I (Still) Follow Roads

Adding IFR capability to a sport plane isnt impossible, but its not for everyone


When I traded my traveling airplane for my sport plane a year and a half ago, I knew life was going to be different. For years I had filed an IFR flight plan for virtually all flights out of the local area – even on trips of 150 miles in severe clear weather. I was very comfortable in the ATC system and had learned how to work it as well as how to work in it.

Having the Citabria has been a blast. Ive used it for some light cross-country duties during fair weather and relied on borrowed or rented airplanes when the clouds were low. Then the FAA went and changed all that.

The AD on Lycoming TIO-540 crankshafts has dramatically changed my local environment, and suddenly its not as easy to find a set of wings for IFR flight. So I cautiously investigated adding IFR capability to my Citabria.Stop laughing. Its not a ludicrous idea, as long as you dont expect a fully equipped Citabria to be a long-haul machine. But by the time I got done with my analysis, I decided maybe the whole rental thing wasnt such a bad idea after all.

To equip the Citabria for minimal IFR capabilities would have involved adding a heated pitot, clock, nav/comm with internal CDI, vacuum system, attitude indicator, directional gyro and antenna. For the $7,000 or so, Id get the ability to file enroute IFR and shoot VOR and localizer approaches only.

If I added to that an audio panel with marker beacon receivers and connect an external CDI to a slightly upgraded nav/comm, I could fly an ILS. Only $4,000 more.

So for my $11,000, I could fly leisurely IFR legs of just under 400 miles with no weather detection, no autopilot, no IFR GPS, no DME, no ADF and no seat next to me to stow my charts, snacks and other paraphernalia. Id be lucky to make 110 knots, but it would cost me only $50 an hour.

I decided it makes more sense to spend $110 to $150 an hour to rent a comfortable retract single or light twin thats more in tune with the mission involved. But there are a few things that make this decision less than perfect.

First is that rentals tend to be a bit battered. Even the newer airplanes somehow give off an air of tiredness, perhaps because of the legions of pilots who dont care enough to keep their shoes off the seats and sidewalls, or clean their trash out when they land. The older ones smell like sweat, which is OK when its your own odor but a little appalling when its someone elses.

But the real thing that makes me rue the decision is missing the look on the ramp hands faces when you taxi a brightly painted taildragger up to the door of a busy metro FBO in cruddy weather.

We dont get many of those in here, one ramp hand told me after I ducked in under falling ceilings at one of the busiest airports in the Southeast. Even the controllers had been confused, turning Citabria into Experimental.

-Ken Ibold


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