Admitting the truth about your current state of instrument competency requires guts and a full confession. In my case, it went something like this: "Forgive me, Father, for it has been eight months since my last approach." I could have added that I had never made a GPS approach in IFR conditions using the aircraft's newly installed IFR-approved GPS receiver. It was time to not only freshen my fading instrument skills but also to get comfortable with the UPS Aviation Technologies GX-60 GPS in the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza I frequently fly.
Factory-authorized GPS training is now available at many flight schools. For the instrument training, I chose Comair Flight Academy in Sanford, Florida.
I can name more pilots who have never flown a GPS approach in IFR conditions than who have. GPS manufacturers recognize that software programmers have added new functions faster than pilots can learn them. That's why several manufacturers provide help beyond the owner's manual in the form of online simulators and classroom training. To link to a list of helpful resources from six manufacturers, visit AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/asf/gps.html). UPSAT also offers an innovative training program through local flight schools in 20 states. For information, visit the Web site ( www.upsat.com/flight_school.shtml).
Using the list, I located a training program offered by Leading Edge Aviation Services ( www.leadingedgeaviation.com) at Vandenberg Airport near Tampa. Leading Edge is located in a beautiful new jetport-quality building that is the pride of owners Mark and David Moberg. For information on the school's GPS training, call 813/626-1515.
At the time of my visit, Leading Edge flight instructor Scott Hopkins specialized in helping UPSAT owners understand their GPS receivers. The course consists of both ground and in-flight instruction, and is intended as an overview. Using a software simulator, we programmed a virtual GX-60 for a variety of flight plans and approaches. Next we climbed into one of the school's GX-60-equipped Cessna 172s to practice what Hopkins had preached.
Costs can vary, depending on how much time you want to devote to learning the system. I took an overview in less than a day for less than $250, including two hours of ground school and a one-hour flight. If you choose, you could take two to three days of training and become a true maestro of the GPS receiver.
Under FAR 61.57, I had lost pilot-in-command privileges to fly in IFR conditions after the first six months without flying an approach. But there were still four months to restore them without having to take an instrument proficiency check (IPC). All I had to do was fly with a qualified safety pilot and make six approaches, perform a holding pattern, and track a navigation system. Performing an approach counts as tracking a navigation system. That's it. No need to get all sweaty-palmed shooting a partial-panel ILS or making recoveries from unusual attitudes. Of course, those two things could kill you. Can you afford to lose those skills?
My instrument flying skills, once polished enough to earn the airline transport pilot rating, now needed a thorough IPC, even though one was not yet required by regulations.
The IPC has changed over the years and is now similar to the instrument checkride. Sixteen of the 26 tasks listed in the FAA's practical test standards for the instrument rating must also be performed as part of any proficiency check. The IPC tasks are marked by the letters PC. The guide itself is sold through Sporty's Pilot Shop for $11.95 ( www.sportys.com/shoppilot/).
While Comair Flight Academy caters to pilots from dozens of nations who want to become airline pilots, it also has a noncareer side called Flying Services for the average general aviation pilot. Flying Services is located in the Comair operations building at Sanford and serves 90 students with the same fast-paced airline-style training as the company provides to career-oriented students.
The single-engine IPC course offered through Flying Services costs $812 and requires two days. Included are four hours each of flight instruction in a Cessna 172, briefings, and Frasca simulator time. Multiengine courses are also available. Comair's 700 students carry with them a book known as the stans (for standards) manual. Included with methods for flying the aircraft and performing maneuvers are detailed instructions for performing approach briefs and the approach itself. If you have your own method of performing approaches, leave it at home and prepare to do things the Comair way. I attended in February, a good time to leave the Mid-Atlantic and head for warmer climates.
It didn't matter that fog enveloped Sanford airport on the first morning of my training. Instructor J.T. Sullivan and I would be in the busy briefing room all morning and part of the afternoon for ground instruction — plenty of time for the weather to improve. I could tell from the 20 pages of handouts Sullivan had prepared that the school loves acronyms. One of them — AMICEATM — aids in briefing the instrument approach: A is for ATIS; M for marker beacons and magnetic compass (use it to reset the heading indicator); I for identify the terminal procedure chart and identify the navaids; C for course heading, which is spoken aloud and set; E for entry (are you getting vectors to the final approach course or are you doing a full approach?); A for altitudes; T for time and tower frequency; and M for missed approach point and procedures.
I questioned whether the acronym meant an automated bank teller machine for mice and suggested we just use the new briefing strip at the top of most terminal procedure charts. Sullivan smiled with a patience that should serve him well in his airline career, and I took that to mean that AMICEATM is the Comair way. He later checked with an airline pilot friend and found that AMICEATM is used at some airlines to back up the briefing strip.
By afternoon the fog had lifted enough for my first flight. Before departure, however, I followed the Comair procedure of determining fuel burn, takeoff and landing distances, weight and balance issues, and the crosswind component. I recall that the crosswind on that day was 0.9 kt. Once at the Cessna 172 trainer, I discovered that for the past 30 years I have never done a thorough preflight compared to the examination taught by Sullivan. Even the wheels are preflighted with a flow check, a term normally used to describe checks of cockpit instruments. The gear check starts at the fuselage and proceeds down the strut to the brakes and tires. There is also a Comair way to taxi — off the centerline so that incoming trainer traffic can pass on the opposite side. I jokingly asked Sullivan if he would like me to take off in the grass next to the runway to avoid the centerline, since we seemed to hate it so, but got that Comair-way smile again. Post-startup, pretaxi, runup, and pretakeoff checklists resulted in some items being double- and triple-checked. Always a free spirit, I wondered to myself if — when we were cleared onto the runway — we would line up, shut down, jump out, and start the preflight all over again. A quadruple check.
The first flight went reasonably well. The biggest revelation was that after eight months of IFR idleness, my cockpit organization had become a paper blizzard. I was always behind the airplane and apologize here to Orlando controllers for those missed radio calls.
The second morning of training dawned as foggy as the first. A jet freighter starting its takeoff roll drew a crowd from the Comair operations room. Visibility was 200 yards, and there was soon little visual evidence of the aircraft — just a roar from the gray haze. Following that entertainment, Sullivan and I headed for the Frasca simulator where I performed a partial-panel DME arc to Daytona Beach that looked more like S-turns along a curving road. That afternoon, Daytona had a 400-foot ceiling and was covered by fog as Sullivan and I departed VFR from Sanford in the Cessna 172. I proceeded to prove that the S-turns I had demonstrated in the simulator were my preferred way of performing a partial-panel DME arc. The real world presented its own distractions as other aircraft in the Daytona area required controllers to request that I climb and descend 1,000 feet while tracking the arc. Airspeed control was nonexistent in the descent, and banks frequently slipped past standard rate to 30 degrees.
Partial-panel ILS approaches don't go well if you chase needles rather than determining a reference heading by using the wet compass. My partial-panel ILS didn't go well. I continued S-turns while on the localizer. Did I know not to do that? Yes. Then, why did I? No excuses, sir.
The Comair standard for failure is a three-quarter deflection of the localizer needle, a standard I challenged repeatedly. The G for go around was constantly forming in Sullivan's throat, but he never issued the phrase that would have meant a bust.
Sullivan suggested I do another partial-panel approach back at Sanford — this time including the wet compass in my scan. It went much better. Weather was closing in as we completed an NDB approach to nearby Leesburg, Florida, and shot a final VOR approach to Sanford where the weather had suddenly gone IFR.
Following a successful IPC, Sullivan said I had met the standards, but he suggested I not attempt a partial-panel approach to minimums without more practice. Instead, ask the controllers for vectors to VFR conditions, he advised. The primary purpose of an IPC — to assure a level of safety and to spot weak points that need further work — had been accomplished. Had I not met Comair standards, Sullivan would have endorsed my logbook for the training given, not for an IPC. Still, it would have been worth the trip.
Is airline-oriented training for you? Training at Comair provides a view of how the professional world flies and trains while taking apart and examining every aspect of your current IFR flying habits. You'll be challenged in a fast-paced environment, and you will need to determine for yourself if you will react well to that sort of challenge. Barely meeting the Comair standards is still a source of pride. I asked for Comair Flight Academy wings when it was all over, but Sullivan smiled patiently again. No wings.
The comeback trail to proficient instrument skills starts with being honest with yourself. Confessing your lack of experience is good for the soul. You'll find that, once unburdened of your guilt, you'll be a slave to your sinful secrets no longer and can start to improve.
E-mail the author at email@example.com.