IFR Diary: Prologue
My reasons for desiring an instrument rating were classic: boredom
with VFR bug-smashing, a need for a new challenge, and, most
important, the desire to plan trips without having to worry about
the Bay Area's notorious coastal stratus. I've never been much of a
fan of SVFR scud running above densely populated areas, so many's
the day I've sat chin-in-hand on the ramp waiting for the tower's
beacon to stop rotating. I've also had to shorten many day trips in
order to beat the weather back to the airport.
In November 92, I bumped into an instructor I had flown with during
training for my Private. We cut a deal and I began training. The
plan was to go 4 hrs every-other day until completion. After only
three days I got the famous dear-john call, "I've accepted a flying
job with..." I wished him luck and he flew on his way. Although I
feigned disappointment, I actually felt that I was being taught to
swim by being thrown in to drown.
At about this time, one of my publishers began nagging me for a
second edition of one of my books. With some reluctance, I
suspended IFR training indefinitely, and began a grueling 8-month
writing project. At about this time, I discovered AVSIG, where I
learned that PC flight simulators had reached the level of credible
procedure trainers. In the course of evaluating simulators, I met a
woman named Ilene who mentioned she was currently in instrument
training. How shall I be honest without being unkind? Let's just say
that Ilene did not impress me with self-confidence in her aviating
skills. In fact, so diffident was she that I simply couldn't
imagine how she could ever earn an IFR rating.
I purchased a PC simulator (IFT Pro), a stack of IFR books, and
became more-or-less procedurally competent. When next I met Ilene
and inquired of her training, she matter-of-factly said, "Oh, I got
my ticket a month ago." Over lunch, she gave all the gory details.
It seems that she not only passed credibly, but filed and flew back
from her exam in IMC. Boy, had I misjudged her. She gave much of
the credit of her success to her instructor Charles Harris. I
sensed that this sentiment was sincere, not just posturing for
modesty. I was, however, a bit nonplused by her description of
weeping during certain training flights. I didn't inquire further,
but I certainly went away with a new respect for Ilene. I also filed
the name of Charles Harris.
Sunday, August 1
I could see the end of my writing project, so I began to plan a new
assault on the IFR ticket. I wanted an intensive course no longer
than three weeks in duration. I wanted an early morning launch
(7:00) so I would have time in the afternoon to deal with editors. I
looked into the PIC course, which sounded like $4500 plus airplane--
too rich for my blood. I interviewed five local instructors. I
purchased sample first lessons from three. The last was Charles
Thursday, August 12 "Charles Harris"
When he and I met midday, we began by discussing VOR navigation. I
was pretty confident about my skills. Then he astonished me. Drawing
two VOR faces tuned to an intersection, he said, "Get me to that
intersection," he said. I gulped and began thinking out loud, "the
needle on this one is to the left with a TO flag so we must be
Northeast. The other one's left with a FROM flag so we must be
Northwest." Even though this ratiocination required three or four
minutes, I was very proud of myself and figured I would get faster
with practice. Charles then asked the question that would melt me
so many times in the next few days. "So what heading do we fly?"
I began: "If we're Northeast of....wait a minute! What are the
names of these VORs?" Charles looked right at me with widely opened
eyes, tilted his head slightly, and said laconically, "I've
forgotten." I turned the old IQ crank harder, but nothing came
We sat there in poignant silence for a minute when he finally spoke.
"Don't feel bad. It's natural to try to figure out where to go by
first figuring out where you are. Well, IFR is not about where you
are, it's about how to get to where you need to be. The VORs let
you skip the step of figuring out your current position."
Whoa, did he say what I think he said? He continued, "It makes no
difference where you are, because in an instant you won't be there
anymore--and you'll still have to get to where you're going."
"Go on," I said, not at all sure I was ready for this.
"Watch this," he said. "I know that you understand that all the
headings on the side of the needle intercept the dialed-in radial.
Right?" I nodded yes. "Now since you know that the two dialed-in
radials intersect, there must be at least one radial in common under
the needle on both VORs. He carefully put his thumb at 060 of the needle
side of the bottom VOR, and slowly began walking his index finger around
the needle side of the top VOR. He found 060. "Fly heading 060," he said.
This had taken all of five seconds.
"One of these needles will probably start to center before the other
one. When it centers, you'll have two choices: to fly the heading
at the top of its OBS or the one at the bottom. Which will you
choose?" I felt as if I were watching a clever magician. "I give
up," I said, not wanting to break the spell. "You'll choose the
heading that appears under the needle on the other VOR. When it
centers, you're there."
I closed my eyes. My God, I can sort of see it. "Now you try one,"
he said, sketching two more VOR faces. I started thinking out loud
to myself. "Stop. Don't make this a mental exercise. Mental
processes don't hold up under pressure as well as physical ones.
Touch the instruments. 'Let your fingers do the walkin'." Haltingly
I complied. "Fly 170," I said. "Right! And what heading will you
fly if this needle centers first?" I gave the right answer.
"Charles," I said, "I've already read several books on IFR and I've
flown with more instructors than I like to admit. The one theme
common to them all is the importance of positional awareness."
He didn't skip a beat. "Positional awareness is important, very
important. It can save your life, and with experience I hope you
will develop it. But it's not primary. It's not as important as
being able to go where you have to go." It was obvious that I had
struck a nerve. "Look, you've only got so many CPU cycles in that
brain of yours and for a long time--certainly longer than you can
afford to train--most of those cycles are going to be consumed just
by keeping the airplane upright and heading in the right
He tilted his head and with his index finger slowly scratched just
below the ear. I would soon recognize that this was the spider's
invitation to the fly. "Tell me how many questions were on your
written exam about positional awareness."
I had him now. I lunged, "As a matter of fact, there were several.
I had to figure out my position relative to VORs, decide whether I
had passed an intersection, and a couple of other things like that,"
"That's not positional awareness. It's not awareness at all. It's
merely computation of position--like you demonstrated for me a few
minutes ago. Positional awareness is a higher order of
understanding that cannot be taught. If it could, it would be part
of the IFR Practical Test Standards, and it ain't." Bingo, the
magic words. He watched me ponder this point for a few moments,
then cheerfully blurted, "Let's go fly."
Since my logbook already showed about 14 hours under the hood,
Charles used this sample lesson to evaluate my basic attitude-
flying. After departure, I dropped the Foggles, did a few climbs,
turns, tracked an NDB, etc. Since I'd had a few IFR lessons before,
he handled the radios while I zig-zagged and porpoised my way down
Next he said, "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." He then took control of the plane, put on his Foggles,
went immediately to partial panel, executed a perfect approach, flew
the missed, which leads very quickly to a teardrop hold, where he
calmly requested, copied, and read back the IFR clearance for home.
All in bumpy air that made me slightly nauseated. "I promise that by
the time of your check ride, you'll do that just as well as I just
In a while, we canceled IFR and I flew home VFR. Back on the ground,
he didn't spend much time discussing my flying or evaluating my
skills. He just said, "Don't worry...you fly fine. The best thing
you got going is that you know how to read."
I wrote him a check and we parted on a handshake.
Mountebank or messiah? I'm not easily gulled. I inherited very sensitive
bullshit detectors from my father--and they were not going off. I wasn't
yet sure that I believed everything Charles had said, but I was convinced
that he did. No doubt about it, the man is a teacher.
Sunday, August 15 "The Contract"
I offer the job to Charles Harris. We are to begin at 7:00 am August
27. He accepts, stipulating that I must have passed my written. I
Sunday, August 22
At 9:00 p.m., I submit the final chapter of my book to the
Monday, August 23 "The Written"
Today I purchased "FAA Practical Test Prep," by Irving Gleim. I
already had read the following books on instrument flying:
"Instrument Flying," by Trevor Thom; "Instrument Flying Handbook,"
by the FAA; "The Instrument Flight Training Manual," by Peter
I borrowed a 1986 King video course from a friend. My method of
study was to watch a King tape, then read the related material in
the Gleim book. Next I would take the King sample exams, followed
by answering all the questions in the Gleim book. I worked on
average of 12 hours per day.
Thursday, August 26
This morning, Charles gave me a 30-minute oral quiz, then signed me
off to take the written exam. At 2:00 I took the test by computer
and got instant results--I scored in the mid 80's.