It's been four and a half months since I got my instrument rating, and I've not been flying nearly as much as I would've hoped. That means it's time to start worrying about currency, as the FARs require six instrument approaches within the last six months, with holding procedures. Right now, I easily meet that requirement, but only because of all the approaches I did in March and April. Since my checkride, I'd done only one instrument approach in simulated IMC, the ILS into Merced a couple of months ago. I'd done three practice approaches a bit before that, but by myself in VMC, and therefore no foggles.
So I enlisted my good friend Roland to come with me and act as my safety pilot, to go do three approaches yesterday. "The Milk Run," he calls it, of Stockton, Tracy and Livermore, which gives me a VOR, GPS and ILS approach. Now, there were several confounding variables on this trip; for one thing, it was my first time renting out of Advantage Aviation. I'm still a member of West Valley, but Advantage has just as many of the planes I want to fly, and they're a good $10-$15 cheaper per hour. And they're nicer (sorry, but it matters to me).
We picked up the plane's keys, and went out to preflight. The plane, N784SP, was in very nice condition, and the preflight went well, except that fuel was just a bit below the tabs. I decided that was enough for our 2-hour flight (the tabs would give us 3.5 hours conservatively, and it was just below), so we got in, and ... I realized the plane had no MFD. The MFD is the big moving-map GPS display that I'd used all through my training as quite the crutch for situational awareness. OK, this would be a bit of a challenge, but no worries; through my training I'd worried about becoming too dependent on the MFD anyway, so this would be a good drill.
Off we went, VFR with a right Dumbarton departure, and over Sunol I gave Norcal a call. Now, after some down time, the radio calls are the first thing to suffer, and this was no exception. I got the message across (flight following Stockton, practice VOR 29R) but forgot to tell him I had the ATIS, and neglected to tell him how I wanted to start the approach (pilot nav) or how the approach would terminate (published missed). Not pro, but the controller was really nice and just prompted me for the information. Also, the autopilot veered me hard to the right when I tried to engage it, so apparently it was even more useless than all the other K(r)AP 140s I've experienced. Great..no MFD, no AP. This will be a challenge indeed!
About 10 miles from ECA (the IAF), I was still at 5500' and worried about getting down -- obviously on an instrument flight plan, they tell you when to descend, but VFR, everything's a lot more variable. But for some reason, these days I'm a lot less afraid to sound like an idiot (which is a good thing) so I queried ATC: "4SP...can I begin a descent?" Immediately he said, "4SP, cross ECA at or above 2000, cleared approach." Perfect..so I slowed and immediately began a 1000 FPM descent, and got to 2000 about 45 seconds prior to reaching ECA.
Reaching ECA is a drill, because it means the following: OBS mode, Time, Turn to the outbound leg for a parallel entry into the holding pattern in lieu of procedure turn, twist the inbound course, check in the GPS that the course reads correctly, switch nav source, throttle to descend to 1600'. Whew. Amazingly, I did it -- it wasn't smooth, but luckily Roland was a good sport about it. A minute out, I turned inbound, got established and descended to 1300'. I'd overshot a little, but got back on course quickly. Suddenly I looked down and my CDI was fully deflected..what the...oh, I'm right over the station. I started my time, and used the GPS to verify that I was on course until the CDI kicked in. I descended to 460', the MDA, and flew right over the missed approach point.
In flying the missed approach I had a little confusion about the navigation; I got on VOR navigation pretty quickly, but I wanted GPS guidance for more accuracy. I'm not sure why, but it took me a couple of tries to get it right -- Direct to ORANG, OBS mode, 317 in the OBS. Anyway, I did it and climbed to 3000', called ATC, and entered the hold.
Here's where things got a little messy..I didn't start the time passing ORANG, so I had to take a guess as to when to turn back inbound (turns out it was an amazing guess; my inbound leg was exactly 1:00!). My calls to ATC were sounding more and more amateur as I set up for Tracy, stayed in the holding pattern with no AP, and generally struggled to get everything done. But I got it, and eventually asked for the approach and was directed to ECA. The GPS-A at Tracy went really well, and entering the hold at TRACY also went well -- a lot easier with the GPS than with VORs! I set up for LVK ILS 25R, and asked for it. Here I veered a bit off course on my inbound leg, which made things more confusing than they should've been (if I were on course, I'd just have to pass straight ahead over TRACY to be on the next leg of the ILS, once cleared), but I handled it, it just wasn't particularly pretty.
The ILS went beautifully. I was right on it pretty much the whole time, with only a few corrections. I was on the slow side (I had been on all the approaches; my standard power settings weren't working and I hadn't found ones that did work), but only by about 5 knots now (as opposed to about 10 knots earlier in the flight). I did a touch and go (best one in a while!), and made for Palo Alto. The flight back to Palo Alto was easy, and after a bit of instability as I got over the runway, recovered and made a nice landing.
It was a great refresher flight! I was not nearly as far ahead of the airplane as I'm accustomed to being, but I can attribute that to three factors: 1. Rust, obviously. 2. No autopilot. 3. No MFD. So, in addition to being rusty, my brain also had to handle constantly flying the plane, and constantly being aware of my situation. The latter was remarkably easy, but the former was a challenge at times.
Roland is a great safety pilot, by the way. He's really calm about everything, and he asks questions, almost like an instructor would..it's kind of uncanny, given he doesn't have an instrument rating, but he just has great judgment and is very aware of the situation. He forces me to tell him my plan, which is great -- he wanted to know, for example, when I would de-foggle myself on the ILS, so I told him "Pretty much at the DA." He asks, "What's the DA on this approach?" And I didn't have it at the forefront of my thoughts; I had to think about it for a sec and verify with the plate before answering, "650'." But it was great to have thought about it then, nice and early, before it got late. Plus, he took pictures, so I can see what I'd been missing!
Now, back to plan A: I want to take at least one trip a month with Roland (or another pilot) and do an approach on at least one end. If I do that, currency won't be an issue.