A New Approach

I got both my Private and Commercial Pilot's license sometime between 1972 and 74. The exact date of my check rides, my log book and even the original copy of the license have eluded me for years. Not that it matters. Your odds of seeing the Spruce Goose at twelve o'clock and five miles are better than seeing my dumb ass flying another airplane. It was fun at the time. However; when I began training at Big Time Tower in '74, the attending euphoria somehow addled my brain, which gave rise to a patently unwise idea. Why not go for my Instrument Rating at the same time? Sheer genius.

So, armed with only a fully instrumented Cherokee Warrior and one terrified flight instructor, I donned the IFR hood and headed skyward.

The instruments all looked so different to me from under that hood, especially the altimeter. I'd never seen that needle spin counter-clockwise so fast before! I'd never heard my instructor shout so much either but soon grew accustomed to both as, one lesson at a time, I pushed at the structural limits of that poor Warrior.

Meanwhile back at Big Time, I was plodding through the boring necessities of my training. There were dozens of Letters of Agreement to learn, frequencies and landlines to memorize, airfield diagrams and airway charts to draw and, well, you know the drill. Part of my day was also set aside for OJT. These brief respites from the academic environment provided an opportunity for my instructors to hit me where it really hurt; right in my fat but frangible ego. One of them was a guy who had actually flown fighter escort for American bombers over Nazi Germany. So, he had no qualms about shooting me down for not having the right answers or making one too many stupid moves with his traffic.

After my shift, I would go home, grab a beer and study such things as wake turbulence separation and the tower's responsibilities during a radar outage. Then I'd grab another beer and ponder the fine art of holding pattern entry over a non-directional beacon. Oh, the many "teardrops." This went on for months as my brain slowly shifted out of weight and balance from an overload of information. Then one day my flight instructor suggested I was ready for my instrument check-ride. Too dumb to disagree, I allowed him to set the date.

The check-ride began reasonably well and soon we were tooling along a nearby victor airway toward our destination. At about sixty miles out, the flight examiner said he wanted me to request an ILS approach. He also told me I could either opt for the full procedure from the Initial Approach Fix or request vectors to the final. My first mistake was just a frequency change away.

After checking in with Approach I asked for vectors to the ILS; thinking this would be much easier than messing with all those VOR radials and intersections. The controller assigned us a heading off the airway and onto what I imagined was a long base leg to the localizer. Then came the turn to final . . . and a late turn it was! We crossed the final, right to left, before I was even half-way to the assigned heading. Now left of course, I swung that Piper back to the right but it was waaay too late to save this approach. Crossing the localizer again, I turned left to chase the needle. For the next minute or so I nearly made the two of us seasick trying to find the final approach course. The glide slope? Who knows where the hell that went.

By the time we got to minimums, the examiner had a look like Mt. Rushmore. He managed to say I could cancel the IFR and head home. On landing he told me to come back in a few weeks to try again.

I learned a lot that day. No excuses. I should have gone for a missed approach immediately upon recognizing how unstable the situation had become. Perhaps I should have tried again rather than attempting to make the most of a bad situation. I would go on to see many unstable situations in my career. Sometimes a bad turn can put people too far left or right of where they need to be. Never miss the chance to start over; maybe with a new approach.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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