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Instrument Flying

I can still hear my instrument instructor, “where are you going?”
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I can still hear my instrument instructor, “where are you going?” when my heading varied by even 2 degrees. I was doing everything I could to keep the airplane pointed in the right general direction while keeping the shiny side up. The very moment I thought everything was under control he would point out a deviation I hadn’t even noticed yet.

We had been flying together for a number of hours learning the basics and as the end of my training seemed to be coming into view he wanted me to have some real life experience. He asked me if I could afford the time and money to leave town for 4 days and fly. I said I would find both and make myself available. It was one of the best investments I have made in aviation.

He set the trip up for us to fly to southern California where we could find some clouds to fly in without high risk of icing. In Utah clouds nearly always seem to have ice. It was February 1992. I was nervous, knowing we were looking for weather to fly in but trusted he would keep me safe. I had never flown in actual conditions, but I had heard  stories and understood the risks of weather.

On the day of our departure, I filed a flight plan and stepped into the Piper Arrow we owned at the time. This flight would be the first trip where it was not just a local training flight that would terminate back at our departure point. It would be my opportunity to work the IFR system as it was meant to be used. My instructor, Dennis was an experienced aviator who I admired. He had an extensive military background flying F-4s in the Navy, landing on carriers. He currently was flying for a government agency. He was tough and would not let me vary one little bit from my course or altitude. It was frustrating at the time. He would correct me anytime I was not exactly on heading or altitude. He was a perfectionist and only praised me when I had performed without error. I remember he said to me once, “you are going to make a good instrument pilot” after a most stressful and busy flight through actual IFR. It was one of the biggest boosts I had ever had in my aviation life because it really meant something coming from him.

To this day, I am thankful for his requirement for perfection. When we first started my IFR training I could hardly hold a heading or altitude. At first, Dennis must have wondered if he would ever be able to get me through the rating.

I had never been required by previous instructors or myself to be precise in my control of the aircraft. I was often fidgety and nervous and did not exhibit any real confidence. Dennis would slap my hand as it nervously moved about the cabin and instrument panel looking for something to do. I needed it to be busy so I could feel more in control. He taught me to relax and be methodical in my tasks. I could barely heard an airplane through the sky visually, let alone under the hood. He trained me to make the airplane do what I wanted it to. He went back to private pilot basics, retraining me in areas I was weak. He is really the one who taught me to fly with any level of skill. I could land and take off. I could go from point A to point B and generally, be safe, but I was not competent.

Working with Dennis influenced me to develop a strong inner need to be better, more in control and more able to manage the business of flying. I decided to no longer accept the “good enough” attitude and I started to become much more interested in consistency and precision. Dennis remains one of my hero’s and I will ever be grateful for his powerful influence in my aviation future.

The plan was to hop from airport to airport on our trip and fly as many approaches as possible, giving me maximum exposure to a lot of airports and weather conditions. The first day was 6 legs, all under the hood. We traveled south from the Salt Lake area to Delta, Milford and Cedar City, Utah, with VOR approaches at each. From Cedar, I flew to Las Vegas completing an ILS approach into the stressful and busy McCarran airport where we stopped for a late lunch. The last leg of the day took us to Phoenix Sky Harbor where we spent the night. I fell into bed, exhausted.

Next morning Dennis told me to check the weather for a flight to San Diego. I didn’t know he already aware of weather conditions for our destination and route of flight. When I reported back and told him I didn’t think it would be a wise choice to go there because of weather, he said, “file us to Montgomery Field”. I reluctantly did and we were soon headed into the eye of the storm, at least, that is the way I saw it.

About half way, Dennis suggested I take off the hood and as I did was suddenly overwhelmed with what I saw. Nothing. Only white. Suddenly everything I had thought about and worked toward became real. I was in the clouds and had my hands full. Everything was different and yet, everything I needed to do was the same. I had an incredible turning sensation as clouds wisp by my wingtips and I learned by experience to trust in the instruments. Simulated instrument flying is different than flying in real clouds. Instrument instructors should really find a way to give their students an opportunity to be in a cloud.

I felt like I was doing reasonably well until we were about 40 minutes from our destination when we had an unexpected experience that was very alarming. The engine developed a rough condition that I became very disturbed by. This was not one of those subtle conditions where you ask yourself “is the engine running ok?”. It was very rough and there was no question. I enriched the mixture, turned on the boost pumps and switched fuel tanks. I also made sure the mag switch was in the both position. There was no change as I did these things and soon I was out of ideas. I became distracted looking at the gauges and obsessing about the potential of a complete engine failure. The mountainous terrain we were now over and low ceilings were filling my mind with useless worry.

As the moments passed by and my fruitless efforts to fix things continued I wondered why Dennis seemed so unfettered. He had been quiet and calm and then he asked me “what are you doing”? Followed with a softly spoken “fly the airplane”. He went on to explain that there was nothing I could do to fix the problem and I should focus on flying. He showed no signs of fear or panic. I still remember his left arm resting on the seat back of my chair and his relaxed posture. He must have been uncomfortable but was very calm. I learned about priorities and have never forgotten to “fly the airplane”.

I did my best to follow his advice and flew the remaining part of the leg to a landing with an approach down to about 400 feet. What an experience and what an example of airmanship he showed me. He was in no way unconcerned about the situation but able to prioritize and not become distracted. This was a valuable experience for me.

A Piper Arrow in transient parking - Instrument Flying

It was raining while I pulled off the cowl and investigated the problem. I couldn’t find an immediate answer so I cleaned the spark plugs and cleaned the fuel injectors. The problem never occurred  again, but the memory of it is forever imprinted in my brain.

The tanks got topped off and as I sat down on the chair in the FBO I thought I deserved a break. I was still keyed up and feeling like I needed some time to collect myself. That was not in the plan for Dennis.

It took me awhile to figure out that while I was prepping and fueling the aircraft at each stop, Dennis was inside checking weather himself, finding challenging but not dangerous conditions ahead for the next leg. He would then instruct me to check the weather as before and discuss it with him. Each time I would be intimidated with the reported low ceilings and reduced visibility and suggest we choose another destination. Each time he would respond by telling me to file a flight plan to that location.

During the rest of this day and the next, we flew up and down the coast doing approach after approach, each with 400-800 foot ceilings. We finished that 3rd day back at Las Vegas after dark, descending down through a cloud layer to break out of a high ceiling to the unbelievable lights of the city below.

I assumed the trip home the next day would be easy duty now that we were getting out of the busy airspace and storm system that had been centralized in southern California. But flying always gives opportunities for new learning and this day was no different.

The morning weather at Las Vegas was pretty nice with the same high overcast ceiling at about 8000 feet. The departure took us through the 1500 foot thick layer and up into the sunshine above. As I was making my way through the layer Dennis said, “look at the wing”.  I was busy flying instruments and didn’t respond to him right away. He said the same thing to me again and I broke my concentration enough to look out the left window and see ice accumulating on the wing. I had heard stories from a lot of pilots and read about the severity of ice and I had developed a real anxiety about it. I didn’t know how much ice was too much but assumed any was serious. I was frightened and assumed our situation was serious, but just then we broke out on top. Clear skies and sunshine made everything feel better. Dennis was then able to talk with me about ice and I stored some more knowledge and experience in my brain.

As the flight progressed north I followed airways and flew VOR to VOR. At one point I was tracking inbound to a station and looked at the chart to find my course would require a turn to fly outbound on the  009 degree radial. As I crossed the station I mistakenly turned to intercept  the 090 rather than the 009 radial. Dennis casually explained he was going to unplug my headphones for a minute and talk with the controllers. He didn’t want me to hear the conversation. This was a training exercise. He let me fly along for some 3 minutes or so and then suggested I remove the hood. I looked up to see a windshield full of mountain. The inadvertent error would have been a deadly mistake in real IFR conditions and my instructor was wise enough to turn it into a profound learning experience rather than prematurely correcting my mistake. This was real world experience and I was appropriately humbled once again.

Salt Lake weather often becomes very foggy with heavy inversions during January and February as high pressure develops in the area. This was the situation we found as we approached northern Utah. Visibility had gone down to ¾ mile with about a 300 foot ceiling. This last leg of the trip finished with an approach to 16L at Salt Lake and a landing. No problems, just like a real instrument flight should go.

The trip shaped my aviation career. It was a huge success that made me gain confidence and knowledge. It was a turning point in my life that gave me a desire to become as good as I possibly could. I can’t think of anything I could have done at this point that would have been more valuable to me. I don’t know how much the trip cost me, I never thought much about it but whatever it was, I cant think of a better investment that I could have made.

We flew 24.3 hours over 4 days. I had flown in the rain enough to erode the paint off the leading edges of the wings. It was 11.2 hours of actual IFR, dozens of approaches and many incredible experiences.

My young son Corey was 6 months old. Now turning 23 he is starting his instrument training and now I am asking him “where are you going?” when his heading is off a couple degrees.

Subject: General Aviation

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