Instrument Training

‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit’ – Aristotle

It is bitterly cold and dark as a cave when I get to the airport. The ground and the air are both bone dry. I’m trying to get some training done before the snows come later this week.

The mission tonight is to avoid losing a fingertip to frostbite while flying my first instrument approaches.

The first part is accomplished with my lobster claws. These gloves were first introduced to me years ago for skiing. They have three fingers on each hand. My index and middle finger share a mini-mitten as do the pinky and ring finger. The opposable thumb sits alone as usual. This configuration allows most of the flexibility of a glove as well as most of the warmth of a mitten.

On my head I have a thick fur hat with ear flaps. It is much better at keeping my head warm than helping me look cool. Guess I’ll have to rely on my pilot license for that part.

Flying the approach

Leaving the world behind I get under the hood. Without any visual references I fly south on instruments, following the virtual road beamed out from a VOR at the destination.

As I prepare to descend my instructor tells me that the airport is closed and I need to enter a hold.

Holding patterns in aviation is the equivalent of getting out a deck of cards and playing war. At end of day you’re bored and have lost an hour of your life you’ll never get back. Further, holds are very rarely used in day to day flying.

Still, it’s a skill you need to have when the time arises. There are three ways of entering a hold. But before talking about that it would help to have a mental image of what a holding pattern looks like.

Imagine a racetrack in the sky. The long flat sides are flown for a minute at a time. The round ends are flown as one minute 180 degree turns. All of instrument flight is built around the notion of a “standard rate turn”. That is, one that will turn you around 360 degrees in two minutes. From that it becomes obvious that a 180 degree turn is a one minute turn. A holding pattern then becomes four one minute legs. One minute straight. One minute turn. One minute straight. One minute turn. Do it again and again until someone tells you it’s ok to stop.

It’s boring stuff.

Luckily, after a couple laps, my instructor has pity on my and clears me for the approach. I finish the hold I’m currently flying and rejoin the beam to the mothership. Next is descending to decision altitude. Since I’m flying a non-precision approach I’m going to fly at the decision altitude and look for the airport until either I see it or my hunting license expires. Since this is a training exercise under completely clear skies, all I have to do is look up and I’ll see the airport. That’s not allowed. My instructor tells me that we’re still in the clouds and I begin the missed approach procedure. This consists of a climbing right hand turn and a return to the holding pattern.

After a few more laps we declare the mission a success and head for home and warmth.

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