I enjoyed the article in Junes issue, To Go? Or Not? One comment at the end of the article spoke directly to me: How do you teach someone-say a new Cirrus owner with 300 hours-how to do what we just did?
A little more than two years ago, I completed my Instrument training and wanted to use my airplane to go places. I had a total of 230 hours, nearly half of it dual; the ink was barely dry on my Instrument rating and I purchased a Cirrus SR20.
In retrospect, I knew enough to kill myself and flew an airplane that could quickly take me to the accident site. Im still here today to talk about it with nearly 800 hours in all types of weather. So how did I do it? Another quote from an article in that same issue comes to mind: A mans got to know his limitations.
I had lots of help along the way. I got the training I needed and was very lucky. My instrument instructor recommended that I file IFR in VFR conditions, learn the system and get comfortable with it before tackling weather. This was good advice indeed. I sometimes got into more weather than I wanted to handle and in those cases, my reply to a clearance is unable. Ive never had a controller complain but I did receive some clearances that took me way out of the way.
Weather Flying, by Robert Buck, is an an excellent book that reveals lots of practical details about flying in weather. In a chapter titled Teaching Yourself to Fly Weather, he recommends the following steps:
1. Good weather to good weather on top.
2. Bad to good.
3. Good to bad.
4. Bad en route.
About this time, I reassessed my personal minimums. Instead of strictly VFR conditions, I permitted IFR conditions in my planning. I started with 1000 MSL forecast minimums at the departure and destination ends with at least three miles visibility. Because I accepted the forecast as part of my decision, I did encounter some low approaches with low visibility, but mostly I would climb for a nice ride on top and fly an easy approach at the destination. I was traveling a lot from the southeast to the west coast and I got my first taste of Texas-size thunderstorms. Instinctively, I remained VMC as I picked my way through these systems. If I got to a situation that I did not like and could not stay VFR, I just did a 180 and reported my actions. I always received lots of ATC help to find my way through these systems.
One thing that I noticed while picking my way through lines of thunderstorms was that the controllers gave me lots of freedom to deviate as needed to stay clear of the storms. I also noticed that there was not much other traffic on the radio. I often wondered if I was the only fool out there in this stuff!
To be fair, midwestern controllers have less congestion in their airspace and can allow this freedom for pilots. Ive also noticed that the busy northeast controllers do not permit this same freedom, so be prepared to cinch your belt and penetrate some weather.
About six months after my instrument checkride, I signed up for some simulator work and classroom instruction, including videos. One of the videos was about flying in thunderstorms and included some very good advice: The Stormscope and weather radar are good support instruments and should be used only to verify what you already know visually. In other words, fly thunderstorms visually and stay in VMC when they are around. This was very good news to me because the thought of penetrating a mature thunderstorm scares the tar out of me.
Another powerful message conveyed in that video is that You are PIC of that airplane; ATC cannot make you fly anywhere you do not want to go. As PIC only you are responsible for the safe outcome of the flight, ATC is there to help you do that. You have the responsibility and authority to respond unable to any clearance with which you feel you cannot safely comply. This was heady stuff and gave me the courage to attempt new weather situations, but always with a Plan B to better weather.
The flight home from this intensive training was probably the most challenging flight to that point in my flying experience. The departure was into a low overcast, en route at 9000 MSL featured lots of IMC, and I flew a textbook approach to near-minimums at my home field. I felt like a real Instrument pilot.
I did what I set out to do; I traveled a lot and the Cirrus took me there. I still keep the same minimums, 1000 MSL, at the departure and destination ends. Flying a single-engine aircraft, I feel comfortable with these minimums. Ive had only a handful of missions delayed by these minimums; none were scrubbed.
I still consider myself a novice pilot and I always try to fly with the Dirty Harry maxim. From time to time I continue to fly with experienced instructors and I learn something each time I do. Ill be back this summer for more intensive training.