Monday, June 3, 2013

The Dream and Dichotomy of Clouds (IFR Training Update)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
3 Jun 2013 N21481 SDC (Williamson, NY) - 9G6 (Albion, NY) - SDC 2.8 1162.1

Dreams of flight often begin, and end, with the clouds.

As earthbound creatures, we look up at those fluffy beasts grazing in the sky and they appear almost otherworldly.  Their forms morph from the familiar to the fantastic as they hover quietly out of reach.  For pilots, there is something magical about being amongst them.  I thrill at the perception of immense velocity that comes from zooming close to one in my stodgy ol' Spam Can (DiLulloesque disclaimer: always exercise proper cloud clearances while flying VFR).

But to the VFR-only pilot, the innards of clouds are not merely fantasy realms of rainbows and mist; they also impart disorientation and cloak obstructions (mountains, cell towers, other airplanes, etc.).  To be fair, they do the same for instrument rated pilots, too.  The difference is that instrument training provides tools, discipline, and a system for pilots to manage those challenges.

I was content to remain VFR for a decade before pursuing my instrument rating and there are a number of reasons for that.

In 2004, before buying Warrior 481, I contemplated an instrument rating.  But I was savvy enough to know that maintaining currency (forget proficiency) while renting would be a challenge.  Moreover, as a renter, I was not flying the sort of trips that would actually utilize the rating.  It was a lot of time, energy and money to invest on a solution in search of a problem.

After I became an aircraft owner, there was a cultural hurdle.  I was hanging out with pilots who flew taildraggers (many of them vintage) off of grass strips.  These guys were outstanding stick and rudder pilots, but they were not destined to become, or interested in becoming, instrument pilots.

I have had many people - some were aviators, some were not - tell me that flying cross country trips without an instrument rating somehow made me unsafe.  I disagree.  In fact, my greatest reluctance to pursue the rating is that exercising it exposes pilots to more dangerous situations.  As blogger and instrument rated pilot Ron Rapp so eloquently said on the topic of thunderstorms:

"Our strategy was simple: fly VFR. If we can see the weather, we can avoid it. This is something they don’t often tell you when you’re spending all that money pursuing an instrument rating. In a light aircraft, sometimes VFR is safer."

Here's the thing: the clouds are beautiful and wondrous, but they can conceal thunderstorms and ice, two weather conditions that can bring down airplanes far more capable than mine.  If I am not flying in the clouds, I will inherently avoid picking up ice (except in cases of freezing rain) and can see and avoid thunderstorms (or at least the dense rain shafts that indicate them).  In those scenarios, as Ron said, sometimes VFR is safer.

My biggest fear was getting an instrument rating and blundering into a thunderstorm, ice, or some unholy combination of the two while flying blind in the clouds.

In my view, safety is less about the rating held and more about pilots understanding their personal limitations, the limitations of their aircraft, and using that understanding to make good decisions.  Was I any less safe on those long cross country flight for my lack of instrument rating?  Absolutely not.  I stayed out of the clouds and made what I believe to be good decisions.  However, keeping safe requires flexibility and a willingness to make no-go decisions of the sort that would quickly bankrupt an airline.

Why did I have a change of heart?

North of Rochester, the skyline aflame with waning daylight

One simple reason is that I was looking for a new challenge.  To be clear, learning to fly on instruments is a challenge.

More importantly, the enabling technology of inexpensive cockpit weather displayed on an iPad helped assuage my concerns of blundering into an embedded thunderstorm while in the clouds.  And, of course, if there ARE thunderstorms in the vicinity, dropping below the ceiling and continuing VFR is a viable and safe means of continuing the flight.

Honestly, ice still scares the crap out of me.  I regard this as a healthy respect for nature and it means that there may not be much cloud-busting going on during winters in the Great Lakes region.

Finally, I have delayed or canceled flights owing to thin stratus layers hovering 1000' over the earth.  I realized that an instrument rating would make short work of such trivial conditions and meaningfully expand the utility envelope of the airplane.  I am not pursuing this rating out of a strong desire to fly long hours of hard IFR while staring at nothing but my instrument panel.

Decommissioned Rochester Gas & Electric Russell Station blushing at dusk.

And so, I found myself flying back to Williamson along the Lake Ontario shoreline after another round of simulated instrument flying with Ed.  Clouds that had blanketed the region for much of the day were rapidly dissipating, blushing pink in the day's final light.

Ed and Darrell, both based at Le Roy, have happily lent me their eyes over the past few weeks while we droned around in circles doing holds, DME arcs, and various ILS, VOR, and RNAV approaches under simulated (for me, not for them) instrument conditions.

When I started training, instrument flying was a nightmare of task saturation.  But several flight hours ago, something changed.  Time slowed; suddenly, there was plenty of time to set the next frequency, positively identify the next VOR, or set up the Garmin 430W for an approach.  I even started to consistently remember the timer on those approaches where it was a critical backup element for identifying the missed approach point.  Everything clicked and the rest just became practice drills. Many of my practice sessions this spring have been in strong, gusty crosswinds or subject to intense springtime thermals working mightily to push me off altitude or glideslope.  There is no question that striving for precision in these adverse conditions have made me a better pilot.

While flying with Ed around a holding pattern tonight, with the directional gyro and attitude indicators "failed" (covered) and my right hand shielding my Foggled eyes from a setting sun resting at the top of my instrument panel, I found the hold to be effortless.  I was literally flying the maneuver half blind and with one hand virtually tied behind my back.

I realized that I am almost ready.I dropped Ed back at the Pine Hill airport with its glorified sidewalk (2659' x 36') of a runway and departed under the orange glow of a magnificently setting sun.  With the exception of a dual cross country flight with Tom, I have everything else I need to take the check ride (for example, according to MyFlightbook, I have 1,166% of the cross country requirement met!).

I don't think I'll ever beat the clouds, but soon I'll be able to join them.


  1. It's funny how there are "taildragger" people and "instrument" people. Very disparate personality types at times. But I've always felt that tailwheel/aerobatics and instrument flying were the two extremes of aviation, and each has made me a better and more capable pilot as a result.

    Thanks for a great post!


    1. Thanks, Ron. I realize that I need to be careful here - these populations are not mutually exclusive (you're evidence of that) and I do not want to stereotype. But I do remember back to being a student pilot and hanging out with my mentor (who flew a Decathlon with a focus on aerobatics and formation flying) while an instrument instructor blathered on about how anyone not instrument rated was a poor pilot and a danger to himself and others. The discrepancy in thought processes was very apparent and made a huge impression on me at the time.

  2. It sounds like you're ready!

    I am of the same belief. I don't need hard IFR, I don't get paid for this. I do enjoy climbing out through a layer that would have been a no-go VFR. Climbing through the top and getting blasted with sunshine is an awesome experience.

    I always give thunder boomers respect and will no-go a flight in a heartbeat if there is any chance. Honestly, I'm getting the same way with strong gusty winds too, I just don't enjoy getting beat up.

    I'm looking forward to your post check ride write up.

    1. Thanks, Gary. You know, I'm looking forward to that write up, too!

  3. I 2nd Gary's comments! Good luck. Just remember to have fun. That may seem odd, but my IR examiner told me that very early in my check ride. He said relax, you know how to do all this, just have some fun. And he said sound that way on the radio too! So I did and every time I got handed off to a new controller or tower, I called with a little joyous emphasis. Well, I did get it done with no problem and I had fun.

    1. Hey, Geoff! This does not sound strange at all. My buddy Darrell just used the same examiner for his ride and gave me the same feedback.

  4. Chris - Sounds like you are in the home stretch. Good luck on the check-ride. Ed D.

    1. Thanks, Ed! Good luck to you, too!

  5. Hey, Chris - Nice update. I'm also working diligently to finish up the IR, and also appreciate how it can expand my envelope as you say while not demanding that hard IFR. In conversations with my instructor and a few safety pilots, remembering "proficient for what" is always good. As a renter in a club, I'm not sure that I can maintain the proficiency to drop an approach to minimums. But can I bust that dreaded 1-2000 foot layer that is sitting at 800-1000 feet above the field? Absolutely.

    Had the experience of navigating some thunderstorms last Saturday. I was not flying, but the instructor, an instrument-rated pilot and I were all working the problem to see how we could navigate. The instructor was clear - stay VFR as much as you can so you can see where it really is, use the iPad or onboard NEXRAD to see where it's been and how fast it's moving (very important for what kind of boomers we're talking about) and always always always keep an out and know where it is. Great update. Good luck... sounds like you're about there.

    1. Excellent points, TFS! "Proficient for what" strikes me as as an excellent way to think about things.

      Even if you weren't flying, it sounds like you got some great practical experience working around weather.

      Sounds like you're pretty close to the ride, too. Good luck!

  6. Chris,

    May I use the image (via a link) of the dunes & lagoons along eastern Lake Ontario for aWeb page I'm building for the Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes Foundation?

    Robert Beltran
    President, ELODF

    1. Hello Robert -

      Please send me a note to cthouston9743 at and et me know what you have in mind. I'm usually quite happy to support non-profit organizations.

      -- Chris

  7. Appreciate the shout-out in the disclaimer... :)

    Good luck on this last tiny bit of pre-checkride practice! Also, I'm disappointed in you. As a scientist, you should know that a better goal would've been 1,171% on the XC flight. Prime numbers and all.