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Feature Article 1


Sue Ballew, WVFC CFI

The Eclipse and the value of an Instrument Rating

My student Steve, who is working on his instrument rating as many of you know from our fly-outs, had been planning the Eclipse trip for weeks. We had a reservation at Redmond (KRDM), but about two weeks prior to Aug 21st, Salem Air Center called and said my waitlist number had come up.  It was an easy choice as Salem (KSLE) was much closer to totality – the purpose of the trip.  But we kept Redmond as an alternate just in case, which then had Steve planning multiple additional legs.

And wouldn’t you know it, everything changed in flight.  As we passed Mt Shasta at 10.5k, we could see a giant cloud of smoke.  We knew there were TFRs for the fires but had no idea how extensive the smoke was.  So, the next step was to pick up a pop-up IFR clearance.  And just then Steve received ATIS (from ADS-B on his iPad) for Medford (KMFR) (our destination for the night about 150nm south of Salem) which had just gone IFR due to smoke. Steve was planning on an instrument approach, but of course had not studied the approach in use, the ILS arriving from the opposite direction.  After setting up the new approach and briefing it, as we descended to the airport on the approach the burning smell in the air intensified and the temperature increased.  We spotted the airport a few hundred feet AGL and were wondering how people were surviving breathing that stuff.

The next morning, we departed at about 5:30 am in the dark on a SID (Standard Instrument Departure).  A few minutes earlier another Cessna 172 departed VFR.  We both questioned the decision as we were surrounded by mountains, it was dark, and the intense smoke cloud hovered above us.

Totality was awesome. As we arrived from Medford at about 7:20 am the morning of the eclipse, the weather was severe clear, the Salem Airport tower was welcoming, and the ground crew did a great job of organizing the ramp and parking airplanes. The ramp was full with about 150 airplanes with a mix of general aviation and about 15 jets. And finally, I appreciated the meaning of the 1972 song lyrics by Carly Simon “you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun”. The Flight Deck Restaurant provided a buffet breakfast, and created a friendly place to sit overlooking the runway to watch the eclipse. As totality approached we all waited in anticipation, and then the sky turned very dark as the airport lights went on, and we all took off our eclipse glasses to view the incredible, some say “life changing” event.

The flight home was unbelievable. I don't think there have ever been more airplanes in the sky, as one controller put it “there are MILLIONS of you out there”. In addition, we were in IMC for over an hour at 11k due to smoke, with airplanes surrounding us on all sides. ATC was saturated and denied all VFR flight following, but it was IMC where we were anyway. Apparently, that did not deter these pilots from flying though the smoke. We had airplanes all around us (thankful – or not - for our ADS-B which displayed masses of them) at odd + 500 (and in between altitudes) and ATC was not talking to any of them. They provided no vectors to us for avoidance, only position reporting - really surprising and pretty scary since we were on an IFR flight plan.  The MVA, (minimum vectoring altitude) may have been very high due to the mountainous terrain and ATC may have had no options.

I wonder how many pilots chose to wait it out rather than attempting to fly VFR in IMC.  We heard only one pilot choose to do a 180 and land.

The instrument rating proved invaluable, as now Steve is a believer.  But when on an IFR flight plan, in class E airspace, you are only guaranteed separation from other IFR traffic.  This was a very unique situation with smoke rather than clouds, but eye opening and something to ponder when flying in IMC.