If you are searching for the “one” way to truly understand the weather…try being a part of it. To legally do this, you must fly under an IFR flight plan. And to legally do THAT, you must be instrument rated. Why? Because the FAA says so!

Weather is perhaps one of the most important aspects of your preflight planning. Under visual flight rules (VFR) you must adhere to visibility and cloud clearance limitations. Deteriorating weather could mean bad news. “An IFR rating could someday save your bacon!” is what one experienced pilot told me as I was nearing completion of my private certificate. So, the safety factor, plus the fact that you are allowed to fly INTO the clouds convinced me to pursue my instrument rating.

First of all, let me make one thing very clear: An instrument rating does NOT allow you to fly into any type of weather.  There are some visibility restrictions for approaches and of course you don’t want to fly into the angry teeth of a level 5 thunderstorm! Yikes! But it DOES allow you to fly while the VFR-only pilots are grounded, unable to take to the skies…or even worse, unable to get back home in time for work or their child’s piano recital! Double yikes!

Before every flight you must always get a weather briefing. When flying IFR, pay particular attention to areas such as winds aloft, icing, pireps, and visibility forecasts at your destination. Don’t worry too much about cloud cover or visibility during the enroute phase of your IFR flight as the limitations they impose on visibility are only relevant at the beginning and end of the flight.

Your perspective on the weather changes as you join the IFR world.  My first training flight under an IFR flight plan fortunately happened in mainly IMC (instrument meteorological conditions). No cheating. No looking from under the hood. You’re literally in the clouds, the rain, and the shifting winds. You glimpse intimately at weather in action. While flying into cumulus clouds you will likely encounter updrafts. Rain can be “showery” or widespread, just like on the ground. The air can be smooth or it can nearly knock your teeth out.

Nearing the end of my first flight with my head in the clouds, I started my ILS approach with plenty of time for a pre-approach brief. Even if you’re prepared, there’s LOTS that goes on all at once while approaching the Final Approach Fix. Factor in a little bad weather and the workload increases:  Maintain altitude, slow to approach speed, don’t bust minimums, fly the heading, cleared for the approach, don’t bust minimums, contact the tower, start the timer (not required on a precision approach, but what if the glide slope suddenly goes out?), don’t bust minimums. All this … while the weather blocks your view of “Home” or bounces you around all over the place.

What a challenge!

In the end, learning to fly IFR is a rewarding challenge, much like learning to fly in the first place. You’re just expected to take it a few levels up when flying IFR.

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