Thursday, February 21, 2013

First Instrument Flight in a 182

My passengers awaiting
departure from RHV

A Weekend Trip to Oceano Dunes

My husband and a couple friends and I flew down to San Luis Obispo area last weekend to spend some time in Oceano on California's central coast. This was the first time I've been on a flying trip with friends in two planes and it was a lot of fun. I flew a 182P, N20791 with my husband, Jeff, and friend, Randy. I planned on flying the 182 so I could get more familiar with the plane. My other friend, Craig, flew a 180HP conversion 172N with his other half, Kim, and daughter Alexis. We stopped at Harris Ranch on the way down on Sunday for lunch. That was my first time landing a plane at Harris Ranch and being able to land the 182 on that narrow and short runway boosted my confidence managing the plane considerably. Then we headed out to San Luis Obispo after a pass over the Oceano Dunes so Randy could see them. I landed there well and we tied down for the night at San Luis Obispo (SBP) airport. Two good flights and landings at very different airports were very good for me. We landed at SBP instead of Oceano itself because we could pick up a rental van for our group and save money on cab fair. We went to a show called the "Great American Melodrama" which was very fun. Then we went back to the hotel, had a drink and chatted into the night.

Oceano Dunes from the air
We woke up Monday to overcast low clouds. Not at all surprising for this area. That was another reason I wanted to tie down at SBP. SBP typically clears up before Oceano does because it is further inland. I didn't want us to be stuck waiting for clouds to clear and end up flying into the teeth of a cold front and storm predicted to hit the Bay Area late Monday night. When I checked the TAFs when I first woke up they did not promise clearing. I figured the next TAF after 10AM PST would forecast better conditions. However, just in case, I did a quick round of flight and fuel planning and filed an instrument flight plan out of SBP for 1PM.

Our friends "waving goodbye" under the cloudy skies.
Click on the photo and zoom in to see the "wave".
At 10:30 we checked the TAF's for our route again and every update was trending towards lower and more complete cloud cover. The satellite loop view of the area showed clouds thickening and pushing inland instead of the opposite which is what normally happens in this coastal area. That did not bode well. Our group had a leisurely breakfast and discussed options. The ceilings were 1800 to 2500 feet near the airport. The terrain around the airport rose to 1500-3000 feet MSL. The only direction without rising terrain was over the ocean. I could get out IFR, but I was the only pilot in the group who could. The other three pilots, Jeff, Randy and Craig weren't instrument rated.

None of the options we had to get both planes home that day were really good. The one that was probably the best was the idea of me flying the 172 over to Paso Robles (PRB) IFR, Craig's family driving there and then they could hope to fly VFR out of Paso Robles back to Reid-Hillview (RHV). Then I could drive back to SBP and fly IFR out of SBP in the 182 with Jeff and Randy and head back home. The problem with that idea was the ceilings at PRB were barely MVFR. In the end Craig decided to wait at the FBO at SBP and hope for some clearing weather. Worse case he'd rent a car, drive his ladies home and then come back later to get the plane. I took the IFR option and headed home with Jeff and Randy.

Fluffy, Friendly Clouds

SBP tower and low overcast
I used Randy's hand held radio to get my clearance from SBP ground prior to engine start and we were cleared as filed including the CREPE3.PRB departure route I planned and have flown before. Being able to fly a departure procedure I've flown before from this very airport helped reduce my tension flying in a relatively unfamiliar airplane - the 182.

The ceiling was reported at 2800 feet when we launched on our IFR flight. I got my scan going immediately and we entered the clouds at 3000 feet. I was braced for some good turbulence in the clouds but these were the friendly type of clouds in spite of their dark appearance, no turbulence at all. Our clearance changed immediately when I contacted Santa Barbara Approach, instead of flying the departure procedure they had me turn direct to PRB when we got to 4000 feet. At 4000 feet, still in the clouds I turned towards PRB. We finally broke out of the clouds around 5000 feet and leveled off at 7000' as cleared. I told the guys the change in clearance was totally normal. You rarely get what you file and even more rarely actually fly what you are cleared to fly. You just have to be ready for the changes when they come.

We were in clear air flying over a sold layer of clouds that seemed to cover the entire Salinas Valley from its southern end at Atascadero north as far as the eye can see. When we were transferred to Oakland Center we heard many planes flying IFR on approaches into Paso Robles airport (PRB). A US Air jet gave a pirep reporting the only hole in the clouds near PRB was 40 miles north or 30 miles east. We could see an edge to the clouds out to the east, it appeared to be on the other side of the Diablo range between the Salinas and central valley. That means one would be able to get under the clouds there, but wouldn't be able to make it into the Salinas valley. At this point we knew it was the right decision not to fly the 172 into Paso Robles, Craig and family would not have made it out of there VFR.

Clouds over the Salinas Valley
The en route portion of our flight was in the clear air with very little turbulence and a lot of radio traffic. On the way Jeff suggested I practice using the autopilot. I had received the 5 minute - this is how to use and disable the autopilot - info from my CFI but hadn't actively used it before. Frankly, I prefer to hand fly. It gives me something to do on the en route portion of flights and I get to hone my skills that way. Then I remembered my CFI saying, "You WILL use the autopilot in IMC." That's exactly what he said. He is actually able to speak in all caps, must be something they teach in CFI school. This seemed like a good time to listen to my CFI and my husband. I engaged the autopilot heading and altitude hold at 7000'. Eventually we were cleared to 8000' and asked to change headings slightly for traffic. Finally we were cleared direct to GILRO, the Initial Approach Fix for my approach into RHV.

We were handed over to NorCal Approach and the radios were even busier as the controllers had to funnel jets into San Jose and flibs like me into RHV. About 10 minutes from HENCE (over Hollister) the controller asked if I was going to continue IFR, because if I was I should expect a 20-30 minute delay due to traffic into SJC. I could see no real breaks in the clouds ahead so I told him if they could get me under the clouds I'd be happy to cancel but unless they could I'd have to stay IFR all the way into RHV.  He said he'd let the next controller know. About five minutes to HENCE I started slowing the plane down. I knew I'd be getting a descent soon and knew the plane doesn't go and slow down, so I had to get one done before the other. I was glad I had discussed just this situation with my CFI two days before. This plan worked out well because I was told to descend to 6000' about the time I had slowed down the plane to where I wanted it.

Flying in a Box

Our route to RHV with the delay vectors
We got to HENCE and were told to turn right 90 degrees as a delay vector for SJC traffic. We were in a "box pattern" that my CFI had told me he gets often flying IFR in and out of the Santa Clara valley but I had never encountered. We had all the time in the world. The thing we didn't have was all the fuel in the world. Normally I always fly with full fuel, this time, however, I didn't. I had a heavily loaded plane and a climb gradient I had to maintain to leave SBP safely, so I did not take on fuel as I had originally planned at SBP. When I did my flight planning I used a conservative ground speed and fuel burn rate and calculated we would have a little over an hour and a half fuel remaining when we landed. Jeff checked the fuel levels before we took off and we had 38 gallons in the tanks which matched my expectation. If we had a 30 minute delay we'd land with an hour of fuel to spare. If the delay was more than that, we would be in a less comfortable position.

When we got the delay vector I started a timer and  slowed down even further setting MP to 19" which had us flying this hold at approx 105 knots ground speed. The other benefit of slowing down was we were using less fuel. The engine monitor reported 7.3 GPH fuel burn rate. I was intensely aware of the fuel situation and figured we could allow no more than 30 minutes delay before I would have to tell ATC we were at minimum fuel. When we took off the fuel gauges were showing one tank empty and the other more than half full (the plane was parked on a slope at the airport), at this point the other wing was showing empty and the "full" tank was showing 1/4 full. I had never flown a plane to this level of fuel and it was not a comfortable feeling.

As we cruised slowly in our delay vectors we considered alternates. I called up the ATIS information for airports in the Santa Clara valley, South County, Hollister and Reid-Hillview. We could see the edge of the clouds to our east and were thinking maybe we could get down below the clouds and through the pass over highway 152 into the valley VFR. All of the ATIS reports were just barely good enough. Which meant if we were lucky we could get through, if we weren't we'd be stuck. Not a good plan. I decided we would stay in the box and if we we got to 30 minutes of delay I would notify ATC we were at minimum fuel. I re-briefed myself on the approach we would use into RHV and made sure I was prepared.

Not So Friendly, Fluffy Clouds

We were cruising southeasterly towards the edge of the clouds in our box. I was watching the clouds pour over the ridge line silently. It was a mesmerizing sight. ATC directed me to turn to 330. I went to turn the heading bug to 330 and all of the sudden the plane shakes like we were a bug in a tin can. "What the hell is THAT!" I said as I quickly disengaged the autopilot and manually managed the turn to 330 and altitude. Jeff suggested we must be hitting the turbulence of the winds spilling over the hills. As quickly as it started the turbulence stopped. I turned the autopilot back on.

Cleared to descend, we headed
directly towards some less
friendly looking clouds.
"Skylane seven niner one, cleared direct ECYON. Descend and maintain 3700". That was music to my ears. That meant we were going to be able to start our approach and ATC was trying to get us low enough to cancel IFR if we could. I turned on the pitot heat, turned off altitude hold, and started a nice controlled descent towards the clouds ahead.

I then ran into a new challenge. If I was flying a plane with a 430W GPS I would have activated the GPS Z 31R approach at ECYON. But I couldn't find ECYON as a waypoint on the GPS Z 31R approach in the GPS in this plane. I don't know if this was operator error or GPS error or what but it wasn't there. So I manually input direct to ECYON and let the autopilot manage the track to ECYON as I managed the descent and monitored the what the autopilot was doing as we descended into the clouds. I would activate the approach when I got cleared for it.

This time the clouds were much less friendly. We were getting bounced around pretty good but my passengers were perfectly silent. We got down to 3700 feet and leveled off still in the clouds. So much for getting down and canceling IFR. I was grateful for the autopilot for reducing my workload as I was fighting my body's mixed signals with the turbulence and less familiar instrumentation and plane I was in. I've lost count of the number of approaches I've flown in 172s. This was my first approach (simulated or otherwise) in a 182. I checked manifold pressure, prop and mixture and we were OK. Jeff or Randy said it was really wet outside.  I spared a glance at the windscreen and saw water streaming by. A quick double check of the MP showed it still in the green. I decided I would turn on carb heat the moment we got out of the green, to prevent carb icing.

Water streaming off struts and
trailing edge of the wings.
We were cleared for the approach. I put in 10 degrees of flaps to descend in a controlled manner and the plane seemed to launch itself upwards, I failed to anticipate that and had to push the nose back down to level and then start the descent. I activated the leg of the approach closest to us and let the autopilot get us on course as I managed the descent again, this time pulling more and more power as we got closer to the airport. ATC directed us to switch to the tower and we were instructed to continue. We could hear many planes in the pattern there. RHV's ATIS reported the ceiling at 3300 feet but we were past that level and still in solid cloud. 2500 feet we were still in the clouds and I was high on the glide slope but starting to capture it. I ran through the pre-landing checklist in the clouds, no boost pump, carb heat on, fuel on both, gear down and welded, mixture full rich, pushed the prop full forward and we were ready.

At 2000 feet we broke out of the clouds. The air was crystal clear and the windscreen nicely cleaned from the rinsing we got. I was still high so pulled more power and put in more flaps and finally even more flaps. I was cleared to land and another plane was cleared to take off from the same runway. It seemed like the plane was moving in slow motion as it took the runway to take off. We were less than a mile out and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to go around. So I slowed the plane even more to allow the other plane to take off. Then the tower told me there was a dog running lose on the Bravo taxiway. Are you kidding me?!? I really hoped the dog would have the good sense to run the other way, cause I was going to land this sucker! The other plane took off just in time and for once I didn't float the 182 down the runway. I landed the plane nicely and got a round of applause from the back seat of the plane as I exited on Delta. I did the after landing checklist and contacted ground to taxi back to Squadron2.


Passenger view of an IFR flight
We taxied back to Squadron2 and shut down the plane. We piled out of the plane, all smiling ear to ear and I distributed hugs all around (being a woman I can do that *grin*). If my CFI was there I would have kissed him. I was absolutely elated. All those hours of training paid off that day. For the first time I actually had to consider fuel, weight and balance, climb gradient, weather, managing a high performance plane in IMC, using an autopilot to reduce workload, ATC delays, passengers, other planes in the pattern on arrival, etc, etc. and I did it. The integration of all of the different skills I've learned in flight training, from private through IFR through high performance endorsement came together in that one flight and it worked! Yes, many areas for improvement, but I did it. My friend Randy said he felt I had things under control the whole time and that I knew what would happen before it happened. In other words, I was ahead of the plane. And, for the most part, I actually was. I can only get better from here.

PS. You may be wondering, how much fuel did we have when we landed? I checked both tanks and one tank was empty (falling into the never-done-that-before category), the other was showing 15 gallons on the dip stick. When we had the plane refueled we found we actually had 13 gallons left total. Right at 1 hour of fuel at a 13GPH fuel burn. Completely legal but if we had flown much longer we would have been flying on reserves and correct in declaring minimum fuel if we had to.

PPS. Craig ended up renting a car and driving home that night. He had some adventures getting the car and his ladies were offered some rides down to LA on some "very nice planes" according to the 3 year old. Wednesday he drove back down to SBP and flew the 172 back with beautiful view of snow dusted hills and mountains from the Monday night/Tuesday morning storm. 


  1. Congratulations. What a great confidence boost you got. Thank you for the level of detail. It really makes the story come alive. Some day it will be my turn (first IFR in a high performance single).

    1. Thanks :) I'm sure you will get the same boost when its your turn for all of your training to come together!

  2. Way to go Awkward Bird...except I think you need a new handle cause you dont really seem so awkward...more like GracefulDove. Loved your descriptive detail of how a professionally trained and highly proficient PIC handles an IFR flight in actual IMC amongst busy NorCal traffic. You are an inspiration to anyone engaged in IFR training and an excellent example of what hard work and dedication can do for a courageous individual. WAY TO GO GIRL !!!

  3. AB,
    That was one of the finest IFR accounts I have ever read and it has inspired me even more to get my IFR ticket. I just bought a 1978 Cardinal FG perfectly set up for IFR flying and your steely resolve and obvious command of the situation was a joy to read and a mile marker by which I will measure myself as I progress. Great Job!

  4. Thank you both for your positive comments, cadcap and 6XT Driver! I'd like to say if I can do it, anyone can... that is, anyone who has the drive, determination, time and funds to dedicate to the process. 6XT - looks like you are going in the right direction :) It is totally worth it though... IFR flying in IMC is extremely rewarding.