The Real Thing
"Take your hood off," my instructor Bill said as we were climbing out from San Jose. "I want you to experience the transition from visual to instrument conditions."
We were on an instrument flight plan and I was just a few lessons into my instrument flight training. We'd completed the lessons on basic attitude flying by reference only the instruments using a view-limiting device (the "hood") that allowed me to see only the instrument panel. On this day, however, Mother Nature was kind enough to provide the next step in my training: a nice, high cloud layer to fly around in.
A couple of minutes later, the view of the ground faded into the mist, until finally I could see nothing but silver gray out the windows. This was the real thing, and my attention was now firmly riveted to the panel!
"Skyhawk 377, left turn to 030, climb and maintain 5,000," the controller instructed, and I complied, using the turn coordinator to make sure I didn't bank too steeply. My altimeter read 4,200. 800 feet to go. Whoa! Heading 030 was coming up fast on the heading indicator, so I abruptly started to roll out of my turn. Graceless, but effective.
"You're doing fine," Bill reassured me. I noticed that while Bill was bundled up in a warm jacket, I was starting to sweat!
Soon we reached 5,000 feet, so I leveled off, let the airplane speed up, throttled back to a comfortable cruise power setting, and ran my cruise checklist. For the better part of an hour, I got to practice the attitude instrument flying skills I'd just learned in real conditions while working with real controllers as we made our way out to the Central Valley and back.
"Skyhawk 377, expect the visual approach at San Jose," the controller said. That was convenient, because I hadn't had any training yet on instrument approaches. We were home free!
Or so I thought.
"Skyhawk 377, turn right heading 210," the controller said. I glanced at Bill with a quizzical look. I was already going heading 210!
"Give me a 360," the controller clarified.
"He's giving you an impromptu hold, probably for sequencing with the big boys," Bill explained, referring to the large airliners with whom we share the airport.
"Right to 210," I replied and started my turn. The controller had us go once more around before directing us towards the airport.
Finally we were cleared to descend, so I throttled back to my descent power setting and pushed the nose over slightly to start down. A minute or so later, the ragged patches at the bottom of the cloud layer whizzed past the windows as the ground came into view about 3,000 feet below. Lo and behold, there was my airport just off the nose.
"377 has the field in sight," I called on the radio.
"Skyhawk 377, cleared visual approach Runway 29. Contact San Jose tower on 124.0," came the reply.
"Cleared visual 29, over to tower, g'day," I confirmed with a sigh of relief and began a familiar descent for landing at my home airport.
After the flight, Bill and I debriefed the lesson.
"You did very well today," Bill said. "It's great that you got some actual instrument conditions so early in your training. Some people earn their instrument rating without any actual at all. You learn much more this way."
He was right—it was exactly the kind of experience on which true confidence is built. When it comes to experience, there really is nothing like the real thing.
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