The God’s-Eye View

Since last July, my articles have been about Instrument Flight; the articles are filled with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of instrument flight — procedures, facts, do’s and don’ts, techniques, and regulations involved — but there is more to flying IFR than all that. There are the rewards of IFR flight. We started with IFR flight plans, clearances, and departures. Then went on to alternate airports, holding patterns, and instrument approaches. Finally we talked about unusual situations, emergencies and, staying IFR current. The articles have followed what I had hoped was a logical progression of an IFR flight. I think that these articles, taken together, will act as a great study guide for pilots working toward their instrument rating and instrument pilots who wish to keep their knowledge fresh.

Becoming a true instrument pilot is hard work. Staying confident and proficient in your skills means more hard work. But there is a payoff. One benefit that the textbooks don’t mention is that, from time to time, you get a glimpse of what can only be described as a God’s-eye view. Instrument pilots just get to see and do things that other people will never do or see — and other pilots only dream of.

In routine instrument flight operations I have seen mountain peaks above the clouds. I have zipped through cloud canyons that were three miles high. I have enjoyed brilliant sunlight on rainy days and seen round rainbows.

In short, instrument flying presents vistas that most people will never experience — and it’s just not the same when seen through the port hole of seat 37A in an airliner.

Instrument flying is tough, but it is also great fun. While flying along above a cloud layer last month I spotted a hole in the clouds ahead — photo 1. I asked the controller if I could make a slight deviation and was granted that permission. I just couldn’t resist — I took photo 2 and photo 3 as we darted through the hole. On another day I took photo 4 just to prove that I needed my sunglasses on a day the groundbound humans trudged through dreary, and gray. Have you seen that picture of a business jet skimming the top of a cloud layer and its wingtip vortex is curling up the clouds behind it? Well, I don’t have a photo of it … but I’ve seen the clouds curl up into the vortex of a Cessna 172 just on top of the clouds. These sights are nothing short of rare privileges that few have opportunity to see. If you’ve been flying IFR you could tell stories that are just as good or better than these.

I recently took off from a small airport at night into a low overcast. It had been a rainy, bleak day. I did not know how thick the clouds were so I figured that I would be ‘in the soup’ for the entire flight. Then as I passed through 5,000 feet I saw a bright light ahead in the mist. At first I was startled — I thought it was the landing light of an oncoming airplane through the clouds. But before I had any time to think or react, I broke out above the cloud layer and saw the light clearly now — it was the biggest full moon I had ever seen. The reflected light off the moon made the tops of the clouds glow silver. I asked ATC if I could stay at that altitude just so I could skim, like a water skier, across that silver skyscape. That was a truly religious experience that made up for many hours training and many dollars spent. Later, I laughed to myself about how very happy I was that I hadn’t taken evasive maneuvers to miss the Moon … which would have been hard to explain to my passengers!

I know that many pilots work on getting an instrument rating so that they will not get stuck by the weather so often, or because it is a required step toward professional flying. But if you think that your instrument rating will always get you where you want to go you’re not only wrong, you’re dangerous. The truth is, it will probably get you stuck under bad weather more often than you did when you were VFR only. When you decide to go for the instrument rating, be prepared to study all those procedures, techniques, and regulations… just don’t forget that IFR flight is a privilege and the sights you will see are a gift.

Fly safely and enjoy the ride.