Cirrus

In 2006 I was 70 years old and moved to Florida. I switched from flying basic avionics to the most advanced avionics available. This was a whole different world of flying, and opened up a new adventure for me. I trained in and rented Cessna 172s with Garmin 1000 avionics and started over. I completed my training and got my instrument rating.

The instrument rating is the most valuable training a pilot can have. I flew 30 years without it, but I strongly encourage everybody that intends to fly anyplace to get the rating. It is amazing how this training gives you the skills to fly in weather and marginal conditions and even avoid thunderstorms. Without it you risk your life when encountering weather. This training is so valuable to pilots that I don’t understand why it isn’t required for all pilots before they can fly cross country. The statistics show that pilots who are not trained will only last an average 187 seconds in solid clouds before they lose control and crash.

When I was in training, I was flying on my first night practice flight with my instructor. This flight convinced me the value of IFR training. We were out over the Everglades on a pitch-black night. There were heavy clouds, no moon, no stars, nothing. We set up the flight plan for an airport in a small town there and proceeded to fly on instruments. Halfway down on the approach and about four miles out, there was no sign of anything—totally black. I activated the airport lighting system and the runway lights come on. I expected it but when I did it there was the runway exactly in front of us, right where it should be. This convinced me of the value of this wonderful system, to be that accurate that you can trust your life to it.

Instrument panel in Cessna

After a while, trusting these instruments becomes second nature.

Once you have the skills to fly instruments it is amazing how easy it is to fly in clouds. In some ways it is easier. Once you have filed a flight plan and started it, ATC really takes care of you. They guide you through  airspace and alert you to activity ahead. They help a lot with weather and help with rerouting your course to avoid it. I flew IFR so often that I had to remind myself there was still VFR flying when you have to take care of all of these details by yourself.

IFR skills do require constant practice to keep safe. The rules require that you practice six approaches every six months to keep current. This isn’t really enough to keep safe; it requires constant practice to be really safe. I flew IFR and practiced approaches on almost every flight, even short ones for lunch. It was actually more fun than flying VFR and it kept me very current. Knowing how to fly and doing it aren’t the same. When you are in heavy weather, there is no wishing your way to get through it. You have to be very current on every detail of instrument flying, which is very complex but easily doable if you are prepared for it. To me it is almost as comfortable as flying in clear weather, it is just a different mindset. As long as you have proper avionics, it is extremely safe. I called it playing with the clouds.

I bought my 2010 Cirrus SR22 and thoroughly loved every minute of it. It was a fantastic airplane. It flies about 185 knots. The Garmin G1000 avionics in it are state of the art and are much more advanced than most airliners. The avionics include Nexrad radar, autopilot, night vision system, PFD and MFD flat panel screens, and GPS. I could program the autopilot and engage it at as soon I was off the ground. It would completely fly the route to my destination. After I selected the landing approach, it would fly the plane down to about 200 feet, where I took over and landed. I didn’t use it to this extent, but it had this capability.

I flew out of Ft. Myers, Florida (FMY). Some of the trips that were probably the most fun were to go to our daughter’s house at Ocean Reef. We could fly there in about 45 minutes, compared to almost three hours to drive it. We would also fly back and forth to Minnesota and Cleveland, and made many other interesting trips like Texas, Greenbrier (West Virginia), and Pittsburg, where we would meet family for a weekend.

In 2015 we were going to Minnesota and had a large front between Nashville and there. We sat at the airport east of town for a couple hours in heavy rain as I watched the radar reports at the FBO until the weather had an opening for us to get off with a safe path to get to Minnesota. I then talked to Flight Service, got their help, and was able to program my flight to skirt south and then around the west side of Nashville and get between weather. It took us almost over Indianapolis and an hour longer than normal, but I could do it safely and the tops were above 16,000. We flew in solid clouds at 12,000 ft. for about four of the four and a half hour flight. This would have been impossible without my training and would have been extremely difficult without the autopilot and equipment I had in the plane.

In 2016 we flew out ahead of a hurricane and went around it, watching it to the west on Nexrad radar as we flew past. It was a beautiful, smooth flight. Nexrad does have a little time delay but with the faster plane I would stay far enough away from weather to stay safe.

Sometimes weather reports are not accurate and Air Traffic Control might give you the wrong information, but the avionics in my plane helped me overcome the situation. For example, we were going into a small airport near Charleston, South Carolina, and ATC reported the airport had clear weather and to expect a visual approach. I started to descend in the clouds from 9000 and got down to 1500 ft, while my Nexrad showed heavy precip at the airport. I contacted ATC. reported their error and requested permission for an instrument approach. I set it up and did the instrument approach and landed. The clouds were down to just over 200 ft AGL. A small weather system was over the airport and not at the nearby reporting airport. This is the fun of flying: always a challenge but satisfying knowing that you have it under control.

I flew often for Angel Flight, a volunteer organization that flies patients to and from treatments for cancer or other illnesses. We would pick up and fly the patients from their home towns to their treatment places in an hour or two, when driving it would take many hours. Several of them were cancer and organ transplant patients going for checkups. This whole experience was very satisfying as it really helped these people. I encourage you to get into it. I did it for several years after coming to Florida.

Cirrus

A Cirrus SR22 is a great way to travel the country—especially if you have an instrument rating.

We flew to Yellowstone Park in 2011 and spent several days exploring the park. Mountain flying was exciting also. The airport at Livingston, Montana, was at 6500 ft elevation but the density altitude was 8600 ft that day. The manager at the airport warned me about this as it was normally a problem for most airplanes. I had the Cirrus loaded to max weight with three of us and baggage. It was airborne at about one third of the way down the runway and it climbed out beautifully—a wonderful airplane. We went to 11,000 ft. to clear all mountains and flew for home. By the way, while the rule says use oxygen at 12,500 this is only for a few minutes. Always use oxygen anytime over 10,000 ft; I can’t express this strongly enough.

In 2017 we had a hurricane hit our house in Florida. I wanted to get us and the plane out of town. The day it passed the Keys we hopped in the plane and flew to Frederick, Maryland, to stay with our son. Three days after, we flew home in beautiful weather but as always in some clouds.

I was diagnosed with an eye problem in 2018 and I decided to sell the plane. I was 83 years old. My eyesight was getting too bad for me to be comfortable flying. I was legal but it was time to quit. My flying gave me independence. The whole enjoyment of flying is to play with the clouds and be free as a bird. My last flight made me feel great. I greased the landing so smoothly that the wheels started turning before I felt it touch the ground. It just glided to the ground—a nice way to end.

I wrote this story to encourage more people to take advantage of the fun flying can give. If you are going to fly any cross country at all, you are going to get into clouds and can easily get into trouble without IFR training. Get your instrument rating. It will save your life. Think of it this way: if you fly 70 hours a year, cut it to 50 hours and fly those hours with an instructor while getting your rating. It will be more fun than burning holes. I started flying in the Cessna 180 with 1953 avionics (a VOR and ADF) and 35 years later, even though I was getting a little older, I could still learn to fly modern aircraft and continue my love of flying. I had the luxury of flying very advanced avionics but you can still fly IFR with modest IFR avionics. I am 85 now and miss it terribly.

Latest posts by Ed McDonald (see all)
9 replies
  1. David
    David says:

    Thank you for writing this article as well as the reminder regarding IFR training. As a recent Private Pilot Certificated (at the age of 68), I was almost immediately confronted (in my own mind) with – do I continue on with IFR training? While I am not currently focused on getting out there on MVFR or IMC days or making long flights, I did soon realize that being a PPC is really just a license to learn. My approach now is to go through the ground school IFR training, flight training (taking advantage of the simulator at my local airport as well as my CFII) in order to 1st just be a safer VFR pilot. If the IFR rating comes with it later then great, if not – I will certainly be a safer pilot and possible safe my own life and the life of others. I can testify that even with just under 10 hours of IFR training, I am a much better VFR Pilot.

    Reply
  2. Terry Spath
    Terry Spath says:

    Absolutely agree. I fly a corporate King Air and the versatility, reliability, and safety provided by modern avionics along with a current instrument ticket is nearly magical. One correction: Field elevation at Livingston, Montana is 4,659.

    Thanks
    Terry
    Helena, Field elevation 3,877’

    Reply
  3. Caio Braga
    Caio Braga says:

    Ed, thanks much for the encouragement and sharing your flying career. Indeed was a good one. I’m +130hrs PPL and started working on my IFR few days ago. I can agree with everything you said. IFR is fun and will you save your life! It’s funny because I’ve learned the basics of IFR on a flight simulator even before getting my private certificate. And with today’s technology it’s possible and legal to use a BATD sim to log training hours and use your home sim to stay proficient in addition to real world flying.

    Reply
  4. Mark Nash
    Mark Nash says:

    Mr. MCDONALD:

    Thanks so much for your article. I’m 71 and have been VFR since 1975. I am now working on an instrument rating and expect to achieve it by mid next year. You have confirmed my decision and made it more important in my mind.
    Thank you.

    Mark Nash

    Reply
  5. Stu Anderson
    Stu Anderson says:

    Some great input here, all true! Without that IMC capability you’re always at risk. I started in 1959 (AF Aero Club) and finally got my private in 70. Fast forward a few years and finally was IFR certified in 1985. Before that magical date, as a rental pilot, it was always a question of “should I or shouldn’t I”. Retired from the Air Force in 84 and in another 13 years I was flying professionally in Alaska. Flying in IMC becomes quite routine eventually. With a school teacher wife (now licensed), real cross country trips were relegated to summer vacations. I was her instructor and her “long dual XC” was just a shade over 10,000 NM (Fairbanks AK, Southern Cal, Ft. Worth, Florida and home again through Seattle in our C-182). Not a whole lot of IMC since then but many, many IFR flight plans. Flew south each summer for a number of years. Each trip an adventure. Get the training, get the certificate and really enjoy the flexibility it will bring you.
    One of my favorite questions from a passenger in IMC was headed into Fairbanks late one afternoon, setting up for the ILS to the south. She asked “How do you know where the mountains are?” It had been severe clear on the trip out but that had all changed. I thought for a second and then told her “Well, I don’t really know where they are, but I do know where they aren’t!” About 3 minutes later we broke into good VMC, on the Localizer and on the Glideslope. They were amazed!

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  6. Charles Lloyd
    Charles Lloyd says:

    Still flying “some” and instructing a lot on Ortega Aviation’s Frasca Advanced Aviation Training Device “simulator”. We can create low ceilings that curled the hair on the back of my neck the first time I experienced myself. Find a flight school that has a similar simulator and spend 20 hours of the 40 hour requirement for an instrument rating and you will be better prepared to fly in the clouds.

    Reply
  7. Ray L Rivera
    Ray L Rivera says:

    Wonderful article. Thanks for the hope it inspires. I’ve been pursuing an Instrument rating for about four years now (I’ve gotten to the point where I’m ready for the checkride but my instructors – most in their mid 20s – suddenly have all the flight hours they need to make the jump to ‘the regionals’ (airlines) and I’ve been left scrambling, looking for another instructor to help finish me off.) It’s been infuriating but it’s also a part of what’s going on with general aviation, so I’ve accepted it and I’ve kept going…just continuing to fly approaches in VFR. My latest instructor and his family are heading to India next week for the Christmas holidays and they won’t be back Stateside until late February or early March, at which point he says he’ll schedule my checkride. Told me to study the rules and regs for the Oral portion of the checkride (that’s just as important as flying the approaches!) So – hanging in there and with a little luck and more perseverance I hope to get that Instrument ticket!

    Reply
  8. Arnie Goldman
    Arnie Goldman says:

    Thank you Ed for your insights. Never too old to learn. Modesty about proficiency. And perhaps most significantly, your honest self-assessment in knowing when it was time to let it go. At 65 I hope I’ve still got several more years to fly, but also hope I’ll be able to admit when its time with as much honesty as you have shown.

    Reply

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