June 30, 2014
By Dan Namowitz
Prepping for a cross-country flight in a GPS-equipped flying club airplane, the pilot was pleased to learn that VFR conditions would prevail with the possible exception of a narrow band of marginal weather. Filing an instrument flight plan, direct, seemed a good hedge against that; otherwise, the trip amounted to a VFR operation with the convenience of IFR service.
A more demanding brand of IFR would have made the "go" decision far more uncertain: For one thing, the pilot had not mastered the Cessna 172’s GPS system. For another, the pilot was taking a "no approaches, no problem" view of the flight, discounting the possibility of having to really fly IFR.
Can you guess where this is headed?
The trip’s unraveling began when approach control called with an amended IFR clearance, producing instant pandemonium in the complacent cockpit.
"I had been following flight progress on VFR charts, and was totally unprepared for this event," the pilot confessed in an Aviation Safety Reporting System filing. "Confusion reigned in the cockpit as I fumbled for the correct pubs and tried to reprogram the GPS."
The pilot sought the only logical escape from this self-inflicted crisis of command: Cancel IFR.
Can you guess where this is headed? Unfortunately, efforts to contact ATC were greeted with radio silence, or a request to stand by.
Many flights present a decision-making quandary between simply going VFR and filing IFR just in case. Proper preparation means being fully ready to handle either—and the earlier you start planning, the better.
If you have marked your calendar to fly to the Plymouth (Mass.) Municipal Airport on July 12 to attend the third AOPA Regional Fly-In of 2014, it’s not too soon to be considering routings, reviewing special procedures, studying the area’s diverse airspace, and watching big-picture and local weather.
Rusty on communications? Listen to air traffic control radio communications from your airport or online. Making the trip in a rental aircraft? Take steps to ensure that you can operate its systems in more than just quick-reference mode.
As for that Skyhawk: ATC finally called back, apologized for being away on the phone with another facility, and restored the direct clearance. Nevertheless, the rattled renter soon canceled IFR, completed the cross-country "without further incident," and later recounted, for safety’s sake, the errors and omissions of a flight that had been IFR in name only.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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