Columbia in the Clouds

Learning to fly IFR in Lancair's new production single

October 1, 2001

All general aviation pilots dream of the day that they can trade in their underpowered aircraft for a machine that flies higher and faster and, let's admit it, looks sexier. My dream came true last year when I took delivery of the first production Lancair Columbia 300, the fastest certified fixed-gear single on the market.

I was a low-time Cessna 172-trained pilot who became the first person to get an IFR rating in the Columbia. I flew 175 hours in the first year, equally split between training and travel, with a dozen long cross-countries throughout the western United States. My adventures show that an average pilot can step up to a fast new design — and many new singles, twins, and light jets are promised — with a reasonable commitment of time, training — and caution.

I found that the biggest transition to a high-performance single was learning to fly N424CH with my fingertips and not with my fist. This was a lesson I had to learn repeatedly. It's easy, when an instructor or approach controller is barking orders, to grip the joystick like a chainsaw rather than like the sensitive control instrument it is.

Otherwise, my biggest concern — that the airplane might be too hot for me — turned out to be a nonissue. The Columbia handles predictably and is stable at slow speeds in the pattern. While it lands faster than a Cessna 172 or 182, it simply sets down. It's never surprised me in an unpleasant way.

Getting a ticket to ride

Though I was only a week or so away from my IFR checkride in a 172 when N424CH arrived, I decided to start over in my new aircraft. After the factory checkout and a month determining the right approach speeds and settings and learning the avionics, I went to American Flyers in San Jose, California, for my IFR certificate. Rather than taking the "finish-up" course, I chose the complete program. I wanted a step-by-step, comprehensive course to lock in all that I had learned in years of on-and-off IFR training. I got that in 10 days of mind- and butt-numbing immersion in the world of big-boy IFR around the San Francisco Class B airspace.

The first day of flying was the hardest but most important: five-plus hours of basic attitude instrument work to develop a sensitive feel for my "slick" aircraft. In comparison, the approaches were easier. After several days I couldn't wait to go fog hunting along the coast in order to nail another ILS. But in a program totaling 41 approaches at 17 different airports, I peaked too soon. On my checkride, feeling as though I were swimming in mud, I only just passed — but I did pass. Mental and physical fatigue, with the added degree of nervousness, really do degrade your skills — a lesson more important in hard instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) than on the day I got my ticket.

Balancing avionics and pilot skills

At San Jose, a couple of CFIs said that I used the autopilot too much; a couple of others said that I didn't use it enough. Over the course of a year, in a hundred or so approaches, both real and practice, I've developed a sequence of hand and automatic flying that allows me to be proficient at both: Hand-flying to cruise altitude and to establish myself on course; autopilot during much of my usual two-hour cruise legs while I check weather, review approaches, and set the radios; hand-flying while descending and maneuvering until the final ATC altitude assignment; and autopilot for final heading changes while I enter and review the final nav/com settings. Once established (in all senses of the word), I hand-fly the approach. If harried, I use the autopilot until mentally caught up.

Twice I've flown to minimums. I used the autopilot once and hand-flew once, with good results. The air was still both times; it was daylight, and I had plenty of fuel to get someplace VFR. Under more trying circumstances, I would always use the autopilot. Better to be an autopilot wuss who got in safely than a "real man" circling in the clouds.

One thing I have not mastered is the autopilot's flight director (FD) mode, which should guide my turns and descents and help improve my precision. I find that the FD does a series of small, blindingly fast changes where I, a mere human, make slower, somewhat larger changes. If flying were Morse code, the FD does three "dots" to every one of my "dashes." More practice!

Cleared-direct caution

I live in the high desert near Bend, Oregon, fast against the Cascade Mountains. Having an IFR-certified GPS and being "/G" often gets me the words I like to hear: "Cleared direct Bend." Yet "direct anywhere" on the West Coast can run me along the spines of mountain ranges. Because the airways usually follow the best terrain and take me near good things such as airports, I flight plan via VORs and take the occasional shortcut.

Two other GPS "gotchas" can claim the novice or unwary IFR pilot. First, it is very easy to forget to switch from GPS to Nav mode when I transition to the approach. At Redmond, Oregon, for instance, the GPS must be set to the Deschutes VOR for DME information and guidance during the initial arc for the ILS. If I fail to switch to Nav and track the VOR needle instead of the ILS to a course of 222 degrees, I will fly through Grizzly Mountain. I've read that some GPSs automatically switch to Nav when an ILS signal begins to come in — a safety feature every GPS ought to provide.

Also, multiple-leg GPS segments enable approaches that terrain otherwise might forbid, but the first time I flew the GPS Runway 12 approach at Half Moon Bay, California, I blew through the last of three turns. With my eyes glued to the six-pack, and also working the step-down descents, I missed the blinking message on the GPS of my arrival at JEVXY. I have to discipline myself to keep the GPS monitor in my scan.

Compounding these issues is the difficulty of using most GPS units. UPS Aviation Technologies' (UPSAT) system is sophisticated but complex. In comparison, the AvroTec/Avidyne moving-map display is simple to use and the controls are so intuitive that I can, by feel of fingers alone, move between screens and among functions.

Staying cool in the ice

Flying over the Cascades makes me high, wet, and cold, with 12,000- to 14,000-foot minimum en route altitudes (MEAs). Icing is always a possibility. With a new design, I don't want to be the first to learn some unpleasant handling characteristic. Despite my extreme caution I've had two encounters. In the first, three-quarters of an inch of clear ice in level flight in and out of clouds at 12,000 feet formed so fast that it took my breath away, as well as my airspeed indicator (despite pitot heat). Neither the shape nor weight seemed to trouble the airplane; I landed normally (VFR) with a half inch of ice still on the leading edge.

In the second, though, just a trace of rough ice cut my climb rate in half and slashed my normal cruise speed of 187 KTAS by 15 to 20 knots. This one instance is not conclusive, but it's logical that rough ice — especially if more is forming underneath in a climb — will seriously degrade the lift capabilities of the efficient modern wing. Thank goodness for my 310 horses.

Flying the system

A CFI gave me the best advice possible for IFR: file and fly it every time. Doing so on VFR days has kept me comfortable in the flow of the system; on lousy days, or if I run into weather, the low deck is the only thing that's changed. Also, I always prepare for every new approach with a simulator. The session refreshes my scan and enables me to plan when to change my avionics settings and to what. On my system, a GPS approach requires the last waypoint to be the airport. For DME, I might need the GPS set to a VOR or to the airport itself. At The Dalles, Oregon, if I set the GPS on the airport for DME instead of on the VOR, I'll fly through another hill on the last step-down. Good to review such data ahead of time.

Don't believe the old wive's tale that you'll never have to hold. I've held for real four times in six months in three different western states, twice in the soup at low altitude at the initial approach fix. One flight, my first Angel Flight mission, also highlighted the value of the big moving map on my dash. In NAV mode, which depicts IFR routes and intersections, I saw quickly that a strong crosswind was blowing me sideways through the holding course; I corrected with a wider outbound turn. (The moving map makes the passengers feel secure in knowing exactly where they are. It has the same effect on the pilot.)

Flying the airplane, thinking the process

Flying IFR regularly but not daily in a fast machine over high terrain requires a careful balance for the single pilot. While I regularly work on basic flying skills, the mental skills for the avionics are the real challenge. About the time I've remastered such nuances as a back-course coupled approach on the autopilot, I've forgotten how to insert a new leg on an existing flight plan on my GPS. When I can whip through the GPS, I've forgotten that I have to separately set the altimeter for the altitude hold to work properly.

Such complexity is not a trivial problem, since the new airplanes are better equipped than many commuter airplanes and have one less pilot to keep them sunnyside up. Regularly reviewing the training CD-ROMs from S-Tec (autopilot) and UPSAT (GPS) helps me to master the complex functions.

Although I worry about overreliance on my advanced systems in IMC, the only reason I have them is to fly IMC! Using the autopilot while I stay one step ahead of the airplane and ATC only makes sense. Many of the avionics controls are low on the console in my airplane; the autopilot is mandatory in IMC if I need to look down to flip a frequency and don't want to end up inverted.

A deft touch and the intelligent use of complex avionics are needed for me to play in the Class B sandbox without getting sand kicked in my face by big iron, ATC, or an approach controller — when a small error or distraction can exact a large penalty. I've learned to fly my high-performance airplane the way airlines do theirs, with a copilot. My copilot just happens to be digital.

Collins Hemingway, AOPA 1322661, writes and lectures about business and technology from his home in Tumalo, Oregon.

Detour to Alturas

My first major cross-country in the Columbia, when I was still rated VFR, was also my longest. Business took me from Bend, Oregon, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, south and west to Phoenix and San Diego, then to Reno, Nevada, and home. I flew approximately 2,400 nautical miles in 16.5 flight hours, with groundspeeds ranging from 253 knots (descent in a tailwind) to 140 knots (teeth-rattling turbulence).

On my last leg out of Reno, I climbed steadily in the mountains over scattered but building cumulus until I was at 17,500 feet. I was not quite able to top a snowstorm that beat me to the Oregon border. I retreated to Alturas, California, which I'd been careful to note was clear when I passed. I slid in just before a snow squall could tag me out.

As snow showers moved through, I visited with Bob Burns, who ran the FBO, and with a pilot named Lyle, who had come in for a game of gin that, as best I could tell, had been going on during poor weather for a hundred years. Burns, at one point distracted by a telephone call, picked up the discard pile and for a moment thought Lyle was trying to put one over on him.

A fellow of average height, with graying hair and moustache, and a throaty voice and laugh, Burns is the kind of guy every fixed base operator ought to be. Despite the snow, he hurried out to fuel the airplane and clean the windows. When it looked as though I would be stuck — I had to be home that day — he made a few calls to try to find someone to drive me to the nearest town where I could get a rental car.

After four hours, the sky brightened. I could see the highest hill to the north. Lyle, a tall, thoughtful man who'd flown 3,000 hours in 30 years tracking cattle hereabouts, confirmed that if I could see over that hill I could get to Lakeview. If I could get to Lakeview, I could get to Bend. He helped sweep the snow off the airplane. In my hurry to get going, I flooded the engine, and Lyle, as if instructing a child on how to ride a bike, helped me get her going. With a gallant wave, I was off. Halfway down the runway, I remembered to extend my takeoff flaps.

I beat the next squall line and made it home safely. Of my many memories of that trip — crossing the Rockies, traversing the long beige sweep of the deserts, weaving through the hills near San Diego — the one image I recall the most is the one I didn't actually see. I thought about Burns and Lyle at Alturas after my departure, picking up their game of gin in the warmth of the old FBO office, chuckling over the city-slicker pilot who couldn't get his fancy airplane to start. — CH