That Invaluable Instrument Rating

I love the challenge and the utility of instrument flying, even though I learned to fly because I was a fantasy fighter pilot. Actually, I still am.

What got me out to the airport in the first place had a lot to do with Grumman American’s marketing strategy in the mid-1970s – applying warbird-like paint schemes to their little two-seat sportplanes, the better to tempt guys like me under the Spitfire-esque sliding canopy.

Eventually, I even bought one – a well used trainer for $6,700 – to be paid in monthly installments of $87.50 for the next 15 years. The interest rate was around 16 percent, but who cares? It was mine. Even though it wasn’t one of the ones wearing warpaint, it was blue, so I named it the “Hellkitten.”

I got my instrument rating several years later in the mid-1980s, after getting into the magazine business. You didn’t work for Dick Collins without getting the IFR bug. I had great instructors, especially Eric Smith at Ronson Aviation in Trenton, N.J. But even with an avionics upgrade, my little airplane wasn’t suitable for anything but the most basic IFR – it didn’t even have a glideslope for flying an ILS. But with a Mode C transponder, I could file and fly IFR flight plans. Over the years, I drifted in and out of instrument currency, depending on what was going on in my life.

A lot of the time I was “paper current” but not comfortable flying in real-world clouds. The idea of personal minimums had not yet come along. If you weren’t confident you could fly an ILS to minimums while peeling an apple, you weren’t supposed to fly instruments for real; not even a little bit.

Such was the situation when my then-fiancé, Leslie, and I flew to Baltimore to visit one of her college friends for a mid-summer long weekend. As we left on a Friday afternoon for the one-and-a-half-hour flight from New Jersey (it would have been a three-hour drive, probably much more with holiday traffic), high pressure dominated the forecasts, so I was pretty sure we’d be able to get home okay on Monday.

The high pressure did its part by hanging around, but as is wont to happen on the East Coast, that pesky nearby ocean pumped a lot of moisture into the atmosphere, and when I checked the weather on Monday morning, the forecast was for visibilities of a mile or less enroute – typical murk that would normally have kept me from making a cross-country trip.

But I owe a debt of gratitude to the flight briefer, and I wish I knew who he was so I could thank him. When he heard the crestfallen tone in my voice, rather than reinforcing the VNR mantra (“VFR not recommended” — I once had a briefer stop in mid-sentence and ask me, “Have I VNR’d you yet?”), he asked if I had an instrument rating and was I current. I told him yes, but I was really rusty and didn’t think I was up to hard IFR. He said, “Well, if ever there was a day for a pretty easy trip up to Jersey, this is that day.” I know, it kinda shocked me, too.

But the truth is that he was right. I was certainly used to flying locally in this kind of milky stuff. Once above 1,000 feet or so, you get a decent horizon, the area navaids were well known to me, and the weather was forecast to be much better at my home airport. So, I filed. He even threw in a shortcut on my routing, cutting the corner of one of the usual airway doglegs around Philadelphia.

I had a little portable Garmin Pilot GPS that made simple work of visualizing the routing, and after a short climbout, Leslie and I enjoyed the cooler air at 5,000 feet. I still had good ground contact as we passed Philly, but as we crossed the Delaware into New Jersey, I could see that a layer of broken clouds well below us was solidifying into an overcast, with tops around 3,000 feet. The controller told me ceiling at the airport was reported as 900 feet and asked, “You want the VOR-Alpha approach?” Pre-RNAV, it was the only approach there was.

I took a deep breath. The approach could not be more simple, a gentle right turn to 128 degrees after crossing the VOR with 7.3 miles to descend from 2,500 feet to the airport and circle to land on Runway 25. Minimums were 720 feet. The GPS did not have approaches loaded, but using the VOR and the airport as waypoints, the pathway was clearly laid out on the blocky little moving map. But this one was for real.

I looked over at Leslie, realizing she was trusting her life to my judgment, and decided to give it a go, resolved that at the first sign of trouble, I’d climb back up out of the clouds and go land somewhere else. We’d only been up a little more than an hour and I had plenty of gas.

Cleared to descend to 2,500, I had one more of those anxious moments as we sunk into the pillowy clouds and the outside view turned to milk. It was only a few minutes until crossing the VOR, making a standard-rate turn and throttling back to descend. It was 7.3 miles of the most intense concentration and panel-scanning I had yet experienced, but at around 900 feet, needles centered, we broke out and the airport was right where it was supposed to be. The circling approach was a few hundred feet below normal pattern altitude, and I reflected on how important it was to stay vigilant when there’s that much less margin for error.

The landing was smooth, and as we taxied in, I could see a small group of pilots on the ramp eying my little airplane, then looking up at the low clouds with mild curiosity, as if wondering, “How did he get in?”

After I parked and was walking toward the FBO, I saw a transient pilot sitting next to his airplane waiting for me. I looked inside and he had a brand new panel, chock full of goodies, including a panel-mounted moving map GPS.

“What’s it like headed southwest?” he asked. “The ceiling’s ragged at 900,” I said, “but if you file, you’ll be on top in a few minutes and then it’s just the usual lousy visibility all the way.”

“You don’t think I can do it VFR?” he asked, “I haven’t got my rating yet.”

“Uh, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

I felt bad for him, but as I looked up at the low clouds we had just conquered, I could not have felt better about myself.

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