Soft IFR

The plane entered the base of the grey overcast a few minutes after takeoff. Misty, dove-colored fog replaced the last glimpse of the uneven fields and pastures north and a little east of the big airport. A minute, perhaps two, later the airliner popped out of the cloud deck and into bright sunlight. A few contrails and mares’ tails wisped across the deep blue sky. In the western distance, the blue faded to turquoise.  I grinned. This was my kind of instrument flying – good below, great above, but you can still log it. Those of us with instrument ratings, and the weather and air traffic control people who try to keep us from getting to up close and personal with each other and non-airport ground, talk about hard and soft IFR. Technically, it should be IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) as opposed to Instrument Flying Rules, but after 75 years of flying in the murk, it’s not going to change. Hard IFR means very low visibilities and low ceilings, often with thick cloud decks. You take off in grey, fly through grey, and (if all goes well with the instrument approach) emerge from grey to find a runway.  It is mentally draining and thankfully those sorts of conditions are not often encountered in much of the central US. Soft IFR means you have Visual Flight Conditions below the clouds, a thin but solid layer with no surprises in it, and clear sailing above. You get to practice flying under instrument rules without the stress of being in the soup.

I find instrument flying to be the most mentally taxing activity I can think of. Even acting as an interpreter doesn’t leave me as flat as does a few hours in serious, “I-can’t-see-the-end-of-the-wing-and-the-geese-are-walking” weather. My problem is two-fold. First, I learned IFR flying wrong, and had to unlearn a great deal, which makes me less than confident. Second, my skill at 3-D visualization, ahem, sucks. Like an F-5++ tornado sucks. It takes about 90% of my brain to keep an instrument approach in my mind’s eye as I’m flying it. I need at least 40% of my mind to fly the plane (less if Otto Pilot is working), but even at my best, when I was doing instrument approaches almost daily, I felt like a limp dishrag once the ambulance doors closed and I could relax.

Back to my recent flight . . .

As the airliner headed south, the clouds began turning patchy below, then solid again as we passed the leading edge of a cold front. The nose of cold air was rolling south, creating low clouds (and eventually a few storms once it got into Louisiana). Overhead, the sky turned harder, a dark lapis blue that marked drier air aloft. We left the cold air about the time we crossed the Red River, and the sky over D/FW was the usual milky, hazy soft blue of water-rich air.

I was a little disappointed that the final leg had no clouds, because I’ve seen spectacular sunsets over an undercast. The light sprawls over the cloud deck, turning the formerly white, billowy surface rose, gold, and lavender before darkness erases the difference between cloud and open sky. Instead I watched shadows lengthen and the sky shift to a crisper shade as the miles opened. The horizon grew clearer, until I could almost see New Mexico from the eastern edge of the Texas Panhandle. Pure VFR/VMC, easy flying for pilots who think of IFR as “I Follow Roads.” Without moisture to chill into clouds, the cold front came in as north winds and falling temperatures, dropping from the 70s at 1:00 PM to the 40s by the time I got my luggage and found my car. Hard stars glittered overhead, and a few red and green lights darted across the sky, the high silent flashes of freight dogs and late arriving airliners.

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