Sunday, December 21, 2008

Instrument Proficiency Check

Since I am supposed to fly at least some members of my family to Florida in a week, and since the last time I've actually flown an airplane was last August, I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time flying with an instructor. Flying an airplane is very much like riding a bicycle. Except that it's a longer fall to the pavement. Still, having an instructor along occasionally to criticize you while you fly is not only the law, it is also a good idea. It keeps the instructors amused, and it's great for deflating the typical pilot ego. Deflating the typical instructor ego is a bit more difficult, but fortunately isn't my problem.

When I fly long distances I like to fly "in the system", also known as IFR. This gives me the ability to fly through clouds rather than around them, and puts me in constant contact with air traffic controllers. They're a great bunch to work with, and they are sometimes useful too. Flying through the clouds is fun: it's kinda like flying with your eyes closed. You can't see a thing beyond your airplane so all you have to keep from hitting things are these 6 small dials in front of your nose and the grey matter between your ears. It takes lots of practice, lots of hand-eye co-ordination, and it's a skill that wears off easily if it isn't used regularly. The Feds in their supplsedly infinite wisdom say that I either need to "stay current" or I need to go through an "Instrument Proficiency Check" to ensure that I can fly IFR for the next six months. We call this an IPC, because PLA (Pilots Love Acronyms).

So I scheduled a lesson with my favorite flight instructor for Sunday. I wasn't doing much and the weather looked pretty decent, so this turned out to be a perfect opportunity. Of course perfection can't be tolerated by nature, and my instructor was forced to cancel at the last minute. We rescheduled for Monday morning. It turned out to be an abysmal beginning to a dreary start of an awful week, at least from an atmospheric standpoint. Monday morning was overcast skies, intermittent rain, and clouds as low as 600 feet (that's about 92 Michael Jordan's for those of you that are distance challenged).

Ordinarily pilots don't want to fly a training flight when they can't see the ground. But as it turns out the whole point of this particular training flight was that I show I can fly without being able to see the ground (or anything else for that matter). It was a perfect fit. I filed a flight plan for a nearby airport and off we went. We took off from my home base, PDK, and a minute later we were in the clouds. I quickly got back in the groove of scanning the instruments and keeping the plane from tipping over sideways. Our destination was nearby Lawrenceville, LZU, and we intended to get there with the VOR/DME RWY 7 approach. That's pilot speak for "fly this way until you see runway 7". This particular approach starts with something called a "DME Arc", which is pilot speak for "fly in a near-perfect circle".

Now flying in a circle is hard even when you can see the ground. But flying in a circle when you only have 6 dials to tell you what to do is kinda like balancing a needle on the head of a pin while riding a unicycle, drinking water, humming Yankee Doodle Dandy, and juggling a tennis ball, a bowling ball, and a running chainsaw. Well, okay, I lied. There are actually 7 dials and a numerical readout. Shoot me. The numerical readout shows me how many miles I am away from a particular radio beacon (called a VOR). My goal is to keep that readout reading 7.0 or as close to it as I can manage while slowly making turns that approximate a circle. Fun, huh? It's about this time that you begin to wonder just why you bothered getting up in the morning. It's a very delicate balance of turning the plane, adjusting the instruments, and muttering profanities under your breath. These ugly words are actually unpronounceable intersection names like JOXRE, CFCBD, and OWENF. No I'm not making these names up. Just imagine if you had to give driving directions to your Uncle Ned for Christmas: "Drive to JOXRE intersection, turn left and head for CFCBD." "What's that? My hearing aid must be on the fritz again, I thought you just said Cuff-my-bed".

So after a grueling 8 minutes of this torture I finally reached the point on the approach where I could turn towards the airport. I started going down in to the murk (remember I can't see anything) and looking for the airport. It was supposed to be right in front of me, but it ended up about 2 miles to my left. That's a really nasty trick to pull on an instrument pilot and if I ever find out who moved the airport while I was flying on the approach they are going to regret ever being born.

After we gave up on the idea of actually finding the airport, we flew a "missed" approach. That's what you do when you miss the airport. And hopefully you can do this and still miss everything else, too. The missed approach said "fly to this radio beacon and enter a hold." You probably already know about holds. Airline pilots sometimes call them "holding patterns" so that their passengers don't think they really mean wrestling holds. So we started flying towards this radio beacon and I looked at the dial that is supposed to tell me where it is and it is clearly not pointing at anything. I told air traffic control "we are not receiving Gwinnett" (that's the name of the beacon). So of course the controller says "roger, let me know when you enter the hold." Okay wise guy how am I supposed to know when I get there if my radio isn't telling me where it is.

Getting the radio problem straightened out took extra work, and distracted me from flying the plane. So amidst searches for additional maps, re-tuning radios, and everything else I was also doing a very bad job of keeping the plane upright. My instructor kept reminding me to use "standard rate turns". That's instructor speak for "stop flying the plane sideways or you're going to kill both of us." Well after we got that radio problem straightened out we flew the hold for awhile, which means we flew around the sky going nowhere. You may be amazed to learn that this is something we actually practice doing. It's like twiddling your thumbs, except at 3000 feet and with really big thumbs.

With the hold out of the way we returned to PDK and flew the same kind of approach that airliners usually use. It was the easiest part of the whole flight. After we landed and put the plane back in its parking spot, my instructor filled out my logbook and recorded the fact that I had successfully accomplised an instrument proficiency check. I certainly didn't feel like I had done a good job, but he said it was good enough. We talked about the areas where I could use some improvement and he was confident that I'm going to continue missing the earth and anything attached to it whenever I fly during the next six months. Then as he looked through my logbook he said "Was your last flight really in August?" "Yes, unfortunately it was." "What a surprise, " he replied. "Most people who go that long without flying are all over the sky. You did a fantastic job for someone who hasn't flown for months." Who am I to argue?

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