December 29, 2004

Not A Difficult Decision

Surface winds 180 at 34 knots gusting to 51 knots, visibility 2 1/2 miles, heavy rain, mist, ceiling 3,100 feet broken, 4,100 feet broken, 5,000 feet overcast, isolated thunderstorms. Icing levels 3,500 to 5,000 feet. Not a hard decision. Maybe next week...

(The trouble with doing the instrument rating around here is that the weather is either pretty good (cloudless VMC for literally months on end, except for the thin coastal stratus layer) or just too damn bad to fly a light plane in at all. So not much actual actual -- and, crucially, not a lot of chances to exercise or hone the go / no go and weather-related judgement that are probably more common in places with "real" weather).

December 21, 2004

Rock and Roll

SAC RWY 2 circle to landIt's 8.30 pm, it's dark, it's cold (at least for a Bay Arean like me -- it's a cloudless bone-chilling 7 degrees Celsius), we've got a very variable and gusty 30 knot headwind, the turbulence has been quite bad since before the IAF (COUPS intersection), NorCal has cleared us some time ago for the practice Sacramento Executive (KSAC) GPS RWY 2 approach, we've just passed the final approach fix (SAC VOR), I'm having a lot of trouble holding airspeed, heading, and altitude due to both the turbulence and my own death grip problem, the GPS 530 has suddenly announced that the approach (which had sequenced perfectly up to this point) is "not active", and suddenly the Executive tower controller seems to be asking me where we're flying today. I sit there under the Cone of Stupidity wondering why the hell is he asking me this? Is this a trick question? Is it some kind of intelligence test that I'm failing miserably? We're flying to Sacramento, dummy! Why do you think you just cleared us to land there?!

I actually blurt out something like "4JG ... um, er, ... Sacramento?" on air and just manage to stop myself from adding anything snide. A loud stage whisper from John in the right seat: "I think he's asking what we're flying...". OK, I can cope with that: "Uuh, tower, 4JG, sorry about that; we're a Cessna 172/G" (A quick muttered aside to John: "Why does he need to know that? He already knows what we are..."). "4JG, roger, thanks". A few seconds later, the controller again: "4JG, did NorCal give you any missed instructions?". Again, I sit there wondering: why the hell is he asking this -- NorCal gave us the standard KSAC missed instructions and the standard hand-off to tower (don't they talk?!). I get suspicious: what's he really asking?! Is he hinting that I'm off course or something? Me, slowly, suspiciously: "4JG, affirmative, we've got heading 250, climb 2,000 on the missed". "4JG, thanks". John (fiddling with the 530): "Just keep flying the approach. Don't worry about the GPS. We're inside the FAF and it's still giving you the correct approach info. Plus we've still got the VOR [it's a VOR overlay approach]". Yeah, well, that's easy for him to say...

A few seconds after this, as I try to interrogate John about what's going on with the GPS: "Uh, 4JG, did you say you wanted the circle-to-land for 20? I can give you the straight in for 2 if you'd like". At this stage I just throw up my metaphorical hands ("Dude, whatever...") and mumble something on air about taking the straight-in. "4JG, cleared for the option runway 2. Report going missed". OK, so I really wanted the circle-to-land for circling practice, but I'm already well on my way to losing it mentally -- the approach is steadily going to pieces as I concentrate too much on the radio and the GPS problem, and not on the flying. As I struggle to correct for some potentially serious-looking airspeed and heading deviations I tell John I'd go missed at this point in real life -- I'm just so far behind the plane and the approach it doesn't feel recoverable. He just says confidently "Keep going...", which I do. A few seconds later he tells me to look up -- and there it is, runway 2 in all its glory, sort-of straight ahead(ish). I land just fine (if a little long by my own standards -- there's an abrupt transition at a few hundred feet AGL from strong headwind to near-calm -- and a few seconds later we're off again on the missed.

I have to admit that for a few seconds I have the suspicion that maybe John somehow organised this ahead of time with the tower controller. In any case, it's a good lesson in resource and bandwidth management, but right now I have to get back under the cone of stupidity and do the missed. We check in with NorCal at about 1,000' on heading 250, and the controller asks us what's next. "4JG, we'd like the GPS 25 into Rio Vista [O88], please. Pilot nav". After a short pause: "4JG, OK, where do you want to start the approach?". D'Oh! Where's the O88 plate? I'm already behind things again and we're still rocking and rolling in the turbulence miles from the next approach. This isn't going well.

Then (with a bit of prompting from John) the light goes on! "Ah, NorCal, 4JG, standby..." (yes, finally I'm asserting some sort of control). No problem -- after a minute or so of setting up the plate and absorbing the information at my own pace, it's back to NorCal: "NorCal, 4JG, sorry about the delay, let's try for EPPES". "4JG, cleared for the approach". The major controversy from this point on is how to pronounce "EPPES". I say "Eppies". The controller later somewhat hesitantly uses "Eeppies". John uses "Eepps".

The initial and intermediate approach segments go OK (given the turbulence and heavy crosswind), but once again, just at the FAF, the 530 tells us that the (properly-armed and activated) approach is suddenly "not active". John curses and tells me to continue flying the approach again and to ignore the problem (we'd done RAIM checks before departing Oakland, and we'd noted that the database was set to expire on January 20, so we assumed it wasn't either of those two problems; and there were no extant NOTAMs for GPS coverage or outages. When we reported the problem earlier to NorCal they'd sounded quite unconcerned). I struggle with the wind and the plane until John tells me to look up just before the MAP -- and there's the runway, a little to our left. We'll obviously have to circle, even though it's a straight-in approach, as we're way too high and fast for the straight-in. No problem, I think, but the next few minutes are a lesson in the realities of circling-to-land at night. Even VFR, I botch two attempts in a row to land -- the first time in literally years in a non-taildragger that I've had to go around because of something I've done rather than something someone else has done. It's mortifying -- twice I come in way too high and way too fast, mostly, I think, because I keep in too close each time around due to paranoia about breaking the 1.3 nm circling radius, and because with all the stress I just forget the basic VFR stuff (like S turns on final if you're too high, etc.). Added to this is the irritating fact that 4JG's flaps are seemingly ineffective -- the 30 degree full flap setting acts more like 10 or 20 degrees in any other C172 -- and the damn plane just floats along on landing. And the sometimes quite heavy turbulence in the pattern doesn't help, either. I'd hate to have to do this in real weather -- which is the whole point of the lesson (John clearly delayed my look-up long enough to force the circling). Third time around does the trick, and after a quick touch and go we do the missed (a dream with the 530...) and check back in with NorCal (who was probably starting to wonder where we'd gone after all the time in the pattern...). Once around the hold at OAKEY for the missed (with a strong 30-40 knot crosswind) and we depart VFR back to Oakland.

I take off the cone of stupidity and fly us back to Oakland VFR -- I'm exhausted, and it all looks so nice out there. So much has gone wrong tonight, and so much of what I did was done poorly, that I just have to relax and potter back without the stress. We spend some time playing with the GPS, when John has one of those Aha! moments -- Will, the plane's owner, had loaded in the new database from Jepp last night but it's not actually valid until tomorrow. So it won't go past the FAF without a warning. No big deal on the approaches we did since the approaches are identical to the old versions (I checked the plates before we departed); and, we're inside the FAF anyway and it's a clear night. The real question is why the 530 waits until the FAF to tell you that the approach you've previously activated isn't actually active. No warning, nothing.

* * *

Later, in the clubhouse, John comments that the SAC tower controller was probably just bored and wanted someone to talk to, and I should learn to just say something like "4JG, standby" if I'm past the FAF in actual or under the hood, and just cope with the flying unless it's a real issue (like a go-around or forced runway change). After all, in this case we'd already been cleared for the option, and there was no other traffic on-frequency. And 'round here, at least, tower controllers tend to be pretty forgiving of stuff like that -- and it's what they do when the situation's reversed....

* * *

The major lessons from this evening seem to be the importance of the whole grace under pressure thing (again), and just how essential for a good approach it is to get the airspeed / trim equation down properly and repeatably (a lot of tonight's other altitude and heading roughness problems can be somewhat excused by the rather trying wind and turbulence). I may go out and just practice with 4JG on my own sometime next week to get the airspeed control better internalised. The other lesson, of course, is just how dangerous and difficult circling to land at night or in marginal weather can be. None of these lessons is new, but this evening's little adventure brought it all home again with more than the usual force.

One of the good things about this evening is that even as everything seemed to be falling apart or I felt I'd just done something really badly, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the entire lesson. I didn't feel depressed or down about it all at all, which is part of the whole learning thing, I guess. Progress?

December 18, 2004

Two Fer One

A Famous Local Bridge.Two leisurely unplanned VFR joy rides in one day, the first real VFR flying I've done in months. Light relief, basically. A meandering daytime cross country over the Golden Gate then up the coast to Jenner, then across the coastal range to Santa Rosa (KSTS) and back in 2SP with Barb, an artist friend of mine, then a nighttime cross country to Monterey (KMRY) and back in 4AC with Boyan, a fellow pilot who's flown with me to Santa Barbara and other places as a rideshare.

The weather's perfect, sunny, calm, clear, and warm, the company's great, and it's all a pleasant diversion from constantly thinking about approaches, holds, headings, etc. Santa Rosa is (predictably) a zoo, and we're cleared to land number six behind a bunch of student pilots while still several miles out. There's even a Jet Provost in the pattern somewhere (but I never actually see it). We slot ourselves into the pattern as smoothly as we can. I count it as something of a triumph that while Tower is continually issuing commands and (quite good-naturedly) chiding a bunch of different pilots for not following instructions or making the wrong entry (etc.), we get the bare minimum of attention and are cleared for take off again ahead of a bunch of other planes waiting around the runway entry who'd checked in earlier than us. Sometimes I think it's my accent...

2SP at the Old T's.Later, I fly back PIC from Monterey in the right seat, trying to polish a skill I learned a few years ago when John gave me a couple of informal lessons in flying from the right seat (basically, at the time I was curious, but I also think it's useful if you're with another pilot who decides they want you to fly and you don't want to have to land just to change seats, or you're ferrying a plane with a bad push-to-talk switch, etc.). It's not hard, just a little odd at first. I do the ILS back into Oakland (but not, this time, under the hood); from the right seat it's a little harder than usual to see the DG and the airspeed indicator, but it doesn't go too badly, and even if I'm not under the hood it's good experience. The landing goes fine. It's good to do this sort of thing sometimes...

Coming back from Monterey we use my GPS 195 handheld to check progress; just before South County (E16) Boyan sets it to go direct Reid Hillview (KRHV). We've both done this flight dozens of times, and we both know exactly where RHV is, so this is basically just for fun. But when Boyan hands me the unit, it's telling us RHV is about 20nm away, magnetic bearing 330 -- even though we can actually see RHV dead ahead (mag bearing about 030). It seems to think we're about 10nm to the east of where we actually are. We check the satellite reception page -- no anomalies there. A sobering experience -- if we didn't have local knowledge, or were relying solely on the GPS, we'd be heading straight for somewhere like Woodside (OSI) at this point instead of RHV and Oakland. A minute or two later I can actually see RHV's rotating beacon dead ahead -- and the 195 is still telling me to make a 40 or 50 degree left turn on course. A few minutes later it's better, and we don't see any more problems, but I'm not sure what caused the problem -- I've never seen this unit go bad like that before, and there was no indication whatever of any problem, and no NOTAMs for GPS outages in the area. Hmmmm.

December 09, 2004

Once Upon An Oakland Winter's Night...

A typical Oakland winter's night: temperature 12C, dewpoint 11C, wind calm, thin scattered cloud at 20,000', altimeter 30.32. A quick jaunt out to Concord (KCCR) for the LDA 19R approach (twice around the block) then back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. The aim tonight: to gently get me back into the swing of things, both IFR and VFR, and to do a club checkout in 2SP, the club's new(ish) 172S that I haven't seen yet, let alone flown (it was added to the fleet when I was in Australia). It's been about 6 weeks since I last flew, and I don't feel too confident about even my basic VFR flying and radio skills, let alone my ability to setup and fly an approach. But I can't wait to fly...

And the results are gratifying: as usual, I don't kill anyone or break any bits of the plane, and modulo a few of the usual recurring Death Grip problems and some rusty radio work during the first 30 minutes or so, I fly mostly to PTS standards and feel pleased with things VFR and IFR (the first time around the CCR LDA 19R approach was about the best I've ever done it). Cool!

* * *

A Nice Clean Panel...2SP turns out to be a very nice 2001 172S that the owner (and the club) does not let students use for primary training. The checkout's a bit of a non-event -- yes, there are thirteen fuel sump drain points to be individually checked on preflight (at least three of which spray fuel everybloodywhere all over face and hands (as I discover), and yes it's got a fuel injected 180 hp engine that can be a little difficult to start -- but there's nothing about actually flying it that's much different from 4JG (and of course, unlike Lou's Arrow, it has fixed gear and prop so it doesn't require a complex endorsement).

2SP's panel is fairly conventional (with individual instruments that are much nicer than the corresponding ones in most of the other club aircraft -- even the ADF looks like something out of the 90's rather than something from WWII), but augmented by an IFR-certified KLN 94 GPS unit. I don't really get to use the GPS on this flight, mostly because I didn't have time to download the manual from the website, but it seems to have all the right bits in all the right places, and looks fairly decent, if a lot less visually gratifying than the Garmin 530. Predictably, learning the KLN 94 interface and procedures will take a few hours (especially under the Cone Of Stupidity), but after watching John use it as a backup for my steam gauge instrument approaches, it doesn't seem to have any odd quirks or surprises. I'll have to download the manual and absorb it properly for the next 2SP flight.

But the really novel thing (for me) about 2SP is the KAP 140 single axis autopilot installed -- it's simple, easy to understand, and works a dream. John has me do almost the entire second time around the CCR LDA 19R approach with the autopilot coupled, switching between heading and approach mode as appropriate (with reverse sensing on the outbound leg before the procedure turn), and the results are an eye-opener. The ability to concentrate on maintaining altitude and monitoring the approach performance while not having to spend half your brain power keeping the plane stable is a godsend (hey, this is how the Big Boys do it!). Learning how to safely use an autopilot like this (and the various gotchas that come with it...) has to be a plus -- if nothing else so you can use it when the stress levels are up on a real IMC approach into unfamiliar territory. In any case, the PTS says that if I do the checkride in a plane with an autpilot, I must be able to show that I know how to use it properly (which strikes me as more than fair enough). Yes, some people are going to complain that I'll overuse it or that my own wing-leveling / heading control skills will wither, but like GPS, you have to be able to take advantage of new, proven, technologies where appropriate, and you just have to work to make sure you don't lose the other fundamental skills.

Overall, this plane flies nicely -- it's quite a bit more stable than our other 172s at all speeds (even stabler than 4JG can be at lower speeds), and although it costs proportionately more to rent, the quality of the instruments and the availaibility of a decent GPS and autopilot make it a natural for IFR cross countries. As I said, it's a tossup between 2SP and 4JG at the moment...

* * *

It rained for a few days earlier in the week, and the ground's still saturated. So with the non-existent temperature / dewpoint spread and the drop from the daytime temperature of about 16C to 10C later in the evening, by the time we return at about 21.30 there's a thin layer of light ground fog developing over the airport. It's eerie -- from 100' up, on the approach, the air is crystal clear, the forward and downward visibility almost unlimited; on the ground, forward visibility is in some places only a few hundred metres. As we taxi back from refueling at Kaiser, the fog swirls thinly around us across the taxiways and aprons; by the time I leave the clubhouse 30 minutes later, the fog's become thick enough to be a real danger in places -- even though you can easily see the stars above. The layer's probably only a few metres thick. It's easy to see how tricky this effect -- very common in Northern California, especially the Central Valley, at this time of year -- could be on landing.

* * *

Once again I have to bow to the inevitable -- my contracts (etc.), combined with my earlier bronchitis, are going to delay things even further. I may be able to restart properly early January; until then, I can probably fly only once every couple of weeks. We shall see...

December 07, 2004

No News Is Bad News (Cough Cough...)

So I return to Sunny California after nearly four weeks in Sunny Australia (and Frigid New Zealand, but don't get me started...) and promptly catch bronchitis. Two weeks of flying lost, and it's now the second week in December. I don't think I'll remember how to land VFR, let alone how to setup the GPS 27R approach coming back into Oakland. This is actually the longest I've gone without some sort of GA flying in several years.

October 26, 2004

Good News, Bad News...

A cold night immediately after a cold front's blown through the Bay Area, a forecast of scattered cumulonimbus, rain, and thunderstorms on our filed route to Stockton... but all around Oakland and the Bay it's actually clear or clearing, with bright moonlight lighting up the remaining few clouds and no ripples on the puddles around the planes at the Old T's. But it hasn't cleared over Stockton and the Central Valley, where icing levels are near the MEA, and we make the obvious decision not to chance it, and settle for a quick flight out over San Pablo Bay, the VOR/DME 29 approach into Petaluma (partial panel, with hold), then the ILS back in to Oaktown, all in 05D with the steam gauges (4JG is undergoing a 100 hour inspection).

The good news: the Death Grip is slowly loosening its hold on me, and nothing about this flight is remarkable or difficult, including the hold and the approaches. The bad news: I won't be flying again until after Thanksgiving, i.e. about four weeks from now, when I return from Oz. Oh well. By then I'll probably have trouble remembering what those thingies on the panel in front of me are for...

* * *

As we depart Oakland we start seeing immense lightning flashes to our North, bright enough to be clearly visible even under the Cone Of Stupidity. For most of the rest of flight we keep a wary lookout -- the thunderstorms are about twenty to forty miles away, and appeared out of nowhere (as reported by NorCal and a bunch of on-air comments), and they're causing havoc with flights into Sacramento and the Valley. At one point John has me look up and watch as an almost-continuous series of flashes lights up a set of tall thunderheads somewhere out over Lake Berryessa or Woodland. Cool! But not the sort of thing you really want to cope with in any sort of plane, let alone a 172. And certainly not what you'd expect in coastal Northern California, where we're lucky to see one (usually quite pathetic) thunderstorm a year....

* * *

On the approach back in to Oakland we're vectored towards the localiser just outside FITKI (the FAF, where the glode slope intersection is supposed to happen at 1,500') at the usual "best forward speed" and at an assigned altitude of 3,000'. At the last second the NorCal controller lets us down to 2,500' until established -- only a mile or two from FITKI when we're not yet established. I'm fit to scream -- we've got a maximum of two miles to descend 1,500' through the glideslope at 110 knots, join the localiser, intercept the glide slope from below, and stabilise the approach (all with the likelyhood of some corporate Gulfstream bearing down on us further up the ILS at high speed from SUNOL) -- but I decide to see what happens and how this plays out, since it's the sort of thing you need to be able to handle one way or another on approaches to major airports. Nothing bad happens -- I make it, just -- but the tempation to grumpily query the controller or go missed at this point gets very strong.... John (as usual) has a few pithy things to say about the way the NorCal guys are making this a regular thing nowadays, and discusses a few strategies for coping.

October 15, 2004

Return Of The Death Grip, Part 27

A leisurely hour or so practicing DME arcs, holds, and approaches with the GPS 530 in 4JG over the Diablo Valley. A tiny bit of actual on the approach back to Oakland, a very busy-sounding NorCal approach, and a rapid-fire practice clearance from John that read something like "N234JG cleared to the Diablo practice area, runway heading, then right turn heading 360, then vectors for the Oakland 030 radial, then a 9 DME arc to the Oakland 060 radial, then hold east of SALAD intersection on the Oakland 060 radial. Climb and maintain 2,500 feet, expect 3,700 after 10 minutes. Departure on 120.9, squawk 4567". I don't miss a beat. I guess I'm getting better at copying clearances like this...

The only notable thing this evening was the usual Return Of The Death Grip -- but also a noticeable improvement when I remembered to just use the old light touch (remembering things like this is getting easier, which I hope is a sign that I'm internalising a lot of the flying I used to have to concentrate on consciously nearly all the time...). Pretty much everything else was routine, with the occasional exception of busting altitude by a few feet during the hold while trying to dial in a new flight plan on the GPS and simultaneously get Oakland's ATIS. Practice, practice, practice...

* * *

John got his ATP last week in Sacramento after what sounds like a grueling four day finisher course culminating in an intense checkride. Cool!

October 04, 2004

The Decision

I've had to bow to the inevitable: I haven't a hope in hell of getting enough time away from my contracts to do the study and practice for an October checkride, so I'm going to have to leave things semi-dormant until late November when I get back from Australia. I don't leave for Oz until November 1, so I'll spend maybe two evenings between now and then flying with John just to keep my brain engaged and so I have a hope of remembering what all those round things on the panel in front of me are for when I return...

October 02, 2004

The Cirrus

A couple of early evening hours over the Central Valley acting as safety pilot for John in the Cirrus SR22 (John's trying to get as much practice in as possible for his ATP next week). A bunch of approaches (Modesto, Stockton, Oakland), sundry holds, etc. in warm hazy Central Valley autumn conditions. A lot to be learned just by watching...

Given my problems over the last few weeks, the most impressive lesson this evening was watching John smoothly recover from a mistake he made on the GPS approach into Stockton: instead of sitting there dumbly like I probably would have (making things worse), he identified the problem, quickly worked out the cause, then calmly called approach with a confession that he'd screwed up and requested a slightly different clearance. No problem -- and the rest of the approach went smoothly (as expected...).

Flying this plane is a lot like flying a video game -- which is probably just the way it should be for instrument flying. The glass displays are large, and -- for the most part -- easy to understand. They include the usual control instrumentation (on the left hand panel), and a large Avidyne display on the right for everything from GPS course guidance (fed by the dual Garmin 430's below the panel) and terrain depiction through TCAD and strikefinder displays to engine status and flight checklists. I didn't think much of the right hand panel layout details, but the overall effect was a dream after 05D's or 4AC's steam gauges. At one point near Stockton I said that I could see a solid line of thunderstorms way out over the Sierra; John turned the display to the strikefinder, and, sure enough, there was a series of strikes well to our northeast. Cool! On the other hand, the TCAD display missed some serious traffic crossing our course at our altitude -- which is predictable, I guess. The nav and control displays sure look like they should make flying in actual or under the hood easier -- or at least a hell of a lot easier than the tiny little AI's and associated gubbins in our 172s.

The controls feel stiffer than a 172 or the Arrow, especially in roll, but nothing felt too odd in the short time I handled the plane. The sidestick system doesn't feel natural to me (particularly from the right seat), but it's not something that would cause any real problems with practice. Performance is predictably in a class above either the Arrow or a 172 -- we cruised easily at 175 knots ground speed on the way back, and climb rates were really impressive. And the kick when John pushed the throttle forward on takeoff each time was quite the thrill...

Sitting inside it was somewhat like being in a luxury SUV -- leather seats, a lot of space in the cockpit, cup holders (!), new car smell, the seats feel higher off the ground than the Arrow or a 172... and it drinks fuel just like a large SUV (more so, actually). Plus the engine is smoother and actually quieter than on either of those planes (inside the cockpit, at least). And this particular plane (which belongs to a friend and student of John's) came with Bose ANR headsets on all four seats.... How the other half flies, I guess.

September 30, 2004

Here, FIDO...

A leisurely evening's lesson with John out over the hills on a filed flight plan to Stockton (KSCK) in 05D, a couple of times around the ILS 29R there, then over to Tracy (KTCY) for the VOR-A with the missed, then back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. A bit of holding and airwork, a bit of actual, a bit of partial panel, and a lot of fun. This time, everything seems to come together just fine, and apart from some sloppy flying here and there, I fly well, ahead of the plane and instruments pretty much the entire time. I even get the hold at TRACY intersection on the missed after the VOR-A approach right this time; unlike the first time, instead of obsessing about intersecting the SAC-157 radial (which didn't come unflagged, let alone alive, until too late), I just concentrated on getting to TRACY By Any Means Necessary -- DME, the ECA-229 radial, and a bit of pig-headed determination.

* * *

John talked to Ben today and they both think I'm making way too much of Tuesday's stage check problems -- Ben was overall fairly OK with my, erm, work, and told John I'd actually been dealt a pretty bad hand by ATC both times at Concord, and that while I could have coped better with that, without it things were reasonable. (Ben told John he'd watched amazed as -- while I made a bunch of wild twists on the OBS during the DME arc and seemed to be winging it and making it up as I went along -- I just kept determinedly steering the plane around the DME arc mostly well within the half mile tolerance and keeping within a few feet of assigned altitude, almost in spite of the damn OBS or any other damn instrument Ben suspected I was using).

John says I should take the FIDO principle to heart -- just F* It and Drive On. Just put it behind you. A more profane version of Ben's observations (on Tuesday and during aerobatics lessons earlier this year) that I let these things get me down way too bloody much. Good advice. I should also probably stop expecting my flying to be the best of all possible flying -- a deadly form of arrogance...

* * *

The first time around the ILS at Stockton there's a strong smell of burnt jet fuel around the outer marker. There's no sign of any jet landing ahead of us (Stockton has a lot of turbine freight operations), so it's not clear where it came from (it wasn't there the second time around). Just one of those mysteries...

September 28, 2004

Unravelled (First You Stumble, Then You Fail...)

I'm sitting there thinking "there's something horribly wrong here...". Travis Approach has given us a vector onto the Concord LDA 19R approach and cleared us for the approach, but we're nearly abeam the CCR VOR just outside the outer marker and the course needle's still not alive after several minutes on the same heading. Just as I start wondering what I should do, Concord tower calls me, tells me we're way off course, and asks what are my intentions? I look at Ben, who's sitting there poker-faced in the right seat playing DE for the phase check. No help there. Eventually -- with a bit of stage whispering from Ben -- I stumble back on air to tower and say we'll go missed as published. Tower responds with an irritated "05D, there is no published miss for this approach". This time even Ben looks confused. We're both looking at the approach plate and we can both see the published miss -- head for CCR VOR and hold. I'm completely at a loss on what to do, and ask Ben to take over the radio. Yes, I'm failing miserably here. I've just "failed" the stage check (well, you can't really fail a stage check, but that's how it feels). Ben tells Tower we'll return to Travis approach, head to the VOR, and hold; tower responds with a terse "approved", then tells us he had no idea we were on an IFR flight plan, or that we intended going missed after the actual approach (if I hadn't screwed it up completely), or what our intentions had been. But we've just been handed off to Tower from Travis approach and we've told Travis our intentions at least once. Something's missing, here, and it's not just me.

We go back to Travis who doesn't seem at all surprised to be talking to us again so soon, and who in his rather gentle laid-back sort of way cancels IFR for us, approves the hold, and tells us to call him with the next approach (VFR, this time) when we're ready....

And it only gets worse from here. The next approach -- the CCR VOR 19R with the dogleg after a couple of turns around the hold at CCR VOR -- goes awry at the dogleg, and an approach I've successfully flown many times both in the air and on my sim goes belly-up. After being unable to track the inbound 171 degree final course after the dogleg (or even find it properly) I tell Ben I'd go missed in real life right here, and Ben has me look up and do the landing visually. I've completely failed. Nothing gets much better for the rest of the flight -- yes, I do the DME arc, the airwork, the partial panel work, the ILS 27R into Oakland, and a bunch of other stuff OK (if very agriculturally), but if this had been real life I'd have been in real trouble, and if this had been the checkride I'd have failed early on the LDA approach.

* * *

So what went wrong? The usual cascade of small events.... It started well -- the climb out of Oakland and the initial vectoring for the LDA approach all went fine (with the usual missing details here and there). But during the vectoring, I forgot to check the heading indicator against the compass, and by the final vector I was nearly 20 degrees out. A very basic error. Combined with the fact that (according to Ben) the vector the controller gave me was pretty marginal anyway given the wind, I was simply never going to intercept the course, and it's no surprise the needle never came alive. But I should have caught all this earlier instead of just sitting there waiting for the needle to start moving -- I failed dismally on some absolute basics here. Ben would have been quite happy if I'd just declared I was going missed and done so, then sorted it all out in the hold. But no, I just sat there. And then the radio problem with Concord -- no, not my fault that the handoff was apparently botched and that the tower controller didn't seem to know the approach that well, but I handled it really badly. I should have been able to keep my wits about me and do exactly what Ben did -- come up with a course of action that amounted to the published miss and tell Tower that that was what we would do.

And I never really recovered for the rest of the flight. I should have been able to put all that behind me and start again at the hold (which would also have satisfied Ben -- I can botch one approach on this stage check without causing him much concern, especially since I'd recognised fairly early that something was wrong), but I kept obsessing about the earlier mistakes instead of thinking ahead. So the VOR approach goes badly, and then everything else gets off on the wrong footing as well, and I end up making simple errors even in things like the DME arc, which I should now be able to do in my sleep.

If nothing else, I think I can now guarantee that for the rest of my flying life I'll check the heading indicator against the compass every few minutes, and over every damn IAF, FAF, and significant point in any approach or departure.

And I can't help thinking that if we'd been flying 4JG with the Garmin 530, I would have noticed things a lot earlier. It's the sort of thing the 530's perfect for -- but you can't rely on it being there, let alone always working...

* * *

So what did I do right? According to Ben, he was happy with my overall altitude, heading, and airspeed control skills (I busted altitude a couple of times, but noticed it and corrected well); he thought I had good positional awareness on the approaches (I'd mentioned the early vectors didn't make much sense, and I'd noted out loud that the controller had forgotten to let us down in time for the VOR approach, meaning I had a couple of miles of over 1,000 fpm descent to do on the dogleg, increasing my workload); he thought my radio work was generally good, with the obvious exception of the Concord Tower Thing; the hold at CCR VOR went well, with only a few seconds to set it up; I flew the ILS back into Oakland OK, if roughly; and the general airwork -- stalls, steep turns, slow flight, bad attitudes, etc. -- was good (but then that's something Ben's being teaching me for a long time, hood or no, and I couldn't help treating it like basic IFR aerobatics with him :-)).

* * *

A humbling, mortifying experience. A really really good lesson.... (and thanks to Ben for being so good at emphasising the positives after what for me was a draining, depressing flight that made me question whether I really had it in me to be an instrument pilot).

I don't know quite why I made such a mess of things, especially since every damn one of the things I did wrong was something that John had patiently worked on for a long while. I guess the meta-lesson is to pay more attention to the lessons :-).

September 26, 2004

How Ya Doin?

After a little less than 40 hours total instrument time (Cone of Stupidity, the Elite simulator, and actual), I now feel reasonably confident that I can cope with flying IFR in the system without becoming unstuck in IMC or anything like that, and that I could probably fly most conventional approaches fairly safely (if not with great accuracy yet). But I also feel reasonably sure that I need a fair bit more practice to get to full PTS standards for the checkride. I don't think I'm that far off under most circumstances, but the real problem seems to be the occasional reversion to bad behaviour under stress (the whole (Dis)Grace Under Pressure thing) and a few bad habits I sometimes forget to surpress. I still seem to fall prey to backsliding, when the Death Grip takes over, or I obsess about radio calls or altitude holding at the expense of the bigger picture. This is basically just practice, practice, practice, I guess. Plus actually listening to John when he keeps pointing all this out :-).

And unfortunately for the Diary reader here, I just haven't had any real major stumbling blocks or intellectual crises yet -- no disorientation or major control problems under the hood or in actual, no problems understanding the different models underlying each approach type, few real problems with things like estimating vertical speed on the fly or intercept headings, etc. No bizarre halucinations while surrounded on all sides by fluffy white clouds. Etc. That is, nothing that would spice up the diary a bit :-). Sorry about that. Maybe things will improve when we get to the checkride, which looms large on my own personal Fear Factor scale.

And so when will the checkride be? I don't know. Too much hinges on what happens with my contract work between now and November 1, when I'm leaving for three weeks in Australia. I may simply not have the time to fly much between now and then, in which case I'll have to resume it all in December, which would be a shame. But there's some chance I may be able to feel ready enough to get Lou (Fields) to do the checkride as DE by the end of October. But I'd hate to fail the bloody thing because I rushed it...

September 23, 2004

Short Sharp Shock

Another short sharp lesson, again somewhat impromptu (John King, the club instructor who was going to do the phase check today called in sick this afternoon, so The Other John (John Ewing) offered to do a lesson on short notice instead): a filed IFR trip to Concord (CCR -- all of about 15nm away...), the LDA 19R and VOR 19R approaches there, then a quick double back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. No GPS, unfortunately -- this was 05D, with the old steam gauges.

The shock? Basically, just how badly I coped with (of all things) the radios today. I kept losing it for some reason, missing calls to me, not doing readbacks correctly, saying the wrong thing, etc. Nothing lethal, but I thought I'd done better than that up till now. Most of the actual flying was OK, if -- as always, way too imprecise -- and the approaches went fine (with some minor allowances for a broken altitude here or there -- see below...). Not much to write home about one way or the other, this time at least.

* * *

On the VOR approach into Concord, just as Travis Approach hands us off to the tower, and just at one of the highest-workload parts of the approach near the course dogleg, someone on the ground calls Concord Tower and proceeds to discuss a taxiway sign lighting problem at great length. I can't get a word in edgeways and start to think I'm going to scream -- we're barreling straight (well, as straight as I can fly) down the VOR final approach course next to the refinery towers at 100 KIAS and here's some guy on the ground making a set of confusing reports about signage on tower frequency. I do exactly what you're not supposed to do here -- I start obsessing about the damn radio and the landing clearance, and slowly lose altitude and heading control, and bust the minimum altitude for the leg on a course leading away from the final approach course. Urgh. A good lesson. When the guy on the ground finally shuts up, I call tower, who clears us to land just in time.

* * *

When we return to refuel at Kaiser, there's a beautiful P-51 Mustang sitting in the dark on the apron in front of the Kaiser terminal. After refueling we wander over to take a closer look, and meet Tony -- an Australian friend of John's who works as a supervisor for Kaiser -- as we circle the Mustang. The Mustang's in great condition -- brightly-polished aluminium, well-maintained paint job, etc. -- and we spend a few minutes discussing this and some of the other military and ex-military planes you see around Oakland. Tony's had what sounds like a grim day of fueling bizjets and the associated baggage handling, and when he hears that I'm doing my instrument rating, he drily observes that for him the most useful part of his instrument training was being able to maintain spatial orientation while clambering around in total darkness inside the cramped baggage compartments of the average commuter or bizjet. I always knew these lessons must have some real-life relevance somewhere :-).

Next to us on the ramp a smallish piston twin starts up without any warning, belching smoke and sounding like an outboard motor even after a short warm up. Not a pretty sound. And then the strobes go on, blinding us all; John mutters something about "bet he used to be a Bonanza pilot..." as we get out of the way.

September 14, 2004


I'm having trouble getting a club instructor to do the club phase check before the end of next week (was it something I said?!), so John and I take 4JG for a nearly-impromptu short lesson in The Usual (including another Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset on departure...). Holds, steep turns, and GPS approaches (Byron -- C83 -- and Oakland), pretty much all done partial panel. No surprises, no major issues, and while my flying is still agricultural, things don't seem to present quite the challenges they used to. Not that things are routine -- they're not -- but at least I'm usually ahead of the plane and instruments for most of the time. The steep turns under the hood didn't go as well as they should, but there's something a little weird about the way 4JG's rigged (it doen't seem to like turning steeply to the left -- the ones to the right went perfectly). Even John had trouble doing it well when he tried.

* * *

John's started talking about holding me to "2/2/20". No, it's not the date he expects me to finally get my rating, it's the 2 degrees heading / 2 knots airspeed / 20 feet altitude standard he wants me to aim for. Yeah, right! In the 172s I fly -- even 4JG, which is so nicely stable at speed below about 100 -- under the Cone Of Stupidity I have trouble with 10 / 10 / 100, and I'm not sure the instruments would even detect a 2 knot change in airspeed or 2 degree change in heading, let alone display the change usefully :-). But this evening's little flight was, for at least some of the time, close to a 5 / 5 / 50 standard, which makes me think I might be able to fly to PTS standards on a checkride (and at other times) with a lot of concentration.

* * *

A wrinkle's starting to develop in the schedule -- I need to be in Australia for most of November -- and I'll either have to do the checkride before then or after. I'm not sure I can do it before (in order to get to Oz I need to do a lot of extra contract work between now and then), but if I leave it for a month, it's going to take some extra time to catch up. I'm not sure how this will play out...

* * *

When we start up, OAK ATIS is announcing a ground hold for all aircraft leaving for the LA basin and San Diego. This sounds ominous -- 'round here you immediately think "earthquake!" when you hear something like that with such widespread disruption -- but later when we ask a NorCal controller what's up in the Great Southlands he says he's not too sure himself, but he's heard that there's been some sort of radio failure at SoCal Approach or LA Center. That turns out to be something of an understatement...

September 03, 2004

A Lot Of Fun

Diamond Eclipse 0DC at the Old TsYet another short sharp lesson, this time mostly in integrating GPS into a conventional approach (Livermore's ILS 25R, a favourite for DE's around here), the Livermore One departure, radio work, flight plan filing, the OAK GPS 27L approach, and just general GPS work, again in 4JG with the Garmin 530, and again mostly partial panel. A lot of fun, and nothing interesting to report except things seem to be coming slowly together, and the biggest problem I still have is the Death Grip giving me some control problems (nothing major), and a tendency to cause pilot-induced oscillation by trying to over-correct altitude and airspeed at the same time.

John's trying to arrange a club phase check for me with one of the other club CFII's next week; it may end up being with Ben, which would be an interesting change from sharing a Super Decathlon upside down over Tracy with him....

* * *

AAC CFI Adam Johnson checks out the new Eclipse at the Old TsBefore we start the lesson, I spend a few minutes taking photos of the club's new(ish) Diamond Eclipse for the website and gallery (the club doesn't actually own the Eclipse, it's on leaseback to us). A nice-looking two-seater with long thin wings and a T-tail, it looks more like a glider than a conventional Cessna or Piper, and the various procedures etc. are a little different as well. Its main attraction is probably that it cruises efficiently at a decent speed (125 KIAS at 5 GPH); unfortunately, it's not IFR-certified. But I still want to get checked out in it sometime soon...

August 31, 2004

Practice, Practice, Practice

Another short enjoyable evening's lesson in 4JG practicing GPS usage and airwork: steep turns, holds, unusual attitudes, GPS setup and programming, and the GPS RWY 27R approach into Oakland (twice), nearly all of it partial panel. This time everything feels good, and if my flying's a little agricultural, it's getting consistently closer to PTS standards, and I was ahead of the plane and instruments the entire time, for once. I'm still having problems with the Return Of The Death Grip and some tendencies to over-correct and over-control, but the approaches both went well, and the radio work's getting easier... Overall, things felt good.

Again I'm impressed by how much easier it is to fly things like holds with the GPS, and how nicely partial panel work goes when you can use the GPS ground track instead of the whisk(e)y compass. One thing bugs me -- and many of the other pilots I talk to about it -- there's no depiction of victor airways on the screen. This is really only a convenience issue, but it cost me a few moments the other night when John threw me a hold at the last moment and I couldn't find V187 on the area chart; and if told to join V244 from your current position, life would be even easier if victor airways were first class parts of the GPS world. But even with all its faults, it's hard to imagine doing serious IFR work in a small GA plane without a unit like this...

* * *

About 30 minutes into the flight, as we're departing the hold at SALAD intersection (which, surprisingly, isn't over Berkeley), John suddenly says "Look up and behind to your left!". Just Another Boring Bay Area Moonrise, the moon a slightly-flattened yellowy-orange disk coming up in the scattered cloud over the Diablo Range. Cool!

* * *

John's started talking about the checkride, which is a little scary. I have to juggle job and contract commitments at the moment just to be able to fly at all; the thought of also getting all worked up and nervous for a few weeks about the checkride sometime in the next couple of months doesn't increase the serenity levels much. But it'd be nice to have that damn rating in time for the long-planned trip to LA late autumn in 4JG....

August 19, 2004

As Usual, Nothing Goes Horribly Wrong...

Garmin GPS 530A short lesson in IFR GPS usage with the Garmin GPS 530 in 4JG over San Pablo Bay: GPS terminal and enroute procedures, holds, the RNAV (GPS) RWY 6 approach with a circle-to-land on runway 18R at Napa (KAPC) and a shot at the missed, and the GPS RWY 27R approach back into Oakland for a change. As usual, nothing goes horribly wrong, but I'm not real pleased about my ability to cope with ad hoc holds (John got me to hold at REBAS using the GPS, with only a minute or so's notice, which I flew poorly) and other precision airwork. I've spent a few hours over the last week playing with Garmin's excellent GPS 530 simulator on my laptop, which was great preparation for the approaches themselves, so at least I'm mostly ahead of the plane and instruments for that part of the lesson. Pity about the flying, though.

* * *

I've been a fan of GPS for flying, and for things like backpacking, sailing, cross-country skiing, cycling, etc., for years (I have at least 5 handheld GPS units somewhere around here), and this lesson helps reinforce a few prejudices. GPS as a concept, and GPS enroute and approach procedures and the associated instruments and displays (at least as experienced with the 530), just strike me as natural. There's nothing conceptually or procedurally difficult about using GPS for IFR, and there are huge advantages -- the help with things like missed approach procedures or holds, the heading advice, the moving map for situational awareness, etc. These things make IFR flying a lot less hit-or-miss, and a lot more forgiving (which some would probably say makes GPS a Bad Thing, but never mind). I think I'd agree with John: if you own a small GA plane and you fly it single-pilot in IMC, it's difficult to justify not having something like this (well, he puts it more forcefully). And the flip side of all this is that GPS approaches can be designed and specified for a whole bunch of smaller airports that wouldn't otherwise have any sort of approach.

But the way most IFR GPS interfaces are currently implemented is a human factors mess, and the 530 is no exception, at least for me. I'm an experienced computer (and GPS) user and programmer, and I have trouble navigating my way around the menus and screens. There's just no affordance in the design -- there's no simple mapping from the world out there or your mental model of it or IFR flying to the 530's interface, as there arguably is for simple VOR navigation instruments, for example. And the complexity of choices on offer at any point in a sequence of entries can be overwhelming -- there doesn't seem to be any way to intelligently minimise the choices available based on locality, likely use, phase of flight, etc. Part of the problem is obviously just the sheer complexity of what the 530 can do (so much more than a simple OBS or HSI), but part of it also just poor interface design. A classic example is the need to hit a separate "entry" button after entering a waypoint name (or whatever) with the cursor knob; it's more natural to just press the same knob in (as I kept doing), but that action brings up a new menu and erases what you've just entered (leading to a whole string of "D'Oh!"s 3,000' over the Bay...). As John says, this is a unit that just cries out for an "undo" or "cancel" or "back" key. And things only get worse if you have to change your clearance mid-air -- navigating a series of screens, buttons, and menus to amend a stored flightplan or cope with vectors to an approach can become a serious distraction. In my case it took a minute or so to enter some new information, during which time I lost heading and altitude, both quite seriously. It's obviously an acquired skill to keep the plane steady without a copilot or autopilot while doing all the bit-twiddling; it's also obvious that it'll take me a fair while to learn that skill. It's obviously worth it....

A less serious problem is that the beautiful moving map display -- especially with the superimposed CDI and heading indicator -- is so damn seductive, so eye-catching, that it's way too easy to watch it instead of the coupled HSI or OBS. But the 530's display has a noticeable lag to it, and it's just not as simple to read and react to as the HSI; plus it keeps you away from your normal instrument scan, which could have serious consequences if (say) you missed the altitude problem you're developing as you're mesmerised by the GPS. The trick here is probably to do what John recommends -- put the unit display onto the (boring) flightplan page and concentrate entirely on the coupled HSI, glancing over every now and then to check progress, read any advisories, etc. from the 530's screen. This may take some getting used to...

But overall, it's hard to imagine doing serious IFR work in the future without something like the 530. Just watching it sequence through the approach waypoints while telling me the upcoming desired track and when to turn (based on its groundspeed calculations), or the way you just hit OBS on the missed and it automatically points you to the next waypoint in the missed procedure, or having it tell you the hold entry procedure on the upcoming hold -- well, all that's just magic. When it's retrofitted with WAAS, the whole precision GPS approach thing suddenly starts looking real.

* * *

4JG's a 172 with a 180 HP engine (as opposed to the more typical 150 HP), and the difference makes for extreme climb performance and great sustained cruise speeds (for a 172, at least). It also proves to be very stable in pitch, airspeed, and heading at slower speeds (below about 100KIAS), which is great in the approaches and when going missed. But I have trouble with heading and altitude stability much above that, and the entire leg home from the Napa missed approach hold to vectors for the Oakland approach I keep hunting around the heading in ways I don't seem to have to do in the other planes. I always seem to be a few degrees of heading, scalloping slowly along the course at 125 KIAS. Oh well -- I was never more than a dot or two out, but it would drive the average passenger crazy after a while, I suspect.

August 13, 2004

Et In Arcata Ego

Welcome To Arcata!

A typical Oakland summer morning -- grey, overcast, cold (about 16C), breezy -- i.e. perfect weather for an instrument cross-country. DUATS claims the ceilings at Arcata are varying between 500 and 700 feet this morning, so (as planned) we'll head straight for Arcata and check with Flight Watch before Ukiah as a sanity check.

I call FSS and file an IFR flight plan -- V107 PYE V27 FOT, cruise 100 KTAS at 8000' -- and after engine startup and the instrument checks, I call Deliverance to get my clearance. Surprisingly enough, it's given pretty much as filed, the only (expected) exception being vectors on the initial segment to V107. John says I shouldn't be surprised, but I guess I expected more hoops to jump through -- something like "vectors to REBAS, SGD direct, STS direct, PYE ...", etc.

As we taxi to 33 we hear the Navajo we saw last week with the ferry tanks call ground with destination Honolulu, taxiing to 29. Runway 29's the main commercial runway, 10,000' long, over on South Field. I guess it'll take a substantial portion of that 10,000' to get airborne -- but more importantly, there aren't any obstructions on the extended centreline for a fair way after the runway ends, unlike the shorter 27L on North Field. It can stay low over the water for some time. We don't see it take off, unfortunately...

Click for larger image...We depart through the usual relatively thin coastal layer -- a few minutes of actual -- then head up to Arcata as planned. There's really not much to say about the enroute stuff except that -- as predicted -- I'm paying to block out beautiful views that other people pay large amounts of money to see. Urgh. My handheld GPS (an old Garmin GPSMAP 195 I bought during my private pilot training) works fine as backup (much better than the VORs at any real distance from the VORs themselves), but the suction mounting fails like clockwork every hour or so and drops the damn unit on my left knee. There's got to be a better way...

Getting close to Fortuna VOR (FOT) I start prepping the ILS into Arcata, still unsure whether Seattle Center will vector me or whether I'll have to fly the full approach (no big deal either way, I'm just curious). About 25 nm out, Seattle actually calls and ask me which I'd prefer. I ask for vectors -- I want to do this the routine way -- and sure enough, a few minutes later we're gently vectored into the localiser with appropriate descents. Arcata's now reporting 800' ceilings, which is good for Arcata but not so good for experiencing more actual. Oh well. The ILS goes well, with a FedEx Caravan coming along behind us to keep us at a reasonable speed (John turns out to know the pilot), and we break out of the thin layer at about seven or eight hundred feet AGL with the runway close enough to sort-of dead ahead and land on 32 with a stiff quartering tailwind.

* * *

Click for larger image...Arcata's a nice shiny little college town in the middle of a large rather remote economically-depressed timber region on California's Redwood Coast (the college being Humboldt State University, haven to hippies and newagers everywhere), and the airport's kinda the same way -- slightly slow-moving, a weird mixture of clean efficiency and delapidation, friendliness and wariness. It's got no control tower (more on this later), but it's got a steady stream of Brasilias and Dash-8's doing the run to and from San Francisco, Sacramento, Redding, etc., and a similar stream of FedEx Caravans doing the freight runs, so the commercial side is really quite busy. The GA side, by comparison, is almost non-existent (GA seems to happen mostly at Murray Field, KEKA, just down the coast), and we have to share the fueling facilities and staff with the big boys. Luckily we arrive during a lull, and after a quick refueling we park outside the old airport building and wander off towards the new terminal building for lunch. By this time the sun's actually appearing; it's enough to cause one presumably-local pilot to later point at the sky and shout something like "Look! It's VFR at Arcata!" to us while walking past us on the apron.

The restaurant's on the second floor of the terminal, with great views of the apron and the runways, and -- amazingly -- the food turns out to be really pretty damn good, especially for an airport. I pick the Fish and Chips out of morbid curiosity (Californians -- and Americans in general -- just don't get fish and chips), but it turns out to be freshly-cooked and, if not the Real Thing, it was the Northern Californian version (Even Better Than The Real Thing...). Our waitron -- a raven-haired woman with tats who just has to be a student -- keeps filling my cup with good fresh coffee, which always improves my mood. The view outside reminds me a lot of the Puget Sound area -- low rolling coastal pine forest hills with larger mountains in the background, everything on the ground some form of green, with housing poking through here and there. And that nearly omnipresent grey sky...

Outside, below on the ramp, a waiting Brasilia pilot drives one of the little baggage cart tractors around slowly looking rather pleased with himself and (apparently) taunting the other staff good-naturedly about something. His co-pilot loiters near another baggage cart while some ground staff gesticulate at the pilot. The incoming Brasilia from San Francisco gets later and later....

Click for larger image...I use the phone to file IFR to Ukiah as planned, and we stroll out in the cold sunshine to the plane. John tells me that Arcata was in line to get a tower not so long ago, but it fell through. As we pass the old building he points out the tiny portable control tower that was supposed to be the initial tower. It's now sitting forlornly in the debris-strewn mess of the old building; it's not clear what the future of Arcata's tower is going to be (it's hard to see why a somnolent place like Salinas (KSNS), with no passenger traffic at all, gets a tower while Arcata doesn't).

We taxi out to runway 20 and pick up the (as-filed) clearance from Seattle Center. He tells us we'll probably have to hold for release maybe five minutes for an incoming Brasilia, but as soon as he's finished giving us our clearance, the incoming Brasilia pilot tells Seattle he'll cancel IFR now (at 10 DME) if it helps get us off the ground earlier. So we get to depart immediately, thanks to the guy in the Brasilia (a nice gesture).

* * *

The HOCUT2 departure takes you straight out over the (rough, cold, foggy) Pacific for at least six miles at low altitude, which is a little scary in a 172, but I'm under the Cone of Stupidity again and don't think too much about it. Like the rest of the flight to Ukiah, the departure is pretty routine, with just a tiny bit of actual on the way out. John starts getting bored and tries to find some music with the ADF. Not much to play with, but some cheesy Conjunto and rapid-fire Spanish DJ-ing from a couple of stations in the area livens things up for a while. Pity about the sound quality from the ADF.... Some distance out from Ukiah Oakland Center tells us to advise him when we have the airport in sight, presumably for the visual, but we tell him we'd like the localiser 15 approach (another little lesson in real-life radio work and procedures). No problem, and we start being vectored towards the localiser. You have to stay high for this approach until fairly close in, and even close-in you're only a mile or so off a bunch of hills that reach to within a thousand feet of the minimum altitude for that segment (I've approached Ukiah from the north VFR several times and know what's off my starboard wing...).

Nothing much to report about the localiser approach itself except that from just before the FAF to short final things get intermittently rather bumpy, and I tend to wildly over-correct for the bumps while under the hood. We could also hear some CDF aircraft on the ground on CTAF preparing for takeoff on a firefighting mission, and with another Cessna in the pattern, I just trusted John to sort out whether we'd join the pattern VFR or do the straight in. In any case we cancel IFR at the last moment and land straight in between the traffic with the appropriate CTAF calls (one of my pet peeves at untowered airports has always been the oblivious IFR pilots who call in with positions in terms of IFR waypoints or fixes -- e.g. "Ukiah traffic, Citation 12R is at the outer marker on the localiser..." -- which the average VFR pilot may not recognise; I at least trying to learn to report in terms of direction and distance).

Click for larger image...Ukiah is hot -- the sort of place where you see everything distant through heat waves and mirages -- bone dry, and sleepy. A red-on-white CDF Bronco spotter and two S-2 tankers taxi past with that turboprop buzz and the smell of burning jet fuel. The Bronco's a plane I'd love to fly.... There's a Calstar medical helicopter hooked up for quick use just in front of the airport building. Inside the FBO, it's cool and dark. I file IFR to Oakland, and we return to the plane.

John asks me how we're going to depart Ukiah. I've given it a bit of thought, and although there's a published obstacle DP for Ukiah, it takes us back many miles to the north, and crosses the pattern. It's currently very VFR, and there are firefighting planes in the vicinity heading for the pattern, and given the conditions and the fact that under Part 91 we don't have to do the published departure, I suggest we do the missed, which takes us to 4,000' on heading 140, then ENI direct. Neither departure is perfect, but at least this way we get clear of the pattern very quickly and safely. John agrees, but says that if it weren't perfect VFR, he'd do the obstacle DP.

After startup we call Oakland FSS through the RCO, and promptly get told to call Oakland Center on 127.8. Hmmm, another useful lesson (in this case it's rarely clear which you should call; it wasn't clear that the RCO also does Center as well as FSS). Center gives us the clearance as filed, and off we go. The return to Oakland is also pretty routine -- as suspected, we don't get to fly any of the filed route back: Center just gives us a vector from above Mendocino straight for Oakland (about 90nm away at that point) and clears us Oakland direct when able. The GPS comes in handy here, since Oakland isn't really indicating reliably until about 50 nm out, but the controller's vector is pretty accurate in any case, and we just potter along at about 100 KIAS back towards Oakland on the suggested heading until the OBS needles stops swinging erratically. Over San Pablo Bay we start being vectored for the VOR/DME 27L approach, which ends up going OK, if (as always) my flying gets a little agricultural in the final moments.

On the ground again -- 5.5 hours in the air, 5.3 of them under the hood or in actual. I'm exhausted...

* * *

This is the sort of lesson I really enjoy -- a lot of real-world IFR flying, lots of little lessons in practical procedures, interesting destinations, and a nice variety of weather and approaches, etc. (plus some decent food and coffee). The main lessons were in planning and procedures, I think, and this time lots of things went right: for the most part I was ahead of the plane and the instruments, and my radio work was mostly acceptable (I made a few minor gaffes that didn't cause any real problems, like calling Oakland Center from Ukiah and claiming to be on the ground at Arcata, which probably caused some puzzled looks down in Fremont...). My altitude and airspeed control were better than last week, but still a little rough. The approaches were OK -- I went one dot below the glideslope at Arcata for a little while, which is cause for concern, but otherwise kept at or above all relevant altitudes, and I never went more than a couple of dots off the localisers or inbound courses horizontally.

What went wrong? According to John, two main things: firstly, as mentioned, I didn't handle the turbulence on the approaches well (I seem to have forgotten the lesson I learned from Dave Penney during tailwheel training, i.e. just ride it out, don't try to correct for the sudden movements unless they turn into trends, etc.). Secondly, the Death Grip still returns during moments of confusion or stress, and also when I'm distracted by doing things like chart-folding, reprogramming the GPS, etc. It's getting better, but it's still definitely there at the wrong times.

So what's next? Practice, practice, practice... more specifically, tightening the various procedures up to consistent PTS levels, which will takes some time (I sense a lot of On Top time in my future...), and polishing up for the orals. Also, now that 4JG is back on line, we need to do some real GPS approaches with the Garmin 530 (I've booked it for next week).

FedEx Caravans on the line at Arcata

August 12, 2004

The Best Laid Plans...

I spend days obsessing about the instrument cross country trip coming up tomorrow. The planning for this trip is actually an interesting exercise (for me, at least). From the training point of view we want to satisfy the following:

  • The FAA specifies that the round-trip distance has to be more than 250 nm and has to include at least three different types of instrument approaches with reference to instruments only (i.e. no visual or contact approaches).
  • We want to stay on the L-2 enroute chart and not have to drag along (or buy) a whole new set of charts for (say) Southern California, Southern Oregon, or Nevada.
  • We want to maximise the amount of actual -- California's coastal summers give you a lot of chances for actual without thunderstorms or icing, so it's good practice. And I really enjoy the transition into and back out of actual.
  • I want realistic traffic and routing conditions, to see what really happens once you're in the system (who do you call for a clearance at a place in the middle of nowhere? Will center vector you early for an approach instead of making you fly the full procedure? How do you cope with real pattern traffic at untowered airports out in the sticks? Etc..).

For the 250nm / three approaches bit, there's a huge choice of routes and airports here in Northern California, so there's also no problems with the second requirement. We don't have an IFR-capable GPS in the plane we'll be using (4AC), so I want something like an ILS, a VOR approach, and maybe either a localiser or LDA approach. I don't particularly want an NDB approach. And almost any decently-long trip here will satisfy the last requirement as long as we include an untowered airport somewhere away from the larger population centers.

The third requirement pretty much points to going up the coast -- the inland is usually totally clear at this time of the year (and desperately hot). Arcata (KACV) seems the obvious choice -- it's usually covered in low coastal stratus nearly all day at this time of year, and even though it's untowered, it has two ILS approaches (which should give you some idea of the likely weather without having to even look at the forecasts...). And -- conveniently -- the town of Ukiah (inland, up highway 101 from here) both has a decent localiser approach and is only a few miles out of the direct route to Arcata, a little under half way to Arcata from here. So making it an Arcata (ILS) / Ukiah (LOC) / Oakland (VOR/DME) thing seems a fairly easy decision. Especially since Arcata apparently has a decent restaurant in the main terminal, and I'm guaranteed to be pretty hungry by the time we get there....

The problem with this is that Arcata is -- by Cessna 172 standards -- a long way from here (Oakland). It's about 220 nautical miles direct, i.e. at least two hours flying over or past the Redwood Empire, the Lost Coast, the Trinity Alps, Humboldt Bay, the Mad, Russian, and Eel Rivers, and plenty of other typically evocative names (this is a wild, rugged, largely uninhabitted part of the world, especially above Mendocino). And the flip side to Arcata being under coastal stratus so much is that you need a decent alternative in case it goes below even ILS minimums (which it has several times in the last week -- I keep a close watch with DUATS). But there are no useful alternatives on the coast much this side of Oakland because of the stratus (if it's below minimums in Arcata, it's probably not much better fairly close by at Eureka or Fortuna, where the minimums are much higher; and Little River (Mendocino), down the coast, has no approach at all, and is a long way from Arcata -- and is usually socked in when Arcata is as well. And the weather only gets worse if you fly north (think Seattle)...

So you almost always need a decent inland alternate -- one that has a good chance of actually being used. Unfortunately, the nearest inland alternates with suitable approaches -- Ukiah or Redding -- are each at least 100nm from Arcata, and getting from Arcata to Redding means coping with an MEA of 11,000' to get over the Trinities. 11,000' in a 172 when the temperature at sea level is well over 40C just isn't a lot of fun (in fact, it's not far from the service ceiling when you do the density altitude calculations). So Ukiah is the obvious alternative (as well as being the planned second airport). But Ukiah's at least an hour's flying from Arcata without a headwind -- which puts us very close to the legal fuel requirements of being able to fly to Arcata, go missed, fly to Ukiah as an alternate, and still have 45 minutes reserve. Still legal and doable (4AC will theoretically do 4.5 hours on full tanks), but I have my doubts about how well I'll do after three hours continuously under the hood....

So I make two plans, based on the forecast ceiling at Arcata an hour before we depart (Ukiah will always be clear at this time of the year, so that isn't a factor). Firstly, if the forecast ceiling for our arrival time at Arcata is at least 500' higher than ILS minimums, and not forecast to get worse, we'll go straight for Arcata, refuel and eat there, then come back via Ukiah. Otherwise, if the weather looks really bad, we'll fly to Ukiah first, refuel, then head to Arcata; if we land there OK, we'll have lunch, refuel, then head back to Oaktown; otherwise, we'll go missed, head for Ukiah for fuel again (and do a different approach), and try to scrounge something to eat there (there's no on-airport cafe as there is at Arcata), then head back to Oakland. We'll amend the decision (and flight plan) in the air if Flight Watch give us a different forecast for Arcata as we get near Ukiah.

The route planning isn't hard, but I can't quite believe they'll give us the route we ask for, so I do two versions of them as well. The first looks like KOAK V107 PYE V27 FOT KACV / KACV HOCUT2.FOT V27 ENI KUKI / KUKI ENI V27 PYE V107 KOAK. These three routes are what we'll actually file (or obvious variants depending on whether we go up via Ukiah or direct), but as well as these routes I've programmed into my handheld GPS some variants that seem more likely to me based on my very limited experience. I'm prepared to jettison any of these routes as we go along -- my guess is that Center will vector us along short cuts to the approaches and possibly even enroute -- but they're fairly simple routes in any case. We shall see.

And yes, I could have done the whole Chico / Ukiah / Oakland or Fresno / Sacto / Oakland thing instead like everyone else, but where's the fun in that?

August 05, 2004

(Dis) Grace Under Pressure

An evening of airwork (holds, DME arcs, etc.), the VOR-A approach (with circling) into Rio Vista (O88), and the VOR/DME RWY 27L approach back into Oakland, almost all partial-panel. Not the best of lessons. Or rather, a good lesson in learning what not to do and identifying what I'm doing poorly; but I do so much poorly this evening that I end up feeling a little depressed. I seem to have lost last week's gains. Once again, I'm behind the plane more than I'd like to be, and I make several stupid blunders that I just shouldn't be making at this stage.

The main point of the lesson turns into -- as John puts it -- trying to learn to have grace under pressure. Too many times this evening on the approaches, or during airwork, or when the radio's getting on top of me I have these little moments of panic or momentary confusion when I suddenly realise (or just think) that something's wrong, and instead of just sitting back for a moment and thinking calmly through the situation to what's important, I obsess too much on one thing and lose the big picture. It's a dumb thing to do -- after all, in the big picture I'm still flying mostly straight and level, and I'm not close enough to anything to cause problems -- but it seems to be today's little gremlin.

John later points me at Rod Machado's column in this month's AOPA Pilot which discusses those inner demons that you have to learn to filter out and not flood your mind. I read it the next day (I'm an AOPA member), and it's a typical Machado thing -- well written, funny in a slightly corny sort of way, and quite helpful. It meshes well with what John's saying. I need to exorcise my inner demons, or at least learn to filter them out more effectively, when it comes to those things that distract you from getting it mostly right. It's also about turning the scary uh-oh moments into more muted aha! moments, I guess. Or D'Oh! moments, at least.

A classic example is the DME arc we do off Concord VOR (CCR). John tells me to do a 9 DME arc from (effectively) the current radial (about 040, if I remember correctly) to the 001 radial inbound. I think about it as we depart Rio Vista, I plan ahead, set it up, and -- with a minor and very dumb initial mistake in telling John what I'd be doing -- have a clear mental model of what I'll do. But I forget to slow down, then start the initial turn too late, then see that I'm too close in, then unwittingly under-correct, then have an episode of existential angst when I suddenly "see" that I've started the DME arc the wrong way because I don't seem to be getting further out from the VOR even with the correction. So I panic, and say to John something like "I really screwed this up, didn't I? I turned the wrong way back there...". I think I'm going the wrong way around the arc, and that I've just dialed the wrong radial in as well. But John calmly asks me whether the course I'm currently flying will intercept the radial I have just dialed in, and whether that radial is between the 001 radial from the entry radial. I look at the OBS and think for a few seconds. Then: yes -- of course! -- to both questions. D'Oh! Firstly, I was forgetting the most basic fact about the OBS: that any damn course on the same side as the needle is pointing to will intercept the radial, and that in the case of a DME arc you're not often looking for a 45 degree (ie. top hemisphere) intercept to an intermediate radial, more like a 90 degree intercept or so; and, secondly, I've somehow just ditched my (correct) mental model and not "seen" the fact that I'd (almost automatically) dialed in the correct radial. With this help it takes only a few seconds to right myself and get back (more-or-less) on the arc, but it was one of those moment where if I'd just stepped back and thought through it all rather than fixing on the fact that my distance to the VOR was wrong (and getting worse), I might have just corrected the arc and gone on without too much embarassment. Oh well. Next time...

* * *

Earlier, while I'm getting us out of Oakland under the Cone of Stupidity, John says "Take the hood off for a second and look to your left...". Yes, it's Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset (JABBAS) off the port wingtip again, the usual display of fog banks, the Golden Gate, Mt Tamalpais, the Bay, the Delta, the purple, yellow, blue and red colour fields, etc. etc. ad gloriam. Once again I reflect that I'm actually paying to block out views that people would kill for...

* * *

Even earlier, while I'm waiting for 4AC to come back on line after an oil change, I hear the familiar sound of radials (the engines) and look up to watch a large two-engine amphibian taking off on 27R and lumbering slowly into the air. After a couple of minutes it still seems to be just over the airport boundary to the west, doing what looks to be about 50 knots gropundspeed, if that. The noise is beautiful; the plane itself looks great, graceful and very retro-before-its-time. John thinks it's a Grumman Widgeon, but I suspect it's a Mallard -- the Widgeon looks too small and (according to my Field Guide to Airplanes) didn't have radials, just inlines or turbines. There aren't that many Mallards left in the US, apparently; but it's the sort of thing you occasionally see at Oakland among the assorted P-51's, DC3's, T-28's, etc.

[Later -- John looked the plane up in the FAA database; it turns out it's a Grumman Albatross, larger by some way than even the Mallard I thought it was...]

A few minutes later, as we wander over to North Field Aviation to pick up 4AC, we pass a large Piper Navajo twin sitting up against the hangar in the gloom. I look down at the tires for some reason, and think, hmmmm, they look a little flat. So I make some sort of remark about them to John. He points at the inside of the fuselage and says, "Well, he's got 500 gallons of fuel in there...". The entire interior behind the cockpit is filled with fuel tanks -- it's being prepared for a ferry trip to Hawaii, apparently. The pilot has to crawl across the tops of the tanks to get to or from the cockpit, which makes ditching almost impossible to survive. And the single-engine performance with most of that fuel on-board would make ditching almost inevitable...

July 30, 2004

Did It Hurt?

California Airways turns out to be a nice small friendly FBO near Hayward tower, down the road a bit from the much larger Trajen operation. As I come up to the front desk the young guy behind the counter looks up and apropos of nothing much asks "Hey, did it hurt when you got your ears pierced? I'm thinking of getting mine done tomorrow." I tend to forget that I've had my ears pierced since I was a teenager (in the early Cretaceous era, when such things weren't lifestyle accessories, and pierced ears could easily get you beaten up). A bunch of us spend five minutes discussing piercing (I used to pierce ears on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley as a relief seller sometimes), tats, and other assorted aviation trivia.

So after some paperwork I do the written, and get 98%. Not too bad, I think. The single question I get wrong is in area J42 -- "Instrument Approach Procedures". Since I don't remember the exact questions in the area, and I don't remember having a problem with any of them, I don't know which specific question it was. Oh well. The test just wasn't that hard -- but I'm glad the thing's over.

July 29, 2004

City Of Lights

Rodeo Man! Image copyright Hamish ReidYears ago I used to do real-time process-control work in a large refinery complex on the western edges of Melbourne, in Southeastern Australia. I spent a lot of time working late at night on the cracking towers -- those tall multiply-lighted towers that always seem to have steam and flames coming out of the top and that have endless veins of shiny tubing wrapped around them. The noise was indescribable, even with industrial-strength hearing protectors and earplugs (you could always feel it through the soles of your boots...), but the view was astonishing. The lights, the flames, the holding tanks and Horton spheres, the groups of towers and tubing, everything rose up out of the darkness for miles around -- the original City Of Lights as far as I was concerned.

So when John says "look up!" during the final approach segment just past Concord VOR on the CCR VOR RWY 19R partial panel approach and I see cracking towers and lights a mile or so ahead in the sunset, I'm temporarily mesmerized. Another City Of Lights! Then I think: hell, we're doing 90 knots straight at those towers. And they're only a few hundred feet below us... why am I so far off course? (And will they send F-16's to protect the refinery complex from our little Cessna?) Well, of course, I'm not so far off course -- take a look at the CCR VOR RWY 19R approach plate and notice the 375' obstruction just a mile or so off the centreline abeam the CCR DME 1.5 stepdown fix (where you should be at 640') . It's the refinery tower (one of many in the area). I am flying partial panel, which makes this almost excusable, but it's a sobering lesson in the consequences of sloppy flying and / or how just easily a partial panel non-precision approach can go to hell without the heading indicator to help you as you cross the VOR. John had warned me that the CCR VOR RWY 19 approach, with its dogleg over the VOR and the closeness of the VOR to the airport and final approach course, would be a real challenge partial panel. And he's right. I make a sharp left to intercept the final approach course, get back under the Cone Of Stupidity, and a few seconds later at the MAP I look up and do a normal touch and go on 19R.

The first time around the approach -- without the AI, but with the heading indicator -- had gone fairly well, but this time around with no heading indicator I find it very hard to track the VOR inbound or outbound so close to it. I never really get properly established on the procedure turn (approach doesn't help by asking me to keep it tight and close-in for a Cherokee further out for the LDA approach) or at any time after that; I end up not crossing the VOR overhead but a good distance to the west. In this case I just don't chase the needles enough, which is ironic, I guess.

After the touch-and-go, John asks if he can do the approach; I (of course) say yes, but only if he'll do it partial panel as well. It's an education watching him do it (into Yet Another Boring Bay Area Sunset over the Delta...), but even he doesn't quite cross the VOR overhead. Still, he didn't head straight for the cracking towers, either, and his final approach course heads straight for the threshold.

The fourth time around, partial panel again, I do OK, but this time I have the added help of the refinery towers in the back of my mind, and it suddenly seems easier to cross the VOR (in both directions) and track inbound and outbound without going completely off course. So we head back to Oakland for the ILS RWY 27R, which goes well -- much better than last time -- and as always, the descent into the dark thin stratus layer is cool and worth removing the hood for.

* * *

A good lesson, and this time I feel ahead of the plane and the instruments pretty much all the way except for the first partial-panel approach. I just need to trust the needles a bit more, I think, and master the magnetic compass. We started the evening with another instrument takeoff, which could get addictive -- it's quite a rush taking off under the hood, and, as far as I can tell, for the second time running I didn't send any runway edge lights flying or scare anyone nearby -- and from that point on, my altitude and airspeed control went well. I can blame a broken press-to-talk on my side, which relieved me of having to do the radio work (yes!), but even apart from that it felt better than last time.

John's starting to make me think seriously about the cross-country now; Arcata and Ukiah seem like good places to aim for to me, especially given Arcata's endless summer stratus layer (we want as much actual as possible for this). We shall see..

July 27, 2004


So I book the written for this Friday afternoon with CATS through California Airways in Hayward.

Unlike with the PP-ASEL test which I accidentally aced, I know I won't get 100% this time -- there are just too many damn questions I can't work out from first principles, and even after all this time I always get at least one wrong answer each time I play the rat to's levers -- but I'm also fairly certain I'll pass. Basically, I just want to get this over and done with....

July 23, 2004

By Any Means Necessary.

No excuses this time: I'm not tired, I don't feel stressed, I haven't spent the day getting sun-struck taking photos of odd holes in the ground in obscure places around the Bay, I'm not sick, etc., etc. ad nauseam. But I still fly badly. The two weeks without flying seems to have left me worse than I was two weeks ago....

It starts with a typical (coastal) Bay Area Summer's Day early evening -- grey, cold, overcast (1,000' broken), mildly windy. We need at least an IFR to VFR-on-top clearance to get anywhere. In fact, this sort of day -- when the weather is almost perfect VMC five miles further inland for hundreds of miles, but Oakland and the other coastal Bay Area airports are basically IFR for 18 hours of each day under the California coastal stratus -- is exactly one of the main reasons I'm doing the IFR Thing. So we plan a grab-bag of maneuvers -- an instrument takeoff, sundry holds, DME arcs, etc. -- and the VOR-A approach into Tracy (KTCY), with a bash at the ILS RWY 27R on the return.

We file for and get the classic get-out-of-Oakland IFR / VFR on top clearance (vectors to REBAS, essentially), then taxi for the instrument takeoff. This isn't an instrument departure, it's a full instrument takeoff -- basically a process of lining up on the runway to takeoff normally, then going under the Cone Of Stupidity and taking off blind, relying solely on the heading, attitude, and airspeed indicators to get safely off the ground. I've heard of this, and I've read the FAA's version of it in their "Instrument Flying Handbook", but nothing's prepared me for the reality of hurtling down runway 33 under the Cone of Stupidity. Yes, I'm taking off without being able to see a bloody thing on the ground around us, and especially not the runway supposedly in front of us. It's a real act of faith that the heading indicator's accurate and my rudder skills are up to it. Almost as "interesting" as my first tailwheel takeoff, but not nearly as scary (or badly-executed) -- in fact, it's a rush, and (apparently) I don't come close to running off the edges or hitting anything (which is lucky, given that 33 isn't exactly the largest runway I've ever used). Not the sort of thing you want to do without an instructor sitting there in the right seat ready to salvage things for you....

I remove the Cone Of Stupidity a few seconds after takeoff because I want to experience the reality of actual (the redundancy police can arrest me later). We ascend into the clouds at about 900' and spend the next five or six hundred feet in fairly solid stratus before breaking out at about 1,400' into (yes) Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset, with the soft pink and purple light spreading across the tops of the cloud layer, Mt Tamalpais, Mt San Bruno, and Sutro Tower poking up starkly through the clouds, the Berkeley and Oakland Hills and Mt Diablo off to our right... The actuality of actual is -- once again -- not much different from being under the hood, but the whole feeling is quite different, mostly because of the diffuse white light everywhere in the cockpit. Plus the plane (05D this time) makes a slight low-toned whistling sound in the clouds when climbing, which makes it all slightly eerie....

And it's all downhill from this point on, or at least until the final ILS into Oakland. The partial-panel airwork and DME arc go OK, but I completely misunderstand what John asks me to do for the DME arc, and I have to be helped into the arc (after which I get it right). But my altitude and airspeed control deteriorate the longer we fly, until at the practice hold at ALTAM I'm so far behind the plane and nav instruments I botch nearly every part of the hold, sometimes without even noticing. I start feeling a little depressed. As usual, nothing gets to the stage where John has to take over, but it's galling to notice that -- somehow -- you're several hundred feet above your target altitude or that you've already flown straight past the holding fix while turning the OBS to try to find it, or that you hit the wrong button on the timer and have no idea where you are on the outbound leg. Oh well.

Somewhere near ALTAM I realise that I'm hot, and innocently ask whether the heater's on. John rather drily points out that we're over the Valley now, and it's supposed to be hot -- we've gone in a few minutes from a grey clammy overcast 16C to a dry clear 35+C (and it's now about 9pm). D'Oh! And I've still got my sweater on. The reality of the heat out here is brought home to me again later -- once when we get the AWOS from Tracy where it tells us that TCY's density altitude is something around 2,500' (for an airport at 200' MSL...), and even later when we have to slow our climbs due to engine heating issues (more on this later...). It's also started to get intermittently bumpy, and right up until we're near the ILS into Oakland, it's sometimes quite difficult to keep assigned altitudes and headings, even ignoring my own control problems.

We call up NorCal for the TCY VOR-A practice approach, which goes OK except for the duff vector to the final approach course the NorCal controller gives me. I thought it wasn't going to work, but given the fact that last time I thought that, I was wrong, I didn't say anything until John asks me rhetorically whether I thought we'd ever intercept the course on this heading... we've already crossed the course. Hmmm. Once back on the course things go fine except that due to a decent tailwind our ground speed was a lot higher than the 90 KIAS I'd used for timing, and we reached the MAP (MARDL -- ECA 14.5 DME) at least 30 seconds earlier than the timing indicated, which was a good lesson -- I should have noticed the higher groundspeed on the DME before the FAF and adjusted the timing to account for it (the catch here, of course, is that on this sort of approach timing is most necessary and useful when you don't have DME and therefore don't know your actual groundspeed. This is the sort of really useful supplementary information that handheld GPS units are made for, if you ask me). Given the presence of a bunch of high hills and mountains on the extended final approach course only a few miles the other side of the airport, you want to get this sort of thing right...

In any case, the point of doing this approach is at least as much about circling to land and going missed as about the VOR course bits. We'd spent a few minutes in the clubhouse discussing the legalities, necessities, and etiquette to do with circling, and I'm more-or-less prepared for whatever turns up in the way of opposing traffic, weather, etc. But in the event we're the only people in the area, and I just do a rather athletic right base to land on 25 for a touch and go. At least this time I don't sit there dumbly looking for the runway in all that blackness on the ground when John tells me to remove the hood at the MAP (click click click click click click click, done with a smug flourish) and we land fairly smoothly in the dark heat. The place is absolutely deserted; not even a drawn-out squeak on the Bob Channel. It looks a lot different from the last time I was here.

So we take off and go missed. This part's a real lesson in how not to do things, and how to recover from the things you do do. The missed approach procedure looks fairly simple -- an immediate climbing right turn to 2000' via heading 320 and SAC radial 157 to TRACY intersection and hold NE (with a teardop entry) on the ECA 229 radial. This exact missed approach is something of a favourite with local DE's, so I'm almost certainly going to have to do it on the checkride. Piece of cake -- until I simultaneously confuse the two OBS's and what they're telling me, and start obsessing about intersecting the SAC R-157 to get to TRACY. Of course I blow it completely, and John has to help me out. By the second time around the hold I'm back in control, but for several minutes, I have almost no idea where the hell I am, or how to salvage things. In retrospect, I should have ignored the SAC 157 radial as soon as it was clear I wasn't going to get it (TRACY is too close to the MAP to allow for leisurely intercepting cuts, etc.) and concentrated on getting to TRACY by just getting onto the ECA 229 radial inbound and using 15 DME as the hold fix rather than getting there on SAC 157 inbound. Even under the Cone Of Stupidity I know how to do that. D'Oh! One of those By Any Means Necessary situations. This sort of thing's obvious now, but in the heat of the moment it just never occurs to me, and I blunder way past the fix and lose all relevant positional awareness. Not a good sign. And again, this is the sort of thing even a decent handheld GPS would help you with, if only to give you that one small hint that helps you on your way (in my case it would have been that I wasn't going to intercept SAC R-157 on my selected heading anywhere much this side of Sacramento...).

We spend a while in the hold after getting back to NorCal waiting for a clearance back to Oakland, and letting the engine cool down -- the oil temp's been getting high, especially after all that flying at 2500 RPM and the climbing on the missed. We tell the controller several times that we're delaying the climb a bit because of this, and he initially sounds a bit concerned -- do we need to return to Tracy? -- but we point out that it's just SOP in this case because the ambient temperature is so damn hot, etc. No problem, and some turns around the hold (actually holding!) later we're cleared to Oakland. I remove the Cone Of Stupidity after a turn or so and it stays off for the rest of the flight, more or less.

Nothing much to report on the return -- the ILS part went fine (with a bit of agricultural flying in the last few seconds, again), and the descent into actual was, as ever, very cool. So when we contact Tower and the controller asks us whether we need to declare an emergency or whether we want the equipment (the fire trucks, etc.) rolled, I'm a bit taken aback. I've forgotten the oil temp thing already (it's a lot cooler this side of the Diablo Range), and it takes me a few seconds to compose a suitable (i.e. non-sarcastic, non-smartass) reply. I'm always impressed by the lengths the people in NorCal and Oakland tower go on things like this -- an off-hand comment on oil temperature to an overworked approach controller and twenty minutes later they're preparing to roll the fire trucks when we land....

* * *

So what did I get right? Not much. I mostly got the radio work OK, if a bit ragged, and I missed a call here and there on the ILS due to not understanding the controller's accent (I can talk...), but overall that went OK. The ILS went better than last time, and I'm slowly internalising the various correction techniques and strategies, so I'm not too worried about that. I understood the VOR-A approach and while I flew it poorly, I didn't have any trouble recognising what was right and what was wrong as it all happened. The circling went nicely, but I guess mild aerobatics are the sort of thing I can do with my eyes closed now :-). The DME arc would have been OK if I'd had the wit to understand what John was asking me to do (it's that Cone Of Stupidity thing again, I think...).

But nearly everything else was pretty bad -- so it'll have been a good lesson if I can remember even half of what I did to get things wrong and how to avoid doing them all again. I was behind the plane a lot of the way, and behind the instruments nearly all the way except on departure and the approach into OAK, which was galling at this stage of the lessons. One of the most worrying problems was the return of the Death Grip -- for much of the flight there was a sort of monkey grip thing going on where I'd start losing touch with the plane because of the heavy grip, and the resulting problems caused me to tense up and grip things even worse, and so on through (sometimes) mild pilot-induced oscillation and (often) bad altitude control. Urgh. I thought I'd got on top of this problem.