IFR Diary, Day 10: Tuesday, Sept 7
The Willing Suspension of DisbeliefWe launch at 7:30 in the morning and encounter nothing noteworthy enroute. There's a blank spot in radar coverage between Oakland and Seattle Centers. The Oakland controller knows where Seattle will pick us up, so he gives us an intersection for checking in with Seattle. This give us an opportunity to talk about giving position reports when not under radar coverage. The ILS 32 at Arcata has some unusual (at least for me) twists. We request the 20-DME arc initial approach fix. This is 20 DME from Fortuna VOR, which in turn is 20 miles south of Arcata. In other words, you fly an arc off the Fortuna VOR to intercept the Arcata localizer. In the Tiger, this is a simple procedure, thanks to that wonderful DME Hold button on the King RNAV receiver. This feature enables me to lock in the DME from the Fortuna VOR, then switch to and track the Arcata localizer. (The gottcha is forgetting to release the button for normal operation.) The whole northwest coast of California is socked in, and at Arcata ceiling and visibility are reported at minimums. As I track the localizer inbound waiting for glide slope intercept, I'm about 500 feet above the stratus. As I descend into the clouds without Foggles, a very creepy feeling comes over me. All the other approaches I've done in IMC have been at airports that I have visited VFR at least once, and, in most cases, many times. In these familiar areas, the surrounding hills and mountains sticking above the stratus confirm that I'm navigating in roughly the correct direction. Out here, though, the landmarks are meaningless. Yet I am blithely descending into a cloud mass surrounded by ugly, airplane-eating mountains. A familiar phrase flits through my mind in a wildly new context: "The willing suspension of disbelief." Coleridge invented this phrase to describe how humans allow themselves to be taken in by art. I am struck by just how similar an act of self-delusion is required for IFR. As the lid silently closes on my cloudy coffin, a shiver rattles my shoulders. This approach goes along without a hitch--needles comfortably in the doughnut, airspeed nailed, and, yes, timer started. My scan is very simply heading-altitude-heading with a glance at the needles and the VSI woven in every few seconds. About two-thirds of the way down, I noticed I was just out of the doughnut and made a routine two-degree turn to center the needle. On my next scan pass--it couldn't have been more than two seconds-- the error had doubled to about a one-third scale deflection. I doubled the cut to four degrees, concerned about over-correcting. On my next pass, the needle was now one dot from full scale, and it was moving fast enough that I could see it. This is exactly how my approaches had gone in the days before I had learned to think fly headings and make atomic turns. I double checked to confirm that I was not turning. I wasn't. Not anxious to peg the localizer needle this far out, I took another 10 degree cut. This stopped the needle just inside the last dot, and an additional three degrees got it heading back toward center at a good rate. We reached DH before the localizer needle had time to center, and a few seconds before I punched in the power, we could see the rabbit lights a bit off to the left. When I got on course to the hold, I asked "What was that all about?" Charles replied, "What do you think it was?" I had no idea. "When we stop for fuel, we'll look at this approach on a VFR map. You'll see that the approaches follow a deep valley. The glide slope keeps you above the rim most of the way, but near the Outer Marker you actually drop below the surrounding mountains. The mountains are miles on either side, of course, but they shield you from the prevailing sea-land wind. Midway between the markers, the approach path abruptly pops out onto a broad coastal plain where the strong wind can now get to you. If you're not ready for it, it can blow you right through the localizer." I had filed our second leg from the missed approach holding fix north of Arcata. I picked up that clearance in the hold and established myself on V195 heading almost due east toward Red Bluff. When Seattle handed us back to Oakland Center, we informed the controller that we wanted the VOR approach and were told to proceed direct to the Red Bluff VOR. This initial approach fix uses a hold in lieu of a procedure turn for course reversal. It seemed a shame to fly so far for such a pedestrian approach. The VOR approach at Red Bluff also has a 10-DME initial approach fix that begins at the 200 radial and arcs southeast to the final approach course radial of 148. Inbound from Arcata we were on the 273 radial. I decided it would be more fun to do the arc. I called Approach, "613 requests the 10-DME arc to the south." Center replied, "Grumman 613, sorry sir but I can't provide terrain clearance on the arc between your present position and the 200 radial." "Uh, Oakland," I said, ready to negotiate for what I wanted. "I'm in VFR conditions. How about I provide my own terrain clearance on the arc till reaching the two-zero-zero?" "Roger 613, blah, blah, blah. Join the 10-DME arc. Remain VFR until established on the arc and south of 200, cleared for VOR approach Runway 33." I elbowed Charles, "How about them apples?" For some reason, I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. After refueling in Red Bluff, we needed an NDB to complete our circuit. The Tiger had to be back home by 1:00, so we decided to do the NDB approach at Concord. This should take very little time, since Concord is on the way home and our course was similar to the NDB's final approach course. There was just one problem: we didn't have a clearance. If we filed on the ground and waited the half-hour for it to grind its way through the center, we'd be late getting home. I was going to get a chance to practice my new groveling skills sooner than I thought. After take-off, I contacted Oakland Center. I ended the routine check-in with, "Sir, how would you feel about a pop-up clearance to Hayward." "613, squawk blah, blah and ident. I'd be happy to, sir. Any preferred routing or would you like me to put together something direct for you?" Gee, The IFR Clearance Boutique. Either the FAA is kinder and gentler, or this guy had a real good time last night! The trip home was down the west side of the Sacramento Valley. A few minutes after checking in with Travis Approach and requesting the NDB approach at Concord, the controller instructed, "613 fly heading 200." This time I was ready. "Travis, Grumman 613. Say reason for vector." He seemed a little surprised. "Uh, 613. Actually this is a vector around traffic, but I'll use it to take you to the final approach course. Expect additional vectors and lower in 5 miles." "Now you know," said Charles. "Yep, now I know." I shot the NDB at Concord, then the localizer approach into Hayward. I made it home with seconds to spare.