How much “actual instrument” flight time do you have? Chances are if you’re a VFR pilot, you do not have any unless it was with an instructor. If you’re an instrument rated pilot, however, you should have some flight time logged in what FAR 61.51 considers “solely by reference to instruments in actual conditions.”
Aeronautical experience in the FARs does not require you to have any actual instrument flight time to obtain your instrument rating. You can earn your instrument rating with flight time in simulated conditions. This is because instrument flight rules (IFR) and instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) are much less prevalent in certain areas of the world. IFR exists when the ceiling is less than 1000 feet above the ground and/or the visibility is less than 3 statute miles. IMC is basically when you’re flying in the clouds, and it could either be VFR or IFR below you.
If you live in areas of the world where IFR/IMC are common (anywhere in the US other than the southwest), training for your instrument ticket should provide many opportunities to log time flying in the clouds. Why is this so important? Isn’t wearing a view limiting device for your instrument training good enough to prepare you for the real thing? The short answer – NO.
Now, the longer answer – the view limiting device (hood) is great for developing your instrument scan which is the foundation of instrument flying. However, it does not give a realistic simulation of flying in the clouds or low visibility, which is exactly what you’re allowed to do, without an instructor, when you receive your instrument rating. Wearing the hood while flying doesn’t simulate all the different types and illusions present in cloud flying. Some things can only be experienced by doing the real thing.
Take for example flying while skimming the tops of a cloud layer or illusions felt when breaking in and out of broken or overcast layer. Or how about embedded thunderstorm or ice avoidance while flying in the clouds and determining what kind of clouds are friendly and those to avoid. And even the fact that you can call it quits and take your hood off any time. These are all good examples of the importance of flying the real thing.
Flying in actual IFR or IMC isn’t necessarily harder; it’s just different than flying in simulated conditions. So what are some ways to get this experience? During your instrument training is the best and most obvious way to get started. You’ll want to be sure you’re with an experienced instructor who’s done it before. The next and more complicated step is to try seeking out these conditions.
Look at your surrounding weather. If these conditions don’t exist in your area, look at a weather depiction chart and find the closest IFR conditions. If it is IFR in your area, take advantage of it. Skip the ground lesson or the simulator (approach minimums permitting) and go fly with your instructor.
The beginning stages of instrument training are spent developing your instrument scan and multitasking. It may be VFR outside, but if there’s a broken or overcast layer, climb up to get to it. Practice your scan along with VOR, GPS, or NDB tracking while flying in actual. If you’ve already got your instrument rating with little to no instrument time, it’s a good idea to keep your CFI’s phone number close by. Call them if you know it’s going to be IFR, and go get some actual instrument time. Or if you want to go solo, start with flying in a high overcast layer. As you feel more comfortable, you can fly in lower ceilings and visibility on subsequent flying days, but even the seasoned pros have a contingency plan. Flying in the clouds is beautiful, fun, and almost always looks different. Respect it, know your personal limitations, and stay instrument current!