Just completed the 14-day instrument course at Wings Aloft that they built around the Cirrus platform. Like Curt Sanford, I had Kevin Henderson, Chief Ground Instructor, as my 14-day instructor. Great folks very knowledgeable about Cirrus planes with their own fleet of SR20 rental planes and expertise as a Cirrus Service Center. We needed that for equipment problems such as replacing the attitude indicator, swapping #2 Garmin 430 radio with intermittent reception problems, repairing broken heater cable (we really wanted that fixed!), oil change and even resealing the right door!
Wings requires the instrument written test before starting. And they shocked me by scheduling the FAA examiner even before I arrived! But they point out the discipline and planning required of an instrument pilot. They built in a day for me to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, otherwise it was every day for 2 weeks. Despite lots of weather challenges, we made the date.
The course is a daily sequence of ground lesson, flight lesson, lunch, ground lesson, flight lesson, study, sleep! Typical of Wings Aloft materials, the ground lessons are PowerPoint presentations well organized and well illustrated. Lots of flexibility and creative ways to deal with challenges. In fact, we began the course in Sacramento because for 3 days, I couldn’t fly VFR from San Diego to Seattle, so Kevin brought a laptop and we started the first ground lesson in the pilot lounge! Also, in March, the freezing levels were constantly between 3,000 and 7,000 feet creating stress for me on how to make progress each day. Most days were broken ceilings at 2-3,000 feet and half the days had precipitation. A couple of the coldest days we retired to the Fresca 141 simulator at a nearby facility. (But I found that the lack of feedback in that simulator was going to make it hard to master attitude control so I concentrated on procedures instead.) Another time, we escaped south to Eugene, Oregon, by flying the long way around the Olympic Peninsula as VFR under the clouds along the shoreline. At least flying IFR on the way back gave me the long cross country.
Had a curious delay in the check ride. During my oral exam, the weather closed in and the examiner was reluctant to fly the whole check ride in IMC because he was unfamiliar with the Cirrus (only his 3rd Cirrus check ride). Of course, my instructor and I then promptly flew IFR back to Seattle. 3 days later, I flew the check ride in even bumpier but drier weather!
Total flying time was 52 hours in 15 days with 41 hours instrument time, including 8 hours actual, 28 hours hood, and 5 hours simulator. Almost all was hand-flying although we used the autopilot to introduce flying approaches. Partial panel flying took advantage of everything in the plane, so I found 4 sources of heading, 3 sources of course guidance, and lots of places where the same information is displayed, although the scans got a bit weird at times. I found the sequence of hand flying then autopilot for new concept and back to hand flying was a terrific way to grasp the concept and then master techniques. Similarly, using GPS to grasp the approach and then flying VORs was also much easier for me. And the Garmin hold and procedure turn guidance was very impressive to the FAA examiner, even though I was partial panel and flying VORs at the time!
Seattle airspace offers a surprising variety of instrument flying challenges. There are still 4 TFRs for national security – created Garmin User Waypoints for each of them and then could display them on moving maps or check distance on Nearest User Waypoints page. (During the last few days, there was a 5th TFR for the Boeing Stratoliner that ditched in Elliott Bay off West Seattle.) There are a whole bunch of instrument approaches at nearby airports and the controllers are obviously very familiar with multiple approaches for instrument training.
For example, the check ride was all within a 40 mile radius and included takeoff from Olympia, intercept V165 airway to CARRO intersection, GPS R17 approach to Tacoma Narrows, missed approach to hold at Olympia VOR, VOR/DME arc R35 approach to Olympia for circle-to-land, missed approach to vectors for ILS R17 approach to Olympia, cancel IFR and fly maneuvers, like steep turns, timed turns, constant rate and speed maneuvers, then land at Olympia. I flew this sequence several times on the Garmin 430 simulator while waiting for equipment repairs. Even though I was familiar with Garmin flight plans before the course, the practice of updating flight plans for different airports and different approaches was really helpful.
As is likely with any accelerated course, I wish I had more experience before the check ride. However, I proved that I know lots of stuff in my head, but getting to fly the way I think is still a challenge. So I’ve set some pretty conservative minimums until I build up confidence. Fly safe!
Bottom line: Wings Aloft 14-day instrument course was a great experience under challenging conditions with great people from a great organization who know a lot about a great plane.
Caveats: I had auditioned Wings Aloft and my instructor, Kevin, several months earlier during a Thanksgiving trip, so I was already comfortable with what I was getting for 14 days. Also, my Cirrus SR22 problems had been intermittent for sometime, but needed attention under the rigors of IFR flying – another lesson for a low-time VFR pilot/owner! And the course took a lot of energy – I’ve slept 10-12 hours a night for several days since!!!