Sunday, November 02, 2008

First Real IFR Flight: Santa Barbara

I've written before that some experiences just make you feel "like a pilot." This weekend was one of those experiences, I think in part because of the large number of "firsts" and how well I handled them. This was the first time I:

  • was pilot in command of a flight in real IMC, and real it was -- an hour in the clouds on the way down!
  • used my new Lightspeed Mach 1 headset -- the fitted earpieces had just come in on Friday!
  • spent two nights away
  • flew somewhere I had a reason to be
  • was cleared for and flew a "visual approach" (you'd think this was easy, but at an unfamiliar airport...)
  • dealt with a rapidly changing weather forecast for the return trip, which at times included thunderstorms, and ended up having somewhat lower-than-expected freezing levels

And the heartening thing is that this might have been the best I've ever flown -- of course that involves some luck as well as all the preparation, but without the preparation you don't even give yourself a chance.

I took off on Friday a little after 1:00pm, after a rigorous preflight and obsessing about the weather all morning -- not that there was much to obsess about; it was cloudy, but unthreateningly so. Ceilings were around 5000 in the Bay Area, and supposedly around 7000 further south. I filed a flight plan via Salinas, Paso Robles and Morro Bay at 7000, and got set to go. Preflight was fine, I loaded up the plane with all my luggage (which was considerable, since I had to bring all my stuff not only for a half-marathon, but also for the Halloween party that night), and I got ATIS and contacted ground. Runway 12 was in use -- yesss! Whereas the departure procedure for Runway 30 is a bit intense (see my last entry), the departure procedure for Runway 12 is "fly runway heading." Perfect.

I was cleared for takeoff. I lined up, and took off. After switching to Norcal, I was instructed to make a left turn direct to Woodside (Woodside is on the right at that point, so I had to make a 270 degree turn). He kept me on my filed route, and I ended up in the clouds pretty quickly. And I stayed there for a while. My groundspeed was about 87 knots, and things were bumpy. I was in there for nearly a half hour, when the controller asked if my routing was for training, or if I'd like to go direct Gaviota, and whether I could handle 9000 feet as an altitude. Given that the plane was actually leaking water into the cabin, I eagerly told the controller that direct Gaviota would be great and I could do 9000. He cleared me direct Gaviota, and minutes later cleared me to 9000. I climbed, and broke out of the clouds at 8500.

The rest of the ride was much more pleasant. I was in and out of the clouds a little bit, once even for about 15 minutes, but it wasn't as thick or bumpy. My groundspeed was still achingly slow; I had a headwind of about 40 knots, putting me in the low 80s relative to the ground. I plugged my iPhone into my headset and started playing some music. At some point I missed a handoff to a new frequency, but that was really my only error.

As I got into the Santa Barbara area and began descending, things were decidedly VMC outside. It was a beautiful day! Eventually I got the call: "N35583, Santa Barbara Airport is at your 10 o'clock." I saw it, and told him so. "N35583, cleared visual approach runway 7." do I fly this? Since I couldn't see a visual glideslope aid (there may have been one, but I couldn't see it), I tuned the ILS and simply followed it down, executing a greaser of a landing at the end of a completely stable approach. Good stuff. I taxied to Signature, and parked!

Friday night was awesome, Saturday was fantastic, and today, it was time to fly home. I'd been a little concerned about the weather because at one point yesterday, they were forecasting thunderstorms in the bay area -- and if there was really going to be a lot of thunderstorm activity, I think that'd most likely mean an extra night in Santa Barbara for me. But that forecast went away, and in its place was a forecast that made it very difficult to predict how cloudy the journey would be, and freezing levels around 8000'. I fretted about the situation for a while, then decided I'd just file a route the same way back as I'd come, where the MEAs were such that I could file 6000' as my enroute altitude.

This worked for a little while...I called clearance delivery (first time!) and was given my clearance, called ground for taxi instructions, did my run-up, called the tower, and was given a takeoff clearance. My routing was ... tada! Runway Heading! I was sure that I'd get a departure procedure, but Runway Heading, vectors to Gaviota was all I got. Awesome! Things were fine until near Paso Robles, where the controller boosted me to 8000'. I complied without complaining, and a little while later the controller asked if I wanted my filed routing, or direct AMEBY (a GPS fix on the San Carlos GPS 30 approach). So...I thought I was supposed to file on airways, but am I not supposed to do that? Should I just file direct and see what happens? Of course, earlier in the week when we went to Salinas, I filed SNS direct, and they gave me OSI V25 SNS direct. So...who knows. Anyway, I accepted direct AMEBY, and told the controller I was concerned about ice at 8000 when approaching the bay area, and didn't know what the clouds looked like. He basically said I had no choice, because radar is sketchy at 6000 through the valley. Interesting. So I told him "let's give it a shot" and it ended up being immaterial when I was lowered to 6000 (and eventually 5000) before getting into the bay area anyway.

I got vectored around a little bit on my way back into San Carlos: Fly heading 270! Direct AMEBY! Fly heading 270! Fly heading 310! Direct AMEBY! Okay, okay! I eventually made it into the approach structure (way too high -- they really dropped me in rather suddenly; I was at 5000, and next thing it was "2 miles from AMEBY; cross AMEBY at or above 3200, cleared GPS 30." But I landed without incident, pulled the plane into its spot, and I was done!

I will update this entry with a photoset at some point, but it was an awesome flying experience. A lot of firsts, a lot of learning, not a lot of out-and-out slip-ups. I want to do this more, and I want a faster and more powerful plane!

UPDATE: Here's a photo set from the weekend -- mostly pix from the flight, but a few of my Halloween costume (that's supposed to be Michael Jackson) and of my Team In Training team with whom I ran the Santa Barbara Half Marathon. I have also linked the current flying blog from my pilot friend Russ (who I flew with last weekend) on the left.


rjb said...

Nice job, Mayank! When I was a student pilot getting my PP ASEL I always learned something from your blogs as you were going through that process. Now that you are IFR certified I am again gleaning a few kernels of knowledge from your current adventures. I HAVE begun a new, post PP ASEL, blog. I am woefully behind though!

Take care and see ya soon.

Russell Balch said...


This is my current blog.


PlasticPilot said...

Great post, excellent writing. I feel just as if I were in the right seat. During my first IFR flight after getting the rating, I entered IMC shortly before the level-of, and received a complex clearance at the same time. AS you said, there are flights that make you a real pilot.

Brandon said...


Congrats on the successful IFR flight. You're right, I didn't feel like I was a "real" pilot until I could go IFR and get in those clouds. Wait until you shoot an ILS in 1/2 mi visibility, and ceilings around 500 ft. Then you'll REALLY REALLY feel like a true pilot.

However, always make sure you respect IMC. As my first instructor told me. "A Private Pilot Certificate is a license to go and learn, an Instrument Rating is a license to go kill yourself." That basically means that the instrument rating allows you to get yourself into some conditions that a non-IFR pilot simply cannot get into due to VFR minimums.

Check out my blog called Flight Training Tips Online if you want. It's still pretty new, but I've been posting quite a bit about instrument flying.

Take care.