First IFR Solo by Keith Vitense

Background: I had been working on the requirements for the IFR ticket since March of this year. My checkride was November 14th. As with my PP checkride, I didn’t fly as well as I could have, but the examiner was evidently able to determine that I would be able to fly safely under instrument conditions, so I became the proud holder of a temporary airman certificate allowing me to fly IFR.

Yesterday was forecast to be a beautiful, sunny day – so I decided a little flight in my Mooney would be ideal. I also referee football, and have developed a superstition about flying over the football field that I would be working at in the playoffs, which also factored into my decision. Unfortunately, the weather remained much worse than forecast, and the ceiling was reported (AWOS) to be overcast at about 1100 ft. VFR flight to the FB field was out for me, but I decided that it would be a good idea to get some actual IFR time. I had logged a little over 2 hours of actual during my training, but I really wanted to see what it was like to be in the clouds by myself. With a reported ceiling of 1100 ft this seemed like one of the better times to try, since I would be in the clouds to start any local approaches, but would break out fairly quickly on both the VOR and the ILS approach I planned on flying.

I called FSS to get a current briefing and to file my first IFR flight plan using my name in the pilot’s box. Since I was departing from a non-towered field I also confirmed that I would be able to pick up my clearance with the local Approach Control (I had also talked to Approach on the phone earlier to confirm the procedure they used to deliver a clearance on the land-line). The drive to the airport is about 1/2 hour, and I found that as I got closer to the airport I started to get a little bit more nervous – probably more nervous than I was before my first solo (of course, I was pretty calm before my first solo, but that was a post about 2 years ago :-)). I got to the airport, preflighted the plane, pulled it out of the hangar, and then walked over to the car phone to pick up my clearance. I was given the clearance ‘as filed’ with a slight change in the altitude I had requested – also given the release and void time with a 20 minute window, which I thought was pretty generous. It was now show time! Went back to the airplane, performed the in-cockpit portion of the preflight, and made sure that the approach plates that I would need were marked and available. I use the bound NOS charts, so I rubber banded the first approach open and placed it on the strangely empty seat beside me. Started the engine, set up the radios (both NAV and COM), and had time for a leisurely run-up since I still had a couple of minutes before my release time. Double checked everything, and began the back taxi to the end of 35 for the takeoff roll. I reached the end of the runway right at the release time, so it was simply a 180 to line up and push in the power.

Liftoff was just like all of the hundreds of other takeoffs that I have done. I did make sure to get the airplane stabilized before I ws into the clouds. Unfortunately, I found that my assigned altitude was right at the base of the cloud layer (a little higher than forecast), but a request for higher put me solidly into the clouds. I was somewhat suprised at how calm I was – the drill that I had been following for umpteen hours in my plane had a very calming effect on me. I reached my new altitude, and although I was still in the clouds I could tell that I was very close to the top of the layer, since the clouds were very light and occasionally I got a peek at the blue sky above. The first approach was a VOR approch – one that I had flown countless times during my training. This was an approach that my instructor and I had always flown ‘own navigation’, so it became (for me) much easier to fly the approach with radar vectors. I didn’t really have a case of vertigo; however, if you had asked me what direction we were flying without use of the compass/DG I would have sworn that we were 120 degrees from the direction we were actually travelling. The ceiling over here was a little lower than the departure ceiling, so I didn’t break out until I had started my descent past the FAF. The contrast between the flight conditions and the ground conditions to me was the most incredible! What was a sunny day up top was a dreary day on the runway. I did a t’n’g, and went back up into the clouds to head to the next airport for the ILS approach.

This time I broke out of the bases before I reached the FAF, but I was still flirting with the wispy stuff, so I stayed with approach until the handoff to the tower, and then still flew the procedure – with a full stop landing to pick up fuel.

I guess the most important lesson was that I learned I really can do this! I knew intellectually that it should be no problem, but this flight really helped me to understand this at a gut level. After my poor performance (my standards) on my checkride I think that I had to get back on the horse and prove to myself that I could do this. I also found during my checkride that I had a tendancy to over-control, and I was able to work on this tendancy during my flight yesterday. All-in-all it was a tremendous learning experience for me, and it was one that I had to face alone. There was no way in this world that I was going to take anyone up with me the first time that I was completely responsible for the safe outcome of the flight – just in case there really were demons up there!

If you’ve made it to the end, I just want to say thanks for reading / listening. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe most people can appreciate the feelings that a flight of this type can evoke; I believe that to truly understand you have to have been in a similar situation. Maybe it was your first flight, your first solo, or perhaps the first time you flew with a passenger. Maybe it was some milestone that I have yet to reach. But I do believe that my feelings are in no way totally unique – because if they were flying would not have become the addiction that it has for so many of us!

Keith Vitense