Hard IFR?

The term isn't well-defined, but can involve weather, complex airspace and much more. Making it easier means better training, automation and planning.


Pull up a digital copy of the FAA’s regulations and search for “hard IFR.” Can’t find it anywhere in the FARs, can you? That’s because it’s one of those terms that everybody understands on one level but really can’t agree on a definition for. It’s a popular term though: you’ll hear it from instructors, hangar-flying sages and avionics shops, all of whom have different motivations. Like Justice Potter Stewart, they know it when they see it. Of course, calling something “hard” implies it’s difficult. Or maybe it’s just solid and resists penetration. When it comes to defining “hard IFR,” both concepts can apply at the same time.

One implication of labeling something “hard IFR” is that it should be avoided or special precautions should be taken. That’s fine as far as it goes, but without applying some metrics, the term still isn’t very specific. It would be nice that our recent training and experience, along with a solid IFR platform underneath us, meant the point was moot and we could tackle all elements of IFR at any time. It doesn’t always work that way, of course. So one question arising from all this is, short of canceling or rescheduling the flight—which always are options—what are you going to do about it? 


A popular interpretation of the term is that instrument conditions are widespread, perhaps low, and perhaps extending from the departure airport to the destination. That’s when being instrument-rated can be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you can still go; the curse is that you can still go. In many ways, I prefer widespread, low IMC as long as icing or thunderstorms aren’t a threat. That kind of IMC usually is fairly benign—you don’t have to look for traffic, as an example—so long as you’re proficient in the airplane. Of course, “proficient in the airplane” is doing a lot of work here.

This is when you need to have all your ducks in a row (which should be easy since they’re probably walking instead of flying). Adequate fuel, and not just to the alternate plus 45 minutes, should be a go/no-go item. It will limit your range, but having enough gas to stooge around in a hold, then make it to the alternate plus 45 minutes is the standard I’d aim for. If that’s not possible for whatever reason, then seriously consider an en route fuel stop, even if the weather dictates going out of your way to reach it. The reasons should be obvious.

The alternate itself should be golden, with plenty of approaches and facilities. It shouldn’t be next to a large body of water or nestled in the mountains, since both terrain features can mean abrupt changes in the local weather, and there goes your bolt hole. And keep in mind there’s a lot to be said for ensuring your have a nice, fat, legal alternate that you put in the flight plan but really plan to go to a third airport instead, one that offers better services or access to ground transportation but doesn’t quite make the cut as a legal alternate.

What Makes IFR Difficult?

Generally, if a given IFR flight is difficult for you, the root cause boils down to three things: weather, equipment and/or proficiency. You have options for dealing with them all, though perhaps only in the long run.


One good thing about considering weather a constituent of hard IFR is that it’s objective: reasonably accurate and descriptive numbers are used to describe it, which in turn facilitates analysis and preparation. But low IFR doesn’t automatically mean it’s hard.


One way to make hard IFR easier is through automation. A good, full-featured autopilot is actually better than a second pilot, since it flies better and more predictably. One downside is the autopilot won’t pick up the lunch tab. But the generic caveat applies: You also need to be able to fly the airplane without all the gadgets, at least to and down the nearest ILS.


There’s no shame in deciding that a proposed flight will overtax your current skill and proficiency level. To the contrary, accurate self-assessment is critical to safety. That said, to earn your instrument rating, you had to shoot approaches down to minimums, typically 200 feet. Our proficiency goal always should be to equal or exceed our highest certificate’s checkride standards. If we know, deep down, that we’re not that good today, then your next IFR flight may offer more excitement than you bargained for. Get some training.


Another use of “hard IFR” is to distinguish a lightly or round-dial equipped airplane from one with multiple touchscreens and electronic flight instrumentation. The latter/more expensive option is considered appropriate for hard IFR while the former/paid-for stuff might not be. Whether an IFR flight is difficult and/or complex can be related to how the aircraft is equipped. One implication is that the more moving maps we have coupled to our autopilot makes the task easier.

In fact, and although we’ve flown a lot of single-pilot IFR without one, we now consider a working autopilot at least coupled to the heading and nav indicators to be entry-level equipment. Altitude hold/pre-select is extremely useful, too. Yes, you can get along without it, but not regularly and really only when the IMC isn’t solid and down on the deck. Hand-flying is fine, but doing it single-pilot for hours at a time is fatiguing, and leads us into uncharted territory.

Equipping for hard IFR doesn’t mean investing the price of a new car into an airplane whose value will never be high enough to see a return on that investment. It does mean everything needs to work as designed, though, that you know how to use it (and how to tell when something breaks, and what to do next) and that it’s reliable. Although the avionics manufacturers understandably want you to think otherwise, gear that was standard equipment for a go-places airplane 10 or even 20 years ago is still viable in today’s IFR system, with the obvious exception of ADS-B. One reason that’s still the case, despite the revolution in panel-mounted avionics, is the electronic flight bag (EFB) app running on a consumer-grade tablet. See the sidebar above for some reasons why.

Let Us Now Give Praise To Portables

It’s been almost 30 years since the first portable GPS navigators hit the market. Initial consumer-grade models weren’t optimized for aviation, but products like the Lowrance Airmap 100 and Garmin 95 soon were available. Twenty years later, the iPad hit the market and tablets like it seem to have taken over.

In fact, a tablet running the latest electronic flight bag app can cure a lot of the ills a legacy instrument panel may present. That’s as long as the installed equipment is adequate to the task when the tablet overheats or soils the bed some other way.

The thing with running EFB apps on a contemporary consumer-grade tablet is you’ll generally end up with the latest display and processing technology, if not operating system, especially given the development time for certified, installed avionics. And they’re a lot less expensive. Also, the leading EFB apps tend to offer more features sooner than are available in a certified box. As long as the installed stuff remains primary and functional, a well-understood EFB app on the tablet of your choice can be the difference between easy and hard IFR.


Describing some IFR as “hard” may also speak to its difficulty or complexity. Many pilots love a challenge, though, and will readily take on a difficult, complex IFR flight if for no other reason than to prove they can accomplish it. To them, hard IFR is a feature, not a bug, and they look forward to widespread instrument conditions for the practice opportunities.

At the same time, filing and flying IFR can make a flight easier than trying to go VFR. The need to be in or avoid certain airspace comes to mind, since an IFR flight in radar coverage likely won’t be allowed to stray somewhere it doesn’t belong. Going IFR instead of scud-running should be a no-brainer and almost has to be easier. That doesn’t mean IFR is always easier than VFR, only that it can be, just as a given flight can require similar workloads no matter under which rules it’s operated. The inference is that VFR flight can be just as complex, and that’s correct in my experience.

For many of us using personal airplanes, non-towered airports are the norm and getting in and out of them in instrument conditions can be much different than at, say, Class C International. A lot depends on the nearby airspace, where you’re going and, if you’re near a terminal area for which named departure and arrival procedures are published. That’s not to suggest that the obstacle departure procedure at Non-Towered Municipal won’t trip you up. It will.


The difficulty/complexity side of defining hard IFR also lends itself to being remedied by obtaining additional training or experience. An implication is that the flight wouldn’t be so difficult if we were well-trained and proficient. Put another way, regular practice in the cockpit procedures required to set up and fly an approach, some hand-flying through procedure turns and holds, plus basic partial-panel work, is going to go a long way toward softening up some of the hard IFR that might be in your future.

As we noted in the sidebar on page 17, our goal always should be to meet or exceed applicable checkride standards, if for no other reason than personal pride. In our experience, regular filing and flying in the IFR system, even on severe-clear days, is part of the whole picture. If you spend all your personal flying time in search of $100 hamburgers outside the IFR system, don’t act surprised when your once-a-year IFR trip to see the family finds you well behind the curve of ATC’s expectations. Doing your practice approaches with ATC assistance can be a good substitute, even if you have to fly a ways to get approaches and radar service. Getting and using ATC services is part of the package, and the more experience you have, the easier will be your hard IFR flight.

The Hardest IFR

Throughout this discussion of hard IFR, how we might define it and how we might make it easier, it’s presumed the weather—while perhaps low IFR—doesn’t include additional hazards like thunderstorms or airframe icing. When it does, the equipment you’re flying, including an airplane with enough performance to fly over, around or through the nasty bits, takes on much greater importance. Proficiency with the equipment counts, too.

The bottom line for most of us will be we want to avoid thunderstorms and icing, and will modify our timing or route, upgrade to a more capable airplane or cancel outright until conditions are more amenable with our chosen platform. Just because IFR may be difficult at times, we don’t need to make it impossible, also.


If you want to know what “hard IFR” really is, combine the worst-case scenarios from all of the four basic elements outlined previously—weather, equipment, difficulty/complexity and proficiency—into one flight. That should check all the boxes the next time you’re in the FBO’s pilot lounge and someone brings it up.

But that’s okay. Process it in segments, like your first solo cross-country: Fly 20 minutes to Checkpoint Alpha. If everything’s okay, proceed to Bravo. Repeat as necessary. After all, a long flight in IMC is really little more than stringing together some practice approaches and some straight-and-level. It’ll take more time than your most recent practice session and you’ll cover more ground, but no individual part of the whole should be something you’ve never seen before.

Indeed, it’s often the combination of these major factors that turns a given flight into hard IFR. To the extent a solution to competing priorities and challenges might be needed, it pays to break down each element of the whole, analyze it separately, and then consider the impact your proposed solution may have on the rest of the operating environment in which you find yourself. If the proposed solution won’t worsen your situation, go for it.


“Hard IFR” is not a well-defined term, and your perception of it may or may not align with someone else’s. Actual weather, equipment, complexity and proficiency all are parts of the whole, and a change in one factor’s quality can push a given flight over the line or bring it back under control. You have a lot of leeway and authority to change the circumstances of the test.

Just as it was for Orville and Wilbur, it’s up to each individual pilot to determine if they’re prepared to meet whatever challenges a proposed flight may offer, up to, including and beyond what some call “hard IFR.”


Jeb Burnside is this magazine’s editor-in-chief. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


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