Before heading to my sister's house for Christmas dinner, I checked the forecast for the flight home that I was planning to make later that evening. The weather along the route provided no obstacles, but the ceiling at Craig was forecast to drop from its current 1200 feet overcast to 400 feet overcast with layers later that night. 400 feet is just a little more than the minimum 241 feet for the ILS approach and was below minimums for all of the non-precision approaches. I wasn't worried, but this would be as big a challenge as the prior day's approach to Tampa North with no instrument approaches and 1,600 foot ceilings.
After a wonderful meal and lots of time with my neices and nephews, I called 1-800-WX-BRIEF and got a standard briefing for the flight home. The weather in the Tampa area had cleared somewhat from the morning's broken skies and it now appeared that I could depart VFR and pick up my clearance once airborne. The alternative was to try to raise ATC on the ground or call the Lockheed-Martin 800 number for clearance. This could result in having to wait on the ground for a while until ATC had cleared the sky around me and with a busy Tampa International nearby, the big jets always get priority.
Arriving at the airport, we had calm winds and few clouds. I completed my preflight and set the altimeter to the airport elevation of 68 feet. I set the local CTAF on the radio and tuned 119.9 in the standby frequency for Tampa Approach. I then entered my route in the GPS: X39 direct OCF direct Craig. Runup showed no problems, so I announced my intentions on the CTAF and departed on runway 32 just as the sun was setting.
Climbing through 1000 feet, I completed the climb checklist, announced a departure to the north and turned the plane direct to Ocala. Then switching the radio to the ATC frequency, I listened for traffic and called, "Tampa Approach, Skyhawk 7-2-1 Victor Alpha".
The controller instructed an airliner to slow to 170, waited for his response, then acknowledged me by saying, "Skyhawk 7-2-1 Victor Alpha, Tampa Approach".
I requested my instrument clearance, "Approach, 1-Victor Alpha has just departed Xray three niner. IFR on file for Charlie Romeo Golf. I'd like to pick up my clearance, please."
The controller gave me a squawk code for the transponder which I acknowledged and entered into the device.
A minute later, the controller radioed, "November 1-Victor-Alpha, radar contact three miles north of the Tampa North Aeropark. Cleared to Craig as filed, climb to 6000 feet." I repeated the clearance and altitude then set 6000 as the warning in the autopilot and as the bug on the altimeter.
I leveled off at 6000 feet and before I reached Ocala, the controller cleared me direct to Craig.
Just past Ocala, I could see a cloud layer building ahead of us. It looked like a thin layer that covered a wide area ahead. Eventually, the horizon disappeared and I was completely on instruments.
There weren't many aircraft flying this evening so the radio was quiet except for the occasional frequency change to accommodate handoffs to different controllers.
I could see the lights of towns and cities below causing bright spots in the cloud layer, but the ground was otherwise completely obscured.
I listened to the ATIS for Craig and learned that CRG was landing on runway 32 and was IFR with a ceiling of 009 broken. I pulled up the plate for the ILS 32 approach, briefed it, loaded it into the GPS and followed ATC's instructions for descent to 2000 feet into the clouds.
I slowed the plane to 90 knots for the approach and was vectored by ATC to the final course.
The controller cleared me for the ILS 32 approach which I repeated. I activated the vector-to-final in the GPS and set up the auto pilot to line me up which it did wonderfully. Once established inbound, ATC handed me off to the tower.
I called, "Craig Tower, Skyhawk 7-2-1- Victor Alpha, 4.9 miles from runway 32 on the ILS with whiskey, full stop. The tower immediately cleared me to land and I continued to hand fly the approach. We popped out of the clouds at 800 feet with the approach lighting directly ahead of us. I greased the landing - a very smooth landing especially considering it was at night.
I made the turnoff and was advised by the tower to taxi to the ramp and monitor ground on point-8. I thanked the tower and then advised him that the ceiling was now down to 800 feet.
Flying in IMC is a pleasure for me. I get a great sense of satisfaction from flying an approach through the clouds and navigating directly to the runway. Popping out of the clouds to see the runway right where I expect it makes me just a bit proud.
1.6 hours of Night cross-country with 0.7 in actual IMC and one instrument approach...a good day of flying by any measure!