My other passion is sailing. Stancie and I love to sail, but we’re not cruisers. We’re racers. Our objective is to use the natural action of the wind and water on the hull and sails to beat sailors in other boats. It’s sailing with a mission where hundredths of a knot of boat speed count, and where judging (guessing, maybe) where the wind will shift makes the difference between winning and not.
We have many sailor friends who couldn’t give a hoot about racing. They just want to enjoy the general peace and quiet of a sailboat on a nice day. They sail to escape, while we sail to be intensely involved in a mission.
It’s the same with flying. I love to fly, but I fly to complete a mission which is to travel where I want to when I want to on the most predictable possible schedule. Many of my pilot friends fly to enjoy the view and spend time with friends who love airplanes, often old or unique airplanes. Flying someplace on a predetermined schedule—except maybe to fly to Oshkosh every July—just isn’t on their radar.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to racing sailors versus cruisers. Or traveling pilots versus those who are out for a ride on a sunny day. But I do try to convince my cruising sailor friends to give racing a try, and I also try to talk my sunny day only pilot friends into giving IFR flying a try.
The reason I enjoy both racing and flying IFR is because both give you a continuous standard to measure your performance. In the boat you are either ahead or behind which is pretty conclusive evidence of how well you are performing. Flying IFR demands precision in all aspects of flying, and the controllers with their radar—and radar recordings—are keeping tabs on your performance for every moment of the flight.
There’s an old saying among sailors that when two sailboats are in sight of each other there is a race going on in at least one cockpit. Because you both have the same wind and waves to move the boat, even when it is not a structured race, you don’t want the other guy to get ahead of you.
I find it much the same when flying IFR—I am competing with myself to try to fly the most perfect flight. I am not a perfect pilot, and even after all of these years I’m horrified if I somehow bust the plus or minus 100 foot altitude standard that is required for top level flying. Or if I wonder off heading or course by more than the few degrees tolerance expected. Flying IFR is a continuous measure of your precision and long before the controllers spot a deviation from your cleared flight path, you will know if you screwed up.
And when flying IFR the weather, just like in sailboat racing, is always the unknown that spices the challenge. Of course you use all available information to understand the weather conditions ahead—and with up to date weather in the cockpit there is a lot of information—but you still don’t know for sure if that cloud will be bumpy, or icy or close to the ground until you punch into it.
Over half of all active pilots have an instrument rating which I find to be encouraging. But the best estimates are that fewer than 15 percent of pilots are up to date on the various currency requirements to legally make a flight under IFR tomorrow. That shows me that pilots make the effort to earn the IFR rating but many don’t then routinely fly in the system.
I’m interested in the development of a new group called the IMC Club that is forming chapters around the country to get together and talk about flying IFR. The IMC, of course, stands for instrument meteorological conditions which are the restrictions to visibility that prevent you from seeing the horizon so you must rely on your instruments to control the airplane. IFR stands for instrument flight rules and they apply any time you are operating on an IFR clearance in the system no matter how good or bad the weather. Even if you fly IFR all of the time as I do, mostly in unpressurized airplanes at the lower altitudes, you won’t log much over 10 percent of your time as IMC, if even that much. So IMC is clearly the somewhat rare and challenging part of flying IFR.
I think the IMC Club goal of getting pilots together to “hangar fly” their experiences in the system and in the clouds is terrific. Training for the IFR rating is almost entirely artificial with a hood blocking your view outside, but that’s a poor substitute for real IMC flying. And the only way to learn about really flying in the clouds is to do it, and learning from the experiences of others who fly IMC is a big help.
For more information on the IMC Club see http://www.imcclubs.cloverpad.org/. I think you will enjoy the challenge.