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IFR in a Modest AirplaneIFR in a Modest Airplane

The little guys can still get you where you want to goThe little guys can still get you where you want to go

Used to flying high-performance piston airplanes and even jets on cross-country flights, I wonder at the prospects of flying a Cessna 150 on a 1,100-nautical mile flight with a chance of instrument weather. Am I up for this? Is the little airplane up for this? Is this even a good idea? The challenge: Depart Grand Rapids, Michigan, fly 470 nm Friday to The Air Care Alliance conference near Asheville, North Carolina.

Used to flying high-performance piston airplanes and even jets on cross-country flights, I wonder at the prospects of flying a Cessna 150 on a 1,100-nautical mile flight with a chance of instrument weather. Am I up for this? Is the little airplane up for this? Is this even a good idea?

The challenge: Depart Grand Rapids, Michigan, fly 470 nm Friday to The Air Care Alliance conference near Asheville, North Carolina. Then a noon departure on Saturday, fly 650 nm to a small unlit field; high chance of IFR weather for part of the route; available airplane that fits the budget — an IFR-equipped Cessna 150.

A 150 is satisfactory for IFR as long as there is a good alternate airport close by, because its shortcoming is a 3.5-hour endurance at 100 knots at 75-percent power. Is the idea reasonable? Am I seeking to do something beyond the capabilities of the aircraft? Plus, it's just plain hard work hand-flying IFR in an airplane that is subject to displacement in every light gust; it's easy to sail the big ship; real skills show up when sailing the skiff.

It's the 150 or cancel. My fiancee and I were going to split the cost of a rental Bonanza, but her work schedule interfered, my budget wouldn't fund the Bonanza for this trip, and the airline schedules just didn't work.

The numbers say I can make the trip in the time allotted, if the wind gods are not in a foul mood and there are suitable alternate airports. I decide to go, recognizing that I may have to cancel for weather that would have been flyable in a Bonanza.

On Friday morning, instrument meteorological conditions are forecast. Cincinnati's Lunken Field is about halfway and has an ILS, making it a good destination for the first leg — plus the forecast makes Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, just across the river, a legal alternate. If I can average a groundspeed of 100 knots once I'm at altitude, I can shoot the approach at Lunken, miss, fly to Cincinnati international, and hold for at least 45 minutes. There are numerous airports with approaches short of Cincinnati that I can divert to if I cannot average 100 knots.

Departing, I climb at V Y. The groundspeed readout on my antiquated handheld GPS slowly increases until it equals, then exceeds, the true airspeed as I reach a quartering tailwind. With the Cessna leveling off at 7,000 feet, the groundspeed settles on 115 knots, well above what is needed.

This little capsule in the world aloft travels so leisurely that the extra seven miles of the VOR-to-VOR planned flight over the direct route are to be considered. It means burning less than half a gallon more of fuel, but I would prefer to save even that small bit because my destination is IFR and later events may cause me to be grateful for an extra quart and a half of avgas. As I think about this, I recall my days flying freight in 20-series Learjets and how hyperalert we were to fuel. Because of their limited endurance, we approached the obsessive in finding ways to save fuel in all phases of flight. I find myself smiling at the odd juxtaposition of the Lear 23 with the Cessna 150 and the identical concerns of their pilots when going someplace.

The GPS gives the bearing to Lunken. I ask for a clearance direct via a radar vector of 170 degrees. Request granted, and shazaam, I'm navigating directly toward my destination. Because my handheld GPS is not my primary navaid, it's all perfectly legal.

Continuing south, in cloud, I cannot help but think of the flight service station briefing after I told the specialist the aircraft was a Cessna 150. Between the lines, as he read the IFR ceilings and visibilities, he seemed to be saying, "Do you have your parents' permission to be out flying in the clouds?" I doubt he would have been so solicitous had I been in a Cessna 172, an airplane merely 10 knots faster, but prejudices die hard and I'm flying something that for decades has been seen as a kiddie-car trainer, not a "real" airplane. And I think of my very experienced friend, a most wise pelican, who once said to me, "Don't let the know-it-alls fool you; anything that gets you up in the air is a real airplane. It doesn't get any more real than that."

Nearing Cincy, approach starts me down and the tailwind disappears. Forty miles out, down to 4,000 feet and groundspeed has dropped to 90 knots. I'm very glad to have the fuel saved by going direct, for Lunken is now 400 and two in fog, so a miss has to be considered. The ILS goes without a hitch. The radios have no idea they are in a Cessna 150 instead of a Cessna 421, and the needles dutifully point the way.

As I'm taxiing in, the nearest FBO has only bizjets on the ramp. Two friendly linemen greet me, moving efficiently. Inside the FBO, I'm invisible, and I can't help but smile: No matter what level of experience a pilot has, it's an axiom of aviation's class consciousness that status is directly proportional to the type of airplane operated. I could be Charles Lindbergh returned from the grave, but getting out of a Cessna 150 I'm an aeronautical untouchable.

As I buy a soda, I consider aviation's pecking order. When I flew Learjets I developed the swagger peculiar to the charioteers who fly those aerial hot rods. A few years later, flying the more user-friendly Cessna Citation I, a friend remarked to me that he didn't feel macho after a flight. Appearing in a Cessna 150, despite the fact it is more challenging to fly IFR, I'm considered near the bottom of the IFR food chain, an aeronautical Joe Sixpack, who will be lucky to get his N number correct two radio calls out of three. To the corporate pilots standing nearby, I'm in something that doesn't meet the ill-defined test of admission to IFR respectability; yet to the public at large, I'm a wealthy jet-setter who owns an airplane. Rodney Dangerfield probably got more respect. Ah, but I'm only burning 6 gph, which means I can afford to make this trip.

Climbing out on the next leg, wrapped in clouds, complying with the physical needs to keep the airplane upright while frequently comparing true airspeed to groundspeed on the GPS, I feel positively Machiavellian. I must scheme and plot and almost obsess about my groundspeed because any wind I deal with constitutes a higher proportion of my cruising speed than in any other airplane I've ever flown IFR. It is a challenge — to be met and, indeed, savored.

At 9,000 feet, groundspeed exceeds true airspeed, although not by much; yet it is enough to make Asheville with plenty of gas. The request for "direct via radar vectors" is granted so quickly I imagine I can hear the Cincinnati controller's thoughts, "Yes! Yes! Anything to get this en route altitude block out of my hair." Time passes, the clouds break, then disappear altogether, and airplane and I arrive in Asheville. I make it to the conference slightly late, but only because I get bewildered by the mountain roads.

The Friday and Saturday Air Care Alliance sessions are a delight because public-benefit flying and the amazing things that selfless, volunteer pilots are doing in medical transportation and environmental support are the topics. It is a good meeting with good people, and I want to stay but must start back north.

Flight service says I'll be dealing with greatly variable ceilings for the first two legs of the trip and that all the boomers are to the southeast of me. The briefer and I engage in a long discussion about the winds aloft, for airports with instrument approaches are scarce in the hills of Kentucky. For most of the first two legs, I'll have to go high to avoid headwinds.

I pick Flemingsburg, Kentucky, for the first stop because it has a localizer approach and a legal alternate is not far. Figuring on a climb to 8,000 feet, things will work if I can average 90 knots groundspeed once in cruise.

The almost dead calm wind in the bowl at Asheville has controllers launching airplanes to the south. Frustratingly enough, airplane and I must fly away from our destination until we reach 3,500 feet and can point the stubby nose northward. Moments later clouds envelope the small ship.

Level at 8,000 feet and cleared via radar vectors direct, the act of closely monitoring groundspeed now seems normal. The world ends at the wing tips; as we slog along in the clag, I progressively consider, and reject, the need to divert to closer airports. One controller seems quite concerned about a Cessna 150 flying IFR. He calls to ask if, perchance, I have airborne radar. Stifling a chuckle, I allow as how I had failed to order that particular option and I nearly say that I'd chosen the Jacuzzi instead — but wisely I think better of it. He says that he is painting an area of heavy rain ahead and asks if I would like vectors around it. I assent and am advised to turn right 20 degrees. I do so with concern that the deviation will disrupt my careful plans of reaching Flemingsburg with adequate reserves.

The ride remains utterly smooth, even in showers, and groundspeed remains at an acceptable figure. The controller calls frequently to ask about my flight conditions and seems relieved when I say it is smooth in clouds and rain. He gives me a running countdown to the edge of the precip, then, once I've reached it, gives me a figurative pat on the head and points me directly for Flemingsburg, as the ADF needle comes alive and points toward the outer marker.

As I descend on the localizer, a sodden world appears at about 700 feet agl. I cannot help but think that while I'm working a lot harder and stopping more frequently than I would have in the Bonanza, I am making the trip for well under half the cost and getting much more of a feeling of accomplishment. Those cheering thoughts are added to when I find that the FBO has mogas and very fast, friendly service.

I again file for 8,000 feet to get a tiny puff of tailwind and avoid the compound interest penalty of time and fuel burned one pays in a headwind. Upon ascending, airplane and I are above the clouds, sailing happily along with a groundspeed of more than the magic 90 knots needed to make Defiance, Ohio, which is said to be VFR, and, incidentally, is an aptly named destination for this trip.

Yet, the outside air temperature has dropped to below freezing and the cloud deck below is rising. I am reminded that the sky does not tolerate complacency, and now airplane and I must see if we can stay out of the ice in those clouds without descending into winds that for another 50 miles or so are still blowing the wrong way. I request a climb to 10,000 feet, and get it with a certain hint of "are you sure you want to go so high in that thing?"

I pitch up slowly, taking advantage of what zoom climb I can get as the speed bleeds to V Y, which at this altitude is very close to V X. Surprisingly, through the several-minute wait to reach 10,000, the groundspeed stays above 90.

Level at 10,000, all is right with the world. I'm in a warm cocoon well above the planet, making the speed I need while positively sipping fuel.

But the clouds are getting higher. After about 30 minutes, they engulf the craft and ice begins a delicate tracery on every leading edge. A Cessna 150 can do many things but it won't fly level for any distance with ice. Long ago I was taught not to try to get performance from an airplane that was never built into it.

Center instantly clears me to descend when I explain the reason. A 500-fpm descent keeps the speed suitably high, so the tiny amount of rime ice acquired by the time I reach above-freezing air at 6,500 feet never becomes a problem. At 4,500 feet the 150 and I emerge from the clouds into unlimited visibility and a groundspeed that is still in triple digits. I cancel IFR and continue descending slowly for maximum speed, and 30 minutes later I am turning final at Defiance.

The leg on to Cadillac, Michigan, is pure, routine VFR. I pick up my daughter, who says she wants to fly. We will arrive home well before sunset, despite a 10-knot headwind. I monitor and enjoy how well a 15-year-old can fly precisely while I consider that modest airplanes have capabilities we ignore if we succumb to the prejudice that bigger is invariably better. Yes, slightly more adverse winds or ice in the long in-cloud segments of the trip would have made this journey unrealistic in the time available. Yet, modest airplanes have the ability to get us where we want to go, for modest sums of money, for a healthy percentage of the time, as long as we are willing to do a little careful planning, as well as accept a higher workload, the limitations of the craft — and a certain lack of respect from the class conscious.


Rick Durden, AOPA 684126, is an aviation attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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