Monday, January 28, 2013

First IFR Flight After Rating

"Hun, do you want to fly me to Monterey tomorrow?" 

Long story short, my husband got back from two weeks of international travel and flying on United with someone else's suitcase. He realized this when we got home which is an hour or more from the nearest airport with a United presence. He calls United and they come up with a complicated plan where he delivers the other person's suitcase to Monterey Airport and fills out some paperwork and then United will deliver his suitcase to our house.

Rather than drive the hour and a quarter to Monterey and back, we decide it would be much more fun to drive the hour to Reid Hillview and then fly ourselves and the suitcase to Monterey in about 40 minutes, deliver the case,  then fly back and drive home, for a total travel time of four hours. Even better, it looked like there were enough clouds in the area with freezing levels much higher than normal so I could actually get a chance at some flying in actual IMC too!

I researched the likely routes on and filed my flight plan there and another flight plan for the return. I figured we'd have a good chance of clouds both ways and either way it was good practice to fly instrument. When we got down to the airport the weather had cleared somewhat but there were still clouds around. I was ready and excited to go.

We launched into a partly cloudy sky. Shortly after take off I had my eyes on the instruments and scan going, I didn't know exactly when we'd hit the clouds but I wanted to be ready when we did. We flew in and out of some cloud layers and banks as I flew the radar vectors provided and was cleared direct to CHRLE, the IAF for the 28L LOC/DME into Monterey. We were cruising at 6000 feet and most of the clouds were to our west or underneath us. We started to approach CHRLE and I made sure I had the weather, the right settings on the GPS, the localizer TunedandIdentified, final approach course, MDA and missed firmly in mind. ATC started to descend us towards CHRLE and there was a build up of big and mean looking clouds over the mountains near Monterey that the localizer would take us into.

I was a little nervous about the high possibility of turbulence, but that's what clouds are about sometimes and I knew all I had to do was fly the plane. Finally the call came, "Cessna X, turn to 270, descend and maintain 4500 until established on the localizer, cleared Localizer 28L approach." I thought this might happen but I didn't think to adjust the GPS to give me guidance to the first leg of the approach instead of the procedure turn. No matter, I thought, I had the localizer TunedandIdentified, I would just intercept the course that way and everything would be fine.

I descended to 4500, making sure not to go one inch lower, and entered the clouds. My eyes were carefully watching the heading on the heading indicator and making sure I was flying a 190 heading and not descending below 4500 until I was established. The needle started to move but it was moving very fast and I wasn't even close to the 278 heading I needed to be on course. I blew through the localizer wondering why and the controller very politely told me to turn to a 310 heading and let him know when I was established on the localizer. 310!? oh shit! Scott [my CFI] would be yelling at me right now. Actually probably a minute ago. I thought. I realized my mistake, I was supposed to turn towards 270 but stopped 60 degrees short. That explained why the needle moved so fast, I wasn't on the intercept course the controller gave me but a course almost perpendicular to the localizer.

I'm in the clouds. I can't let that mistake throw me off. I had to recover. I understood at that moment how much I've come to rely on the track and desired track information from the GPS to keep me on track. As I flew back towards the localizer I chose the waypoint at 7.0 DME on the localizer course in the GPS and told it to put me DIRECT-TO (that gave me distance information and a GPS CDI to help). Then I used the NAV1 CDI to intercept the localizer, tell ATC I was on course, and start descending.

The clouds over the localizer approach course into Monterey.
The next challenge was to figure out where I was on the localizer so I could make sure I got the step downs right. My husband was tracking our progress on my iPad so I asked him if we had passed RODNE (the next fix) or not. He said he thought so. I double checked the distance to the 7.0DME waypoint on the GPS, and we were more than 4.3 NM away, so we can't have been at RODNE yet. I told my husband we weren't there yet. He asked how I knew. I didn't have time to explain as we had just passed RODNE and it was time for the next step down. Still in the clouds I had 2.3 NM to drop down almost 1000 feet. This plane was faster than I was used to so I had to increase the descent rate, reduce power more and drop down carefully, still in the clouds. I was grateful for so much practice under the hood that keeping the plane upright in the clouds didn't require much thought. I was told to contact the tower.

Time to step down again this time to 2500. The airport's ATIS reported ceilings were scattered at 1800. I thought I should be breaking out soon and I did. The first thing I noticed was the green hills and homes seemingly right below and to my left. I knew from my altitude and location they had to be close to 1000 feet away, but they seemed so close. It gave me a shiver. How close had I come to killing us by flying that wrong heading? I wondered briefly. I had to put that aside. "Airport in sight," my husband said helpfully. He had no idea I had made a major mistake. I had forgotten to even look for the airport. I look straight ahead and there was the airport. We seemed high, but the airport was in sight with no more clouds in the way and I could now do a normal landing.

I landed normally and requested taxi instructions to Monterey Jet Center. I had read great reviews about the service there and I was not disappointed. They loaned us a crew car and didn't charge us a ramp fee or fee for the car. We returned the suitcase to United, did our paperwork, returned the car and it was time to fly back.

The brief intermission to drop off the suitcase gave me time to think through what I did wrong and how and what I could do to prevent that issue in the future. I know I have a habit of fixating on numbers and I also read back instructions really fast (and accurately) but sometimes I can repeat back without understanding. So I decided the key thing I could do immediately is SLOW DOWN. Slow down and double check every number I use. For instance, if I'm told to turn to a heading and I turn to the heading I think I should be at. I should just ask myself if this is really the right heading. Does the heading I'm flying make sense given where I am and where I think I should be going?

We got back into the plane and called Clearance Delivery for our clearance back to RHV. We didn't get the clearance I wanted but that was OK. In very little time we took off into the clear skies over Monterey Bay. We climbed over the ocean and I kept scanning the RPM, oil pressure, oil temp, etc. and listened carefully for any sound of roughness. I really didn't want to have an engine failure over the ocean, at night.

Shortly after checking in with ATC, they cleared me direct to ECYON (throwing my previous clearance out the window but taking me exactly where I wanted to go). I leveled off and flew through the dark skies and moonlit clouds. My passenger was so relaxed that he fell asleep. As we flew towards the Silicon Valley I could see layers of clouds below and expected that I would be descending through them on my approach into RHV. I briefed myself for the approach and made sure the GPS was in the right mode. I was nice and slow and careful. I was cleared for the approach and told to contact the tower and maintain best possible forward speed. I sped up to 120 knots and stayed right on the appropriate course. I stayed at that speed until I got down to the FAF when I slowed to a more normal approach speed.

The cloud layer below was lit up by the moon from above and the city below and was just beautiful. I had to pull my eyes away and start up my scan on the instruments before I entered the clouds. The pass through the cloud layer was brief and calm. I broke out, exactly on the desired track and I could see the runway lights right ahead of me. The air was crystal clear and calm. The lights were beautiful. I woke up my passenger for the landing. I practiced deploying the flaps to slow the plane down and adjustments in pitch maintain glide slope (something I didn't do a lot in training because we rarely landed at the end of an approach).  I landed the plane and was very happy. I got some actual instrument time and two actual instrument approaches. I didn't kill myself or anyone else and improved dramatically between the first and second approach.

In the days that followed I ordered some suction cup bugs.  Most of the planes I fly don't have heading bugs, so I'm getting my own. This is something I will use to help prevent myself from making that heading mistake again. I'll read back, set the heading bug and double check from here on out. Also, my next "practice" flight I'll go out and practice intercepting and tracking radials using the round gauge CDIs. I'll cover up the GPS in the process. I found out the hard way that I need to work on that skill some more.

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