I started my training for my instrument rating in 2011. I decided that I wanted to learn from Mike Jesch who was a dear family friend, Master CFII, American Airlines Captain, Angel Flight, and LightHawk pilot. Mike is based in Fullerton, California. I knew that choosing to have instruction in the LA Basin would mean a greater challenge. Not only would I have to get to LA, but also train in one of the country’s busiest air spaces.
My Mother and Father were my biggest supporters in my life. My Father was a trainer in the Army Air Corps. We always had a little airplane. When he landed he would always say, “Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.” I lost my Mom in 2010 and my father in 2015. Life happens and I went from being married, to being a single mom. My IFR training was self-funded. Due to these changes I had to take a break in the instrument training in 2012 and didn’t re-start until July of 2016.
Through the years I have been intrigued by the concept of neural plasticity, the idea that your brain isn’t completely hard-wired; that through experience and training, we can re-wire or alter the brain’s functioning. I have been a licensed psychotherapist for 27 years now. I am used to being a teacher. I have taught at the graduate school level, aviation seminars and numerous presentations. These activities let me be the leader, the one who “knew the answers” [or at least knew where to look]. Being a learner is hard. It is hard on the ego, your emotions, and your confidence. I am lucky that Mike is such a wonderful teacher. Much like my primary instructor Dave, he was encouraging and patient. But even with the best teacher the beast that needs to be tamed is insecurity, doubt and old thinking patterns.
My Mooney is equipped with dual VORs and a DME; no autopilot or IFR certified GPS. What this meant for me was a lot of “public math”. Mike would ask me “Where are you?” and I would struggle to try to figure out my location based on radials, DME distances and such. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience.
Training in the Mooney was double-edged. On the positive side, the airplane is a very stable platform and my instruments were configured in a simple but effective six-pack. However the downside of a high performance, very aerodynamic airplane is speed. My no-wind groundspeed is 145 kts. My IFR-student brain speed was probably 100 kts. This meant slowing the airplane down. I was pushing myself toward neural plasticity, forcing a cortical and neuronal re-wiring. I tell you sometimes it downright hurt. The mental fatigue was stunning. I truly believe my IQ lowered while under the hood due to the lack of visual and situational cues. Through it all I was humbled, dismayed, frustrated, and exhilarated. I always tell my clients or students that unlike the common assumption, practice makes practice. Practice allows repetition and through repetition we gain mastery. Practice we did.
The other thing I forgot to mention is that my instructor Mike is wicked smart. Seriously. He is probably one of the smartest folks I have ever met. A natural teacher he would challenge me, come up with unusual approaches or scenarios and gave me a lot of experience. I have four hours of instruction in actual IMC conditions. What a gift that is from an instructor. While IMC enroute to Camarillo for a 99s event, I experienced vertigo. It was the strangest sensation. I felt like my body was in one of those carnival mirrors that distorts reality. Mike said that he watched me and timed how long it took for me to recover, 3-4 seconds. Although it was uncomfortable, I am thankful for the experience.
I cannot count how many times I had to drive somewhere because of the coastal fog or weather. Mike would always say, “Gotta get that rating!” I decided that I needed to act in 2016. I made cuts in my budget to pay for the training I needed to get my rating. I became focused in the fall of 2016, secretly scheduling the written exam in November. I studied for hours a day and it paid off with a solid 90% on the test. 2017 was dedicated to instrument instruction. This meant that my son got used to me being in front of the computer, on the simulator, or at the airport. In late August I had my check ride scheduled. For some reason I felt pressure to get the rating done in August due to my travel schedule with AOPA to the regional fly-ins. The pressure I put on myself caused insomnia, stress and lack of focus. Mike and I went on a “check ride prep” flight and I performed horribly. There were no safety of flight issues but mentally I was just not there. It was hard for me even to calculate the reciprocal of a heading to radial. As we were at MDA for the LOC BC-A I said, “I am postponing my check ride, I am not ready.” After landing Mike gently said, “It is better for you to know that you aren’t ready versus me having to tell you.” Mike flew home to LA and I burst into tears. Only a few folks knew when my check ride was. I let them know that I postponed due to stress. I quickly received a phone call of support from Robert DeLaurentis. He could tell I had been sobbing. We processed the event and he helped me to see this was a positive versus a negative. I continued on with my training and came to believe I had made the correct decision.
During my last flight with Mike he asked me, “Where are you.” I glanced down and quickly said, “I am 5 miles south of Paradise [VOR] on the 185 radial” I suppose it was then I knew. I had literally wrapped my brain around instrument training.
November 17, 2017 was my instrument checkride. I was grateful to be able to use an office at ArtCraft Paint in Santa Maria. The DPE, Dennis Magdaleno drove up the coast and we started about 10:00 a.m. We began with the ground portion. I didn’t think I would be as nervous as I was. If he had asked me my middle name, I probably would have hesitated. I did well enough for us to move to the flying portion. It was early afternoon and the day was just perfect. Low clouds had cleared and the sun was shining. As we walked out to the airplane Dennis said, “I love Mooneys! It is my favorite airplane.” I said, “Me too!”
Before we started the engine Dennis told me there are three outcomes: pass, fail or discontinue. If there were an issue that caused me to fail he would simply say that I needed more instruction and I would have to try again. He ended by saying that if he didn’t say anything after landing and during taxi that it was a good sign that I passed.
Although extremely stressful I did everything he asked of me on the practical test [LOC-BC, ILS, VOR partial panel, unusual attitudes, DME arc]. The final approach was a circle to land. As I landed I made sure I was right on the glideslope and touched down on the centerline at the aim point. I taxied off at the first exit and parked outside of ArtCraft. Dennis didn’t say a word. [Inner happy dance going on]. We debriefed the flight and he asked for my logbook. As my certificate was being printed he excused himself and left the room. I was alone, keenly alone. I burst into tears, I suppose from the adrenaline, relief and pride. At that moment I missed my parents and my kids. Getting my instrument rating was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. It was harder than graduating from college, harder than my professional licensure exams, and harder than being a single mom. 2017 was the year I promised myself that I would indeed get my rating. 366 days from the date of the written test, I did just that. Another successful flight of Haywire Airlines.