First real instrument lesson

I took the boys down to Tuscaloosa last weekend to visit David. The weather was fine, and we had a lovely visit, but it ran a bit long, and then I couldn’t get the plane started. It’s finicky, but it was my fault, not the plane’s. Then I wouldn’t have been able to get back to Redstone before dark, and I’m not night current, so we ended up leaving the plane and driving home (a process made much harder by the fact that it’s impossible to rent a rental car after 6pm in Tuscaloosa on a Sunday). The next day I needed to go back down to pick up the airplane, so I called my instructor to see if he wanted to fly me down there. The flight turned into an instrument training lesson, which was exactly what I was hoping for.

Weather at Redstone on departure was fair: ceilings were about 3500’ with visibility of 4 miles. It started raining just as I was finishing the preflight. John had filed an IFR flight plan direct to Tuscaloosa at 5000’, which turned out to be ideal for getting me some actual instrument time, including flying through rain. This turned out to be a nonissue because when you’re only using your cockpit instruments for navigation, not being able to see because of rain doesn’t pose a probem.

I say “actual” because you can log both simulated instrument time (in which you wear a view-limiting device such as this) or actual time. “Actual” in this context means you’re flying completely on instruments, without visual reference to the ground. In our case, that meant we were flying through a layer of clouds for a total of nearly 50 minutes. That meant that I had to control the airplane’s altitude, attitude, and course using only the instruments in the cockpit. All pilots are required to receive training on this, and to demonstrate proficiency in doing it, as part of the initial training process, but doing it in actual is quite a different matter. It’s very demanding work; you have to keep a consistent scan pattern on your instruments to make sure you’re holding course and altitude.

One key difference is that the best way to do this is to use predetermined engine settings: at a certain RPM and manifold pressure at a given altitude, you can predict how fast the plane will go and to make it climb or descend at a predictable rate, you know how much power to add or remove. Flying on an instrument flight plan often involves reaching very specific altitudes at specific points in space, i.e. you may be told to cross a fix at a given altitude, and you need to figure out how to make that happen.

I did reasonably well; I didn’t have any trouble maintaining my altitude, and my heading control was generally good except for a couple of minor excursions when I got over-focused on altitude or airspeed. You really have to divide your attention between all of the instruments to maintain a consistent flight path, and that’s very much a learned (and perishable) skill.

We made it safely to Tuscaloosa, landed, and I got the Arrow started. I took off first, flying VFR back to Huntsville at 3500’. In the Arrow, I was averaging about 145kts groundspeed on the return, and the flight, which took place between a high layer of solid overcast and a lower layer of broken clouds, was quite nice.

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between the layers en route TCL-HSV

After a smooth and uneventful flight, and a decent landing, I logged 0.2 simulated instrument, 0.8 actual, 0.2 VFR for the leg down, plus another 1.0 for the return VFR flight. I’m looking forward to more instrument time… make mine actual!

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