Today's lesson was kind of a landmark. I admit it freely: I was apprehensive about the lesson; it's been a really tough road and while I have the deepest respect for my instructor, we've had our issues with each other at times and I've been pretty frustrated, even to the point of thinking about delaying my training.
Well, today ended up being fantastic. We took off out of PAO as usual, I got my IFR clearance, did my runup, etc as usual, and John complimented me on my readback, which served its intent of helping me relax prior to takeoff. We were sent on our normal route, and climbed up into the clouds at 1500', which was a real thrill, but not as much as popping out of the clouds a couple of hundred feet later into a bright, beautiful sky. WOW! What a phenomenal experience -- I just felt so lucky at that moment, to be one of the few people who can do that (well, almost).
I flew really well; totally relaxed, and the flight was totally smooth. My approach at Salinas was very good, and I remembered to start my time at the final approach fix and my procedures during the missed approach were in the right order, though John handled the radio for me, which was helpful. He also later pointed out that I used the wrong minimum altitude: I'd heard the ATIS say that the active runway was 31, and I even wrote it down, but I didn't connect the dots and realize that I'd need to use the "circle-to-land" minimums since the approach was for runway 13. Ah, well, lessons learned -- this is the advantage of not being afraid to fail. I'm actually learning!
I configured for the approach at Watsonville on the way to the holding pattern at MARNA -- mostly. There's usually plenty of time to do this, but because of shifting winds I had to spend more time on aircraft control, so I got to finish the configuration during the hold, which is something I should practice anyway. The hold itself was a bit sloppy, and John later said (correctly) that it was the worst part of my flight today, but that it was still OK. I just need to review the holding pattern procedures so I know what to do when, and not struggle so much with having to think through every step. Not rocket science, at least not in a piston aircraft!
My approach at Watsonville was good as well. John said I was chasing the needle a little, which may be true, but it was only a little. I had trouble with the radio when getting the clearance into Watsonville; I had trouble with that on Wednesday as well. I think it's just a matter of getting a lot of information quickly, something that will come with practice.
Then came Palo Alto, which was also good, and had the added bonus of charging through a giant cloud in the middle of the approach. It was fun, and we were relaxed enough to joke about it as John grabbed the dash with both hands just as we were about to dive into the cloud, but it actually did distract me enough to put me off course and force me to correct. But I did correct, quickly, so no harm, no foul.
All in all, it was a great flight! I made a few mistakes, but they were mistakes that I can learn from. I am starting to think that maybe I can really do this after all. John has taken my request for more positive reinforcement to heart, and has been doing a great job of it -- today, in particular, there was one moment where I did start getting just the slightest bit tense, and he instantly said, "You're doing great." Just like that, I was calm again; in fact, I only realized that had happened a while later. So, kudos to him for adjusting his approach to something that works for me -- that's the mark of a great instructor.
BTW: here's a link to today's flight. I'm not sure how long that link will work, but it's pretty cool; you can see the approach to SNS, the hold at MARNA (a little racetrack after departing SNS), the approach to WVI and the trip back to PAO.