Garmin G5000 panel
9 min read

John Zimmerman’s story about scud running made me think a lot about this subject–specifically about scud running as opposed to IFR flying.

Back in the good old days, there was a lot of scud running and not much real IFR. A lot of us thought that the best way to improve the general aviation safety picture would be to get more people into IFR flying. My father, Leighton Collins, started this, in the old Air Facts, soon after World War Two. He wrote many words encouraging light airplane IFR and printed many more by other folks. I came along a bit later and joined in. Both of us practiced what we preached.

DC-3 instrument panel

Instrument flying in the bad old days: needle, ball and airspeed.

One of life’s simplest pleasures comes in realizing that you were wrong about something and that is true here. There is almost infinitely more IFR flying now than there was in the 50s and 60s yet the accident rate where weather is involved has not improved much.  The simple pleasure is found in the challenge of trying to figure out why we were wrong.

There are many potential reasons why IFR flying falls far short of realizing what should be a safety advantage.

For starters, IFR today is an almost completely different activity than it was 50 or 60 years ago. It is more complicated and far harder to master.

To examine this subject we have to separate instrument flying from IFR flying.

Instrument flying is simply the art of controlling the airplane by reference to instruments with no outside visual references.

IFR flying is operating in the air traffic control system.

There is a third element: weather flying. That relates to the interface between the airplane and the weather and the pilot’s interpretation of that weather. It goes without saying that you have to be good at instrument flying to do well in IFR and weather flying.

Instrument flying has not changed much since I got my rating in 1955. The relatively recent introduction of electronic flight instruments didn’t really change the way it is done. We still look at and interpret the readings and operate the controls accordingly.

IFR and weather flying have changed a lot. The combination of the two is the only place we can look for the reasons that the safety potential of IFR is unrealized.

IFR flying used to be deceptively simple. As late as 1954, when I was a Link instructor at an Air Force contract school, we were teaching navigation using the four course low frequency radio range as well as the ADF. Both are simple to use. Many words have been written about using the ADF to maximum effect but the main thing you have to remember is that it points to the station.

The four course range was even simpler. The pilot did not have to look at anything. Navigation was by ear. You could hear when you were on the beam and could come and go along any of the four beams. There was no flexibility but it worked as long as you wanted to go where a beam went.

When VOR (called “omni” at the time) came along there was a lot more flexibility but there was also a learning curve. Everything had to be set correctly for it to give the navigational commands for tracking an airway. A lot of people had trouble with this and VOR navigation was many years down the road before there was general understanding of everything about it. It required eye time, too, which took away from the time the pilot had for instrument interpretation.

The next complication came with glideslope receivers, enabling full ILS approaches. Many hours were flown as pilots mastered the art of tracking both a localizer and a glideslope while doing a good job of instrument flying. To try to simplify this, some instructors actually taught students to descend below the glideslope to the localizer-only minimums and then to intercept and track the glideslope for just the last part of approach, to the lower minimum that it afforded.

To that point, IFR flying was still relatively simple. Then it got more complicated. There was more traffic and the interface with air traffic control became more time-consuming. GPS was implemented and was soon the cornerstone for all the current gee-whiz navigational systems, some of which are pretty complex. A pilot has to be technologically capable to operate these systems and they require a lot of hands and eyes-on time. An autopilot has come to be quite necessary simply because the pilot can’t fly instruments and manage the electronic store at the same time.

Garmin G5000 panel

Instrument flying today–too much information?

The solutions that pilots used to find in that three pound computer in the skull are now available electronically. Is it easier to do it that way? Open to question, I think. Where solving a square root problem with a calculator will always be a marvel to those of us who learned to do it with a pencil and paper, some of the electronic calculations done with avionics systems seem rather like counting cows by counting the teats and dividing by four.

More important than the “easier” question is one about its being a distraction. I think that, without question, it is distracting. That is why the autopilot has become such a vital bit of equipment.

All the electronics have added a wealth of weather information to the cockpit but this has to be retrieved and looked at, which is also a distraction. Back in the simpler days, pilots listened to scheduled weather broadcasts at 15 and 45 past the hour to keep up with weather conditions. That was quite effective. Having weather radar information available in the cockpit is today’s big advantage but, guess what? We still lose airplanes in thunderstorms.

The time spent training for an instrument rating has been minimized.  It simply does not allow enough time to learn all the things a pilot needs to know to safely operate IFR in instrument conditions. I learned to swim when my mentor threw me into the deep and suggested I have at it. I think that is how people are “learning” IFR flying today.

I am going to digress here and use a couple of war stories to illustrate how much instrument flying has changed and how some of us used it before it became so complicated.

I was a Link instructor before I got an instrument rating. I spent a lot of time flying the Link, just for practice, so I was a pretty good instrument pilot before I flew IFR.

On March 27, 1954, I was in Meridian, Mississippi in my PA-12 Super Cruiser, N3389M, with a strong desire to fly to Little Rock. The weather was not cooperating.

Meridian was barely VFR. Greenwood, Mississippi, the only reporting station along the way, was not quite VFR. Little Rock was virtually clear.

Planning was pretty simple. I would take off and head out to see what it looked like. If the view wasn’t good, I could land, or, I could climb to a safe altitude and concentrate on the needle and ball (all I had) and fly northwest until I got to the good weather. No air traffic control interface was required to fly instruments in uncontrolled airspace which was more the rule than the exception at that time.

I flew at an altitude that would clear everything along the way by 1,500 feet and started reaching better weather about a hundred miles from Little Rock.

That was my first instrument (but not IFR) flight. We referred to such flying as bootleg instrument flying and it was widely done, probably accounting for more hours than IFR flying in light airplanes. It was a simple plan in a simple airplane and the only computer involved was the pilot’s brain. Looking back, it still appears a low risk operation.

It was about fifteen years later, on December 6, 1969, that a more notable bootleg instrument flight occurred

Nixon presenting trophy

Nixon made it to the game only because Marine One went into the soup.

The football game was Arkansas v. Texas, number two v. number one. President Nixon went to the game at Fayetteville, Arkansas. Air Force One landed at Ft. Smith where Marine One and two other like helicopters were standing by. The weather was awful.

Any local knew that a scud run from Ft. Smith to Fayetteville wasn’t likely possible because of higher terrain between the two points.

The flight of three helicopters headed north, toward Fayetteville. It was soon apparent that it couldn’t be done VFR so the pilot flying Marine One told the other two helicopters to break it off. Marine One pulled up into the clouds and flew to the vicinity of Razorback Stadium where the crew descended to VFR conditions, found the landing zone, and delivered President Nixon to the game, on time. (Unfortunately, Texas won. There is extensive coverage of this game on Wikipedia, if you are interested.)

There was great official consternation over this flight but it was actually a simple thing to do and most of us could see nothing wrong with it. The pilot had a simple plan and he knew what he was doing.

Those two flights are representative of what went on in the good old days, may they never return.

They also shed some light on why IFR flying has failed to realize its safety potential. Compare the simplicity of such flights with the distracting complexity of IFR flying today and it is easy to see how marginally-trained pilots can be overwhelmed and make mistakes, too many of which lead to serious accidents.

Bootleg instrument flying has no place today and the electronic marvels that many pilots now enjoy are real assets. They won’t, however, part the waters and make possible things that belong in the “impossible” column. I think that it is possible that some pilots feel the electronic finery absolves them of the responsibility to plan and think. Just load the flight and fly. No planning required. No flying required, either. Let the autopilot handle that. No thinking required – plenty of time to do the crossword puzzle while en route. Bad ideas, I think, that might be at least some of the reasons for the unrealized safety potential of IFR flight. What do you think?

Richard Collins
36 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Mr. Collins– so was your 1954 bootleg flight to little Rock done legally? Could you launch into clouds in uncontroled airspace back then? If so, I guess midairs were just a risk people took? good stories!

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      Today, any pilot with an instrument rating can launch into the clouds in Class G airspace. Legal, but not too smart.

  2. Michael Finley
    Michael Finley says:

    Mr. Collins,

    At the end of your post, you point out, “I think that it is possible that some pilots feel the electronic finery absolves them of the responsibility to plan and think. Just load the flight and fly. No planning required. No flying required, either. Let the autopilot handle that. No thinking required – plenty of time to do the crossword puzzle while en route. Bad ideas, I think, that might be at least some of the reasons for the unrealized safety potential of IFR flight.” I think you are right. In fact, this is a perfect example of the “Peltman Effect,” an economic theory that states that when the “costs” of doing something unsafe go down, individuals will, more often than not, engage in behaviors that they would other not, were the costs higher. In other words, today’s pilots (and indeed, those of the past, especially as new safety technologies were implemented) think the autopilot and the avionics will save them, so they do things that might not be all that smart in negotiating IFR flight (as you define it) and IMC’s. The sense of safety leads to complaincency, and those lead to accidents, crashes, and deaths.

    Great piece, by the way…

  3. Tom Yarsley
    Tom Yarsley says:

    A great piece, Dick, and we all benefit from the authority and perspectives of its author.

    “An autopilot has come to be quite necessary simply because the pilot can’t fly instruments and manage the electronic store at the same time.”

    Amazing, yet true. How ironic that a device that ostensibly was created to make a pilot’s lot easier, instead makes it more challenging. It’s a great example of bad design engineering.

    In addition to all that you cited, I’ll mention three things that I think are in play, here, too.

    First, demographics. Time was, that both the aptitudes and the skill levels of instrument pilots were a cut or two above those of the pilot population at large. This elite group also had a lot more exposure to their craft, so recency-of-experience was on their side. Today, the vast majority of pilots hold an instrument rating – for reasons laudable and not. Consequently, the elite no longer are – with the consequence that the pool of instrument pilots displays very average levels of aptitude and skill. This is the Dark Side of the Force of the Holy Grail of universal instrument ratings. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.)

    Second, the enormous problem of non-universal equipment. One nice thing (among many) about omni heads and ADFs was that they operated fungibly from brand to brand. If you could tune and fly a Narco, you could tune and fly a King, etc. The same cannot be said about any of today’s navigator equipment. An expert with Brand A becomes a perfect idiot as soon as s/he sits down in front of Brand B. Outside the realm of type-specific professional flying, there’s something fundamentally wrong with a paradigm that requires a pilot to spend much of / most of his/her brain power figuring out how to communicate with a box, rather than flying an airplane. This is just my slant on your insightful statement that I quoted at the beginning of this response piece. As a digression, I believe that this issue has become a major disincentive to renter pilots. Not only do they not know how to use the nav/com gear; the required checkouts have become mini-type-rating courses. And with ad hoc third-party implementation of software upgrades, “version roulette” has become a poster child of caveat emptor. The FAA has stayed out of this, displaying an uncharacteristic deference to innovation over standardization. The result so far has been amazing technology that few ever master – kind of like my Android telephone.

    Third, rampant misplaced confidence in the capabilities of equipment. This is remarkably like what we all discussed in the conversation about Cirrus pilots and their vehicles’ BRS systems. Combine this with unfounded confidence in self, and you have plenty of ingredients in the kitchen to bake lots of disasters. Today’s boxes are technological marvels. But until we take the step that many in this forum abhor (autonomous aircraft), safety will remain the province of the PIC.

    Today’s moving map and synthetic VFR technology essentially can eliminate spatial disorientation. TCAS and its kin can do the same for close encounters of the noisy kind. None of that prevents a pilot from doing battle with weather. It may just embolden the ignorant. As a design engineer, that just brings me back to autonomous aircraft, which would be programmed to avoid hazards. But that offends pilots’ egos and sensibilities. So, where do we go next?

    • Josh
      Josh says:

      I am going to quibble about your statement that an expert on one system becomes an idiot on another brand. Electronic devices tend to all follow a general flow. Yes, there are some things that become more difficult to find on another’s menu system. The problem lies with people that don’t bother to actually learn what they are doing, and just become button pushers. The problem as I see it is people don’t learn how things work, they learn to work something.

      With the cell phone you mentioned, One should be able to sit down in 5 or 10 minutes and figure out where all of the essential things are on a phone, including all of the settings menu, where are the ringtones, silent settings, how to store numbers, etc. Sure to get the most use out of the device takes time to learn. (I live in bush Alaska right now, I have never had a smart phone. It would be pretty pointless here. I have considered them though.)

      If you don’t bother to actually learn what you are doing, and just become a robot, then any problem that surfaces becomes much harder. As a side note, many won’t actually plug a battery into their aircraft and spend a half hour learning their systems when they aren’t flying. Then once they have a good general familiarization with their systems, it’s not a big deal.

      • Tom Yarsley
        Tom Yarsley says:


        Many of your comments are right on – for owner-operated aircraft. For renters, not so much. Good luck getting an operator’s manual and some much-needed “battery time” in a typical leaseback flight line environment. You’ll need even more luck and perseverance to attempt the feat with the half-dozen or more birds that you could expect to have to become familiar with in a rental environment.

        As for smart phones and the recent crop of “smart cars,” I will say (as a current software development engineer) I’m completely unimpressed. An example: My T-Mobile Galaxy 2 went into service a few months ago. To answer an incoming call, you have to “swipe” across the screen, from a defined starting target to a defined ending target. Guess what’s co-located at the defined ending target? The “end call” button. Unbelievable. The helpful 20-somethings at the T-Mobile store told me that “you aren’t doing it right.” I took several minutes of dual instruction on how to swipe a screen into submission. Apparently, some people don’t have good smart phone karma. The phone also mysteriously and intermittently displays a capacious menu of selectable reasons why I don’t want to answer an incoming call. Of course, I do want to answer the call, but that simple and obvious choice isn’t even on the menu.

        On my own, I figured out how to program the phone’s “Home” button to be a call-answering hot key. What a concept – a button for answering the phone!

        Now, imagine that I won’t know from day to day which of several models of telephone I’ll be sporting on my hip. That’s the situation that renter pilots face with today’s variety of wonder-navs.

        In the software business, old farts like me have a saying: do simple things simply, and complex things well. A little standardization of the simple things would go a long way in the avionics business. In the phone and car businesses, too.

        BTW, the only reason I bought the damned smart phone was because I now need to be able to set up a wi-fi hotspot for laptops, when I’m on the road at a prospect’s location that lacks public high-speed Internet access. If not for that, I’d still be using my stone-age (but reliable) flip-phone. At least I knew how to successfully answer an incoming call 100% of the time.

        Forgive my rant, but I think that Richard’s point was that near-universal instrument ratings plus gee-whiz technology have failed to put much of a dent in the safety record. He’s right. It may be that even well-executed gee-whiz wouldn’t help much. I assert that it would be far better than the no-standardization environment in which the manufacturers now operate.

        Management perspective: when you want someone to adopt some behavior, you need to do two things: make it easy for him to do it, and incentivize him to do it. Staying alive should comprise adequate incentive, but we’re failing miserably on the ‘make it easy’ part.

        • Josh
          Josh says:

          I did say “quibble.” :)

          Well I didn’t know about the swipe/end call button. As I mentioned having a smart phone where I live in AK is almost a complete waste. I did go to school in CHI and grew up in VA. I am a twenty something, though not on the early side. I know the rental environment. I have yet to own a plane. I’ve always been able to spend the time I want getting to know the aircraft. (Being an A&P might give me a leg up as well.) Maybe I just don’t take no for an answer in that regard. Maybe we should help change the culture in the rental environment to allow that. When I rented in back in May, I did have to throw some credentials at them to let me look under the cowl like any pilot should be able to do. It was a cowl with a few quick turns holding the big doors down.

          Maybe I just had a really good instrument instructor, and then started working for a company that my employer taught me how to use the IFR system decently well. I have in the past, and wouldn’t hesitate to do so today, fly into busy airspace such as Chicago and Washington DC.

          I agree all the gee whiz stuff doesn’t help you actually stay safe. To illustrate the point made in the article, once I was flying VA to CHI and got lazy. I was flying a new 182 with the G1000. Somewhere over OH I needed to give a position report. “….uhhh. Some where along the magenta line…..” I even forgot about the “nearest” button on the panel. (I’m not a fan of the G1000, for several reasons. Any glass cockpit maybe as well.)I had made the flight several times. Having all the technology does breed some laziness if you allow it. My lesson learned.

          Now I will say having a GPS and using it properly sure does make flights easier and I think safer than trying to go VOR to VOR on strictly a map and VHF receiver. By preprogramming your route, there is one less thing to do, one less thing to keep track of.

          The system can be busy. But how many accidents are really from a plane on an IFR plan? Some sure. If I recall correctly, most accidents are VFR planes flying somewhere they shouldn’t be. (I do live in AK…)

  4. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    The problem can’t be traced to just the complexity of the equipment and the system now. I believe there were a lot of IFR accidents even in the transition time of the ’70s when we were still flying fairly simple nav equipment in a fairly simple ATC environment. The problem more likely stems from the inherently complex process of flying an airplane in adverse weather on a part time basis. Most airplane owners just do not need or use an airplane enough to gain and maintain the proficiency required. Dick had an unusual job that required regular flying to airport destinations. That was obviously successful. Most people, even business users, probably do not make much more than 1 trip per month; that is not enough. I commuted daily into Seattle for 3 years with my 182 and felt more comfortable with it than driving. But on an intermittent basis, that kind of flying does not feel comfortable and that is the best indicator as to the real level of safety.

    • David Dickins
      David Dickins says:

      I agree entirely with Steve. The real issue is one of trying to perform a complex task on a part time basis. As a low time sport pilot (approx 200 hours) I barely manage to stay comfortable flying VFR in the complicated airspace environment around San Diego at a once a week frequency. My private pilot friends almost all have their instrument rating but there only a few of them that I would trust with my life under true adverse conditions – the ones that are continually out practicing!

  5. Dr. Kenneth Nolde
    Dr. Kenneth Nolde says:

    I got my instrument rating in 1997 because I was a bit nervous when scud running and felt that an instrument rating would be a safety of flight plus, it was. However, with deference to Mr. Collins I grew up in the ATC system as an USAF enlisted air traffic controller with tower, approach control, GCA, and center experience 1955 to 1958. Then as a navigator in B-52s, RF-4Cs for many years. Point is that I never separated instrument flight in to segments. For me it was and remains a complex activity that required extensive training, knowledge of what I was doing, and consentration — simple as that. When I flew instruments I flew instruments in an environment that I believe I understood and in the event of a bad forecast, I landed.

    The fact is that when I purchased a Light Sport aircraft (Flight Design CTLS) that was far better equipped to fly IFR than my old Cherokee 140-autopilot, terrain warning and weather in the cockpit–however what it really did was to allow me to scud run with greater safety and accuracy. I no longer fly instruments, but I maintain an an IFR proficiency to ensure that ever I get a bad forecast I can cope. I remain a serious flyer who for more that 50 years of flying has never/never ever forgotten the complexity of flight, IFR or VFR.

  6. Eugene P. Letter
    Eugene P. Letter says:

    Interesting story, back in earlier times traffic was minimal compared to today and midair’s were non-existant in remote areas of the USA.
    In the early days skud running was my specialty having flown power line patrol in all types of weather except when unreasonable reports would defer the flight for another day.
    The GPS system and use of autopilots to me is the safest way to travel
    with family and friends and would not recommend flights like
    some of the old goats did it including myself, mainly due to the heavy traffic we all encounter today.

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      “back in earlier times traffic was minimal compared to today and midair’s were non-existant in remote areas of the USA.”

      Well almost. There were 2 airliners somewhere over the Grand Canyon trying to occupy the same space at the same time…

  7. Jim Rainer
    Jim Rainer says:

    Do you really think you were wrong?? Can you imagine scud running in your P210 or a new Turbo Cirrus. The system and airspace limiting make IFR a necessity in today’s controlled airspace. No telling how many lives you and your Dad have saved and how much more useful are today’s single engine aircraft!

    • Ed Griffith
      Ed Griffith says:

      I am solidly with Jim on this. Recall when you first made this argument in the 1970s. Nothing was to be gained or learned with getting empty VFR experience, especially scud running. You and your Dad did save lives.

      Thus I can say the only time I have ever disagreed with you in many years of writing was when you said you made a mistake, but it turned out you were really right all along.

  8. Mike
    Mike says:

    I think Steve has it right. Based on my experience it comes down to the number of trips pilots fly. If you only fly once a month (like me these days) you have to find other ways to stay proficient. I fly a simulator with a demanding CFII every once in a while just to keep my skills sharp. I also file IFR on almost every flight. That being said, I also don’t launch into really bad WX when I haven’t flown in a while. As far as complexity and thinking of an autopilot as required equipment. I tend to disagree. I think way too manny pilots relly on the AP. What happens when the tech toys fail? Can you keep the plates spinning? If you can’t, should you be flying IFR in the first place?

  9. Schaps
    Schaps says:

    aside from the good comments concerning recent experience in IFR conditions ( actual or simulated), remember that the majority of GA aircraft can cope with only the “easiest” of IFR conditions- certainly no icing etc. The capabilities of both pilot and machine should be considered in flight planning. Obvious but needs to be reinforced…

  10. Charles Lloyd
    Charles Lloyd says:

    I got my instrument rating in the late 60s and can now see what Richard is describing in hand flying an aircraft in a much simpler airspace of that time versus today. In addition the aircraft are faster today and can cross more weather systems than we did back then in a single flight.

    For the first two years after the installation of a Garmin 430 in 1999, I slowly learned how to use this complex and capable navigation system. It has all the capabilities of most business flight management systems. There is no question that you must understand how to program a modern day navigator.

    IFR flying in the system today for a single pilot operations is a complex challenge and my operations requirement is to not to fly IMC flight longer than one hour without an autopilot. There is just too much going on in today’s environment that requires attention to stay on the safe side of the equation.

  11. Mike
    Mike says:

    I guess I should consider myself blessed that I have been operating in the busy NYC ATC environment for all of my flying. To me, ATC is nothing more than a resource. A co-pilot of sourts. It’s when I am not talking to them that I get nurvous. :-) know your equipment, know your limits and always have an out. :-)

  12. Van Rush
    Van Rush says:

    Using a sophisticated (for its time)Flight Director in a Bonanza, I was in the VOR procedure turn inbound at Jonesboro, Arkansas when it failed. I would shortly be at minimum altitude and not yet seeing the ground. The right wing was down in the turn and suddenly I felt pressure on the control wheel and lost some altitude before returning to level flight. But I could see the ground now through wispy scud while Jonesboro Radio was telling me visibility was improving a little. I had lost enough altitude to be below minimums already but, since I knew the flat terrain I was flying over, I plowed ahead. Shortly the end of the runway appeared and I was almost on it. I never tried to shoot completely another autopilot approach.

  13. Dale K Brooks
    Dale K Brooks says:

    I’m an over the road trucker, and I see many parallels between aviating and trucking. To me, it boils down to a very simple (perhaps oversimplified) principle: “Technology is no substitute for training.” Electronic devices, just like their mechanical predecessors, will fail. And Murphy’s law dictates that the failure will occur at the most inopportune moments. Whether flying or driving, those who were well-trained without the technology are able to cope when the technology fails. We tend to keep the “Y2K compliant” stuff with us – maps, charts, etc. We plan our route using both the technology and the old stuff. Seems to work pretty well.

    By the way, if you think dealing with the FAA can be aggravating, try dealing with the FMCSA. Case in point: a number of years ago, Congress ordered the FMCSA to write a standard for obtaining a CDL. Instead of walking across the hall (so to speak) to consult their aviation bretheren, they decided to have at it. The result was laughable. The subjects required had little to do with driving, but the truly nonsensical part was the prospective driver wasn’t required to demonstrate that he/she could actually drive a truck! No in-cab training (or even a road test) was required. “They walk among us, they talk among us, and the truly scary part is – they reproduce!”

  14. William T.
    William T. says:

    I’m reminded of going to a store or fast food restaurant where a high school kid is working who can’t count change without a computer to do the adding or subtracting. I love that my Garmin 796 can provide flight plans, weather, and information about frequencies and airports. But I use it as a layer of safety not as my sole flight planning and flying tool. If the screen goes dark or the signal is lost, I can still rely on my paper flight plan, track a VOR radial, and refer to my watch. I like computers and GPS. I also like knowing I can function even if they don’t.

  15. David Huprich
    David Huprich says:

    Excellent thought-provoking article. Spot-on in my view.

    Regarding the good old days, I took my primary instruction in 1953-54. It included orientation flights with my instructor to “ride the beam” at ZZV, which then had DC-3 TWA service. At the time, I thought this approach system was neat. I imagine that those who made a living at flying felt that it sure beat flying from beacon light to beacon light.

    As you noted, in principle the system was simple. Determine which quadrant you were in by listening to whether the signal strength of the dit-dah (“A”) or its reciprocal, dah-dit (“N”), increased or decreased as you flew a required heading with a magnetic compass (no need to worry about whether your gyro compass was correctly set). When you intercepted the beam, the dit-dah and the dah-dit merged together and made a solid tone. Because you knew which quadrant you were in, you knew whether to turn left or right in order to fly on the beam toward the station rather than flying on the beam away from the station.

    Those who were really good at it tracked along one edge or the other of the beam rather than wandering back and forth on it. You could tell you were on an edge when you heard the dit-dah or the dah-dit (depending on which edge) just slightly louder than the solid tone.

    Once I got the hang of it, flying the beam in the C-140 in good weather with my instructor in the right seat was a ton of fun. But I shutter to think what it would have been like trying to do it in turbulence with lightning crashes bursting in my ears or with ice accumulating or with a significantly varing crosswind blowing…at night. Talk about pucker factor!

    As for the ADF needle: yep, it pointed toward the station…except when it didn’t. Its unfortunate attraction to lightning like a moth to flame makes it dance toward the flashes rather than sticking to its job.

    As you said, may the good old days never return.

  16. Edd Weninger
    Edd Weninger says:

    Interesting and enjoyable article. Reminds me of a few things.

    I learned to fly at a grass strip in CT, I’m guessing not quite a decade later than Richard. As a (supposedly) intelligent high school student, the guys at the airport, mostly WWII vets, bought me a book, “Flying the Omni-range” I think was the title.

    Omni was a new thing then and it was like learning Latin for these guys. After reading the book, I got a lot of back-seat time in the, then new, Tripacer equiped with a Superhomer or Omnigator, don’t recall which, coaching the guys up front.

    I am also reminded of flying IMC without a clearance being needed in un-controlled airspace. We launched from either Sandpoint ID or PSP CA and made the 1,000 nm trip non-stop with Lockheed Lodestars. Weather reporting on the route was completely unreliable, so we just went with what we had, gas for a 1,000 mile range and went to 12,000 ft. to keep whatever was unlikely enough to be in the area below us. Maybe the opposite of scud-running.

    Now, I have a twin with the best equipment I’ve ever flown but don’t do IFR anymore. Retired, I don’t have to be anywhere at a specific time.

  17. Skip Braden
    Skip Braden says:

    I flew all over Alaska (1960/70) for a number of years using a basic factory pannel in a PA18, and nothing more than the exiasting Low Freq Ranges available then. Learned how to make an approach with the LFR and they worked fine. Biggest problem was icing and that was mostly seasonal. Map reading was a big help and this increased profficiency. I think people are spending too much time reading gauges and not concentrating o0n the basic flying skills and control of the A/C.

  18. Hew Mills
    Hew Mills says:

    I was a relatively early adopter of personal computers. At the time it appeared the machines were making more work for all of us that just wanted to get the job done. It appears much of the electronic gadgetry in our aircraft now is still getting in the way of getting the job done. With early computers almost every program used a different key combination to print something. Along came Apple and said you will only use command-P and so the standard began. They are still setting the standard in human-computer interface design with the touch devices, iPad, iPhone etc. Apple, can you please design a human-GPS interface standard so us pilots can do what we do best… FLY.

  19. Schaps
    Schaps says:

    For those who fly as a career, there is no excuse for not learning the systems in the aircraft needed for the job. For those flying for fun/ recreation i.e., the majority of readers, it is also straightforward. I cannot imagine planning an IFR flight in a rented aircraft- that would only occur ( for me) in my owned, learned, tried and tested machine. That perspective should eliminate the concern of renters- who would be wise to only fly VFR in rentals. It is the responsibility of those that choose to take on the IFR “game” to learn the rules and the systems necessary to play nicely- otherwise stay away.

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:


      “I cannot imagine planning an IFR flight in a rented aircraft-” You need to expand your imagination ;-)

      Oddly enough, some pilots with a need to fly IFR don’t own their own aircraft. I know that’s shocking, but that’s how it is in the real world.

      As for VFR trips, even VFR-only pilots occasionally leave the traffic pattern. Some even do it at night! Often they have to talk on a radio and/or use one to navigate in VMC.

      Faced with a half-dozen or more different and operationally-complex avionics interfaces, many of those renter pilots simply stop renting – and flying. One alternative to scorning those Luddite wimps would be for manufacturers to realize that it would be in their own enlightened self-interests to create and adopt a common interface for performing the “simple” tasks that face most VFR pilots. That still would leave plenty of room for innovation and distinction deeper down in the GUI interface.

      It might even help if the rest of us pilots supported such an approach.

  20. Schaps
    Schaps says:

    Mr Yarsley- your uncalled for comment on my imagination is offensive and contributes nothing to the “discussion”. I have imaginative responses to yours but you are not worth the effort…

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:


      Did you not see the “smiley” icon? It’s called “humor.” No attempt was made to demean or to offend you, but I regret that you nonetheless took offense.


  21. Wesley
    Wesley says:

    I’m an owner of a Cessna 340 which I bought a little over a year ago from the USA and I imported it into Canada. It had the G430 and a few other marvels. However, the ADF and DME were removed by the previous owner. In order to make a short story long, I have since completed a very expensive avionics upgrade and reinstalled those instruments(approx.$ 135,000) and I have spent thousands of dollars getting rid of the ghosts of owners past. My insurance company required me to complete 100 hours of dual training and Simcom. I was more than happy to comply with this because I am a huge proponent of education and training, There is the old adage “if it’s worth doing its worth doing right”. I have spent countless hours learning the new avionics reading the manuals (which can be downloaded free). I know I have a very capable IFR platform and this owner knows the equipment. But more important things break, so it has a tremendous amount of redundancy. A rental would have to be comparable before I flew it IMC. Maybe IFR but not IMC.

    Some of my education flying and learning was completed with good old fashion research (which could be done at the library or online, online tends to be faster). I spent the entire 100 hours with an Airline Captain. We both learned the new avionics (GTN 650, G TAS, G500 and an abundance of other upgrades).

    My feeling is, I don’t want to just fly…I want to fly safe. If there is a tool available and it makes sense use it. Yes it can break, we are pilots we know that, have a back up. When I plan a flight I know all my navigation aids and I use them all and they are prepared on the ground…no short cuts.

    I have my own SOP, one of which is to have a check ride every four months( not required by any regulator or insurance company). I have an A/P and I use it, if it breaks and it will, I train to fly without it and know my limitations.

    My father often told us how he built houses in the good old days… With brace and bit and hand saw which he probably made himself. I prefer to use an electric saw and electric drill but if they break I can still use the hand saw and I have one.

    The technology is not the problem it’s the user and our reluctance to embrace it, it’s not going away.

    I love David Huprich’s comments and I love the good old days but I also love technology. It has made all of us safer. However we need to know our equipment backwards and forwards no excuses.

    One last thought, something else I love, taking young flying students with me when a seat is available. We have a college near by and it has been training students in commercial aviation for many years. I trained there myself and I Invite them to come on real world IFR flights with me. We all learn and I get a second set of hands( more redundancy).

    Sorry for the unsolicited advice, I’m passionate about this stuff and all facets of flying!

  22. Josh
    Josh says:

    Can one of you all explain to me why renter’s flying IFR/IMC is a problem? I don’t think competency in handling an A/C in IMC is terribly A/C specific. I might narrow it a little more than just category and class, though. Once, I was doing some instrument work (with an Instructor) as it had been a bit since I’d flown. We got in the twin and I was having a hard time keeping up with both the instrument stuff and the twin. In that scenario, you don’t take the twin IFR. (And if you are flying IFR without expecting to go IMC at some point, I think you are mostly wasting your time. There are always exceptions.) At the same time/proficiency level as having a hard time keeping up with the twin, I’d was just fine in a single engine. A light twin pilot current and proficient, should be fine in a single, but then maybe not. How about an airline pilot that doesn’t fly small A/C? He could be the best 747 pilot in the world, but I wouldn’t want him to fly me in a 172. My point is that one doesn’t have to have a zillion hours in a plane to be safe, but you do have to understand your capabilities and limitations.

    As a pilot who has never owned an airplane, I don’t see the problem of renting and going IFR/IMC. I will even go get checked out in a plane somewhere because it is convenient to my travels having never flown the plane before. I do do some study ahead of time to learn the book figures of the A/C. In May, I rented an Arrow. Never flown one prior, and only have very limited time in a low wing Piper. I have plenty of complex and some multi time, but it’s no big deal to get a quick check out and then go somewhere.

    I don’t care if you have 1000 hrs in a particular 172. The next S/N A/C will have it’s own quirks, and if you fly lots of different A/C adjusting is not difficult. Didn’t someone once say that flying is 90% mental? Sure I’d love to own my own plane, and maybe soon I will. And yes, an owner who only flies the one plane will be able to get more performance out of the plane than me and ought (but doesn’t always) to know the plane inside and out, but how does that make me unsafe? Do car rental places check you out in a particular type of car before they let you rent it? “Let me see, you’ve never driven a Camry before. For crying out loud, you’ve never driven a Toyota before. I’m sorry, you are going to have to take a course on this car before you can take it.” Please note the previous sarcasm.

    Yes I know planes are different than cars, but how many times have you had to get used to the gas pedal, brake, steering, or even how to turn the radio on in a car? Is it really that difficult?

  23. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    Low-level uncontrolled IFR is still a reality in much of Canadian airspace, outside the populated southern strip along the U.S. border — and yes, we call it “IFR” even when you’re not talking to ATC, because the pilot is following the instrument flight *rules*.

    Canadian uncontrolled IFR flights squawk 1000 and work out conflicts among themselves over the common enroute frequency, 126.7 MHz (shared with VFR pilots).

    Since I live in Canada’s fourth-biggest city, I’ve had only limited experience with uncontrolled IFR, but have done a reasonable amount of non-radar IFR, sending in my position reports along with the other pilots.

  24. Steve Ayres
    Steve Ayres says:

    In 1955 or so my Dad was flying his 1947 PA-12 Super Cruiser north out of Jacksonville, Florida, and somehow got caught on top at what ended up at 12,000 ft or so. The airplane would go no higher and he only had a turn and bank, no radios, and basicly nothing else but his wits about him. The Atlantic Ocean was on his right “somewhere” and a lot of water. “Land” was on his left. Weather was rising “Cumulus Clouds” and they began to play in his landing gear, like a game of tag your it! In and out of several small cloud banks he went, but always straight ahead! Then, he happended to spy a small patch of open sky way down below him with what a “green?” tint??? He decided then and there, that was his out – without taking his eyes off of that patch, he winged over and spiraled down like a cork-screw, down, down, and down, until finally he broke out at about 2,000 ft safely above the ground and below the overcast! Wow!

    Was he a good pilot? I think he was one of the best, because of course he was my Dad. That time he was alone, but later I and my brother made many trips with Dad, while we sat in the back seat! It was terrific! He never scared us – we were confident in his abilities and skills! But, today, as a private pilot myself, I look back and reflect on things like that! Was he a safe pilot? Yes, he was my Dad, of course – but, things were different in 1955 – also, as PIC, you sometimes have to do what you have to do and that day he did what he had to do. Was it legal? Probably not, at least by todays standards, however, my dear old Dad lived and flew a long time till he finaly passed making that final take-off in 2008 at age 85. I miss him and I miss his stories.

    As a pilot I will always remember – first, fly the airplane, then fly it as safely as you can for yourself and others! Maybe then, we can all share this great legacy of flight into our golden years!

    Happy Landings! And Thank You Richard for a great article!

  25. Eddie Abel
    Eddie Abel says:

    Good article and many good points.

    I suspect that common factor is complacency. No matter your equipment, single pilot IFR in IMC requires total focus.

    One question that I have is the impact of night IFR on the total statistical story. Is there more night flying happening today than in the past? Seems logical to me that there would be. In general I recall that statistics on night flying are pretty dismal and there is a story to be told by eliminating night from the analysis and comparing the results.

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