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Instrument Current vs. Instrument Proficient

The Instrument Rating requires more than mastery of instrument procedures and flight skills -- it also requires mastery of the paperwork that tells you when you're current and when you're not.The Instrument Rating requires more than mastery of instrument procedures and flight skills -- it also requires mastery of the paperwork that tells you when you're current and when you're not. Currency means that a pilot meets the regulations that pertain to instrument recent experience. Instrument proficiency means being able to venture into the IFR system and into IFR conditions with confidence, and with respect for your 'personal minimums.' Being legal to fly IFR and being proficient to fly IFR are not always the same thing.

BY THE BOOK
In general terms: 'If you don't use it -- you lose it!' The regulation is a broad brush by necessity -- the FAA can't possibly know exactly what level of practice every pilot will need to stay instrument-sharp so they use a set of arbitrary numbers and tasks that hopefully will do the job.

DRAWING THE LINE: THE REGS
The regulation divides instrument pilots into two categories: those that are 'current' and those that are 'not current.'

Current: When you pass an Instrument Rating Practical test you are automatically awarded six months of currency. This means that during the next 6 months you can file and fly IFR.

Not Current: If you do not remain active and fail to fly IFR in those six months, you loose your ability to file and fly IFR -- you become 'not current.' Then you enter into a six-month grace period.

Regaining Currency, The Six Month Rules: For the next six months, starting with the month that you first become 'not current' you cannot file and fly IFR -- BUT you do have the ability to regain your currency on your own. You are allowed to regain your currency by performing certain maneuvers -- BUT you must do these maneuvers in VFR conditions, since you cannot go IFR while not current.

  • You must complete six instrument approaches and at some point do a holding pattern.
  • The regulation also requires you to perform 'intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems' but this is redundant – you must do all that to complete any instrument approach.
Regaining Currency, After Six Months: After the six-month grace period elapses, you can only regain currency on an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC). Any Instrument Flight Instructor can perform an IPC. You would have to provide an airplane and pay the CFII to work with you on the check ride. After successfully completing what is essentially a re-do of your IFR check ride, the CFII will endorse your logbook and award you another six months of currency ... then it starts all over again.

STAYING LEGAL, THE QUIZ...
Sometimes all these months and rules run together so take this quiz a see how well you understand:

A private pilot takes and passes an Instrument check ride on March 15, 2001. The following month, that pilots files and flies IFR and shoots an ILS approach. In May 2001, the pilot flies IFR again and this time completes a holding pattern and an NDB approach. In June, July, and August, the pilot does not make any IFR flights.

Given this history, is the pilot legal to file and fly IFR on September 10, 2001?

The answer is all backward: The regulations require you to count the months backward to answer the question. FAR 61.57(c) says that you can't file and fly IFR 'unless within the proceeding 6 calendar months' you meet the flight requirements. So from the calendar month of September 2001 you count backward six months and end up back at March (August: 1, July: 2, June: 3, May: 4, April: 5, and March: 6). It was in the month of March that the pilot passed the IFR check ride -- so on September 10 the pilot is legal to fly IFR.

MOVING FORWARD
Now let's say that at the last minute the pilot had to cancel the flight. In this case, no IFR experience is gained in September. Then On October 17, 2001 the pilot is faced with an IFR flight. Is the pilot now legal to fly IFR?

The answer is still backward: Counting six months backward from October you end up in April. From April to October the only experience the pilot has completed is an ILS, an NDB, and a hold -- and that does not meet the requirements for an IFR flight in October.

The current strategy: Our pilot could enlist the services of a safety pilot* and go out in VFR conditions to complete his currency requirements -- four more instrument approaches. The four approaches added with the ILS from March and the NDB in May would allow the pilot to regain currency.

ONE LAST QUESTION
If the pilot did go out and complete four approaches in VFR conditions during the month of October, could that pilot file and fly IFR in November?

No.

Why: If you count six months backward from November you end up in May, so whatever the pilot had done in April no longer counts. That ILS approach in April no longer matters. This pilot would be required to go out in VFR conditions and complete one more approach to replace that ILS approach lost from April. After replacing that approach the pilot would again have the required six approaches and one hold within the past six months. Maintaining legal currency is a never-ending exercise. Note: the regulation specifically says 'calendar' months so my references to September 10 and October 17 were put in there to throw you off -- the actual day within the month does not matter.

Every month must be re-evaluated, because as the months pass flight experiences that you did in the past drop off and must be replaced.

CURRENT AND PROFICIENT
After all the regulations are met, the question of a pilot's instrument proficiency may still remain unanswered. A pilot may have flown the required approaches and conducted a holding pattern and still not be prepared for what they might face in hard IFR.

Currency has laws to go by; proficiency does not.

BOTTOM LINE: The proficiency of a pilot can only be known in the mind of that pilot. You cannot be a safe instrument pilot by simply following the rules. You must also be honest with yourself and set your own limitations. With instrument currency, it is legal for you to file and fly when the ceiling is 200 overcast with one-half-mile visibility -- but that does not mean you would be safe in those conditions.
Guide: Set personal minimums that start at 1,000 broken and 2 miles visibility when you first become IFR rated and then work your way down with time and experience. Currency equals legality. Proficiency equals safety. You want to be an instrument pilot that has both.

*What is a safety pilot? Any pilot (except a student pilot) who are themselves current and rated to fly the aircraft being used can serve as a safety pilot. Remember that during the six-month grace period a non-current instrument pilot can regain their currency by flying VFR and completing approaches and holds. If the instrument pilot in this situation simulates IFR condition with some kind of 'view-limiting device' like a hood or goggles, they must also have someone in the airplane that can look out for traffic. Safety pilots must be able to themselves take over and fly the airplane while they serve as a safety pilot. When a safety pilot is used to regain instrument currency FAR 61.51(g)(3)(ii) requires that the pilot working on currency list the name of the safety pilot in their logbook. More on the safety pilots next week!

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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