IFR Diary, Day 5: Tuesday, August 31
This morning as I wait for Charles to arrive, I feel wrung out and
as low as a snake's belly. To be honest, I had thoughts of throwing
in the towel. Hey, nowhere is it written that a 49-year old can get
an instrument rating. How do I know? Maybe it's never been done.
The way I feel today...
Charles arrives, disgustingly chipper and well groomed. I tell him
my mood and he listens with understanding--but not with much
sympathy. "Maybe you're right. Maybe you can't do it. Only a small
percentage of pilots ever do, and lots try and fail. But I promise
you that you won't fail from lack of talent. You'll fail because of
an attitude problem."
Jesus, I thought, here comes the motivational crap. Norman Vincent
Peale with a knee-board.
"This IFR is hard stuff. It may be the hardest thing you've ever
done. And you know what's really got you down: you've discovered
that you can't wrestle it to the ground with sheer intellect. And
when that happens, you give up."
I hate to be patronized, and I hate dime-store psychology. I stared
at him, asking myself the mountebank/messiah question again. I set
my bullshit detectors to stun. He said, "You've got to get one thing
through your skull: that attitude will get you killed. When things
go wrong you can't throw up your hands and cry, 'This is unfair,
it's so unfair.'"
He paused deliberately while I squirmed a bit, then went on.
"Anybody can fly IFR in perfect conditions--when nothing goes wrong.
The reason so many people fail the IFR check ride is because that
they are trained for "perfect little failures." Then something odd
happens during the check ride, they lose their cool, and blow the
ride. As far as partial panel goes, it's not an academic exercise,
it's an emergency procedure, and that's the way I teach it--you get
it when you least expect it or want it. Alcohol on a razor cut."
He finished, "I don't expect perfection. No one will. What I do
expect of you is this: when things get weird, put your self-pity in
your back pocket, grit your teeth, and try to do something sensible.
You'll find that you can learn to deal with adversity just like you
learn anything else."
Whew, I was getting roughed up pretty good here. Is he telling me
that I've been leading the good life so long that I've forgotten how
to handle pressure? That the old man can't hump it any more? Hmmm.
Considering that he gets paid whether I pass or fail, I've got to
take him seriously. Since there wasn't a whole lot I could say that
wouldn't make me sound like a moron trying to rescue his ego, I kept
my mouth shut. Charles seems relieved at not having to smack me
around any more. "Let's go fly," he said.
I had pre-filed for Napa County airport, which lies at the mouth of
the Napa Valley, a few miles inland from San Pablo Bay. This is a
favorite training spot because the morning coastal stratus often
lingers until late morning. Today the stratus covered the entire
Bay Area and as we left Hayward, we went IMC at about 600 feet. We
popped out into brilliant sunshine at about 2400.
Bay Approach took us to 7000 feet before handing us off to Oakland
Center. This is very high, considering that it is a 30 minute
flight. We were headed for the Skaggs Island VOR to fly a full
Localizer 36L approach--a fairly wrenching procedure when coming
from the South. At about 5 miles, we were given a descent to 3000
and cleared for the approach. I'm still not comfortable with slam-
dunk descents, but I slowed up and started down at a good rate. It
looked as if we were going to get to 3000 before reaching the VOR
when Center cracked, "Grumman 74613, approach clearance canceled,
proceed to Skaggs Island VOR and hold as published at 2000." We were
1.5 miles from the VOR.
"Congratulations," said Charles, "many pilots go their entire
careers without getting a real-life hold, and you got one on your
fourth day." No small talk please. There on top the fix, 1500 feet
high, I felt the impulse to complain about my plight. I thought
about what Charles had said only a few minutes earlier--I was just
shooting for something sensible. In this case, the something
sensible was very clear: the crisis entry. I reduced my rate of
descent to about 500 ft/minute and at the VOR turned to the outbound
heading, flew out for a minute, turned toward the protected side,
and intercepted the inbound course. As it worked out, that is the
As I sat spinning around in the hold, with the Tiger's feet now and
again pawing the tops of a cloud, I noticed something odd: I was
holding altitude. Within about 50 feet. Without thinking! Look ma-
-autonomic aviation. As self-consciousness is often its own
punishment, so thinking about it made me no longer able to do it,
and I instantly started floundering a bit. Then an unnerving thought
brings me back to reality: if Charles catches me congratulating
myself when I should be double-checking my equipment setup for the
approach, he'll think up something really horrible to do to me. I
start officiously rechecking the instruments. I even remember to get
Inbound at the end of the third circuit, Oakland Center again
cleared us for the approach. We left the VOR heading for the
localizer back course, where a procedure turn is required. It so
happens that this approach is a real gumption trap. The feeder from
the VOR intercepts the localizer back-course at 60 degrees. Unless
you're flying slowly, are fixated on the localizer needle, have
super reflexes, and are willing to do a steep turn, you will fly
through the localizer. In other words, when you finally roll out on
the outbound course, the localizer needle is pegged.
Although I had often intercepted and tracked back-courses on my PC
simulator, in this situation the pegged needle denied me the
feedback that comes from seeing the needle respond to course
corrections. I had set the outbound course on the OBS to remind me
of the course I was tracking and I had made a 20 degree turn in the
opposite direction of the needle. I turned right and waited. And
waited. The longer I flew, the more uncertain I became. Soon I ran
out of patience and confessed, "I think I'm set up to intercept the
localizer, but the needle ain't moving." Charles didn't say
anything. I sweated for an eternity or two, when at last the needle
came off the peg. Whew! I got back on course just in time to
complete the procedure turn within the required 10 miles. During the
turn I rotated the OBS as a reminder of the inbound course and flew
the rest of the approach credibly, even remembering to watch the
number-two VOR for the last step-down fix.
Although we had been out only about ninety minutes, we circled to
land and shut the engine down to talk. Charles said, "I've noticed
that you track by making right and left turns." I was strained to
suppress a smart-ass comment.
"I know this sounds simplistic, but next to scanning, tracking by
reference is the most important IFR skill. Let me get inside your
head while tracking an ordinary VOR:
'The needle's drifting to the left a bit...need a left
turn...a tad of left cut ought to do...there, that looks
"This works OK as long as your work load is low and there are not
many service calls in the scan. But let things heat up and
something insidious happens. During the turn you try to sneak in
another scan circuit, and something gets your attention...and you
pause to service it. Now, while servicing that event, something
else interrupts you--say a call from ATC. Now your turning process
is two mental layers deep. In the meantime, you're still
"When all the interruptions are over, if you're lucky, you remember
to get back to turning. But you may not remember it at all--you'll
just notice when you resume your normal scan that you're turning.
Then you discover that you have turned much farther than you
intended. Worse, you have no idea of how much you've over-turned
because your original intent wasn't a number, but just 'a tad of
left cut.' In other words, you can't correct your heading because
you didn't set out to fly a specific heading in the first place and,
if my guess is correct, you've forgotten what your reference heading
was before the turn."
It makes sense: if I don't know where I'm going, and I don't know
where I've been--I'm in deep trouble. I recalled the ILS and
Localizer approaches I had done in the last few days. Sometimes,
things went OK. Often, though, I'd notice that the needle was
rapidly scooting away. Looking down at the DG, I'd be astonished to
discover that the heading was way off course. Then I'd make a big
cut turn to re-intercept it, and the needle chase was on. Charles'
scenario seemed like a plausible explanation.
He continued, "Starting today, we're going to develop three new
tracking skills. First, we're going to banish the terms 'right' and
'left' from our navigational vocabulary. Second, whenever you make
a turn, come up with a specific heading. Third, you're going to
suspend your scan during a tracking turn."
Number three caught my attention. I asked, "Are you telling me to
fixate on the DG during turns?"
He jumped to make his point, "No, I'm not telling you to fixate on
the DG during all turns, just during tracking turns. Nail your
attention to the DG until you've completed the turn then quickly go
to the AI until you're sure your wings are level. Then resume normal
This made me nervous. "Sounds like a prescription for disaster," I
offered. "Not at all. If you're scanning correctly--a big if, I
know--a tracking turn requires only one or two of degrees of turn,
five at most. Even if you make them at half-standard rate, you can
complete the entire operation in two seconds if you don't worry
about being a smoothie."
Good point, I thought. He went on, "So starting now, start thinking
in terms of 'I need to fly such-and-such heading to center the
needle'. Remember, you center a needle by flying a heading, not by
making a turn."
Then abruptly he said, "Now let's talk about your technique for
tracking a localizer." I responded, "You mean my mental flakiness
waiting for the needle to come alive on the back-course?"
He didn't say anything, but busily began to sketch on my knee-board.
He drew the OBS as I had it set up for the outbound localizer:
outbound course of 185 degrees at the top of the dial, but with the
needle to the right side about two dots (not pegged). He sketched a
DG indicating a heading of about 185 degrees. Then he said,
"correct." I was sort of paralyzed. I knew the correct answer was
left, but I was forbidden to say it. Very deliberately I answered,
"180." This was, of course, the correct answer.
"Do you see how you've made this a mental exercise? Correct me if
I'm wrong, but here's what just went through your mind: 'I'm on the
back course, so the heading I need to fly will be at the top of the
dial, but on the opposite side of the needle.'" Pretty close, I
admitted. "That's too much processing power to expend on
He assumed the familiar heretical tone, "From a navigational point
of view, there ain't no such thing as a back course. As a matter of
fact, there's no such thing as reverse sensing." He then dialed the
Tiger's OBS so that 005, the inbound heading of the localizer,
appeared at the top. He used his pencil for the needle. Before he
could continue, I offered, "But we're not flying that course, so how
can we use it?"
His head tilted and his index finger lightly scratched below his
ear, the unfailing sign for me to pay attention. "What heading are
you flying?" he asked. "185," said I.
"Find 185 on the face of this dial," he said. I put my finger at
"Now give me a heading that will center the needle," he quipped.
After a moment I began to chuckle as I realized that the correct
heading was now on the side of the needle--right where it is on the
"So don't make it hard on yourself. You don't need two sets of
rules and you definitely don't need more dials to be fiddling with.
Always tune the OBS to the inbound course and the headings that
center the needle are always on the side of the needle." Mountebank
for sure, I thought.
"Wherever the heading you're now flying is located--top or bottom of
the dial--that's where you'll find the headings you need for
tracking." I continued to chuckle, when he pointed to the numbers
on the OBS and said, "The answers are written on the airplane." I
understood in my egghead sort of way.
I flew the localizer approach again, this time forcing myself to
come up with a heading to fly instead of a right-left turn. I was
still sweating out the pegged needle, but I was somehow more
confident because I wasn't having to go through mental gymnastics to
come up with a special set of rules for reverse-sensing.
As the long day ended and I had flown many approaches at several
airports, I was beginning to be more relaxed. I was beginning to
stay, if not ahead of the airplane, at least even with it. There
were, however, two intermittent errors that I would have difficulty
expunging. The first error: when I had finished listening to ATIS,
I would correctly set the radio for the inbound tower or CTAF
frequency. Unfortunately, in between these two acts I would
inexplicably turn the volume down--all the way! My second error was
the failure to start the approach timer. (OK, OK, I can just hear
your tongue clicking about the 5 T's.) It's incredible that I could
establish such dopey habits in so short a time--but there you have
Although I bought into today's concepts, this way of flying didn't
come easy to me. You don't rewire a 50-year-old nervous system
overnight. It took lots of practice, mostly at home on my PC
simulator, to think of tracking in terms of an atomic series of
operations leading to specific headings instead of merely turning
left or right. Charles must have felt hoist with his own petard as I
jerkily cranked in lots of small tracking turns. But in a few days,
this jerkiness fixed itself and, like holding altitude, making small
heading changes became autonomic.
Day Off: Wednesday Sept 1
Labor day. I played softball and ate hot dogs in the afternoon.
Later I set my simulator up for a gusty cross-wind with moderate
turbulence and practiced making atomic tracking turns.
As I lay in bed in the dark that night, I remembered our pre-flight
discussion the previous day. Charles had said, "Your attitude will
get you killed. When things go wrong you can't throw up your hands
and cry." I recalled that the ancient Greeks' more succinct
version, "Your character is your fate." It was not the most
soothing of thoughts to sleep on.