By Greg Brown
A wet blanket of stratus raced menacingly over our heads, so low that we resisted the urge to duck. Clearly the winds were strong aloft, and the cloud layer thick to generate such evil appearance.
My wife and I had long anticipated this flight from Indianapolis to Toronto, but the low-skimming clouds were scary enough to give me second thoughts about going today. Sure, I was instrument rated—but it had been only a month since my flight test. If we chose to proceed, this would be my first flight through real clouds as pilot-in-command.
“Don’t you think we’d better get going?” asked Jean.
“I must admit that this weather’s got me nervous,” I replied. “It’s solid clouds all the way to Toronto, with tops way over 12,000 feet. We’d be ‘in the soup’ the whole way.”
“So?” she said with increasing irritation. “You just got your instrument rating, didn’t you?”
“Of course, but look up there. See how fast those clouds are moving? And how dark they are?”
She gave no reply.
“The weather at Toronto is only 800 overcast, and forecast not to improve all day,” I added. “For that matter, the ceiling is between 600 and 800 feet above ground the whole way.”
“So, are you saying it’s not safe to fly today?” asked Jean.
“Well, not exactly. The freezing level is high, so icing shouldn’t be a problem. Toronto has an instrument landing system, and there are plenty of good alternate airports along the way. No thunderstorms, either. It’s just that…”
“Greg,” my wife interrupted, “if it’s your professional opinion as a pilot that flying today is not safe, we’ll go another time. But if it is safe to go today—well, we’ve just spent all that money on an instrument rating, so I say let’s get going!”
Later, I’d recognize the wisdom of this challenge. Like every new instrument pilot, I was justifiably nervous about charging off into the clouds without my instructor. But rationally, I had to admit that based on the hard facts presented by flight service there was no reason why it shouldn’t be safe to go, given my newly-acquired instrument skills.
So, after checking weather one last time, preflighting the plane yet again, and convincing myself that those repeated bathroom trips were from “butterflies,” not terminal illness, I collected our flight clearance and we rolled down the runway at little Speedway Airport. Immediately, we entered the clouds, not to emerge again until two and a half hours later.
Things went pretty smoothly at first, as my flight planning was thorough and I had a good deal of experience in the club 182 we were flying. But this plane had no autopilot, and between distractions of communicating, timing and navigating, I often looked up to find us in a momentary bank, or having drifted off heading. It seemed like we were all over the sky, but whenever I looked over at Jean, she was absorbed in her book, and despite the surrounding whiteness, didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
“Everything’s cool,” I kept telling myself. “If I just stay focused we’ll arrive in good order.”
Periodically the clouds would thin for a moment, and I’d peer desperately downward for a glimpse of terra firma. I never saw it, but well into the flight I did penetrate the haze for a second, only to see…water!
Water! Despite my careful navigation, that could only mean we were way off course—somewhere in the middle of Lake Erie! Or Lake Huron! I turned to Jean in panic. “I just saw water!”
“So?” Either not reading my consternation, or ignoring it, she went back to reading her book. I was smart enough to drop the subject. Why had air traffic controllers not told me we were so far off course?
“Cleveland Center,” I radioed tentatively, “Seven-three-five-victor-yankee— radio check, please.” By bringing his attention to our blip on his radar screen, I figured the controller would say something if we were indeed far off course.
“Loud and clear, Victor Yankee, how do you read?”
“Loud and clear,” I replied. The guy didn’t seem concerned, so again I pored over my instrument chart, comparing radio navigation position with landmarks on the visual sectional chart, and countering self-induced airplane rock and roll in the process.
“Whoa!” I said out loud. Jean jumped.
“What?” she said with alarm. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, ah…no,” I replied, “Lake St. Clair. That water was Lake St. Clair, just this little lake just past Detroit. See? We’re right on course!”
“Fine, but try not to scare me next time,” she said. With momentary annoyance she returned to her book, and I to my perilous mission.
Actually, having confirmed we were on course, I had to admit that this instrument-flying stuff was making pretty good sense to me. Better yet, although I was still working hard, my stomach had calmed down and panic now threatened only occasionally.
Toronto weather had dropped to 600 overcast and three miles visibility by the time we arrived, still well above the allowable minimum, but below forecast and low enough to get the attention of a still-novice instrument pilot. I studied my approach charts, set up the radios, and began preparing myself mentally to avert disaster. For once I even remembered to memorize the missed-approach procedure.
But, surprise. The approach was easy! Although far from perfect, those tiny needles stayed on the face of the instrument more or less where they belonged, and we burst from the clouds on short final, aligned with the runway. As if by magic, we’d materialized precisely over our destination, not having seen ground since takeoff. (I preferred to forget the water.) It was like sitting in a closet for two hours, then opening the door to find Toronto!
Along with the kick of actually arriving at our chosen destination, came the realization that despite seemingly-constant wanderings I’d actually done a journeyman’s job of navigating along the way, never having once departed the assigned airway or altitude envelopes. (Or perhaps air traffic controllers were too polite to say anything.)
“How was your flight?” asked my aunt, when she picked us up from Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
“It was great!” said Jean. “We were in the clouds the whole way, but it was no big deal, because Greg is an instrument pilot.”
“I am very impressed!” said my aunt, with melodrama that might otherwise have been annoying. But it was true. For the first time I was indeed an instrument pilot, and without Jean’s urging I wouldn’t have been—not yet, anyway.
My instrument flying skills and confidence were cemented on the flight home two days later; my logbook records 2.6 hours in the clouds, with an approach through clouds to 400 overcast and one mile visibility at Indianapolis International Airport. There we cleared U.S. Customs, but after flying all that way, the weather was too low to reposition five miles to our hangar at Speedway Airport.
Frankly, I didn’t mind when we had to leave the airplane and call a friend to pick us up. For the first time I felt like a true all-weather pilot, with a whole new world of flight opened to me. Plenty of cloud-flying adventures still lay ahead, but that single trip stimulated a fascination with instrument flying that would remain with me forever.
“Hey! We’re in the soup!” I’d never be the same again.
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for “AOPA Flight Training” magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com/].