April 30, 2004

Wish I Could Do That...

More aerobatics with Ben in 36B: precision spins, cloverleafs, rolls, loops... the usual. This time, a lot of fun, but still a little off with the headings on the cloverleafs. I can't seem to see the correct heading on pullout, and can't stitch more than two quarter-cloverleafs together without losing my heading and positional awareness. The precision spins -- where you state before-hand exactly how many turns (e.g. 1, 1.5, 2, 2.75, etc.) you'll do in the spin -- are truly enjoyable, and go well. I used to dislike spins because of the disorientation, but nowadays I love the little thrill of the kickover, then watching the horizon twist and then spin over and around you. 36B spins steeper than most aerobatics planes -- perhaps 60 to 70 degrees off horiziontal -- so most spins end with you loooking almost straight down at a swirling ground (and the steepness gets emphasized with the sharp elevator kick just before full recovery). The trick is to be able to pull out on the nominated heading -- which is difficult for the first complete turn or so, when the plane hasn't really established the spin, and landmarks on the ground aren't obvious enough to use. It becomes a feeling / timing thing for the first full turn or turn and a half; this time, at least, I had no trouble doing the mental timing an estimation. After the first turn you typically have your choice of ground references to use, and things are easier.

Nothing at all to report on the Bob Channel except a little coordinating to-and-fro between us and one of Attitude's planes doing aerobatics a few miles to our northeast out of Livermore. (i.e. exactly what the frequency's there for).

* * *

On the way back, after checking in with Oakland tower, as we're plodding along at a little under 80 KIAS on a long right base for 33, tower calls us "Bonanza 36B" while giving us a landing clearance. I read back the clearance, then add "and, umm, tower, 36B's a mighty Cessna 152 taildragger not a Bonanza...". Tower snorts in amusement and says "Well, that explains the airspeed...". As we park 36B, we watch a P-51 Mustang doing the right overhead break and a steep, tight aerobatic pattern back onto 27R. Cool. Wish I could do that....

April 28, 2004

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Another instrument workout in 05D with John, this time with me in a much better frame of mind. The Usual: under the hood continuously for about 1.3 hours of a 1.4 hour evening flight, with VOR tracking, level flight, climbs, descents, turns, etc., and ... DME arcs. A DME arc is when you fly an arc (actually a set of straight lines approximating an arc) a constant distance from a DME station, usually starting on one VOR radial and ending on another. There are a whole family of these with the possible permutations of inner vs outer curves, etc. They look like torture to fly. This is going to be a fun evening.

I've always been curious about the motivation for DME arcs -- there aren't a lot of them in real approaches around here, and the ones that do exist (Watsonville's VOR/DME or GPS approach springs to mind; further afield there's one down south at Paso Robles, and another up north somewhere like Eureka or Arcata) don't seem to use the DME arcs for any good reason like terrain avoidance or because of any oddities to do with traffic or navaid location. They're just DME arc approaches because, well, someone seems to have decided to put DME arcs in them. John's theory is that the FAA keeps a few DME arc approaches around to keep ATC and pilots familiar with them -- it's certainly a skill worth learning for the IFR rating, if only because it emphasises situational awareness and continuous control -- but I'm dubious. The only reason we do DME arcs is because there's a few DME arc approaches.... But I have to agree that being able to fly an arbitrary DME arc seems like a great way to learn positional awareness and precision flying.

In any case, the DME arcs go fine -- if, as always, they're much rougher than they're going to have to be on the checkride. The whole thing is one of those things it doesnt pay to intellectualize too much when you're doing it -- just follow the recipe and it all works -- much like my first few experiences with VORs in my PP days. I don't like the rote list- or method-learning thing, but if you sit around waiting to "get" it on an intellectual level, you'll never fly the damn thing. Just turn the knobs and watch the instruments. Or something like that.

For quite a lot of the time in the practice area it's bumpy as hell. At one point we start gaining and losing hundreds of feet per minute regardless of what I do -- but I never feel the need to turn it over to John to regain control. A good lesson in coping with turbulence in IMC. I can't imagine being in actual for an hour or so with turbulence like this -- not my idea of fun. IMC aerobatics without the freedom to just loop or roll away from it all...

I fly the ILS 27R back into Oakland, this time under the hood. John handles the radio, with me doing everything else including the briefing. I'm not anywhere near as precise as when flying visually, but I don't break any limits or get too far off track until short final. There's a weird visual illusion that I noticed the previous flight -- when I can see fast-moving lights on the ground out of the corner of my (left) eye, as on final into Oakland, my brain interprets it when I'm under the hood as the plane turning right, so I overcorrect left despite the instruments, and if I don't get over the momentary distraction, I keep going left. As happened on short final (urgh).... oh well. I just have to learn to ignore the visual distraction, but it's one of those insidious things that could mean disaster if you don't concentrate on the instruments instead of the attenuated visual clues. I'm slightly tempted to add more blinders to the side of the cone of stupidity to block this out, but I'm even more tempted to learn how to overcome distractions and illusions like that automatically.

* * *

No BOGUS NDB headings this evening (and no talk radio in the background to make a couple of Berkeley types like John and me mad as hell) because -- Happy Happy Joy Joy! -- 05D's ADF is inop. The whole ADF thing is one of those steam-age holdovers that you still have to learn, even though in the US with GPS there's almost no need for it, because (I suspect) it's one of those exercises that help instill situational and positional awareness in you, and there are still a few approaches where the NDB approach is the only approach.

ADF usage is still a primary skill in unAmerica, though (as I learned when I flew in Australia, for example). I don't mind learning it, as long as it's not at the expense of learning to properly and competently use the GPS 530 in our other aircraft. This seems to be John's attitude too -- he's not one of the instructors you meet occasionally who believes that you're not a real pilot until you can navigate comfortably solely by NDB.

* * *

Overall, I feel pretty pleased with things: I'm getting better at keeping a heading, and while I'm nowhere near PTS standards on headings and altitudes, I'm much better at recognising the fact that I'm off (or that there's a nasty trend building...) and correcting (or over-correcting) before things get too out of hand.

April 23, 2004


A semi-frustrating morning spent doing cloverleafs, barrel rolls, Immelmans, and sundry other maneuvers in the Diablo aerobatics area in 36B with Ben. Something’s wrong with my aerobatics flying today – nothing specific, and definitely nothing drastic, but I keep making minor mistakes like not applying enough top rudder in the Immelman pull out, or rolling too slowly in the initial part of the barrell rolls, or coming out on the wrong heading. After about 30 minutes of this, I give up and we head back to Oakland.

In the background on the Bob Channel two guys – one with a heavy South African accent – spend the best part of twenty minutes slowly discussing Mozambique, South Africa, Placerville, the new Garmin 1000, and other assorted subjects as they (presumably) plod across the Central Valley as a flight-of-two.

The Drill

Later the same day, another semi-frustrating lesson, this time with John in 05D. We take off at about 8pm on 15 then turn towards San Pablo Bay. I know the drill: lower the cone of stupidity at about 600' and follow the vectors John gives me out over the Bay. We do about a 45 minute workout with me under the hood: VOR and NDB tracking (which goes OK(ish), despite my not having prepared NDB stuff yet); steep turns and recovery from unusual attitudes (both OK, but quite rough -- at one stage I find myself in an unusual attitude of my own making while doing a steep right turn, but sense it in time to recover cleanly before John had the chance to start screaming "we're all going to die!!!!"); and the usual melange of turns, ascents, descents, and just following the instruments. As with the first lesson, my flying is sloppy: I keep overshooting headings and altitudes, I can barely keep within even wildly liberal interpretations of headings and altitudes when flying "straight" and "level", and I (again) couldn't answer simple questions when under the cone of stupidity about our position in relation to the VOR or NDB, etc., without considerable (slow) thought. Urgh. Very depressing -- I thought I'd started to get this right, at least as far

One of John's favourite exercises is apparently to use "BOGUS" NDB -- actually KCBS-AM, a local AM talk radio station on 740 KHz with a huge antenna array up near Gnoss -- for ADF / NDB work, so we spend something like 10 minutes weaving around trying to home to BOGUS NDB and intercept specific bearings to it. You're supposed to tune the NDB station and then continously monitor its transmission to ensure it's still broadcasting while you're using it, so we potter about somewhere in the darkness east(ish) of Gnoss accompanied by an all-news soundtrack discussing condom use in -- synchronicity! -- Southern Africa, sex worker pay in Thailand, and the recent heat wave in Northern California (Blimey! the temperature actually got above 20C for several days in a row!). Not the usual snap-crackle-pop morse you get from real NDBs. I sense a lot of BOGUS holds in my future....

Once again we do the ILS 27R practice approach back to Oakland with me doing the flying hoodless; once again, without the hood, the approach and general flying is mortifyingly within IFR PTS standards at all times, and 05D flies itself smoothly and efficiently through the approach and onto the touchdown zone. We do the approach at 110 KIAS rather than the supposed standard 90 KIAS, mostly because this is realistic for an airport like Oakland -- you can't slow all the high performance aircraft on the approaches behind you down just because you want to loiter along in a 172. This does, however, make for interesting landings when you look up at the MAP with just a few seconds to slow down to something closer to 70KIAS and pget the flaps down -- but I cope (you have to approach at this speed sometimes in VFR anyway, so it's not like I haven't had to do this many times in the past without doing a formal approach). All in all, the approach was smooth and understandable, but I'd hate to see what it'd be like under the cone of stupidity at this stage....

Earlier, just after the runup, John plays Clearance Delivery (which ain't like playing Deliverance) while I take down a long clearance from him. This time I get it all down legibly, but I regurgitate it from memory ... backwards, starting with the transponder code and ending with the clearance limit. Seems I do this for VFR clearances as well -- it goes in one way, comes back out like a popped stack. That's the way I remember the clearance elements, unfortunately. I'll have to work on this -- my response would have driven any controller crazy, even though it contained all the right individual elements (just in reverse order). For VFR, it doesn't matter much -- clearances tend to be short and uncomplicated, and I suspect controllers are just being polite to the guy-with-the-funny-accent; for IFR, I just need to actually read the damn thing back rather than memorize it, I guess. D'Oh!

* * *

So why do I feel things didn't go well (despite John's belief that I did OK)? I'm not sure, but it was more to do with my unrealistic expectations than anything fundamental. I think I spent so many hours on my little PC driving the ASA On Top simulator that I fixated on learning to fly it instead of 05D -- by yesterday I had little trouble holding accurate headings on the PC, and while altitudes were rough, they weren't horribly wrong. Today, all that went to pieces -- the plane felt slippery in yaw and pitch, and I just kept falling far behind the plane without even noticing. The real lesson has to be twofold here: don't be so damn cocksure about myself (there's a terrible arrogance in thinking that getting OK on something like On Top will automatically make me OK in a real plane); and, the PCATD ground trainer just ain't real life. Yes, it's hard to drive the simulator accurately, but, as I'm discovering, hard in a different way than a real 172N like 05D. Plus my sim is different from John's Elite...

* * *

Earlier, as I'm pre-flighting N6605D at about 7.30pm, it's one of those luminously beautiful Northern California evenings, perfect for flying: warm, no clouds, slight breeze, unlimited visibility -- and all the club's aircraft are just sitting there on the ramp. Where the hell is everybody?! Then it hits me: it's Friday night. Everybody's out doing social stuff -- you know, in clubs and bars and pubs and things. I have no life....

April 19, 2004

The Elite

John owns a complete Elite simulator, which he uses to help train instrument students like me. The Elite differs from my own little On Top simulator (or MS FS 2004, for that matter), by being approved by the FAA for training and (crucially) logging against required hours, and in its supposed levels of accuracy and fidelity to The Real Thing. The other main difference is that it has a full physical stack of switches and dials, so you change frequencies or set the OBS (etc.) pretty much the same way you would in a real plane (this is part of the FAA certification), unlike with a mouse the way I have to do it with On Top (the difference is pretty important when you're doing a complex maneuver or approach). The Elite works on a decent PC with the added hardware connected through USB -- i.e. (like On Top) it's not one of those airline simulators with physical movements, and it's not trying to do fanatically accurate rendering of ground detail, etc. (which would be lost on the average instrument student who only really cares whether he or she can see the runway at the end of the approach).

The Elite has two obvious advantages -- it's cheaper (John doesn't (yet) charge for flying it, only for instruction while I fly it), and it lets you set up all sorts of emergencies, approaches, weather conditions, etc., at the click of a mouse. You can do a hell of a lot in it -- like flying a complex approach to minimums while nursing a sick engine or failed AI -- that you couldn't do safely, or at all, in a real plane. And you can stop the bloody thing mid-approach and talk over what's going on or what I just missed, etc.

The inevitable disadvantage is that it's not a real plane, and doesn't really fly like one. It's better than my On Top, but it's still unrealistic in pitch and heading, and with no force feedback at all on the yoke, very difficult to trim accurately or to simulate things like sharp turns, etc. It's also weirdly unrealistic on final and landing -- I have literally hundreds of landings in real aircraft behind me, but none of them has never been anywhere near as hard as it is to land the Elite. Many times I don't even try -- the sensation of hanging there swinging helplessly a few hundred feet above the runway with almost no effective elevator or aileron control just frustrates me intensely (I usually try a victory roll at this point; if I ever persuade it to do that properly, that'll be a victory of sorts...).

In general I find it harder to fly in most situations than 05D, but that can't be a disadvantage in the long run. Still, it's an incredibly useful training tool, and it's all loggable time...

April 18, 2004


What are my expectations this time around? Like the first time (with the PP-ASEL), I know I'm not a natural, and won't end up with the rating in the minimum time. But unless something goes wrong (see below...) I still expect to get the rating by the end of this year (2004), and without too many deep intellectual problems or issues. Part of my arrogance here is that I've spent long hours as a safety pilot for other instrument pilots over the past few years, and a lot of time reading and poring over charts, approach plates, etc., so I'm not entirely new to the instrument world. This may count for something....

This time, though, I have my own business, and I have much less time and money than I did when I was doing the private pilot certificate, so I may have to defer training for a while every now and then, or suspend it completely for months on end. There may be long breaks in the blog as this happens (although I'll typically announce that this is happening, of course).

We shall see... (as I keep saying).

April 16, 2004

The Decathlon

A cool, cloudy morning in Oakland, with rain forecast for much of the Bay Area. The plan is for Ben and me to take 36B out to Tracy (KTCY) to introduce me to aerobatics in Cecilia Aragon’s Super Decathlon –- a sportier plane than 36B, and (as Ben puts it...) "a real taildragger, a real aerobatics plane". The weather looks ominous to the north with heavy rain showers over Berkeley, but by the time we’re over the Diablo and Livermore Valleys it’s fine, just some nice scenic little fluffy clouds here and there (and I end up being unable to put that damn The Orb / Ricky Lee Jones track out of my mind for the rest of the short flight).

On takeoff from runway 15 at Oakland, we try a trick Ben recently learned in a Super Cub: instead of raising the tail when the speed picks up and lifting off at the usual speed and attitude (on the mains with nose level, at somewhere around 50 – 60 knots, no flaps), we'll stay in three-point (tail down) attitude, and at 40 knots we'll quickly put in 20 degrees of flaps. The results are astonishing –- as soon as the flaps go down at about 40 knots with the tailwheel still on the ground, 36B leaps into the air in three-point attitude, and a few seconds later after I've lowered the nose a bit and retracted the flaps, we're climbing normally through 300'. We took off in the first two hundred or so feet of 15, less than half the normal takeoff roll using the POH-approved normal short field technique (OK, the headwind helped here, but it was still an eye-opener). A known and well-practiced short-field technique for bush pilots flying things like Cubs, apparently; the translation to the Aerobat works nicely, as Ben suspected. I'm not going to do this every day, but it's nice to know....

Super Decathlon N411DW at Tracy Flight CenterThe flight out to Tracy goes well, and we tie 36B down in the vast parking area in front of Tracy Flight Center, the FBO. It's quiet out here -- a decent-sized airport, but without much traffic -- and the TFC staff are friendly and efficient. They know Ben well, and help us get the Decathlon out from the FBO hangar with a minimum of musical planes. I meet the airport cat, a friendly thing variously named "Missy" or "Six" (she has six toes), who's locally famous for actually enjoying being taken for short flights. She strolls purposely past us onto the ramp towards the turbine Twin Commander near the fuel pumps.

There's an official aerobatics box just to the immediate southeast of the field, but we'll be doing our aerobatics in an informal box a few miles further to the south east (the formal box is too low for non-competition work, with a ceiling of only 3,000' and floor of 500' -- I’m not comfortable at the moment below 4,000’ AGL). We taxi to 30 and I take off, a bit unsure of what's going to happen. But the Decathlon’s a revelation: responsive, fast, easy to maneuver, relatively powerful (with that 180 HP engine), and a delight to fly. The constant speed prop helps a lot with aerobatics -- just set (the RPM and manifold pressure) and forget, unlike with 36B where you spend a lot of time pulling and pushing on the throttle with the fixed-pitch prop to ensure you don't redline the engine in a dive. The Decathlon has a stick rather than a yoke, and tandem seating; I start out thinking I’m going to find the stick (and the throttle placement at elbow height on the left side "door") weird and difficult, but except for a tendency to over-control in the first few minutes, I found the controls responsive, intuitive, easy to use, and -- for whatever reason -- easier to correlate with what you see outside than a yoke system. After a few minutes of doggedly watching the ball and turn coordinator, I just watch the horizon and fly by feel. Much easier -- and the way it should be. On the ground, the Decathlon doesn’t have 36B’s tendency to wander unstably from side to side at high speed (leading to that 36B rudder dance and great potential for ground loops...), and in the air it has much more rudder and elevator authority than 36B. Again, this means I tend to over control at times, but it's a more intuitive plane to do aerobatics in than 36B. The 180 HP engine is also a lot more powerful than 36B's 110 HP (but still way underpowered compared to, erm, real aerobatics planes...), and I'm surprised at how easily it climbs -- in fact, we actually slowly gain altitude through the series of maneuvers, when in the same situation in 36B we’d lose several thousand feet over a few minutes. The Decathlon could get addictive... if it weren't so expensive to rent.

In the informal box I first try a tentative aileron roll, just to see what happens. Well, nothing much bad happens, but the results aren't pretty because I'm still a little unused to the sight and the controls. But from the second roll on, through  a series of rolls in both directions, loops, barrel rolls, hesitation rolls, half Cubans, etc., singly and stitched together ad-hocly over about 25 minutes, it's all really enjoyable and (mostly) under my control and not too inaccurate. Cool! One thing that bothers me is that I'm ambidextrous (or rather, very weakly left-handed), and my instincts are to fly the stick with the left hand. But in the Decathlon you have to use the left hand for the throttle and other engine controls, and through the first few figures I find it unnatural and quite "wrong" to use my right hand. What happens over the next few minutes is apparently typical -- I end up using both hands in maneuvers, the left clasped around the right. This gives extra leverage, and since the constant speed prop looks after itself, it works nicely. I don't even notice I'm doing it until about half way through the session. In level flight I still have to fight the urge to grab with my left hand, but I'll get over it eventually.

Then we try sustained inverted flight. You can't fly 36B inverted for more than a second or two because its fuel and oil systems aren't designed to work when the plane's upside down -- it's all gravity-fed. The engine just sputters to a stop (and restarts immediately you go upright, luckily enough). But the Decathlon's built for inverted flight -- and it has near-symmetric wings to help with this -- and I'm up for it. Intuitively it's easy, but in real life it's surpisingly difficult to overcome the urge to pull the stick back and split-S down and (dangerously fast) back out the right way after a couple of seconds. It takes significant forward stick pressure to sustain inverted flight once you've rolled inverted, and with all the control effects reversed, hanging there against your straps with the windshield full of an upside down world, things can get a little disorienting (a tip from personal experience: it's also quite uncomfortable unless you've strapped yourself in really tightly). I try this about four times, with the last two attempts being pretty successful, sustaining in both cases about ten or 15 seconds inverted, level and stable (this is a lot longer than it sounds when you're actually doing it...). Cool! This could also be addictive.... One of the more popular tricks is apparently to roll inverted a few hundred feet AGL on departure and fly inverted to the aerobatics box. I don't think I'll be doing that anytime soon, but it's something to aim for one day... maybe.

After about 30 minutes of aerobatics we return to Tracy, where I embarass myself by lining up for 25 rather than 30 on downwind (D'Oh!). Ben gently points this out, and I get on the correct downwind. I feel really stupid -- I haven't done this for years (not since I was a student, I think). My pathetic excuse is that the Decathlon has no heading indicator, so I didn't do the usual HI vs runway heading sanity check before joining the pattern. On base and final I start obsessing about the landing -- an unfamiliar aircraft (with no flaps!) and a tailwheel at that. But it all goes fine with Ben talking me down, and I do a decent full-stall three pointer on 30 without killing anyone or breaking anything obvious. A lot easier to land cleanly than 36B, again mostly because of the better control authority and stability, but also because the landing gear feels a lot less springy. An observation: the stick overcomes the tendency of bad pilots like me to use the yoke as a steering wheel on landing (the bane of instructors everywhere); this can't be a bad thing.

In a corner of the hangar there's a little green and white Taylorcraft or Luscombe being worked on. The cowl's off, and right there on the front you can see the tiny four cylinder 65 HP Lycoming engine in all its air-cooled glory (and there's one of those little chrome venturis on the pilot's side exterior for the gyro instruments). I'll never complain about 36B's engine again... (nor about its gyro instruments, which are actually usable if you haven't been doing aerobatics). Across the hangar there's a sleek-looking Bonanza with a four-bladed Q-tip prop and a turbine conversion. Nice if you can afford it. How the other half lives, I guess....

The return flight to Oakland in 36B is uneventful. Over 580 near Livermore I watch a couple of radio-controlled model airplanes doing aerobatics on the little RC field a few thousand feet below us. Tiny things, they buzz (I can almost hear them...) around quickly and seemingly randomly, but easily visible from our altitude. My guess is they're actually a lot harder to fly accurately than a Decathlon or Aerobat, if only because everything's done remotely and things happen so quickly. Apparently there's a whole genre of model airplane aerobatics -- at least judging by the results when you Google for specific aerobatics terms: the top page or two of results typically point mostly at RC aerobatics pages). The landing on 33 at Oakland goes well -- a standard full-stall three pointer -- until about a second after landing when we suddenly billow several feet back into the air, even though the yoke is fully back and we landed stalled. I firewall the throttle and stabilize the aircraft at about 5 feet AGL, then re-land a few hundred feet further down 33 with yet another three-pointer. This time it sticks. I look at Ben to see what I did wrong, but he looks as surprised as I am -- I didn't do anything wrong this time, maybe we just got hit by a freak gust? Odd.

Super Decathlon N411DW at the fuel pumps, Tracy

* * *

And all this has exactly ... what? ... to do with getting my instrument rating?! Nothing much (I'm not one of those people who believes that aerobatics training improves your basic ability to fly a plane in IMC or without external visual references), but it sure keeps the visual flying side alive...

April 14, 2004

Restaurant Talk

An hour of simulator time on John’s Elite at his house in Berkeley. Before starting, we walk through the cold down to Lola’s on Solano Avenue to get something to eat. I mention to John that I’m doing interior photo shots at Cugini literally straight across Solano for a client; he tells me that John (yet another John...) behind the counter here at Lola’s -- the Boss -- used to work for Cugini before starting Lola's with his wife. Small world. They're not really in competition (Lola’s is far hipper, much smaller, and basically a take-out only place) but I’m not going to ask whether John and the Cugini (who are acquaintances of mine) still talk -- from long personal experience, the East Bay food world is incestuous and riven with bitter feuds and populated by drama queens... (OK, thanks for asking: I'm mostly affiliated with Mezze and (in the early days) Bucci's. No more restaurant shoptalk here, I promise).

JRE's Elite Simulator, Berkeley 2004Anyway, I do OK on the simulator, but nothing better than OK. Towards the end I have that familiar feeling that my brain's about to explode -- I can always tell this by the fact that I can't answer even the simplest of John's questions. At one point as we're heading up the Bay he asks me a question about radial intercepts that I could normally answer without much thought while flying a “real” plane in VMC. I could barely work out what he was asking this time, let alone give him a plausible answer. Oh well.

This time the sim feels realistic in roll and yaw, but really unstable and “wrong” in pitch (pitch trim was unusable for me; I need to work out how to use the fake trim on this). I blunder about the simulated skies losing a few hundred feet here, a few hundred there, without always noticing. At least I keep the heading within about 20 degrees of what it should be for most of the flight. I almost lose control of the "plane" a couple of times, but nothing that would cause a real emergency. At least I always knew I was rapidly losing altitude or whatever.

I'm starting to get a better feel for positional awareness now. At one point John magically moves me a couple of dozen miles without telling me while we're paused discussing something. I pick it up when we resume -- OAK VOR is suddenly 15 NM Northwest of me instead of a dozen miles south. I didn't cope too well with the change, but at least I noticed....

On the way back John gets me to fly the OAK VOR / DME 27L approach, but without me knowing this is what we're doing. I slip and slide all over the place, horizontally and vertically, and at one point misread the altimeter and level off at 2,600' rather than 1,600'. Urgh. At least it wasn't the other way around.

On short final into Oakland's 27L I get so frustrated by the weird response of the sim I deliberately try to roll the plane at about 100' AGL. No such luck -- the poor thing predictably just noses into the ground at a high rate of knots. This isn't like 36B, I guess.

The TV News

Yesterday: the TV news is full of a story about a rented Turbo Arrow from Colorado down on Interstate 680 (a local freeway) after an engine failure on departure from Concord (KCCR). The pilot managed to put the plane down OK on the freeway; he and his passenger walked away from the wreck uninjured, but the plane hit a van on the freeway and a young girl in the van was severely injured by the prop. This is one of my Bay Area flying nightmares: there just isn't anywhere much to go when the engine fails on departure or arrival around here that's not going to put someone on the ground in danger. One of those nasty little secrets we all share. [Later: Apparently the plane had had engine trouble on arrival at Concord, and the owner had sent an A&P out from Colorado to fix it; the engine then subsequently failed on climb out at about 400' AGL.]

April 09, 2004

The Bob Channel

Cessna 36BRolls-over-the-top, clover leafs, barrel rolls, hesitation rolls, aileron rolls, loops... but what about the instruments?! I watch 36B's heading indicator spin wildly as it loses its tiny mind again (it always makes me think of The Exorcist when it does this...). The AI is stuck about 5 degrees off horizontal for minutes at a time whenever we level off. Revenge for the other day, definitely. We -- my aerobatics instructor Ben Freelove, and I -- spin, roll, loop, and otherwise maneuver around the Diablo aerobatics practice area 6,000' over the Delta in the club's little aerobatics taildragger.

In the background there's an intermittent soundtrack on what I'm starting to call the "Bob Channel" -- the 122.75Mhz air-to-air frequency we use to announce entry and exit from the practice area and coordinate with other aerobatics planes in the area. In reality, whenever we're out here, the Bob Channel (a.k.a the Geezer Channel) seems to be mostly used by old guys named Bob or Jack to give running commentaries on the scenery below them or to give rambling and often confused-sounding position reports to no one in particular. Or to carry on long-winded conversations for minutes at a time without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. From our altitude and position you can clearly hear Bobs on-frequency from as far away as Tahoe, Marysville, Panoche, or Gustine (or at least that's where they say they are); you never hear a woman's voice on the Bob Channel. A sort of CB of the air without the 70's lingo -- even upside down in the middle of a loop I have to stop myself responding to one of the unknown Bobs ("Uh, Jack... Jack... are you there Jack...? It's Bob… I'm over Placerville, I think.") with an upbeat "Breaker Breaker 10-4 Bob good buddy!!". When I initially announce on frequency that we'll be commencing  aerobatics at 6,000' in the Diablo practice area, a crackly voice responds with "Bob? Was that you? Say again?". I figure it'd confuse him more to repeat the announcement, so I just say silent. There's no one else in the practice area, and Bob and Jack are probably pottering along about a hundred kilometres away over somewhere like Merced anyway. It's a different world out here....

April 07, 2004

The Cone Of Stupidity

JRE Under The Hood, 2000It's officially called "the hood", but I've come to think of it as the cone of stupidity — as in "lower the cone of stupidity!" — because of the effect it seems to have on my IQ every time I put it on (and if "lower the cone of stupidity!" doesn't ring a bell, check out this). You typically wear the Cone Of Stupidity during practice instrument work, and its main effect is supposed to be to block out any external visual clues (like the horizon) to simulate flying in zero visibility. All you can see with it on is the instrument panel, more or less. But its real effect — on me at least — seems to be to block the capacity for sustained thinking, and to lower my IQ to about the OAT in Celsius. Things that are simply obvious under normal VMC flying conditions — the mental arithmetic needed to work out a course interception, or what side of the plane an NDB is on, for example — start feeling like mammoth feats of intellectual effort under the hood.

The first few times you do it, it's amazing how much mental effort is needed to keep a plane flying straight and level on instruments alone; everything else suffers. Later, it starts being subconscious and "easy" (or it had better start getting easy...), but right now it's overwhelming.

April 06, 2004

Why Me?

Why am I doing the instrument rating? What do I hope to get out of it? I think most people do it for one or more of the following reasons:

  • As yet another step on the way to becoming a career pilot, usually just before doing their commercial rating then becoming a CFI.

  • As a way to be able to fly when the weather's not nicely VMC -- an instrument rating greatly increases the scope for flying, especially in a place like Coastal Northern California, with its coastal stratus.

  • As a way to improve their flying skills and safety levels in general.

For me, the first reason doesn't really apply (although I'll admit that I have this sneaking desire sometimes to become an instructor or a lowly freight dog... we shall see). The second reason's a particularly strong one around here -- for months on end during summer, late spring, and early autumn the coastal fog closes Oakland airport (my home base) to VFR for hours of each day, sometimes all day. It's clear ten kilometres inland, and 1,500' straight up, but you need that IFR clearance to get out safely and legally. And yes, I'm one of those who believes that an instrument rating helps in all aspects of flying, and not just because you get better at holding altitudes and headings, or because you can cope with suddenly not being able to see the horizon or the ground. You get a better understanding of the system as a whole, and a better insight into what other pilots and planes are doing or thinking, and why.

But the real reason -- as with learning to fly in the first place, and starting aerobatics training -- is simply curiosity. What's it take to get an instrument rating? What's it like? Can I do it? Etc. I'm more motivated by pure curiosity than most people seem to realise.

April 03, 2004

800 Feet Above The Nimitz

I’ve been avoiding this for years, but here I am. As we pass through 800 feet over the Nimitz my instructor John Ewing makes me don what I’m quickly coming to think of as the Cone Of Stupidity, then tells me to turn to heading 340 and climb to 1,800’. Simultaneously Oakland Tower hands me off to NorCal Approach on 120.9. Piece of cake! I say sarcastically as I blow straight through 340 to about 360, and unconsciously level off at about 1,000’ while calling NorCal -- and getting our tail number wrong.

At least I noticed I’d gone to 360. And that I was hundreds of feet below my target altitude (failure has its own sort of clarity, I guess). This isn't going to be the easiest flight I've ever had.

* * *

About a month ago I finally decided I had enough time and money to start training towards my instrument rating. I did my basic private pilot license (the "PP-ASEL", in US jargon) a few years ago now, and I'd spent the next few years doing almost anything else -- aerobatics, getting tailwheel and complex endorsements, etc. -- to avoid doing the instrument rating. The rating is hard (many pilots will tell you it's the hardest thing they've done), and it takes a lot of time and effort, and I didn't want to start something and only be able to pursue it half-heartedly or have to drop out because of time or money issues (which may still happen anyway -- we shall see...). So I got in touch with John Ewing, a club instructor who I've know for several years now, and arranged to be his student for the foreseeable future until I either got my instrument rating or I had to drop out for lack of time or money.

So here I am. Roughly 800 feet over the Nimitz. Roughly's the word here...

* * *

The main aim of this evening's flight is to introduce me to flying straight and level solely by instruments and to start learning the basic maneuvers under the hood. We spend about 30 minutes in front of the whiteboard in the club discussing the FAA's ideas about instrument basics -- which instrument is primary for which maneuver or stage of flying, etc. Nothing too difficult if you've got a bunch of hours VFR cross-country flying behind you, but there's some counter-intuitive bits if you don't think through it all closely. It all looks easy enough from the ground...

Until you do it, it is easy. But that tiny little artifical horizon -- the attitude indicator or AI -- doesn't give much away, and is a poor substitute for the real thing. I don't seem to have the problems some other beginners have with vertigo or an inability to believe the instruments, I just don't react quickly enough to what the instruments are telling me, and I haven't internalised how to correct the various trends as they emerge on (say) the heading indicator or altimeter. At one point I actually mentally reverse the sense of the AI and treat it like the turn coordinator; if I did this in real IMC and didn't catch it quickly, it could be lethal. Luckily I recognised it before John would have had to save us, but it's a sobering experience.

So we weave about over the Bay for another thirty minutes or so, with John giving me vectors, headings, altitudes, and turn instructions -- just a typical beginner instrument student workout. Nothing really terrible happens, but the entire time I'm under the hood my flying is hopelessly imprecise. I don't ever lose control or cause John to take the controls, but I feel humbled by how badly I followed headings or altitudes.

Then John lets me dump the hood, and we fly back to Oakland to do the practice ILS approach into 27R visually. I fly, John does the radio. This goes surprisingly well -- mortifyingly, as soon as I remove the hood, my flying becomes precise and well within PTS standards again. John points out an something I've missed: when I fly VFR normally i.e. not under the hood), I have a light touch on the controls and correct things gently and smoothly. When I'm under the hood I have the classic death grip on the yoke, and my flying suffers accordingly. "Trust the plane", as John says. I'll have to learn how to relax a bit...

As we're vectored to join the localiser, the workload once again starts shutting my poor little brain down. "It’s alive!" I think, as the localiser needle starts slowly moving off the left peg towards the vertical. But now what? My brain tells me I should do something, but another part of me says "he said heading 250, so keep that heading". Mistake: I know -- somewhere in that IQ-80 brain of mine -- that once I start intercepting the localiser I should turn into it rather than keep on the assigned heading -- but I just sit there stupidly. Somewhere in the right seat John's trying to tell me something, but I don’t know what it is or why. Urgh. I slowly sort it out and we fly the ILS down to a normal landing on 27R. Even though I wasn't under the hood at this point, I don't think I saw a thing outside the plane -- just the needles and the various other instruments. At the decision altitude, John makes me look up -- and there they are: the runway lights, not quite dead ahead. Cool!