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.
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.
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.