Three months. Three months since I took N222MF up with Sherry Diamond, donned the foggles, flew for far too long around the Salinas area, shot three approaches, did some holds, and came back with a temporary airman's certificate. That was April 25.
In the intervening time, I've flown three times: Two bay tours, and a practice VFR flight. Long story short, I did not feel like an instrument pilot at all. I had no confidence that my IFR skills would come back without a lot of work. I'd never even been on an IFR flight plan by myself. I'd tried to schedule myself for an IFR practice flight, to shoot approaches and try to remember how it all went, but when you think something is going to be unpleasant, you find excuses to not do it.
So on Monday, after canceling another flight, I scheduled one for Thursday (yesterday). And yesterday, I took a lesson from the baseball field: after you make a fielding error, tell yourself "I want the ball" till you believe it. So, that was me all day: I want the controls. I told my friends I was going, so I could not get out of it (obviously barring some good reason to not go).
I got to the airport and picked up the keys and went out to preflight....and forgot my headset in the car AGAIN (this has been a trend). Then I needed to use the restroom, which, thanks to the draconian landlords at PAO, entails a trip to the terminal building. So, by the time I boarded and started setting up, it was 6:00pm. No problem, I'm taking my time. I did my basic checks, started up and contacted ground. IFR to Stockton. Here we go.
I got to the run-up area, and got my clearance and copied it and read it back. One thing done. I set my avionics, and told the tower I was ready for release. Hold for release. Great. Now we sit and....ah, crap, I never did my runup checks! So I sped through my runup, and sure enough, one of the mags was rough, so I leaned and cleared it, and went back through the checklist, completing it just in time for "Cessna 222MF, position and hold, and we have an amendment to your clearance." This is new...."position and hold, ready to copy." It was a right turn 040 instead of the standard 060 after takeoff. No big. Cleared for takeoff.
It was a beautiful day -- clear, not too hot, with some clouds up to the north and offshore (in other words, not where I'd be flying). There were TFRs all over the place, thanks to (a) fires and (b) the president of the US getting an aerial tour of the fires. I probably would not have even gone anywhere VFR today, but this is the beauty of IFR: YOU keep me out of the TFRs (I mean, I was aware of where they were, etc, but it's just less thinking to have ATC as a first line of navigation).
As I followed their vectors and altitude assignments, I found myself way ahead of the airplane. I got SCK's ATIS way ahead of time, and when switching to the final controller had my approach request ready to go: VOR 29R, pilot nav, published missed hold at ORANG. There was some confusion later when the controller asked me if I wanted multiple rounds in the hold at ECA (meaning the hold in lieu of procedure turn on the approach) whereas I heard ORANG, so gave a nonsensical answer, but we straightened it out. As I approached ECA, she told me she'd call my inbound turn, so I slowed, did my T's and headed outbound on an extended parallel entry. I did everything right in this approach, including the GPS management, pressing the OBS button at the right time, getting OUT of OBS mode when back inbound, starting my time at the FAF...everything. Even the missed was great, except that I forgot to exit NAV mode on the autopilot on the teardrop entry (I needed HDG mode) so my holding pattern was a bit messed up.
I set up for and requested the ILS 29R, and was vectored over. I flew it very well, completely by hand, dealing pretty well with gusty winds. I stabilized the heading pretty well; I had more trouble with the glide slope but corrected rapidly and the biggest deviation was one dot high (but it was pretty close to the DA). I went missed, flew it even better than last time, and went back to ORANG and requested clearance to PAO. Again, I was ready to copy, I got and read back a clearance, and climbed to 6000 on the assigned heading.
As I neared the approach structure for PAO GPS 31, I was being absolutely blinded by the sun, which was well on its way to setting. As I was vectored gradually onto the final approach course, I couldn't see anything. Technically VMC, and I could see the ground, but I could not look out the front window at all. Good thing I was IFR! There was an unexpected frequency along the way (Moffett Tower, for about 30 seconds before switching to PAO Tower), and I just followed the GPS in. I saw the REIL first, then the threshold lights, then the runway itself. The sun was just starting to drop below the horizon on my final approach, and I followed the VASI down and slowed to landing speed. I touched down with a squeak.
What a flight!! I'm absolutely stunned by how much I enjoyed it, as well as how good I was at it! Not that I think it'd be a good idea to take three months off with any regularity, but it's shocking to me that all that I'd learned was right there, at my fingertips, even after so much time. I knew exactly what to do and when, I acted and sounded like a pro (except for that whole hold at ECA issue, but we worked it out), I maintained my airspeeds very well, my scan was actually good, my preparation was excellent, I used the autopilot and the GPS to maximum effect, and I even flew smoothly -- a passenger could've been with me on that flight.
I'm impressed by, in some sense, how much easier it is to fly IFR than it is to fly VFR. An IFR flight is the same, no matter what. I'm taking a trip to Huntsville, AL, in August, and am planning to fly to the Atlanta area. I will be flying IFR, because there's so much less "creative" thinking to do, so many fewer variables. Many more procedures, yes, but those are just procedures, which I can do anywhere.
After a long and difficult training cycle, and a necessary detox period, I'm excited to be a pilot again and am psyched for my next trip.