May 6th and 7th 2003, First IMC

Flight 1
During my IFR training we had encountered very little actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) so although I was rated to fly in the clouds I didn’t really have any experience. Although I had been denied vision using the foggles I had been told by everyone that it did not compare to the real thing. So the idea was a little scary and, just like after gaining my Private certificate, I put off using my new rating for a little while.

However I found myself with a plane rented at Montgomery Field and a typical San Diego May day:

I had originally planned to fly IFR (in visual conditions) to Paso Robles to get some long cross country time but the winds were high and out of the south and so I decided to wait a while and see what happened. I had lunch and, after a suggestion from Kimberly, I decided to get a little cloud experience by going on the short trip to Brown Field, something I had done many times during my training.

The tops of the clouds were pretty low and I quickly got above them after take off:

I was thinking this was going to be a cool flight on top of the clouds before descending for a short while on the approach into Brown Field: I couldn’t have been more wrong! Usually the controller sends you out over the water for a while and then you do a big 180 to head east and then southwards on the approach, this time I was turned northwards and told to expect a turn in 5 miles. It didn’t come and I was told that the next sector (that is, the next controller) was busy and there would be some delays getting me in there. He turned me slightly eastwards and I headed towards the clouds that were higher inland. I waited for a turn, hoping it would come before I entered the cloud but it was not to be and I was now in the cloud. Everything went white and I started staring at the instruments.

The controller was also talking to a group of military planes who were landing at Miramar and I could hear his side of the conversation but not theirs (they would be on a high frequency military channel). The controller kept asking one of the pilots what his altitude was, then where he was. Each time there would be silence and then the question would be repeated with a little more urgency in the controller’s voice. Given that I wasn’t far from Miramar I was also keen for the fighter planes to be identified. More unresponsiveness and then the controller took action – time to move me out of the way until he could vector me around safely. I got a turn that took me further away, not what I wanted – I wanted to get out of the cloud and on the ground. More questions to the fighter planes got me more turns and I lost track of where I actually was (though I had my GPS on hand). Finally he got a response and I was given a turn that put me back towards my destination and he handed me over to the next controller, thanking me for my patience.

The next controller gave me some turns that turned me away from the approach course but finally I was cleared for the approach and given permission to descend. I was looking forward to getting out of the cloud. The clouds were more choppy near the bottom and they were lower than I had expected but I finally busted out of them near the end of the approach:

I had originally planned not to land at Brown, instead to execute the missed approach procedure (which is what you would do if you get to the end of the approach and can’t see the airport) and return to Montgomery Field. However I was feeling so worn out that the chance to get on the ground, stretch my legs and drink some Coke was very appealing. I landed and went into the terminal for some relaxation, leaving my co-pilot to prepare the charts for the trip home. To my amazement the trip had taken 1 hr when normally it takes just 15-20 minutes:

After a short rest I got back into the plane, got a clearance back to Montgomery Field and was back in 0.3 hrs including taxi time. The air must have been a lot less busy for me to have taken such a direct route. Because my route was towards the coast the clouds were a lot lighter and the trip was unremarkable other than having to circle to land on runway 23 rather than use the whole of the ILS and land on runway 28R.

Flight 2
Day 2 of my rental and the day was pretty much the same as the previous one but the coast looked mostly clear once you got above the cloud so I decided to head for Oxnard, which is on the coast north west of LA and south of Santa Barbara. The forecast for the return trip was that nothing much was going to change, clouds expected to be at 3000 feet with the tops around 5000.

The rabbit and I took off into the grey of the marine layer and soon got above it. As we moved up the coast we could see patches of cloud beneath us and ahead.

Our cleared route would take us along the coast and over LAX before turning westward to Oxnard. As I got closer to LA I could see some very unpleasant looking clouds to the east, I was glad I wasn’t going over there…. little did I know how wrong I was.

I had been watching the cloud layer above me getting lower and lower but it looked like I was going to avoid it. The good controller thought otherwise and told me he was going to vector to LAX and that meant going higher and inland where all the murk was. I readied myself for some more IMC but it was not as bad as I was expecting and I was in and out of it, managed to take a couple of shots of LAX airport:

After LAX I headed north back into the grey and then westwards over the hills with some light turbulence. I was cleared for the approach a long way out of the airport and broke out of the clouds with plenty of time to spare, and it was an easy landing at a new airport:

There wasn’t time for lunch so I grabbed a bag of crisps and a coke and stretched my legs. I called the weather service at Montgomery and the weather was pretty much how I’d left it. So I jumped into the plane expecting the same ride back. However I had forgotten one thing, the route north goes up the coast but the route south takes me quite far inland before turning me south – and thats where all those big clouds had been on the way up.

After take off I was heading towards Van Nuys when the controller needed to turn me for traffic. The first turn took me straight towards the biggest cloud in the area. I hoped for another turn but didn’t get it. I entered the cloud and that was the last I saw of the ground for another 2 hours. I was vectored around for what seemed like forever before being put back on course. After Van Nuys the cloud type changed from the fluffy cumulus to a damp grey layer that was smooth but wet; at a few points drips of water hit me from leaks above me in the cockpit. I kept waiting to bust out of the cloud but every turn, climb and descent provided me with the same view: a grey nothing.

I was finally cleared onto the approach into Montgomery Field, they were using Runway 23 again so the minimums I can descend to are higher than usual, in this case 880 feet. The weather observation reported 1300 feet overcast, poor visibility and rain – never landed in the rain before! At 950 feet I still couldn’t see the airport, though this was as much due to the rain on the windscreen as to the outside visibility. Then at around 900 feet I could make out the airport buildings and was able to start the turn for landing on runway 23. I did a poor landing, a couple of bounces, and then taxiied to parking.

When I got out I could see that the weather really was very poor all around. Kimberly and Farley were sat at Gibbs and they were quite astonished that I had just landed in such terrible weather. And a bit envious too that I had had quite the adventure. Certainly without the previous day’s experience I would probably have been needing a change of underwear but, although very tiring, I had actually enjoyed flying by instruments in the clouds. Fortuantely it had been pretty smooth and there had been no icing – those experiences I am happy to leave for another flight, hopefully a much later one.