'128 Delta Papa, Oceanside's the Other Way!'

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After a ten-year hiatus from flying, San Diego-based Glenn Daly decided to get back into the air and study for his instrument rating. (He succeeded, and subsequently went on to earn his commercial and CFI, too.) This is Glenn's riotously funny retelling of his first actual IFR cross-country flight in Cherokee N128DP. While we don't want to spoil it for you by telling you too much, we will offer this caution: don't drink a glass of milk while reading this article, because things could get really messy.

TrainingSo, last July, Kal says to me: "Ohhh-kay." (Honest, he's straight from the cast of Fargo maybe that comes from growin' up in North Dakota.) "You've done pretty well on the practice IFR patterns with me playin' ATC. Now it's time for you to do the real thing."

Two weeks earlier I had passed my first flight review in over ten years, and on and off for the last ten days we'd been playing at IFR. We're sitting on the ramp in 128DP, a gutless Cherokee 140 with a fair-to-middlin' IFR panel. It's July, for goodness sake, and, although it's 9 am, the sweat's beginning to bead on my upper lip. (I hate that about me reminding me, as it does, of Nixon on camera.)

"Whadda-ya mean, the real thing," I said.

"You're going to call ground for a clearance. You're going to write down the clearance ... and repeat it. You're gonna talk to ATC on the radio. And you're gonna do what they tell 'ya." A two beat pause. "The real thing."

Or as close to the real thing as you can get in SoCal Skies, in July. Wearing Foggles.

"'Kay," I said, the I'm-no-crook-like beads of sweat beginning to run. I ran through the drill in my mind.

One of the many bennies of flying in SoCal is the tower en route program. Since all of SoCal is under radar coverage, and most of that's provided by SoCal Approach right up the road in Miramar, a pilot can request an IFR clearance without a flight plan, without a call to Flight Service. Just dial in ground or clearance delivery, say, "Montgomery Ground, Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, IFR request," and, quick as you can say, "Cherokee 128 Delta Papa is a PA28-140 slash Alpha, I'd like an IFR clearance to Oceanside Airport," ba-da-bing ... ba-da-boom, you've got a clearance. (It's real simple for the ground or clearance folks, too. All they've gotta do is look it up in the Airport/Facilities Directory, and read it back over the radio. Life's a beach, here in SoCal.)

So. They did. And I did. Kind of. Even though Kal had explained the C-R-A-F-T mnemonic, I still stuttered over every syllable. "Cherokee 128 Dapa Pelta is queer for Oceanside. After departure

right, er ... left turn to ... ahh ... two ... seven ... zero (God, why do I write so lousy) ... uhhh ... radar vectors to ... ahhh ... Oceanside ... and ... uhm ... ." (You get the picture? It seemed to go on for an hour, but I finally got it almost right. Oh, sure, I got the departure frequency confused with the squawk code, but, heck, I hadn't looked at a Comm radio for over ten years, and, quite frankly, the big, bad world of I FOLLOW ROADS can be pretty darn intimidating.) (Can't it?)

Fortunately, SoCal controllers are nice. They rarely laugh at bumbling, brand new IFR students at Montgomery, and, since lots of them are trainees, lots of them stumble, too. We're like one big happy club of morons, babbling gibberish at each other, drooling into our mics, praying that no one official is listening to our screw-ups.

Ready to launch

So, now, Kal and I are sitting in the run-up area at 28 Right, rehearsing what will happen. He's told me to dial the departure frequency (and not the squawk code) into the number two Comm, dial the Localizer into the number one Nav (the one with the bar in the middle that goes up and down) just in case we've gotta come back in a hurry. I've got the Oceanside VOR freq dialed into number two Nav, and I've even got the OBS set to the 326 radial that identifies Victor 23, which we'll be flying for our destination with IFR destiny. And, now, all I've gotta do is call tower and tell them I'm ready. (Yeah. Right.)

"Uhhh ... Montgomery Tower ... Cherokee 128 Pelta Dapa is unclear ... er, (what do I say, Kal?) ... oh ... 128 Peltor Shakabra is ready on the ... right? ... for, uh ... IFR release?" (Please?)

"Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, hold for IFR release."

"Uhh ... holding."

Then the momento de verdad. "Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, cleared for take-off."

I taxi onto the runway, as close to the centerline as my wobbling legs can get us, apply power, and we take off. And, just as I start to exhale, Kal hands me the Foggles. And I put them on.

And the instruments take on a malevolent sneer.

Into this topsy-turvy world, a crone-like voice cackles into my headset: "Cherokee 128 Damned to Perdition, contact the demons of Departure on one, one, niner point six. Hahahahahahaha ... have a nice flight ... and your little dog, tooooooo."

A tremor shakes my spine ... Kal, elbowing me in my ribs. He's starting to look like one of those griffins at the witch's castle.

"Well, call them," he says, scratching an arm pit.

I switch frequencies. I think. I speak into the mic and the Wicked Witch of the West shrieks again, ... , "No, 128 Damned to Perdition, one, one, niner, point, six."

I switch to Comm two.

"Uhhh ... So-so-so ... c-c-c-c-cal departure, Ch-ch-cherokee one two hate Pepper-n-Salta ... eight hundred ... thirty ... uh ... fifty ... uhh ... nine hundred and ten feet. With y-y-y-ou."

Static. Squelch. Then this god-like voice relaxed, reassuring, completely confident in him, me, life, the world says, "Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, SoCal Departure. Radar Contact. Climb and maintain 4000 feet."

Eureka! A human. And nice.

A wave of relief washes my shore, and the memory of every airline captain I've ever heard, every video I've ever watched, inspires me. My vocal chords relax. My cares melt away. My voice drops two octaves and I say, profundo basso, "128 Delta Pop, out of one point two for four."

God speaks softly, again: "128 Delta Papa, Oceanside altimeter two niner niner eight."

I am alive. I am accepted. He doesn't know I'm a toad, with no experience, no time, no talent. I'm a blip on his radar and he'll treat me just like I'm one of the big guys.

Until I start to let my 270 degree heading drift just a tad south.

Right or wrong

If you don't know San Diego airspace, Montgomery Field lies just five air miles northeast of Lindbergh Field, whose only runway runs due east and west. When they depart, the big jets almost always use 27 out of Lindbergh and, in order to speed the flow, there are three departure tracks: left to 250; the runway heading of 270; or right to 290. Which brings them a little close to little Cherokees drifting a little south of their assigned headings.

And almost right away, that friendly voice inside my headset says, "Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, you're drifting a little south. Turn right, twenty degrees."

And the pilot of 128 Damned to Perdition looks at his DG and it's moving a little to the right. And his AI is cocked a little to the left. (And it had been ten years since he had really looked at the stupid instrument and he had a hard time, then, figuring right from left.) And the compass is moving in some damned direction that he'll be damned if he can figure out. BUT, it looks to him like he's in a right bank.

And ... so ... I turn left.

There's a pause. I vaguely realize that something's not right (is, in fact, left) but I'm not certain. And Kal, the demonic monkey, isn't saying a word.

Then, in a twinkle ... and before I can really work up a good sweat or drift too far south, that friendly voice in my headset says, "Cherokee one two eight Delta Papa ... ,"

... He pauses a beat ...

... "Oceanside's the other direction."

... another beat ...

... "Turn right. NOW."

Now, the "NOW" wasn't said with malevolence. It wasn't snide or smarmy. But it did carry just this soupcon of ... how should I say ... authority ... that told me that if I didn't turn my goddamned little Cherokee to the right, right now, this instant ... I'd be the cause of the Apocalypse and World War III and ...if I somehow managed to survive the fiery collision with the 747's carrying all those trusting, innocent souls who really believed that all pilots knew left from right ... I would be dragged to the FAA's deepest dungeon in Oklahoma City, clapped into irons, and forced to shout Aeronautical Decision Making platitudes at an army of deaf Serbian bureaucrats, all of whom carried cattle prods, had pointed tails and cloven hooves.

I turned right.

Eventually, I learned left from right. Even in cloud.

It gets easier

I even became comfortable in the system. It took almost four months, and, counting the torturous check ride with 1998's CFI of the year, JC Boylls, nearly forty-six hours in the air, but I got it. And never once did I again turn left when I was told to turn right.

And I took the advice of the aforementioned Boylls virtually every trip I've made since the check ride, I've flown within the system. Once comfortable with the protocols and procedures, IFR simplifies your cross country flying. Heck, crossing LA is fun when you don't have to peer through the perpetual smog, hoping against hope that the bright light in your windscreen is sunlight reflecting from a hillside window and not a DC-9 descending into LAX.

I practice, too at least every month. Packing a safety pilot along and wearing the dreaded Foggles, or shooting approaches solo, without I make sure I stay comfortable within the system.

Is it fun? Doing anything difficult, and doing it well, learning new skills and developing precise flying habits ... well, if you're any kind of a pilot, of course it's fun. Or rewarding. (And isn't that better than fun?) There were some IFR training experiences that weren't fun ... the plateau I reached after about twenty hours and had flown numerous successful precision approaches. ILS should be the easiest approach you fly, but for some reason, and for the next ten or so hours every damned ILS I flew was high ... or right ... or left.

The VOR into OCN can be a holy terror because it requires an immediate descent from the FAF of 2500' to the MAP of 1140' within three point four NM, all the while tuning the frequencies, replying to ATC, turning the OBS, calling Oceanside CTAF, maintaining 096 degrees and the other seemingly thousands of things you're expected to do, proficiently, as an IFR icon.

Is it worthwhile?

I did it because Saint Eleanor and I have friends and family in the Bay area, others in Oregon. Do you find IMC in those places? Is the FAA bursting with bureaucrats? Besides, with the marine layer that lingers in SoCal sometimes past noon, it makes sense to have the ticket. I can fly pretty much when I like, punch up through the five hundred or thousand foot thick layer, then cancel the IFR if I want, and go on my way.

Does it make sense for you? Even if the wx where you live is CAVU 360 days a year, of course it does. Flying to IFR standards makes you a better pilot. Holding a heading within five degrees, altitude within fifty feet, makes you more precise. Flying an ILS inside the outer marker, as the tolerances diminish as you approach the runway, has to make you a better pilot. Besides, it's fun.

Well, maybe not the first few trips, when all controllers are hobgoblins and your instructor develops a simian physiognomy and your senses leave you and you mistake left for right or up for down ... but, then ... you might not have those problems. It might have just been me.