Flying by instruments and circling in the sky

I’ve begun training for my instrument rating as an airplane pilot, and it is SO FUN! I’ve been flying since 2014, and those skills are an important base to start from, but in some cases it’s like learning to fly all over again. An instrument rating qualifies you to legally fly through the clouds even when you can’t see outside your airplane. If you stay current and sharp with your instrument and aircraft control skills, you can do it not only legally but also safely. :)

My first instrument flying lesson was fantastic. We started with an introduction on how to file an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan and to obtain a “clearance” from air traffic control that enables you to fly that plan. We filed the flight plan by phone (good practice since I usually file my VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight plans online). The plan was simple: depart CVO (Corvallis airport) using the SHEDD4 departure procedure to the SHEDD intersection, then return to CVO (via an approach to runway 17 which means going north first).

Aviation map of flight

Aviation map showing route from CVO (lower left) to SHEDD (right) to INNOP (top) and back

We taxied to the runup area and requested our clearance to depart. They gave a clearance, “void in 5 [minutes]” and as I acknowledged it, they amended it to “void in 2” so we expeditiously turned to the runway and took off. The whole flight was done on a sunny clear day, to gain experience with the procedures and develop spatial awareness while I can still see outside the plane. Next time, we’ll do it with blinders on!

The SHEDD4 departure procedure has you take off and do a climbing left turn to intercept the 081 radial (a bit north of due east) from the CVO VOR (a radio beacon). You follow this radial out to the pre-defined SHEDD intersection and “hold” there. SHEDD is an invisible point in space defined by the intersection of specific radials from two VORs (in this case, CVO and Eugene (EUG)).

I had little idea how to fly a “hold” (oval in space, anchored by SHEDD), but in addition to instruments that receive the VOR signals, we also have a GPS receiver, and it knows about SHEDD and how to fly a hold. In this case, coming in on 081 to a hold defined on the 360 radial from EUG, we executed a parallel entry. This may sound pretty jargony, but it’s not that complicated. We basically followed path #2 in this diagram (if you assume north is down here):

Initially the hardest part for me was that the air traffic controller kept telling us about other airplanes to watch out for, and I was trying to look for them and manage the instruments and plane all at once. Fortunately, my instructor took over watching for traffic and encouraged me to focus entirely on the instruments (which normally is a no-no in regular VFR flight!).

We flew around this oval (often called a “racetrack” but you’re the only one in the race) a few times and it was great fun. You’re aiming for precise turns and precise headings, while maintaining your altitude and airspeed. As you get better at this, apparently a hold can actually be a break during which you can plan your next activities (if you need some planning time).

We then flew out to do an instrument approach to the Corvallis airport, which is entirely different from how I approach in visual conditions. We went to another intersection (INNOP), flew a “procedure turn” to get lined up, and then flew an RNAV/GPS approach to runway 17. This kind of approach gives you vertical and horizontal guidance in the form of little white needles that form a centered cross when you are descending correctly in the right direction. If you drift left, right, up, or down, one of the needles also moves and gives you visual feedback on how to correct it. We got down close to the airport and then landed normally.

What a fun beginning! It feels like I am peeling back a layer of reality to see under the surface to a whole new world of instrument procedures. It reminds me of the feeling when I discovered geocaching (there are secret treasures everywhere!), or even when I started flying airplanes and realized there were little airports all over the place (the L.A. basin has 25+) and also pathways and patterns in the sky. All of this activity and organization going on, and it’s invisible until you start looking and learning about it. More, please!