Monday, September 07, 2009


My instrument rating is dragging on and on and on. There has been a lot going on, though, and I just haven't had time to log the hours I need. Last week my instrument instructor gave me a prod by email and voicemail, so we scheduled to do some flying Saturday. Since I hadn't been under a hood in two months, I called around and got my friend Gashaw to act as safety pilot for a quick practice jaunt on Friday evening.

It was a gorgeous evening. I skipped the first part of the beauty by putting on my hood right after takeoff. I flew us up to the Westminster VOR and then flew the VOR 34 instrument approach to the Carroll County Airport.

Flipping up my hood, I brought the Tiger in for a short-field landing, then raised the flaps, enrichened the fuel mixture, and shoved the throttle to the wall. After a short run down the runway, it felt like we were sitting on our backs in our Vx climb, and I circled around for another touch and go. The second landing was even better -- the wheels just lightly kissed the runway, and we heard the wheels rolling on the tarmac before we felt a touchdown. Flaps up, mixture in, full throttle, and we lifted off. I was grinning all over myself from the last landing, so Gashaw flew us home.

On Saturday morning, John and I took off. I put on the hood moments after liftoff, and we headed for Westminster. I flew a good hold entry for the VOR 34 into Carroll County, followed by a missed approach and hold, then the GPS 35 into York, Pennsylvania. We did the missed approach out of York, and then John gave me vectors and instructions back home. It was a good flight, and John said I did well.

It was Labor Day weekend, and I didn't need to work Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, the forecast was for overcast weather with cloud ceilings at around 600-1,000 feet above the ground. Importantly, there were no thunderstorms in the forecast. I called John, who agreed to meet me Monday morning at 9 a.m., rain or shine.

The flight was a typical instrument training flight out of Gaithersburg: the VOR 34 approach into Carroll County, the ILS 23 into Frederick, then the GPS 14 back into Gaithersburg. What was new for me is that I never put on the hood.

A lot happened in the hour and a quarter that we were flying. Vectors for traffic, re-routes, altitude increases and decreases.... Even John wasn't sure why ATC was doing what they were doing at times. For me, I had four moments where.... Well, I never panic in an airplane. But if I was going to panic, there were four times when I would have done so.

First, when we ascended into the clouds. Imagine you're just a thousand feet above the ground, flying at 120 miles per hour. Then all of a sudden you can't see anything. And it's different than being under the hood, simply because of the knowledge that you can't just flip up the hood and see again. You are COMMITTED to flying the airplane just by looking at the little round gauges. You either do it or (forgetting the instructor in the right seat), you are likely to crash. That realization flashed through my head, I got the "when the going gets tough" mentality, and on we flew.

Shortly thereafter, ATC had us climb to an altitude where we were just dragging our landing gear in the tops of the clouds. Overwhelming sensation: BRIGHT. To go from dark and dreary overcast to bright sun was hard on the eyes. I need better sunglasses. My second "moment-when-I-felt-like-panicking," however, came when we were instructed to descend back into the clouds. It felt like rising water, and I caught myself straining my head up as the clouds enveloped the cockpit from the bottom up. I might even have held my breath as we went under....

I had my third "moment-when-I-would-have-panicked" as we neared Carroll County on the VOR 34 approach. We descended to the MDA -- minimum descent altitude -- and we were still in the clouds. No airport, just cloud. This should be no big deal, as we train for this all the time and practice "missed approaches" on every flight. Still, we're usually looking at the airport that is plainly visible and just pretending -- "Oh, well, no airport, guess we better do the missed approach!" In practice, it's an almost cheerful, make-believe event. In real life, it's different -- you can't land if you want to. You want to get on the ground? Well, that door is closed. Now what are you going to do?

My last moment-of-unsettlement came when we had been flying almost an hour. I had successfully flown the ILS approach to Frederick, had pretended we couldn't see the runway, and had ascended back into the clouds. Just as we were levelling off at our altitude, and turning to intercept a VOR radial, we got a clearance from air traffic control that required me to jot notes on the clearance, turn the plane, reduce power, reprogram the GPS, change altitude, and talk back on the radio. At the same time, John was talking to me about something. I was juggling it all when I cross-checked my instruments and saw we were in a steep bank and descending at 1,000 feet per minute. Right then is when I could have panicked if I were so inclined.

Keep in mind -- we're in the clouds. No autopilot. There are no visual or "seat of the pants" cues that we were not flying straight and level. A passenger would never have known anything. It was all happening very fast and we had lost less than 100 feet of altitude. I don't even know how it happened that the airplane got into that attitude so quickly.

But okay, no big deal. Rule Number One: FLY THE AIRPLANE. I stopped everything else to right the airplane. John hadn't noticed the unusual attitude -- or if he had, he wasn't letting on. He kept talking, telling me to do something -- change radio frequencies, finish programming the GPS, something. "John, let me fly the airplane, and I'll get to that in a second," I said. He fell silent. Five seconds later, everything was back to normal, I finished what needed to be done, and we successfully flew the approach to Gaithersburg.

We broke out of the clouds about 200 feet above the MDA and landed straight in. I was sweating, but I was absolutely exhilarated. I had flown an airplane. In the clouds. From one airport to another. Safely.

I spent the rest of the day pointing at the sky and saying to Jodie, "See those clouds? I flew IN them."


Anonymous Brian said...

Great stuff!

I know what you mean about the bright. Really strange to experience it the first time.

Here's me on the same day:

(Although some segments didn't show up on the flight aware track.)

1:30 AM  
Blogger Craig Gomulka said...

totally agree with you on the difference of the hood vs. actual, it can be overwhelming. I would not want to exercise an instrument rating in real IFR conditions for the first time without having has plenty of hours in actual with an instructor beside me.

1:33 PM  

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