Because I Don't Want One

Is an IFR rating a good prescription for every pilot? Lane thinks not.



The craggy rocks of the northern California coastline stretch out in front of the Cheetah, offering sharp contrast to the dramatically swirling blue waters and white foam surf crashing violently against their sides as we make our way north. I'm busy contemplating possible reasons for the stretch of turquoise-colored water near the shoreline when Jeff's voice interrupts my thoughts.

"You want to go under the hood for a while now?" he asks.

It's the fourth time he's asked in the last two hours. I'd said I wanted to take advantage of having a second pilot on board to get some IFR practice during our trip. But I can't get enough of this spectacular scenery as it is. I can't imagine willfully missing some of it just so I can practice staring at an instrument panel.

"No," I answer for the fourth time. "I want to look out the window." It's not until we reach the hazy landscape of the Sacramento Valley, on the return trip, that I'm finally willing to trade the scenery for some practice time under the hood.

Fast-forward five months. I'm flying left seat in a rented Cessna 172 with my friend Mike, who's a professional pilot and instrument flight instructor, flying between Ayers Rock and Alice Springs, Australia. We took off just before sunset, and "pitch black" is now beginning to take on a whole new level of meaning as I make my way across the unrelieved void of the central Australian wilderness under a dark and moonless sky. I'm making this flight by choice, knowing it would entail more than two solid hours of pure instrument flight, because it's giving me a good opportunity to sharpen my emergency instrument skills.

I run my scan across my main flight instruments for the gazillionth time, making small corrections, before shooting a quick look at the engine instruments. My brain is tired, and I glance at the GPS. Still an hour to go.

"How is it," I ask Mike, "that instrument flying can be so tiring, and yet so boring, all at the same time?" Mike laughs in agreement.

"That's why they invented autopilots," he says.

Fast-forward five days. Mike and I are returning from our trip around the Outback. We've been following an exhausting and frenetic schedule for almost three weeks and have been in the air for five hours already today. We only have two more hours to go to reach our destination, but at our last fuel stop, I tell Mike I've had enough. If he wants to keep going, he's going to have to do the flying. So Mike climbs in the left seat and we head off for Canberra and the coast.

Dark falls before we reach Canberra, but the sky is clear and the latest weather report and forecast call for, at worst, only a scattered layer at 4,000 feet between Canberra and the coast. I make a vague note of Canberra's clearly visible runway lights as we pass over the field and head toward the darkness of the coastal mountains, my thoughts blurry with fatigue.

"That's odd." Mike's voice breaks through my weary reverie. I look over at him. He points ahead. "Those look like clouds ahead." I peer forward. Sure enough, billowing opaque shapes loom faintly against the darkness in front of us. "I'm going to climb to 7,500, see if we can get above this," Mike says.

We climb, but it soon becomes clear that we aren't going to outclimb whatever's in front of us. So much for the accuracy of weather reports. But it's warm out, no controller or pilot has mentioned any severe weather in the area, and Mike is an accomplished pilot with several thousand hours of flight time who flies a couple hundred instrument hours every year. Just two weeks earlier, in fact, I'd sat calmly next to him in a twin-engine Navajo while we flew this very leg in reverse-through solid clouds, pouring rain, turbulence, and occasional lightning on the Stormscope-returning to Canberra from the coast. It hadn't been any big deal. So we decide to simply get an IFR clearance at 7,000 feet and continue on to our destination, which the GPS tells us is a short 30 minutes away.

Almost as soon as we plunge into the clouds, however, the rain and turbulence start. Our 1977 Cessna 172 doesn't have an autopilot, and Mike is working pretty hard just to keep our wings level, our heading reasonably steady, and our altitude on the mark. Mike predicts that this is just some local stuff over the mountains and says it'll probably dissipate long before we reach the coast. But as the minutes tick by, the rain, clouds and bumps show no sign of lessening. If anything, they get a little worse.

"What can I do?" I ask Mike. I'm now fully awake.

"Dig out the approach plates for Moruya," he says. "I want the GPS arrival for a track of 116 degrees. We might actually have to shoot the approach here." His voice has a note of perplexed surprise in it, as well as a healthy dose of highly focused concentration. I dig out the Jeppesen charts and flip to the right page. Peering hard at the tiny print, I find that the approach calls for an incremental step-down descent, starting at 16 miles. I set the radios, look at the GPS and tell Mike we can descend now to 4,900 feet, and that I'll call out when we can make our first descent from there.

The rattling din of the rain drumming on the fuselage gets louder as we start our descent. I trust Mike, and I think briefly how fortuitous it was that we switched seats at our last fuel stop. But this is still a long way from comfortable.

We make our way toward Moruya, with me calling out each progressive descent point and next altitude mark as Mike works the unruly, under-powered and lightly-loaded Cessna through the jolting bumps and rain. We reach our minimum descent altitude, and a quick check with the strobes still shows an ocean of rain-streaked white outside. I brief Mike on the missed-approach procedure.

"Okay," he says. "But we've got two miles to go, still. And I used to instruct out of here. The runway is right on the coast, and a lot of times the mountain clouds stop just before the airport."

I'm skeptical, but a quarter mile from the runway, we suddenly break out of the bank of clouds. As predicted, the wall stops just to the west and north of the airport. We cross the field and do a tight, descending, race-course pattern over the water, never straying further north than the approach end of Moruya's 5,000-foot lighted runway. We touch down easily and taxi in to a very dark patch of grass by the aero club. Mike shuts down the Cessna and we take off our headsets in silence.

Finally, Mike takes a deep breath and sets his headset on the glareshield. He turns and looks at me in the dark and suddenly quiet cockpit.

"That," he says with emphasis, "was no fun." This from a highly experienced and current instrument pilot who knew the route, approach and destination airport well, and had a second pilot on board to handle some of the workload. Mike enjoys instrument flying-in the right airplane. We weren't in the right airplane.

"No," I answer slowly, "it wasn't." I start putting away the charts. "You know, Mike," I continue after a moment, "I just have absolutely zero desire to do that kind of flying. At best, it's tiring and boring. At worst, it's nerve-wracking. If I flew a PC-12 or Navajo, that'd be one thing. But there's just nowhere I have to be so badly that it'd make me want to do single engine, single pilot IFR. Especially in my Cheetah."

So there you have it. Now, before the arguments start, let me assure you that this is far from the first time that I-or Flying's readers, for that matter-have ever thought about this subject. I have a whole heap of letters, in fact, from people arguing all 20 sides of the VFR/IFR question, and I've read and considered them all. But here's the thing.

You see, I didn't learn to fly in order to get anywhere. I learned to fly because somewhere in the course of a summer evening biplane flight, I touched something in the sky that made me remember, just for a moment, a secret about beauty, life, or magic that I think I must have known once, long before I was born. As a result, my dream airplane was always a Waco, a Travel Air, or a melt-my-heart Piper Super Cub. And my first airplane actually was a 1946 Cessna 120, with a sum total of six instruments, including the engine gauges. An instrument rating is a laughable thing, in that kind of airplane. But nobody cares, because you don't buy a Cessna 120 or a Waco if you're looking to get to St. Louis on time. Waiting out weather is simply part of the adventure, and part of the appeal, of flying a classic old airplane.

My choice of airplane may have changed-at least for the moment-although I still fly a very basic airplane, designed primarily for fair-weather flights. But, more importantly, the type of flying I like to do hasn't. I fly for fun. And when it's not fun anymore-when the weather starts closing in and the visibility or conditions start to deteriorate-I don't want to keep going into the muck. I want to land and wait for a better time or day to fly.

But wouldn't I be safer with an instrument rating? Not necessarily. Not if I used the rating to take on higher-risk conditions or flight challenges, or if I wasn't current. And I don't want to spend as much time staring at an instrument panel as staying really IFR current would require. I want to look out the window. Besides. Safety isn't a matter of ratings. If it were, we wouldn't have all those instrument, commercial, and ATP pilots written up in Aftermath every month. It's a matter of judgment-of knowing how to stay within the limits of you and your equipment, whatever those limits are. And that's an equation I work at each and every day.

But wouldn't getting an instrument rating make me a better pilot? Well, sure. So would a mountain flying course, more tailwheel or sailplane instruction, more cross-country flights to unfamiliar places, or any other kind of training or experience I could acquire. But I'm not inclined to burden my already-stretched-thin time or finances to pursue a rating I don't want, don't have a desire to use, and don't even have the right airplane to use well.

Which is not to say I don't pursue any IFR training at all. Ever since I got stuck in horizonless VFR haze over the North Carolina mountains, I have made a practice of incorporating more regular hood time and IFR training into my flying, so if I happen to stumble into the edges of trouble again, I can get myself back out safely. But my primary strategy is the same one I use with regard to spins. Which is to say, avoiding that kind of trouble in the first place. Even if that means imposing more conservative margins on my flying. Flying VFR with four miles of visibility in haze, for example, may be perfectly legal. But with only a very few exceptions, it's now below my personal minimum standards.

Besides. If I only fly in good weather, I can actually see the evening sun turning the rippled ocean from translucent blue to an opaque and burnished bronze. I can follow the winding curves of a river as it snakes its way across lush, green wetlands. I can circle back to get another look at a whale spouting in the waters below me. I have the freedom to explore any direction, altitude, or place in the sky my impulses send me or my heart wants to see. And every now and then, I might even see something that allows me to remember, just for a moment, a secret I used to know once, long before I was born.

That might not be enough for everybody. But it's enough for me.