Chasing Clouds


A novice instrument rated pilot’s first foray into clouds
“Cherokee 456, do you have Watsonville information?”
“Negative,” I responded.
“Report back when you do,” said the NORCAL approach controller.   
It was sunny, clear and beautiful where we were at 8,000 feet with breathtaking views of lush green hills, blue skies and the ocean in the distance.  I am not supposed to allude to seeing any of those as, theoretically, I was under the hood flying under simulated instrument conditions.
Four aircraft had set out from San Luis Obispo Airport on our monthly flyout to Watsonville Airport for a $100 hamburger. The plan was to meet at 1:00 p.m. for lunch at Zuniga’s restaurant. It was a beautiful day for flying. The weather in San Luis Obispo was already clear, though low clouds and fog laced the coastline to the north. Monterey and Watsonville were expected to become progressively clearer by the time of our arrival.
Three aircrafts departed under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) from San Luis Obispo airport while I, not to miss the opportunity to practice my newly acquired IFR skills,set out on an IFR flight plan with Camille as my safety pilot. Watsonville has three approaches, but flying an aircraft equipped with neither a distance measuring equipment (DME) nor a GPS certified for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), I had no option except to fly the localizer approach.
Arriving in the vicinity of Watsonville, we found the airport still blanketed, overcast with clouds. The only way to get in VFR was to try some scud running. On the air, we heard two of the aircrafts that preceded us abort any attempt at landing at Watsonville and divert to Hollister airport, 20 miles to the southeast of Watsonville. I eyed the overcast skies over Watsonville longingly. That was where I wanted to go. Since getting my ticket to fly through clouds, I had not flown in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Would I be nervous, disoriented, distracted or maybe even a total disaster flying through IMC? I had often wondered how I would react when it actually happened. Here was opportunity at last to find out! If Camille was willing I could shoot the approach as planned, only now it would be under actual IMC rather than under simulated conditions. What better person to have with me, than Camille, who also had just gotten her instrument rating a few months prior.
We listened to Watsonville ASOS. Reported ceiling was 1,600 feet with visibility at 5 miles. Perfect! Minimums were certainly much above my own personal minimums of 1,200-foot ceiling and 3-mile visibility. We decided to shoot the localizer approach as originally planned but execute a missed approach instead of landing and then head out to Hollister to meet the rest of the gang.
We were vectored over the ocean while we descended to 5,000 feet and were finally turned to intercept the localizer. Once cleared for the approach, off we went descending through the clouds. I had already removed my hood which I did not need anymore. I had reviewed the approach plate clipped to my yoke yet again to refresh my memory about the procedure. The approach was fairly straightforward. Once established on the final approach course of 015, I had to track the localizer all the way to 680 feet minimum descent altitude (MDA). One VOR was tuned to 108.3 to track the localizer and another to 117.3 (Salinas VOR) to help identify NALLS intersection, which was the final approach fix (FAF) where I had to start my timer, to identify the missed approach point. We were all set, ready to shoot the approach.
I could feel the tension and excitement within me as I eased back the throttle and settled for a steady descent and established on the final approach course to track the localizer inbound. It was enticing to watch the beckoning clouds instead of the instrument panel inside. “Don’t look out” reiterated Camille, “just keep looking at the instruments.” There is certainly logic in doing just that. The air was smooth, with nary a bump. It almost felt surreal. I realized then what it meant to be “floating on clouds”. I certainly was floating on clouds both literally and figuratively!
The OBS indicator stayed firmly centered tracking the localizer perfectly and required few corrections to keep it centered. Was it working I wondered? “Don’t fixate,” I could hear my instructor’s voice drilling over and over again in my head, still fresh from my instrument training days. “Keep the scan going. Try to be as smooth as possible. Small movements and don’t forget your 6Ts.” Some thoughtful person had even posted a placard on the instrument panel in case one forgot. “Turn. Twist. Throttle. Time. Track. Talk”. Was I missing anything?
Too soon, we broke out of the clouds, somewhere around 1,600 feet, as predicted and lo and behold straight ahead stood the runway. Incredible! It was an almost joyous moment when breaking through the clouds we caught a first glimpse of the runway, where we were expecting it to be, right where we were headed! It had been way too easy. Reaching MDA, we were soon executing the missed approach, a climbing right turn back through the clouds to the Salinas VOR to 4,000 feet. I had done it!
Landing at Hollister (3O7) offered a further lesson in land and hold short operation (LAHSO). In a busy, towered airport you have the option to refuse, but at 3O7 it was thrust upon us quite unexpectedly. Hollister is a non-towered airport with two intersecting runways. We were set up to land on runway 24, when another aircraft decided to land on runway 31. The other pilot offered to wait or so we thought. We landed, fortunately short, and came to a halt prior to entering runway 31 and what did we see? The other aircraft touching down on 31 at the same time!  He had enough room to come to a halt, but it pays to be vigilant at all times and expect the unexpected.
The rest of the day what I felt was euphoria. Sometimes one feels confident of doing certain things, but unless one actually attempts it, one can never be 100% certain how one would feel and react in actual circumstances. It was doubly satisfying to me, as I never had any doubt in my mind that I would be unable to perform and it was reassuring that I was right to feel confident!  Having an instrument rated safety pilot on the right seat certainly boosted my confidence to some extent. But ultimately I think it was all the prior preparation, the training and the innumerable practice approaches as a student pilot that ultimately rendered this feat easy. I always believed that life was full of stops, made up of moments such as this, moments to be cherished and remembered over a lifetime. Doing something I really wanted for the first time is one moment I will never forget!