Monday, April 29, 2013

Between Fire and Ice: An IFR Training Update

Catch Up

I had a goal last year of earning my instrument rating. I did not quite make it.

Though I suffered from the usual excuse of "life getting in the way", another setback came in October when I had an induction system fire on the ground in eastern NY.  My airplane was out of my control for some time, then needed a fix to the navigation radios and some additional work before I was comfortable trusting her again.

This brought me into mid November with end of the year chaos, holidays, and a trip to Europe.  Family responsibilities and icy clouds more or less kept me out of the IFR environment for the first part of 2013.  I used this time to study for the FAA IFR written exam, which I passed on February 27 with a 92%.  Because I aspired to truly ace the test, I took little joy in this achievement, but at least I had a milestone that could be struck from the "to do" list.

I also bought the King CD-ROM course on the Garmin 430, which has been worth its weight in gold as I now have a much better understanding of how to make the previously inscrutable box do my bidding.

Finally, near the end of April, my wife's schedule opened up enough that I could start training again.  In a span of eight days, I did eight approaches and logged 7.5 hours of simulated instrument flight and 1.0 hours of actual.

Here's how it all went.

The Deep End of the Pool Was Filled with Ice

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
21 Apr 2013 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - local 1.5 1137.7

What is the shelf life on proficiency? How long are skills retained when they were only developed to the not-quite-proficient level before a training hiatus?

After a fallow period of six months, I decided that my first airborne foray under the hood should be with my instructor Tom at my side.  Tom was only too happy to indulge my request.  There was no coddling after so much lost time, though.  Tom happily chucked me directly into the deep end of the pool on that first day.

As Warrior 481 was swallowed up in the vast, ivory underbelly of a cloud, my instrument scan fell apart. The instruments became errant cats, deviating from their intended readings whenever momentarily freed from my gaze. This, despite the fact that I had flown to the cloud base with controlled, if rusty, precision while wearing the hood.

This told me something very important: I may not have been conscious of it, but my hood was allowing some peripheral visual cues to influence the control I had over the airplane.  It was time to buy a different hood (already on its way).

Still in actual IMC, I performed a course reversal over the Geneseo VOR and established myself on the inbound coarse for the VOR-A approach into Le Roy.  We broke back out of the clouds and I did a fair job of flying the approach (though I forgot to start my beloved timer at the final approach fix).

Minutes later, back at altitude and engulfed in white vapor, we were holding in a racetrack pattern over the Geneseo VOR. When Rochester provided vectors for the ILS runway 22 approach, I dutifully followed their guidance.  Descending to 3000', we broke out of the clouds and Tom told me to look outside.

The leading edges of both wings and the lower portion of the windscreen were encrusted with rime ice.

"All that accumulated in the few minutes we were in that hold," Tom added unnecessarily.


In hindsight, I should have turned on the pitot heating, though I never lost airspeed information. It was yet another lesson learned for the day.

We were approximately over my house, the visible ice had vanished, and I began to relax a bit.  Rochester was gradually turning me toward the outer marker for the ILS when Tom asked, "what would you say if the vacuum pump died right now?"  He covered the heading and attitude indicators with Post-It notes.

"I'd say that the vacuum pump was a dick," I answered.  Tom gave an evil chuckle.  We cruised along that way for a few moments and then, reconsidering, Tom peeled them back off.

"On second thought, that's not really fair on your first day back at it.  I'll give these back to you."

I successfully intercepted localizer and glideslope, though I struggled to hold onto the latter.  And I forgot to start the timer again.  Two hundred feet above the threshold, I peeked outside at the huge "22" painted on the pavement below, then dropped my gaze back to the instruments to initiate the missed approach.

We passed back into IMC, my control of the airplane significantly improved over that first excursion into clouds that morning.  Rochester vectored us to the final approach fix for the RNAV-28 approach back into Le Roy and the lesson was over.

In the end, I had one hour of actual IMC, a brush with icing, and high marks from Tom on successfully stumbling my way through three approaches after a six month hiatus.

I slept well that night.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
22 Apr 2013 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - local 1.9 1139.6

The very next day, I went aloft with Ed as my safety pilot.  My objectives were to regain comfort flying under the hood and shoot a new (to me) approach.  We tracked to the Geneseo VOR, then south toward Hornell (HTF) to do the RNAV-18 approach there.

Ed was good-natured and happy to be along for the flight, but I felt as though my flying was sloppy.  Nothing felt crisp to me and my mind was fuzzy as I studied the approach plate for Hornell.  Though I achieved some simulated IFR flight time that served to build my comfort level, the approaches and holds were -at the risk of overusing the word - sloppy.  Part of the slop was due to springtime thermals, pushing the Warrior further skyward every time we flew over one of the many unplanted fields below.  Most of the slop was due to a rusty pilot.

In the days that followed, after The Bear was asleep, I "chair flew" random approaches from the New York/New Jersey TERPS (TERminal ProcedureS) book, incessantly asking myself questions.  Which frequencies will go into which radios?  How will I set up for the approach?  What are the headings?  What is the minimum altitude for each leg of the approach?  What do I do at each fix?

And the most important question of them all: what's next?

Windy Workout

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Apr 2013 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - local 2.1 1142.2

With Darrell riding along as safety pilot, a new weather variable entered the mix.  Surface winds were out of the south or southeast, blowing at 10 knots, gusting to 20.  Thermals popped below, buffeting the airplane every which way. Despite the added challenges, I nailed the VOR-A approach into Le Roy and even remembered to start the timer, which meant that the chair flying clearly paid-off.

I flew a full holding pattern during the missed approach, then turned northwest on the initial leg of the ILS-28 at Genesee County.  Despite the buffeting and significant crosswind from the left, I made my approach to minimums with a level of precision on both the localizer and glideslope that would have more than satisfied a check ride.  It was one little victory.  Make that two little victories: I remembered the timer, too.

I successfully flew the missed approach procedure, which requires intercepting and tracking the localizer outbound from the airport (remembering that lateral course guidance provided by the instrumentation will be backwards) and holding at a fix defined by the intersection of the localizer and a radial off of the Rochester VOR.  The hold was a little loose, but not bad considering the wind.

While in the hold, Rochester queried me about my next trick and I made the mistake of requesting direct to ZORPI, an intermediate fix for the RNAV-10 approach at Le Roy.  I should have asked for vectors to ZORPI and Rochester would have taken me past the waypoint and turned me around to the correct heading for the approach.  I was confused; they were confused.  With a little coaching from Darrell, who realized the point of confusion, I was able to work things out with Rochester to get what I needed.  Soon enough, the LP indicator lit up on the Garmin 430W and we began tracking in to home base, this time with a right, gusty crosswind of 60 to 90°.

All was going well until we switched frequencies and discovered Dan nearing our position in the pattern at Le Roy.  Darrell's head was on a swivel trying to find him and, though I did not look outside, I became absorbed into the see-and-avoid situation by making all the transmissions to Dan while Darrell searched for him.  Within a mile of the runway threshold, I became so distracted from flying the final approach course that the wind pushed us off-track. Always, always fly the airplane.

Once Dan was finally located, I decided to bag the approach.  I pulled off the hood and entered the pattern behind Dan.  When I turned final, the windsock was swinging wildly.  We made it down to the runway environment, but the approach felt too unstable and I elected to go around. On the second attempt, I planted the upwind main wheel, flew the downwind wheel to the runway, then the nose gear, and brought the airplane to a stop.

I was sore, sweaty, and exhausted, but absolutely ecstatic.  Despite the distraction in the final moments of the approach to Le Roy and the mix-up with Rochester on the radio, I had just delivered my best performance on instruments to date, an achievement made all the sweeter by the challenging weather conditions.  Even Darrell was excited.  For the first time, I actually felt like the endgame was within reach.

All I need is more; more chair flying, more time with a safety pilot, and more approaches.


  1. Great job getting back in the saddle. The timer continues to be an item frustration for me as well. I will say it is easier to remember in the "real world" since you have a lot more time to prepare for the arrival than during training hopping from one procedure to the next.

    Thanks for the great chuckle on your response to the vacuum failure. I like the way you think.

    Good luck!

  2. I almost choked on popcorn as I read the lost vacuum reply, good stuff, still laughing. " I was sore, sweaty, exhausted and absolutely ecstatic" Oh how I remember those flights! I would come home and crash on the couch, Mary always asked what my instructor was doing to make me come home like that, I said torture honey pure torture.

    Sounds like you're getting close. Looking forward to reading that checkride report soon.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I'm about eight hours, one cross country, and a fair amount of skill shy of that checkride. Tonight, I logged 1.4 simulated. I did some things very well (flew one ILS beautifully, including the missed to a hold defined as the intersection of a radial and the localizer that I have always found to be tricky). I also did some things not so well. Most importantly though, I'm getting comfortable with the whole process and don't feel like I'm drinking from the firehose anymore.

  3. "I'm getting comfortable with the whole process and don't feel like I'm drinking from the firehose anymore."

    That's a good sign, things are slowing down, more of proactive than reactive. You know you're there when for the first time you're looking for something to do. ;) Everything else is repetition...the finish line is just ahead!

    1. Yeah, I think so. I feel as though I have turned a corner. I just need to keep the pressure on so that I don't backslide.

  4. I think you've sufficiently knocked the rust off at this point.

    Which hood did you end up ordering? I bought myself a Francis hood when I ordered all my IR books earlier this year. I've found myself cheating with other hoods doing simulated work with CFIs in the past. Supposedly the Francis is harder than the real thing - which'll undoubtedly suck at first, but I'd still rather learn as best as I can.

    1. Actually, Steve, not only have I knocked the rust off, but I have progressed to the point where most of it has really clicked and I just need to refine things. I am definitely on a more comfortable slope of the learning curve.

      I Googled Francis Hood and got the Facebook profile of Francis Hood. Looking further, I found what you actually bought. That certainly looks like it would do the trick. I went with a Sporty's product that is something of a Foggles knockoff. It looks exactly like the safety glasses I use in my lab with side shields and all, only fogged in except for coin sized clear areas adjacent to the nose. They're better than what I had,still fit over my glasses, and can be pushed up onto my forehead for when I want to land or easily removed altogether while still wearing a headset. Two thumbs up.

    2. My experience was that, once I got into the thick of Instrument training, I didn't have the excess attention to sneak any peeks outside. That's why the experience in the cloud was such a revelation - that even though I was not consciously processing and acting on any peripheral clues, I was obviously using them nonetheless. At the risk of sounding like Spock, "fascinating".