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The GPS display was black. The attitude indicator and heading indicator were covered by yellow sticky-notes. I was being vectored for a VOR approach at Stockton, California.

"Skyhawk 377, 6 miles from the VOR, fly heading 280 to intercept the final approach course, maintain two thousand five hundred until established, cleared for the VOR 29 right approach," said the Norcal Approach controller.

"280, 2,500, cleared approach," I responded. With the final approach course crossing an aging VOR a few miles from the airport, this was a challenging approach under the best of circumstances. Throw in partial-panel, afternoon central-valley thermals, and a long time away from instrument flying, and it all added up to a workout.

My wife Janet and I have been planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia with my parents. Although the area is infamous for its cloudy, rainy weather, an instrument-rated pilot in an IFR-equipped airplane should have a reasonable chance of getting around, especially with warm, early-September temperatures. There was just one little hitch: between work demands and a tight budget, I'd let my instrument currency lapse. I needed an instrument proficiency check (IPC) to fly IFR again, and with only a few weeks left until the trip, it needed to be soon.

"I know it's short notice, but are you available for an IPC on Sunday?" said my e-mail to my instrument instructor Bill.

"How about Monday?" came his reply. Sure, why not? I could take a few hours off work. We chatted by phone the day before to do some planning.

"I'd like you to pick three approaches and a challenging hold, maybe at an intersection," Bill told me. "Also spend a couple of hours studying the oral-exam material. I'll ask you a few questions about the topics I think are most important."

So, I spent much of Sunday hitting the books and mentally reviewing my IFR procedures. I printed out and studied the current approach procedures, visualizing how I would set up the cockpit to fly them. I did some "flying" using the flight sim on my computer, but I was having trouble with the hardware, so it wasn't very helpful. "I'm just gonna have to think it through," I thought to myself.

The partial-panel VOR approach went pretty well. I stayed on course and on altitude, ending up in a position from which I could have landed safely. I started a climb to start the missed approach.

"Hell, my mixture's still lean," I said out loud. "I forgot my pre-landing checklist at the final approach fix." Except for this oversight, though, the approaches went well. Admittedly, I took full advantage of the tolerances allowed by the practical test standards, but I didn't bust them. On the whole, I was pleased.

"You did great," Bill said after I took off the hood and we started back towards San Jose. "I have just a few minor comments." We saved the debriefing for after the flight.

"On that 4-mile, teardrop procedure turn, you should turn to parallel the course after the first minute outbound. That'll make it easier to intercept the final approach course inbound," Bill said. "Also, remember to run your pre-landing checklist and start your timer at the final-approach fix! Other than that, it all went really well. You're proficient!" he said, handing me back my freshly endorsed logbook.

Part of me would like to credit my performance to some rare skill or talent, but I know better. It's just preparation that made the difference. The time spent visualizing how I was going to do things made the flying itself so much easier than it would have been otherwise. It was a reminder that a huge part of cockpit confidence is having practiced, reliable procedures.

"How'd it go?" my wife Janet asked when I got home.

"Great!" I told her. "It's really good to be instrument current." Striking a melodramatic pose, I emoted, "I feel like a whole pilot again!"

She just smiled and rolled her eyes. She's used to it.

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