The Difference Between Instrument Flying and Visual Flying

instrument flying

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If you have ever piloted an aircraft before, you have either flown according to the instrument or visual method. In flight school, most of us learn how to fly visually. However, commercial aviation pilots and military pilots all must receive their instrument rating before being awarded their license.

In this article, we go in-depth to break down all the key differences between instrument flying and visual flying. If you have ever wondered why two rulebooks exist, or why two flight methods are necessary, this is the article for you. Read on and discover how each method works, and how they affect your experience in the flight deck.

The Instrument Flying Handbook

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) defines instrument flying rules (IFR) along with several other key aviation terms. These definitions are published in the Instrument Flying Handbook, which was released in its most recent form in 2012.

The Instrument Flying Handbook provides a definition of IFR as follows: “[The] rules and regulations established by the FAA to govern flight under conditions in which flight by outside visual reference is not safe. IFR flight depends upon flying by reference to instruments in the flight deck, and navigation is accomplished by reference to electronic signals.”

In other words, IFR is a series of rules that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration wrote to govern the behavior of pilots who navigate according to electric instruments. By contrast, visual reference flyers do not refer to their electric instruments. Instead, they receive visual cues by looking through the cockpit windshield.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

Most veteran pilots agree that IFR flying is significantly easier to get the hang of than visual flying. This is because the various pieces of electrical equipment in the cockpit can help you navigate safely. This way, you do not have to trust your own judgment and vision as much as you otherwise would.

The main reason why IFR flying is referred to as “instrument flying” is because the pilot operates the aircraft by referencing the instruments and machinery in the flight deck. The pilot does not need to look outside or make any judgments according to visual cues. Instead, they navigate based on the data that their instruments provide them.

While it might sound risky to operate an aircraft without looking out the windshield, it is in fact statistically safer. Many of the newer cockpit technologies rely on advanced radar and weather detection systems to determine one’s flight path. These technologies tend to make better decisions than human beings, especially when the pilots are flying while stressed or disoriented.

All-Weather Flying

Instrument flying is the ultimate in flexibility. This is because you can fly under any weather and lighting conditions. By contrast, visual flyers can only operate their aircraft under sunny and clear conditions since they must have a full field of view through the windshield. This is one of the main benefits of IFR flying.

Instrument pilots fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). IMC can essentially be thought of as “flying in the clouds”, as it refers to any weather conditions that are barred by visual flight rules. Any aircraft that flies during cloudy weather (IMC) needs an IFR instrument rating through their local regulatory agency.

Insurance Benefits

One of the added benefits of instrument flying is the insurance aspect. Many insurance companies favor instrument flyers, due to the safety concerns inherent to visual flying. Those who insist on flying according to VFR are statistically more susceptible to crashing and making general errors during the flight.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR)

Unlike IFR, visual flight rules (VFR) refers to the rules that govern the behavior of pilots who operate primarily without the use of electric signals and instruments. For this to be made possible, pilots must operate their aircraft under clear sky conditions. VFR pilots must also only fly during the daytime. This is because clear and well-lit skies are required for safe VFR navigation.

In accordance with FAA regulations, visual flying is prohibited under IMC (i.e. inclement or cloudy weather). This is one of the critical differences that separate VFR from IFR pilots. As such, VFR pilots are subject to far stricter visual acuity tests as they must have an excellent sense of vision to operate their aircraft by eyesight only.

Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic control towers typically do not attend to VFR aircraft as much as they do IFR aircraft. This is because, in many jurisdictions, control towers are not legally required to maintain separation between in-flight VFR aircraft. Instead, VFR pilots are trusted to keep away from each other’s flight path on their own.

While this might sound intimidating, most VFR pilots would argue that it is not. This is because VFR always hold themselves to a high level of professionalism when operating their aircraft. One of the key responsibilities of a VFR pilot is to look out for the welfare of other VFR pilots. Therefore, they always ensure that they do not take in close range of another pilot’s flight path.

Flying for the View

Many VFR pilots fly for the thrill of it. They are less concerned about getting from Point A to Point B. Instead, they tend to enjoy piloting aircraft purely for recreation. As such, VFR pilots are mostly unphased by their inability to fly during inclement weather. I mean, you can’t really enjoy the experience of flying if there are clouds that block your view the whole time.

IFR vs. VFR: Which is Better?

When it comes to deciding which is the better of the two flying methods, there is no clear answer. In fact, we would argue that neither is better than the other. If you are serious about piloting, it is always a good idea to receive training and ratings in both IFR and VFR methods. This way, you can fly no matter the conditions or specification of aircraft.

The Downside

While each method has their share of positive features, they have a few critical flaws as well. Let’s look at some of the important drawbacks to flying under IFR and VFR regulations.


Instrument flying is often considered a “science” rather than an art. This is because the pilot is given a very technical job that requires precisions and calculation, rather than intuition. An IFR pilot must scan the cockpit constantly. This is known as the “instrument cross-check” and it is a necessity for any IFR pilot that wants to safely guide their aircraft.

First and foremost, IFR pilots must keep a close eye on their attitude indicator. The attitude indicator is an instrument that informs the pilot of the horizontal pitch of the aircraft. It measures the angle that the aircraft is pointing with respect to the Earth’s horizon. The attitude indicator is front and center in the flight deck and must be constantly checked during the pilot’s scan.

Lastly, IFR pilots need to set aside serious amounts of time to “learn the needles”. This refers to the needles on the various instruments in the flight deck. Learning what each needle indicates and why is a tedious task that some pilots consider more of a chore than an enjoyable experience. Regardless, this is perhaps the most important responsibility for an IFR pilot.


One of the drawbacks to VFR piloting is the long list of stringent rules that a VFR pilot must follow. Obviously, these rules exist for good reason, but in many cases,  they can outright bar a pilot from taking off at all. So, if you want to fly VFR you must be prepared to be grounded more often than you otherwise would as a IFR pilot.

For example, the United Kingdom and the U.S. both have strict low flying rules in place. The UK’s Rules of the Air dictate two principal stipulations. First, is that no VFR pilot can fly within 500 feet of person, vehicle, structure, or vessel. Second, is that no aircraft can fly less than 1000 feet above the highest fixed object that stands within 600 meters of it.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Regulation also dictates what altitudes are and are not acceptable for VFR pilots. They are nearly identical to the UK’s Rules of the Air, except they also add a “notwithstanding rule”. The notwithstanding rule sets out general altitude restrictions when flying over any populated area.

Lastly, all VFR must abide by a strict “see and avoid” regulation. This is one of the key principles of VFR piloting. This principle holds that all VFR pilots must actively assume sole responsibility for operating their aircraft in a way that does not interfere with other aircraft in the sky. Under no condition may a VFR violate this rule and fly within close range of another aircraft.

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