IFR Fix: Careful what you wish for

August 12, 2014

The Skyhawk’s cockpit is sweltering as the pilot monitors the engine oil temperature and waits for the center controller to radio word that the flight is released to fly home from a weekend of camping in the great north woods.

Maybe it’s the price of peace and quiet: The rural airport has only modest IFR infrastructure, as the pilot learned when planning last Friday’s inbound flight. There was one instrument approach available, an RNAV (GPS) approach (not authorized at night). The field has automated weather reporting, but if diversion for weather were ever needed, it’s 23 nautical miles to the nearest airport with instrument approaches; 41 nm to the nearest ILS approach.

Fortunately, that wasn’t a factor during the unhurried arrival on a sparkling summer day. Now, with the mental pressure of Monday morning’s meeting schedule compounding the physical discomfort of Sunday afternoon’s steamy cockpit, the pilot’s mind is churning with strategies for getting going.

The most recent weather check didn’t clarify anything. Two airports that straddle the westbound course about 40 miles downrange are reporting drastically different conditions on their automated systems. The airport south of the course has calm winds and a single broken cloud layer. The airport north of the course has calm winds, but is reporting three broken cloud decks. And there’s this from the METAR’s remarks section: "TCU ALQDS MOV SE OCNL LTGIC DSNT SE."

That item "MOV SE" could be a game changer. A fresh pilot report sure would be welcome right now.

The pilot’s risk tolerance creeps higher, along with the stress level, as he mulls departing VFR, bending the course south around the airport with better conditions. Then he recalls from a recent proficiency refresher that the preferable airport’s METAR, coded “AUTO,” could just lack the detail a human observer has added to the northerly airport’s report.

The conditional nature of hold-for-release instructions also requires consideration: Hold-for-release "does not prevent the pilot from departing under VFR," but the pilot, before takeoff "should cancel the IFR flight plan and operate the transponder on the appropriate VFR code. An IFR clearance may not be available after departure."

Conversely, entering IMC with those towering cumulus around would be asking for trouble, "So be careful what you wish for," the pilot tells himself, just as the radio crackles alive and a voice calls his number and says, “Report airborne through two thousand feet, you are released.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.