The recurring nightmare
After the decision to divert I am left with the unenviable task of getting down from 5500' through cloud, to an undefined cloudbase, in weather that is rapidly worsening according to those on the ground. All this without an instrument rating, with only basic VFR instrumentation.
I sit there for a minute just getting myself to relax, gaining my composure. I take a deep breath and focus on the instruments. Keeping her steady at 300' a minute descent rate, the world outside my cockpit goes that numbing grey colour that only cloud can do. Devoid of all references other than the basic 6 pack of instruments in front of me, I know I have to pay full attention. My radio is now the only link between me and Mother Earth.
As I focus on keeping wings level and the descent rate steady, I hear ATC announcing the weather conditions. 400 feet in 1000 metre visibility. This was going to be difficult. Thank goodness for the descent over the sea, at least I am unlikely to hit anything over the sea. 300 feet in 700 metre visibility. Well this is going to kill me or teach me a lot!!
200 feet in 400 metre visibility announces ATC. Oh bugger, why had I not done my IMC before now!
Yet I am remaining very rational at this point, very calm, very composed, unlike last time I had found myself in this situation. But 200'!!! At least last time I had broken cloud at 700'.
ATC ask me something simple, I think it is to check I am still up there in one piece. Passing through 700'. It is so dark, so grey, I can hear the rain against the screen. Don't look up, just look at those instruments. Passing through 500'. I start to glance out of the side window as part of my scan now. 400'. I so want to see the ocean. 300'. Come on, at least give me some light. 300' and level. Gotta just take a deep breath. Check the QNH with ATC. 1024. Roger and thanks. 250'. God it's dark out there. Glance down. Nothing but oppressive greyness. 200'. Look down. Then look up just to check I'm not upside down and the sea is maybe above me. I chuckle out loud. I must be mad. Nudge the yoke forward, 150', Dear God, I promise I will do my IMC, just let me see the ocean. Glance down. Grey. Dark. Look forward. Nothing but grey grey grey and rain on the screen. Jeez come on, this is pushing the limits just a little too far. 120'. I have got to think about climbing, this is low. Glance out. Grey. Oh wait. 100'. Grey. Water. Cold steely grey water, but water. Look forward. I can't see a damn thing. Christ that water is close. Instinctively I nudge the yoke back and I am back in cloud. Come on Andy, you know the altimeter is reading ok now. Down. Call ATC. "Broken cloud". "Roger".
Then come warnings of the power station towers and of 2 lighthouses to the southeast of the airfield. I am a little off course by now, the wind is obvious from down here. Have to turn north. But not too far north, have to miss those lighthouses.
Forward visibility is officially naff all from where I am sitting. So I concentrate on keeping level by looking out the side window at the small patch of water below. CHRIST!!!! I turn hard right as this grey object fills my side window. What the hell is a ship doing out here?!! Suddenly I am scared. Really scared. ATC say something. What was that? "Say again slowly" I ask. Ah, they are giving me a QDM - did those in my PPL training, suddenly very glad I did.
The fog clears a little and I take advantage. I am now skipping in and out the cloudbase at 200'. Should clear most ships from here anyway I think!
I spot one of the lighthouses about 500 metres to my left, drifting in and out of the fog. I steer to the right again. Just in case. Another QDM. Should be clear of those lighthouses now. Jesus I am scared. Breathe. Don't like this one bit. I am asked to call at the coast. Off heading again. Still no view out the front. Just grey. The thought actually goes through my mind that I could die out here. A picture of the poor aeroplane cartwheeling into the sea flashes through my mind. Get a grip man. Grey. Wet. Cold. Grey. Dark. Beach!! Houses!!! Thank you.
I don't know how close I am to those chimney pots, I don't care. Report field in sight!! Can't see owt but I'll try. Mustn't go too far past airfield cos I know there are power lines to the north and west. There!!! Underneath. A call of field in sight and final rolled together as I bank sharply left before I overshoot the runway beneath me. Final from 100' takes all of a couple of seconds and I am just releasing the PTT switch acknowledging my clearance to land when the wheels touch.
I am down. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Don't relax, need to get off the runway and park. Parking next to an AA5 I switch off, sit back and tremble, promising myself I will get my IMC rating before it happens for real.
As I wake up it all seems far too real. The recurring nightmare has finally convinced me to book up a course as soon as I can. I hope the following will be useful.
Much as I believe in keeping my business in the UK I have stretched the point a little and at least kept it within the English Channel.
Why? Money. Though now I have been, there are other reasons I would recommend it. All the aids you need are placed in a short distance of each other, it is a friendly professional place to be, and the aeroplanes are well maintained and equipped.
The course cost £2061. That included the written (which I had already done), as well as a Confuser and Thom Book (not req.) and all landing fees and approach fees except away from the island. It also included the exam fee, so is all inclusive in the real sense of the word. I reckoned it would have cost me in excess of £3500 in the south-east of England, to include landing fees, approach fees and so on that is rarely quoted for. How many club/school aircraft do you fly for that money in England that have twin GNS430's, everything working (dual nav instruments), modern fit and in one case Mode S transponder? The only extra was the landing fee at Cherbourg (10 Euros) and the landing fee at Alderney (£16.80, but that does include 72 hours free parking and reduces to £8 if you buy the fuel at £0.72 litre). Oh, and the course is 16.5 hours flying, including the test.
You have the added bonus of flying in Class A airspace. Because a lot of time is spent in that type of airspace the instructors tend to be IR rated so you have the ability to fly in real cloud which is rather different from flying with screens up or foggles on. Being tossed about in cumulus cloud doing NDB holds is a challenge to top most. Of course it is also possible to fly SVFR with the instructor doing the lookout whilst you work hard behind the screens. Regardless of what conditions you are flying in, the fact you are on radar all the time is reassuring, especially as the majority of the training is done over water.
Let's say I am very glad I have enough currency and P1 time to not have to worry at all about my handling of the aircraft. To be fair I had asked the guys to apply IR standards rather than IMC (and they did) and they pushed me further than necessary to pass the test, but all the same, handling the aeroplane without having to even think about it is the most important pre-requisite to my mind. The more experience as P1, the more you will gain from the experience.
To give you an idea of a typical training sortie, my day doing holds at Cherbourg would be a good example.
A typical day on the IMC course
I had certainly had a fantastic few days, however today was a change of instructor and he had been told to work me hard as it was all clicking together rather too nicely for my first instructor's liking; (the benefit of waiting a few hours before commencing the course, rather than doing it as soon as possible after the PPL).
However I have truly never worked so hard in the cockpit until today!
We were cleared to the east on runway heading, not above 1000' QNH, SVFR. As we levelled off we hoped to be able to take up a heading to intercept the relevant radial from 'JSY' VOR to put us nicely on route. However, we were cleared to climb to 2000' initially and then given radar vectors to avoid traffic. By this time the screens were already down as we were in real cloud and being bumped about accordingly.
Cleared to resume our own navigation, we then headed for the intercept of the JSY radial. Tracking along it, I kept an eye on the DME, as at 29 miles we were to track to 'MP' (an NDB) to take up the hold. In the meantime we were asked to climb to 3000'.
Tracking an NDB is not the easiest of things I have ever done and is substantially harder than tracking a VOR radial. However, the needle eventually settled down to where I wanted it and I busied myself tuning the radio to Cherbourg Tower who we would go to when we left the hold at 'MP'. In the meantime the controller at Deauville Approach was checking our intention as she had to thread a Citation onto the approach at Cherbourg.
As the needle fell away on the ADF I carried out a teardrop join to take up the hold at 'MP'. Tracking outbound for 1 minute and then turning right (rate 1 of course!) to intercept the NDB again, we watched the needle drop to the right as we passed overhead (well ok, about half a mile to the left). Turning right, we took up the hold and the next 40 minutes was spent furiously trying to get the hold spot on, as the cumulus cloud did it's utmost to thwart all efforts I made to hold heading and height. Whilst remembering to carry out FREDA checks and watching the needle and timing the outbound leg and adjusting for wind and listen hard to the instructor trying to make sense of what he was saying to me. "Turn left 20 degrees, wait for the needle to move - fly the aeroplane - you've overshot, turn right 30 degrees - watch your heading" and so on.......
Having managed a couple of reasonable efforts toward the end we descended with the procedure, adjusting for the change of wind as we descended, keeping on track, watching the needle, carefully trying not to bust any levels, leveling at minimum descent height... Look Up!! And as I did I was relieved to see the runway ahead.
The transition from IMC to visual is a hard one but I managed to land my steed on the 2440 metre runway without ripping the wheels off and we stopped for a well deserved lunch.
After lunch we then took off and established ourselves in the hold again. It went better this time and we soon were descending with the procedure to the ILS. One missed approach later, re-establish on the 'MP' NDB, watch the needle fall away and then head for Jersey.
We tracked outbound on the ADF needle for a while before tracking the JSY VOR and being accepted back into the zone for the NDB procedural approach to the ILS for R09 at EGJJ. After a little manouevering by radar vectors to avoid other traffic the workload shot up again as I remembered to tune and identify the ILS (woops!!) whilst remembering to listen to ATC, listen to Frank, hold height, heading, tracking toward the JW NDB all the while now. Kept at 2000' we received a late clearance to descend and the right turn toward the ILS came very quickly.
After some very successful ILS approaches a couple of days ago I was pretty disappointed to not be lined up exactly as the screens came away at 500'. We went around to carry out a bad weather visual circuit which was a major change form the last 3 hours flying under the hood, banking tightly round the airport on a low level circuit to a good (if slightly flat) landing.
The most critical thing I learned? Keep your cool, be organised in the cockpit and always apply the "aviate, navigate, communicate" principle all pilots know so well, but forget so easily. Know your approach/procedure plates well and also, vitally, the missed approach procedure.
What else is involved?
Your training will involve general handling on instruments much as you do on your PPL, recovery from unusual attitudes on both full panel and partial panel and general handling with various instruments failed to simulate, for example, vacuum failure.
A rather amusing moment was when my instructor put the screens up as I lined up and ordered me to take off, simulating a zero visibility take off. Somehow I managed to keep on the centreline, teaching me a valuable lesson in the process: ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INSTRUMENTS!!
We then went onto partial panel at 200' and turned to the south at 800', levelling at 1000' before being given clearance for further climb to 3000'. It makes you think hard on full panel, when you are on partial panel it becomes a challenge.
Another day will be spent being given radar vectors to the ILS. Intercepting the localiser whilst keeping an eye on the glideslope can be an interesting game, particularly in a crosswind. For someone who hasn't spent any time playing with the big boys, it was rather stimulating mixing it with 737's and the like.
One delicious moment came as we were holding for departure and were given the instruction "Line up behind the landing Fokker." How I resisted the temptation I do not know. Frank looked over at me and grinned.
Another day will consist of a navigation exercise, tracking between NDB's and VOR's, usually returning for a radar vectored approach to the ILS.
The day spent learning about VOR and NDB holds was particularly challenging as it was all new and required a good amount of concentration, particularly at keeping yourself spatially aware. I spent an extra day doing NDB holds and procedures at Alderney as my home airfield relies on an NDB approach. After returning to Jersey, taking up the VOR hold and then doing a VOR procedural approach finished with a bad weather low level circuit, it was fair to say I was tired!!
The IMC Test
Having been put through the mill over the past few days, the test was promised to be not overly taxing, according to the examiner. I wouldn't want to give too much away about what is involved, but you take off and head to the general handling area and settle into your flying. By this time you have already demonstrated that you are proficient at climbing, turning and flying straight and level on full panel.
Partial panel unusual attitudes and turns before proving you can fix your position and then back to the hold (I did the NDB hold). A few times around the hold and then the procedure to the ILS for a missed approach and low level circuit.
It was a relaxed and pleasant trip apart from when I overshot the localiser on the ILS, but got it back on track. A handshake and a broad smile later the IMC Rating was in the bag.
The benefit of gaining the IMC Rating
Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to fly out of sight of the surface in airspace up to Class D in the UK, I have come away with the ability to fly better, to tighter tolerances and have the faith in myself to navigate a lot more successfully across country using radio navigation.
The ability to climb up on top of thin stratus layers and rejoice in the sunlight is a personal favourite of mine, whilst still being able to get to where you are going.
It is one rating that is unique to the UK and we are very fortunate to be able to exercise the right to fly in IMC/under IFR with such an inexpensive rating.
Of course there are still limits; freezing levels are one important one that will still lead to cancelled flights. The advisory limits are not as high with regard to decision heights as the full IR is, but it still opens up the scope of ones flying.
I would thoroughly recommend not diving straight into the IMC rating directly on passing your PPL. The experience I had gained from 200 hours P1 meant I could concentrate on the flying without having to worry about the handling. However, I am not advocating everyone waits until then to do it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have done that many hours in the time I have, but I would say that every hour over the 10 hours P1 requirement for issue of the IMC rating would be of benefit.
If you are lucky enough to find excellent hosts like mine, whilst having a week away from the humdrum of day to day life, it makes the experience even sweeter.
Andy Reohorn February 2007