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Not Exactly Top Gun

After all the miscues of avionics issues and bad weather, I finally returned to Orlando Wednesday to begin again my training school at SimCom. The airplane was in Sarasota having had the GPS units upgraded, so SimCom and my instructor were kind enough to let me fly in to Orlando commercial, pick up a one-way rental car, and drive the instructor and myself 2 1/2 hours to Sarasota to pick up the plane. We successfully pulled this off and were in the air at around 4 pm for our short flight back to Orlando during which some of the training began.

Incidentally, this was the first time I have ever driven three different rental cars in one day. Enterprise, with their laid back drop arrangements, had allowed me to rent a car in Orlando which I turned in Wednesday morning when leaving Birmingham. Then I arrived Orlando and rented a car for about three hours to drive over to Sarasota to get the plane. When we got the plane back to Orlando, I rented a third car to use while I was here in Orlando.

Yesterday morning, Thursday, the training got back going in earnest. I met my instructor at SimCom and we spent a couple of hours going through things in the classroom. We then had an early lunch and headed out for what turned into four full hours of flying with a couple of short stops at different airports. We did five instrument approaches at Leesburg, Gainsville and Palatka and returned to Orlando to close out an 11-hour day.

My instrument flying was, to say the least, sloppy. I couldn’t believe that after 12 years of not flying a plane I couldn’t simply nail the approaches, but I was “behind the plane” all day. I had nowhere near the performance necessary for an instructor to certify that I have completed an Instrument Profeciancy Check.

This morning, I awoke determined to do a better job, and initially I did, flying a straightforward trip to Palatka and executing a decent, but not perfect, instrument approach. After that, the day fell apart and I executed sloppy approaches at Gainsville and Orlando Executive to complete the training course with no demonstration of instrument “proficiency”. We finished up at around 6 pm after a 10-hour day and I am, to say the least, exhausted.

My instructor was excellent and I learned a lot and made serious progress, but I had to completely agree with him that I am not quite yet ready for prime time in the instrument flying world. I have a ways to go. He did a good job, and I agreed with the conclusion, but I was certainly disappointed that I was performing so poorly. I didn’t come to this school specifically to get the instrument check, but I fully expected to easily do so while I was here.

Now, let me explain the differences between this kind of flying, which I need to be able to do, and normal flying, which requires nowhere near these skill levels. First, on a normal trip, pilots do a lot of planning ahead during the long boring enroute portion of the trip. They normally turn on the autopilot and relax, look up all the information on the arrival airport, preset the communication frequencies, check the weather at the arrival airport, set up the GPS or other navigation to execute an approach, and arrive at their destination fully knowing what to expect and having all the gadgets set up to do their thing.

Flying in training is something else again. You wear something called “Foggles” which blank out the upper half of the glasses so you can only see inside the plane. Down here in central Florida, you are in very high traffic areas where approach controls for Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville all run together. There is an enormous amount of radio chatter, making it difficult to hear a call and also talk with your instructor. Additionally, because of the heavy traffic, there are always sudden unexpected changes from the controllers, as if your instructor’s surprises are not enough. You are normally asked to make minimum use of the autopilot, because they want to be able to judge your hand-flying skills. Worst of all, there is no long enroute time to get set up, and often you are asked when you are completing one approach to circle around and do a different one at the same airport, with little time to think it through and get set up.

All of this is hard enough when you are flying a plane which is very familiar, where you can quickly set up an approach on the instruments or shift frequencies as one controller hands you off to another. In my case, I’m trying to learn how to operate new GPS/radios, a new “glass cockpit” of instruments and other needed information, and a new autopilot/flight director. The result is often like texting while driving, as my attention is diverted by the avionics, I tend to run off the road.

While I am disappointed at how hard this has been for me, it’s all good training, and I will get back to the competency levels I had a decade ago. Meanwhile, I am restricted to flying in good weather, and I need a lot more time with good flight instructors to get me up to speed. I’m not exactly Top Gun yet, but I will get there.

Now, if the weather will only cooperate to let me fly home tomorrow.

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