Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Instrument Cross Country Highlights

So I did it.. completed my Instrument Cross Country flight with my CFII. One of the last requirements to complete the aeronautical experience portion of the instrument rating. It was a 4.9 hour flight and 3.9 hours of it was under the hood. About 30 minutes was partial panel. Three flight plans. Three approaches, VOR-A to San Lois Obispo (SBP), ILS 31 at Castle (MER) and then GPS Z 31R at Reid-Hillview (RHV). Three full stop landings. Three clearances requested and copied. Three instrument flights flown from take off to landing. 

Route on Low Altitude Chart
I'm not sure what I expected, an exhausting flight, yes... perhaps increasing difficulty flying each approach the more tired I got. Maybe some poor landings? I didn't know. But if there is one thing I know by now... flying is always a learning experience. So I was ready for whatever happened. In the end the flight(s) went remarkably well. I even got a "great job" from my CFI. Those are rare indeed.

I flew these instrument flights take off to landing with what felt like no more difficulty than my cross country flights after getting my PPL. Actually it was less difficult! Think of it.. when you fly VFR cross country, you fly a plan (or the magenta line) to where the airport should be, but if you've ever flown to an unfamiliar airport in and unfamiliar area VFR you know sometimes it can be very hard to actually find the airport. When you fly IFR, the approach points you, if not right up the runway, at very least definitely at the airport.

I was excited about the opportunity to fly some published instrument departure procedures which I had not done before. Instrument departures from my home airport typically don't use the published procedure. We usually get a heading to turn to and then radar vectors to our route. On this trip I got to fly an actual SID, CREPE3.PRB at SBP and the runway 31 Obstacle DP at MER. My CFI thought I wouldn't be ready for that one, but I was. I had reviewed the DPs for the airport before the flight and had the written DP ready to go when I got the clearance.

The controllers were different too. It was not busy at all when we were flying and there were long silences on the frequencies. I think this let the controllers get distracted. On the approach to SBP and to MER we had to remind the controllers we were approaching the FAF and needed to get a clearance to fly the approach. This is something my CFI has emphasized more than once, that I need to be on top of what the controllers should be doing. And if they forget, remind them I'm out there and what I need. One cool thing one of the controllers did was give us a very early descent from 8000 ft to 2000 ft. We had so long to do the descent that I dialed in about a 200fpm descent rate and got the plane's airspeed up to 115kts (and ground speed up to 125kts). 125kts ground speed is very speedy for this plane!

When we took off from Castle I executed the ODP and then was cleared direct to ECYON (part of the GPS approach back to RHV). This put us on a heading directly into the setting sun. Foggles make lousy sunglasses! The sun was glaring in my face and I couldn't shade my eyes. I found I couldn't see the attitude indicator so I switched to using the turn coordinator to keep the wings level. I mentioned that fact to my CFI and asked him jokingly if that meant I was flying partial panel. That gave him the bright idea to "fail" both the attitude indicator and heading indicator and I got to fly the last leg of the flight partial panel. That didn't bother me at all. I fell into the groove of using the turn coordinator and other instruments and GPS to control the plane and navigate. I didn't even think about the partial panel aspect as I flew the final approach into RHV.

Ah yes, the last approach. I expected by this time to be falling apart from sheer tiredness. A 5 hour flight in any condition is tiring. A 5 hour flight with almost 4 under the hood? For a 220 hour almost instrument rated pilot? That was exhausting. I knew it would be, but I didn't feel it as I flew that last approach. Lined up on the final approach course at RHV my CFI started repeating something that I really liked to hear, I still hear it in my head. "Wings level, no more than 5 degrees correction and you will be successful." He repeated that several times and I started doing it. At one point he tapped the CDI and GlideSlope indicators, they were lined up perfectly in the center of the circle. He said, very deadpan, "I should squawk that, it seems to be broken."

Oh, how I wish the whole approach was that way! About 300 ft over MDA I started to get blown left of course more and more. I didn't catch the errors quick enough and had to make larger and larger corrections. I got behind the plane. Finally he had me take off the foggles at MDA. I was 400ft AGL, perfectly lined up  ... with 31L! I was cleared to land 31R. I quickly moved the plane back to 31R dumped another 10 degrees of flaps, had to mess with the power and trim a lot but in the end I floated down to the runway and greased the final landing. That made me feel better about that last approach.  Next time, and there will be a next time, I'll be ready for that wind and increase the speed of my cross check. I know I can get this right. 

Next stop.. mock checkride. Then we will see what else I need to polish up before my actual checkride is scheduled. I've enjoyed this training quite a bit so far. If I keep the right attitude I am sure I will do well in the next month or so and get to my checkride as soon as I am able.

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