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Some bucket list items are ones you check off intentionally. You go to Jack Brown’s to get your seaplane rating. You get with a local tailwheel guru to get that endorsement in your logbook. You head off to a sim center to get your first type rating in a jet. Sure, your success in any of these bucket list attempts is not a certainty, and some are tougher than others, but for the most part, we can pretty much mark those successes on our calendars ahead of time.
There are a few bucket list items, however, that resist our feeble attempts to schedule our milestones. In fact, one of the proudest moments for me was just such a bucket list item: flying an approach to minimums in actual IFR conditions.
I’d gotten my instrument rating at Flight Safety in a two-week course they used to have in Lakeland, Florida, and it was a great course, but I was inexperienced and the weather, unfortunately, was beautiful for both weeks. In all the hours I amassed in working toward my rating, I had—and actually logged—15 seconds of actual instrument time, which was when I (along with my instructor, of course) flew through a good-sized puffy cumulus cloud. The rest of the time, I was under the hood, and while the hood is legal, it’s not really very effective at imitating the real-life experience of flying in the soup, which I guessed at back then and would later come to understand in a very deep way.
Like most instrument pilots, my first forays into IFR were just that, IFR by the book only. I filed, followed my progress on the paper low-altitude en-route charts, and asked for and was often granted an IFR procedure for practice, so long as there wasn’t too much traffic to contend with.
As I flew more and more, I gained experience flying in actual clouds, which was something I was quite proud of, especially since most of the airplanes I was flying were sparsely equipped, so I did a lot of hand flying.
Over the first few years I was IFR rated, I did indeed fly a few approaches “in anger,” as the old timers used to say, but they were never to minimums. In fact, most of them were approaches that were only marginally necessary. Since I was on an IFR flight plan, the controller would assign me, if there was any weather on the arrival, the approach, and I was always happy to muddle my way through it. And over time, I got a lot better at the procedures and the processes I’d use to fly them accurately and reliably.
I’d been flying IFR a lot for a few years but still had yet to fly anything that resembled an approach to minimums, as my boss at the time predicted would be the case. That changed one November when I, along with my wife and two kids, took off in our autopilot-equipped leased Cirrus SR22 from Syracuse Hancock International Airport after a visit with my favorite aunt and uncle up there. We were headed home, which at the time was near White Plains, aka Westchester County, and found a rapidly changing weather system in front of us.
It was, in fact, a spectacular weather system, one I’d heard tales about but had never witnessed in real life as a pilot. The entire East Coast was socked in. Now, I’m not talking merely IFR as forecast by the last weather report I got before launching. What I got instead was a wall of white for as far as the eye could see. White Plains, like every other airport beyond Albany, was closed, and not “closed for VFR traffic” but “closed” closed. The ceilings were below ILS minimums. In some cases, they were lower than CAT II minimums, and this was not only all the way to the Atlantic Coast but for hundreds of miles north and south, too.
As I said, this report of too-low IFR was for every airport east of Albany, but Albany was still reporting minimums, so I figured, well, let’s give it a try. If we got in, we could rent a car and drive home from there. If we didn’t, I could miss the approach and fly west young man, where there were still plenty of marginal VFR airports to choose from.
I don’t remember all the details after all these years, but I do remember being on the arrival and the controller telling me that the last two planes, jets, that flew the approach had to go missed. Well, since I was already on the arrival, I figured it would be good practice to fly the missed anyways, and you never know, so I thought I’d at least give it a look.
We were already in the clouds and had been for some time, so the details of the approach, Vectors to the ILS, were as shrouded by weather then as they are by time today. What I do remember is watching the altitude click down to the decision height, and just as I was getting ready to go missed, seeing the lead-in lights to the ILS. I disconnected the autopilot, hand flew the last of the approach and made a greaser of a landing that perfectly punctuated the experience.
We were the last plane to get into Albany, or anywhere near Albany, for the next day. And it was because I had my instrument rating, because I worked on it religiously, that we got, if not where we were going, at least a lot closer than we otherwise would have been. And I realized, without even having to voice the words in my head, that my bucket list approach to minimums was in the books.
After another 16 years of flying IFR, that approach is no longer my only one to minimums, but it is the one I remember most fondly, and always will.