Just How Useful is VFR Flight?

As an instructor and pilot examiner, many times when I train or test private pilots, they ask me if they need to get an instrument rating to really be able to fly for travel.  I started thinking about the question some the other day and got curious.  So I looked at my own flight time.  I was surprised at what I saw.  With over 4300 hours, I found that only 12% of my time was “instrument” (including simulated time).  If I looked at actual instrument time, it was about 9%.  Let’s put this in perspective, 46% of my total flight time was cross-country flight, time when you would think most pilots might encounter actual instrument conditions, on flights when a pilot needs to travel and get somewhere for meetings, vacations, etc.  When I looked even deeper, I found that only 16% of that cross-country flight time has been logged under actual IFR conditions.

I have been instrument rated for almost all of my flight time, so the lack of instrument time isn’t because I got my certification late.  I haven’t worked in a job flying that was all VFR, so that isn’t it either.  I spend most of my flight time in IFR capable aircraft.  Much of this time has been in the Upper Midwest in areas where winter flying is generally considered treacherous t best.  Most of the cross-country flight I have logged has not just been for pleasure, but has been travel for business or personal travel.  It is the type flying that you do as long as the weather conditions are appropriately safe to conduct the flights, so if it would have been IFR but still flyable, the flights would not have been cancelled.  The fact that this little of my time has been in actual instrument conditions tells me that overall VFR flight represents a majority of the flight that a general aviation pilot can expect to do in their flying career.  It also highlights just how useful VFR flying can be to a pilot.

Instructor regularly recommend primary students go on after their initial training to take instrument flight training.  Getting additional skills based training such as instrument flight training is certainly an excellent thing to do, and for those who are able to do it, it does offer the ability to fly in more diverse weather conditions.  While this is the case, it doesn’t mean that being a VFR pilot isn’t useful.  A careful, safety aware, VFR pilot who avoids inadvertent flight into IFR conditions may even be more safe than a non-proficiency IFR rated pilot who ends up in IFR conditions.

There are some considerations that come into flight planning for VFR flying, and some things that could lead to unsafe decisions.  If a pilot decides to “scud-run” flights, or fly in marginal visibility, it may force them to fly without adequate ground clearance.  Marginal weather may slow travel plans when IFR weather crops up, but good planning can avoid this from happening too often. Even when this does happen, the majority of the time those weather conditions don’t last more than a day.

The reality is that flying personally really is a very reliable source of transportation.  The vast majority of the time, a VFR pilot will be able to conduct their intended flights with little if any inconvenience due to weather.  Certainly there is certainly a degree of flexibility that should be considered when flying personally, but with good planning, the likelihood of being able to use VFR flying to conduct the overwhelming majority of your air travel needs is probable.  If anyone tells you that you absolutely must have an instrument rating to be able to travel as a pilot, they haven’t done their homework.  Get out there and fly, fly cross-country, go VFR, and make use of those aircraft in your daily life.


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