Tonight was my third lesson for the instrument rating; it is getting progressively more challenging. We started out by flying the same route as the last lesson: the Farmington Four departure. South of the Newberg VOR we practiced a couple of steep turns, then Tyler took the controls and told me to put my head down and close my eyes. He rotated the airplane about each axis until I had absolutely no idea how we were oriented, and then he said “okay, recover to level flight.” The instruments indicated we were in a steep dive with a 30 degree bank to the right, so I pulled the power to idle, leveled the wings, put the nose on the horizon, and returned to cruise flight. Next, Tyler covered up my Heading Indicator and Attitude Indicator with a piece of paper to simulate a vacuum system failure (this is known as flying “partial panel”), and we repeated the exercise. Without the attitude indicator you have to rely on the Airspeed Indicator and Altimeter to tell you if the airplane is climbing or descending, and the Turn Coordinator is used to determine if the airplane is in a bank. All went well with the unusual attitudes, so Tyler had me do a power-on stall in a 30 degree bank to the left, which went fine as well.

Strangely enough the hard part of the lesson turned out to be calculating how many seconds I would have to stay in a standard rate turn for a particular number of degrees; it took me an embarrassingly long time to divide 20 by 3. My brain didn’t seem to want to do math after being spun around for 30 minutes in steep turns and unusual attitudes; hopefully it’s an acquired skill. Next we worked on intercepting and tracking VOR radials from the Newberg VOR. Tyler had me identify the radial we were currently on, then had me intercept a couple radials that he assigned, and track them for a couple minutes inbound and outbound. I had a much better feel for where I was located geographically during this lesson.

The highlight of the flight was the approach: we flew the full VOR/DME-C Approach to Runway 30, following the approach plate exactly. First we intercepted the initial approach fix (IAP) from the north, which for this approach was the Newberg VOR. Then we flew south on the 166 radial for one minute and executed a procedure turn to reverse direction, descending down to 2700 feet after intercepting the 166 radial inbound on a heading of about 346 degrees. Once we crossed the Newberg VOR—this time the Intermediate Fix (IF)—I called Hillsboro tower and appended “practice VOR-DME charlie approach” to the request. The tower told us to report at 6 DME, which is the point where the distance measuring equipment indicates 6 nautical miles north of the Newberg VOR. At 3.4 DME I initiated a non-precision descent to 2000 feet, and leveled out. I called the control tower and reported at 6 DME (the Final Approach Fix, or FAF), then descended to our Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) of 700 feet, at which height we must be able to see the runway or else a missed approach must be executed. Tyler had me take off the hood, and there was the airport right where it was supposed to be! Navigating and positioning the airplane for landing without being able to see out the window was definitely a satisfying experience to say the least. There was a lot of work to do on the approach, but I think I did reasonably well. On Thursday we’re supposed to do some work with NDBs (Non-Directional Beacons), so I will be renting an airplane with an ADF. I’m hoping for bad weather so I’ll have an opportunity to fly in the clouds!

Tonight after work I met Tyler at the airport for my second IFR lesson. A cold front passed through today and I was certain tonight’s flight would be conducted in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), but by the time night fell the skies were clear. We had a good hour of ground instruction before the flight. Tyler explained the procedure for obtaining an IFR clearance, we reviewed who I should call for a clearance when I’m at a big airport (Clearance Delivery) or at a more remote airport (a Flight Service Station), and we covered where the radio frequencies are found in the US Terminal Procedures publication. We worked through the Departure Procedure charts for PDX and Hillsboro Airport, and touched on the topic of lost communication procedures. Finally, he explained the difference between a precision descent (500 FPM at 90 knots, 1700 RPM) and a non-precision descent (700-1000 FPM at 90 knots, 1400 RPM).

Once in the cockpit with the engine started Tyler gave me a mock clearance; I copied it and read it back to him. After takeoff Tyler again had me put on the hood so I couldn’t see out the window. We flew the “Farmington Four” departure to the Newberg VOR, which specifies to fly the runway heading to 500 feet, turn left to heading 120, and intercept the 346 radial to the VOR. When we were about 6 miles south of the town of Newberg we started some maneuvers.

First, steep turns on instruments, which are 360 turns in a 45 degree bank at a constant airspeed and altitude. My first steep turns weren’t the greatest… I climbed and descended more than 100 feet, and the airspeed was all over the place. Tyler taught me a trick: add 100 RPM of power after banking 30 degrees, then roll the trim wheel down twice as the wings reach 45 degrees. I’d always added power and nose-up trim for the maneuver, but never as precisely or systematically. With that technique in hand the steep turns were no problem.

Then, stalls on instruments. First we did a couple of power-off stalls to simulate a stall during an approach to landing. My power-off stalls were okay, although I needed to anticipate the need for more right rudder as I applied full power to recover, and I had a little trouble holding my heading at first. The power-on stalls, which simulate a stall after departure, were pretty smooth all things considered. I actually found power-on stalls a little easier using instruments compared to without because of the information provided by the turn coordinator and attitude indicator. In this type of stall the nose is higher than the horizon and you can’t see anything but sky out the front window, so without instruments you have to rely more on your peripheral vision to keep the wings level. The stalls went well, so we finished up by maneuvering in slow flight for a few minutes, then testing out the non-precision and precision descent power settings on the way back down to the surface. It was another great lesson; I can feel my scan improving and I’m getting more confident on instruments, although while under the hood I don’t yet have a good sense of where I am located geographically. Tyler passed me through lessons 4 and 5—our next session is scheduled for Monday.

IFR Lesson #1

October 22nd, 2007

Tonight was my first lesson for the Instrument Rating! I met my instructor, Tyler, in the pilot’s lounge at Hillsboro Aviation shortly after 6pm, and after filling out a couple of forms we headed up stairs for some ground instruction. He taught me GRABCARD, which is a mneumonic for remembering the additional equipment required for IFR flight: Generator/Alternator, Radios, Altimeter, Ball (Inclinometer), Clock, Attitude Indicator, Rate-of-Turn Indicator, and Directional Gyro (Heading Indicator). I asked him a few nit-picky questions about various regulations, then headed out to the ramp to pre-flight 3555L, my favorite 172SP. Shortly after departing to the west he had me put on the “hood”, which is very much like the “Blast Shield” that Luke Skywalker wears over his head when Ben Kenobi is teaching him to use the Light Saber; it’s technically called a view limiting device, and its purpose is to keep you from seeing out the window, forcing you to fly solely by reference to instruments.

Tyler started out by directing me to climb and fly straight and level for a few minutes. I was clearly rusty, not having flown under the hood since March. But after a couple minutes I had things sorted out, got the trim set correctly, and was able to maintain straight and level without much difficulty. He had me experiment with various descent airspeeds and power setting combinations so I could get more familiar with the performance characteristics of the airplane, and he progressively increased the difficulty of the instructions, having me perform climbing and descending standard rate turns to various altitudes and headings. Then he covered up the Heading Indicator with a piece of paper and had me perform some turns by reference to the Magnetic Compass, which is considerably more difficult because it bobbles around significantly, and has some noticeable (but predictable) errors due to a phenomenon called magnetic dip.

Finally he had me intercept and track assigned radials from the Newberg VOR. I had a tendency to overshoot the courses quite a bit when intercepting because I don’t yet have a good feel for how much to lead the turn to center the needle, but I’ll get it. Things became a lot more difficult as he further increased my workload; he had me tracking radials while making power changes to descend and talking to Air Traffic Control to obtain a landing clearance. I pulled off the hood after 1.1 hours and entered a left base for runway 30, then landed smoothly. He passed me through the first 3 lessons, and planned on us going through lessons 4 and 5 on Wednesday, leaving me with the warning that some lessons down the line will take 2 or 3 sessions to get through. I kept him for about 45 more minutes and he shared some stories of his experiences flying for an air taxi company in Alaska, and showed me some of the differences between the government IFR charts and the Jeppesen charts. He seems to be a very experienced and friendly instructor—I think this is going to be a lot of fun!

Yesterday Dave and I headed down to Hillsboro Airport and departed in N52013, the airplane I flew my first solo in almost exactly a year ago. The avionics had since been upgraded to the Garmin GNS 430, and I’d never used that particular model, so I spent a few extra moments on the ground getting familiar with it. We departed to the North, and once over Scappoose we flew Northeast toward Mt. St. Helens, climbing above the haze to 9,500 feet MSL. I used the air-to-air frequency (122.75) to keep in contact with a Bonanza that was also circling the mountain 1,000 feet above us. The mountains were of course spectacular, and Dave snapped dozens of amazing pictures of them with his SLR.

We performed some 360’s to get better views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, slowly circling the summit of the volcano. Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson were also clearly in view to the south, and when we got a little closer to Mt. Adams we could make out Gilbert Peak and White Pass (where I learned to ski!) to the northeast. We circled the crater for about an hour, heading back towards Longview shortly before sunset. I called Hillsboro tower over Cornelius Pass, reported on right downwind for runway 30, and touched down at about 6:45 after 2 hours in flight. This flight was definitely an amazing experience.

(More pictures here)

Night-Time Chinese Food Run

October 14th, 2007

I decided it was time to do some landing practice, so I booked N54477 for a flight on Friday evening. Tammy wanted to come along, so we turned it into a night-time cross country to Albany for some fly-in Chinese Food (again!), with the plan being that we’d fit in a few touch-and-gos at some point. On the drive to the airport we witnessed a breathtaking sunset; if only I had scheduled the flight an hour earlier we could have experienced it from the air.

The forecast for the evening was for overcast at 8,000 feet until midnight, at which point fog was expected to develop, so I planned for us to get back to Hillsboro well before then. I confirmed the forecast with Flightwatch on 122.0 once we were airborne, and kept an eye on the temperature-dewpoint spread as we ate dinner. Needless to say, the potential for fog occupied a great deal of my thoughts throughout the evening. The fog never did develop though, so we did some touch-and-gos at Hillsboro Airport when we returned. My landings definitely weren’t the greatest, but there was one smooth one in there, so it wasn’t a complete loss. All in all it was a fun Friday night date.

(More pictures here)

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