Confessions of an Instrument Rating Procrastinator

There's a right way and a wrong way to learn IFR.

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Remember the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017? For me, it was quite eventful—in more ways than I ever expected.

The plane I built, a Van’s RV-7A, has a wonderful community of builders who are joined together through a very active online community, as well as events for people to come together in the real world. There are various Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) activities like AirVenture, plus factory-sponsored and privately organized events. In 2017, the annual Van’s Aircraft Homecoming fly-in was held at Oregon’s Independence Airpark, organized by EAA Chapter 292, and coincided with the eclipse. Independence, Oregon, was smack in the middle of the path of totality, and the only question was one of weather.

My annual trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, where I’m concertmaster for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, had just concluded, and I just had time to fly back to Livermore, California, get a change of clothes, and launch for Independence the following day. On the flight from Sun Valley to Livermore, as I approached California, I noticed a lot of smoke at altitude and even reported a brand-new fire that had sprung up just east of Reno. I was unsure whether this was something air traffic control would want to be bothered with, so when I keyed the mic and asked whether this sort of report was something they take, they said standby, and it was clear they were getting appropriate materials to take the report. They were very interested in the exact location, and it appeared they welcomed the opportunity to convey this information to the various firefighting agencies.

Waiting for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 at Independence, Oregon.

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The next day, when checking weather for the trip to Oregon, I saw numerous TFRs that had popped up around firefighting activities along the border between California and Oregon. TFRs are areas where flight is not allowed and are typically used for Air Force One, sporting events at large stadiums, and firefighting activity to keep airplanes out of the way of water bombers. What the TFRs don’t show is the extent of the smoke and the areas where you need to be instrument rated and your airplane needs to have the proper equipment for instrument flying. You can find out which airports are IFR (below minimum visibility for visual flight), but it is a much bigger challenge to find out where the smoke is at altitude.

I equipped Stella, my airplane, with IFR instrumentation and intended to get my instrument rating in it. It has been on my list of life goals for a long time, but I know what sort of commitment it takes in terms of both money and especially time (it typically takes months and sometimes years). I had planned to start my IFR training after the end of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony season, but procrastination caught up to me.

The trip up to Oregon was a real eye opener with the amount of smoke in the air, and I almost turned back. I was still legal, but it was very questionable as to whether it was entirely safe. But having just done an upgrade to the instrumentation, which included ADS-B traffic, weather, and three sources of synthetic vision, I was willing to push my comfort zone, knowing that I trend toward overly cautious. I was talking to air traffic control on flight following, had oxygen, and climbed to 14,500 feet. This put me just above the smoke where I was, but to my left and right it continued above me. It cleared as I went north.

A view of Stella shortly after departing Independence, Oregon, for Livermore, California.

I made it through and had a tremendous time at the fly-in. I was hosted by a very generous couple on the airpark and attended forums given by experienced homebuilders, test pilots, and FAA representatives.

After the eclipse, I said my goodbyes, thanked my hosts, and prepared to head back home. I checked the weather, and it looked like a similarly challenging trip back, with problems determining the extent of the smoke. I remembered a concept I learned at one of the forums the day before: You can always park it and take Southwest!

I talked over strategies with some of the local, more experienced pilots, and they suggested that if the trip directly over the mountains looked bad, I could try the coast route, which simply followed the coast. It looked like it would be foggy, but it might burn off by the time I got there. Again, while it is legal to fly above an undercast, if anything goes wrong and you have to get down, you are dependent on there being an airport, beach, or clearing that you can see. If you can’t, you’re basically turning on the autopilot in a descent and praying—not exactly a plan for success.

I launched out of Independence in the clear and went south for about 20 minutes before the smoke got bad. I had topped up my oxygen the night before, so I could go as high as I wanted and kept climbing up to 13,500 feet to find a clear path. I could still barely see the ground through the smoke. Straight ahead and to both sides, the sky appeared as variations of light and dark. The darker areas could have been sky or thicker smoke. As it turned out, they were thicker smoke. After several uncomfortable minutes, I had had enough.

Smoke from the fires was so thick, the ground was barely visible.

On autopilot I turned back north. When I was in the clear, I made my way to the coast. The smoke was still thick to the south and seemed to extend far out into the Pacific. Nope, not interested in a forced landing and a shipwreck in the same event should I run into a problem. I looked at the traffic display on my new equipment and saw two distinct streams of traffic heading south at various altitudes. Momentarily I wondered if all these people had found a route that maybe I should follow. Then I realized that much of the flow was following airways and was very likely IFR traffic with IFR-rated pilots. Nope. I turned east and took a tentative look at how far into Nevada I would have to venture to get around the smoke.

By this time, I was exhausted from flying for two hours while under a lot of stress. I thought, screw this, turn around, beg for a bed, and look at your options on the ground. Air traffic control had been denying all requests for flight following, and on my way back north I heard someone requesting flight following to Livermore. ATC said, “unable,” and I contacted the pilot on the air-to-air frequency and told him I couldn’t find a VFR route through. He didn’t seem fazed or dissuaded. I hope he made it back.

After this call, I got a call on the air-to-air frequency from a new friend from the fly-in who said, “Let’s talk it over at lunch on the ground. We went to the coast for breakfast, but it was too long a wait, so we’re coming back to Independence for lunch.” I said, “Yes please,” and was relieved to have someone with a lot of experience to talk over a plan to get home.

The panel in Stella is well-equipped for instrument flight. What was needed was an IFR-rated pilot.

We landed and went to lunch, then back to his place at the airpark, where he was also being hosted by residents with a lot of experience, and we talked through many options. At this point I had a brainstorm: I am very lucky to have a lot of great friends at Livermore who are more than generous helping a professional violinist navigate the thickets of flying and building. One of these friends is Sam Toy, a corporate pilot who flies Gulfstreams and 737s. We’ve flown a lot together in my plane—for lunch, biennials, formation flying, and just punching holes in the sky. I always learn a great deal from Sam. He worked his way up the aviation ladder as a pilot, VFR instructor, and IFR instructor before landing the jet jock job. Well, I flashed back on Sam and the comment I heard at the forum about flying on the airlines as a fallback, and I combined the two concepts.

“Hello, Sam? Are you around tomorrow with nothing to do? I’m stuck in Independence with no way to get home VFR due to smoke, and I would be forever grateful for a rescue that would include my first instrument rating training on a trip through the smoke.” He made some quick calls to see if he could swing it at work and texted me back with an instrument flight plan to plug into ForeFlight. We agreed I would fly north to Portland International, and he would fly there from Oakland on Alaska, and we would fly back in Stella IFR, giving me my first taste of actual IFR flight in actual IFR conditions. I have known quite a few pilots with instrument ratings who never flew in actual instrument conditions during their training. I was going in the deep end but with someone highly qualified whom I had known for years as a good friend and great instructor.

The flight from Livermore to Independence was VFR (red). The return flight was VFR from Independence to Portland, then IFR from Portland to Livermore (blue).

We met at Portland, briefed the flight, refueled, and launched. Now, I have an old IFR-approved GPS that makes things a lot easier, but one of the first questions Sam asked the night before was, “Is your database up to date? It must be to be legal.” I checked and it had expired while I was in Sun Valley! He said, “No problem, you have an IFR VOR and ILS, so I’ll work out a VOR-to-VOR flight plan, and we’ll file with that.”

OK, so we’re going to do my first lesson old school. It had been over 20 years since I used VORs in my private pilot training, and to say I was rusty was an understatement. To complicate that, the indicators were new to me on the newly installed instrumentation (an EFIS HSI), and I found it hard to interpret what I was seeing. There were too many things displayed that weren’t helping to interpret the VOR indications. At one point I asked Sam what certain things were indicating, and his response was, “I have no idea, just pay attention to this,” while pointing at the one pertinent indicator. Sometimes more is too much. Especially when you don’t understand it.

There was the inevitable spookiness of climbing from a clear takeoff and initial phase of flight into a sky completely devoid of any sense of horizon or even up or down. Due to the varying thicknesses of layers of smoke, sometimes it was lighter above you as you would expect, but sometimes it was darker above and lighter below because a heavy layer was above, but light was coming from around you below. I was very grateful for the instrumentation and Sam’s expertise.

It was about a half hour of merely bad visibility, followed by another hour in complete instrument conditions at altitudes starting at 5000 and climbing to 11,000 feet. Finally, we started getting to the southern edge of the smokiest area, and we could start to see a huge buildup of a cloud directly in front of us going up above 30,000 feet. I thought it was a huge new fire, and Sam said it could be, or it could be a fire-induced thunderstorm. I had never thought about that possibility, but that is what it turned out to be. About 10 minutes after spotting it, air traffic control issued a warning of pilot reports noting “heavy to extreme precipitation coming from a thunderstorm” that was directly in our path. We deviated around it, but had to pick our way through it and another buildup a mile or two to the east. Again, I got a great lesson from Sam when trying to determine which way to go around. “Find a way of determining which direction the storm is going and deviate toward where it’s already been, not where it’s going.” Being able to see it helped because we could see which way the anvil on top was being blown (to our right, west), but we could also use my newly installed ADS-B to see winds aloft and get a verification. Stella got a gentle bath, but it would have been truly scary to be in the thick of the smoke and stumble into that thunderstorm. With extreme precipitation usually comes extreme turbulence—the kind that can break airplanes. That’s one of the reasons I built an airplane rated for aerobatics. They’re built to take higher stresses than I can.

The rest of the flight to Livermore was uneventful, but it included my bumbling attempts at following the glideslope and localizer on the ILS into Livermore. It is probably a familiar sight to many instrument instructors, and I’m amazed and grateful for Sam’s restraint and not pointing and laughing. I had done some experimenting with following an ILS before, VFR on my own, and it was fine, but this was a taste of what it’s like to try it when you’re tired and your initial successful experiments were without valid instructional foundations. It wasn’t pretty.

I am hugely grateful to Sam for the rescue and lessons and am already booking my lessons with another CFII at the field whose availability is easier to work into my schedule. I plan on hitting up Sam for some phase checks and alternate approaches to difficulties I predict will come up, but I don’t want to burn him or our friendship out!

I’m done procrastinating. Thanks Sam!

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