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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Meeting my personal airliner

In mid-May, a friend and I bought a 1980 Mooney M20K 231.

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We spent a few months casually browsing Trade-a-Plane, Controller, and various other places for the right Mooney.

We made lists of all the contenders, with side-by-side comparisons. We narrowed them down to the best three. Then we would call and find out we had been too casual about it and the airplanes had already sold.

Trying not to feel too discouraged, I would tell myself it’s okay, take your time, find the right one. All the while fighting the fierce urge to own and fly one of these great machines.

Finally in late March, I proposed that we go see the guys at All American Aircraft in San Antonio, Texas.

Jimmy and Dave were clearly Mooney guys, with about a dozen examples on hand. I didn’t realize at the time they are among the most well known people in the Mooney circle, as well as the wider general aviation community.

I’m obsessed with Mooney aircraft, so being able to go and see hangars full of them was a near-religious experience. Each one evokes a feeling I just don’t get when I look at other airplanes–save for maybe King Airs and Aerostars–but certainly not other single engine planes.

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We weren’t looking for a K model. Our list consisted of about eight J models with one or two others (F, K). The airplane we eventually bought wasn’t on the list. We showed up at the tiny Kestrel Airpark (1T7) and were quickly immersed in the available Mooneys by Dave, an easy-going gentleman with a seemingly endless knowledge of Mooneys, and a very fine teacher to boot.

I’ll admit to loving about five different aircraft at first-sight. But when it came time to test fly one, we were drawn to a K model, N4006H. It hadn’t made it onto our list but I’m not sure why–great panel, low total time, relatively low price for a turbo model.

It spoke to us somehow, I’m not sure how to describe it, but we decided to fly it, and I would sit left seat first. I was as excited as I’ve been about almost anything else climbing into the left seat, with a distinct sense of awe of the machine around me–I wasn’t in a mindset to be a difficult sell.

Dave quickly walked me through the starting procedure, and on the first turn of the key the engine roared to life. The sensation was spine-tingling, lighting the fire of a six cylinder engine for the first time ever, getting lost in the sound of that throaty growl and the sense of raw power at my fingertips.

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Down the taxiway we went, all the while Dave walking through some of the intricacies of the plane, the avionics, and the engine. I could barely keep up as my heart pounded and my mind raced.

Departing from Kestrel is an interesting experience. It’s a 3000 foot runway but one end of it is sharply uphill. We were departing down that hill. I pushed the throttle forward to 30″ MP, then Dave coaxed me to nudge it up to 35″ MP. The airplane lept forward when I released the brakes and in no time we were airborne and the gear was coming up.

We were heading to Boerne Stage airfield (5C1) along with another Mooney from Jimmy and Dave’s collection. This was not only my first flight in a turbo Mooney, it was also the first time I’ve flown in formation with another aircraft.

We entered the pattern #2 behind the other Mooney, and on downwind Dave told me to land like I do in the J model, so I went through my typical pre-landing checklist, lowered the gear and slowed to 90 knots. I turned base, added flaps and reduced power, down to 80 knots. I was getting more and more nervous but I just stuck to the protocol, turned final, added the last bit of flaps, and tried to breathe and relax. Once over the threshold I pulled the power to idle and somehow coaxed the nose-heavy 231 to a very smooth landing with copious use of nose-up trim.

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In the end, we bought this airplane six weeks later, and flew it back to New Jersey where it currently lives. I will try to write a lot more about the purchase, the transition training, and the flying I’ve been doing–including getting my instrument rating. It has been such a joy, so challenging, and yet so rewarding, to have my own personal airliner.

 

Sequest-ow-er

Today the FAA issued a press release detailing at least one of their responses to the recent “sequester” of across-the-board spending cuts dimwittedly implemented by Congress.

Trenton, NJ - Mercer County Airport (KTTN)

In a not-so-surprising move, they decided to close 149 traffic control towers across 38 states, representing about a third of the nation’s 500+ control towers. You can see the full list here. The closures will begin April 7th and will fulfill at least part of the $637 million in cuts required by the sequester.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Indeed, it is estimated that about 2,500 jobs will be lost, and could affect the $200 million in business revenue these airports generate collectively. But that’s actually the less important issue, in my opinion a distant second, to the issue of safety.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

It is true that there is plenty of flying done every day at non-towered airports around the country. We as pilots are trained to monitor and self-announce our positions and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF. That system works, but as Richard Collins explains in his very interesting book The Next Hour, “there is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation.” He goes on to cite that “the NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights…flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Just last week I encountered a situation at my local uncontrolled airport that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was out flying in the pattern with other students and instructors, practicing short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, when an airplane decided to join the pattern in an unconventional manner (taking a shortcut). That wasn’t the only problem–although he was active in stating his intentions to join the pattern for the active runway, 10, he was in fact flying to join the pattern for the opposite runway, 28. It wasn’t until he crossed directly through the downwind leg of the busy traffic pattern, narrowly missing another aircraft, that he realized his mistake.

Sure, many of the airports whose towers will be closed might seem “sleepy” on most days. But having extra eyes on the sky is never a bad thing. They can help in emergencies, or when the weather gets bad, or when the traffic becomes congested. Let’s take for example the lone tower scheduled to be closed in New Jersey, at Trenton-Mercer Regional (KTTN, the airport shown in the photos in this post). It’s actually the first towered airport I flew to, and they were the first controllers I talked to, nervous as I was. It is not what I would consider a “sleepy” airport. According to the entry on AirNav, KTTN saw more than 200 operations per day in 2010, before Frontier Airlines added scheduled service to several destinations in the Southern US. I cannot imagine how this airport will operate without a control tower: large and small aircraft, intersecting runways, military operations, complex ramp space.

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Apparently there is the possibility of a last-minute amendment proposed in Congress to provide more funding for control towers. This seems unlikely to me, and since it has only been pegged at $50 million, may be insufficient anyway. The FAA mentioned that the towns themselves, such as Trenton, could take on the cost of operating the control tower.

Some communities will elect to participate in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport

This may also be somewhat difficult. I’m not sure there are many cities and towns that have room under their financial belts, let alone the aviation saavy, to take on this responsibility.

So it seems as though we as pilots will just have to make due, and after my experience last week, I can’t help but worry more about safety. In a final note about traffic and midair collisions, Richard Collins had this to say after he installed a traffic alert system in his small single-engine airplane (incidentally, based out of KTTN for many years).

The main thing that I learned was that when near an airport, there’s a lot more traffic than I ever saw…

That sure is a scary thought, and with the loss of these control towers, we have many fewer eyes (or radar dishes) that we can count on to help keep enough space between our airplanes.

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.

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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.

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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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