Sunday, August 11, 2013

Liberating IFR

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
11 Aug 2013 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Williamson, NY) 2.5 1195.6

Farewell for Now

Still in Clarkston, MI, Kristy and I awoke early, situated The Bear with Grandma, and made our way to Greg's house on foot.  From the time we arrived at his door, through breakfast, and on into the early afternoon, we talked animatedly about a diverse range of topics.  It is always good to see Greg and we managed to get a healthy dose of each other before he leaves on his grand adventure.  We will miss him while he is away.

By early afternoon, it was time to seek lunch and begin planning the aerial voyage home.  A broken layer of clouds had moved in around 5,000 feet, but I was confident that we would bust through them into the clear for a smooth ride home.  I filed the IFR flight plan direct from Oakland County International to Williamson-Sodus, hoping that I would get the direct routing given the previous day's precedent.

The Clearance

Back at the Pontiac Air Center, where fuel prices were the best deal on the field at $5.70/gal, I removed the cabin cover from Warrior 481, loaded the baggage, and did the preflight inspection.  Clearly, my airplane was visited by birds with a penchant for eating berries; Warrior 481's wings had broken out in purple blotches. With the airplane more or less ready, I went inside to check our expected routing via FlightAware.

It appeared that we would not get the direct routing that I had filed, but rather an airway routing. Well, that's okay, I thought to myself at first.  The routing was: MOONN V90 DKK BUF SDC.

As I looked at the routing, I realized that MOONN intersection was within Canadian airspace and that the next waypoint was the Dunkirk VOR (DKK) in New York.  That meant that we would need to fly across Lake Erie at some point.  I have never been terribly keen on flying over any of the Great Lakes, though I suppose that if I had to fly over any, I would probably choose Erie because it is the shallowest, and warmest, of them all.

VFR charts make it easier to visualize how much water the expected route would cover.  In short, it would carry us over a lot of water.  The fact that the more circuitous route would add thirty minutes to the flight was the least of my concerns.  I did not like this route.

As I explained all of this to Kristy, I saw the worry creep across her face.   I promised her that, once we were in the air, I would ask for a better route.  Kristy is generally good about following my lead.  If I am unconcerned about something, she generally knows to be unconcerned as well.  The fact that I was visibly bothered by the anticipated route made her extremely uncomfortable.

A call to Pontiac Ground verified the anticipated clearance, which I dutifully read back, then dialed into the Garmin 430W.  I needed to use the chart (ForeFlight to the rescue!) to show which intersections defined the V90 airway because airways cannot be directly entered into the GPS.  In that moment, I understood why pilots were so excited about the ability of newer Garmin navigators to accept direct entry of airways.

After holding at Runway 27L for our IFR release, we were cleared for immediate departure ahead of a Cirrus on two mile final, its landing light twinkling in the near distance.  Upon contact with Detroit departure, we were provided with a southeast vector to MOONN intersection.

The frequency was not busy and I seized the moment to request a direct routing, explaining that I did not want to fly over all that water. After a moment of silence, the Detroit controller came back on frequency. "We should be able to get that. Stand by."

After a few more minutes, we were cleared direct to Williamson-Sodus airport at 7,000 feet and switched over to Selfridge approach.  I thanked the Detroit controller for his help as Kristy relaxed visibly.

Directly ahead waited a massive wall of cumulus.

Real IMC

I did not give the looming clouds much thought because Kristy had already experienced cloud innards the previous day.  However, the moment we penetrated the clouds, Warrior 481 shuddered in turbulence and my peripheral vision told me that Kristy's hands immediately moved to clutch the bottom of her seat.

It was a double-whammy.  Kristy's tolerance to bumps was low because she had not flown in months. This, combined with significantly more turbulence in the clouds than we experienced the day before, caught her off guard. And, for someone accustomed to a decade of VFR flight, zero visability is a huge paradigm shift. It was too much.

"Hey, we're okay," I told her without taking my eyes from the instrument panel.  I pointed to the altimeter indicating exactly 7,000 feet, the directional gyro showing a course of 085° (correcting for a light left crosswind), and the attitude indicator showing us to be straight and level.  "If being in IMC makes you uncomfortable, just look at the instruments.  As long as they keep showing what they're showing, we're on course, on altitude, and right side up."

Moments later, we emerged from the cloud just long enough for Kristy to relax a bit before we blasted into the next one.  This one was darker and water streamed over the windscreen.  I hoped it would wash the purple bird droppings off the wings.  Alas, it did not.  I do not think that weather can count as "hard IFR" if it fails to wash bird poop off the airplane!

"This cloud looks kind of dark," Kristy commented worriedly.

"This is exactly what conditions were like on my dual cross country," I responded.  No big deal, been there, done that.  Checking the iPad, there was no heavy precipitation indicated anywhere nearby.  The cloud was just dark.

We emerged from the gloomy charcoal cloud with the St Clair river in sight.

And so went the first half of the flight, in and out of the clouds as we cruised over Canada.  After the third round of zero visibility, Kristy seemed to acclimate to the new mode of travel and I was able to focus entirely on flying the airplane.

We sometimes encountered relatively clear regions before plunging back into IMC.

Sometimes we skimmed through the tops of the clouds.

Sometimes we motored along through the bases.

Often, we found ourselves in otherworldly caverns, able to see beyond the windows, but surrounded on all sides in a pocket of space inaccessible to the VFR pilot.


As we continued onward, Kristy began to relax and admire the formations passing beyond the airplane's windows.

"I see some cool clouds!" exclaimed The Bear.

What struck me most about the flight was how relaxed I was.  Had we been VFR, I would have been stressed, trying to decide whether to go below the clouds (what if the ceiling drops?) or whether to try and outclimb them (what if we get stuck on top?). Even over southern Ontario, Stratus continued to pull in data showing no evidence of severe weather in the area, removing worry and uncertainty about what may lay ahead hidden in the clouds. How many cross country flights had I made over the years with those worries, literally sitting at the edge of my seat while trying to decide on a safe strategy that left an adequate way out?

The ability to bore straight through those nasty, fluffy things in our way was extremely liberating.

East of Hamilton, Ontario, the clouds began to break and we regained consistent visual contact with the ground.  We flew over the Welland Canal where a freighter was churning up silt in the canal on its way toward Lake Ontario.

By the time we crossed back into United States airspace, most of the clouds were gone.  Listening to the Williamson-Sodus automated weather broadcast revealed that no instrument approaches would be necessary at home.  Actually, this was a bit disappointing, but I was happy to have logged about 1.1 hours of actual IMC along the way.  It was good experience for all of us.

We passed the familiar features of the Port of Rochester and Irondequoit Bay as weather conditions continued to improve.

The brilliant sunshine over the Williamson-Sodus Airport was incongruous with the grey mist we flew through over Canada.  But my family was still smiling after their first real adventure in IMC.

In fact, The Bear was so enthralled with the experience that she lunged forward to hug me while I was still trying to get a photograph of her.

Sometimes, I just don't know what that little Bear is going to do next.


Overall, it was a great experience.  My family learned what flight through IMC was like and I built confidence in my ability without the reassuring presence of Tom at my side.  For the sake of my wife, I was glad that it was unnecessary to fly any instrument approaches; we can add that level of complexity next time.


  1. Although my wife can tolerate some turbulence, she really doesn't like it when we are IMC since she sits in the back and can't see the instruments. Good idea on having Kristy focus on those with you. I have come to the conclusion that it is better for us to climb on top as best we can even if means stronger headwinds, but smoother air.

    How have you liked the Stratus unit?

    Awesome pics as always!
    Pretty cool flight. Besides being able to deal with fairly benign weather, I also like flying IFR since I I don't have to worry about airspace issues as much.

    1. Great point on airspace issues.

      I would typically prefer to be above the layer, too, though the turbulence was not too terrible (it would have been much worse below the cloud bases, I suspect). I don't think we would have been able to get above it - there were a lot of layers at different altitudes and, at 7000', we seemed to be right in the middle of them.

      The Stratus has been good. I am trying to heed warnings about the delayed imagery and so use it to alert for weather in the vicinity rather than trying to find holes through it. I know that some people knock it because the ADS-B data resolution is not as high as XM, but given that both are on a delay, I think the lower resolution makes sense - after all, the images are temporally de-resolved anyway. It's also pretty cool to be partway over Ontario and able to call up METARs in Michigan while still well beyond radio reception range. Battery life has been outstanding and it connects with ForeFlight immediately. Overall, I'm really pleased with it and it provides some peace of mind and ability to look ahead that I have never had before.

  2. I'd say you logged some very valuable experience on both directions of the trip. Though I'm not at your level yet, even I can appreciate just how much stress the IR will remove - I've certainly been in the uncomfortable seat you described when flying long VFR XCs before. With the kind of flying you do, I think you and the family will be very comfortable in IFR in no time. And hopefully it's hard enough for a poop wash from time to time, too.

    1. It was good experience and I'm pleased that things are working out such that we're baby stepping into this without dropping anyone into the deep end of the pool. Now, with that said, I need to get some actual IMC approaches in! The joke at work is that, in the past, I would sometimes take a vacation day if the weather was really nice, but now I might do it if the weather is really crappy. :-)

    2. Pilots... we are a strange breed, aren't we?