Climbing through the soup 08 Aug 2013
aviation flying vfrstudentpilot

With increasingly foggy and overcast weekday mornings, my flight instructor and I have had a few missed lessons due to clouds. This past Tuesday he decided to file an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan to get us out of Hayward and to another part of the region with clearer skies.

That in mind, I arrived at the airport early and started checking the weather. Not only did Hayward have low ceilings, so did Oakland, Livermore and Concord. Fortunately for us, we were planning on heading even further east of Livermore, to Byron.

While preflighting 738VU, we discussed some of the game plan for getting out of Hayward. My instructor would work the radios to a large extent, but I would be flying the actual departure. I’m not instrument rated by a long shot, but fortunately the FAA has deemed some flying through the clouds as necessary to ensure the VFR pilot’s safety, and I have to log 3 hours anyways. Most student pilots accrue their hours by wearing goggles, or a hood that simulates clouds. Lucky for me, I would be logging cloud-time when in real clouds.

“We’re going to climb to 600 feet, then turn left to 160 okay? Keep your eyes on the panel, even if you look up for a second you’ll start to get disoriented”

I pondered that last sentence for few minutes while we waited for our “hold” to clear on the taxiway. Hayward Tower needed to poke a hole in Oakland’s approach sequence to let our puny little 172 fly through their flight path.

“Not even a second? Shit.” I think to myself. I kind of wanted to look out the windshield into the white abyss as we passed through the clouds. I wonder if it really takes a second, surely I could sneak one quick look couldn’t I?

Tower’s cleared us for departure, I line up on the runway, take a deep breath and cram the throttle forward. After rotation, we still have about 1000 feet before the bases of the clouds. I focus intensely on keeping our heading, first 285 until we reach 600ft, then I turn left to 160 and zero in on my panel. In my peripheral vision I can see the buildings below on the left, so I focus even more intently on my panel.

And we’re in the clouds.

738VU has a funky panel, there’s this nice digital display which sits smack in the middle of the left panel. Attitude indicator, wind speed, heading indicator, vertical speed indicator, turn coordinator, altimeter, and probably 5-6 other bits of data on this 4” by 8” screen.

My eyes darting between the bearing on the heading indicator and the attitude indicator. As long as I keep our wings level and climbing, and so long as we stay on the right heading, we’ll survive and the controller won’t bark at me on the radio. I don’t even see the clouds,

I barely notice any white soup in my periphery, we continue climbing.

The controller instructs us to turn to 180. Normally, I’m fond of hearty 30 degree turns, but in IFR, you’re supposed to keep it at 15 degree “standard rate turns.” Gingerly I move the yoke and depress the rudder pedal, hyperfocused on the panel. We continue climbing.

We pop out of the soup at about 2300ft, make one more turn to 090, and continue climbing.

Leveling off at 3500ft, I’m finally able to really take in the spectacle of a mat of clouds covering the expanse from Hayward to Mount Diablo. The controller informs us of traffic at our 11 o’clock, a Boeing 777. The radio and the skies are silent, nothing existed but my instructor, myself and the tubby Boeing heading southward.

Byron sits on the eastern side of a range of hills which successfully keep the clouds penned in to the west. What it lacked in clouds, Byron made up for in wind, around 16 knots from the south west. With the field to ourselves, we started our landing work.

First circuit and approach was laughably sloppy.

Second circuit wasn’t much better, but I was at least getting my bearings correct, even though I hadn’t landed with such forceful winds before.

Third time around, “turn downwind here” the right seat commands. Dutifully I turn left, assuming he’s not been happy with my typical “B-52 patterns.”

“Make the runway” he states after yanking the power out.

Oh right, we’re practicing that while we’re here too. I quickly roll the trim wheel all the way down and we balloon up to best-glide, starting the emergency landing process. We go through a few more circuits, and a few more emergency landings, short, and soft-field landings.

Before leaving, we line up for runway 30, instead of 23 which we had been using. We intentionally approach the wrong runway so my instructor can demonstrate what maximum cross-wind component means for the Cessna 172. The handbook for the plane puts it at 15 knots of direct (90 degree) cross-wind, we had 16.

Descending through 200 feet, trying to maintain centerline, I run out of rudder, and the wind just continues to push us right of the runway. There’s no way I’m landing in this much cross-wind, if this were a non-lesson, I would be diverting to another field or runway with more favorable conditions. We terminate the exercise at about 100ft, I make a turbulent right turn and we depart the field, back towards Hayward.

At our cruising altitude my instructor reaches into the back seat and pulls out his IFR training glasses.

“Put these on”

My sunglasses come off, and the dork-goggles come on, restricting my vision to just the instrument panel. He picks up IFR clearance with the controller again, and we start to get vectored into position to make an approach into Hayward. As with our departure, I’m hyperfocused on the panel, trying to keep my heading while making boring standard rate turns.

Entering the soup, I start shadowing the controls more. I can’t see him in my peripheral vision, but I know he’s lining up our approach, looking at the panel on the left side of the plane from his seat on the right.

Dork goggles on, in clouds, lining up an approach, I’m not even flying the plane and I’m stressed.

We descend out of the clouds around 1300ft and I am given full controls back with the instruction “give me one more soft-field landing.”

A light jolt and chirp of the wheels and 738VU is on the ground, with 1 and a half pilots who just safely navigated the abyss.

We shutdown and secure the plane, my instructor and I both beaming, thrilled to have gotten some instrument flying in.

I didn’t have much time to revel in the accomplishment, and hustled off to a regular work day. shifting one set of stresses and joys out of my head for another completely different one.

The double life continues.