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A Bet You Can’t Afford To Lose

Martha and John’s Piper Cherokee 140. They used this airplane to build flight time to qualify for their instrument ratings.

VFR into IMC is a bad gamble.

Article appeared in Flying Magazine October 2020 by Martha King

He was a good friend: A ski resort developer, a leader in his community, someone we highly admired. He took off in his Cessna Cardinal at night from his ski resort during a snowstorm on a short trip he flew almost every weekend. He was not instrument-rated. He knew the route well, but obviously not well enough to fly it VFR in IMC.

Every case is individual, but there are countless like him. Recently a low-time, non-instrument-rated buyer of a piston twin was trying to get it home to California from the East Coast in a single day. He died a lonely death late at night in the remote mountains of Colorado.

Then there was the high-time helicopter pilot attempting to fly visually through a pass in low ceilings and fog in Southern California. The crash claimed nine lives including Kobe Bryant and his daughter.

None of them really had a chance. You simply can’t tell up from down in instrument conditions by looking out the window—regardless of how much flight time you have, how sophisticated the aircraft is, or even whether you are instrument-rated. What is mystifying is why pilots try it.

Our good friend in the Cardinal might have felt he was familiar enough with the trip to pull it off with the sketchy information he had available. The piston-twin pilot with very little experience might not have known enough to realize that nighttime over sparsely illuminated mountainous terrain does not provide enough visual information to stay upright. The other extreme is the highly experienced Sikorsky pilot who may have been betting the weather would allow him to stay visual enough to be able to tell up from down by looking out the window. He—and all eight of his passengers—lost the bet.

VFR flying for transportation is not dependable, and it has the additional downside of luring you into taking the risks that cause these kinds of accidents. The distressing thing about these VFR-into-IMC accidents is that they are almost always fatal.

The solution is simple: Be instrument-rated and -equipped, and fly IFR. So, why don’t people get an instrument rating as soon as they get their private certificate? Well, back when John and I started flying you had to have 200 flight hours to get an instrument rating. The theory was that “professional pilots” didn’t want unseasoned pilots in the clouds with them, gumming up the system. So we had to fly around VFR in our Cherokee 140, building time.

In the process, we scared ourselves badly. We both vividly remember being pressed down near the ground by clouds and then circling the airport at Perry, Florida, desperately trying to get lined up with any runway for landing.

Another stressful shared memory is of circling under a low ceiling over a town in Tennessee, clutching our sectional while trying to identify the set of railroad tracks out of town that did not have the tall antenna beside it.

These experiences left profound impressions on us that have lasted for decades. We are fortunate that during this time-building period, we didn’t lose the ultimate bet. Today, the FAA time-building requirement for an instrument rating is only 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross-country flight time.

The obvious thing is to start working on your instrument rating as soon as you get your private certificate. So why doesn’t everybody do that?

Well, for lots of reasons. First, it is a lot of expensive and time-consuming work. Also, one of the great pleasures of flying is its freedom, and the discipline of flying IFR requires a sacrifice of spontaneity.

Plus, the whole idea of getting yourself inside the clouds and then having to get back out of them and on the ground again is intimidating. Some pilots are afraid they are not up to it.

Moreover, the commitment to an instrument rating is no short-term proposition. Once you get instrument-rated, you need to maintain currency. And if your currency lapses, it takes work to regain it. It is easier now that simulators are more available and less expensive, but still, it requires tracking your currency and considerable effort to stay current.

Another concern pilots have regarding IFR flying is a possible encounter with the dual boogeymen of thunderstorms and ice. The good news is that, today, we have far better tools for avoiding them. In addition to expensive airborne radar, we now have the handy and inexpensive—or free—Nexrad, which provides a nationwide picture of the thunderstorm situation. The really great news is that not only is Nexrad readily accessible for preflight planning, but it is also available in the air for free with ADS-B In and for a fee from SiriusXM.

For avoiding ice in the clouds, graphical forecasts and pilot reports for icing are readily available from flight-planning programs.

But the bottom line is, if you are going to use an airplane for transportation, you really need to be instrument rated. Continuing to fly VFR for transportation keeps exposing you to the risk that someday the weather will be worse than you are betting on. It is a bet you can’t control and that you and your passengers can’t afford to lose.

The downside of instrument flying is it takes a lot of effort. It is not something you can do casually. For every flight, you need to have studied the charts you are going to use in advance and ensure they are handy when you fly. You need to be ready to navigate the route. Once you are in the air, you must be able to keep up a demanding pace until you are back on the ground again. There is no pause button.

But it is more than worth it. Flying IFR is deeply rewarding. There’s nothing more exhilarating than breaking out of low clouds at the end of an instrument approach to find a beautifully lit-up runway right in front of you. IFR flying takes advantage of an elaborate system that is maintained so you can much more safely get great utility from your aircraft. Failing to take advantage of that system is a sad waste.



  1. Ronald Alan Brooks

    After turning 60 and stepping down to “Recreational” in a light sport, I become amazed how much time and solid work is involved flying low and slow, even with a GPS, Mode S radar following and ADS-B. VFR requires much more than thinking ahead 5- to 10-minutes to communicate clearly, you have to be prepared to copy garbled clearances fast, explain your location because ATC rarely knows VFR reporting points and then expect to perform un-expected altitude and heading adjustments because you will always get the boot like the “Afgan Girl”.

  2. Mike Busch

    Martha wrote: “The downside of instrument flying is it takes a lot of effort.” I have to disagree. I think VFR requires much more effort than IFR. I’ve been flying for 55 years and 8000+ hours (all piston GA), and I’d guess 95% of that time was on an IFR flight plan. Sorry, Martha, color me lazy, but flying VFR is just too much work for me.

    • J. Goucher

      I’m a VFR pilot who recently took a trip from 2W6 in Southern Maryland to KFFA in Kitty Hawk, NC. I flew with a friend of mine – an IFR rated military pilot. He planned an instrument route on the flight down and I planned a VFR flight on the way back. We both briefed our respective flights prior to departing 2W6. The flight down was uneventful to say the least. He flew it at 7000 feet and aside from the occasional handoff, there was little radio chatter outside of the aircraft. The flight back, VFR at 3000 feet with flight following, was a different story. It might have been easier at a higher altitude, but I had the headwinds on the return trip so the lower altitude made more sense. A lot of jokes and some honest conversation took place about how much more workload I had to verify my visual reference points, see and avoid traffic, communicate with ATC for traffic avoidance and handoffs… Bottom line, based on this one experience, I have to agree with Mr. Busch that IFR planning and execution was easier than the VFR flight, at least on this day!

      I wonder what other stories are out there… Is the planning and execution of an IFR flight generally more or less workload than a VFR flight to the same destination?

  3. L. Mega

    I am a pilot-to-be who completely agrees with absolutely everything in this article. The new VFR pilot can’t afford to NOT become IFR certified: flying into IFR conditions is simply a roulette of time. As well, I would go so far as to say that the first purchase a new VFR pilot should make is that of a high-quality, Google-Earth linked flight simulator: not to learn to fly, but to build familiarity with the actual route and pattern before it is flown. This would be a great “flight club” purchase. I think, with our modern capabilities, that “VFR certified” should equate in any new-pilot’s mind to “IFR- pilot-in-training.”

  4. Roy Winters

    Hi, I am a late bloomer to GA. I got my private pilot three years ago at age 62 and my Instrument rating one year ago. The instrument rating gives you true flying freedom. If the forecast is for broken or overcast below 3000 feet I fly IFR at 6000 or 7000 because altitude is your friend. I usually avoid landings where VFR conditions aren’t at an airfield. However when I picked up a new 182 in Wichita this past December after delaying a day to leave to avoid icing conditions (WXbrief is a pilots best friend). We proceeded IFR and conditions did turn to forecast IMC to Pine Bluff AK with a true instrument approach in IMC followed by IFR to Mobile AL again with another instrument approach. The next day was IFR again to get to Saint Petersburg FL passing through my first Class B airspace. While ATC has control over most of your actions when IFR, I got the clearances I filed for and all was safe and predictable. I might still be in Wichita today if not for my IFR capabilities.

  5. Tom Kampel

    How do you explain the value of an instrument rating to a pilot who is a 2K VFR pilot with no in motion incidents that bulks during testing of any kind?

    • HT

      That is a very good point and one I can relate to….in my club, we have a very experienced pilot with well over 1300 TT and no IFR rating…he is know as a “maverick” because he not only flies in less than ideal weather he also will not talk to ATC and request FF…he is “that guy” at 10,500 feet not talking to anyone and flying around class Bravos…his claim is he does not want ATC telling him what to do…

      • Pablo Herrera

        He is a Fool and should not be flying. He has a responsibility to the pilots around him, the air traffic controllers, who have to account for a plane with no filed plans.and GA in general. Its NOT about him. Pilots like him create a bad name for GA.

    • Pilot One

      It sounds like you know your limitations very well, and stick to your personal minimums with a discipline that should be applauded. Unfortunately not all pilots are as disciplined as you are to have such a great safety record, this article is for them.

  6. Gene Woods

    I always remember John King’s advice about IFR flying. “The two most important things about flying IFR are the next two things.” If you’re flying IFR and you find yourself with nothing to do, refer back to this advice.

    • HT

      Yup! My CFII taught me from the very beginning of IFR training this: “what are you currently doing, what is next, and what is after that?’ if you ran out of “things” to do, then you setting up yourself to be behind the airplane VERY quickly…I have checks and call outs all the way to 500 to minimums…and even then, I have my after landing sequence and checklists etc. Once the plane is shut down and parked, I relax 🙂

  7. Christopher Roberts

    I started flying to reduce the time driving in the car and reduce nights staying away from my family in hotels, but it wasn’t until instrument rated that I was able to make a high enough percentage of the planned trips for the plan to work effectively. Along the way I found I loved flying IFR and experienced the privilege and beauty of the sunshine above the clouds when the day for the rest of the world is dull and wet below them.

  8. Errol Forman

    I’ve been flying for almost 65 years. I am a retired Eastern Airlines Capt. flying Boeing 727‘s for over 20,000 hours. I’ve had 11 general Aviation aircraft including two Cessna citation’s two Mitsubishis one arrow star and three V-tail bonanzas and several Cessna single engine aircraft. I ask younger people who are learning to fly or people who have low time in general aviation aircraft and I asked them to define flying in one word and they usually can’t do it. The word is airspeed if you don’t have air speed you’re not flying and another really important word is judgment. Good judgment will get you to my age which is 80 years old and still going strong. I’m presently flying my Cessna citation S2 550 and looking for my next airplane which I hope will be a falcon 10. I understand that Martha and John have owned a Falcon 10 for many years and would look forward to hearing more of your experiences with that Aircraft.

    • Sonny

      Errol, thanks for sharing your wisdom. Your commentary reminds me of one of the Kings’ favorite quotes: There are bold pilots and old pilots, but no old, bold pilots.

    • HT

      Yes sir! – good advice! I spent plenty of time flying on Eastern out of SJU back in the 80s…from the 727s to the A300s – sure miss the airline.

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