April 2010 LIKE A LOT OF PILOTS who learned instrument flying in the mid ’90s, I got my ticket as new technology was just beginning to show up in the cockpits of small airplanes. Not that it did me much good at the time. My instrument training at FlightSafety Academy, then in Lakeland, Florida, was old-fashioned in every respect, including the way instructors taught us how to plan our flights, which was strictly an analog affair, done using paper charts, a pencil, a plotter and an E6B. For weather and notams, we’d dial up Flight Service and get a lengthy briefing from a specialist about the proposed flight.
The briefings were pretty grueling, and most of it was hard for me to make sense of. So I’d prepare. Before the call, I’d lay out the appropriate low-en-route chart and a big planning chart just so I might be able to find the mysterious VORs the briefer invariably mentioned in his descriptions of the weather systems that might come into play. The information was hard to understand and put into context. Much of it didn’t seem to pertain to me. For instance, when I got a briefing for a dual cross-country from Lakeland to West Palm Beach to Vero Beach and back to Lakeland, I heard all about a cold front up in Mississippi.
Despite that cold front hundreds of miles away and heading away from us, I managed to finish that cross-country and get my ticket. But along the way nobody, not my instructor, not my examiner, talked much about all the things that a new IFR pilot like me was going to have to consider before launching on that IFR flight. What were the real weather hazards? What should I do about planning my instrument flight when there’s high terrain? And how could I get to the point where my real flights weren’t taking three hours to plan?
The people who really taught me to think as an instrument pilot were my colleagues Tom Benenson and Richard Collins and my boss, Mac McClellan. Tom’s knowledge and experience with real IFR was a godsend. Always a realist, Mac demystified IFR for me, and much of that was through his straight talk about flight planning, a process that, even after I’d been IFR-rated for a while, was at times overwhelming for me. Likewise, Richard Collins was a great resource. Once, a few months after I’d gotten my ticket, he asked me how my instrument flying was going. I confessed that I was worried about being able to know precisely where the ice and thunderstorms were. He calmly told me that that was a good thing to be worried about.
Like a lot of new instrument pilots, I was in awe of the complexity of the process, and every flight early on was an ordeal. Invariably, I’d do a very thorough job of planning the flight out and a very hurried job for the return trip. Among other things that perplexed me were the nuts and bolts of routing, especially standard instrument departures and arrivals, on which I’d spent all of 10 minutes during my training, decoding weather data and, perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned to Richard, knowing what to do about the weather.
For a while I continued doing things the way I’d been taught. I would do an elaborate flight plan with a navigation log, and I’d draw my lines on the en route charts, linking airways and their turns, dutifully adding up the number of miles along the way and factoring in the wind on my E6B to come up with leg lengths and estimated times en route. It was a lot of work, even though I’d seldom get that clearance from the controller.
Early on, Mac showed me how to use CSC DUATS to plan a flight. It was a revelation. Even though its weather graphics were primitive compared with what it and other providers have today, it gave me a clear picture of where and when to expect adverse weather. Moreover, the flight planner on DUATS gave me an easy auto-routing capability that I could use to plan my flight in seconds. No longer would a briefer tell me that “the computer wouldn’t take” my routing. If DUATS generated it, the computer would take it.
By using the computer, something I was forbidden to do during my instrument training, I was able to cut an hours-long job into 20 minutes of prep and get more and better information in the process.