This has been a short week, only flew 2 days, Monday and Tuesday. On Monday we spent about two hours revisiting the maneuvers that I have to master for my private pilot check ride. We headed out to the practice area and did ground reference maneuvers, stalls, and simulated engine failure practice. I’m pretty happy with my rectangular course, and my turns around a point, although my S-turns across a road still need some working on. I’ll also need some more work on stall recovery. For whatever reason, the airplane we were in on this particular day had a much more pronounced tendency to “wing drop” when inducing a stall. A wing drop is when one of the wings stalls before the other, and the airplane abruptly falls to one side. Most of the time on these training airplanes, if you induce the stall with the wings level, the stall occurs evenly and the nose falls down relatively flat and even. In the plane we were flying, it had an overwhelming tendency to fall to the right, and after a few stalls I had enough. During one of our power on stalls, the right wing dropped out so violently that we lost almost 400 feet in altitude and the airplane was turned a full 90 degrees off course in the split second before recovery. As we were almost ready to return to the airport, my instructor pulled the power to idle and called out, “you’ve had an engine failure”. I immediately went to work pitching for best glide speed and looking for a suitable landing spot. As I glided to a field I had chosen, I realized that I was to high, and I would not be able to land in this field had this been a real emergency. We added power and went back up to altitude to try again. When the power was pulled out, I again pitched for best glide speed and flew toward my field (same field). This time, I worked in a series of s-turns and full flaps in an effort to lose altitude and steepen my descent. Again, I was too high when I approached the position at which I would have to touch down to avoid any trees — disappointing. I’ll need more practice as I feel that I need a better sense for the gliding capabilities of the airplane and the best way to set up for a landing in a chosen location when I have altitude to spare. I feels as though I could have flown a pattern around the field, or circled the field directly overhead, losing altitude, and flying straight in when I was at the correct level.
On Tuesday we did something really cool. I’m very lucky to have an instructor who doesn’t shy away from opportunities to fly in less than desirable weather. After all, it isn’t always nice out, and as a commercial pilot, I’ll be flying in all types of weather. The day was overcast and rainy, but warm. The key to our flight was the latter, the warm temperature. During the winter, it is tough to fly in true instrument conditions because when you fly through a cloud when it is freezing, you get icing. On this particular day, the cloud cover was no more than 1500ft AGL but temps were in the mid 40s, so no worries about icing. When I got to the school, all the planes were at the ramp, tied down, untouched for the day. The school itself was a ghost town, but my instructor was ready to go! In his eyes, conditions were perfect for an introduction to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight in true IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions). I felt the same way, after all, the ability to fly in conditions like these is the reason we become instrument rated pilots.
As we gathered our things and began to head out, we listened to the weather on a handheld before heading out to the ramp. While still inside, we ran into the school’s chief pilot, who remarked, “you guys are going flying? what’s the weather?”. Unsure if he was questioning the decision to fly, my instructor repeated back the weather briefing to which is response was, “I just wanted to make sure you had the weather, I would like to see more people flying in conditions like these!”. Off we went.
Our flight was to be a very short one. Takeoff, climb out, and fly to a nearby airport, only minutes away. We would fly the ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach to this airport’s runway, but rather then land, we would execute the published missed approach procedure, and fly back to our home airport, where we would fly the ILS approach and land. Total duration of the flight was only 0.8 hours there and back. Flying true IMC takes thing to a whole new level of seriousness. There is more planning (flight plan mandatory), more concentration needed. There is no time to be nonchalant about anything, and you have to be on the top of your game. Prior to takeoff, we entered all our frequencies into the radios, and set the navigation equipment. We ran through the steps we would be taking and the progression they would come in. You want to get as much done on the ground as you can, and never let the airplane get ahead of you. You want to always know and anticipate what is coming next, and be ready for it.
As I rolled down the runway and took to the sky, within a few seconds I was entering the cloud ceiling, and visibility went to zero. As we flew through 1500ft, I flew out of the cloud cover to a blanket of white clouds below me and blue sky above. A few turns as per air traffic control, and we were on course for the ILS approach to our nearby airport and ready to descend. I began the descent and soon was back in the cloud, zero visibility. I now had to rely on my instruments to guide me laterally and vertically to the runway which was somewhere ahead of me, but nowhere to be seen. As the altimeter turned lower and lower, I knew I had to see something soon, and just like that, I popped out the bottom of the clouds with the runway directly in front of me. We flew all the way down to the published missed approach altitude which was 300? or so feet. At this point, we executed the missed approach by adding power and climbing back out in the direction from which we came. We flew a another ILS approach back to the runway at our home airport, this time landing it. I didn’t see the ground until 700 feet AGL, and from that point the landing was more or less straightforward.
This short introduction to true IMC conditions was exhilarating. It is incredible how much multitasking goes on and how many things you are responsible for when flying IMC. I can see why people say that getting their instrument rating is the most challenging and technical rating to acquire, but I am looking forward to the challenge.