June 27, 2004

Fouled Again

The plan: a couple of hours in the air in 12R, some partial-panel airwork under the Cone of Stupidity, then the Santa Rosa (STS) VOR RWY 32 and VOR/DME RWY 14 approaches, then a leisurely return visually to Oaktown.

The reality: 12R's nearing its 100 hour mini-check, and it's had a minor operation on the engine (re-ringing), and sitting there on the hot tarmac doing the runup near the Old T's, neither John nor I could get the engine to run smoothly on the right mag only. Actually, it wasn't so much that it didn't run smooth, it was that it was rougher than I've ever heard it in 12R. No amount of running worked. We taxied back to the ramp, dropped the plane off with the maintenance people, and cancelled the flight. Maybe next week...

June 20, 2004

The Eternal Question...

NOS or Jeppesen? (Or, more accurately now, NACO vs. Jep...). It's one of those instrument rights of passage, chosing an approach plate system that you can live with. There's not a huge difference in quality or usability any more (the newer NACO plates are evolving towards something that I like visually and ergonomically more than the Jep plates), so it usually amounts to a personal decision based on things like cost or aesthetic preferences. Cost and convenience are real issues -- you have to keep the plates up to date, meaning a new set every 56 days -- but the overall cost isn't a huge deal in either case. Ergonomics is a big deal -- you don't want to have to spend a lot of time deciphering unfamiliar approach plates in IMC after going missed for real, for instance -- but, in my opinion, both plate systems are pretty similar. Both suffer from having to put a lot of crucial information into a small space, and both do a pretty good job (if you ask me, anyway).

Frankly, the web's making some of these decisions less important. NACO now publishes all approach plates (and associated gubbins) in PDF form on the web for each cycle, and the quality of these when printed locally on my printer is excellent -- better than the subscription version on the crappy paper they use -- and, best of all, they're free, with no strings attached. So I've evolved a method that combines a NACO paper subscription with the PDF versions: I dutifully load the new loose-leaf paper versions each cycle into my folder, so every damn plate's there in my flight bag if I need it during a flight, but I print out the plates for the approaches planned for a flight beforehand and put these into the little plastic protectors instead of the loose-leaf versions. The best of both worlds, I guess.

Of course, if I were really rich, I'd use an entirely electronic system, the sort of thing Jeppesen is doing with JeppView. Not being rich, I'll wait a few years until something like that becomes truly affordable...

June 17, 2004

Feeling Off

I start the day feeling off, and it doesn't get any better. Nothing serious, but by 7pm I still have quite a headache and feel unnaturally tired. I wouldn't have flown at all today if I was on my own, but I figure with John along to save the day it'll go fine. And of course it does...

Cessna 6605DThe plan for today is to do the Napa (KAPC) LOC RWY 36L approach in 05D (right), three times around as with the previous lesson's Concord work, and do some holds over Scaggs Island VOR (SGD) in between the approaches. Things are complicated by the presence of a typical broken Bay Area summer marine layer, which means we have to get real clearances this time, and I get to spend a small amount of time in "actual" (not that I noticed much, with the hood on). As with many of the lessons so far, nothing goes horribly wrong, but nothing goes completely right either. The good news is that I didn't have any trouble "seeing" the holds or the approaches, and even when I momentarily forgot about the reverse sensing on the outbound course to the procedure turn I realised what I'd done wrong fairly quickly. I could even anticipate the next step or leg without having my brain explode. On the other hand, my flying was typically sloppy and what Richie Benaud would have called "agricultural", but it wasn't awful. With one exception I was able to cope with the radios (the exception being a particularly complicated-sounding set of instructions that I didn't write down and promptly forgot about a third of as I was preparing to read it back).

We return to Oakland IFR the entire way (SGD, V87, REBAS, vectors), and do the Oakland VOR/DME RWY 27L approach to a full stop. Again, I do OK until the very end, when I let the airspeed and trim get away from me and I lose too much altitude way too quickly; John gets me to look up early. At least I wasn't miles from the centreline.

* * *

The real lesson today was -- again -- just how important it is to be able to internalise the relationship between throttle, airspeed, pitch, and trim, and to be able to greatly reduce your workload by knowing well ahead of time exactly what prop and trim settings will give you a desired sink or climb rate. And to be able to estimate what rates are needed for each segment of the approach just by looking at the approach plate. They don't even need to be particularly exact -- just decent rules of thumb. All very easy on the ground, but under the Cone of Stupidity, well, I just don't seem to be able to put two and two together (and when I do, it rarely comes out as four). I'm slowly getting a better feeling for 05D's characteristics, but nowhere near smoothly or accurately enough to pin the vertical bits of the approach the way John does under the hood when I'm observing. Practice, practice, practice, I guess...

The Death Grip

On the approaches today and the return to Oakland, John noticed the return of the Death Grip. I seem to be prone to this -- instead of flying with a light touch the way I do VFR, I typically start holding the yoke with a great deal of force. My flying suffers noticeably. Something about the Death Grip -- either what it signifies about my mental state, or what it causes directly, or both -- causes me to over-correct and miss a lot of the plane's natural feedback through the yoke. I thought I'd mostly overcome this a few weeks back; apparently not.

As with all these things, it's obvious on the ground and when we talk about it during the briefings and debriefings, but in the air, under the hood...

The Edge Of Sunset

On the third approach at Napa with John under the hood and me observing, we slip slowly into a 500' thick cloud bank on the edge of sunset. It's an astonishing feeling and sight as the clouds come up at you and envelop you head-on (and suddenly everything's bathed in an unnaturally white light), and while I've done it a couple of times before in the 172 (with Dave Montoya on my original PP-ASEL license training), it never gets old.

Trim and Shipshape

05D's just come back from its annual, and I'm the first to fly it. From the moment we lift off from 33 at Oakland, I notice it needs much more right rudder than I remember -- even in cruise, which is highly unusual. But I've also noticed that every time I return to flying a 172 after flying Lou's Arrow, I always think there's something wrong with the rudder trim, so I only mutter a few half-hearted complaints while I struggle to get to Napa under the hood. It seems really wrong, but not unsafe, so I don't press the issue. And then John takes the plane for the third time around the approach... by the time we're on the ground 30 minutes later at Oakland, I've heard an earful about the guys at XYZ corp (our unnamed maintenance shop) and the total mess they've made of the damn rudder trim. Thank Christ it wasn't just me...

June 10, 2004

Three Birds, One Stone.

Lou's Arrow, 29JWalnut Creek, California, sunny, suburban, a nice little upscale downtown you can actually stroll; I spend the afternoon taking photos for a real estate firm. Four hours later I'm back, several thousand feet above that same downtown, under the Cone of Stupidity heading towards the Concord LDA RWY 19R approach in Lou's Arrow, 29J (right).

The aim today is to do three things: refamiliarise myself with 29J, a beautiful 1966 Piper Pa-28R Arrow I haven't flown for a long time; see what flying a complex retractable is like when under the hood; and to try Concord's LDA RWY 19R approach as a typical LDA approach.

Overall, things go fine the entire evening. I flew the approach several times last night on my On Top and know what to expect, and, with a little coaching from John, I get it more-or-less OK each time I try it, with no real conceptual issues at all. It's harder than I'd like trying to keep on the LDA close-in, but that's likely to come with practice. I didn't get fooled by the reverse sensing outbound on the localiser, either, which surprised me. The revelation here, both on the approach and earlier under the hood, is just how much more stable 29J is as an instrument platform than 05D (a 172) or the Elite. It just holds its heading and altitude better, with far fewer inputs needed from me, and I don't feel like I'm constantly fighting plane or sim in addition to trying to cope with the approach. Even the landings -- in a plane I haven't flown for months, and that lands a lot faster and heavier than a 172 -- go OK, and I don't forget to put the gear down or how to use the mixture / prop controls like I feared I might (and I'm sure John feared I would :-)).

As we'd discussed earlier, John gets me to do the first approach without the hood, the next under the hood, and the last approach with me doing the radio while John does it under the hood. This works really well -- it gives you a good idea of what's happening the first time around without having to also cope with flying under the hood, and the last time around gives me great radio practice (John generally does the radio at the moment at my request -- I'd guess this won't last more than another lesson, as it's not too hard. I just like not having to worry about that too, at the moment).

On the last approach, with John under the hood, I look around at the last few minutes of Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset from 3,000' AGL -- the deep purples, blues, and reds streaking the sky, the lights of the City and the Diablo Valley, the sunset reflected off the sloughs and rivers in the Delta, the tongue of fog coming in through the Golden Gate.... There's a small stream of C5A's and C141's a few miles ahead of us in the pattern at Travis. Even from this distance they look huge, slow, graceful.

* * *

The main lesson today is -- again -- remember to fly the bloody plane even when you're also obsessing about the approach. Several times I let the plane get away from me (not dangerously, just sloppily), and feel deeply irritated at one point when I just can't seem to simultaneously cope with the finer details of prop / mixture / manifold pressure, and keep the approach within PTS standards. John has to prompt me more than I'd like towards the end of each approach. It's no excuse to say your brain's about to explode and you just can't always remember the finer details of your mental pre-landing checklist (mixture, flaps, trim, rinse, shampoo, wash, etc.) -- you just have to be able to cope with this in real IMC conditions. I guess I don't do too badly, but I'm glad I got to fly 29J at this stage. I'll probably use it for more instrument lessons (plus it has an INOP ADF, which can only be a plus).

June 05, 2004


Last night's little DME arc exercise spurs me to try again, this time with the Paso Robles VOR/DME 19 approach with On Top. I start at REDDE on V248 and use JEBNO as the IAF, following the DME arc a full 90 or so degrees.

Again, my flying is miserable, but this time something's happened -- I "see" the approach in my mind and don't have any mental problems with which way to turn, what the OBS should be set to, etc. Good news, I guess, but it's still distractingly difficult to fly On Top and keep the "plane" under control. On Top's pitch and roll sensitivity is far too high with my yoke, but there doesn't seem to be any way of making it less so, unlike (say) x-plane or MS FS2004 (OT's heading stability is weirdly good, given the roll issues). The good side of this is that if I can learn to fly this successfully, I'll probably cope with the Elite and real planes much better.

I try the approach again as a straight in from OKEEF and deliberately go missed, following the published missed procedure with the hold at MYGEL (great name). Something else has happened -- apart from the usual philosphical arguments with myself about why there are three FAA-approved hold entries, an argument I have to suppress every time I think about it -- I also "see" the hold here and fly it fairly accurately (I've programmed a steady wind from the west which does predictable things to the shape of the hold). It suddenly seems to all make sense -- what the OBS should be saying, how much to turn, etc. This is good news, but will it last or carry over to real flying?

June 04, 2004

Reflying the Approach

So I fire up the ASA On Top sim on my own PC for the first time in a month and refly the WVI VOR/DME A approach. The results are miserable -- not only do I turn the wrong way several times on the DME arc, I keep busting altitudes and have trouble maintaining a heading throughout the approach. This is partly because my On Top is so different in roll and pitch sensitvity than either John's Elite or a real 172 that I struggle to keep the sim under control, but it's still depressing. I just haven't internalised the whole DME arc thing well enough yet to just know which way to turn.

Just as I start the arc I realise with a certain sense of horror that On Top's DME doesn't show groundspeed (only distance). Argh! I have to follow the arc using distance alone, which isn't quite what I had in mind when I started the approach. I should have noticed this before I started the approach, but it's no big deal in real life, I guess.

June 03, 2004

Emergency! Sort Of Not Really.

More DME arcs on John's Elite, this time incorporating a real approach, the Watsonville (KWVI) VOR/DME A approach.

The first approach (using JEJZE as the IAF from V27 via SHOEY) goes well, except I forget to turn the OBS correctly on entry. Not that it really mattered much at that point, as I kept on the arc with the DME and turned it to the exit radial at the right place, but I knew something was missing, and it bugged me until that D'Oh! moment just before I turned the OBS to the final approach course (the Salinas 314 radial). D'Oh!, indeed. I break out at 1600', a few hundred feet above circling minimums, and see the runway straight ahead. Continuing what's becoming a tradition, I just can't take the landing phase seriously -- the damn sim just isn't anything like a real plane at this point -- and try a slow speed victory roll after circling successfully to line up with runway 26. Bang!

As we debrief the approach John asks me if there'd been anything odd about the instruments. I didn't see anything obvious -- the AI, HI, TC, fuel, etc., instruments all checked out throughout the approach (I'd kept a good lookout since John had warned me earlier that he'd fail a few things at some point this evening) -- so John has to point out the failed alternator. D'Oh! Again. I should have picked up on this -- I've actually had a real alternator failure at night in a real plane, which was a bit of a non-event in VMC -- but I missed it completely this time.

The burning question I have for John at this point is how the hell do you pronounce IAFs with names like "JEJZE", "JEJMA", or "KENIW" (all on the WVI VOR/DME A approach plate). Hmmm. He's not sure himself, and he's had situations where the controller has ad-libbed it too or avoided the issue with vectors to a segment rather than the fix. I've just got to try this approach in real life to see what happens...

John sets me up for a second attempt at the same approach, this time from the other side using JEJMA as the IAF. No problem, I think, but I can hear a lot of mouse clicking in the background. What's he going to fail this time? I start expecting to see the AI go belly-up as I start the DME arc, but there's nothing obvious. Then suddenly an annunciator on the panel tells me there's an oil pressure problem. Sure enough, when I look at the gauge, there's no real pressure and the temperature's way high. Not what I expected at all. I don't panic, but all I can think of doing is declaring an emergency. I do so, and forget the first rule of emergencies: fly the bloody plane! I lose the plane for a few seconds, losing altitude, gaining airspeed, and generally swerving about all over the place. With a bit of prompting from John I regain control, and John -- playing NorCal -- asks my intentions. I haven't thought this through at all, and I'm totally unprepared. Argh. John sits there poker-faced. My instinct is to keep going on the approach, but stay as high as I can until I'm close enough to the airport to make the runway. But some part of me thinks "I know the area down there -- maybe I should descend beneath the cloud layer immediately and look for a nice field to land on" (there are a lot just down there -- local knowledge helps in situations like this). But I tell "NorCal" that I want to continue the approach, with any assistance they can offer me, and that I'll stay high until well past the final approach fix. John ("NorCal") vectors me to the final approach course and despite some very rough heading and altitude changes here and there (I don't want to use the engine unless I have to to do anything more than maintain an altitude) I actually break out in the right place at roughly the right time and attempt to land. John fails the engine completely on short final and I "land" badly. But it looks like I survived.

We debrief this one, and, as expected, there aren't too many right answers for an engine problem in IMC except "fly the plane" and try to stay away from known terrain. I didn't do too badly, apparently, and my first instincts were fairly sound -- immediately declare an emergency, and if you're on an approach and in IMC, stay on it if you can, at least as long as possible. The approach was rough on me mentally -- it's realistic enough that you actually concentrate totally on it all the way in -- but that's the point: it's a simulator, and, as John points out, it's the obvious place to learn how to think about emergencies under at least semi-realistic stress levels. Cool. This sort of thing works really well on a sim, unlike the bloody landings...

I feel exhausted. John suggests I take his place and fail a few instruments as he does the same approach in the Elite's Seminole (a twin). Cool! I set him up for the approach, then as he takes control I fail the cylinder head temperature on the left engine. John spots it immediately and goes through the emergency engine checklist, shutting down the left engine and generally keeping control. So I set both the ADF and the VSI to fail in a few minutes, and wait to see what happens. Not much -- John Keeps control nicely, and shoots the approach. But at minimums we can't see the runway at all. A nightmare in real life: going missed on one engine in real IMC. This is what sims are for... so John goes missed, and I ask what his intentions are. I comment that I'd probably head for the ILS at Salinas, but he points out that that would be a huge diversion, and decides to ask for the ILS runway 10R approach into Monterey (KMRY), an airport I'd completely forgotten about, and only a few tens of miles away. After a bit of cursing at the Elite's dismal GPS simulator, and a discussion about how to initiate this approach in actual with a dead engine, this approach goes much better, and John breaks out with 10R in sight dead ahead. Cool!

A good lesson.

* * *

Before we started the actual "flying", John asked me a bunch of typical questions about the charts and approaches ("What does the "A" here mean?", etc.). I fail dismally -- I just haven't been studying or even reading as much as I should to keep this stuff in my mind. I need to start studying and reading seriously...

June 02, 2004

My Kind Of Airport

Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, Wyoming (48U). Runway 4/22, dirt, in poor condition: "ROUGH; DEBRIS FULL LENGTH OF RY; BROKEN BOTTLES & FIREWORKS DEBRIS."