IFR CX

It's so much fun to look up and see so many new kinds of skies and think, "Looks like flying weather to me!" In early April of 1994, I created a "personal reading week" -- off work just to read and fly. It was a great success. I made four flights: One short cross-country to Charlottesville; one practicing approaches; and a long cross-country that ended up in two parts, thanks to a loose alternator belt. In retrospect, that was very helpful for several reasons, too.

I watched several IFR instruction videos, and plotted out at least one more flight plan route than I needed, so I got lots of practice at that, too. I re-discovered that I like doing flight plans for many reasons -- the best of which is that it is in so many ways the foundation for a successful flight.

I visualized procedures -- which improved strongly all week, and were especially good on Sunday's final round trip to Richmond -- and affirmed many different aspects of the skills I needed. I finally broke through a significant wall when I applied one of the premises presented in a tapes on the psychology of achievement: my mind already has all the information it needs in order to solve problems or perform tasks well.

Flying is a mental game, as became clear to me when working on the NDB. If I give my mind a task to work on just before bed, it can work on it while I sleep. Therefore, I decided to apply this to flying: I already know a great deal of the theory I need in order to fly well. I just need to relax and let my mind bring it all into high gear for me, ordered and complete, instead of fighting some mental concept of an enormous, barely manageable, task list.

I made sure to get my flight plans done the night before, including a look at the frequencies I'd need, and the order in which I expected to do things. I then reviewed and checked weather first thing in the morning and filed from home before going out to the airport.

The Monday Charlottesville flight included some time in actual, but was otherwise calm and uneventful. One controller hit me with a whole stream of clearance without asking if I was ready for it -- my instructor laughed, because I had occasioned a similar situation when leaving Manassas by saying the wrong thing to ground control, so I had taken particular care at Charlottesville to say the right things not to trigger that, and it had happened anyway.

I got behind in my preparations on Tuesday, and also got confused about the lesson time I was told to expect, and so ended up unprepared to fly the long cross-country that night. When that became obvious, I asked my instructor if we could change the lesson plan and do the long flight the next time, and he agreed. The approaches were overall very good; I need to be more precise about ensuring that airplane is set up for landing speed once I pass the FAF, so that I won't be fast and land long when I break out.

Thursday was the x-c from Manassas to Easton NDB to Salisbury VOR to Richmond ILS and back to Manassas. Or, it was supposed to be. My instructor really wanted to fly one of my favourite airplanes that had just come back from refit after an accident last fall. So we changed from 172 to Warrior at the last minute, I updated the flight plan, and away we went.

It was 6 pm and a very busy time for the DCA controller. Much traffic and it took a lot of attention to keep the communications sorted out. The BOSE headset earned its keep: it reduced the stress of being unable to hear ATC by a factor of three at least. I have yet to figure out how to pad the ends of my splendid Serengetis so that they don't gouge painful troughs in the side of my skull behind my ears, however. We had trouble picking up the NDB at Easton until we were very close to it, and had to get vectors til were about four or five mile out. It seemed to take a lot of effort to stay on course and altitude, though, right through to Salisbury. Shot the miss at Easton, and tooled along to Salisbury, where we had a fuel stop planned.

One of the com radios displays flickered and then came back when I was changing frequencies along the way. Several military Kingairs were doing touch&go practice, and the airport was about as torn up from runway and taxiway repairs as the notam had indicated. Fuelled, reviewed the flight so far, did a walk around.

When I started up, I noticed an unfamiliar smell. I asked my instructor whether he smelled it and recognized it. "New paint" he said. I ran through the rest of the checklist. Number two Com was being cantankerous from the word go, but everything else on the checklist, including COM1, seemed to check out. We left.

By now, it was dark, but earlier bumpy conditions had calmed some, there was much less traffic around, and I was flying well. About 20 miles out, I stopped Tom mid-sentence and asked if he heard a quiet but high-pitched periodic noise. It was a while before he did. Then we both saw that the pulse corresponded to the OM light...but also was in cycle with the strobes. Then the number two NAV went down, and I noticed that the panel lights had dimmed. We were clearly losing electrical. NAV/COM 1 held out the longest. We dialled in 7600, but as it takes so much more energy to transmit than to receive, when we went to notify ATC that we had a problem, we lost the radio entirely. Afterwards, the tower told us that they never did pick up the NORDO squawk.

Well. It was an eerie kind of calm, actually. A fine night. I still had a flight plan, and DME was still working and dialled in; we had made the last heading change and were about 40 miles out from Richmond. I held heading and altitude for about another 20 miles, and then came out of the hood. A nice night not to be in the soup, all told. We tried bringing electrical back from time to time, occasionally picking up the tower and trying to communicate, but losing them again when we did. They said they basically got all our transmissions. We got ready to land. Richmond tower lit up one of the smaller runways just for us -- we couldn't see any light signals from the tower -- and my no-landing-light experience turned out to have been useful.

It was midnight. My instructor rented a car and we drove back to Manassas, arriving there around 2 a.m. I got home about 3 am.

Next day, the instructor called up; he had gone back with a mechanic to Richmond to get the plane. "Did you check the alternator belt?" he asked. "I know you always do on the 172; I watch you do the walk around." Well, no, I didn't think so; I couldn't visualize an easily accessible one on the nose of the Warrior, and I knew I didn't reach in and feel for one when I had the cowl open. In fact, I had never checked an alternator belt on a Warrior before, I thought to myself. ( On Sunday, I went and deliberately found out where it was). "Well, it was loose. We were just draining the battery all the way."

That seemed odd to me; I was sure I had done my checklist and not missed any steps. Sure enough, when I went back on Sunday and looked at the checklist carefully, there was not the same line item as I was used to on the 172 to check ammeter/alternator. I asked the instructor about that. We both pondered it for a moment, and then he pointed out that (a) checklists can't have everything on them, and....(b) the line item "check annunciator panel" entails pressing a button and looking to ensure that all three in a little set of lights light up. I had only checked to see that something lit up when I hit the button. For some reason, I can clearly picture the middle one of that bunch NOT lit. Hm.

A useful experience for several reasons: I learned that I had a calm reaction to an aircraft system failure, and succeeded in flying safely despite it. This was very encouraging.

I learned what I'm supposed to be checking when I hit the annunciator panel light.

I learned where the alternator belt is on the Warrior.

And I got to fly another flight on Sunday to Richmond and back to complete the trip requirements, which got me a very valuable and encouraging instrument x-c that otherwise I probably wouldn't have done. That flight went VERY well indeed, in spite of thirty-plus knots of wind at altitude, and an abrupt transition to what the FSS described as "rock and roll" at 5000 feet.

Basic needs now are: maintaining precise heading and altitude -- which means not AIMING for 100 +/- (which is what I realized I had set my mental bit for), but aiming for RIGHT ON; and setting up the airplane so that I'm ready to land at the right speed when I reach approach minimums.

Oh, yeah, and it was Great Fun. :>

Got to polish some rough edges, but I'm going to get there.

(Yes, and what did the wise and ever-critical E-pilot think of such misadventure? Click to find out...)

Next: Debrief with E-pilot

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