Part 2: Gaining an IMC rating……”hostage to fortune”.
To start this second instalment documenting my IMC flight training, I first need to remind myself of the definition of “hostage to fortune”, which is: ‘an act, commitment, or remark that is regarded as unwise because it invites trouble or could prove difficult to live up to.’
In my first instalment reporting on my IMC training I left you with the following ‘lesson’:
“I seem to be able to predict fantastic autumnal flying weather. All of my IMC lessons thus far have been conducted in CAVOK.”
And then, as you will all probably remember, ensued the wettest, windiest, most miserable weather that I can remember for a little while. Apologies to you all and more on that later.
In the first instalment, I reported on the training by sortie, as each flight meant that I had to learn something new. Subsequent lessons built on this learning and required practice of the techniques so, for this second and final piece, I will concentrate on the new or interesting (to me) aspects of the flying.
Whilst performing a ‘Hold’ i.e. flying an (usually) oval race-track pattern whilst waiting/lining up to land is not strictly part of the IMC test, there is a provision that ’if the applicant is required to hold by ATC then the candidate should be assessed. So, quite sensibly, Stuart insisted that I practiced them. The EGNH holding pattern is ‘centred’ on the NDB (remember how effective that is?) and is roughly aligned East-West (093°/273° to be precise). Once the beacon has been crossed tracking East, the pattern requires a rate-1 turn to the South through 180 degrees, which should take 1 minute. There is then a 1-minute Westerly leg to fly, followed by a rate-1 turn to the North through 180 degrees for 1 minute which, for no wind conditions, means a 1 minute Easterly leg back to the beacon, for 4 minutes in total. Simple. Simple, that is, unless there is a wind blowing, in which case, there are various ‘rules-of-thumb’ to lay off any drift due to the wind. For some of my early holds, there were Easterly/Westerly winds blowing which made for some reasonable holding patterns. More usually however, there was a (very at times) strong Northerly wind blowing which made for some interesting ground tracks.
Apparently (remember, I am not looking out of the cockpit), I was over Southport at one point which drew some interesting ‘instructor feedback’ from Stuart. Just to add to the fun, because the holding pattern has a specific alignment, there are rules for the different entries to the hold (direct, offset and parallel). This was another case of what seemed perfectly sensible and understandable in the briefing room turned into ‘brain-freeze’ in the cockpit. So, for something is not necessarily in the test, this was one of the more challenging aspects of the flying. Particularly so for the perfectionist side of me which was not happy unless my (perceived) ground track matched that of the holding pattern drawn on the approach plates (which I suspect it rarely did)!
One of the purposes of a holding pattern, other than torturing unfortunate IMC students, is to position the aircraft for entry into one of the procedural approaches for the airfield. At Blackpool, this is either an NDB approach for runway 10 or NDB and ILS approaches for runway 28. I covered ILS approaches to some degree last time, having been vectored onto them by Warton in relatively benign weather conditions. It was then ‘simply’ a case of keeping the localiser and glideslope needles crossed to get down to the Decision Height at which point, hopefully, the runway was visible in front of you (incidentally, generally using the opposite technique to VFR approaches – throttle for speed and elevator for flight path.
This takes a bit of getting used to at first if you have never had to do it before, which I hadn’t). With strong Northerly and, in one case, Southerly winds, following the procedure to line up on the ILS localiser was a bit more of a challenge. Care has to be taken not to turn inside or perhaps worse, get blown through the localiser. It then becomes a struggle to re-establish on the localiser before intercepting the glideslope. Trying to do both simultaneously leads to a busy cockpit, as I found from experience. My low point here was Warton asking if we were ‘ok’ as my ground track was very different to the published procedure. The unflappable Stuart’s response of “yes, we’re fine” did go some way to removing the resulting self-doubt that such a question is bound to raise.
Procedural NDB approach
This approach to 10 is a little more challenging. First, coming out of the holding pattern, you are required to fly 7 miles out to sea, descending from 3000ft to 1600ft as you go. An engine failure at the far end of this outbound leg would certainly end in you getting your feet wet. The technique is to then to turn onto a particular track using the NDB as your lateral guidance, making sure that you allow for wind drift (have I mentioned that it didn’t seem to give reliable indications?).
There is now no vertical guidance so you use a stepped descent based upon the approach plate – the procedure allows you to step down your altitude at certain distance as measured by the DME. To add to the enjoyment, the ground track is oblique to the runway (presumably to maximise our chances of intercepting it, a bit like the bombing of the runway at Port Stanley during the Falklands War). This, to my mind, made locating the runway as you ‘look up’ at your Minimum Descent Height just a little more challenging. If, as I found on a number of occasions, you were blown a little off the planned track (strong northerly winds again), finding and then manoeuvring onto the runway needed a bit more effort. Nevertheless, successfully executing one of these so-called ‘non-precision’ approaches does lead to a certain satisfying glow at the end of the sortie.
Carlisle and the DME 9 Arc Approach.
Throughout my training, Stuart had mentioned that we would, on one sortie, head to Carlisle to do one of their DME arc approaches; one of the last of these remaining in the UK. See AD 2-EGNC-8-5 in the UK AIP if you are interested. In brief, you track towards the Carlisle NDB and, at about 11 miles on the DME, turn to fly a constant radius arc of 9 miles to intercept the runway heading. Stuart also made it very clear that he didn’t really fancy flying it in actual IMC as, having flown it in VMC, the hills of the Lake District seem very close and don’t appear to leave too much margin for error.
So, G-BORL was booked for 3 slots and a trip to Carlisle arranged. As for much of the winter, the weather was awful. It was good experience to take off into IMC with a low cloud base and visibility not too far off IMC minima. However, with the weather at Carlisle similar to Blackpool, the DME 9 arc procedure seemed to be off the cards and practising in their hold for an NDB approached seemed to be on. As an aside, this trip resulted in my favourite moment of the training – at about 5000ft we popped out of the cloud ‘on top’ into some reasonably glorious sunny weather. Just like on a jet when you are going on your holidays. It still makes me grin today. I took some pictures at the time and one of is still the wallpaper on my laptop. Contacting Carlisle led to the inevitable. They already had one aircraft practicing in the hold in actual IMC and didn’t seem that keen on a second joining it. As such, they invited us to do the DME 9 arc approach. It was at this point that the unflappable Stuart did, it seemed to me, just have a small ‘wobble’.
In fairness to him, he had had to make a Pan call with a sick aircraft and go into Liverpool unexpectedly the day before. However, as we were most of the way there, it would have felt like defeat to simply turn around and come back so, with loins suitably girded, and the approach plate briefed, into the murk we descended. Once established at DME 9, flying the arc is one of those things that I found less challenging. With the ADF pointing at the NDB, it is a reasonably straightforward procedure to allow the needle to move ‘behind’ the wing by, say 10 degrees, turn through 20 degrees, so that the needle is now ‘ahead’ of the wing by 10 degrees and repeat. Nevertheless, flying in real IMC in such close proximity to the Lake District certainly concentrates the mind! Turning onto the runway heading and then following the non-precision NDB approach was its usual challenge, particularly as the cloud base turned out to just above my Minimum Descent Height. But, with the runway straight ahead (for once!), the main difficulty thereafter was dealing with a left brake failure. Unexpectedly slewing to the right on touchdown was, shall we say, interesting. Fortunately, all of the turns to get to the apron at Carlisle were to the right. However, ATC must have wondered what we were doing on the return to Blackpool as, to turn left, we had to do a 270° turn to the right.
Surveillance Radar Approach.
The CAA would consider NDB and ILS approaches as ‘pilot interpreted approaches’. You can get ATC to vector you onto the ILS localiser but thereafter, it is down to the pilot to interpret the approach plates and the relevant instrument indications to get down to the runway. However, on one training sortie, I undertook a Surveillance Radar Approach (SRA) into Warton.
Here, ATC vector you onto the runway heading and then provide both lateral and vertical guidance down to either 2 nm from the runway. Once ATC have guided you onto runway alignment, it is then simply a case of following their instructions to change heading and descent rate to maintain a nominal localiser and glideslope. Whilst this requires an element of concentration, the talk down controller at Warton had the calmest and most soothing voice that I have ever heard. If I ever were in a crisis, I would definitely want that controller providing the instructions on that day to get me out of it!
So, just the skills test…………….