April 03, 2004

800 Feet Above The Nimitz

I’ve been avoiding this for years, but here I am. As we pass through 800 feet over the Nimitz my instructor John Ewing makes me don what I’m quickly coming to think of as the Cone Of Stupidity, then tells me to turn to heading 340 and climb to 1,800’. Simultaneously Oakland Tower hands me off to NorCal Approach on 120.9. Piece of cake! I say sarcastically as I blow straight through 340 to about 360, and unconsciously level off at about 1,000’ while calling NorCal -- and getting our tail number wrong.

At least I noticed I’d gone to 360. And that I was hundreds of feet below my target altitude (failure has its own sort of clarity, I guess). This isn't going to be the easiest flight I've ever had.

* * *

About a month ago I finally decided I had enough time and money to start training towards my instrument rating. I did my basic private pilot license (the "PP-ASEL", in US jargon) a few years ago now, and I'd spent the next few years doing almost anything else -- aerobatics, getting tailwheel and complex endorsements, etc. -- to avoid doing the instrument rating. The rating is hard (many pilots will tell you it's the hardest thing they've done), and it takes a lot of time and effort, and I didn't want to start something and only be able to pursue it half-heartedly or have to drop out because of time or money issues (which may still happen anyway -- we shall see...). So I got in touch with John Ewing, a club instructor who I've know for several years now, and arranged to be his student for the foreseeable future until I either got my instrument rating or I had to drop out for lack of time or money.

So here I am. Roughly 800 feet over the Nimitz. Roughly's the word here...

* * *

The main aim of this evening's flight is to introduce me to flying straight and level solely by instruments and to start learning the basic maneuvers under the hood. We spend about 30 minutes in front of the whiteboard in the club discussing the FAA's ideas about instrument basics -- which instrument is primary for which maneuver or stage of flying, etc. Nothing too difficult if you've got a bunch of hours VFR cross-country flying behind you, but there's some counter-intuitive bits if you don't think through it all closely. It all looks easy enough from the ground...

Until you do it, it is easy. But that tiny little artifical horizon -- the attitude indicator or AI -- doesn't give much away, and is a poor substitute for the real thing. I don't seem to have the problems some other beginners have with vertigo or an inability to believe the instruments, I just don't react quickly enough to what the instruments are telling me, and I haven't internalised how to correct the various trends as they emerge on (say) the heading indicator or altimeter. At one point I actually mentally reverse the sense of the AI and treat it like the turn coordinator; if I did this in real IMC and didn't catch it quickly, it could be lethal. Luckily I recognised it before John would have had to save us, but it's a sobering experience.

So we weave about over the Bay for another thirty minutes or so, with John giving me vectors, headings, altitudes, and turn instructions -- just a typical beginner instrument student workout. Nothing really terrible happens, but the entire time I'm under the hood my flying is hopelessly imprecise. I don't ever lose control or cause John to take the controls, but I feel humbled by how badly I followed headings or altitudes.

Then John lets me dump the hood, and we fly back to Oakland to do the practice ILS approach into 27R visually. I fly, John does the radio. This goes surprisingly well -- mortifyingly, as soon as I remove the hood, my flying becomes precise and well within PTS standards again. John points out an something I've missed: when I fly VFR normally i.e. not under the hood), I have a light touch on the controls and correct things gently and smoothly. When I'm under the hood I have the classic death grip on the yoke, and my flying suffers accordingly. "Trust the plane", as John says. I'll have to learn how to relax a bit...

As we're vectored to join the localiser, the workload once again starts shutting my poor little brain down. "It’s alive!" I think, as the localiser needle starts slowly moving off the left peg towards the vertical. But now what? My brain tells me I should do something, but another part of me says "he said heading 250, so keep that heading". Mistake: I know -- somewhere in that IQ-80 brain of mine -- that once I start intercepting the localiser I should turn into it rather than keep on the assigned heading -- but I just sit there stupidly. Somewhere in the right seat John's trying to tell me something, but I don’t know what it is or why. Urgh. I slowly sort it out and we fly the ILS down to a normal landing on 27R. Even though I wasn't under the hood at this point, I don't think I saw a thing outside the plane -- just the needles and the various other instruments. At the decision altitude, John makes me look up -- and there they are: the runway lights, not quite dead ahead. Cool!

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