If you’re wondering if it’s still possible to train and get your instrument rating without a GPS equipped aircraft, this post is for you. I just passed my checkride this past week and I did it in an aircraft that has never had GPS installed. I imagine I’m not the only student pilot and/or owner who does not have IFR GPS in their aircraft that wants to be instrument rated in the 2020s. From my personal experience I can tell you it is definitely still possible where I fly. However, if you don’t already have DME, I would strongly encourage you to have it installed which is what I ended up doing a month before my checkride. In late August last year, after logging a few hours with a local instructor in his Cessna 152 to escape the pandemic, I flew commercially from Tampa to Omaha and purchased a well maintained 1973 Piper Cherokee. Flying her to her new home in Tampa was the first cross country I had ever logged and quadrupled the time in my logbook. It was an incredible experience! The instructor flying right seat had me work the radios and request flight following the entire trip down. Crossing the Mississippi river valley with a large blanket of low ceiling below, I heard a pilot in distress with low fuel not able to get down through the cloud layer. It was good reminder of the limitations of only being able to fly VFR. The avionics in my Cherokee are minimal and pretty much original except for the ADS-B skyBeakon. Even the clock is original and has to be wound up by hand. - COM/NAV 1 Terra TXN 920 with Tri-NAV indicator (includes glideslope) - COM/NAV 2 King KX170B with a KI-201C indicator - Transponder King KT76A - Audio Panel King KA134 A week after purchasing her I soloed. A month later I had my PPL. The first thing I did was fly up to St. Louis and take my dad flying for his 80th birthday. He had always dreamed of learning to fly ever since watching Spitfires flying overhead during WWII. He passed that dream onto me. I also had other fun adventures flying to Texas, Virginia, a few trips up into the Smokey Mountains to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and a business trip to Huntsville, AL. Six months after purchasing her I had logged 200 hrs. So why not just install GPS you might ask? As long as I was flying VFR, I never considered it. I was perfectly content with my ipad running ForeFlight and my portable WAAS GPS Sentry ADS-B in receiver. Most avionics shops in the area are backed up six months. The cost of installing GPS is at least $10k, even with a used Garmin 430W. At this point in my flying career, I would rather spend that money on training and flying. $10K is enough gas money to cover 300 hours of flying in my Cherokee! I realize there are other expenses, but thinking in terms of hours of gas money keeps it simple. Issues flying IFR without DME (or GPS substitute) A big issue I faced flying IFR without DME (distance measuring equipment) was that most ILS/LOC/VOR approaches require DME. Without DME (or GPS as a substitute), training in my area was basically limited to two VOR approaches at Lakeland International and the ILS/LOC/VOR approaches into Sarasota International. Tampa Executive ILS/LOC was NOTAMed out the entire time I was learning to fly. The other issue I experienced was the limit I had on being able to train in actual IMC. Depending on wind direction and any NOTAMed out navaids, whenever we flew in actual IMC, we faced the prospect of having to land a considerable distance from Zephyrhills and either wait for weather to improve or take a long Uber back home. About a month before my checkride I decided it would be best to install DME. I purchased a used King KN 64 DME unit from an avionics shop that had been pulled one from an aircraft getting a GPS upgrade. They sold it to me with the tray for $100. A local A&P allowed me to do an owner assisted install. Between the A&P’s time helping me with the install/paperwork and other expenses such as a new DME antenna, wiring, etc., the total cost of the installation was an additional $200. So, for an all-in cost of $300 I basically quadrupled the number of approaches I could fly IFR. When flying in actual there were now plenty of options for landing at local fields with just a short Uber ride back to Zephyrhills. Once DME was installed, I was fortunate enough to get quite a few hours of actual IMC in my final month of training. On one of those training flights, my instructor had me fly the LOC 09 approach into Lakeland and go missed as published. We were holding at PLUMY on the 330 radial. I was just about to ask ATC for another practice approach into Lakeland when a distressed VFR pilot asked Tampa Approach for assistance. He was trying to land at Hidden Lake in a Cessna 152 and had inadvertently gone IMC and couldn’t see the ground. ATC immediately informed him his transponder was reporting 300 ft and that he should climb to avoid towers. It was a stressful 10 minutes flying the hold listening to the situation unfold. Eventually the pilot was able to exit IMC and land at Brooksville. A week later I got a chance to fly IMC again. We were flying the LOC 09 approach into Brooksville through moderate turbulence and what ATC called moderate precipitation. The ceilings were 400 feet and visibility 3/4 mile. It was a humbling experience for me. Just as we were breaking out at the MDA my instructor told me to go missed. I saw what an approach looks like at both limits. It’s not something I ever want to see again without an experienced pilot sitting next to me. I suggested we request a hold at the initial fix over the Gulf of Mexico and wait for the weather to improve. The initial fix was blue skies with the gulf and coastline basking in the morning sunlight below. It was hard to imagine that 11 miles away our runway was at minimums. It was a good lesson on how quickly weather can deteriorate when flying IMC. After holding for 10 minutes we flew the approach again and this time the minimums were well within my comfort level. Missinformation I’ve heard some people say that in today’s GPS environment it’s hard to get ATC to approve flying a VOR approach. I never experienced this. However, most of my training was limited to early morning or late evenings to avoid the thunder storms. Sometimes we would just fly the approaches at Sarasota until the tower closed at midnight. ATC was always accommodating. Only once was I vectored off an approach at Sarasota due to an airline coming in behind me. The tower simply vectored me around to rejoin the localizer behind arriving traffic. During all my time training, only once was ATC too busy to accommodate my request to practice an approach. They suggested I contact tower, which I did, and I was still able to practice the approach. Even if winds didn’t favor the only approach I could fly at that particular airport, I would typically be granted circle to land or they would simply break me off early. Doing my 250 NM cross country before I installed DME wasn’t an issue either. There are still plenty of airports in Florida with approaches that don’t require DME. The other thing I hear people say when they hear I don’t have GPS is the fact I can’t fly direct. I do not believe this is true. You can be approved to fly direct without being GNNS equipped in a radar environment (see 5-1-8c). In fact, most of the time when flying cross country on an IFR flight plan, ATC cleared me direct. I just had to request radar vectors and explain I had no GPS (they don’t always pick up on this detail). I also hear people say VORs and DME’s are going away. This is not true either. The number of VOR stations is being reduced, but the network is not going away. According to the FAA’s VOR MON (minimum operation network) policy, there will always be a network of VORs that can be used for navigation in the event of a GPS outage. VOR MON also assures at least one airport will be within 100 nautical miles with a conventional navaid approach. The Checkride Most DPEs in my area don’t seem to mind you not having GPS in your aircraft. I got the impression my DPE actually liked my old-school aircraft. Before I installed DME, I even had a DPE lined up near Sarasota who said it wouldn’t be an issue doing an IFR checkride with just two VORs and a glideslope. There was something interesting that happened on my checkride as a result of not having GPS. I was instructed to track the 330 radial out of Lakeland and hold at PLUMY as published. After going missed I intercepted the 330 radial. However, according to the approach plate on Foreflight, I was not on the 330 radial. I was off by at least a few degrees according to Foreflight. Was my VOR really that far out? It had only been 1 deg out at the last VOR check? I remembered this happening before at this particular hold. I explained to my DPE that I had a discrepancy, that my course was diverging from that depicted in Foreflight, but that I would fly the needles and use Foreflight for situational awareness only. While flying the hold I remembered the VFR pilot who had gone inadvertent IMC the last time I was flying this exact hold. I also remembered the VFR pilot over the Mississippi who was low on fuel and needed help getting down through the clouds. I was thankful that today was the day I was finally going to be instrument rated. During the post brief, the DPE told me that the hold is always off on Foreflight on that particular approach plate. A lot of applicants “fly the ipad” but I did the right thing by flying the needles. The DPE also said it was clear I always had complete control over every situation, always knew where I was, and had complete control over the aircraft. I attribute that to great instructors and all that time flying actual/simulated over a two-month period without autopilot. My final thoughts on flying IFR and taking a checkride without GPS: - Staying proficient trumps GPS. If you don’t have the cash to fly regularly and install GPS, consider DME instead and keep flying regularly. - Make sure you’re a pro at navigating solely with VORs. When flying IFR, Foreflight is for situational awareness only. - Try to get as much actual as you aircraft’s capabilities and local climate will safely allow. What’s next for me? Not sure. Once I save up again I’ll have to decide if I want to train further or install GPS. Although a nice new shiny Garmin GPS would be nice, if I have to choose, I would rather stay proficient and keep flying!