IFR Diary, Day 4: Monday, August 30
The First Day I Died
Today was the low point in my training. It was also the day I
learned that IFR flying is as much about character as skill.
For some reason, Charles wanted to do the VOR approach into Oakdale,
a little burg a few miles NW of Modesto. As we took off, he said "I
noticed that you don't hold altitude very tightly. While on our way
to Oakdale, try very hard to keep it within 100 feet." Try as I
might, I kept porpoising plus and minus 200 feet. He watched this
very closely. "Why can't you do it?" I offered a feeble reply that
I actually half-believed: "Grumman Tigers are very twitchy and hard
He didn't say much, but after watching me for a few minutes said, "I
know what your problem is--you're a smoothie. You fly with trim and
the VSI." While I was conjuring up a counter argument and a
defense, he reached over and covered my VSI and simultaneously
reduced throttle by about 200 RPM. "Now I want you to NAIL that
altimeter at 5000 ft and keep your hands off the trim wheel." I was
all over the place--I could still keep the porpoising excursions to
plus and minus 200 feet, but the oscillations were now faster. Now
Charles said, this time with slightly more authority in his voice,
"Stop trying to be smooth. Smooth doesn't count."
Things got a little better as I began to be more aggressive.
"Look," grumbled Charles, "the instant you see the altimeter moving
off, you do whatever you have to get it back. And do it NOW!" Over
the next few hours I yanked and pushed the airplane--sometimes quite
violently--back to altitude, all the while fighting enough nose-down
trim to make it seem like work. I made myself quite barfy and
secretly wished the same on Charles.
We flew the approach at Oakdale--a harmless little straight-in with
466' minimums on desperately flat terrain. The "normal" approach
uses the VOR for the initial approach fix, so requires no procedure
turn. There is, however, a holding pattern in lieu of a procedure
turn over another initial approach fix. Once established in the
hold, the same fix becomes the final approach fix. Charles caught
me off guard by letting me get about a half a mile from the final
approach fix then instructing me to hold--this at 2000 ft.
Entry into the hold was direct and aligned with the approach course,
so no maneuvering was necessary. I started my timer at the outbound
wings-level point and after one minute turned inbound. After roll-
out I seemed to be quite a bit south of the inbound course, so I set
up a healthy intercept. This might have required 15 seconds. Then I
casually glanced at the DME to check distance to the fix. "Whoa!
What's wrong with this picture," I thought, then said aloud "the DME
says we're past the fix--how can this be?" My mind went numb, began
to fumble, and then I threw up my hands: "Help!"
"Help you do what?" Charles asked politely. His Socratic method
was quickly growing thin. I raised my voice, "Help me get into this
hold." Charles dropped his mask of feigned politeness and said
normally, "Now you've got a crisis entry on your hands: you're out
of protected airspace, you're in the clouds, and you're confused.
Execute the crisis pattern entry. This I could do. Somehow I
sloshed the airplane around to course and got it headed back to the
fix, where I again set my timer.
It took me about four turns around the pattern before I finally
figured out that I was dealing with a monstrous quartering tailwind.
The outbound leg was 3.5 minutes with 40 degrees of correction.
After landing (circling, of course), we debriefed this "simple
little approach." I then remembered the smile on Charles face when I
had referred to his hold on the PC simulator as being
One of the purposes of the trip to Oakdale was to practice filing
from a non-tower airport without an IFR departure procedure. We
wanted to go back to the Bay Area via Concord, where we would shoot
the VOR approach before calling it a day. To avoid delays, Charles
had me file a plan that began at WRAPS intersection, the nearest
enroute fix to Oakdale (and part of its missed approach). "Tell
them to clear us now to WRAPS and we'll pick up the rest of our
clearance there," he said. The briefer at the FSS dryly pointed out
that it was a perfect VFR day and we didn't need a clearance to
WRAPS. Charles took the phone and talked to the briefer for a few
seconds. He then scribbled the following" Grumman N74613 is cleared
from Oakdale airport to WRAPS intersection. Frequency
"How do we get ourselves to WRAPS safely without an IFR departure
procedure?" I asked. "If there's no approach, you're on your own
and will have to figure out a procedure from your VFR maps." Charles
always refers to them as maps. "For airports with an IFR approach,
you can usually use the missed approach as a departure
procedure...just make certain to climb to the MDA before starting
We did just that. "Get us to WRAPS," said Charles. The glassy
morning air over the San Joaquin Valley had turned in the afternoon
to a slight, unpleasant chop. At minimums I pulled down my Foggles,
turned to an intercept course for WRAPS and settled back.
Then Charles took away my attitude indicator. Left hook in the gut.
"Ah!" My gasp broke squelch on the intercom. Just as I got enough
wind back to protest, he took away my DG. Right cross to the
temple. "Come on, Charles. I can't do this. Give me back one of
them." He repeated more firmly, "Get us to WRAPS." Somehow I cut a
deal with the compass and got the plane sloshing toward WRAPS. My
altitude control was back to its old tricks.
About two miles out, I called Stockton Approach for my clearance on
to Concord. "Grumman 74613, standby." "OK," I mumbled to myself
without thinking. As I got close to WRAPS, Charles pointed to the
clearance on my knee-board. He could see the shock on my face as I
realized what was about to happen. He then asked, "What must you do
when reaching your clearance limit?" "Hold?" I asked, already
knowing the answer. "Do it!" he said. Uppercut.
I cranked in a more-or-less standard-rate turn and glanced up at the
drunken compass. Its looniness cracked me. "Charles," I shouted
incoherently, "This is unfair. It's too much to expect!" For the
first time he raised his voice above a normal conversational tone.
"Look! Put your emotions in your back pocket, stop feeling sorry
for yourself, and fly this airplane. Do the best you can and we'll
work from there." I felt chastened like a child. "OK...OK," I
thought. I flashed back to what Charles had said during our sample
lesson the week before, "I want to show you that what I'll be asking
of you is not impossible. Remember this when you're screaming at me
for being unfair."
"Grumman 74613 advise when ready to copy," said the voice on the
radio. I hit the canvas. Out of the corner of my eye I looked for
Charles to key up his PTT or take out his pen, but deep down I knew
he wasn't going to. After a few seconds I went numb and said, "613
ready to copy." It was mercifully short: "613 is cleared from
WRAPS intersection to the Concord VOR as filed." I didn't even
bother to write it down.
As I realized that my holding pattern had become just a blob nowhere
near WRAPS, I said angrily, "Charles! I've had enough of this shit!
Give me back my DG." At just that moment in the turn, the sun
flashed into the cabin. I thought I could discern the beginnings of
two small bumps sprouting from his forehead. "No way," he said. For
an instant I thought he had said "Nevermore."
The 20-minute route to Concord was direct, so if I could just keep
the wings level and sort of hold altitude, I could steal a few
minutes to recover normal human emotions. No such luck. After a
couple of minutes, I heard "Start setting up for VOR 19R at Concord.
By the way, you shouldn't have accepted that partial clearance to
WRAPS without an EFC." I suspected that he had somehow arranged for
my clearance not to be ready at WRAPS.
Somewhat annoyed and struggling mightily with the silly compass, I
dredged up the Concord VOR 19R approach plate and used the equipment
stack as a check list for the approach. I knew from VFR experience
that this was not going to be a picnic. By now the wind would be
howling off Suisun Bay and swirling inland over Concord. Nasty
little shears lurk on final the year round.
This approach was the first time I actually died. The VOR is the
final approach fix and the course dog-legs there 20 degrees. I may
have noticed this during my pre-approach setup, but I was so far
behind the airplane that I must have left fingernail marks on the
elevators. In any case, so corrosive was my fatigue that I
completely missed the turn. After I had mindlessly tracked the
wrong course inbound for a few seconds, Charles had me lift my
Foggles. Directly in front and coming up at 105 mph was a huge oil
refinery. "This is serious business," he said.
Nine, ten, and out.
"How about I fly us home and you rest," he said gently. I let out a
deep breath and slumped down in the seat and closed my eyes.
"Sometimes I would be weeping," Ilene had said. That night I called
and cried on her shoulder.