Building Confidence

Last week, I flew to McClellan-Palomar Airport, just north of San Diego, California. It reminded me of my long solo cross-country flight as a student pilot. Being all alone in the airplane, far away from home took me way out of my comfort zone, but the experience was priceless. Completing that flight without a hitch was definitely a defining moment, I felt so much more confident about my flying skills.

While last week’s flight was not an earth shattering experience, I was excited to once again fly a tower enroute control (TEC) procedure – something that didn’t exist in the mid-west where I conducted most of my recent flight time. Flying a TEC is so convenient. All I had to do was call Santa Monica ground, request a tower enroute to Palomar and get the clearance in the runup. Preflight planning certainly still applies, but it consists of finding the TEC procedures for the intended route, studying where it will take you on the enroute chart, taking a good look at the potential approach procedures, and, of course, a good weather briefing. Filing IFR is not required. I was not really intimidated by the flight, but since I would be alone in the airplane, I took my time to prepare. Completing the trip was a definite confidence boost.

Flying solo has definitely been the most rewarding and confidence building experience I’ve had in airplanes. Even as an instructor with a few hundred hours, if I flew with another pilot I found myself asking him or her questions I already knew the answers to, as if I had no clue what I was doing. Having someone else in the cockpit somehow would make me second-guess my actions or procedures.

So, in order to progress with my skills, I needed to go out and push myself to fly missions that I was unfamiliar with, to learn new things, all by myself. I’m not suggesting that I would put myself in harms way just to improve my flying skills. No, I would gradually make each flight a little more complex. Those flights that were out of my comfort zone would require me to pay extra attention to the preflight planning process to make sure I was prepared for each stage of the flight.

As a VFR pilot, I would fly to airports that I had never flown into previously. I would study the charts and airport diagrams meticulously to figure out the best way to get there and how to approach the pattern at the airport. And while flying those trips was intimidating, the confidence I gleaned from the extensive preflight planning was only exceeded by the level of confidence gained at the completion of the flight.

As a fresh instrument pilot, I would go out and fly solo on a semi cloudy days, with high stratus clouds, going in and out of the clouds and shooting approaches where the clouds were way above minimums. Little-by-little, my confidence grew, and I was able to eventually fly approaches to minimums without sweating or having a death grip on the yoke.

Without a lot of experience, flying solo confidently in unfamiliar environments comes down to good preflight planning, talking to the right controllers and following the planned flight path. Many pilots I’ve talked to ask me “isn’t it hard to fly around the airspace in Los Angeles? I don’t dare to fly there!” Truth is it’s really not that difficult and shouldn’t intimidate any pilot. Simply study the charts carefully, plan the flight according to the available airspace, and talk to the appropriate controllers, whether they’re from approach or a control tower. There are several routes right above Los Angeles International airport that can be flown VFR, without even getting a Class B clearance. Just take a look at the Los Angeles Terminal Chart to find out what they are and how to execute them. You may get out of your comfort zone the first couple of times, but you would quickly learn from the experience and gain the confidence required to fly in any busy airspace.

After my flight to Palomar last week, I was elated to look at the weather forecast for this week’s flight to San Diego. The base of the cloud deck was forecast about 2,000 feet, with tops at around 4,000. I knew the TEC procedure would be similar to the flight I took last week to Palomar, only with a slight extension. I was scheduled to fly the same airplane, so I felt very comfortable with the avionics. Last week’s flight had given me more than enough confidence to comfortably fly in the soup on my own. After a beautiful, smooth and uneventful trip down there, the controller’s request for me to keep my speed up on the approach because of a heavy jet coming up my rear didn’t make me break a sweat either. And it was such a joy to pop out of the clouds at around 1,600 feet and see Lindberg’s runway 27 right in front of the nose of the airplane.

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