Saturday, May 05, 2007

Real Airplane, Real IMC

I had two lessons last week; I've managed to create enough time in my life (and in my brain) to step up the lessons which really helps me feel like I'm on a path toward a goal. John has been great as an instructor, and as I found out, much more tuned into the touchy feely stuff than Sergey. That's both good and bad; it forces me to deal with it, which is good, but sometimes before I'm ready, which is bad. Anyway, this'll make a lot more sense in a bit..

On Tuesday, we went up for my first actual instrument approaches. I was really nervous. I still don't know why, I think it has to do with feeling like I was being tested. This isn't John's fault, it's purely a creation in my own head -- I'd been on a simulator a lot, and I felt like how I responded in an airplane was a test of how well I'd learned and how much I'd studied. We decided to fly to Stockton (KSCK) and do the VOR 29R approach.

Basically, I did far more poorly than I would've imagined. I couldn't even read back the clearance, I couldn't maintain my altitudes, I got completely lost and by the time we were doing the approach I basically had no idea what was going on. Not a good feeling, and John was doing his best to try and help me out but there was really nothing he could do -- I had psyched myself up so much that I couldn't think clearly, and that's a bad thing especially when flying IFR. The flight did accomplish a few things, though -- for one, I was able to see how the system worked, to learn where I would fall behind the most and what would present the greatest challenge.

After the lesson John basically asked me what was going on -- I think he knew that something was wrong, and I felt bad that I couldn't explain it to him because I didn't really understand yet. So, I tried to convince him that it wasn't going to be an ongoing problem, and that everything would be fine. I was also trying to convince myself, which went less well...

So I thought about it for a while, and realized that I was just putting too much pressure on myself to do something that I've only just started training for. By Friday's lesson, I was feeling very calm about the whole thing. Who cares if I mess up? I have an instructor sitting there. If I sound like an idiot to ATC, so what? I hear a lot of people WITH their ratings sounding questionable to ATC. They're used to it, they get paid to do it, they'll roll their eyes, say "stupid rookie" and move on.

Friday was just amazing, in every way. For one thing, there was weather! There were actual clouds, with PAO at a ceiling of 1500'. I was calm, I read back the clearance (almost) correctly, I took a few chances and learned. Takeoff was uneventful, until the ceiling got closer and closer, and I had to fight all my "avoid the clouds" instincts to force myself to keep climbing! I turned right heading 060 as instructed and just before we penetrated the cloud layer, I said to John, "I'm not sure how I'm going to react to this." He said, "Don't look outside." Ah. Brilliant!! So I didn't, and I flew (in my estimation) extremely well. John had taken over the radio work, except for simple heading or altitude instructions. I held my altitudes, I held my headings, I stayed mostly coordinated.

I did, however, lose my situational awareness. Once ATC starts vectoring me to places, I lose track of where I am. I could not picture how to enter the holding pattern at Stockton, which is the entry to the approach. Once John told me, I kind of figured out where we were, but this is clearly something that will need work. That's OK, though, I just need to work at it -- I know I can do it.

I also could not copy our clearance back to PAO when we were in the missed approach holding pattern near SCK. Holding itself is a ton of work! I managed to do that OK, but just to drill myself I tried copying the clearance too, and did not get very far.

On the way back, we used the GPS and the autopilot for some of the flight, which helped ease the workload considerably. I did lose my location again once we got vectors, but not as bad as the other end of the flight, probably in part because I'm so much more familiar with the area.

Anyway, it's been a great week, and I'm looking forward to the next time!

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