February 1st, 2015
Total Hours: 153.5
After a bit of a break I started my instrument training this week. The instrument training is the last part of my program and will have two phases that will happen more or less simultaneously. Just like the commercial and CFI portions of my training I will be working on the instrument rating and the CFII rating at the same time. Perhaps I will take a moment to clarify between a certificate and a rating for those who are curious.
A certificate covers a broad area. You can earn a certificate as a student pilot, private pilot, commercial pilot, certificated flight instructor (CFI), etc. Ratings are added to whatever certificate or certificates you hold. For example a pilot could hold a private certificate with an “airplane, single-engine land” rating or a “rotorcraft, helicopter” rating on it. In addition to the various categories and classes of aircraft that can be added to a certificate a pilot could have an instrument rating added on as well. In my case the first portion of my training will add an instrument rating to my commercial certificate and the second portion will add an instrument rating to my CFI certificate, making it a CFII.
What is the purpose of an instrument rating? Well, as I’ve covered here and there in previous posts instrument flying is a little different from what many imagine. I know I always thought that instrument flying meant the pilot could not see anything and had to aviate and navigate just by reference to the instruments. This is only half true. A lot of instrument flying is done in conditions that would be perfectly acceptable for visual flight. But there are advantages to instrument flying. One is more assistance and attention from ATC. Another is more direct routing. And if there is a little weather on the way, or simply a cloud layer, there is no need to change course to avoid it. Above 18,000’ all flights are done under instrument rules. This is because the traffic there is predominantly fast moving and covering long distances. The easiest way to ensure safe passage for all the traffic is by routing them in specific corridors across the sky.
This is where the second part comes in. Even if the conditions allow for visual flight instrument flights must be done by reference to the instruments. Strict altitude and heading directions must be followed and nearly every move a pilot makes is directed by ATC. It is a far cry from cruising around a couple thousand feet off the ground looking for cool to check out. So, with IFR (instrument flight rules) a pilot gets increased efficiency and perhaps a larger safety margin, but looses out on some of the fun and freedom of VFR (visual flight rules) flying. Due to the efficiency IFR flying makes the most sense for the airlines and others who use aviation strictly for transport. The average general aviation pilot who goes cruising on the weekends isn’t really in need of instrument training and tends to avoid IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) anyway. But of course there is always something to be said for more training, no matter what type it is. Knowledge does make better pilots, and getting an instrument rating is a sure way to increase your knowledge.
So where do helicopters come into all of this? A great question! Helicopters don’t cruise at high altitudes, high airspeeds, or carry passengers over long distances. In fact there are few segments of the helicopter industry that fly in instrument conditions. The simple reason for this is the landing. All of the instrument aviating in the world doesn’t do you much good if you can’t land at the other end. And what you need to land are the various systems installed at all major airports. In fact a surprising number of smaller ones have various types of instrument approaches as well. These systems and procedures guide aircraft right down to the runway and depending on the specific setup flights can be made down to near zero visibility. But helicopters don’t frequent big airports, or even small ones, because then you could just use an airplane! It does seem that there is an interest in getting instrument guidance systems installed on oilrigs and hospital helipads though. And not surprisingly these are the two segments of the industry that are the most keen on actual instrument flying.
In the oil drilling world flying is done point-to-point and it would be possible to fly IFR out to the rig and back again. And even in the EMS world instrument flying might allow an otherwise grounded crew to depart the hospital under poor conditions, make a pickup somewhere with reasonable weather, and return to the hospital again. But imagine a helicopter EMS ship leaving the hospital only to arrive on scene in instrument conditions. Without a guidance system there is no way they could safely guide the ship into a landing zone along a freeway or out in the backcountry. This is the main obstacle to instrument flying for most helicopter operations. The sites where we work most often don’t have instrument guidance. Despite this it is becoming commonplace to have an instrument rating on your helicopter commercial certificate regardless of whether or not you will do any actual instrument flying. The reason is that instrument training makes us better pilots. Not only do we get better at using the equipment in the ship, we also broaden our understanding of ATC and the big picture they are looking at. Overall the instrument rating is a great way to continue building skills and add more efficiency and understanding to your piloting skills.