My first flight in actual IMC as an instrument student

I started my flight training on January 19, 2008, taking instruction as I could, and received my Private Pilot Certificate on July 21, 2009. At that time, I thought my practical test was hard, that is, until I started working on an instrument rating.

I had been working with my friend and neighbor, Jack, on an instrument rating. On October 17, 2013, Jack called and said, “It’s a great day for some instrument work.” Shortly after, we headed out to the airport. Jack has been flying for 66 years, starting at the age of 20. Yes, that’s correct. If you do the math, you’ll see he was 86 years old at the time and flew a plane like it was second nature to him, both VFR and IFR. It was a joy to watch him fly his Cessna 150 or his Piper Aztec, both of which he handled like dear old friends. It was also a joy to work with him on this instrument rating.

WV sectional
There are enough mountains in West Virginia to get your attention, especially in a Cessna 150.

We discussed flying to Bluefield, West Virginia, only 30 NM to the south. The first thing he had me do was get a weather briefing. The conditions at Beckley, WV (KBKW), our home airport, were forecast to be winds at 190 degrees at 6 knots, visibility plus 6 SM, rain showers and overcast at 2000 feet. At Bluefield, WV (KBLF), the conditions were forecast to be winds at 230 degrees at 7 knots, visibility plus 6 SM, rain showers and overcast at 2500 feet, with IFR conditions en route. After the weather briefing, I completed the pre-flight, calculated how much fuel I needed, completed the weight and balance of the plane, and called for fuel. After fueling, I then filed a round robin IFR Flight Plan from KBKW to KBLF and back and was ready to go. We were flying the Cessna 150, which is a fantastic little plane and fun to fly.

After getting my clearance from Charleston, WV (KCRW), because KBKW and KBLF are both non-towered airports, we departed KBKW on Runway 28 at 11:00 am and entered instrument conditions at approximately 4900 feet MSL, 2000 feet AGL. We stayed in IMC conditions all the way to Bluefield and back until breaking out on the approach into Beckley. Southern West Virginia is a beautiful mountainous area. The mountains between Beckley and Bluefield are around 4,000 feet, making altitude very important.

After departing the runway, I turned to the south on the assigned heading of 185 and climbed to 6,000 feet in the clouds. The C150 was working hard to get us to altitude, but it got us there. After approximately 15 minutes, I began setting up for the ILS/LOC Runway 23 approach into KBLF, doing everything I could do to keep the needles from having a full deflection and at the same time trying to maintain the appropriate altitude. Jack sat calmly in the right seat making some slight comments about watching my altitude and course, and, as I began to lose the needles, he would say, “Now, John, watch the needles. You know what to do; just do it.” I did just what he said, just as he had taught me, and slowly brought everything back.

As we reached the decision altitude at KBLF, we decided to return to Beckley. I contacted Charleston Approach, informing them we were returning to Beckley. The controller assigned a heading of 015 degrees and an altitude of 7000 feet. Again, the little 150 was doing all it could to get us to altitude, and it succeeded. After about 15 minutes, still in the clouds, Approach vectored me to the KBKW Runway 19 ILS. I turned, picked up the ILS, and began my approach.

The wind had picked up quite a bit from the southwest and was getting stronger. Again, I was fighting to keep from losing the needles to a full deflection to the right. The little 150 just didn’t have the performance, and the wind was working on it hard. The whole time Jack was encouraging me, saying, “You know what to do. You can do it; just do it.”

Cessna 150 panel
No matter what the avionics, the basics are the same: keep the needles crossed.

At one point, I was so tensed up, worn out from fighting the wind and trying to get needles centered, that I thought, “I just can’t do this. I should just give up and let Jack fly it in. This is so hard. Maybe I should just give up flying altogether.” Those thoughts lasted for just a brief moment when I heard Jack’s encouragement again, and I said to myself, “I can do this. I want to do this. Just do it.”

I continued to make heading and altitude adjustments like he instructed and how we had worked on under the hood, and I slowly got the airplane back to where I wanted it. Then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we broke out of the clouds around 3700 feet MSL and the runway was right in front of me, exactly where it should be and just like what you see in the training videos. I made what I thought was a nice landing and taxied to the hangar. As I got out of the airplane, I realized my legs were shaking so much that I could hardly walk. As we were putting up the plane and debriefing, Jack was still encouraging me with statements like, “That was a nice flight with a nice landing,” and, “You know what you’re doing. We just need to practice.”

I drove home after the flight, about a five-minute drive, turning off the radio to reflect in silence. Once I got home, I literally fell onto the couch and began to think about what I had just done. I laid there for about 15 or 20 minutes, my legs still shaking, going over it in my head. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I called Jack and said, “Jack, that had to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life and one of the most fun.” We both had a good laugh over it as he continued his encouragement.

I am still flying with Jack today and learning something new every time we fly. He has since sold the C150 and the Aztec and bought a beautiful R172K that we’re painting and restoring the interior. Occasionally, we’ll bring up that flight back in October of 2013 and have a good laugh. I still tell him that was one of the hardest things and one of the most fun things that I have ever done in my life.

4 Comments

  • John,

    Thanks for this article. I think you live in God’s country. The mountains and whitewater rivers in Nicolas and Fayette counties are stunning.

    This is challenging IFR country – especially in a 150. If I recall, the terrain around Bluefield required flying a DME arc to intercept the localizer. Not for the feint of heart in IMC.

    Good luck on all those advanced ratings.

  • Thanks. West Virginia is a beautiful state, especially from the air. I have flow in other states, South Carolina, Florida and others which have their own beauty but flying in these mountains on a sunny morning with the fog lying in the valley is a site to see.
    Thanks.

  • John,

    Thanks for this article – I have been debating whether to embark on an IR. After buying the books and studying some of the IR theory it scared me off a bit but your article has inspired me to push on and complete the exams so i can start the practical side of getting my IR.

    Cheers,
    Doug (New Zealand)

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