IFR Diary, Day 4:  Monday, August 30

The First Day I Died

     Today was the low point in my training.  It was also the day I
     learned that IFR flying is as much about character as skill.

     For some reason, Charles wanted to do the VOR approach into Oakdale,
     a little burg a few miles NW of Modesto. As we took off, he said "I
     noticed that you don't hold altitude very tightly.  While on our way
     to Oakdale, try very hard to keep it within 100 feet."  Try as I
     might, I kept porpoising plus and minus 200 feet.  He watched this
     very closely.  "Why can't you do it?"  I offered a feeble reply that
     I actually half-believed:  "Grumman Tigers are very twitchy and hard
     to trim."

     He didn't say much, but after watching me for a few minutes said, "I
     know what your problem is--you're a smoothie. You fly with trim and
     the VSI."  While I was conjuring up a counter argument and a
     defense, he reached over and covered my VSI and simultaneously
     reduced throttle by about 200 RPM.  "Now I want you to NAIL that
     altimeter at 5000 ft and keep your hands off the trim wheel."  I was
     all over the place--I could still keep the porpoising excursions to
     plus and minus 200 feet, but the oscillations were now faster. Now
     Charles said, this time with slightly more authority in his voice,
     "Stop trying to be smooth. Smooth doesn't count."

     Things got a little better as I began to be more aggressive.
     "Look," grumbled Charles, "the instant you see the altimeter moving
     off, you do whatever you have to get it back.  And do it NOW!"  Over
     the next few hours I yanked and pushed the airplane--sometimes quite
     violently--back to altitude, all the while fighting enough nose-down
     trim to make it seem like work.  I made myself quite barfy and
     secretly wished the same on Charles.

     We flew the approach at Oakdale--a harmless little straight-in with
     466' minimums on desperately flat terrain.  The "normal" approach
     uses the VOR for the initial approach fix, so requires no procedure
     turn.  There is, however, a holding pattern in lieu of a procedure
     turn over another initial approach fix.  Once established in the
     hold, the same fix becomes the final approach fix.  Charles caught
     me off guard by letting me get about a half a mile from the final
     approach fix then instructing me to hold--this at 2000 ft.

     Entry into the hold was direct and aligned with the approach course,
     so no maneuvering was necessary.  I started my timer at the outbound
     wings-level point and after one minute turned inbound.  After roll-
     out I seemed to be quite a bit south of the inbound course, so I set
     up a healthy intercept.  This might have required 15 seconds. Then I
     casually glanced at the DME to check distance to the fix. "Whoa!
     What's wrong with this picture," I thought, then said aloud "the DME
     says we're past the fix--how can this be?"  My mind went numb, began
     to fumble, and then I threw up my hands: "Help!"

     "Help you do what?" Charles asked politely.   His Socratic method
     was quickly growing thin. I raised my voice, "Help me get into this
     hold." Charles dropped his mask of feigned politeness and said
     normally, "Now you've got a crisis entry on your hands: you're out
     of protected airspace, you're in the clouds, and you're confused.
     Execute the crisis pattern entry.  This I could do. Somehow I
     sloshed the airplane around to course and got it headed back to the
     fix, where I again set my timer.

     It took me about four turns around the pattern before I finally
     figured out that I was dealing with a monstrous quartering tailwind.
     The outbound leg was 3.5 minutes with 40 degrees of correction.
     After landing (circling, of course), we debriefed this "simple
     little approach." I then remembered the smile on Charles face when I
     had referred to his hold on the PC simulator as being

     One of the purposes of the trip to Oakdale was to practice filing
     from a non-tower airport without an IFR departure procedure.  We
     wanted to go back to the Bay Area via Concord, where we would shoot
     the VOR approach before calling it a day.  To avoid delays, Charles
     had me file a plan that began at WRAPS intersection, the nearest
     enroute fix to Oakdale (and part of its missed approach).  "Tell
     them to clear us now to WRAPS and we'll pick up the rest of our
     clearance there," he said.  The briefer at the FSS dryly pointed out
     that it was a perfect VFR day and we didn't need a clearance to
     WRAPS.  Charles took the phone and talked to the briefer for a few
     seconds. He then scribbled the following" Grumman N74613 is cleared
     from Oakdale airport to WRAPS intersection.  Frequency

     "How do we get ourselves to WRAPS safely without an IFR departure
     procedure?" I asked.  "If there's no approach, you're on your own
     and will have to figure out a procedure from your VFR maps." Charles
     always refers to them as maps.  "For airports with an IFR approach,
     you can usually use the missed approach as a departure
     procedure...just make certain to climb to the MDA before starting

     We did just that.  "Get us to WRAPS," said Charles. The glassy
     morning air over the San Joaquin Valley had turned in the afternoon
     to a slight, unpleasant chop.  At minimums I pulled down my Foggles,
     turned to an intercept course for WRAPS and settled back.

     Then Charles took away my attitude indicator. Left hook in the gut.
     "Ah!" My gasp broke squelch on the intercom.  Just as I got enough
     wind back to protest, he took away my DG.   Right cross to the
     temple. "Come on, Charles. I can't do this.  Give me back one of
     them." He repeated more firmly, "Get us to WRAPS."  Somehow I cut a
     deal with the compass and got the plane sloshing toward WRAPS. My
     altitude control was back to its old tricks.

     About two miles out, I called Stockton Approach for my clearance on
     to Concord.  "Grumman 74613, standby."  "OK," I mumbled to myself
     without thinking.  As I got close to WRAPS, Charles pointed to the
     clearance on my knee-board.  He could see the shock on my face as I
     realized what was about to happen.  He then asked, "What must you do
     when reaching your clearance limit?"   "Hold?" I asked, already
     knowing the answer. "Do it!" he said.  Uppercut.

     I cranked in a more-or-less standard-rate turn and glanced up at the
     drunken compass.  Its looniness cracked me.  "Charles," I shouted
     incoherently, "This is unfair. It's too much to expect!"  For the
     first time he raised his voice above a normal conversational tone.
     "Look!  Put your emotions in your back pocket, stop feeling sorry
     for yourself, and fly this airplane.  Do the best you can and we'll
     work from there." I felt chastened like a child. "OK...OK," I
     thought.  I flashed back to what Charles had said during our sample
     lesson the week before, "I want to show you that what I'll be asking
     of you is not impossible.  Remember this when you're screaming at me
     for being unfair."

     "Grumman 74613 advise when ready to copy," said the voice on the
     radio.  I hit the canvas. Out of the corner of my eye I looked for
     Charles to key up his PTT or take out his pen, but deep down I knew
     he wasn't going to.  After a few seconds I went numb and said, "613
     ready to copy."  It was mercifully short:  "613 is cleared from
     WRAPS intersection to the Concord VOR as filed."  I didn't even
     bother to write it down.

     As I realized that my holding pattern had become just a blob nowhere
     near WRAPS, I said angrily, "Charles! I've had enough of this shit!
     Give me back my DG."  At just that moment in the turn, the sun
     flashed into the cabin. I thought I could discern the beginnings of
     two small bumps sprouting from his forehead. "No way," he said.  For
     an instant I thought he had said "Nevermore."

     The 20-minute route to Concord was direct, so if I could just keep
     the wings level and sort of hold altitude, I could steal a few
     minutes to recover normal human emotions.  No such luck. After a
     couple of minutes, I heard "Start setting up for VOR 19R at Concord.
     By the way, you shouldn't have accepted that partial clearance to
     WRAPS without an EFC."  I suspected that he had somehow arranged for
     my clearance not to be ready at WRAPS.

     Somewhat annoyed and struggling mightily with the silly compass, I
     dredged up the Concord VOR 19R approach plate and used the equipment
     stack as a check list for the approach. I knew from VFR experience
     that this was not going to be a picnic. By now the wind would be
     howling off Suisun Bay and swirling inland over Concord. Nasty
     little shears lurk on final the year round.

     This approach was the first time I actually died.  The VOR is the
     final approach fix and the course dog-legs there 20 degrees. I may
     have noticed this during my pre-approach setup, but I was so far
     behind the airplane that I must have left fingernail marks on the
     elevators.  In any case, so corrosive was my fatigue that I
     completely missed the turn.  After I had mindlessly tracked the
     wrong course inbound for a few seconds, Charles had me lift my
     Foggles.  Directly in front and coming up at 105 mph was a huge oil
     refinery.  "This is serious business," he said.

     Nine, ten, and out.

     "How about I fly us home and you rest," he said gently.  I let out a
     deep breath and slumped down in the seat and closed my eyes.
     "Sometimes I would be weeping," Ilene had said.  That night I called
     and cried on her shoulder.

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