So I learned to find the graphics. I watched the Weather Channel, used DUAT’s graphic weather page and learned to put the text into plain language, when in doubt, to ensure I wasn’t missing anything. I always felt as though I were cheating a bit by doing this, like I was letting down some imaginary grizzled IFR veteran who reads briefing strips off a teletype while drinking black coffee at the flight service station in the predawn hours.
The truth is, I was doing the smart thing, figuring out a way to come up with the best picture in my mind of what the weather hazards were so I could plan my flight accordingly.
Technology has come to the rescue in this regard, in the form of some amazing new weather products, including icing forecasts, much more accurate winds aloft and turbulence models, and better satellite imagery, tops reports, storm cell detection and tracking, and severe weather warnings, just to name a few. There are several excellent free and for-pay websites and applications that make this kind of information easier than ever to access and understand.
One of the hardest lessons to learn was to let a good forecast be a good forecast. Today when I plan a flight, even a long one, where there’s a huge high centered over the route with no sigmets or airmets intruding on the day, I can pretty much leave it at that. Get the forecast and the winds aloft, pick an altitude, plan the route and go flying. What was once a tortuous ordeal of many hours has today turned into a breeze. When there’s hazardous weather forecast, do I spend more time getting the weather? You bet I do. But there’s very little anxiety involved. And the go/no-go decision is easy. Unless there’s a 500-mile-long wall of fire and brimstone along my route of flight — freezing rain and a few other conditions fit this category — I’m going flying. I’ve had to cancel only a few flights over the last 10 years for weather, and I’ve had to divert one other time, which is testament to the utility of single-engine airplanes for IFR flying.
It’s all about paying real attention to the real risks and not paying undue attention to the underlying risks.
Use the Tools
There are many tools available to us as instrument pilots that weren’t around 15 years ago or that weren’t widely taught or endorsed.
A good place to look for help is the iPad. One of the most tedious, time-consuming and aggravating jobs in all of aviation is updating chart binders (or even just finding updated charts, period). Invariably, when I was starting out I’d wait until the last day before a trip before realizing I had a lot of chart updates to my binders in addition to, it goes without saying, packing, flight planning, finishing up a few work things and, oh yeah, getting a little shut-eye. With the iPad, the chart updating process is a dream. Log on, hit a few “update” buttons, leave the iPad sitting next to the router and, before you know it, you’re good to go. It’s a huge time and stress reliever. The same is true, of course, for charts on a panel-mounted MFD or electronic flight bag. The name of the game is making it easy on yourself.
Flight planning is another area in which I used to agonize over details that, in the grand scheme, didn’t matter a bit. Going out of an unfamiliar airport without high terrain around it, for instance, it doesn’t typically matter what you file to get out of there. I often simply file “direct.” If the controllers don’t like that route, they’ll correct me. They might give me a routing that will take me 45 seconds longer to fly, but they won’t give me something hazardous.
The key here is that you’ve got to be able to put away the charts and flight-plan that new routing. If you’re not good with the flight planning function on the Garmin or Bendix/King box, you’d better learn. When I get an unfamiliar routing, it’s generally a piece of cake. Put in the departure, the transition, the first few fixes and then the destination. If your first unknown fix is 2½ hours down the airways, believe me, you’ll have plenty of time to get those waypoints entered, along with the arrival, if you get that far: Most controllers in most of the country will eventually give you a long direct-to clearance. The point is that there’s no need to agonize over the details of the flight plan in most instances. Most of them are pretty much variations on a line segment anyway.
That said, when there’s high terrain involved, fly the airways, especially when you’re in a single-engine airplane. They’re laid out to take you over lower terrain (though “lower” can be a relative term) and they often follow areas where there tend to be more airports (though out West airports can still be few and far between).
Most instrument instructors spend an inordinate amount of time on basic aircraft control. This is a good thing — you do need to be able to keep the airplane under control, because loss of control in the clouds is very often a fatal mistake. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to learn to rely without fail on the instruments and not on what your inner ear is telling you. That too is a mistake that leads to fatal consequences, especially since it happens often during maneuvering flight, most often during departure and approach, when the ground is closest and recovery the least likely.