Tonight's flight was really fun. Ceilings in the area were between 1600' and 3200', which meant that we got to go into, and stay in, some actual IMC for quite a while. There's something about being in actual IMC that is very different from just having the JeppShades on -- for one thing, it's a lot less constricting to be able to look around and not feel like I'm cheating. But it's much more than that.
When flying IFR in VMC, I basically feel like it's me against the world. The instructor is there, but essentially testing me. The controllers know I'm training, and at best I'm more work for them and at worst (if I'm actually sucking) I'm a pain in their collective ass.
When flying IFR in IMC, it's a different story -- it's all of us against the weather. The instructor is picking up what I drop, because it's more important for us to be safe than for me to learn a lesson right then. The controllers are friendly and accommodating, even though they still know it's a lesson. In that weather, we HAVE to be flying IFR; we're not doing it to annoy them, so they're on our side.
I know, these views probably have very little bearing on reality, but I'm not trying to describe fact; rather, I'm trying to describe why it's so much easier, emotionally and mentally, to fly in IMC than in VMC with the shades on. It's a very interesting effect, I think.
We left PAO while it was still light out -- the first thing we realized while sitting in the runup was that the plane's timer was dead. Luckily there is a secondary timer built into the NAV2 radio that worked fine, and kept us legal. After takeoff, we headed for SCK, being vectored almost immediately for SUNOL intersection (usually we get sent south for quite a ways toward SJC, since the pass in the hills near SUNOL is busy with VFR traffic). The autopilot was basically a complete scam -- I probably wasn't helping it by overpressing the right rudder, but it did not seem to be anywhere close to holding its heading, and when ATC asked me to turn 10 degrees to the right, the AP made no turn at all as I changed the heading bug. So I hand flew the ascent until reaching cruise, and then let the AP do the easy part.
I flew the SCK VOR 29R approach quite well; we went once around the holding pattern (in lieu of procedure turn), and then were cleared and crossed the VOR inbound. I had a moment of panic -- since the autopilot was again misbehaving here, I'd forgotten to start the timer at the VOR (which was the FAF), and also forgotten to press the "OBS" button on the GPS...thus, my two methods of identifying the missed approach point were not working. Upon realizing this about 30 seconds after passing the VOR inbound, I pressed the OBS button and the GPS did the right thing and gave me time and distance to the MAP. Shoulda started that timer...
The approach took me right over the runway, and I executed the missed approach and entered the hold at ORANG probably better than I ever have before. Holding at ORANG, we decided first to go to LVK. I asked for and received clearance, but then John thought about it and realized that we'd either end up having to do a lengthy missed approach back to Tracy afterwards (if they'd even clear us to do a low approach at LVK which was doubtful), or we'd have to do a full-stop landing and wait for a long time to be cleared back to PAO. And I'd had too much tea earlier in the evening..so I was not so much interested in the sitting and waiting! So we instead asked for IFR to PAO for the GPS 31 approach.
The way back to PAO was pretty uneventful; lots of hand flying, lots of twiddling with the autopilot when trying to use it, and eventually as we got into the approach structure I hand flew much of it because the autopilot was just so slow to respond to turns. The ceiling at PAO was about 1600' which gave us plenty of time to align with the runway and get ourselves down. My landing was a greaser!
As we walked back to the club, I ran into my old CFI for my PPL, Sergey. "Still haven't got your Instrument? What you been doing?!?" he chided. I know, I know..it has been a really, really long time. I may have chosen the wrong year to do this -- it's not easy to do it without a lot of focus, with a lot of distractions and without consistent practice. I've been very inconsistent; I've had a lot of life changes, I've moved twice, my sister got married (twice!..same guy...long story...), I traveled...so it's not been a terribly efficient training process. And, that is OK. This is not a footrace, this is training for a lifelong pursuit.