Instrument-Rating Turmoil

To Hell and Back

November 1, 2002

How I earned my IFR rating

I obtained my private pilot certificate on October 10, 2001, and wasted no time putting it to good use. In my new Cessna 172SP, kept at San Jose, California's Reid-Hillview Airport, I twice flew my family to Bermuda Dunes and flew three more times to the Los Angeles area for business. It was from John Wayne Airport-Orange County that I pulled off what I considered a nifty VFR trick one cloudy day in March.

The marine layer ceilings at John Wayne were at 3,000 feet but were forecast to melt off by noon. The clouds refused to obey DUATS, however; they clung like an unwanted guest into early afternoon. Still, I had to get back to San Jose by dinner. What to do? I pulled out my California Pilot's Guide and began dialing ATIS numbers all around the Los Angeles Basin. I learned that the sun had broken through in Pasadena and was shining north over the Gorman Pass. Terrific! The answer was simple, then. Make a beeline for Pasadena's El Monte Airport at 2,500 feet. Sorry, this route would cut through L.A. Class Bravo. Those fast-talking SoCal controllers had me too intimidated to even think about asking for clearance. Not to worry. Just fly due east over Fullerton and then arc around the edge of the Bravo wedding cake to El Monte. At El Monte, firewall the throttle and climb like a bat to get on top of Burbank's Class C airspace. Easy flying from there.

That's what I did on that cloudy March day. I was proud of myself — at last a crafty VFR pilot. While cruising contentedly over California's Central Valley I was already writing my bestseller: Scud Running for Dummies.

But lord, what work! It took me the better part of 90 minutes to plot my escape from John Wayne. Also, VFR flying at 500 feet under the scud is, well, let's just say it wasn't always 500 feet. Reality check — it was time to get the IFR ticket.

How to do it?

How many ways can you get an IFR rating? If you hold a job and support a family, your choices are limited. You can't just run off to Embry-Riddle for a semester. I know some Silicon Valley pilots who, during the high-tech IPO boom, would cash in their stock options and hire a full-time instructor out of Palo Alto for $100 an hour (seriously!) to take them from Archer ("steer with your feet!"), to Bonanza ("downwind, down gear"), to Baron, to King Air 90 in 12 months. Must be nice. For us financial mortals, there's always the local flight school and two lessons a week. That's how I completed my private certificate. But this method takes four to six months. And for IFR training, well, it's doubly hard to hold all that abstract IFR stuff in your head over such a long period of time. So maybe you take a vacation and go to one of those 10-day schools in Prescott, Arizona, or Orlando, Florida. Or maybe you prefer to invite a Professional Instrument Courses (PIC) instructor to your home or a nearby hotel.

Actually, I tried the PIC program, and the instruction was superb. But after three days I quit. My son, with rotten timing, fell ill, his all-night coughs rendering household sleep impossible. The PIC instructor, Walter Nindl, and I discovered an amazing fact about sleep: If you don't get any, you'll repeatedly make the stupidest mistakes in the cockpit. Like forgetting to start the clock on procedure turns. Or setting From instead of To on the omni-bearing selector (OBS). Or dumbly watching the vertical speed indicator slip to 800 fpm during steep turns.

Then good luck intervened. A Forbes magazine photographer, Glen Davis, had recently earned his CFII, and he e-mailed me with a cool idea. Let's fly across the country, hole up on the East Coast for eight days, and IFR train like soldiers. Why not, indeed?

"You'll need three things," Glen said on the phone. "Low-altitude en route charts — and I recommend the Keefe IFR Atlas, NOS approach plates, and I beg you to get something more professional than that dippy little VFR kneeboard I last saw you with."

Day one

A rocky start. Clouds hover over Reid-Hillview Airport at 1,600 feet. We file IFR, but in the run-up area I get two pieces of bad news from ATC. One, expect a 10-minute delay. Well, thanks, I'm sweating already. Two, here's your clearance to Reno, Nevada, and are you ready to copy? My mind freezes. My hand on the mechanical pencil freezes. Huh? I look forlornly at Glen, who says, "You didn't get the clearance you requested. Copy the one she's giving you. Now!" I do. It takes three tries and I can hardly read it back because my mouth is so dry.

Bad to worse. In the clouds above Reid-Hillview and nearby San Jose International, by sheer lousy luck, two Skyhawks, one mine, are converging, two miles apart. Our tail numbers are nearly identical! Skyhawk 987TW, turn left heading 220 degrees, says ATC. But my Skyhawk is 897TW — is he talking to me? To the other Skyhawk? Confused, I drop a wing 30 degrees. Just like that. Total panic. Glen calmly takes the yoke and sorts out the mess. Soon we are flying serenely to Reno, but I feel like a jerk. An instrument rating seems to be a galaxy away.

Day two

Much better. We fly VFR out of Utah's Ogden-Hinckley Airport at 7 a.m. Although the airplane is at maximum gross weight, the air is cool and the 2001 Skyhawk SP is pumping out all 180 horses. Enough, we judge, to climb through Weber Pass. The sun over the Wyoming plains is glorious and we do a quick stop at Cheyenne. Again, the Skyhawk jumps off the runway — this time at gross weight and 9,000 feet density altitude. Impressive.

At Sioux City, Iowa, we get serious about filing IFR again. The Skyhawk now can easily make the minimum en route altitudes from here to Massachusetts, and the checkride is only 10 days away. Not a minute to waste flitting about VFR. From Sioux City to Madison, Wisconsin, I am filed and truly flying "in the system" for the first time. I talk to ATC, fly Victor airways, and gain confidence with each mile. We fly the ILS into Madison, and I'm lined up perfectly when Glen tells me to shed the Foggles at 1,000 feet.

Day three

I think I hear voices calling us idiots as we go over Lake Michigan at 7,000 feet with no life jackets aboard. It's a long 80 miles from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan. Good time to read the KLN 94 handbook. The Bendix/King KLN 94 is a superb GPS, one I'd stack up to Garmin or UPS. But the damnable handbook reads like the U.S. tax code.

Buffalo is another dead-on ILS arrival, and I am beginning to think all this yack about IFR being the toughest ticket is a fiction. We sail into Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the afternoon, put down at Eagle East Aviation for the night, and toast our successful cross-country and the start of eight days of solid IFR training.

Day four

Hell again. On a mission to record performance settings for each phase of flight, I can't manage the simplest tasks, such as descending 500 feet per minute at 90 knots on a specific heading. I thought I had nailed this stuff months ago. Now I can't do it for love or money. We try steep turns and I botch that, too. I snap at Glen and he tells me to chill.

Day five

More of the same. We try our first VOR approaches. If the ILS is easy, the VOR is, well, blast it, why in this age of GPS and moving maps should I have to learn the darn needle at all? Three thousand feet over Lawrence I lose it completely. I launch a verbal Roman candle about the adjectival VOR and the adjectival FAA's numbskulled insistence that pilots learn VORs and where is AOPA on this issue, anyway, wasting all that time trying to keep airports open when they should be getting rid of the real adjectival threat to pilot safety, the adjectival VOR.... Let's talk about it on the ground, says Glen.

The day is saved with Jose Gibert's arrival from Vero Beach, Florida. Jose is a friend and fellow Grumman pilot of Glen's. He will join our IFR training and attempt his checkride on July 3, same day as me. My mood doesn't improve as Jose immediately transitions into my Skyhawk like a pro, even though he hasn't flown a Cessna in more than 200 hours. Guess who's the weak link?

Days six, seven, eight, and nine

Miracle days! I begin to "get" VOR, holds, procedure turns, published missed approaches, the whole darn menu. How? Well, sitting in the back of the plane watching Jose helps. Two students are definitely better than one. The KLN 94 and the KMD 550 multifunction display (MFD) are huge helps. Although not allowed as primary references during the checkride — and pray tell us, FAA, why not? — the moving maps are wonderful at teaching us to visualize the maneuvers. Best of all, they tell us when to ignore the adjectival VOR's zone of confusion. Jose is worth his weight in gold. The Havana-born Floridian does what has flummoxed Glen and me. He actually reads the KLN 94 manual! He shows us how to load approaches and, voilà! they appear on the MFD, in living color, with racetracks and everything!

Day ten

Now it's Jose's turn to slump. He can't nail a steep turn to save his life, and the checkride is tomorrow. I'm feeling cocky again and go back to the hotel for a few Corona-and-limes and a swim. Glen and Jose struggle against exhaustion and 97-degree heat to grease the steep turns, and in the early evening they finally do. Tomorrow's the big day.

Day eleven

Our examiner is a local legend, Allegra Osborne. She got her private certificate in 1950. "She'll make you earn your IFR ticket," a local flier tells us at the airport restaurant. "Hell, we want a Santa Claus," I say, and I half mean it. Allegra tells us during the oral that she looks for safety above anything else. If we bust a standard listed in the practical test standards, that's OK, as long as we identify it before she does and correct immediately. She is big on pilot self-talk. "I want to hear what you're doing and why at all times."

Self-talk — now that's something I'm good at. Must be from watching the inimitable John King of King Schools on his marvelous checkride videos. King is the Super Bowl champ of self-talkers. Recall how military and commercial pilots used to ape Chuck Yeager's West Virginia drawl? I ape John King. Anyway, Allegra likes all the self-talk and I'm off to a good start with her. I nail the ILS at Manchester, New Hampshire, but then fly a sloppy VOR full approach back into Lawrence. Allegra assures me it is within standards, but I suspect she's cutting me a break. I do the steep turns on a rail and correct the unusual attitude in two seconds. Now I'm back in the green and feeling good. Then it's a VOR circle-to-land — nailed! — and I'm starting to feel giddy. Dear God, please let me land without incident! On the ground Allegra confirms that I have passed. I feel like I weigh only 60 pounds, like Neil Armstrong dancing on the moon! Two hours later Jose makes it a sweep for Glen Davis' first two instrument students. We celebrate in Allegra's hangar, uncorking Killian's Red from her fridge. It's 11 a.m., but the day's flying is done.

Postscript

For the first time since San Jose, my mouth is dry. I'm in the run-up area at Lawrence, about to fly back home, solo, IFR. Glen is right behind me in his beautiful 1976 Grumman Tiger, giving me the thumbs up.

Over Laurence G. Hanscom Field, Bedford, Massachusetts, Glen breaks off for White Plains, New York, and I for Elmira, New York. Glen asks Boston Approach for a request. "Take care of 897TW. He just passed his IFR checkride yesterday." A lump appears in my throat. Glen is a prince.

At Elmira I call it a day, thanks to afternoon thunderstorms and exhaustion. But the next day I'm refreshed, and 20 miles east of Cleveland I ask ATC for a new route to Minneapolis to visit my sister. I get it and yellow it in the Keefe IFR Atlas. Lunch and gas in Muskegon. Over Wisconsin I see thunderstorms building left of my twelve o'clock, so I go off frequency, confirm with flight service the thunderstorms I'm seeing, and go back on frequency and ask ATC for a new routing to the right. I get it. East of Minneapolis I encounter, for about 15 minutes, real IMC, my first ever. No panic at all. Glen's training has paid off. As I descend into Flying Cloud Airport in suburban Minneapolis I feel a long, deep satisfaction. For the first time I feel like a real pilot.


Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes magazine. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and owns a Cessna Skyhawk SP. He is contracted with Crown Business to write a book on the lives of Americans after the economic bubble. The book will appear in September 2003.