Flight training: Instrument rating

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Getting my instrument rating was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And, more importantly, it is one of my proudest achievements.

Stats

Aircraft: 1980 Mooney 231, Garmin 430W, HSI

Total flight hours before IFR training: ~100 with about 40 in type, 60 cross country

Final hours of simulated or actual IFR training: 41, almost all in the Mooney, all with an instructor

Actual IMC during training: 2 hours

Back to Basics

According to Wikipedia, cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge: attention, memory, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, comprehension, production of language, etc. All of these processes are important in VFR flying, but the stakes are higher under IFR and they are off the charts in clouds (actual IMC). Consequently, you should expect IFR training to stretch the limits of your cognitive abilities and it will do so at the expense of your other abilities, such as flying the airplane.

Before you start training, practice the basics of flying to make sure they are second nature. Practice holding a heading within 10 degrees, and an altitude within 100 feet. Make a cross country flight with flight following to make sure you’re comfortable speaking with ATC, and try to absorb their vocabulary and syntax so your communications are short, precise, and informative. Communication is crucially important in IFR, so for more help, spend some time listening to a busy frequency on liveatc.net and try to imagine the airspace and the traffic inside it.

Which Instructor?

Of course, any instructor with a CFII is qualified to teach students in IFR. However, if possible, work with a seasoned instructor. The 20 year old CFI that just got their instrument teaching endorsement (the “double i”) probably doesn’t have all that much actual instrument experience. For my money, I want to learn from someone with as much actual experience as possible. I want to hear about their difficult flights and how they handled situations like thunderstorm avoidance and in-flight icing. Further, a “seasoned” instructor will better accommodate your learning style and might be able to help you overcome the challenges along the way quicker. Seek out that instructor at your flight school, and let the 20 year olds teach the VFR students.

The Tests

Honestly, I had more difficulty with the written test than the practical test. It is difficult to put into words, but I think my problem was that the written test had a lot of information that didn’t apply to the IFR flying I was doing (for instance, questions about ADF navigation). I made sure to study and take practice tests often, identifying my weak areas and not taking the written exam until I had ironed out those weaknesses. There are many self-study courses available, and I used the Sporty’s IFR course on the iPad and found it to be helpful. However, I referred to an IFR textbook (Jeppeson) when the videos and other information on the app didn’t answer my questions.

Predictably, I found myself very anxious leading up to the practical test. The oral portion of the test was straightforward, with an emphasis on understanding the details of the IFR enroute and approach charts. One other area of emphasis was in emergency procedures, and we spent a long time discussing lost communication scenarios. The actual flying was less stressful–easier than my recent lessons which had focused on partial-panel approaches. I don’t have much to say about the flying–make sure you are thorough about briefing the approaches before you fly them. Imagine flying them before you actually fly them, paying special attention that you don’t overlook minimum altitudes at intermediate points in the approach (trust me, you don’t want to bust minimums). Fly well and you will get your instrument rating on the spot and, trust me again, you will feel great. It is a huge accomplishment that only other pilots will truly understand (the general public seems perplexed by the concept of IFR).

The Flying

I got my instrument rating in mid-November, which hasn’t allowed much flying in actual clouds so far in the Northeast United States (my aircraft is not certified to fly in known-ice conditions). However, I’ve done some IFR flying, and look forward to the warmer months when my instrument rating will expand my opportunities to fly. In the meantime, I’m having scheduled maintenance performed during these cold months, and who knows, maybe I’ll get my multi-engine license…

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Flight to Boston

Last weekend I flew up to Boston, landing at KOWD, to pick up my girlfriend. I brought my instructor and inadvertently completed my long IFR cross-country flight.

This was the first flight I filed and flew in the IFR system, and it went very well. I still need a lot of practice to be able to stay ahead of the airplane on the busy arrival segment, but overall it was extremely satisfying to plan and complete the flight and fly as precisely as IFR requires.

Although I wore view-limiting goggles throughout the flight, my girlfriend snapped some photos on our return trip.

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The checkride part 1

The last month has been a whirlwind.

Every year at springtime it seems the demands on my time from my various interests and responsibilities increase to the max. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’m enjoying what is keeping me busy, which is all that’s important I think.

This year is only different in that I’ve added even more interests. One, of course, is flying airplanes. The other, unexpectedly, is a new girlfriend.

So like everything else my quest to get my private pilot’s license reached the final hurdle in the springtime. I inched over the minimum 40 hours of training with my last training flight to complete 4 night landings in mid-April. My teacher scheduled my checkride for April 22nd at 3pm, giving me just over a week to study and prepare…and fret over the weather forecasts.

For the first few days, long range forecasts called for partly cloudy skies with winds from the East at 10-15 kts…not perfect conditions but definitely “go” weather.

This forecast didn’t change until three days before the checkride. Partly cloudy with winds from the East at 10-20 kts. I was starting to worry.

Winds from the East 15-20 kts.

Winds from the East at 15-25 kts.

This isn’t looking good.

The day of the checkride was beautiful. Bright clear blue sky with scattered clouds. Then I walked outside and was stood up by a strong gust of wind that nearly pulled my car door from my hand. I looked up and noticed those scattered clouds looked like cotton balls being ripped apart. Not a good sign. I drove to work expecting any minute to get a call from the Designated Pilot Examiner or the airport saying we’d have to reschedule.

At about 10am, sitting at my desk at work, my iPhone rang, it was “Princeton Airport” and my heart sank.

“Hello?”
“Hi this is Chris at Princeton Airport…”
“Bad news I guess?” I asked.
“Um…no…just calling to say that the Examiner is here and willing to go early before the weather gets bad.”

I looked out the window and noticed the small flowers from the nearby trees in bloom were flying by the window horizontally at great speed. The weather isn’t bad now? I thought.

“OK I can be there in 30 minutes,” I said. I knew then I wouldn’t fly in that wind but something inside compelled me to go to the airport. I think it’s the same thing that makes me a pilot. Any tiny possibility that I could get my license today forced me to go try.

I arrived at the airport and watched one of the training airplanes struggle to make a landing. The windsock was pegged, but the wind was straight down the runway. I started to hope.

I walked in the office and met an older gentleman, one of the old guard of aviation. It turned out he was my check airman.

We walked upstairs to the flight training room to sign in and begin the oral portion of the checkride. My instructors were all there, of course. I silently pleaded with them through my eyes to help me make the go/no-go decision. I desperately needed some words of encouragement that they thought I could handle the conditions even if it was on a high-stress checkride.

I think they knew I needed help and they were all very stone-faced. They knew it had to be only my decision. My examiner called me over.

“Now, before we can begin, there has to be a decent chance that we will complete the flight portion of the exam,” he paused, “have you checked the weather, are we going to fly?”

Decision time.

“Take your time,” he said as I paused to think about it. I hope I didn’t look as scared as I felt.

“Let me go check the weather again,” I said, quickly leaving the room and heading to the lounge where I could see the windsock and check the TAF and METAR for KTTN once more.

The windsock was somehow even more pegged than before. The current METAR was calling winds 080 at 14 kts with gusts to 22 kts.

The TAF called for winds at 16 gusting to 25 in two hours.

It’s just too much, I thought, my heart sinking. Ive never even flown in winds like that, let alone practice performance takeoffs and landings or maneuvers, let alone do them on a checkride. It was the longest walk back to the training room, knowing what I faced.

There was the examiner, a nice old man and ultra-experienced pilot that drove all the way from Pennsylvania today for my checkride. There were my instructors who have seen me do my best and my worst flying. And I had to admit that, on a sunny day, I didn’t want to go flying because the winds were too high.

And that’s what I did. Talk about swallowing my pride. We rescheduled for May 2, another 10 day wait. Tail between my legs, I got in my car and drove back to work.

In a few days I’ll write the post about May 2, and why it was worth the wait to take my checkride.

Flight Training Update: a solo flight to Cape May

I was happy to find that, when it came time to fly my solo “cross-country” flights, I was allowed to choose where I would go.

I decided to pick places that I would actually fly to once I get my license. In my last post I described my flight to Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) which has an interesting approach from the east, is a quick 30 minute flight, and has an aviation museum and a restaurant with “good buffalo chicken wings” according to my flight instructor. While I probably will not vacation in Reading, I will certainly make that flight with passengers, as a so called “$100 hamburger” flight.

The next flight had me land in Scranton, Pennsylvania at KAVP. As I mentioned, I had been to that airport several times on commercial airlines to visit family. In fact, my entire extended family on my Mom’s side meets every summer in Scranton. The drive is almost 3 hours from my house, while the flight with a moderate headwind is less than an hour. My goal is to never have to drive to Scranton again!

After those flights, I still needed just over an hour of solo cross-country flying to meet the FAA minimum. I decided I would fly to Cape May, New Jersey at the southernmost point of the state.

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Cape May is a place I would like to visit: it is one of the more iconic destinations for a romantic weekend getaway in New Jersey.

Cape May From Above

But the drive is about 2.5 hours, and I haven’t been motivated to make the trip…until I can fly there!

I took a half-day off work and reserved my favorite Cessna 172S for a few hours in the morning. Again I scheduled it the day before the forecast arrival of a winter storm, and I scoured the weather reports and forecasts in the days leading up to the flight. A few days before, the 48 hour forecast seemed promising: light winds throughout New Jersey with visibility greater than 6 miles and ceiling above 12,000 feet. Perfect.

The night before the flight I spent a few hours on the basic flight planning. It almost felt like I was back in school, feverishly cramming for a big test the next day. I plotted the course and decided on checkpoints, calculated distances, alternates, and the sequence of radio frequencies I would likely use to communicate with air traffic control.

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I visualized what the descent and approach into Cape May County Airport would look like, and studied the airport diagram. Based on the forecast winds I had a good idea which runway I would be landing on. It is amazing how much it helps to go through a thorough planning routine, even for a short, simple flight. I know I can fly the airplane, but situational awareness is so key that going through a mental rehearsal while I plan a flight helps me stay ahead of the airplane during every phase of the trip. More on situational awareness in a future post…

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The next morning I woke up early to that subtle sense of anticipation that soon “I GET TO GO FLYING TODAY!!” Okay…so maybe it’s not so subtle. I should say that I sprang out of bed faster than I ever do when I have to go to work.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my flight, which left me plenty of time to call Flight Services, obtain a full weather briefing for the flight, file a VFR flight plan, and finish calculating the magnetic heading, the pressure altitude, estimated ground speeds, and time en route based on the current wind conditions.

After a quick meeting with my flight instructor I was comfortable making the “Go” decision, and once it was finalized and I picked up the keys to the airplane my heart rate ticked up just a bit from the sheer excitement. I’m no longer nervous to fly solo, it’s just so so much fun.

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I think my iPhone camera is no longer suitable for these pics…

The preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, and run-up were all smooth. There was barely a breath of wind as I advanced the throttle and accelerated down the runway and eased the plane off the ground at 61 knots.

As I climbed to 6,500 feet I called the Flight Service Station and opened my flight plan, then contacted McGuire Approach to obtain VFR flight following. I could already see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and just a few minutes later the entire shape of southern New Jersey came into view. I still had some 70 miles to go but I could already see Cape May. The airspace was quiet on a Friday morning, and the controllers were pleasant. I enjoyed the view as much as I could while I scanned the instruments and maintained course.

With about 10 miles to go I advised the controller that I had the field in sight and she released me to change frequencies and descend at my discretion. During the descent I dialed in the Cape May AWOS for the latest wind information, chose the appropriate runway for landing, and began setting up for the approach. As I descended through 2000 feet there was some light turbulence, but the approach and landing went well.

Then another aircraft called over the common traffic advisory frequency for Cape May that he was taxiing to a different runway–the intersecting runway–from the one on which I had just landed. I was worried–had I made an error in choosing this runway? I rechecked the AWOS. The winds were changing somewhat, but I was sure I made the right choice. Perhaps there is some sort of local preference for that runway–and to be honest, there was a crosswind component for both runways, I could have chosen the other and accepted a slightly stronger crosswind. Just to be safe I decided to takeoff on the same runway as the other airplane, and in taxiing across the field I passed the Wildwood Naval Air Station Aviation Museum. There was a row of old, forlorn-looking military transport aircraft on the ramp.

Again, apologies for the picture quality

Again, apologies for the picture quality–it’s not foggy, it’s just a scratched iPhone camera lens

I wondered about the stories those planes could tell, and was kind of melancholy seeing how most of them were gutted of essential parts, and are now nothing more than giant paper-weights and bird nests.

The takeoff was smooth and as I climbed up to 5,500 feet I contacted the same controller at Atlantic City. A few minutes later after I leveled off at cruising altitude I heard her give a traffic advisory to a Coast Guard aircraft, and I could tell she was talking about my airplane. I looked out the windshield and just then a Coast Guard Gulfstream IV jet came into view, just 1,000 feet above me passing to the east as I was flying north. That’s the closest I’ve been to another airplane while flying, and such a cool one at that!

The flight home was smooth and uneventful, and as I said “good-day” to New York Approach after he released me from radar service, I decided to practice a short-field landing back at Princeton…

Well, the cross-country flight was extremely fun, and I can’t wait to make the same flight with a passenger (think: romantic weekend getaway…+FLYING!!!). One important thing I learned, however, is that I need more practice on short-field landings!

Thanks for reading, until next time.

Brian

Flight Training Update: feeling like a pilot

The weather so far in the new year has been, shall we say, disagreeable with VFR flight.

I’ve learned to expect it from New Jersey: this part of North America seems to be shaped to collect some pretty nasty weather. Nor’easters race up from the Carolinas and always seem to collide with a low pressure system moving in from the West-Northwest. The whole mess sits off of Long Island or Massachusetts and spins all kinds of wind and rain and snow and sleet at the coasts. Add a blocking ridge over Greenland and we’re stuck in the soup for days, or weeks it seems sometimes.

Recently some weather outlets have begun naming the winter storms, so the whole region is worked up into a frenzy for a week while we wait for storms with names like “Nemo” and “Q” and on and on.

Winter Storm Nemo, Feb 7, 2013; image credit NASA

Anyway, back to flying. There was, in fact, some flying to be had. I completed all of my solo cross-country requirements in the last 2 months. My strategy has been to wait for the “calm before the storm” and it has worked quite nicely.

My first solo flight of more than 50 nautical miles (“cross-country”) was from Princeton (39N) to Reading, PA (KRDG) and back. It was thrilling… exhilarating…almost beyond words, despite being a relatively short flight between relatively un-exciting airports.

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Cruising at 5,500 ft over eastern Pennsylvania

Most of the enjoyment came from the satisfaction I felt to accomplish all of the planning, pre-flight, air traffic communications, en-route, and terminal phases of the flight. It was the first time I felt a sense of being a real pilot, and it was so addictive.

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A few weeks later, the day before winter storm Nemo arrived, I flew my “long” cross-country, which required multiple stops. For this trip, I flew from 39N to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA (KAVP) then to KRDG, and back home. I chose KAVP because it was a longer leg than I had flown previously, and because I have flown to that airport on commercial airlines many times in the past to visit relatives. I was ecstatic as I flew down over the ridge on a long right base leg to Runway 4.

KAVP

No time to waste (due to the high expense of airplane rental), I taxied back and departed to the Northeast, then was vectored to my final course to the South to avoid the arrival corridor. This was the most challenging part of the trip since I was required to make a right turn after take-off, remain clear of the ski slope on the ridge to the East of the airport, and then follow the controller’s vector request.

long XC

The flight down to Reading was mostly unremarkable, despite being over some lovely, snow-covered terrain. It was a very cold, calm morning just before that massive snowstorm hit the region. The ceiling was overcast at about 12,000 with the high clouds before a frontal system, so there was almost no glare to speak of. At times a few rays of sunlight would break through and highlight the winter landscape below. I couldn’t have been happier.

The landing at Reading was smooth, and before I knew it I was back in the air heading East for Princeton. Reading Departure handed me off to Allentown Approach, then Philadelphia Approach, during which time I received a traffic advisory for a Dash-8 crossing my path. Besides this exchange, there was very little traffic and the radio was mostly quiet. There was nobody in the pattern once I got back to Princeton; it was nice having the place to myself, typically the field is buzzing with students and helicopter traffic.

It turns out there was a police helicopter idling on the ramp, and as I pulled up, shut-down, and walked back to the office, the Governor of the State of New Jersey, Chris Christie, got out of a black SUV and jogged over to the chopper. It was a strange crossing of paths.

These two flights gave me about 4 hours of solo cross-country flight, and I need a minimum of 5 hours. In the next few days I’ll write another update and tell you about my flight down to Cape May at the southern point of New Jersey. Thanks for reading!

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