A Culture of Professionalism

What is Hard IFR?

Winter is almost over (but not quite) and the weather is changing. Spring is a time of quickly developing weather systems and unpredictable weather. Not that long ago I sat in my house in the Cascade foothills at 1,800 MSL and watched the effects of the portion of the “bomb cyclone” that passed through our region. We didn’t get it as bad as other places like Northern California but I was looking at high winds, very low clouds, heavy rain, and very limited visibilities. One of my first thoughts was, “I’m glad I don’t have to fly today.” I think by anyone’s definition this would be called “hard IFR.” A week or two before I read an article in Aviation Safety magazine that discussed the concept of “hard IFR” so I read it again in light of the current conditions.

Hard IFR - instrument panel on small plane

So, what is hard IFR? If you go to the FARs you won’t find the definition or even the term itself. But, all of us who sometimes fly IFR use the term. When I was talking with a consultant recently on the purchase of a new flight management system (FMS) he asked me, “how much of your flying is hard IFR?” What does that mean? It seems that we’re left with something similar to Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on the definition of pornography:  “I can’t define it but I sure know it when I see it.”

The Aviation Safety article arrived at a sensible solution. The definition of hard IFR is fluid and depends on the combination of weather, equipment, and pilot proficiency that applies to the individual flight. What’s “hard” in one circumstance might be pretty easy for another pilot depending on those factors. It’s up to each of us as PICs to do a realistic self-examination before each IFR flight. Some thoughts:

WEATHER is the most objective of the considerations. We have available to us hard numbers on existing conditions and reasonable predictions on what the future holds. We can apply this information to the other two factors in analyzing the flight and making go/no-go decisions. Some conditions like icing and thunderstorms can make the decision pretty easy.

EQUIPMENT Automation has probably done more than anything else to make hard IFR easier. If you are in my generation (old) you probably got your instrument ticket in a single-engine airplane with one or two navcoms, a single glide slope, and, hopefully, a DME. Autopilots were rare on training aircraft. Today it’s common to have GPS navigation with a visual depiction of your aircraft on a moving map and an approach plate. Autopilots (AP) have become much more common and, with GPS steering (GPSS), a flight plan can be loaded into your GPS navigator and the AP will fly the entire flight plan including departure, approach, and missed approach. But, the generic caveat applies – you need to be able to hand fly the airplane without all the gadgets, at least to and down the nearest ILS. I typically will use the AP and FMS to fly actual approaches,  especially into unfamiliar airports, and hand fly most practice approaches. 

And, let’s not forget the advantages of today’s portable GPSs and EFB apps – Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, and some others. You can have the latest display and processing technology for a small fraction of the cost of installed certified equipment. You just have to ensure that your installed equipment is adequate to the task and is used as the primary means of navigation with your portable as ancillary information and backup. I have synthetic vision (SV) on my Foreflight program and it is quite comforting to see a runway coming toward me on final when my actual vision is entirely obscured by weather. Just a portable tablet with a good program can greatly increase the threshold for hard IFR.

PROFICIENCY  Flying on instruments is a perishable skill. We all know that and the FAA knows that and has established minimum currency requirements. We also know that being “legal” does not necessarily mean being proficient and safe. Regular practice and training are important. I think everyone should do an IPC at least annually and preferably more often. I always tell my instructor (a retired senior airline captain) to run me through the wringer and let me know if he sees anything in my performance that is dangerous or an obvious “senior moment.” (I ain’t getting any younger. So far so good). Our proficiency goal should always be to meet or exceed our highest certificate’s check ride standards.

Thanks for all you do and thanks for your commitment to Angel Flight West.

Paul Henderson  —  ASO, Oregon Wing, AFW


If you have any specific questions about safety operations, please reach out to our safety team below.


Bruce Poulton, AFW Safety Officer
[email protected]

Alexios Stavropoulos, AFW Safety Officer
Bruce[email protected]

General Safety Email
[email protected]

Share this Article:

Subscribe to get our best content in your inbox


More Safety Articles


July Safety Update

Passengers. ATC. Weather. Evil instructors. That little needle that’s pointing somewhere it shouldn’t. Stuff that demands your attention when you’d rather just be pre-flying, flying, or post-flying. We pilots are

Read More »

April 2023 Safety Report

Pleasant greetings to all.  I feel immensely privileged to be able to address you all and it is a position that I will never take lightly.  The process of Threat

Read More »
instrument panel inside small plane 

What is Hard IFR?

Winter is almost over (but not quite) and the weather is changing. Spring is a time of quickly developing weather systems and unpredictable weather. Not that long ago I sat

Read More »

Mountain Flying

Are you a mountain pilot?  You probably are even if you aren’t aware of it.  In most of Angel Flight West’s territory we encounter many, or even all, of the

Read More »

Declaring an Emergency

Gather a room full of pilots and ask them the following questions: How many of you have had an emergency while in flight? How many of you have declared an

Read More »

Density Altitude

All pilots learn about density altitude yet most pilots never experience the truly detrimental effect it can have.   Brian, a friend of mine, flying a Piper Cherokee 160 and carrying

Read More »

Non-Tower Airport Operations

Since there is a high likelihood that at least one airport on most missions is uncontrolled or non-towered, we’d like to share some thoughts on uncontrolled airport operations.  If you

Read More »

Required Reports

In the course of my activities as a Flight Instructor and Mission Orientation Pilot, I take some time to review various pilot reporting requirements.  One of the many things I’ve

Read More »

Be Prepared

Angel Flight West believes that we should share what we learn about our missions and the airports we visit so that we can learn from each other.  So, with that

Read More »

Personal Minimums

All pilots, especially those who are instrument rated (those that are licensed by the FAA to fly in instrument meteorological conditions – i.e. clouds), are familiar with the term ‘personal

Read More »

Passengers First

You may be aware that in 2008 there were three Angel Flight accidents with fatalities in other Angel Flight regions. To say this may be tempting fate, but to date

Read More »