Earning my Keep
As is my custom when I intend to fly, I was nearly obsessively checking the weather for days prior to our departure. The forecasts for that day called for a nice cloud layer I could punch through as we departed KDPA, and marginal VFR due to precipitation and low ceilings through Ohio and Pennsylvania. There was a general risk of isolated thunderstorms, but that has been true just about every day in July. Seemed like it was a good thing I had that instrument ticket after all. So, off to the airport we went.
After loading up and all the careful rituals to increase the safety of the flight, we were ready to depart runway 10. Cleared for takeoff, I started my roll with a bit of excitement as the family was going to get to see some clouds. Then, the noise: the sound of air as if the window was open. I knew exactly what this was, so I brought the throttle to idle and announced an aborted takeoff due to an open door. Despite all my ritual, I forgot to secure the door. This was not the way to engender confidence in my newly expanded piloting skills. After securing the door properly and assuring the Banana (who was holding down the right seat) that she would not have fallen out had the door opened, we again departed runway 10.
As we began our initial climb to 3000 and switched to departure control, we were stepped up eventually to 7000. Climbing through the clouds resulted in the sounds of wonder and excitement from the Banana and the Boy that I had been anxiously anticipating. "This is COOL!" said the Banana. "Wow!" yelled the Boy. Mrs. Dr. Flying Shrink was not too sure about all of this, and read her book until we were on top of the cloud layer as trucking along toward Peotone VOR.
Soon, we were turned eastbound and direct to our first stop: Wood County (1G0) in Bowling Green, Ohio. It's a nice half-way point, and my previous experience with them was excellent. Things were getting darker with a bit more rain as we passed over Fort Wayne. By 30 miles out I had the weather, which was reported as relatively calm winds with five miles visibility and 600 scattered/2500 overcast. By the time I was handed off to Toledo approach, I had the RNAV 10 approach loaded into the Garmin, the plate open in Foreflight, the radios all tuned, and a full brief completed. Flying the approach, I broke out of the overcast layer about as advertised, but there remained additional clouds with which I needed to contend. "Keep Calm and Fly the Approach."
You see, this was far more excitement than I really wanted for my first real IMC flight as single pilot with my family on board. It was not dangerous, just a mite unnerving. At 400 feet from minimums the needles were pegged, but there was a cloud in my way. I could see the taxiway just to the right of the cloud, but I am not sure that counts as having the runway environment in site. Fortunately, the cloud was small and by 250 feet above minimums the runway was clearly in site. Our first leg concluded with a gentle touchdown.
"Good job, Papa" came from the back seat as Mrs. Dr. Shrink expressed her relief. I confess that this felt pretty good.
After taking on fuel, stretching, and making sure all the bladders had been emptied successfully, we were back in 81898 and preparing to depart. An update of the weather suggested that we would continue to have marginal VFR weather for the same reasons, and that there were some building cumulonimbus clouds out there. As I was cleared to depart, clearance delivery told me to climb and maintain 3000 and fly heading 090. We were soon airborne once again, and we were cleared to 7000... but never turned on course direct to Clearfield-Lawrence Township (KFIG). I flew this for quite some time, actually. As I looked at the radar images on the iPad courtesy of that awesome Stratus that I had purchased just a month earlier, I could see that some pretty intense storms had unleashed, and that my heading was going to steer me north of them. I hesitated to ask questions because I thought perhaps ATC new that I'd need to deviate around this anyway, and were just being proactive.
As we approached Cleveland, the sky was dark, visibility at 7000 was maybe five miles (but looked like grey nothing with no real horizon), and we had clouds below us that were on the border between scattered and broken. I could see the ground or the lake quite often, but I also flew over, under and through a lot of clouds. Just as I was about to start asking questions, the controller asks "Arrow 81898, please confirm that you are direct FIG." I confirmed this was the plan, but that I had been instructed to fly 090 upon departure and was just preparing to ask him about when that was going to change. "That's a great question. I don't know why you were given that, but you are cleared direct Clearfield." After altering course, I checked the radar picture again and saw that I would be well clear of that storm.
All was going well, and I was handed off to Youngstown. I had the approach plate open for Clearfield for the RNAV 12 approach since the winds were fairly calm but favoring 12. The METAR from Foreflight suggested that ceilings were plenty high for me to circle to 30 if that made more sense, but of course I was going to burn less gas going into 12. Then, I zoomed out to see the remainder of my flight path. "Oh, crap." This was not the most welcomed expression in the cockpit.
The radar picture showed a small but quite mighty thunderstorm right over top of DuBois, which was directly in our flight path. There was another cell to the south as well. I had just gotten the updated picture, so I started reviewing my options. Clarion County (KAXQ) was about 25 miles away, and would require some aggressive set up. I wanted to see a refreshed picture before I made a final decision. While I waited, I got the weather, selected an approach, set up the radios, and briefed the approach. I did not like the new picture any more than I liked the old one, and I advised Cleveland Center that I wanted to divert to Clarion due to en-route thunderstorms and that I wanted to fly the RNAV 6 approach.
Our decent was aggressive and I was flying much faster than usual, but I had done this many times before with my instructor on board. I instructed Ms. Dr. Flying Shrink to text my mother to let her know that we had to divert and that I would explain on the ground. I also let her know that everything was fine except for storms. At the intermediate approach fix, I configured the plane for a 90 knot approach speed - gear down, flaps 1, full RPM and 22 inches, lights, fuel pump. By the final approach fix, we were ready for our smooth decent and gentle touchdown on a somewhat wet surface.
Two hours. We sat around and tried to entertain the kids for two hours while the storms passed and eventually dissipated. The lone soul at the FBO was a kind man who stayed way past when he was supposed to go home so that we had a dry place to rest while the weather cleared.
Though the rain continued, the storms were gone and we were high tailing it because another storm was 90 miles away from our route again. The flight to KFIG from there was uneventful. I was high on the RNAV 12 approach as it was a series of step-down fixes rather than an LPV, and I underestimated how quickly I had to descend. No matter. The Arrow does great with the chop and drop method, and by 1 mile final was on glide path, on airspeed, and stable - with the airport in site. 5.4 in the log book for that day, plenty of actual instrument time, and three approaches. Not too shabby.
The Next Day
The next day, Mrs. Dr. Flying Shrink and I headed off to Princeton, New Jersey (39N) for a day of rest and alone time before going to meet friends. The weather was Marginal VFR (like barely) at KFIG, and was better in Princeton. After snuggling the Banana and the Boy for a few more minutes, we were off and airborne. It was not long before we were working our way up through the clouds. We broke out and had a nice clear ride for much of the way. We had some clouds to fly through that turned out to be somewhat turbulent. Just as I was entering one of them, I was given a frequency change. That was some fun multitasking - aviate first, tune radios later. About 10 minutes later, I was given a route change and needed to copy and program the GPS. This time, I told the controller to standby because I was in a bumpy cloud. Autopilot engaged, which reduced the workload a little.
I was sent to the Solberg VOR, which completely screwed my my approach plans. Recalling that there was a VOR-A approach from the north into 39N, I pulled it up and to my pleasure found that it originated at this VOR. Perfect. I tuned radios, identified the VOR, and briefed the approach so that when I was handed off to New York I would be ready. I was flying through the clouds, so an approach was required. I was pleased with how I flew this approach, but was easier than the day before as I broke out 1800 feet above the ground and a few miles from the field. I did require a go around because I was too high and figured discretion was the better part of valor here.
After a nice day walking around the university area and staying at an Inn located in a house built in the 1760s, we were back to the airport. A check of the weather showed forecasts that suggested a VFR flight was possible for our travel to Allentown -Queen City (KXLL). "But I'm instrument rated and CAN file an IFR flight plan, so I will." I complained bitterly about the route was given, and the goofy change made that my GPS programming skills did not like. Just as I was questioning the wisdom of the IFR plan, I noticed just how low the cloud layer really was. It turned out that I had even more cloud time and had to fly an approach into XLL was well. The bummer about this was that the only approaches into Queen City are from the west.
Winds were gusty and favoring 33, but there was a note that circling south of runway 7 was not authorized. "Well, why ever not?" As I finally broke out of the clouds, I could see why - a sizable hill with towers to the south and west of the field. "Oh, that." However, I leveled off at pattern altitude and flew a normal pattern entry and landing on 33. I suppose that one could argue that this was technically circling, but I argue that ceiling and visibility were such that flying VFR and a normal pattern made complete sense but I needed to fly an approach to get down from above the overcast layer. At 700 feet AGL, it did not make sense.
The Long Journey Home
Sunday morning, we got up and KXLL was solid IFR. That was not a surprise to me but I wanted to see things open up a bit before taking off. Always study those alternative minimums. Winds were favoring departure on 15, which was not authorized. It would have to be runway 7, but there was a specific departure procedure about which I took notes so as to remember - there were those nasty towers out there, remember?
I decided I wanted to climb out at best angle, which took some getting used to and monitoring. I got a bit slow, which raised my pulse considerably. Reduce the pitch angle, man. It was solid IFR for quite awhile until we broke out above the overcast layer. An approach to DuBois might not have been needed had I been able to get down to the MEA. Flying the approach to 25, the tail was skimming the bottom of the clouds by the intermediate fix.
We picked up the kids and had some lunch before departing to Wood County. I figured out why it is so important to cancel your IFR flight plan. I sat for 10 minutes with the engine running while I waited to depart because there was a flight out there that should have landed but had not cancelled. I called for this aircraft on the CTAF, but no joy. However, it was the United commuter that I had seen land and taxi to the terminal building. Sigh...
We were finally off, and things were pretty bumpy. Things were calm at 5000 and the controller allowed us to stay there, but eventually we were moved down to 4000. It was a trade off as the clouds were a bit turbulent and we were not going to get above them comfortably. Things were a bit turbulent at 4000 as well.
A visual approach into Wood County and a smooth landing. We had to wait a bit as the fuel pumps were a happening place with some folks on the field and some transient traffic flying a Cub or Cub-a-like aircraft to Oshkosh. They ended up departing ahead of us. Now, that had me worried because that thing motors along at about 80 knots and I would hit 130. Since it had no transponder, I knew that ATC was not going to see them. I tried to raise them on the radio (they had a portable) but that did not happen. I watched like a hawk for about 15 miles, and was then satisfied that I was now past them.
The flight to KDPA was relatively uneventful, but I can say that I was VERY happy to touch down on 28. It had been about 614 nautical miles and just over 7 hours flight time. We had some nasty head winds that gave us a ground speed of about 100 knots on a TAS of 130. My longest day and distance of flying to date.
Important lessons taken away from these flights
1. The experience of being dumped on an approach or executing them in a rapid-fire succession is very good practice, but it is not how I found myself operating on any of these flights. I took my time, set things up as early as possible, and briefed approaches twice as I usually had that luxury.
2. If something seems strange from the controller or an instruction that results in you getting back on course is not forthcoming, ask questions.
3. It is hard to sit here after diverting and second guessing my decision, but I think that a review of my decision making is in order. First, it was a perfectly reasonable and acceptable decision to land and sort it out on the ground, even though that meant sitting around for over two hours. Few people have died from making the very conservative decision. However, I wish I had discussed my situation with the controller or had a conversation with Flight Watch before diverting. My thought process was that I had storms in my way. diversion south was out, and under no circumstances could I justify trying to thread that needle with ADS-B weather. But I might have been able to go north, and even perhaps go far enough east to fly an approach to 30 and circle if an approach to 12 was not an option. If it was good enough to circle going into 12, then it was probably good enough to circle from 30. While I might have gotten confirmation that my decision was the right one, I might have had another option that I did not consider.
4. I have this idea that I should just fly through clouds because I'm a rated and current pilot on an instrument flight plan. While true, some clouds are fun and others... not so much. It really is ok to request a deviation.
5. Things just take longer than you plan them to.
6. I want to use the autopilot less. I found myself using it quite a bit particularly in the clouds to add a margin of safety. I can't say that this is bad, but I want to keep my skills sharp and sharpening. I try to use the autopilot only when I need to reduce my workload as I prepare for an approach.
7. Communicating with my family is helpful. I received feedback that I get a very intense look on my face at certain points: landing, flying an approach, or in the clouds. It's hard for my family to know if I am just needing this much focus (yes!) or if something is wrong. I suppose that means "managing anxiety" comes with being pilot in command.
On a final note, with this flight I crossed over 100 hours for the year. I was stoked about that because I already met my yearly goal, and it was only the end of July. Good thing... December is coming.