Lessons in Safe Instrument Flying Are All Around
Us, All We Have to Do Is Look for Them

11:18 PM

When you earn your FAA ticket that certifies you to legally fly through clouds, it is a huge deal...just ask any IFR pilot. The training is intense, the hours under the hood long, and the amount of new information to learn is notorious for its complexity.

But once you pass the check ride and get the ticket, that, my flying friends, is when the education really begins. Trust me, the first time you plow into some actual alone in the plane without your CFI-I at your side will be a dramatic moment of brief panic that will require extreme focus. And each time you launch, the learning keeps on coming:

When you move from VFR to IFR flying, you multiply your responsibility for obtaining a “big picture” briefing. There will be times when you question your weather prediction skills. With VFR, it's pretty simply, just avoid clouds. But in the IFR environment, where you might be up there IN the clouds, you had better know what is in those puffy whites, and at precisely what place on the altimeter dial the air becomes cold enough to freeze the liquid in those clouds. The fact that you earned your IFR ticket validates only that you know enough about the weather to launch into cruddy skies that can kill you.
I consider myself to be about as qualified a weather guesser as any IFR stick with 350 hours. I am quite skilled at navigating the web to find data, and can “big picture” things with anyone with my experience. But an episode this past week at my home field made me wonder if I was seriously missing something in my IFR prognostications:
After looking at the weather on the web, I determined the air over KEUG was too cold, moist and unstable for an aerial joy ride. From my hangar I saw large CU build-ups to the north and northeast, heavy dark clouds to the west and gusty winds 240 to 270/12G25. So I decided to just hang out and clean some bugs off the leading edges. As I always do, I had my scanner radio blaring, and heard ground issue an IFR clearance for a Cirrus northbound at 6,000 MSL for Paine Field in Everett, WA. Nothing strange about that, except that I had checked the weather within the hour and saw a freezing level of 4,500 MSL, hard ceilings along his filed route of about 3,900 MSL, and numerous bright orange to red cells along the route all the way to about Tacoma, just south of the his final destination.
As I watched this gorgeous aircraft taxi out, my thoughts were...”what the hell is this guy thinking? He'll be at 6,000 MSL where its -3C, flying through weather that is showing heavy precip and possible convection.” By using Foreflight Mobile on my iPhone, NEXRAD showed the red circular icon for mesocyclonic activity in two spots near KHIO, so by flying 1,500 MSL ABOVE the freezing level in seriously moist, unstable air, in my opinion, the threat of airframe ice became almost inevitable. And even though his Duluth Flyer might have been FIKI-certified, I don't think FIKI on a Cirrus allows horizontal XC flight through known icing...it only allows for a safe departure from an icing condition.

Based on what I saw and what the Foreflight weather was telling me, I never in a million years would have launched on this flight, even in a FIKI Cirrus. But obviously this pilot read it differently. He made it to KPAE according to Flightaware, so it got me wondering:
After watching in amazement as the Cirrus took off on what I deemed a dangerous flight, I began second-guessing my own interpretation of the weather. Was I missing something? Was I seeing the big picture correctly? Was I being overly cautious, and nagging deep in my aviator soul, one quite serious question...was I becoming a weather wuss?
I needed answers to these questions so I explained this entire situation to a CFI-I that I know, and also a long-time friend and experienced IFR pilot who just took delivery of a cherry Cessna T210 certified for FIKI. I was nervous as I waited for their replies because if I did read this all wrong, it meant there was a hole in my weather knowledge big enough to fly an Airbus A380 right through:
Both my CFI-I friend and my pal the Centurian driver told me that without a doubt I did not miss anything, I did not get this wrong. Based on the weather as I had described it, neither would have made the flight in a single-engine plane, even one with FIKI juice in its wings. But, as the cliché goes, sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart. I came away from the lesson convinced that my weather skills are fine.
So, here is the takeaway: Keep your eyes on the sky, your head in the game and stay forever on the lookout for that next real-world IFR lesson lurking where you least expect it. And if you plan on flying risky missions through nasty convective weather in anything smaller then a Dreamliner, it might be a good idea to make sure the life insurance premiums are paid in full.

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