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  #1  
Old 08-25-2017, 01:31 PM
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jjconstant jjconstant is offline
 
Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: Oakland CA
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Default Confessions of an Instrument Rating Procrastinator

I just got back from a more-eventful-than-expected trip to attend the Vans Homecoming and witness the eclipse. My annual trip to Sun Valley ID for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony had just concluded and I just had time to fly back to Livermore CA, get a change of clothes and launch for Independence the following day. On the flight from Sun Valley to Livermore, as I approached California I noticed a lot of smoke at altitude and even reported a brand-new fire that had sprung up just east of Reno. I was unsure whether this was something air traffic control would want to be bothered with, so when I keyed the mic and asked whether this sort of report was something they take, they said standby, and it was clear they were getting appropriate materials to take the report. They were very interested in the exact location and it appeared they welcomed the opportunity to convey this info to the various firefighting agencies.

The next day when checking weather for the trip to Oregon I saw numerous TFRs that had popped up around firefighting activities around the border between California and Oregon. I soon realized that my big problem was that what the TFRs don’t show is the extent of the smoke and areas where you need to be instrument rated and your airplane needs to have the proper equipment. You can find out which airports are IFR but it is a much bigger challenge to find out where the smoke is at altitude.

I equipped Stella with IFR instrumentation with the intention of getting my instrument rating in her. It has been on my list of life goals for a long time but I know what sort of commitment it takes in terms of both money and especially time. I had planned to start my IFR training after the end of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony season but the procrastination caught up to me.

The trip up to Oregon was a real eye opener with the amount of smoke in the air and I almost turned back. I was still legal but it was very questionable as to whether it was entirely safe but having just done an upgrade to the instrumentation which included ADSB traffic, weather and 3 sources of synthetic vision, I was willing to push my comfort zone, knowing that I trend towards overly cautious. I was talking to air traffic control on flight following, I had oxygen and climbed to 14,500 ft and was just above the smoke where I was, but to my left and right it continued above me. It cleared as I went north.

I made it through and I had a tremendous time at the fly in. I was hosted by a very generous couple on the airpark and attended forums given by such luminaries as Paul Dye. Everyone here knows about Paul. If you don’t, he’s Ironflight in the forums. I have been in touch over the years with Paul and his wife Louise but this was the first time I got to meet Louise and visit with Paul a bit. It was wonderful to visit and the eclipse was stunning icing on the cake. It was clear weather in Independence and beautiful for the eclipse.

After the eclipse, I said my thanks to my hosts and my goodbyes and prepared to head back home. I had checked the weather again and it looked like a similarly challenging trip back, with similar problems determining the extent of the smoke. I remember a concept Paul mentioned in his talk the day before: you can always park it and take Southwest! I talked over strategies with some of the local, more experienced pilots and they suggested that if the trip directly over the mountains looked bad I could try the “coast route” which simply followed the coast. It looked like it would be foggy but it might burn off by the time I got there. Again, while it is legal to fly above an undercast, if anything goes wrong and you have to get down, you are dependent on there being an airport, beach or clearing that you can see and if you can’t you’re basically turning on the auto pilot in a decent and praying. Not exactly a plan for success.

I launched out of Independence in the clear and went south for about 20 minutes before the smoke got bad. I had topped up my oxygen the night before so I could go as high as I wanted and kept climbing up to 13,500 feet to find a clear path. I could still barely see the ground through the smoke. Straight ahead and to both sides the sky appeared as variations of light and dark. The darker areas could have been sky or thicker smoke. As it turned out it was thicker smoke. After several uncomfortable minutes I had had enough.

On autopilot I turned back north. When I was in the clear I made my way to the coast. The smoke was still thick to the south and seemed to extend far out into the Pacific. Nope, not interested in a forced landing and a shipwreck in the same event should I run into a problem. I looked at my traffic display on my new equipment and saw 2 distinct streams of traffic heading south at various altitudes. Momentarily I wondered if all these people had found a route that maybe I should follow. Then I realized that much of the flow was following airways and was very likely IFR traffic with IFR-rated pilots. Nope. I turned East and took a tentative look at how far into Nevada I would have to venture to get around the smoke.

...(continued next post)
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Jeremy Constant
RV7A "Stella Luna" ECI IO-360 WW200RV Pmags 360hrs
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  #2  
Old 08-25-2017, 01:32 PM
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jjconstant jjconstant is offline
 
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Default ...continued from previous post

...By this time, I was exhausted from flying for two hours while under a lot of stress. I thought “screw this, turn around, beg for a bed and look at your options on the ground.” Air traffic control had been denying all requests for flight following and on my way back north I heard someone requesting flight following to Livermore. ATC said “unable” and I contacted him on air to air frequency and told him I couldn’t find a VFR route through. He didn’t seem fazed or dissuaded. I hope he made it back. After this call, I got a call on the air-to-air frequency from a new friend from the fly-in who said ‘let’s talk it over at lunch on the ground. We went to the coast for breakfast but it was too long a wait so we’re coming back to Independence for lunch”. I said, “yes please” and was relieved to have someone with a lot of experience to talk over a plan to get home.

We landed and went to lunch, then back to his place at the airpark where he was also being hosted by residents with a lot of experience and we talked through many options.

At this point I had a brainstorm -- I am very lucky to have a lot of great friends at Livermore who are more than generous helping a professional violinist navigate the thickets of flying and building. One of these friends is Sam, a corporate pilot who flies Gulfstreams and 737s. We’ve flown a lot together in my plane--for lunch, biennials, formation flying, and just punching holes in the sky. I always learn a great deal from Sam. He worked his way up the aviation ladder as a pilot, VFR instructor and an IFR instructor before landing the jet jock job.

Well, I flashed on Sam and on what Paul said about flying on the airlines as a fallback and I combined the 2 concepts. “Hello Sam? Are you around tomorrow with nothing to do? I’m stuck in Independence with no way to get home VFR due to smoke and I would be forever grateful for a rescue that would include my first instrument rating training on a trip through the smoke.” He made some quick calls to see if he could swing it at work and texted me back with an instrument flight plan to plug into foreflight, and we agreed I would fly north to Portland International and he would fly there from Oakland on Alaska and we would fly back in Stella IFR, giving me my first taste of actual IFR flight in actual IFR conditions. I have known quite a few pilots with instrument ratings who never flew in actual instrument conditions during their training. I was going in the deep end but with someone highly qualified whom I had known for years as a good friend and a great instructor.

We met at Portland, briefed the flight, refueled and launched. Now, I have an old IFR approved GPS, a Garmin 300xl, which makes things a lot easier, but one of the first questions Sam asked the night before was “is your database up to date?” I checked and it had expired while I was in Sun Valley! He said: “no problem, you have an SL30 IFR VOR and ILS, I’ll work out a VOR to VOR flight plan and we’ll file with that.” O.K. so we’re going to do my first lesson old school. I had been over 20 years since I used VORs in my private pilot training and to say I was rusty was an understatement. To complicate that, the indicators were new to me on the newly installed instrumentation (a Grand Rapids Sport EX and Horizon EX and I was looking at the EFIS HSI) and I found it hard to interpret what I was seeing with there being too many things displayed that weren’t helping to interpret the VOR indications. At one point I was asking Sam what certain things were indicating and his response was “I have no idea, just pay attention to this” while pointing at the one pertinent indicator. Sometimes more is too much. Especially when you don’t understand it.

There was the inevitable spookiness of climbing from a clear take off and initial phase of flight into a sky completely devoid of any sense of horizon or even up or down. Due to the varying thicknesses of layers of smoke, sometimes it was lighter above you as you would expect, but sometimes it was darker above and lighter below because a heavy layer was above but light was coming from around you below. I was very grateful for the instrumentation and Sam’s expertise.

It was about a half hour of merely really bad visibility where all you could see straight down were the shadows of vague mountain peaks hovering in the murk and another hour in complete instrument conditions at altitudes starting at 5,000 and climbing to 11,000 feet when we finally started getting to the southern edge of the smokiest area and we could start to see a huge buildup of a cloud directly in front of us going up above 30,000 feet. I thought it was a huge new fire and Sam said it could be, or it could be a fire induced thunderstorm. I had never thought about that possibility, but that is what it turned out to be. About 10 minutes after spotting it, air traffic control issued a warning of pilot reports of “heavy to extreme precipitation coming from a thunderstorm” that was directly in our path. We deviated around it but had to pick our way through it and another building a mile or two to the east. Again, I got a great lesson from Sam when trying to determine which way to go around. “Find a way of determining which direction the storm is going and deviate towards where it’s already been, not where it’s going”. Being able to see it helped because we could see which way the anvil on top was being blown (to our right, west) but we could also use my newly installed ADSB to see winds aloft and get a verification. Stella got a gentle bath but it would have been truly scary to be in the thick of the smoke and stumble into that thunderstorm. With extreme precipitation usually comes extreme turbulence. The kind that can break airplanes. That’s one of the reasons I built an airplane rated for aerobatics. They’re built to take higher stresses than I can.

The rest of the flight to Livermore was uneventful but included my bumbling attempts at following the glideslope and localizer on the ILS into Livermore. It is probably a familiar sight to many instrument instructors and I’m amazed and grateful for Sam’s restraint for not pointing and laughing. I have done some experimenting with following an ILS before, VFR on my own, and it’s been fine but this was a taste of what it’s like to try it when you’re tired and your initial successful experiments were without valid instructional foundations. It wasn’t pretty.

I am hugely grateful to Sam for the rescue and lessons and am already booking my lessons with another CFII at the field whose availability is easier to work into my schedule. I plan on hitting Sam up for some phase checks and alternate approaches to difficulties I predict will come up, but I don’t want to burn him or our friendship out!

I’m done procrastinating. Thanks Sam!!!!!
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Jeremy Constant
RV7A "Stella Luna" ECI IO-360 WW200RV Pmags 360hrs
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  #3  
Old 08-25-2017, 01:49 PM
BenNabors BenNabors is offline
 
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Default Leaning forward

Very nice write up, these are the conversations that lead people forward. Sure is nice to have a forum where people engage freely and openly. Thanks Jeremy for the story and thanks Doug for having created such a nice place to visit and share experiences.
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  #4  
Old 08-25-2017, 02:13 PM
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jcaplins jcaplins is offline
 
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Great job and great opportunity to get some actual IFR. I don't think we met while there, maybe next time.

Just so others can see what you would have had to go through...
This is the route I took, both there and back, and the traffic stacking up on the way back:



On the way up Saturday there was a ton of smoke, but was really clear above 10,500' and I could see the ground at all times. But on the way back there was sill a ton of smoke aaaaannnd a high layer of clouds above. The clouds above made things seem worse, but the smoke below was about the same. Had I not experienced the conditions on Saturday, I probably would have stayed on the ground Monday:


Full disclosure: I do have an instrument rating, but I am not current nor is my aircraft legal for IFR. I am not even remotely implying you could or should have done things differently. *I* was comfortable with *my* visibility, recent experience, decisions, and could have turned around anytime.
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Last edited by jcaplins : 08-25-2017 at 05:41 PM.
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  #5  
Old 08-25-2017, 02:54 PM
Canadian_JOY Canadian_JOY is offline
 
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Thanks for the great write-up, Jeremy. Your decision-making needs a particular word of congratulations. You got uncomfortable, analyzed your options, and figured out a completely out-of-the-box solution that allowed you to complete the mission well within safe margins. Well done!

As for me, I'm a bit like you. Conservative when it comes to decision-making around flying. VFR-rated but building an IFR-equipped ship so I can start working on the rating as soon as possible. This story just adds another reason to the growing stack of good reasons for me to make good on this promise to myself. Thanks again for sharing.
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  #6  
Old 08-25-2017, 03:48 PM
Chkaharyer99 Chkaharyer99 is offline
 
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Great write up Jeremy. You described the conditions very well. We flew up to Independence from Lincoln Regional on Friday morning. We stayed above 12K and with the sun rising in the east had difficulty seeing anything on the ground looking towards the east (sun). We never lost contact with the ground looking to the west or straight down. Some areas were better than others.

After the Eclipse we departed Independence and headed north then east to Emmett Idaho following the Columbia River Gorge before turning on a direct course. The smoke/haze wasn't nearly as bad but it wasn't too good either.

This morning we returned home from Emmett ID and the vis through SE Oregon and Northern Nevada was much better than what we experienced on the way up to Independence. Flew directly over the Burning Man gathering.

Good info on FU & HZ is more difficult to find.

Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm glad I went to Idaho after reading your account.

Paul Dye and Nigel Speedy's classes were outstanding.
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  #7  
Old 08-25-2017, 05:24 PM
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jjconstant jjconstant is offline
 
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Jeff: I would love to see the photos you got of the smoke but for some reason they're not showing up on my screen. Anybody able to see them or is it just me?
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Jeremy Constant
RV7A "Stella Luna" ECI IO-360 WW200RV Pmags 360hrs
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  #8  
Old 08-25-2017, 05:39 PM
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jcaplins jcaplins is offline
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jjconstant View Post
Jeff: I would love to see the photos you got of the smoke but for some reason they're not showing up on my screen. Anybody able to see them or is it just me?
I think some sharing option was not on. should work now.
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track me (actually, don't bother. It's not going anywhere) KB3AWW
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  #9  
Old 08-25-2017, 06:36 PM
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jjconstant jjconstant is offline
 
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Thanks Jeff! Yup, the photo with your wing looks a lot like what I was flying through, although in my case the "high clouds" closed in around me, because of where I was, it turned out to be another layer of smoke! That was exactly where I said "screw it" and turned around!

Would you be willing to email me that photo, in as much resolution as is available for me to have a reminder for posterity? It might even make its way into a magazine article with photo credit, if you're willing.
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Jeremy Constant
RV7A "Stella Luna" ECI IO-360 WW200RV Pmags 360hrs
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Old 08-25-2017, 07:13 PM
BobTurner BobTurner is offline
 
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Interesting what a difference a 'few' miles can make. We came back to LVK on Monday afternoon from KGCD/John Day, in eastern OR, via Lakeview, Redding, down the central valley, and while it was smokey it was always VMC, visibilities over 5, we could see the ground 10 miles away as well as blue sky above, etc.
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