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Instrument Proficiency Check

There it is, in my logbook in May of 1990…0.5 hours in a Cessna 172 over central Missouri, one NDB approach under the hood…and an instructor sign-off for an instrument competency check, what is now known as an instrument proficiency check (IPC). In the mind of my CFII (certificated flight instructor-instrument) I'd demonstrated enough competency in that short time aloft for him to bet his career and fortune (and my life) that I was safe to fly in weather of my choosing. I was too new a pilot at the time to know any better.

There it is, in my logbook in May of 1990...0.5 hours in a Cessna 172 over central Missouri, one NDB approach under the hood...and an instructor sign-off for an instrument competency check, what is now known as an instrument proficiency check (IPC). In the mind of my CFII (certificated flight instructor-instrument) I'd demonstrated enough competency in that short time aloft for him to bet his career and fortune (and my life) that I was safe to fly in weather of my choosing. I was too new a pilot at the time to know any better.

The Rules Federal Air Regulation (FAR) 61.57 tells us what we need to do to legally fly as pilot in command on an instrument flight plan (whether or not we actually enter instrument meteorological conditions). Unless within the preceding six months we have not

  • passed a flight check for the purpose of earning the instrument rating, adding a rating including instrument privileges (examples: adding on a multiengine instrument rating; adding the CFII), or the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, which by nature includes an instrument flight check; or
  • logged at least six instrument approaches in "actual" conditions, including navigation tracking and holding procedures; then

we need to demonstrate our capability for instrument flight with an instrument proficiency check.

IPC
FAR 61.57: Recent flight experience: Pilot in command. (d) Instrument proficiency check. Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, a person who does not meet the instrument experience requirements of paragraph (c) of this section within the prescribed time, or within 6 calendar months after the prescribed time, may not serve as pilot in command under IFR or in weather conditions less than the minimums prescribed for VFR until that person passes an instrument proficiency check consisting of a representative number of tasks required by the instrument rating practical test.

Re-read that last part: "...consisting of a representative number of tasks required by the instrument rating practical test." The old instrument competency check (the less-informed still call it the "ICC") allowed the CFII administering the "check" to include only those items which, in the CFII's view, showed the pilot was qualified to exercise his or her instrument privileges. Trouble was, way too many ICCs probably looked like the pencil-whipping evident in my 1990 logbook entry. And people were dying as a result.

The New Boss
In the 1990s FAR 61 was rewritten, and one result was the creation of the IPC. More than just the name change many considered it to be, however, the move from ICC to IPC created precise guidance for the CFII administering an IPC, and the instrument pilot receiving the check. The language of 61.57 was changed to require a "representative number of tasks" from the Instrument Practical Test Standards. Thus came the end of the 30-minute instrument check.

So what does the IPC now require? A table on Page 15 of the Instrument Practical Test Standards identifies the following items as required to successfully complete an instrument proficiency check:

Instrument Proficiency Check

Note that an IPC now requires a significant amount of time in the airplane, with the pilot's demonstration of mastery of the majority of the task items required to earn the instrument rating.

Note: If you live 100 miles from the nearest ILS approach you'll have to fly all the way out and back to log that IPC-required "precision ILS approach"-or fly the ILS on an approved flight training device.

Oh, an enterprising CFII might be able to combine a number of items to keep the time at a minimum (for instance, an engine-out DME arc to a nonprecision approach with a circle to land, or a partial panel, lost communications ILS with a missed approach and hold).

INSIDER'S TIP for instructors: Such "loading" of task items not only overwhelms the student to near the point of failure, but it also subconsciously convinces the pilot that he or she should attempt these workload-intense "macho" scenarios instead of actively reducing workload in an actual emergency.

No two ways about it, the "quick and dirty" instrument check does not meet the requirements of 61.57.

Same as the Old Boss
The intent of the old instrument competency check was to make IFR pilots who did not otherwise retain and practice their instrument skills prove to an instructor that they could still meet the standards of the rating they held. The change to instrument proficiency check merely took away the loophole many (including at least one of my instructors) used to sign off their good buddies...who (like me) were too dumb to realize the gravity of their disservice.

What's Missing? The IPC requires pilots demonstrate almost all the task areas from the Instrument Practical Test Standards (PTS). What from the PTS is not required on the IPC?

  • Timed turns to magnetic compass headings
  • Steep turns
  • Obtaining and evaluating weather information
  • Cross-country flight planning

My opinion? As a CFII I'd want to throw some of these in as well. Steep turns "under the hood" are a good confidence-building maneuver, and for precision require the pilot to demonstrate pitch, bank, yaw and power control under changing conditions. Timed turns are a good "last line of defense" maneuver to practice for an electrical anomaly that fries your instruments and navigation devices. Decisions related to weather and flight planning are the by far the biggest cause of IFR fatalities-reason enough to review competence once every couple of years.

BOTTOM LINE: There's too much at stake for pilots or instructors to short-cut the Instrument Proficiency Check. Remember, even these stringent requirements are just minimum standards for safety. Take the time you need to show mastery, or to get back up to speed on less familiar tasks.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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