So, last July, Kal says to me: “Ohhh-kay.” (Honest,he’s straight from the cast of Fargo – maybe that comes from growin’ up inNorth 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 offfor the last ten days we’d been playing at IFR. We’re sitting on the ramp in 128DP, agutless 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 theclearance … and repeat it. You’re gonna talk to ATC on the radio. And you’re gonna dowhat 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 ranthrough the drill in my mind.
One of the many bennies of flying in SoCal is the tower en route program. Since all ofSoCal is under radar coverage, and most of that’s provided by SoCal Approach right up theroad in Miramar, a pilot can request an IFR clearance without a flight plan, without acall to Flight Service. Just dial in ground or clearance delivery, say, “MontgomeryGround, 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 toOceanside Airport,” ba-da-bing … ba-da-boom, you’ve got a clearance. (It’s realsimple for the ground or clearance folks, too. All they’ve gotta do is look it up in theAirport/Facilities Directory, and read it back over the radio. Life’s a beach, here inSoCal.)
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 forOceanside. After departure
right, er … left turn to … ahh … two … seven … zero (God, why do I write solousy) … 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’tlooked at a Comm radio for over ten years, and, quite frankly, the big, bad world of IFOLLOW ROADS can be pretty darn intimidating.) (Can’t it?)
Fortunately, SoCal controllers are nice. They rarely laugh at bumbling, brand new IFRstudents 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 intoour 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 willhappen. He’s told me to dial the departure frequency (and not the squawk code) into thenumber two Comm, dial the Localizer into the number one Nav (the one with the bar in themiddle that goes up and down) just in case we’ve gotta come back in a hurry. I’ve got theOceanside VOR freq dialed into number two Nav, and I’ve even got the OBS set to the 326radial that identifies Victor 23, which we’ll be flying for our destination with IFRdestiny. 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 doI say, Kal?) … oh … 128 Peltor Shakabra is ready on the … right? … for, uh … IFRrelease?” (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: “Cherokee128 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 likeone 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 Westshrieks 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 hatePepper-n-Salta … eight hundred … thirty … uh … fifty … uhh … nine hundred andten feet. With y-y-y-ou.”
Static. Squelch. Then this god-like voice – relaxed, reassuring, completely confidentin him, me, life, the world – says, “Cherokee 128 Delta Papa, SoCal Departure. RadarContact. 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 everheard, every video I’ve ever watched, inspires me. My vocal chords relax. My cares meltaway. My voice drops two octaves and I say, profundo basso, “128 Delta Pop, out ofone point two for four.”
God speaks softly, again: “128 Delta Papa, Oceanside altimeter two niner ninereight.”
I am alive. I am accepted. He doesn’t know I’m a toad, with no experience, no time, notalent. 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 milesnortheast 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, thereare three departure tracks: left to 250; the runway heading of 270; or right to 290. Whichbrings them a little close to little Cherokees drifting a little south of their assignedheadings.
And almost right away, that friendly voice inside my headset says, “Cherokee 128Delta 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 tothe right. And his AI is cocked a little to the left. (And it had been ten years since hehad really looked at the stupid instrument and he had a hard time, then, figuring rightfrom left.) And the compass is moving in some damned direction that he’ll be damned if hecan 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) butI’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 farsouth, 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. Butit did carry just this soupcon of … how should I say … authority … that told me thatif 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 tosurvive the fiery collision with the 747’s carrying all those trusting, innocent souls whoreally believed that all pilots knew left from right … I would be dragged to the FAA’sdeepest dungeon in Oklahoma City, clapped into irons, and forced to shout AeronauticalDecision Making platitudes at an army of deaf Serbian bureaucrats, all of whom carriedcattle 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 thetorturous check ride with 1998’s CFI of the year, JC Boylls, nearly forty-six hours in theair, 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 madesince the check ride, I’ve flown within the system. Once comfortable with the protocolsand procedures, IFR simplifies your cross country flying. Heck, crossing LA is fun whenyou don’t have to peer through the perpetual smog, hoping against hope that the brightlight in your windscreen is sunlight reflecting from a hillside window and not a DC-9descending into LAX.
I practice, too – at least every month. Packing a safety pilot along and wearing thedreaded Foggles, or shooting approaches solo, without – I make sure I stay comfortablewithin the system.
Is it fun? Doing anything difficult, and doing it well, learning new skills anddeveloping precise flying habits … well, if you’re any kind of a pilot, of course it’sfun. Or rewarding. (And isn’t that better than fun?) There were some IFR trainingexperiences that weren’t fun … the plateau I reached after about twenty hours and hadflown numerous successful precision approaches. ILS should be the easiest approach youfly, but for some reason, and for the next ten or so hours – every damned ILS I flew washigh … or right … or left.
The VOR into OCN can be a holy terror because it requires an immediate descent from theFAF of 2500′ to the MAP of 1140′ within three point four NM, all the while tuning thefrequencies, replying to ATC, turning the OBS, calling Oceanside CTAF, maintaining 096degrees 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 inOregon. 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 havethe ticket. I can fly pretty much when I like, punch up through the five hundred orthousand 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, ofcourse it does. Flying to IFR standards makes you a better pilot. Holding a heading withinfive degrees, altitude within fifty feet, makes you more precise. Flying an ILS inside theouter marker, as the tolerances diminish as you approach the runway, has to make you abetter pilot. Besides, it’s fun.
Well, maybe not the first few trips, when all controllers are hobgoblins and yourinstructor develops a simian physiognomy and your senses leave you and you mistake leftfor right or up for down … but, then … you might not have those problems. It mighthave just been me.