IFR Diary, Day 17:  Saturday, Sept 18

Stage Check

     Ed Williams and I meet at about nine o'clock. He began the oral by
     asking one or two simple warm-up questions, then one or two slightly
     more penetrating questions. We went over some chart symbols and
     navigation questions.  (I'm sorry to say that I don't remember
     them.)  After a half-hour or so, he asks me if I have any questions
     about the questions in the ORAL.ZIP file.  As a matter of fact, one
     section of the file requires an Idaho IFR enroute chart that I don't
     own, so he lent me his chart to answer the questions.  This worked
     out nicely.  We then discussed questions whose answers I had been
     unable to find (for example, "what's the Lifted Index and where is
     it found?") and some other questions I wanted to discuss.

     As I might have predicted, we spent too much time on the oral phase
     and we were late getting into the air. Ed had told me to file for
     the NDB at Stockton, the VOR-A at Tracy, and the ILS at Livermore. I
     had done all of these approaches many times before.

     Since Ed was not a stranger (we'd exchanged e-mail and spoken on the
     phone), I was surprised to find that I was quite nervous. In
     retrospect I should have expected being anxious--performing for
     one's peers brings a special kind of pressure. As it turned out, I
     benefited most from this aspect of the stage check.

     Almost immediately after we launch, Ed started scribbling. As soon
     as we were handed from Bay to Stockton, I explained to the
     controller which approaches we wanted and the order we wanted them.
     Between Stockton sector hand-offs I sneaked a listen to Stockton's
     ATIS.  Afterward, I forgot to check in with the new controller, so
     Ed reminded me and I sheepishly checked in. Embarrassing, that.

     Downwind for the NDB, Ed asked me where we were at the moment.  As
     you recall from previous entries in this diary, I have not expended
     much brain power on positional awareness.  Although I was not
     accustomed to answering such questions, I was watching the ADF
     needle and had a mental picture of flying eastward with the airport
     behind me and to my left.  Yet I gave a stupidly wrong answer.  Oh,

     The NDB approach went off without a hitch except the DG had drifted
     two or three degrees since I last synchronized it with the compass.
     We flew an assigned missed approach which lead us toward the Manteca
     VOR, the initial approach fix for the next approach at Tracy.

     Manteca is only about three miles from the Stockton airport, so a
     pilot has his hands full wrestling the airplane during the missed
     approach, then segueing immediately into preparations for the
     approach into Tracy.  Having been through this sequence before, I
     was prepared for the work load, but today the radio dragged me down.
     In the past, the controllers have always issued the Tracy clearance
     informally, so naturally today I expected something exotic when he
     said, "613, Say when ready to copy."  I stabilized the Tiger, dug
     out my pencil and acknowledged, "613's ready to copy."

     "Grumman 74163 is cleared to Tracy Airport Direct Manteca.  Climb
     maintain 2500, cleared for Tracy VOR-A approach."  This was, of
     course, the very clearance I had expected in the first place.  I
     read it back, resentful that I had lost a minute of precious setup

     Now I was scurrying to setup as I crossed Manteca VOR, where I
     hurriedly dialed in the approach course of 220. After the VOR, the
     course descends to 2000 until reaching a 5-DME intermediate fix
     (MANCO). From there, it goes down to 1600 until the Maltese Cross
     (MOSSA) at 10 DME. Then it's down to minimums and the missed
     approach point at 14.5 DME.

     I was using DME to identify the fixes along the approach, so I had
     the number two radio set for the missed approach.  Ed re-tuned it to
     the VOR to confirm the fixes. I assumed he was attempting to
     distract or flummox me, but he now brazenly pleads innocent to this

     Over the next couple of minutes, it was clear something was not
     right. I began having a problem centering the needle. I scanned the
     panel, touching each instrument. Then I saw it:  the OBS was set to
     200 instead of 220!

     I immediately turned the OBS to 220 and turned to a hefty intercept
     heading. The needle now pegged.  Ed said, "Good, I was wondering if
     you were going to catch that."  At just that moment, Stockton
     Approach said, "613, I show you one mile south of the course, do you
     need vectors back to MANCO?"  I replied, "Negative on the vectors,
     pilot error and correcting. And I'll continue the approach."

     "Roger, 613.  You're one mile from MOSSA. Maintain present altitude
     until re-established on the final approach course.  Report this
     frequency on the missed approach. Switch to Tracy advisory
     frequency. So long."

     I now have a battle on my hands.  I define 'established on the final
     approach course' to mean a half-scale deflection or less and stable.
     So with the needle pegged I can't descend.  As the needle comes off
     the peg, I'm almost on top of the final approach fix and only 4.5
     from the MAP.  I resist taking a larger cut for fear of overshooting
     the course during my turn inbound.  While I wait, I request
     advisories on UNICOM.  Luckily, no one responds.  At 3 from the MAP
     and fudging the needle's position, I pull power and turn toward the
     approach course.

     Down I went, thinking God, I'm going to make it.  Then Ed asked,
     "What's the MDA?"

     I glanced at my plate. "640 feet, unfortunately." Without looking, I
     knew I was busted. I still had 400 feet stuck in my memory from the
     NDB at Stockton.  I was already down to 500 feet.  I immediately
     climbed back to 640.

     "Continue on the missed," said Ed.

     The missed is a holding pattern defined by two radials, one off the
     VOR I had tracked inbound, and the other from the Sacramento VOR, 50
     miles to the north.  Early in the missed I tuned the number two VOR
     for SAC and dialed in the radial.  By 1000 feet, the SAC VOR still
     had red flags.  Ed whacked the face plate, the red flags
     disappeared, and the needle leaped to mid scale.  The needle on the
     number one VOR was now centered.  "Good enough for me," I said.
     This calls for a crisis hold if ever a situation did.  I executed
     without explaining what I was doing. This caused Ed to scribble.

     After the second trip around the hold, we called Approach for the
     ILS approach at Livermore, only 12 miles to the west.  This went
     without a hitch.

     Ed had intended to follow the approaches with air work, but there
     was no time--the Tiger was due back at 1 o'clock. We went back to
     Hayward VFR to debrief.

     Ed began, "You know of course that busting the MDA at Tracy would
     have disqualified you.  Now, some examiners would have forgiven you
     if you had caught the error promptly and corrected immediately--the
     way you did with the course selection."

     I replied, "That's not likely:  it was a procedural error, not a
     lapse in attention.  I simply had the wrong number stored in my

     "On the positive side," he continued, "Your recovery from the course
     error was excellent and I thought you were going to pull it off
     right up to the time you busted altitude...too bad."

     He continued.  "Your whole problem started when you got behind
     copying that clearance. You know that it's only a couple of miles
     from Stockton to Manteca.  I've got one simple question:  why didn't
     you slow down?"

     It's difficult to defend decisions that obviously lead to failure.
     "Just macho, I guess.  I've practiced this sequence before and I've
     always had enough time to set up.  That 'Ready to copy' from the
     controller stepped on my heel. Then, in my hurry to catch up,  I
     blew my mechanics and I dialed in the wrong course.  And I obviously
     didn't get to finish reading the plate."

     "Enough time is not enough..." he said elliptically, "...the instant
     something unexpected happens." I had to agree.

     Ed also lightly criticized some of my radio work.  When assigned a
     new altitude of N from a present altitude of P, I tend just to say
     'Up to N.'  Ed recommends saying, 'Leaving P for N.'  He also says
     that I occasionally forget to end an acknowledgment with my tail
     number. I offer no defense.

     Next we have a quick conversation about positional awareness.  I
     explained my instructor's philosophy (see my entry for Thursday,
     August 12).  Ed hadn't understood how I had gotten into the hold at
     Tracy.  In fact, he thought I had botched a teardrop entry by
     turning the wrong way.  At that point I explained the 'crisis hold'
     technique. I explained that I had not turned the wrong way, I had
     simply turned north--toward the protected side.  He suggested
     strongly that if a similar situation comes up during my check ride I
     should explain it as I'm doing it.

     He seemed surprised when I told him my check ride was the day after
     tomorrow.  I asked him what he thought of my chances.  "Well," he
     replied in his most diplomatic manner, "I didn't get a chance to do
     air work with you, but from what I saw you fly well and the other
     two approaches were fine. If you don't bust anything big like you
     did today, you should do OK."

     We chatted about this and that, he signed my log book, and we
     parted. I could see that he didn't agree or approve of a couple of
     points in my training, but to his credit, he didn't try to give me
     last-minute remedial instruction.  I appreciated that.

     I'm sure that Ed didn't intend his assessment to be exactly a
     ringing endorsement, but to me it was just that.  I had busted, but
     I had fought a good fight and I died with my boots on.  Come Monday,
     I might fail the check ride--but I will fail from lack of skill, not
     lack of character.

Day Off: Sunday, Sept 19 I do some studying this morning, but largely spend the rest of the day relaxing and trying to fend off neurotic thoughts. 'This is a test of basic proficiency, not mastery,' I'd tell myself. From time to time the devil would whisper horrible what-if's: partial panel NDB approaches and 1-mile DME arcs. The angels of reason expel these thoughts, and as I drop off to sleep I think, "I won't make any mistakes. I won't beat myself." I wake up every thirty minutes.

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