Monday, September 17, 2012

Training Update: The Ups and Downs of Approaches

The primary goal of instrument flying is to get from place to place in zero visibility without hitting anything: mountains, towers, other airplanes, etc.  It stands to reason that descending toward an airport increases the risk of a collision with any and all of the above.  As a result, approaches are carefully written to enable visually impaired aircraft to safely descend toward a runway while protected from obstacles.  For the pilot, flying approaches increases both workload and the need for precision.

After several lessons aimed at building fundamentals, it was finally time for me to start flying approaches.

Instrument Lesson #7: The Soft Spot

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
26 Aug 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0 1.2 1080.2

Tom and I met at the airport at 8:00 am.  I had struggled out of bed that morning and realized during the forty minute commute to the airport that I was quite fatigued.  The thoughts whirling around inside my head would seem to mush into a soft spot (I imagined it to be on the left side, sort of in the middle) and dissolve into confused wisps of "oh, look, a chicken" disconnectedness.  Neurons were not exactly crackling with crisp energy and I wondered, somewhat distractedly, how this would impact my morning lesson.

At the airport, Tom and I briefed the two approaches that I would fly that morning.  It all made perfect sense on paper.

The first approach was a simple one and a very practical choice: the VOR-A approach into Le Roy.  Our plan was to depart Le Roy to the west, intercept Victor 252 (the airway defined by the 314° radial off of the Geneseo VOR), and follow it back to Genseo.  The VOR serves as the initial approach fix for the approach.

Established in a climb from Le Roy, I was cognizant through past experience that we would reach V252 rapidly.  In preparation, I set about "identifying" the VOR.  All VORs transmit a Morse code identifier.  Verification of that code confirms that the correct navigation beacon is being tracked.

I switched the audio panel to "Nav1", patching the weak VOR signal into our headsets.  This brought forth a loud burst of static and, within it, a faint signal.


I cross checked the sequence with the chart and verbalized to Tom that the VOR was identified.

At this point, we should have been close to the airway, but the course deviation indicator (CDI) did not so much as twitch.  What was wrong?  I scanned the instruments, my thoughts turning to chaos as they reached that fatigue-induced soft spot in my brain.  For his part, Tom said nothing, waiting for me to troubleshoot the problem on my own.  Then, I saw it.

The CDI can be driven by either the GPS or the VOR.  It was still in GPS mode from our recent cross country flight home from Mackinac Island and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

"Dammit," I grumbled, toggling the CDI back into VLOC mode.  The CDI came to life and clearly indicated that we had traipsed right through V252.  I turned to get back onto the airway and, in the process, blew through the 4000 foot altitude that Tom had assigned.  I continued turning on course, reduced power, and aimed my ship back toward the planet.

From that moment on, my brain was several seconds behind the airplane.  Yes, we did my first two approaches that morning, but they were not pretty and required a lot of prompting from Tom.

Lesson learned: Instrument lessons taken while fatigued are not a value-added proposition.

Instrument Lesson #8: First Approaches...Effectively

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Sep 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0 1.4 1084.0

We were tracking inbound to the Geneseo VOR on V252, riding the beam precisely with the CDI needle centered and maintaining a constant 4000 foot altitude.  It was time to make up for the previous week's gaffes.

The VOR-A approach into Le Roy is about as simple as they come.  The Geneseo VOR is the initial approach fix and the approach is flown outbound on the 323° radial.  It is designed to bring aircraft over the middle of the airport at 1400 feet, a mere 615 feet above the ground.

And, wouldn't you know it, it actually works.

At 1400 feet, 12.6 nautical miles from the Geneseo VOR, I looked outside to find the airport directly below.  Because we were well below the VFR traffic pattern altitude, the view was a bit disconcerting to me.  We should NOT be this low over the middle of the airport, said a voice in my head, sounding strikingly like that naysayer fish in The Cat in the Hat.

We flew the missed approach course back to Geneseo and set up for the ILS-28 approach into the Genesee County airport in Batavia.  For non-aviators, an ILS (instrument landing system) is a precision approach that brings aircraft down to 200 feet above the runway.  Among other components, it consists of two radio beacons; a localizer that provides lateral guidance to the runway and a glideslope that provides vertical guidance.  This approach is more complex than the simple circling approach at Le Roy, but the trade-off for that complexity is that it can bring you home when the ceiling is four hundred feet lower.

The initial approach fix, POCZI (who names these things?), exists within Rochester airspace as defined by the intersection of the localizer and the 334° radial from Geneseo.  We contacted Rochester and told them what we wanted to do.  While waiting for a squawk code from Approach, I reconfigured the instruments and we tracked outbound from Geneseo.  Once we established ourselves on the localizer at POCZI, we rode the glideslope down to the runway.

As a student, I used to become very annoyed with aircraft flying practice instrument approaches, eschewing proper pattern entry and spouting "IFR-speak" position reports that did little to help me understand where they actually were.  I did not want to be one of those pilots.

I broadcast our intentions in clear VFR-speak on the Genesee County Unicom frequency while Tom watched for aircraft outside.  Sure enough, there was a VFR aircraft in the patten and we coordinated carefully with it so that everything come together seamlessly.  At the end of the exercise, I did not feel as though I was one of those IFR guys zooming straight-in on final approach without a care for other traffic already established in the pattern.

At 1111 feet, 200 feet over the ground, I looked outside to see the runway numbers right in front of me.  It was almost like magic!  Granted, it was a kind of magic that only works after significant forethought and careful attention to detail, but it seemed magical nonetheless.

We flew the missed approach sequence, requiring a course reversal and tracking outbound on the localizer "backcourse" (which basically means that the CDI reads backwards - always a treat).  We did the holding pattern for the missed approach and returned to Le Roy in triumph.

"You did awesome today!" Tom exclaimed, shaking my shoulder as we taxied back to the hangar.

"You don't need to sound so surprised," I replied.  Tom laughed.

As I reflected on it, I realized that flying approaches is not difficult.  Yes, it requires precise flying.  But the challenge is really one of information management; sifting through the available data, having the right bits ready at the right time, and perhaps most important, being ready for whatever comes next.

Maybe someday, I will actually be good at this.

Instrument Lesson #9: Actual

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
03 Sep 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - ROC (Rochester, NY) -
GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0
1.7 1085.7

I was on ballast duty in the back seat of Darrell's Skyhawk.  Rochester approach was vectoring him onto the ILS for runway 22.  The controller brought Darrell right around to intercept the localizer.  As we turned toward the airport, the 8000 foot long runway came into view.  I studied the CDI, waiting for the localizer to center.  Peering outside, I saw that we had passed through the extended runway center line.

What's wrong?  Finally, Tom spoke up, pointing out that the CDI was in GPS, not VLOC mode.  It was the same mistake I made two lessons previous and it served as a good object lesson for both of us on how things can get away from you when the proper attention to detail is lacking.

Darrell, Tom and I debriefed over lunch at the Gunsmoke Saloon, a little diner east of the airport on Route 5.  On our way to lunch, Darrell described our destination as looking like a biker bar.  Tom and I exchanged looks as we pulled into the parking lot and saw a nicely painted white building with a red roof and well tended landscaping.

"Darrell," I commented, "biker bars don't tend to have shrubberies."

Food at the Gunsmoke is plentiful, yummy, and very reasonably priced.  When lunch was complete, it was my turn to fly.  A relatively low deck of broken cumulus dominated the sky, products of early afternoon thermals.  Tom filed an IFR flight plan as insurance.  We launched into a turbulent ether, strikingly different from the placid morning air prevailing during Darrell's lesson.  As we climbed, I called Rochester to activate our IFR flight plan, officially entering "The System" for the first time ever.

We leveled at 3000 feet, just below the cloud deck.  As with Darrell, Rochester provided vectors to bring us onto the ILS for runway 22.  The approach generally went well, except that I forgot to start the timer at the final approach fix.  Actually, I have forgotten to start the timer on every approach that I have flown to date, something of a "chronic" failing.

The missed approach procedure involves flying south to the Geneseo VOR and holding at 4000 feet.  Though I was monitoring the instruments as we climbed, I noticed that the quality of light in the cockpit changing dramatically.

From the back seat, Darrell said something to the effect of "here we go".  I looked up for a moment to see nothing but gray beyond the windows.  We were in a cloud; actual, not simulated, instrument conditions.

"You are no longer a virgin," Tom proclaimed.

"I'm just glad my first time was with you guys," I rejoined cheesily while steering the bouncing airplane toward Geneseo.  Darrell made a gagging sound on the intercom.

We called Rochester once established in the holding pattern, popping in and out of the clouds as we traced an oval course over the Upstate countryside.  "Rochester approach, Warrior 481 would like to do the GPS-10 into Genesee County."

The controller immediately responded to approve our request for the ILS-28 at Genesee County.


When I corrected him, he responded with, "sorry, Warrior 481, GPS-28 approved."


I exchanged a look with Tom and corrected the controller a second time.  This worked and we were sent on our way to WUPIT ("whoopit"), the initial approach fix for the GPS-10 approach into Batavia.  It would be my first GPS approach.  Because the initial approach fix is so close to Buffalo, Darrell and I got a good lesson in how Rochester and Buffalo coordinate to make these approaches happen.  While Buffalo worked us on an eastbound approach to Genesee County, Rochester was controlling a jet making a westbound approach to the reciprocal runway occupying the same slab of pavement.

As we reached the final approach fix to Genesee County, Tom and Darrell were busy looking for the jet that Buffalo informed us had broken off its approach.

I forgot to start the timer again ("dammit!").

I flew the approach (an LPV) down to 200 feet above the runway, before peering outside to see the reassuring runway numbers directly before the Warrior's nose.  Then, my attention was back on the instruments for the missed procedure.  We entered a holding pattern near Rochester, then flew home.

In the end, it was a milestone lesson: first time in the system (IFR flight plan), first time in actual instrument conditions (0.3 hours), first GPS approach, and my first ILS at a large airport like Rochester.

Groovy.  I left the airport feeling like I was on top of the world.

If only I could remember to start that darn timer at the final approach fix...

Instrument Lesson #10: Buffalo

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
16 Sep 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - BUF (Buffalo, NY) - 5G0 1.6 1089.0

Lesson ten started with a cell phone call to flight service.  With the phone on speaker, Tom listened while I filed my first IFR flight plan (though I flew on a flight plan during the previous lesson, Tom had filed it, not me).  We departed Le Roy and activated the flight plan in the air while en route to the Geneseo VOR.  At this point, I was beginning to feel like Warrior 481 and I had worn a rut in the sky between Le Roy and Geneseo.

We reached the VOR and turned westbound on V14-84 direct to Buffalo.  We were cleared for the ILS runway 5 approach as the sun sank below the horizon.  As with Rochester, the Buffalo controller provided vectors to intercept the localizer.  Except this time, the last intended vector was issued late, while we were already crossing the localizer course.  Rather than setting us up to intercept the localizer, we were on a divergent heading.

Fortunately, the Buffalo controller recognized his mistake quickly and countered by providing a new heading.  Unfortunately, the corrective heading required intercepting the localizer at a challenging angle.

"His fault, not yours," Tom commented as I struggled to capture the localizer and align with the extended runway centerline.  But I got myself onto the localizer and held it and the glideslope well.

Just before reaching decision height, Tom said, "go ahead and look outside, this is pretty cool."

It was dark outside and city lights were working to counter the invading shadows.  The runway was fully lit.  I have not landed at many large airports at night, so the sight of the massive runway with full approach lighting took my breath away.

"That is pretty cool," I agreed as we reached decision height and I advanced the throttle to start the missed approach procedure.  Buffalo had assigned us a customized missed approach that would take us back to Geneseo on an east heading in lieu of the procedure published on the approach plate.  Frankly, I was grateful not to fly the published procedure as it required a westward sojourn into Canada that would have done little more for me than waste fuel.

"Rochester Tower, Warrior 481 going missed," I transmitted.

"Warrior 481, fly approved missed approach procedure."  As I began executing the procedure, I realized that I had just called Buffalo by the wrong name.

"Well, that'll keep my ego in check," I commented to Tom as we climbed to our assigned altitude.  "It might help if I called these guys by the right name, wouldn't it?  What a doofus."

At this, Tom burst out laughing.  "Doofus!  I haven't heard anyone say that in years!"

As we leveled at 4000 feet on a heading back to the Geneseo VOR, Tom cleared his throat.  "By the way, what did you forget to do at the final approach fix?"

I knew the answer before he was done asking.   

The timer.


We returned to Geneseo, did a procedure turn and flew the VOR-A back into Le Roy in the dark.  The landing was an absolute greaser.  It was my first night landing with an instructor since the days of flying N9327U out of Three Rivers, MI.

"Nice," commented Tom.

After Tom left the airport, Darrell wandered out of his hangar and joined me on the ramp.  I told him about the amazing sight of Buffalo's runway 5, lit up in all its glory, appearing before me at the completion of the approach.

Once the runway lighting timed out, we stood quietly on the ramp, in the dark, gazing upward at the remarkably crisp stars above.  With so little haze, the strobe lights of dozens of high altitude aircraft visibly blinked across the nighttime sky.  Behind them lay a pale swath of ancient light, the unmistakable halo of the Milky Way.

Indeed, it was a night of memorable sights.


  1. Great write up!!

    It's always good to document your training, especially the IR work. Trust me, you will look back and laugh at the simple mistakes we all made.

    Don't you use the timer on the 430? It should be counting down on the approach or does your instructor want you to back that up? I have a timer on my panel that I make a mental note of the (ILS noted time) say 2:48 on the 530 and cross reference to my panel timer so if the 530 goes dark I can still have my go missed time. You'll work it out and it will be as natural as taking a breath.

    Also, I think the 430 will auto switch to VLOC, the 530 does, check into that. Keep up the good work!! Looking forward to following your progress!

    1. Gary - I have only used the 430 for an approach once, when we did an honest to goodness GPS approach. For the VOR and ILS approaches, I have been doing those old school and relying on the GPS as a DME. I wanted to learn how to do it on the old equipment first because, based on my one experience with the GPS approach, the 430 really makes it easy. My plan (you can opine on whether this makes sense or not) was to get comfortable with the manual process first, then start using the 430. Besides, if I get comfortable with starting the panel mount timer doing old school approaches, then I'll probably be pretty good about starting it as a backup during GPS approaches, right?

      Thanks for the encouragement, Gary. I'm at the point where I need to get out and practice A LOT with a safety pilot, but I have struggled to find the time.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Geoff. The last lesson (which I have not written up yet), got pretty frustrating.

  3. Phew, great update. I've been doing a decent amount of safety pilot work for my friend who's close to his IR checkride and it's amazing how much there is to learn. Now, I'm sure it will all make nice logical sense when I'm knee-deep in my own training some day... but there's certainly a lot to pick up.

    Oh yeah, as one of those lowly VFR guys, the "non IR speak" radio calls are most certainly appreciated! :)

    1. You're getting same great exposure to IFR flying that I never had before jumping in. That's a good thing, if for no other reason than it should demystify much of the process.

      Well, I'm still one of those "lowly VFR guys, too" and there are few things that have consistently annoyed me more over the years than, "Uncontrolled Municipal, Cessna XYZ on the VOR Alpha approach, runway 5..." Yeah, great, so, WHERE are you? Of course, they could be more annoying about it by appending "any traffic in the pattern please advise", usually right after three aircraft have made their position reports.

    2. Whew...I gotta watch out for the typos. That's "some great exposure". Ack.

    3. Yup, incoherent IFR calls on a CTAF are right up there with "any traffic in the pattern, please advise."

  4. Great write-up(s) Chris - too much of which is all too familiar - particularly the stinking TIMER! Good call on the IFR speak. "Cessna N123ZZ - Departing Bay Creek, NDB 36 Approach" means absolutely nothing to a student pilot in the pattern (or any number of seasoned VFR pilots for that matter). Best wishes finishing up your Instrument Rating.

    1. Thanks, Ed. Hope you're making progress, yourself...