Training toward my instrument rating has been time consuming and challenging. Flying hasn’t been either fun or casual for a number of months. To remedy this, Lauren and I went to the airport on a cool, sunny Sunday morning and departed west for Fredericksburg, Texas.
The Gillespie County Municipal Airport in Fredericksburg is a popular destination for many pilots. The airport is home to an onsite diner and World War II-themed hotel. I’ve been flying out here since I was a student pilot; its still one of my favorite flying destinations.
The flight from Austin, which takes about an hour, tracks over downtown Austin. The corridor between Austin and Fredericksburg can be hectic. I always request flight following on this route, and today it pays off. Our en route altitude of 6,500 MLS puts us between eastbound aircraft that are cruising or transitioning between altitudes in our area. On this trip an air traffic controller would clear me to climb, then moments later would issue a traffic alert and tell me to descend as an eastbound aircraft would pass about 1,000 feet overhead.
Our route tracks along the Pedernales River and over the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park and “Texas White House.” The LBJ Ranch house and private airstrip is highly visible from above and indicated on VFR sectional charts. I like to make note of the ranch when I’m in the vicinity as it would make for an appealing option during an emergency around otherwise unforgiving terrain.
I navigate using the Stonewall VOR, and the onboard GPS and Foreflight serve as secondary reference. Arriving into Fredericksburg is an unpredictable adventure. Because Gillespie County is a destination airport, I often find myself sharing airspace with a variety of aircraft and pilots of all experience levels. I give frequent and specific position reports beginning about 12 miles out. Today, a flight of four Beechcraft Barons overtakes me near the airport. Meanwhile, two other aircraft are maneuvering in the pattern. I do a 360 turn a few miles east of the airport to create some distance between myself and other aircraft then proceed toward the airport for a solid landing on Runway 32.
We take an Uber from the airport to downtown Fredericksburg and spend a few hours for lunch and shopping. We walk through the Japanese Garden of Peace at the National Museum of Pacific War and catch a ride back to the airport. Gentle winds prevail as we arrive back at Austin.
I’ve logged very little night flying since I earned my private pilot certificate in 2012. A few years ago I experienced a sensory illusion while returning from a local airport after sunset, and the experience startled me enough that I decided to refrain from night flying until I could log more instrument training and build more pronounced situational awareness.
To refresh my night currency I went flying with David, my instrument instructor, over the weekend. We did a quick round robin of local airports to acquire the three full-stop night landings as required by FAR §61.57.
We departed Austin-Bergstrom and made a very short hop of 13nm north to Austin Executive Airport. Prior to starting our approach we briefed obstacles in the area, including a set of unlighted towers south of the airport. We were cleared to land on Runway 13, and I made a slow and methodical approach. My landing wasn’t anything to brag about. We bought fuel at Executive and did a quick walkthrough of the impressive facility, which includes a large media room, a theater and “quiet rooms.”
Next we departed Austin Executive and headed 18nm northwest to Georgetown Municipal Airport. The airport was difficult to see coming from the west, but we tracked a VOR and monitored GPS coordinates that took us directly to the field. I was cleared for a stop-and-go landing on Runway 18 and made a much better landing. I brought the plane to a full stop with about 2,000 feet of runway to spare. We did a short field takeoff and used 10 degrees of flaps for a rapid climb out of the traffic pattern.
From there we headed 29nm south to Austin, where David had me fly the ILS to Austin-Bergstrom’s Runway 17L. We identified the approach fixes using our number 2 VOR. Several miles out, David covered my airspeed indicator and had me fly the glide slope down to the threshold. The simulated failure really demonstrated how useful the localizer, glide slope and power setting are in such a situation. My final landing of the night was much more precise.
Although I’m now legal to carry passengers for night flight, I don’t yet feel especially proficient. I look forward to logging more time in both the simulator and in the aircraft to really hone proficiency.
I’ve been spending a couple of nights each week at the airport working with my instructor in the flight school’s simulator. We’ve been practicing flying airways, identifying intersections, using VOR receivers and flying holding patterns. Holds are tricky –– I’m proficient enough while in the hold, but there are a variety of ways to enter the hold depending on where your aircraft is relative to the fix at which you’re holding. Some of it is counterintuitive to me, but I’m making progress.
I enjoy flying DME Arcs –– a procedure for transitioning from the en route segment of flight into the approach segment. Essentially, you enter the approach on a “curve” or arc using the VOR OBS and heading indicator to turn 10 degrees at a time until you cross the initial approach fix. Although a lot of instrument students struggle flying DME Arcs, it comes relatively easy to me.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a used desktop computer on eBay and have been using that as a home simulator. A major benefit of the home sim is practicing instrument scans during different phases of flight. I also like practicing VOR work. The home simulator uses a replica of the Garmin 430, which is a standard GPS device in the Cessna 172s I fly.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be flying Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) and Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STARs), then begin flying actual approaches at nearby airports.
I’m continuing to work toward my instrument rating. I’m learning that there is much more to this rating than flying in challenging weather conditions. The rating is about developing discipline, precision and workload management. The little things matter: How you test and tune nav and comm radios, how you organize in-fight documents and how you determine the airworthiness of both your aircraft and navaids along a given route. The training puts a premium on minimizing mental and emotional bandwidth, both of which are precious commodities when flying through more demanding conditions. Eyes and other senses must also be disciplined and trained so as not to misinterpret flight dynamics and control changes. Even language becomes more precise: VORs don’t broadcast a signal, they emanate a signal. My instructor is disciplined and expects the same. Training consists of ground study, simulator work and flying. I find that talking about concepts, applying those concepts in a simulator and then in actual flight provides a productive framework for deeper learning.
I recently visited my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I haven’t been back nearly enough. Some things haven’t changed. Other things have changed a lot. I got to spend time with a few people who were deeply influential to me while growing up. I took Lauren to see some of my childhood homes, and we saw a Lyle Lovett show at the Virginia Theater. Incidentally, we ran into Lovett at the Austin Airport while leaving for Champaign. He spoke with us for a few moments and seemed as stunned as we were that we were all on our way to the same show. Everything you’ve ever heard about him is true.
I made a point to rent an airplane and go flying. Urbana’s Frasca Field is where my dad bought me a plane ride when I was nine or ten years old. It was a cosmic experience for me. I got checked out in a Cessna 172 at Central Illinois Aviation, and the next day took Lauren for an aerial tour of the area. We went out over endless miles of corn and soybean, then turned in and did an aerial tour of the campus and cities.
Later, we took in the University of Illinois homecoming game against Purdue. We walked through West Side Park on several evenings, and I caught myself missing this place.
This weekend I started training toward my instrument rating. My flight instructor is a great teacher and will be a good fit. After about an hour of ground instruction, we logged 1.8 hours in the flight simulator. We did basic attitude instrument flying in the clouds and shot an instrument approach through the rain.
I attended an FAA safety seminar last weekend about engine failures, and it has me thinking about my personal experiences.
I experienced my only engine failure to date shortly after a night takeoff, which in my opinion is the absolute the worst time to lose confidence in your engine.
I was a relatively new student pilot and still several months away from my checkride. My instructor and I had just departed on a night cross-country flight. I was at the controls, climbing out of 1,500 feet AGL just a few miles from the airport when the engine stuttered. My instructor didn’t notice the engine’s hesitation. My attention went to the tachometer. It slid downward a second time. The plane pulled. This time she noticed. I was keenly aware that we were engulfed in a black, night sky. A highway below contained considerable traffic so wasn’t an option. If we had to put the plane down into the blackness, there would be no telling where we’d end up. There was no way to know what was inside that abyss –– farm equipment, livestock, fences, water. All were dismal landing environments.
It’s been a long, hot summer here in Austin. We’ve had more than 50 days of temperatures hitting 100 degrees or higher. As I’m not particularly fond of flying in excessive heat, I grounded myself for much of the summer. But today’s high of (only) 90+ degrees seemed like a good time to go flying and reset my currency in preparation for the upcoming cooler flying season.
After a methodical preflight, however, I did one final check of Foreflight radar just before starting the engine and was dismayed to see brand new thunderstorm cells popping up throughout the area. These new cells were tracking directly toward my planned route.
It would have been easy to go. It’s easy to feel pressured to make a go decision after so much time has been invested in the flight. I certainly felt that mental tug toward a poor decision today. I found myself trying to justify a go decision. Maybe I could beat the storms? Or I could route between them? Both were poor decisions, I concluded, and I started the humbling process of shutting down the airplane, packing my headset and sectional chart and securing the plane before driving home.
I’m grateful for the instructors over the years who stressed to me the importance of always being willing to walk away from a flight. One mental trick I use is to assume the flight will be a no-go all the way up to the completion of the Before Takeoff checklist. This way, both the airplane and the conditions need to convince me of their airworthiness. NTSB accident and incident reports are full of pilots who became too invested in their flight and continued on into poor weather or with unairworthy equipment. Mature pilots will resist that powerful temptation to fly when conditions or aircraft tell them to go home.