My first solo IFR cross-country

I spent the first five months of 2016 training for my instrument ticket. I took the written test in April and scored a solid 95% (I tend to overstudy for written tests). After one checkride cancellation due to weather, the DPE and I agreed on June 14th as the make-up date. My CFII suggested that we do one last lesson – a mock check ride – on the 13th.

That sounded like a great idea, so I scheduled my club’s Cessna 172SP and we did just that. Given what he knew about this particular DPE’s “typical” IFR check-ride, he put me through the paces that I would most likely be expected to perform the following day. You’d think that the pressure for such a practice flight would be pretty low, right? Well, to be honest, I stunk the mock checkride up… bad. I was behind the airplane, fumbling through avionics setups and tripping over my tongue on the radio.

After two blown approaches, I straightened my posture, took a deep breath, slapped myself into reality and things finally started coming together on my final approach for the day. But my confidence had been shaken. I was apprehensive about going through with the checkride, but after my CFII and I had a long debrief we decided that I should proceed.

Ground lesson
You can’t pass the checkride if you don’t pass the mock checkride.

The weather was looking iffy again on the morning of the 14th, with spotty thunderstorms in the area. I went ahead and flew our club 172SP up to the DPE’s home airport. Even with my confidence a bit shaken, I really wanted to tackle this task. You will soon read why.

I was very comfortable through the oral portion of the exam, and we jumped into the airplane and departed. I went under the hood at 400 ft. and didn’t see the ground again until the end of the last approach. During the second approach I heard heavy rain hitting the windshield, but I just flew through it. To my surprise I aced the checkride and my confidence was restored. I was now instrument rated!

My wife and I were planning a long cross-country to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to attend my niece’s wedding on the 18th. Without the IFR ticket, we would have been driving, so there was some pressure to pass the checkride on the 14th. For this trip, I reserved my club’s Cessna 172RG for the long weekend and we departed on the morning of the 17th. Weather at home that morning was CAVU, but forecasts where we were headed were calling for 1000 ft. ceilings. I filed for direct at 11,000 in an attempt to stay above Cincinnati’s class bravo airspace. I called up clearance delivery and was given a CRAFT clearance and a departure procedure. I programmed the GPS, received the clearance and off we went.

We broke the trip into two legs, each a little over two hours in duration. Shortly after departure, we were given the option to go direct destination if we could top out at 9000. That sounded good to me, since they would clear me through the class bravo. As forecast, a little while after our departure, we encountered an overcast layer below us.

Our lunch/fuel stop was at a lovely little airport in the Appalachian Mountains, Greenbrier Valley (LWB), nestled in a valley between ridges. Their ceilings as we broke out on the approach were just a hundred feet or so above the ridges; about 1200 above the airport. For a newly-minted IFR pilot, it was a beautiful sight! The approach and landing were uneventful. After I landed, it struck me: this was my first solo IFR approach and landing. It wasn’t anywhere near minimums, but it was an approach certainly worth logging. It did wonders for my confidence.

We ate, fueled and departed for Manteo, NC (MQI). As we climbed out of the valley, we entered the cloud deck. Some of the peaks along the eastern ridge were actually poking into the cloud deck. I kept a close eye on the altimeter and the VSI until I was certain that we were above all terrain. The terrain database in the GPS was a comforting feature, especially in relatively low IMC.

We went back up to 9000 for the bulk of the second leg. The further we went to the east, the higher the tops were growing. There was nothing convective, but we did start to dip into the IMC even at 9000. As we approached the destination, they started sequencing us down, and we were in and out of IMC often. I was fortunate during my IFR training to have been able to fly in IMC about 30 to 40 percent of the time. Because of this, I have a healthy respect for IMC, but I don’t fear it. For me, onboard weather radar is an absolute necessity when flying in IMC. I don’t take chances with convective weather.

On top in Cessna
Skimming the tops at 9,000 ft.

As we approached North Carolina, the controller asked me which approach I wanted. Winds were favoring runway 5, as was my direction of travel, so that’s what I asked for. Unfortunately, a restricted area to the west was in use, so they couldn’t offer a clearance for runway 5. I chose the RNAV for runway 23. Ceilings were 800 broken, so we flew the approach out over the Atlantic, then circled to land on runway 5.

I had just completed my first long IFR cross-country. I hadn’t made any serious mistakes. I found that my CFII was right when he told me that flying IFR approaches is a lot easier after your training is over and you have a significant time in cruise to set up for and brief the approach. But most of all, I was now free from the restrictions of 1000 ft. ceilings and 3-mile visibility… I was liberated!

We went to the wedding. We toured Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brother’s Museum and Kill Devil Hills (which were all awesome, I might add). We walked the beach. We drove down the coast to Cape Hatteras. We ate fresh seafood. All in a long weekend away.

Sunday we took some of my family for an airplane ride along the coast, then we said our goodbyes and headed home. We stopped for a late lunch at Greenbrier Valley again, and had about a 90-minute delay getting fuel. I was watching the weather closely on our final leg home to Indy Metro (UMP). There was a line of thunderstorms over the airport stretching from southwest to northeast, traveling… of course… to the northeast. When we were about an hour away from home, things weren’t looking good for us getting in, so I started looking for acceptable alternates. Columbus (Indiana) was well outside of the convective area and had the added bonus of my wife’s family close by in case of an extended delay.

Just as I was about to ask ATC for the diversion, the controller gave me a report on the weather at UMP and strongly suggested that we consider an alternate. I told her that we were already considering Columbus and she was thrilled with that decision. She later told me twice that she thought that was an excellent decision.

We landed at Columbus at around 6:00 pm to wait out the weather. The short version of the long story is that it did not improve that night. We waited at the airport until about 11 pm, then called my wife’s sister to come and get us. After a night’s sleep, weather cleared and we took off for home VFR.

It’s been two years since that trip, and I still look back on it as a very fond memory. I’ve logged enough approaches now that my personal minimums are those printed on the approach plates. I earned my commercial ticket a few months ago and I’m now studying for my CFI. Of all the work that I’ve done in aviation, I think the instrument rating has the most potential to save your skin. We must be careful, though, as it also has the most potential to lure you into trouble. Convective weather and icing are not to be toyed with. They will bite you if given the chance. We live in a time where we have such a wealth of information in our cockpits. There’s really no excuse now for wandering into that kind of trouble.

For anyone interested, I recorded most of the outbound trip on my GoPro camera and edited the footage down to a 49-minute program.

13 Comments

  • Great write up! I just passed my instrument and am looking for that first trip (haven’t found a cloud to fly through since I passed!). Were you apprehensive about this first trip? I find that I’m eager to go but a little nervous about getting into the soup without my trusty cfii on board! I’m confident I know what I’m doing and proficient, just have the jitters.

    Thanks again for the great recap of your trip and the video!

    • Hey Chris! Thanks for the kind comments. I wasn’t nervous about that trip until we started down into the muck for that first approach. But once things started getting busy the training kicked in and you just do what you trained for.

  • Now that’s the way to break in a new ticket! I’d agree with the saying that you’re never more current than right after the checkride. Good story!

    • Rick, I’ve heard that saying as well, and there is probably some truth in it. However, I’d say that I’m a safer IFR pilot today than I was 2 years ago…simply because I’ve got literally dozens of approaches and many hours of actual IMC since the checkride. Experience is truly a great teacher. I know that IFR flying is certainly a lot more “comfortable” to me now than it was then. Thanks for the comment!

  • Great article! Fantastic video! I would expect nothing less from you! Loved T’s comic relief! 2018 is the year for me to get back to the skies. Flight review is next week and will close on an airplane in the next week or two (assuming everything checks out on pre-buy). IFR training will start very shortly. Great to see you in the skies.

    • Chris Stater!! Great to hear from you my friend!! You should check out our club at http://www.sky-vu.org. Great club with awesome airplanes. I know you aren’t around Indy anymore, but if you ever find your way back, look me up…we’ll go flying somewhere! Good luck on the IR training. It’s a tough ticket to get but so worth the effort! Congrats on your imminent purchase. What are you buying?

      • I ran across your article in a Sporty’s email. I saw your name, then the ‘Cincinnati’s class B’ and thought, hum, that is close to Indy, could it be ‘The Jim David??’…the moment I heard your voice I knew it was you!

        Wow, the club has some amazing aircraft. Rates seem very reasonable.

        We get back to Indy a few times a year to visit family. Will look you up when ‘back home again!’ Likewise, if ever in the Charlotte area….

        This week signed the deal and paid a deposit on a 1986 Piper Dakota. If everything works out I will be basing it out of KEQY (Charlotte-Monroe Executive) here in Charlotte – it is 5 minutes from my office and 30 minutes from home.

        • That’s amazing. I’ve “almost” flown into EQY twice in the last few months. Work stuff that canceled at the last minute. I’ll keep you in mind…I’ll probably be down there before too long.

  • Well told! I noted that Jim took 30-40% of instrument training in IFR conditions, as did I. My instructor thought that scungy days were “perfect!” In fact, my long cross-country IFR trip during training included some hairy approaches, including a night approach to minimums ahead of the thunderstorm that soaked us as we put away the airplane. Those training in desert areas and no opportunity for flying in real IFR conditions are severely handicapped and should not fly in real IFR conditions until they’ve had more training in an area permitting safe IFR flights with a CFII.

    • Hey Hunter! Thanks for the kind words!! Sounds like you have a great instructor, as do I. I don’t understand the rationale behind allowing IFR students to log so many of the required hours in a sim. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

  • Hello Jim, greetings from Sydney Australia.
    Really enjoyed your video, and thanks for sharing.
    That Radio noise sounds like electrical interference, is it the same without the Gopro accessories plugged in?
    I am off to Oshkosh soon, would be good to say hi if you’re there.

    • Hello Ross,

      This was my first trip with the new headset audio cable connected to the GoPro. The audio noise on the GoPro was only present on the recording. If I had been able to hear it during the flight, I would have attempted to address it. I was pretty disappointed when I started watching the footage after I got home and heard that buzzing! I spent a lot of time in the edit getting rid of it during the non-speaking portions. Near the end of the first leg the power adapter for the camera shook loose and the audio cleared up. I now use a large USB battery-bank to power the camera, and the audio is crystal-clear.

      I was at OSH last year, but I don’t think I’ll make it this year. If I do I will probably just be flying up for a day.

      Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  • Well done flight and article.
    One simple but profound statement I remember is from the late great Bob Buck:
    “Instrument flying is weather flying”. Yup!
    Until you get the rating you shouldn’t see icing or embedded thunderstorms, now those are your main adversaries.

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