I thought I was supposed to be looking outside…

After yesterdays weather I didn’t hold out too much hope for flying today, and last night’s TAF also didn’t give me much optimism either. However, at 9 O’Clock this morning the sun was blazing and there was barely a cloud in the sky. Ideal conditions for my instrument flight practice!

Arrived early at Brize to find that ATC were at lunch until 1:30 (my slot was 11:30 to 15:30), but today that wasn’t too much of an issue as it gave me plenty of time to plan the flight, and it wasn’t likely to be too long anyway.

The plan was to leave Brize and head to Shipton-under-Wychwood (our usual Nav starting point) and then track the 223 radial to the Daventry VOR (DTY). This would give us a heading over 043 to overfly the VOR. From there, we would track outbound on the 276 radial to overfly Wellesbourne. Just past Wellesbourne, we would intercept and track the 176 radial of the Honily VOR (HON) back to Shipton-under-Wychwood.

At some point on the flight we would simulate IMC to give me the required practice of flying by sole reference to the instruments. Ideally we would do this ‘for real’ if we could find some suitable clouds.

Alpha Fox had already flown today, so I did a transit check to ensure everything was Ok, then Indi joined me and we prepared to go. Did the pre-flight checks and headed out to the hold, before being given clearance for departure. The last time I was due to fly Alpha Fox I spotted that the fin beacon had been knocked off, and was dangling from the tail by its connection cables. This had been patched up by removing the beacon, so we couldn’t use it today (more of this later).

At the hold I did the power checks, then the pre-departure checks before calling for clearance and switching to tower. They cleared me to line up, and this was where the first ‘gotcha’ of the day occurred. Normally at this point we would switch on the wing strobes, transponder and (if necessary) the pitot heat. However, as the wing strobes can’t be switched on without the fin beacon being on, and the fin beacon being out of action we couldn’t carry out this step. This meant that I didn’t carry on and turn on the transponder.

After we took off, we switched to the Zone frequency and identified ourselves, and the controller replied ‘No transponder indication’. Whoops. Switch the transponder on to ‘ALT’ and carry on.

At Burford we informed Zone of our intentions and headed up to the start point at Shipton. On the way (while climbing), we tuned the two Nav receivers to the Daventry VOR, and set the first radial (043) onto Nav 2, with the second (223) onto Nav 1. I had problems recognising the ident from the VOR. It was easily audible, but I just couldn’t match up what I was hearing with the Morse I’d written down as the ident of the VOR.

While messing around with this we reached the top of the climb, I turned the fuel pump off and we (in theory!) started tracking the VOR. I thought I was doing Ok, but the GPS log (see below) shows otherwise! I asked Indi what sort of error I was ‘allowed’ and she said that my tracking of the VOR was very good. I guess in reality I was never more than a couple of degrees off the radial, but at this distance that equates to quite a distance off the required track.

Time for ‘gotcha’ number 2! Our route took us a few miles away from Enstone, but because of my poor tracking on the first section we passed virtually through their overhead. Indi took control of the radio and told Brize we were going to switch briefly to Enstone, just to let them know we were passing overhead and to make sure we weren’t going have any issues with traffic from them. Again, whoops.

Continued tracking towards the VOR, and were informed by Brize that Hinton was notified as active with parachuting. Indi seemed concerned as to how close we were to them, but our planned route kept us well clear of them. It was probably this reminder that improved my tracking of the radial around Hinton!

Indi spotted some cloud above us, and we decided to try to climb into it to do some practice on the instruments. We upgrades to a Radar Information Service to get better notifications of traffic while we were on instruments, and tried to climb up in to it. Sadly, the could was higher than we thought and we could get into it, because of (drumroll) time for ‘gotcha’ number 3!

Around the VOR the controlled airspace is at various altitudes down to FL55 and above, and then eventually FL40 and above. I hadn’t properly registered this during my pre-flight planning (and Indi didn’t mention it specifically at this point – more later!).

As we approached the VOR, I became aware of the needle becoming much more sensitive (as is to be expected, this close to the VOR 1 degree off track is a much smaller distance than it is when further away). Indi challenged me to spot the VOR itself as we approached, but I really didn’t know what I was looking for. I knew it would be a circular set of antennas, but it wasn’t until we were very close (we had no DME which made things more difficult) that I spotted the VOR on the ground just as Indi was about to point it out to me.

Set course for the next leg to Wellesbourne and tried to intercept the correct radial. Sadly, I was still looking at the needle for Nav 2, which is why I ended up so far off as we left the VOR. Indi said that in these circumstances it’s often better to set both radios to the same settings so that there’s no chance of confusion. A good tip!

Once this was remedied, the next few miles were flown on a much better track. Indi decided at this point we’d simulate IMC for some practice on instruments, so took my chart away and placed it in the windscreen in front of me. The problem was that she had to hold it in place, which obscured my view of some of the instruments (most notably the VOR needle I was trying to track!).

Flying on instruments like this wasn’t too difficult, but it probably wasn’t an accurate simulation as I still had cues in my peripheral vision and from the front as I could see past the chart Indi was holding.

We now got to the next ‘gotcha’ (sorry, I’ve lost count now!). On the leg to Wellesbourne, the controlled airspace gets lower and lower, and we were flying at FL40 or so. After a while the controller at Brize informed us that we were in danger of entering controlled airspace (the benefits of still being on a Radar Information Service rather than just Flight Information Service!) and told me I should descend. I descended to FL30, and Indi removed the chart from the screen so that we could continue visually to Wellesbourne as we were getting close, and it was likely to be busy.

Informed Brize we were switching to Wellesbourne and then contacted them, informing them we would be turning in their overhead. The last few miles to Wellesbourne were flown visually (probably why the track is straight!) and we overflew them. At this point we were receiving traffic information from Wellesbourne, and at one point Indi asked me to get Wellesbourne to confirm the height of one of the joining aircraft.

Wellesbourne informed me that ‘joins are usually done at 2000, so well below you’. I had told them I was at 3000 feet, but in actual fact I was at FL30. We reset the altimeter (it was quite a low pressure day) and our actual height was more like 2500 feet, significantly lower than what I hold told him. Another important lesson.

As we approached Wellesbourne, I set the final radial (176 from Honiley) on the other Nav, and turned as the needle started to come to the centre, ready for the final leg back to Brize. Once we were clear of Wellesbourne’s zone we thanked them for their help and switched back to Brize.

We were still receiving a Radar Information Service and Indi spotted a nice bank of cloud on our track. We headed towards this (from here on we were no longer tracking the VOR radial) and told Brize we were climbing (we were now well clear of the controlled airspace, it’s floor was now at FL75 or above).

We eventually had to climb up to FL60, and entered cloud for real.

I’d read all the scare stories of how tricky it is flying in real IMC, and I’d also read up on the sensory illusions you can be subject to when you have no visual reference to go by. However, I’d flown Flight Simulator games on my PC (where you fly on instruments pretty much all of the time because the view forward is often quite poor) so I thought ‘How hard can it be’.

Initially I was right, but after a minute or so my head was telling me that we were leaning to the left, while the Attitude Indicator was telling me I was actually flying wings level. This is a classic case of the ‘leans’ and is where you have to ignore the ‘seat of the pants’ sensations and trust the instruments. Initially I found this quite hard to do, and found myself continually banking right by 10 degrees or so to get back to what I thought was wings level.

Eventually I got the hang of it, and Indi had me do a number of rate 1 (180 degrees in 1 minute) turns through the cloud. I think the only requirement for instrument flight on the skills test is that you are able to execute a level rate 1 turn through 180 degrees. The idea is that you suddenly find yourself in cloud accidentally, so you head straight back out the way you came in.

We did some more practice, including some ‘valley running’, where Indi picked a hole between two cloud and told me to fly through it, manoeuvring the aircraft so as to keep us out of the clouds. If a wing tip went into cloud, then I owed her a Guinness! Fortunately the hole was bigger than it looked so I managed it without too much of an issue.

By now we had been flying for about an hour, and decided that we should head back to Brize. I was up at FL60 with not too far to run, and it looked like I was never going to be able to get back down to 1000 feet before Burford. I started to turn away to orbit and lose height, but Indi suggested I practice a sideslip. So, I applied full right rudder, and then enough left aileron to keep us heading for Burford. This puts the aircraft severely out of balance which causes the speed to bleed off, so the nose is lowered to maintain airspeed, and also means you get a higher rate of descent without any associated increase in airspeed. We soon got down to 1000 feet, so this was a useful demonstration that I’ll have to remember for the next time I mess up a Practice Forced Landing and end up too high!

We switched to Tower at Burford as normal (after thanking the Zone controller for his help – he’d been pretty busy calling out traffic to us) and headed for a base leg join. Indi suggested we do a few circuits, as it’d been several weeks since I flew last, so a bit of practice at landing probably wouldn’t do me any harm.

All of the circuits were good, and the landings started out pretty good and got better by the third one. We were on our best behaviour on the final circuit as we were overflown by the Police helicopter! The final landing was the best of the three, and we taxyed back to the club, refuelled the aircraft and put it back in the hangar before heading in to debrief.

VOR Tracking

(Not sure exactly what happened with the GPS track. It doesn’t show all the manoeuvring we did in IMC, and instead just shows us flying straight back to Brize! There’s also a bit that shows us heading due South from Brize, and we were never anywhere near that direction!) 

This had been a pretty eventful flight, and Indi said that my flying had been very good throughout. However there were a number of mistakes made:

  1. Failing to turn on the transponder. My only defence is that we couldn’t use the wing strobes and that didn’t jog my memory for the transponder. Must try to remember this in future, as it’s not the first time I’ve forgotten it.
  2. I didn’t call Enstone, and to be honest had never considered calling them. This shows poor judgement on my part, as I should have recognised this during the planning phase of the flight.
  3. I didn’t have as much awareness of the controlled airspace restrictions as I should have. My only defence here is that I was barely using the map on this flight as we were tracking VORs (in fact Indi took it off me on a number of occasions!). However, to be honest during the flight planning I had never really considered the controlled airspace (in fact had even written one of the leg information right over the numbers of the lowest bit) so that isn’t much of a defence. It was a good reminder that radio aids should be a backup to normal visual navigation methods. If I’d been navigating visually, I’d have had a much better idea of where I was on the map, and would have been more likely to spot the controlled airspace as a result.
  4. Approaching Wellesbourne, I’d had the altimeter set to 1013 (because we were above the transition level) and informed them of my height using this pressure setting. However, when the altimeter was set to the correct pressure for the area as we descended, there was a discrepancy of some 500 feet, which could have had dire consequences if someone had been at that height too.

In general, a very enjoyable flight, despite the problems I had. Indi said she’d deliberately put in a number of traps in this route, and I’d fallen for pretty much all of them! Still, I think I’m more likely to learn in the future by doing things wrong and seeing the consequences, than simply being warned in advance and never really experiencing what might happen.

I think I need to pay more attention when planning routes to the features around the route (airspace, airfields and the like) and not just plonking a line on a map and following it. In reality, you will pretty much always end up off track, and if you blindly overfly another airfield without letting them know you’re asking for trouble.

Next flight will hopefully give us a couple more landaways, and then I need to do some solo. Once they’re done, then it’ll be on to the Qualifying Cross Country flight. Gulp!

Total flight time today: Dual 1:30 – Solo – 0:00
Take-offs: 3 – Landings: 3

Total flight time to date: Dual 35:55 – Solo 7:50
Take-offs to date: 97 – Landings to date: 92

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