!
If the flight is in VMC, it may not count toward legal currency. However, proficiency, when you need it, is the true goal. To maintain your legal currency, I suggest flying with a safety pilot or doing an instrument proficiency check with a flight instructor to practice missed approaches, holding, and emergencies. You can also maintain your currency on a flight simulator, with or without an instructor present.