First Solo flight in IMC and Circling Approach at Night

by HPA · November 28, 2013

First Solo flight in IMC and Circling Approach at Night

by Sarah Rovner (Commercial Pilot, CFI & FAASTeam Representative)

There are many things in aviation that you can train for but are drastically different when experiencing them first hand. As a new instrument rated pilot, I was fresh out of training and ready to take on the real world. However, my training did not remove the danger of what I was about to embark on.

Almost every story of a near miss or dangerous situation begins with a routine flight. I was flying a Civil Air Patrol owned Cessna 182Q from Hooks airport to Pearland to get my tailwheel checkout in the Bay Area Aero Club Citabria. The entire flight to Pearland was VFR and I didn’t think to check the attitude indicator or heading indicator on the way down there. After finishing my tailwheel checkout and talking to a few friends at the airport, I noticed the weather had deteriorated. I checked the weather and the ceilings had developed at 1000ft overcast all over Houston. I thought this was a great opportunity to use my newly acquired instrument rating, and filed my IFR flight plan back to Hooks. This would be the first time I had flown in IMC solo since getting my instrument rating.

First Solo flight in IMC and Circling Approach at Night

By the time I was finished with my pre-flight and started up the airplane, it was dark out. The CAP airplane was equipped with only VOR and DME, therefore I had no RNAV capability. The winds were very strong out of the north and about 20 gusting to 25 knots. I took off on runway 32 in Pearland and began my journey. I transitioned to instrument flying as I went through the clouds after taking off. The clouds would get bright and dark and fluctuate between both, which was a little disorienting at first. As I leveled off and my attitude indicator read straight and level, I noticed that my altimeter and airspeed were showing a descent. I raised the nose slightly to stop the descent, and the attitude indicator was showing a climb. I thought to myself “this can’t be right”, and then ATC called and asked me if I was on the right heading. I had rolled out into a 270 heading, but when checking my compass, it showed about a 300 heading. Both the attitude indicator and heading indicator were delayed and not showing the correct readings after turns and climbs. I started to get nervous and began sweating. I was already anxious enough from my first actual instrument flight, but the faulty instruments were messing with my head, as well as the fluctuating lights in the clouds.

I realized that I was forgetting to change power settings during climbs and descents, and the anxiety was preventing me from remembering the compass errors and how to turn to headings with the compass. Since I was not RNAV equipped, there is only one approach into Hooks Airport that I can do – the Localizer 17R. I figured I was going to circle to land 35 since the winds were so strong. As I began the approach, I kept thinking to myself that I was going to have a meltdown if I had to go missed. More than ever I wanted to be on the ground, and I would not have called my flying skills very good in the moment. I caught myself turning and descending unintentionally, and I had a death grip on the yoke. When I broke out of the clouds around 800ft, I saw the runway and began circling. The visibility was very low and I could see the mist reflecting in the landing light. I knew I had to stay close to the runway to avoid losing sight of it, and I continued my close and low traffic pattern.

I was extremely fixated on the runway, and as I turned base, something just told me to look down at my airspeed indicator and to my surprise I was only a few knots away from entering an uncoordinated stall – something I never thought I would even get close to. All I could hear was my heart beating in my head, and neglected to see any other clues that I had gotten slow. I immediately put the nose down and recovered, but had it not been for that split second to look at my airspeed, the entire event could have had a very different outcome. I landed uneventfully, and after shutting down the airplane at its parking spot, I literally got out of the airplane and kissed the ground. The airplane was now wet from the mist and I was very thankful that I made it home.

After this flight, I decided to go up with my instructor for a few more hours and get practice in IMC before going solo again. Being in actual IMC is much different from wearing foggles, and a real life partial panel situation and circling approach at night is very different from training. Only after I got additional training and felt comfortable in IMC again did I go solo, and this proved to be a very valuable lesson that could have been learned with a much higher price. I hope that people use this story to truly understand how dangerous circling approaches are at circling minimums – especially at night. The subject is not to be taken lightly, and there have been many fatal accidents that have resulted from this. First Solo flight in IMC and Circling Approach at Night I should have checked the airplane on the way down there to see that the attitude indicator and heading indicator were not reading right, which was an error on my part. I have added circling approaches to my list of personal minimums with the rule “not at night”, and will continue to make safety a priority by only flying at the levels I am comfortable at.

Sarah Rovner is a commercial airplane pilot and CFI based in Houston, TX who enjoys flying her G1000-equipped Cessna 182 for personal and business travel. She is also active as a mission pilot in theCivil Air Patrol, a humanitarian pilot with Angel Flight, a tow pilot for a local glider field, FAASTeam Representative and EAA YoungEagles pilot. She enjoys flying to and exploring new places.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

2022.06.09 11.19 Flyhpa 62a27fea7716a


The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here:


Would you like more information?

Send us a message below.

11 + 8 =