My husband and I were excited about our first cross-county trip from Florida to Maryland to visit family, with a few stops along the way. We were both fairly new pilots, my husband with less than two years experience and me with three, plus a recent IFR rating. I told my husband that although I am IFR rated, Im not comfortable in actual IMC for very long and I needed to build my confidence by going IFR in VFR conditions with intermittent IMC. Since he was not instrument-rated at the time, he agreed to my plan.
We awoke early, checked the weather and discovered a weak tropical disturbance was in the area resulting in scattered heavy rain showers with cumulus tops to 15,000 feet. We had just purchased a Garmin GPSMAP396 with XM NEXRAD radar and were confident in our ability to avoid extreme weather. Since all of the storms were west of our route, we agreed that we would be fine if we followed Floridas eastern coastline to St. Augustine for lunch, then onward to Myrtle Beach for a few nights of R&R.
We loaded up our Cessna 206 with luggage and our two sons, and filed our IFR flight plan. We filed Pompano to Palm Beach to V3, which is along the coast, to keep us away from the cells. I was relieved that we got our clearance as filed. After an uneventful takeoff we were handed over to a departure controller who
gave us a heading of 310 degrees, which we thought was temporary. We then were cleared to a distant intersection and directly into heavy precipitation and turbulence.
My husband was talking to ATC and watching the NEXRAD, trying to keep us out of the red and yellow. I was focused on keeping the plane upright and in control while not letting my husband and sons see me sweating and shaking. I scanned the instruments, keeping my heading and altitude in check.
I was completely in control and in emergency mode. There was no IFR instructor in the right seat and I had not experienced this type of IMC before, so it was all up to me to get us out safely.
Soon, we were handed over to Palm Beach approach whom, with the help of my husband and our NEXRAD, kindly vectored us out of the heavy precipitation.
It had seemed like a lifetime but shortly thereafter we were back in VFR conditions and I engaged the autopilot and finally breathed. Less than 20 minutes into our trip and we already had not stuck to my plan to stay out of hard IMC.
The lessons we learned? Dont expect to fly as filed or cleared. Also, ATC will put you in bad weather without knowing it; the phrases “unable” and “30 left or right” can work magic; and, NEXRAD is worth the investment and we will not fly IFR without it.