I’m two months into my Instrument Rating training at Galvin Flying here in surprisingly sunny Seattle, and it is an absolute blast. Yes, it’s hard. At times, confusing. Always challenging. But the factors that make it difficult - and the way I’ve had to up my game to tackle them - have also made me a better pilot.

They can do the same for you. If you’re thinking about flying Instrument - real or sim - here’s a set of ten things that will challenge how you think and act while flying, and why they’re your ticket to better performance.

1. Your workload will triple

The challenge: You’ve heard Aviate - Navigate - Communicate. In Instrument flying, you do more of each one, more frequently, and with more thought to what’s coming up next, and the tools for doing so get more complicated. You end up being busier and more saturated with tasks at every moment.

Better pilot: To overcome saturation, you prepare. Comms frequencies dialed in. Plates at the ready and pre-briefed. Screens decluttered. A minimum of clicks or taps to get to where you’re going. Flows, not just checklists. Instrument gets you thinking and acting with a minimum of waste.

2. You’ll suddenly care about air temperature

The challenge: If you’re flying in or near precipitation, icing matters. In VFR it’s unlikely you’d be out there anyway, but now it’s a real possibility, one you need to be aware of starting well before you take off.

Better pilot: To be aware of temperature is to be aware of weather. Not just what it’s doing now but what it will do, why, and how it may change. From here, you think through not only what’s probable, but what else is possible - and develop backup plans to execute if things turn sour in the air. With heightened weather awareness and a habit of planning backups, you’ll be safer and more in control.

3. Precision flying will become a lifestyle

The challenge: You’re flying on airways - or vectors - both of which have expectations of precision both laterally and vertically. It gets even more nerve-wracking on approaches, where busting minimum altitudes could literally spell death. Worse - you don’t even get to see the horizon most of the time, so staying precise means reading teeny-tiny instruments.

Better pilot: The blessing in disguise comes in the form of smooth, gentle control, which you’ll learn to apply for the sake of your navigation, your plane, and your stomach. Standard-rate turns will become second nature. You’ll use consistent RPM settings for your engine, not just whatever sounds right at the time. You’ll roll out exactly on heading, because you need to hit those numbers.

4. You’ll learn to write and read chicken scratch

The challenge: Clearances, weather and frequencies will all be coming at you fast. Failing to write them down is a guaranteed way to forget what you were told to do in a high-pressure environment with little room for error. This is all happening while you’re trying to keep the plane steady - and it may not be in straight-and-level flight.

Better pilot: You will develop shorthand. The learning technique known as “chunking” will be your friend as you learn to write only what’s necessary for you to remember what you were told. You will use the same techniques when writing notes for your tests or any other high-pressure situation. Maybe nobody else will know what your shorthand means, but you will. Capturing and reading back information under pressure will become standard.

5. If you weren’t using Foreflight before, you will now

The challenge: “Every available resource” is a phrase you’ve heard before. It’s your job to be thorough in gathering and interpreting your flight situation from pre-flight all the way to shutdown, and you need everything in one place, from charts to plates to the ability to file and amend your flight plans, get weather and NOTAMs, and see traffic. If you don’t, you’re operating with too few resources.

Better pilot: Maybe you only toyed with Foreflight. Now you’re going to use almost every feature it has. You’ll know exactly what icons to tap, in what order, to quickly pull up the info you need. You won’t have multiple ways of getting to the same place. You’ll pick one, and use it every time. You’ll know where to look, when, and how to get the information you need the second you need it. And you’ll carry a backup, and know how to use that too.

6. You’ll finally learn what that one button on your G1000 does

The challenge: The Garmin G1000 is table-stakes for Instrument pilots, the Honda Civic of avionics systems. And yet, many pilots never take advantage of much of its functionality, staying blissfully ignorant of the FPL or PROC pages, the HDG and ALT bugs, the CRS knob (did you know you can click it?) the OBS function, the optional PFD display settings, the timer, or minimums setting.

Better pilot: You’ll know what those buttons do, and you’ll use them with confidence - even when they’re not your primary means of navigation. You’ll use them to better your situational awareness, double-check and triple-check your primary navigation to avoid errors and confusion early enough to do something about it. You’ll make sure the numbers line up, and if they don’t, you’ll know how to diagnose and fix the problem.

7. Still got radio jitters? You’ll get over those

The challenge: In Instrument flying, you’re talking with ATC all the time. They’re fast, they’re precise, they’re expecting you know what you’re about up there - because they’re expecting you to follow their instructions to the letter, or speak up clearly when you can’t.

Better pilot: You’ll get over your own radio shakes and learn to talk turkey with ATC. Fear of embarrassment or looking like a newbie will be forced to take a backseat. When you don’t understand what you heard, you’ll ask for clarification. If you can’t make a requested instruction, you’ll say why. And heaven forbid - if ATC makes an error - you’ll have the guts to tell them (kindly), and save everyone a heap of trouble.

8. Your flights will take longer (but it’s worth it)

The challenge: Instrument approaches are long. That’s for the best, of course, there’s only so much metal you should cram together up in the sky when nobody can see one another, but it also means you’ll be going “the long way” in many cases when a visual approach would have allowed you to zip right in there.

Better pilot: More time in the air means more time to work the problem. You’ll learn to take advantage of the longer stretches to brief approaches, gather weather, talk through what if’s, and clean up your information space (do you really need three bearing indicators on your HSI right now?). You’ll learn to be effectively ahead of your plane and ready for the next step - even if it’s an unplanned one.

9. You’ll care more about weather, not less

The challenge: Instrument flying gives you the ability to operate in lower-than-VFR conditions (1000 foot ceilings, less than 3 statute miles visibility). It does not make you invincible. In fact, now that you’re going to be up in those clouds, you’re even more vulnerable than in pretty blue skies. Turbulence, precipitation, wind changes, icing - you’re skating closer to the edge of the abyss than you ever have been.

Better pilot: You’ll look at weather in a new way. What kind of clouds are those? You’ll care, and know how they’re likely to affect your airplane. Are you on the back end or front end of that cold front? It matters, and you’ll know how. You’ll be forced to think - and fly - through a lot more factors with confidence and awareness, and knowing what qualifies as “normal” under each set of weather will allow you to identify danger and take action soon enough to save lives and equipment.

10. You’ll never forget to trim again

The challenge: Every bit of Aviate - Navigate - Communicate is done with at least one hand on your controls. You’ll be trying to write down a clearance and pull up a plate while in the middle of a climbing turn. That’s almost guaranteed to happen. You can’t afford to spend excess muscle or brain cells on anything not expressly needed to perform.

Better pilot: You’ll learn to rely on and love your effort saving devices even more, none more so than elevator trim. If you’ve never had a good relationship with the trim wheel, expect that to change, and for you to be able to balance your plane on a pinky finger. You’ll of course use that recovered time to furiously scribble down ATC instructions but at least you know the plane’s not going anywhere while you do.

The Final Word

I’m speaking from only a few months of experience here, but even after my first few approaches under the hood I could sense I was in a truly different world in IFR, and had to step up my pilot game accordingly.

True to form I’m using every available resource - from articles and videos, to practicing in my home simulator, to taking and reviewing detailed workup notes from every flight, to try to deliberately be that better pilot IFR operations demand, and I’m pleased to see early results are encouraging: smoother control inputs, tighter heading and altitude tolerances, fewer clicks and taps on my avionics, and less stuttering and delay on the radios.

I can say for sure even the early days of Instrument training are pushing me to be a better pilot, and I’m thankful for every lesson. I have no doubt it can do the same for you.