A day-long snowstorm had just passed when I flew Jean to Phoenix to see her mom. Lingering flurries receded to the east, while from the west approached the intense cobalt skies seen only after snow.
By the time I dropped Jean and steered for my next appointment at Prescott, a few new snow showers sprinkled northern Arizona’s mountains. No worry–Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks beckoned clearly from between them for my subsequent flight home.
Ninety minutes later, I preflighted for my final fifty-mile hop. Prescott’s Love Field Airport lies in an open valley, with Flagstaff 2,000 feet higher at the base of Arizona’s tallest mountains. Therefore you can usually see Flagstaff’s “Peaks” directly from Prescott’s airport tiedowns.
Now, however, the snow showers between here and home were denser than before…
Every pilot experiences a bit of pucker factor when descending through clouds on an instrument approach.Am I really where I think I am, safely separated from the ground?
I was reminded of the stakes when my friend Mark phoned after landing at Colorado Springs with his wife and another couple.
“After clear weather through the mountains, we encountered an inversion east of the Rockies,” he said. “Colorado Springs was reporting 1000 broken, 1500 overcast, so I requested the ILS Runway 17L approach. The vectoring and intercept seemed fine, but we broke out of the clouds just above the trees while still several miles from the runway. It was quite a scare, and I want to determine the cause so it never happens again.”
For you VFR pilots: an instrument landing system (ILS) consists of two intersecting perpendicular radio signals projected from the ground. By centering the associated vertical (localizer) and horizontal (glideslope) needles, pilots are guided to the runway.
Mark wondered if the problem was with glideslope signal or receiver, or if he’d made some serious error in executing the approach. The approach plate showed terrain 1,000 feet above field elevation north of the airport, so I suggested he might feel low breaking out there. That didn’t satisfy Mark, however…
Earning your wings requires hand-eye coordination, but instrument flying (IFR) is a brain game.
Yes, mastering flight by tiny needles is tough, but navigation, holds, and approaches are exciting and fun. And while IFR may be the hardest rating, it’s also the most safety-enhancing, rewarding, and practical. When I earned my cloud wings forty years ago this month, my flight-completion rate doubled overnight to over 90%.
Instrument flying, of course, gets you where you’re going without sight of the ground, and “instrument approaches” deliver you safely to landing.
As with VFR cross-countries, instrument flight plans are crafted around checkpoints, but using predefined fixes from an IFR chart. These days, thanks to GPS and moving maps, we can fly great distances and shoot programmed instrument approaches almost as readily as by looking out the window.
Winter offers spectacular flying, but its fickle and unforgiving weather can make longer aerial journeys daunting.
Jean and I annually flee snowy Flagstaff to visit our neighbors Tim and Hedy Thomas for a California vacation. Usually we meet in sunny Oceanside or Carlsbad, but this January they invited us to sample Monterey’s rugged coastline, bountiful sea life, scrumptious seafood, and renowned aquarium. Afterward, we planned to visit other friends two hours northeast in Truckee, California, and from there fly home through Nevada.
Although straightforward in good weather, this is an ambitious wintertime journey. Mountainous northern Arizona and California’s coast, deserts, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada all feature different if interrelated weather patterns, which must coincide for safe air passage across the route. Truckee, in particular, high in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, averages 41 inches of January snowfall, yet perfect flying weather would be required to land there.
So rather than attempting to hard-schedule our vacation, we negotiated a three-week “visit anytime” travel window with our respective hosts.
Even then, weather concerns arose. By early January, closely spaced winter storm systems were lined up to steamroll California and Arizona. Our travel needed to be accomplished during one- to two-day gaps between storms…