Instrument Practice Drills You Can Do Without And Instructor

When you start training for your instrument rating, it almost instantly makes you a better, sharper, and safer pilot.  Having to hold altitudes and headings on bumpy days and on assigned routes is a good way to make you realize just how important those things are.  You don’t want ATC correcting you on the radio, so it’s important to pay close attention to your actions and be critical about your performance.

However, paying your instructor’s hourly rate every time you go up gets expensive quickly, so what can you do to practice for your instrument practical exam while keeping your training costs as low as possible?

Luckily there are several things you can do up in the air that are good for your piloting skills and your wallet.

One of the first things you should do is have a plan of action.  A curriculum, if you will, for the things you want to accomplish.  It should also include specific tasks for your flight.

Once you have your list, these are a few of the practice drills you could use to practice for your instrument pilot practical test.

Practice Approaches

This is one of the things you should do every time you go up.  If you can, get a safety pilot so you can log simulated instrument time, but even without a safety pilot you can talk to your local tower and ask for practice approaches.  Practicing entry procedures and centering your needles without too much “surfing” should be at the top of your list of skills to sharpen.  Even without an instructor or safety pilot, you can practice reading your approach plate & call out minimums, and stay safe while having the runway in sight the whole way.

Phantom Holds

Phantom holds can be a good way for you to work on your hold entries.  To find a holding point and to work on this, it would be very helpful to have a GPS or an iPad with ForeFlight or similar.  A safety pilot would help you to see and avoid other traffic too.

To practice using phantom holds, find them on your map.  They are indicated by the red arrows above and you can pretend that they’re actual holding points for practice.  Think up a fictitious clearance to hold at the point at a certain altitude and heading, plan your entry, and execute.  Time yourself and do your best to do things by the book.  This can help you think quickly and plan hold entries on the fly.

When using phantom hold points, use good judgement and stay away from airways.  In the picture above, the KISTN point is a little too close for for comfort.  Give yourself some safety buffers and use your best judgement.

Practice Descents

Most approaches have minimums that have some kind of a time limit attached.  Look at the plate for the LOC RWY 18R to the Charlotte airport.  See the bottom-right hand section of the plate?  The section says FAF to MAP 6.9 miles.  Given a certain airspeed, you have a certain amount of time you have before you have to do the missed approach procedure.

By practicing your descent speeds and nailing, say, the 90 knots on the nose, you can be precise in timing yourself from the final approach fix to the missed approach point.

Timed Turns

Timed turns are something you should practice for partial panel failures.  If your heading indicator/DG stops working due to a gyro malfunction, you need to rely on your magnetic compass to determine your exact heading.  However, that compass is very quirky due to dip errors and going from one heading to the next while relying on the magnetic compass can be a challenge.

By working on your timed turns, you can be sure that you are going to end up on the proper heading given a gyro failure.

Practice turning a certain number of degrees by timing yourself and referring only to the magnetic compass.  Say you are on a heading of 360, practice a timed turn to 300.  Since a standard turn is 2 minutes long and a turn of 10 degrees takes approximately 3 seconds, a turn of 60 degrees should take you right around 18 seconds to complete.

Get Cozy with ATC

One of the most intimidating aspects of flying IFR for most pilots are the communications with air traffic controllers.  The ATC folks are super helpful but very busy, so a newbie talking to an expert can be stressful especially given how quickly those instructions seem to come through the radio.

My favorite way for getting familiar with their lingo is by listening to pilots and controllers in realtime via  Find a busy airspace and listen in, at some point you’ll get comfortable with the radio communications and you’ll even know how to respond to their requests or laugh at how pilots react to certain instructions.

One of my favorite interactions recently was when ATC told an American Airlines pilot that the Miami Airport was IFR and that they should expect the RNAV approach.  The pilot wanted to do a visual approach, but the controller said “Expect RNAV approach as the airport is IFR according to them”.  Irritated, the pilot replied “Well, they’re wrong!” and accepted the RNAV approach anyway!


With all of these tasks in your toolbox, you should become a more proficient and confident instrument student pilot.

Do you have other maneuvers that you like to work on while single pilot or with a safety pilot?  Fill out the comment box below and let us know!

*Please note that I am not a flight instructor and these opinions should be double checked with your instructor to make sure you’re comfortable and good to go with them*

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