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IPC Redux

"The needle's barely off the peg. Why are you turning inbound already?" asked my instructor Bill.

"I'm used to the localizer coming in pretty fast," I responded. "ATC usually vectors me pretty close to the final approach fix."

"Not this time," Bill said. "We're still 15 miles from the localizer. If the needle's moving slowly, hold your intercept heading. When it starts to move faster, then you can follow it in."

This was my second attempt at the ILS RWY 29R approach at Stockton. The first, which I attempted pilot-nav, was… interesting. I was rusty! I don't fly IFR much, partly because, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most IMC I usually see is the thin stratus layer that we punch through on Summer mornings to get on our way. By the time we return, it's usually burned off.

Also, at the price of gas these days, flying a lot of approaches gets expensive. That's why I prefer to do an instrument proficiency check (IPC) every six months. Even after paying for my instructor's time, the cost works out about the same as if I did the required currency flights with a safety pilot and I'm guaranteed to learn something working with Bill.

I resumed my intercept heading and watched the localizer needle gradually come in. This time the approach went much better, well within the instrument rating practical test standards. As we approached decision altitude, I went to full throttle and started the missed approach. It wasn't until we were well established on the missed and climbing that I noticed I'd left the carb heat on.

"Carb heat! I knew I was forgetting something. I've developed some bad habits!" I noted.

We went on to do a partial-panel GPS approach and hold and then asked for the ILS RWY 25R approach into Livermore. The localizer course into Livermore crosses the Altamont pass, with its forest of windmills, which give a pilot fair warning to expect a challenging approach. The winds this day did not disappoint, and at times I found it difficult just to maintain heading. Still, I did a good job of keeping the needles centered—until the infamous "last 200 feet," when they started misbehaving.

"Come on, you've been doing great," Bill said. "Don't lose it now!"

"Fifty feet to DA," I called out.

"OK, look up," Bill said. I found myself perfectly aligned… with the taxiway. I turned towards the runway, slowed down and started lowering flaps. Soon I touched down on runway 25R with a stiff left crosswind and taxied off.

"I know we say 'don't chase the needles,'" Bill said. "But you really have to in the last 200 feet of the ILS."

After a quick fuel stop, we made the short hop home to San Jose, doing a little partial-panel unusual attitude recovery practice along the way.

After the flight we did our usual debrief. "You started out a little rusty," Bill said, "but you pulled it together as we went along. By the end you were solidly within practical test standards. I'm happy to sign you off for another 6 months."

The lessons for the day were about intercepting the localizer, aggressively chasing the needles in the last 200 feet of the ILS, and the need to solidify my procedures under IFR.

I know my IFR skills are limited. Mostly I use them to punch through those thin stratus layers, but IFR currency is also really handy even in visual conditions when flying into complex airspace such as Seattle or LA. These days I don't fly "hard IFR." I set my personal minimums at a 1000-foot ceiling and 3 miles' visibility.

An important aspect of confidence is honest self-assessment, because good judgment requires accurate information. As the old saying goes, "By exercising superior judgment you can avoid the need to demonstrate superior skill."

But I'm still gonna break out my PC simulator and practice some ILS approaches anyway.

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