The following two weeks of instrument training since beginning on the 13th of June were very productive! In fact, since the first lesson on basic attitude flying, I managed to fly (or log time in a sim) nine times within a two week period. Paradoxically, the best way to save time and money while pursuing any rating or certificate is to fly as often as your schedule and instructor availability allow for. By building on top of previous lessons quickly, you forget less over time and refine technique without letting the concepts lapse. (In psychology, this is referred to as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and is a fundamental topic that is taught to flight and ground instructors. We’ll cover that one at another time…)
The way that Doug has been introducing new instrument flying concepts is layering something new on top of old topics. So, day one was all about basic attitude flying: turns and basic navigation with reference only to the instruments. Then we started introducing wind correction and course tracking — keeping the CDI needle aligned and centered under less-than-perfect conditions (hint: it’s always less than perfect out… especially with IFR weather!).
Once Doug was satisfied enough with my BAI flying and being able to control the airplane with foggles on, it was time to introduce basic procedures. The first procedure we started with were holds and hold entries. The FAA makes a big production out of the proper entry type for holds on the written, but holds are also important in the sense that procedure turns in approaches are basically the same thing as a hold. Holds aren’t terribly difficult in of themselves; unless otherwise stated, a hold has a fix and the legs are supposed to be one minute in length each. The GPS in my plane makes holds incredibly easy to manage, but we still timed each leg one minute using a timer before conducting a standard rate turn 180 degrees. One thing that I need to get better at is tightening up the inbound leg turn so that I’m not overshooting into the nonholding side…
After introducing altitude changes into holds, we reviewed the VOR-A approach into Danielson. My plane has two VORs in addition to the GPS, so it makes for a very capable instrument trainer. I actually like VOR approaches, as I learned how to fly them back when I had a Cessna 172K with only two VOR receivers.
The VOR-A into KLZD is relatively simple on paper, but it’s actually a somewhat challenging approach. You start with a hold at the Putnam VOR no lower than 2600 feet (ie, a procedure turn), and then you turn inbound to the 211 approach course. This point represents your final approach fix and you descend to an MDA of 1120 feet MSL, with obstructions all around. The approach dumps you perpendicular to the runway and your only option for landing is to circle to either 13 or 31. A missed approach has you climb back to 2600 and head back to the Putnam VOR and hold.
We were to fly this approach in my plane, but a thunderstorm popped up right in our flight path before we took off (realities of summer). Thankfully, AirVentures has a basic aviation training device — in other words, a certified computer with a flight simulator program on it. A BATD can be used for up to ten hours of simulated instrument training, so if the weather is too bad for us to go flying, we can still get useful time out the day! I shot the approach into Danielson using the sim and worked on VOR tracking.
Doug had to go on a multi-day trip, so he left me to my own devices for a few days. You need forty hours of simulated instrument time to take the checkride but twenty five of those hours can be accumulated with a safety pilot — in other words, it doesn’t have to be done with an instructor, but it can be done with other private pilots. I have two friends (both commercial pilots and instrument rated) that are happy to provide safety pilot time, and once I had something to work on (ie, the approaches), it was a no-brainer to get them engaged.
Holding altitude, being precise, and demanding excellence
While flying with my friend Bill, we shot two VOR approaches (VOR-A LZD, VOR-B SFZ) and a localizer approach (LOC 05 SFZ) as well as two RNAV approaches into 23 SFZ (ignoring the glideslope and using LNAV minimums). During this time, I got myself down to the MDA, but flew below the MDA a handful of times. The MDA is a minimum descent altitude, meaning that by busting through the altitude assigned to the MDA, I would flunk the checkride. The ACS states the following:
“For the final approach segment, maintain no more than a 3/4-scale deflection of the CDI, maintain airspeed +/- 10 knots, and altitude, if applicable, above MDA, +100/-0 feet, to the Visual Descent Point (VDP) or Missed Approach Point (MAP).”
A side note about a pilot’s certificate being “a license to learn”: it’s critical that as pilots, we demand excellence from ourselves and not be complacent with lax tolerances. In VFR flying, being sloppy with your altitude or heading leads to sloppy performance further into the flight. In IFR flying, sloppy flying will get you violated or worse, careening into terrain or other obstruction. The message here is even if you’re not a professional pilot, strive for professionalism. I’m certainly not perfect at this, nor is any weekend warrior private pilot, but the constant pursuit should be ever present. We owe it to ourselves and to our passengers, and in fact, this is why I am pursuing an instrument rating in the first place.
The biggest takeaway that I have had so far is that the parts that will eat non-proficient instrument pilots alive are the transitions. Takeoff to cruise is a transition, cruise to approach is a transition, and approach to landing is a transition. Each one of these segments has a sudden burst of workload and it’s up to the instrument pilot to manage them appropriately. The biggest and most important task, however, is to maintain positive aircraft control through these transitions. That is why there has been so much emphasis on basic attitude instrument flying, so far. As the time and lessons have progressed, I have been tasked with doing more and more items that an instrument pilot would be expected to do. The “big picture” is starting to come into focus as I become more proficient and comfortable with being a pilot without reference to the ground. Stay tuned for what comes next: flying in the actual clouds…