Saturday, June 30, 2007

IFR Currency

IFR Currency is something that is critical to maintain -- especially when you fly an airplane as capable as 36G. It is fun to fly VFR and look out the windows, but staying VFR throughout the range of a Mooney is darn difficult when you are based in the Midwest. It seems that every day we have some sort-of weather related problem.

NOTE: IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, which means that you are navigating by only referencing the instruments in the plane. VFR is Visual Flight Rules, which means you may use instruments, but you are primarily navigating by looking out the window. In other words, when you are flying in IFR conditions you cannot see the horizon or the ground.

36G is IFR ready, but unfortunately I'm not. To maintain IFR currency, a pilot must do a minimum of 6 instrument approaches, 1 hold, and intercept and track a course every 6 months. If this isn't maintained, you have 6 more months to get current by flying with another licensed pilot and/or flight instructor before you have to do an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC).

All in all, it had been over a year for me. First we had the major airframe upgrades and then the avionics. I simply did not have an aircraft to fly in order to maintain currency. I could have rented a plane, but my spare time was spent upgrading 36G. Nevertheless, I now had to do a full instrument competency test. The video below by Sporty's Pilot shop gives a general overview of the IPC process.

Where should I get my IPC?
The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are very specific about IFR proficiency and I am at the point where I need to do a full IPC checkout. I have the option of hiring an Instructor and flying 36G on the checkout or going to a flight training school that has the equipment to simulate flying a plane without actually being in one.

I decided that it would be best to go to a training center that specializes in complex aircraft checkouts and IPC checks. They do it day in and day out. If I pass the course, then there is no question that I am qualified to fly in Instrument Conditions (IMC). Flight instructors are self-governed, but flight training schools have specific guidelines that their instructors must follow. If their syllabus is not followed to the letter the school could loose their license and the instructor would loose their job. Consistent, focused training is the key to being successful in this type of business.

There are several advantages of training in a simulator:
  • They are cost efficient since you don't have to fuel them or fly out of busy airspace to train.
  • They are efficient since and instructor can put you nearly anywhere in the world in any flight condition in seconds.
  • If you screw up you don't kill yourself.
There are a lot of flight training schools in Chicago, but generally they employ instructors that are building time. I wanted to get training from someone that has dedicated their career to teaching. To find a location like this you pretty much have to go to a school that does nothing but teach flying in a simulator. There is only one of these types of schools in Illinois and it is at the Champaign/Urbana, IL (CMI) airport - Recurrent Training Center (RTC).

The RTC training is comprehensive and price competitive. They don't have a Mooney simulator, but they have a Turbo Bonanza A36 sim. The Bonanza performance is similar to the Mooney, so it makes a good platform for training. This will have to do since I haven't been able to find anyone with a Mooney simulator as of yet.

Another advantage of the RTC A36 sim is that it has a GNS430 GPS, which will enable me to do advanced GPS training as well. I have quite a bit of time behind a 430 in a Cirrus SR22, but there are some things that simply are not safe to do in a real airplane that you can do in a sim.

The first day at RTC starts out with some paperwork and watching training videos that cover everything from weather planning, decision making and IFR pate review. The movies are not the best quality, but the information is superb. I was surprised how much I learned form the videos.

After doing a video session or two, the next step in the training process is to familiarize yourself with the simulator. The simulator is basically a cockpit of a real plane with real instruments that have been modified to be controlled by a computer. The RTC A36 simulator has a projector mounted above it that projects what is seen in front of the plane on a screen. The resolution isn't as good as it could be, but is more than sufficient to taxi, take-off and land. The rest of the time you are in the clouds.

"Simulators are meant to teach people how to fly airplanes, but airplanes are not meant to teach you how to fly simulators," said the instructor before we started. I thought to myself how hard can it be? Turns out it is pretty hard. The simulator is much more difficult to fly than a plane, which is actually a good thing. If your attention diverts away from flying it will get away from you in a second. There is no autopilot to help you either. You fly, you read charts, you do it all without any assistance.

The first couple of hours was learning how to fly the plane. We did steep turns, approaches, takeoffs and landings and a couple of missed approaches using the traditional non-GPS avionics. After about an hour of flying, I was getting comfortable in the sim and got use to its quarks.

The next flight was after lunch. This time it was the real deal. I did well the first go around, so they were going to administer the IPC. If I passed, the rest of the training will be focused on trying to kill me. We started off at CMI and departed IFR. Immediately after taking off, I had to turn back and do a full VOR approach back into the field. As I was doing the approach, they failed the vacuum system and I lost the attitude indicator. Of course, the field was below VOR approach minimums and I had to do the missed and an intersection hold without using the GPS! I then was vectored back for the ILS, broke out at minimums and landed without incident. I passed!

GPS Approaches
The next day was all about using the GPS. We flew enroute and had to divert due to an emergency -- one including a deer on the runway while I was flaring! A million holds, a couple of DME arch's using the GPS, etc. Amazingly enough, I nailed everything they put on me. No issues, never lost control, always knew where I was, etc.

The final flight I challenged the instructor to try to kill me. For the most part I was on my game, but he did screw with me a bit on a couple of approaches.

The first was a standard T-configuration GPS approach to a missed and ending up on a hold that is on top of the initial approach fix. After going around a couple of times, he cleared me for the approach. The catch with the GNS430 that I didn't know was that after I had done the full approach to the hold it will not sequence anymore. Even if I was on top of the IAF. I had to press procedure and activate vectors to final to get the approach to activate. Never did that before -- cool!

The second almost gotcha was doing the LOC Backcource into CMI using the GNS430 as the primary system. Those familiar with a BC approach knows that when you set them up you point the back end of the HSI OBS toward the runway heading. A BC approach senses opposite of everything else. This was no big deal, I've done it 1000 times. However, when heading to the approach I discovered something. The GPS doesn't fly backcourse's. It always senses normally. You have to push the OBS button on the GPS to tell it to follow the LOC frequency instead of the GPS signal. I was flying in and hadn't changed the GPS to the LOC mode and the needle was sensing the wrong way! This can be very, very confusing. The BC is backwards, but the needle was sensing normally? It took me a second and I remembered to press the OBS key! The needle quickly swung to the right side and I was good to go. That one could really do you in if you aren't on your game.

I passed my flight training, survived the instructor trying to kill me, I'm ready to fly!

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