I just flew my first IMC flight! After all that prep, straight away I felt both prepared and excited. Cloudbase was variable, just as the cloud coverage, which resulted in some new and interesting situations. Constantly going in and out of cloud is a weird feeling, and probably will be for a bit, having avoided clouds for the best part of 3 years. It is easy to get disoriented without the instruments, so rule #1: trust the instruments instead of your senses. I had to fly with the glasses that keep you from looking outside (foggles), and in my opinion, they actually make it easier as there is less to get distracted by during your scan.
So, the route was EGTR – BNN – WCO – CIT (Cranfield). We did the standard instrument departure (SID) followed by a leg from BNN VOR to WCO NDB. This went ok, as the VOR is quite a bit easier to use than the NDB. NDB’s tend to be more inaccurate and suffer from more errors than VORs do. I really like the radiowork during an IFR flight, you are either talking to someone with a proper radar for the area, or the approach and tower frequencies for the destination aerodrome. We talked to Farnborough radar and Brize Radar, followed by the people at Cranfield airport. This puts all the comms management points we learned in the sim to use, which worked well.
After WCO we turned onto our track to get us to Cranfield using the NDB. NDB’s are something to get used to. The simulator does a pretty good job replicating real life events as best it can, but NDB’s are sometimes a little unpredictable. I have to accept sometimes that the needle is a little wobbly or inaccurate, all you should do in those situations is make the best of it and go off whatever the needle shows you, followed by a proper correction to make it do what you want.
Arriving at Cranfield, I flew 2 holdings using a parallel entry, an NDB approach and an ILS approach. Flying all of his while not actually having seen any of the landscapes or environments is quite a weird feeling. When I looked at these pictures for instance, it was the first time I actually noticed what it all looked like outside, or the fact there were airplanes on the airport! Obviously you are aware of important traffic and other stuff you should stay on top of, but the visuals are not that relevant anymore during IFR flying, which is something to get used to.
Flying in and above clouds like that reminded me of sitting in with my dad in the cockpit of a B777. There is something about it that makes it quite relaxing, but at the same time the workload is quite high and staying ahead of everything is important for efficient flow of activities during flight. Trimming is everything. We are not allowed to use the autopilot except during specific phases of flight like doing an approach briefing or listening and writing down the destination ATIS figures. Making sure that the helicopter is trimmed at exactly at the right speed, height and heading is crucial as well to keep the workload as low as possible. There is a trim knob on the cyclic we refer to as the ‘coolie hat’. It works comparably to the one of the cabri actually (from a pilot’s POV), but it is way more accurate and makes it so you can actually let go of the controls and feel like you are actually doing a good job with keeping it all under control while doing other stuff like checks and tuning NAV aids.
People ask a lot: “What are the biggest points you struggle with transitioning from the sim to the real aircraft?” I would say it is mostly getting back in the swing of things of flying ‘for real’. Simulated events are calculated, real life can be random sometimes. Radio calls, other traffic, weather etc. Most of the things that caused me to have relatively high workload were due to controlling the aircraft. If the aircraft is not trimmed properly you will spend a lot of energy on keeping it all under control, if it is trimmed, well, happy days!
This week will be consisting of 3 more flights, depending on weather. I can hear you think: “Depending on weather? Is this course not supposed to make you detached from that? What the hell are you doing with your life!?” Well not so quick. There is a couple of things. Firstly an ILS approach has something called a decision height, this means the height at which you HAVE to be visual with the runway, otherwise you go around. If therefore the cloudbase is too low, you will not be able to land. Secondly, we are still bound by a minimum safe altitude, or minimum altitude. This is based on obstacles as well as terrain. For our area it is about 2300 feet. Now you might ask: well you can go to clouds so why would this ever be a problem? Well that is only possible given that we are not flying in temperatures below 1 degree. If we are, it only takes a short while flying in moist air (clouds) and: tadaaaa, we are accumulating ice everywhere on the airframe. This is, unlike for some other helicopters, NOT allowed in the AS355. Temperature reduces on average by 1.98 degrees per 1000 feet. So if it is 4 degrees on the ground like today, the 0 degree isotherm will be at 2000 feet, flying through clouds is not possible at or above this altitude.
I will update again later this week, speak soon!