Fall (such as it is) has arrived here in SoCal and a wise pilot might ponder a flight training plan for the upcoming winter weather. (Realize that “winter” here under SoCal Skies means four months of the spring-like conditions you’d find in most parts of the country. “Darn, it might get down 55° F, today.” Poor us. Our “winter” lasts from Thanksgiving to Patrick’s Day – when all the nasty weather we’re likely to get occurs.)
Winter means storms that rumble south down the coast from the Bering Sea, packing enough power to dump four or five inches of rain in a day. Sometimes they weaken during that grueling trip down the I-5 and drop an inch or two over a day or so. Sometimes they just bring stratiform clouds that keep VFR pilots grounded for a day or three. Sometimes they run outta gas just north of LA and barely cause a breeze. (Yeah, I know, there are places on the planet that get four or five inches of rain in an hour. SoCal Skies are mellow, Dude, and try to make everything groovy – even violent fast-moving winter lows that explode out of the hostile north. “Chill, Dude. Let’s grab a Corona and check out those gnarly waves.”)
So … what’s a conscientious SoCal pilot ‘sposed to do? Well, Dude, skip sippin’ the Corona Light, call your friendly local CFII, and get out there and shoot some approaches. The Feds say ya gotta have 6 in a 6 month period, with some navigating via airways, some holds – you know, IFR practice. Instead of trying to get current in a real, fast-moving cold front, with ice and snow and severe turbulence, build up to it by going out on a typical SoCal October, or early November, day and dust the cobwebs off your instrument scan.
You’ll be surprised how quickly that instrument scan can break down. You invest months and months in learning all that IFR schtuff: sweating the AI, noting the ASI, the VSI, the altimeter and turn coordinator, comparing the compass with the HI, listening to ATC, briefing your holding pattern entry, then briefing the approach – then flying the bloody approach. You need to reboot that scan, refresh those skills and fly some damned IFR approaches.
“But wait,” you say, “I don’t have an instrument rating,” as you hang your head in shame, realizing that you’re just a lowly VFR puke. Well, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, OVER … why the bloody-goddammed hell not? Get off yer dead arse and hie thineself down to the airport and plan to get one.
Working on an IFR rating in SoCal, in “winter” is a great idea. Granted, there’s a lotta VFR weather you have to find in order to master the first three phases of training. First, you’ve gotta figure out just to control the airplane solely by reference to instruments – it’s like trying to juggle six balls with one hand. Next, you’ve gotta apply those skills to the nav instruments, so that you can actually fly in the system – add another two or three balls to your juggling act. Third, you’ve got to learn to combine basic instrument control, and using navaids, to start flying the actual instrument approaches that will bring you safely down to the runway you’ve chosen – add another ball or two to that routine and hope they’re not steel and don’t fall on your head.
Once you’ve mastered all that, then, fourth, you get to start flying instrument approaches in the system. And that‘s when it really gets to be fun. Ever listen to those ATC channels on your computer, or when your travelling on an air carrier? Sounds almost like Old Church Slavonic – all right, Ancient Greek – doesn’t it? When you get to flying approaches, that’s when you realize how helpful the ATC system is, and how committed the controllers are to getting you safely back onto terra firma. (Oh, and just how bloody precise you need to be with your communication skills.)
And that’s when Ol’ Man Winter can be a pal, because Ol’ Man SoCal Winter ain’t too sprightly and won’t beat you up with real IFR weather, just the SoCal Skies version – a little cloud, a couple of bumps, maybe, if you’re lucky, a schpritzen of rain and … oh, lucky day … perhaps a few very low ceilings.
Instrument training in SoCal in winter is wonderful. You can actually fly inside some cloud – as you always should when you’re learning instruments – without the typical hazards associated with winter IFR in other parts of the country. Sure, we’ll get a front or two. Yeah, you may find some rain. Hell, ya might even pick up a little ice. But it’s the SoCal variety of winter weather, and, generally speaking, every approach in SoCal isn’t a horror show of turbulence, ice, freezing cold winds and the other nasty bits you’ll find elsewhere. It’s grand.
So what the bloody hell are y’all waiting for. Do some winter planning and fly some approaches … OR … if you’re a VFR puke, finally make a plan to get your instrument rating. You’ll be glad you did.