He was a good friend. A ski-resort developer, a leader in his community, someone we highly admired. He took off in his Cessna Cardinal at night from his ski resort during a snowstorm on a short trip he flew almost every weekend. He was not instrument-rated. He knew the route well, but obviously not well enough to fly it VFR in IMC.
Every case is individual, but there are countless like his. Recently a low-time, non-instrument-rated buyer of a piston twin was trying to get it home to California from the East Coast in one day. He met a lonely death late at night in remote Colorado mountains.
Then there was the high-time helicopter pilot attempting to fly visually through a pass in low ceilings and fog in Southern California. The crash claimed nine lives including Kobe Bryant and his daughter.
None of them really had a chance. You can’t tell up from down in instrument conditions by looking out the window—regardless of how much flight time you have, how sophisticated the aircraft is, or whether you are instrument-rated. What is mystifying is why pilots try it.
Our good friend in the Cardinal might have felt he was familiar enough with the trip to pull it off with the sketchy information he had available. The piston-twin pilot with very little experience might not have known enough to realize that nighttime over sparsely illuminated mountainous terrain does not provide enough visual information to stay upright. The other extreme is the highly experienced Sikorsky pilot who may have been betting the weather would allow him to stay visual enough to be able to tell up from down by looking out the window. He—and all eight of his passengers—lost the bet.
VFR flying for transportation is not dependable, and it has the additional downside of luring you into taking the risks that cause these kinds of accidents. The distressing thing about these VFR-into-IMC accidents is that they are almost always fatal.
The solution is simple: Be instrument-rated and -equipped, and fly IFR. So, why don’t people get an instrument rating as soon as they get their private certificate? Well, back when John and I started flying, you had to have 200 flight hours to get an instrument rating. The theory was that “professional pilots” didn’t want unseasoned pilots in the clouds with them, gumming up the system. So we had to fly around VFR in our Cherokee 140, building time.
In the process, we scared ourselves badly. We both vividly remember being pressed down near the ground by clouds and then circling the airport at Perry, Florida, desperately trying to get lined up with any runway for landing.
Another stressful shared memory is of circling under a low ceiling over a town in Tennessee, clutching our sectional while trying to identify the set of railroad tracks out of town that did not have the tall antenna beside it.
These experiences left profound impressions on us that have lasted decades. We are fortunate that during this time-building period, we didn’t lose the ultimate bet. Today, the FAA time-building requirement for an instrument rating is only 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross-country flight time.
The obvious thing is to start working on your instrument rating as soon as you get your private certificate. So why doesn’t everybody do that?
Well, for lots of reasons. First, it is a lot of expensive and time-consuming work. Also, one of the great pleasures of flying is its freedom, and the discipline of flying IFR requires a sacrifice of spontaneity.
Plus, the whole idea of getting yourself inside the clouds and then getting back out of them and on the ground again is intimidating. Some pilots are afraid they are not up to it.
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Moreover, the commitment to an instrument rating is no short-term proposition. Once you get instrument-rated, you need to maintain currency. And if your currency lapses, it takes work to regain it. It is easier now that simulators are more available and less expensive, but still, it requires tracking your currency and considerable effort to stay current.
Another concern pilots have regarding IFR flying is a possible encounter with the dual boogeymen of thunderstorms and ice. The good news is that, today, we have far better tools for avoiding them. In addition to airborne radar, we now have handy and inexpensive—or free—Nexrad, which provides a full picture of the thunderstorm situation. The really great news is that not only is Nexrad readily accessible for preflight planning, but it is also available in the air for free with ADS-B In and for a fee from SiriusXM.
For avoiding ice in the clouds, graphical forecasts and pilot reports for icing are readily available from flight-planning programs.
But if you are going to use an airplane for transportation, you really need to be instrument-rated. Continuing to fly VFR for transportation keeps exposing you to the risk that someday the weather will be worse than you are betting on. It is a bet you can’t control and that you and your passengers can’t afford to lose.
The downside of instrument flying is that it takes a lot of effort. It is not something you can do casually. For every flight, you need to have studied the charts you are going to use in advance and ensure they are handy when you fly. You need to be ready to navigate the route. Once you are in the air, you must be able to keep up a demanding pace until you are back on the ground again. There is no pause button.
But it is more than worth it. Flying IFR is deeply rewarding. There’s nothing more exhilarating than breaking out of low clouds at the end of an instrument approach to find a beautifully lit-up runway right in front of you. IFR flying takes advantage of an elaborate system that is maintained so you can much more safely get great utility from your aircraft. Failing to take advantage of that system is a sad waste.
This story appeared in the October 2020 issue of Flying Magazine