It’s time for a confession, friends. In the time between earning my instrument rating and getting hired at an airline, I never flew IFR in a single-engine aircraft. I air-filed for an approach into Lakeland, Florida, during my multi-engine commercial check ride, and then I was off to more capable aircraft.
More than a decade later, we bought the Mooney, and I flew it VFR mostly for two years, except for one IFR cross-country. Despite having very carefully filed our flight plan with the correct equipment codes and along designated airways, I kept getting cleared direct to all sorts of places. “I’ll take a heading for now and direct when able,” I had to keep replying. I got the hint. It was time for an upgrade.
After installing a Garmin GPS 175, a G5 attitude indicator and a JPI engine monitor, I felt more capable, but I still flew VFR to get comfortable with things before diving into the deep end of general aviation IFR. Finally, as departure day neared for a trip out west to check off a few more national parks from our list, I frowned at the weather forecast. We’d planned to depart the day after Thanksgiving and spend all day flying to Carlsbad, New Mexico, the first leg of a trip that would loop through Texas and New Mexico to add Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountain and Big Bend to our list of national parks visited. As the weather forecast started showing rain on Black Friday, the day our trip was to begin, I groused about having to reposition the Mooney to a paved runway for our launch. Then Amy had an idea: Why not load up and depart immediately after the family’s Thanksgiving feast? “The Mooney can fly at night, right?” she asked.
“Sure, it can fly in the dark,” I replied. And we did. As it turned out, we’d have to deal with clouds and rain, in addition to the dark. A weak band of weather crossed our path, starting at Houston with some strong showers and thunderstorms and dissipating northward across our route, before strengthening again well to the north. Our route through the weakest part of the front showed almost no rain, but I knew it’d be there. I picked up our clearance airborne from West Georgia as we angled toward Birmingham, then turned down toward Meridian, Mississippi, where the weather began. “Probably gonna be a little bumpy,” I warned Amy, but the caution was overblown. With no convective activity at all, the clouds just gave a gentle nudge now and then, as smooth of a ride as one could ask for. I flipped the intercom to isolate Amy from the radios so she could enjoy her audiobooks and podcasts, and when I next looked over, she was sound asleep with a pillow wedged between the seatback and the doorframe.
Traffic was light, and by light, I mean that often we were the only airplane on a given controller’s scope. Headwinds had me covering ground at Skyhawk speeds. An approach controller in Monroe, Louisiana, and I had a great conversation comparing the weather tools we each had available. As we chatted, I kept gazing out my side window. We were solidly in the soup, and the nav lights had redecorated the light gray surroundings into red and green orbs around the airplane. I’d lost sight of the ground for some time. Amy was sound asleep, and my only link to another was the talkative controller. As I took the handoff to the next controller, I meant it when I said, “Happy Thanksgiving, for the next few hours,” in parting.
After a fuel stop in Minden, Louisiana, we continued west, and the controllers in Dallas sent us winging straight through the mostly unused class B airspace, and I had to thank them for the “best Thanksgiving shortcut ever” as we clipped across the metroplex, landing in Eastland, Texas, where airport manager Bode Zeitz helped me push the Mooney into a hangar for the night. I grimaced: Beneath the hangar lights, our freshly repainted, resealed, and balanced propeller had a shiny leading edge of bare metal—I’d completely forgotten that a couple hours of flying in the rain will do that to ones’ blades.
Worn paint on the prop blades was an annoyance, and just one of several things that reminded me that if flying IFR in the Mooney were to become a regular thing, I’d have to mind the differences from my day job.
When you’re streaking across the continent at a significant portion of the speed of sound, the interactions with controllers are brief. Check in with a hello and, a few minutes later, a quick goodbye as you exit that controller’s area of concern. Add in a controller pilot data link communications for the handoff to the next frequency, and technology steals your goodbyes.
But at 140 knots, there’s time to get comfortable, listen to the conversations, and establish some sort of relationship, even if it is as imagined and one-sided as that relationship we all had in grade school with someone who didn’t even know we existed.
Unlike the Airbus, though, I could look down and see the ground in detail. I tried to keep a landing spot in sight, but there were times when we’d be hard-pressed to come to a stop without hitting a rock, tree or ditch big enough to ruin the day. I looked down on oilfields, natural gas wells and windmills to observe them in greater detail than in the jet—when you’re below 10,000 feet in a jet, you’re laser-focused on the arrival and approach ahead. With apologies to the cast of the movie Airplane!, it’s a completely different kind of flying.
My gazes out the window were interrupted as I scanned back inside, though, for the needles weren’t as enthralled with the exotic terrain below. Despite the Positive Control wing leveler working just fine, the nose still meandered a little left and right, though it was easily tended with a nudge on the yoke. The fuel selector needed an occasional flip to keep things balanced. When the altitude drifted, the weight of my feet and their Ariat boots were often enough to arrest a sink or climb by moving one foot or both a little forward or aft.
The whole time, I contemplated IFR in a piston single versus at my airline. Airline flying can make a pilot lazy right quick—dispatchers fire over a release package that includes your flight plan, a navigation log that covers the route waypoint by waypoint, weather observations and forecasts and a NOTAM package that usually burns up a dozen pages to tell you that a taxiway sign is unlit or circling minimums on an approach are higher than published—but still well below the company minimums. Our company’s computers generate solutions for weight and balance and performance calculations. We scan the NOTAMS, glance at the route to make sure dispatch hasn’t filed us directly down a line of thunderstorms (it happens more than you would think), and off we go.
Meanwhile, roaming the country in an old airplane that has outlived several of its prior owners, weight and balance are pretty precise, although the performance calculations are aviation’s version of Kentucky windage—CAR3-certified airplanes come with manuals that are more of a sales pamphlet than a pilot operating handbook. I’m responsible for rounding up the weather and NOTAMS, although EFB apps have made that a lot easier. I choose a route that may or may not be rejected by the system—but so far, all the amendments to my planned routes have been reasonable, if not outright shortcuts.
On the last day of our vacation, a significant rain shower sat right on the north side of our destination airport. I’d departed VFR, picked up flight following and, as we neared, I watched the rain grow while remaining firmly planted just north of the airport. We took a swing south for weather and to join the RNAV 35 approach at West Georgia. I’m sure the controller was shaking their head with the wind out of the south and my request for the approach that would have had a significant tailwind, but the ceilings were high enough for me to cancel IFR once we broke out below the overcast and joined the pattern for runway 17, keeping the pattern tight between the runway and the weather north of the field.
I dropped Amy off—that’s where her car was parked—and then flew the last few miles to the airstrip where our Mooney sleeps.
After roaming the country in varying weather conditions and areas I’d never seen before, I left the GPS unprogrammed; my phone and tablet on the backseat. I didn’t bother with looking at much on the panel other than the engine gauges as I scooted the last minutes of a spectacular journey. After I cleared a gaggle of vultures off the runway, the tires rolled onto the grass and clover they’d been missing during their adventure of asphalt, concrete and gravel.
As I pushed our gray bird back into her roost, my eyes fell to the black streaks of oxidation we’d picked up by flying through the rain. I remembered seeing similar streaks on working planes as a kid. The Gray Gal wasn’t a working bird, but she’d worked well for us. I jotted down my squawk list, threw the last of the bags in the car, yawned and headed home. For all the differences I’d noted in my return to little airplane IFR, the exhaustion after a long day’s flying is universal.
Do you want to read more Words Aloft columns? Check out “Jargon Fails: Why Pilots Should Simplify Message” here.