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 faatest.com'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.

July 19, 2004

Love / Hate

For most of the past three years I've flown with a nice pair of LightSPEED Aviation 20XL active noise reduction headsets, with a pair of their el cheapo QFR Solo headsets as backup and for passengers (and for aerobatics because they're light and I can anchor them firmly on my head), and an ancient pair of cheap-but-sturdy Dave Clark DC-somethings for further backup and passenger use (John uses a wildly-expensive set of Bose ANR headsets, but then flying is his job...).

I love the 20XL's -- they're astonishingly comfortable, the active noise reduction is excellent, and they were relatively cheap when I bought them. But -- and this seems to be a common story with LightSPEED owners I know -- they've broken way too easily in normal GA usage. Mine have been back to the factory at least twice for serious repair (the last time was two weeks ago); in both cases, they were repaired (or replaced) quickly, cheerfully, and without question, and for free (even though they're way beyond the warranty period), but still....

In summary: great headsets when they work, but they too often don't work, or break way too easily. And LightSPEED's clearly a company with an excellent approach to customer service -- but a company that needs excellent customer service. I'm hoping the new generation 30G's (etc.) are tougher -- I'd buy 'em in a second if they've solved the mechanical weaknesses.

July 18, 2004

The Rat And The Lever, Again...

More study; no flying this week because I had to cancel due to mild illness (am I the only person on earth who can get a cold mid-summer?!).

"Referring to Figure 12, what is the height of the tropopause over Kentucky?", the test software asks me. I realise I'm such an UnAmerican that I'm not actually sure which of the indistinct slightly-blurred states on the relevant weather chart is Kentucky. I know it's near Tennessee, which I've actually visited... I guess correctly. And so it goes.

And that's what a lot of this is all about, really. Either you can start from first principles plus a little knowledge of things like VORs, HSI's, meteorological fundamentals, etc., or you have to guess or memorise a bunch of arbitrary rules and symbols. I'm OK at the former, just awful at the latter. This is only marginally more enjoyable than, well, ... it's not enjoyable at all. But it's not intellectually difficult either, just very difficult to concentrate on.

July 11, 2004

The Right Dumbarton

Dumbarton Rail BridgeIf you fly out of Palo Alto, you know the "Right Dumbarton", a VFR departure for getting to points north and east below the SFO Class B. It takes you out over the Dumbarton railway and road bridges across the salt pans and over towards the east bay coastline. I fly it most times I visit Ye Olde Airporte Shoppe to get back to Oaktown, and I drive through the same Dumbarton Bridge area a couple of times a week visiting Santa Clara for one of my contracts. It's an astonishing place, salt pans, power lines and pylons, discarded junk, bizarrely-coloured water in brackish ponds and sloughs, the curves and straight lines of the bridges, the soft Bay light mingling with the suburban desert glare from the salt... and I spend the afternoon riding my mountain bike around the area, taking photos for a series I'm doing on the area. So by lesson time this evening, I'm tired and sunburned, and probably not the sharpest tool in the toolshed.

At the end of the last lesson, John had simply said that this week we'll do an approach into Watsonville (KWVI), and that I should plan for it, using a departure procedure from Oakland if possible. This seems suspiciously easy -- it took all of two minutes to discover that the Nuevo 5 departure with the SHOEY transition (NUEVO5.SHOEY) dumps us onto exactly the right radial for the VOR/DME approach into Watsonville (the DME arc approach, the only one around here) -- so I turn up for the lesson suspecting that I've missed something obvious and that John's going to spring some sort of surprise on me. But no, there's no trick, just a long two+ hour flight ahead of us down the coast and back over supposedly broken coastal stratus. I know I'll be flying over the Dumbarton salt flats on the way back, but I won't see them this time, of course, in the darkness under the Cone Of Stupidity....

We file a real IFR flight plan using duat.com, do the usual instrument and radio checks, the runup, etc., then sit in the runup area off 27R waiting for a clearance from Clearance. The controller's doing both Clearance and South Field ground simultaneously, and the on-air effect is a series of long unbroken streams of words in a mostly one-way conversation (we can't hear the other side of the ground transmissions) with the occasional break to talk to the rest of us waiting for clearances. The GA side of the field -- North Field -- is relatively calm tonight, but it's a Sunday evening rush hour for South Field (the main commercial and freight side of Oakland Airport), and there's a typical jam trying to get into and out of the way-too-small terminal gate area. We keep hearing rapid-fire sequences of things like "SouthWest 981 you can't take gate 21, there's company there already..." or "Alaska 567 you've got about thirty seconds to start push back or I'll have to hold you for at least another ten minutes", or "Now who the hell is that pushing back! Stop right where you are!" (OK, I made the last one up, but it's pretty representative of what was actually being said). It'd be funny if we weren't sitting there waiting. And waiting. And waiting...

And then it comes:


Blimey. A poetry slam on speed. I get it all down correctly (I had a good idea of what was coming) and then wait another minute or so for him to call us and let me read it back. In the meantime a flustered SouthWest cockpit flunky's having trouble reading back a complex clearance and the controller's juggling more gate / pushback disasters (or, as he'd probably put it, "situations"...), and the entertainment continues.

After all this, the departure itself goes fine, and we follow the Nuevo 5 DP pretty much to the letter except for a couple of vectors for traffic. At one point as we pass some 5,000' over South San Francisco deep in SFO's Class B with me under the hood, I reflect that people would kill for the view I'm paying to block out right now -- the tongues of fog over the Golden Gate and the hills on the Peninsula, the sunset over the Pacific. You know, Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset. Nothing else to report except a really stupid mistake on my part: the controller gave us a (long) vector to the DME arc from near SAPLY and instead of turning the heading bug I turned the bloody HI card itself. John catches it as I'm doing it; we level out, reset it to the magnetic compass, then proceed back on the vector. Urgh. I would probably have caught it a few seconds later myself, but I spend the rest of the flight cursing myself for this. For years I've had an iron discipline that I use my right hand to turn heading bugs, left for the card (which mirrors the respective sides of the knobs on the instrument in all the planes I fly). For some reason I broke that discipline, with no real effect except embarrassment tonight, but doing something like that on a real approach might kill you if left unnoticed.

Just before we departed, Watsonville was reporting clear skies, with a forecast for scattered clouds at about 1500' and unlimited visibility both before and after our ETA. By the time we're fifty miles out, the WVI ASOS is telling us that there's a 600' overcast. The minimums on our VOR/DME-A approach are 1300'. We debate whether to just shoot it to minimums and go missed without doing the planned circling, or try the localiser or do something else at Monterey or Salinas. We decide to do the original approach. Which we do, to minimums, and it's a reflection on the typical thin stratus coastal layers around here that we descend to minimums over an impenetrable cloud layer without getting into any actual ourselves. We go missed, then head back VFR to Oakland with NorCal.

Even though I've done this approach on both John's Elite and my own On Top, I screw up the entry to the arc in a moment of blank-minded confusion, and although the rest of the approach is OK (especially the altitude and airspeed control) I start thinking the thing with the HI wasn't going to be an isolated incident tonight. I start wondering what else will go wrong. It doesn't take long: after we go missed and talk to NorCal, John vectors me in the general direction of Oakland, then says "direct Oakland when able". OK, we're picking up OAK VOR (I verify the morse), dial in the "to" heading, and start flying it. Over the next few minutes the needle keeps moving left, and I slowly turn the plane more and more to the left, thinking it's a weird wind... just as I'm flying almost due west for what should be a northerly course, John cuts in and tells me to return to my orignal north(ish) heading. I suspect I've done something wrong, but it's nothing obvious: neither of us can see anything wrong with the VOR reception, but for the next few miles the needle deflects to the left. Then it starts behaving again. We suspect there's some sort of un-NOTAM'd anomaly here, or we were just too low, but it was a good lesson. I should have started being more vocally suspicious when I was so far off the course I knew would be OAK direct.

After a long flight under the hood over San Jose, Moffet, Dumbarton, and sundry other invisible-to-me bits of suburbia, we fly the ILS in to 27R at Oakland. Not much to report here except that I held it all together pretty well until the last 100' or so above the DH when I started chasing the needles rather than watching the heading. Never went near full-scale deflection, but it sort of spoiled it anyway....

It's been a long day.

July 09, 2004

Stimulus / Response

I finally start seriously studying for the written. Hours of reading regulation after regulation from the FARs and page after page from the AIM. It's mostly in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, but some of it sticks. As for most people I know who've done this, the regulations are the hardest part: it's one thing to have to nut out an answer to do with (say) VOR navigation or weather trends from first principles and a smidgeon of logical thought; it's quite another to have to answer questions about regulations that don't seem to be based on anything physical or logical. It becomes a process of trying to memorise a large set of arbitrary facts -- like the maximum airspeeds in holding patterns -- that can't be derived from first principles (or much else, for that matter).

The "written" test is actually a computerised multiple-choice test administered by the FAA, and it's a weird collection of fairly straightforward questions and deliberately (and annoyingly) tricky questions designed to catch you out in ways that just don't reflect real-world problems. So preparing for the test is mostly just divining what the FAA thinks is the correct answer (they don't publish the correct answers anywhere, let alone any sort of explanation or the thinking behind them), and learning these by rote.

I use the Dauntless Software test prep program on my laptop for this. It's very effective at identifying holes on my written test knowledge and getting the "correct" (FAA-approved) answers burned into my poor little brain (I used an earlier version for my PP-ASEL test prep). So I sit there in front of the laptop, a rat pushing levers.

July 02, 2004

Timing Is Everything

A Friday that starts with less than three hours' sleep after working until 2.30am on a contract in Santa Clara; by 7pm I'm exhausted. But I also think it's worth flying this evening to keep my hand in and because we had to cancel last week; I don't want to backslide too much. This time we'll head out towards Point Reyes VOR (PYE) and do some partial panel airwork, then shoot the VOR RWY 32 approach into Santa Rosa (KSTS), the VOR/DME RWY 14 back into the same airport if we have the time, then head back to Oakland for the ILS into runway 27R. It's a typical luminous Bay Area evening, but there's some lurking coastal summer stratus that may cause us to have to get a real clearance on the way back.

Cessna 4AC at The Old T'sThis time we're in N854AC, and startup is normal (at last!). John plays Clearance Delivery and gives me a clearance something like "Cleared to Santa Rosa. Radar vectors to REBAS, then direct Point Reyes VOR. Climb and maintain 2000'; expect 3,800' within ten minutes. Departure frequency 135.1. Squawk 0355." No trouble -- I'm getting much better at hearing clearances like this and writing them down accurately. Well, when I'm expecting them...

I go under the Cone Of Stupidity at about 200' AGL and everything's routine until just after REBAS. John reaches over and covers the AI and then the HI. Hmmm, I know it was on the menu, but I have no real-world experience of sustained partial-panel flying, and don't really know how I'll cope. The very limited amount of partial panel work I did with Dave Montoya for the PP-ASEL didn't really prepare me for much more than getting out of emergencies.

Partial panel work is hard. Partial panel flying typically involves losing either the AI or the HI, or both, often due to losing the vacuum system. It's hard enough to fly IFR without these instruments that the first thing you should do is inform ATC that you've lost the relevant instruments or systems, and, if you're in IMC, declare an emergency. ATC will attempt to route you towards VMC or help with gentle vectors to an airport with (e.g.) an ILS (on the theory that the ILS will obviate needing the AI, for instance). If you're in VMC, you're not likely to get into any real trouble, but following vectors might be difficult.

For me, losing the AI doesn't seem like such a huge deal this time -- at least in one of our 172's, where the AI's are so small and irritating to use at the best of times -- but losing the HI (DG) is a real pain. When you lose the AI, you still (usually...) have the turn coordinator to help keep the wings level, and, as I've observed before, my normal scan has typically relied a lot on the TC for this in any case because the 172's AI is so ... crappy (it'd be different on larger planes with better AIs or flight directors). But without the HI, my workload gets more intense: you have to use the whisk(e)y compass for heading information, and, at the best of times, this is a confusing and cantankerous instrument. I won't go on much here about the failings of the normal magnetic compass, but in real-world use unless you're flying straight and level and not turning or accelerating, it rarely shows an accurate heading. Frankly, this is the first time when it's brought home to me just how useful the old OSUN (Overshoot South Undershoot North) mnemonic you learn all those years ago doing the PP-ASEL is -- when turning just by magnetic compass, it's a huge factor in rolling out on the correct heading. Timing your standard rate turns is also now suddenly a matter of life and death (or would be in a real emergency) -- and being able to quickly calculate the timing needed is a difficult skill under the Cone Of Stupidity (not that hard, really, but with everything else going on it all mounts up). Added to this is the obvious point that the magnetic compass reads "backwards" in comparison to the HI. Yes, I "know" this (I spent my youth mucking about in boats), but it's just another of those things that gets momentarily lost when everything else is going to pieces....

Instructor Lurking On Solano Avenue, BerkeleyWhat's harder to simulate on a real flight is how to recognise failing (rather than obviously failed) instruments before they cause too much damage or disorientation (it's all about cross-checking and a certain feel for what's real and what isn't, gained by long experience, I guess). That's where the Elite's going to come in handy...

(As a side note, the FAA has just introduced new PTS rules to cope with new glass cockpit systems where not only is system or individual instrument failure almost impossible (famous last words), but quite impossible to test. Doesn't help me in a little 172 with steam gauges, but it's the thought that counts, I guess).

So John gets me to continue partial panel direct PYE (not too hard, since the VOR provides positive heading guidance), then hold north on the 360 radial, left turns, all partial panel. Under the cone of stupidity it takes a while to work out this means a parallel entry, but that's the least of my problems, and although I probably don't break every damn regulation and protected airspace, I have several brain-exploding moments dealing with the damn whiskey compass on the hold. Timing is everything. Oh well. I'll learn...

The DME arc and VOR RWY 32 approach that follow, under conditions of full and partial panel at different times, go OK, with one moment of confusion here: on removing the Cone Of Stupidity on short final into runway 32 I look up... and I can't see the bloody runway. Just a bunch of undifferentiated city lights and a slightly darker patch where local knowledge tells me the airport should be. Am I that far off course?! John sits there impassively as I mutter "where the hell's the runway?!", then pointedly clicks the press-to-talk seven times. D'Oh! PCL ("I knew that!!"). The runway's suddenly right in front of me. A good micro-lesson. As we're going missed after a touch-and-go on 32, John decides it's time to head back (full panel) to Oakland -- it's been a long workout already, and by the time we get back we've logged more than two hours in the air.

Nothing much to report about the rest of the flight, except that, as seems to have lately become SOP at NorCal, the controller vectored us way too high into the localiser of the OAK ILS 27R. Since we were on a clearance due to a broken layer and actual on the approach at the time, this was a real issue. We fudge it a bit, and the resulting approach doesn't kill anyone.

* * *

So what did I think went well and what badly this time? Basically, as usual, nothing went horribly wrong, especially given the lack of sleep. I could have done a better job tracking the localiser on the ILS into Oakland, but that'll come with practice (I still have trouble internalising the tiny (two or three degree) course corrections needed for this). I lost it with the radios twice: once when the Center controller started mumbling something about equipment problems at NorCal, which made me forget the original heading and altitude assignments as I tried to decipher the unimportant bits. The other time was as we were being vectored to the ILS for Oakland -- the sector was busy as hell with July 4 commercial traffic, and the controller spat out long clearances with barely a pause for minutes at an end (it was an impressive performance, I have to admit), and I completely missed the details of the "4AC cleared for the ILS 27R approach..." call. John picked up the debris... And learning to cope with a missing HI wasn't such a smooth experience; I'll need much more practice with my On Top or the Elite.

But I seem to be getting a lot better at the actual flying bits -- altitude control was pretty decent the entire flight (even on the ILS glide slope back into Oakland), and I'm getting a much better feeling for the realities of the vertical profiles for real approaches and how to set them up smoothly -- and even though the approaches and holds are still rough in execution, they're not difficult to follow or to keep myself ahead of the plane.

Devils, Devils...

Before each flight we sit in the clubhouse and discuss the approaches and the associated plates. With John's help I'm slowly getting better at picking up the devils hidden in the details of each approach plate -- the small print and marginalia that needs to be interpreted, or, more fundamentally, noticed -- and there's a bunch of minor (but very common) devils lurking below this evening's approaches.

For example, the NACO plate for the VOR/DME RWY 14 approach blandly (and typically) shows the approach's vertical profile as a straight-line descent between STS DME 11.5 and STS DME 3.1. But the actual segment between the FAF (FURYS, STS DME 6.5) and STS DME 3.1 involves a descent of some 1350' in a little over 3 NM -- a bit over 400' per NM. This is steeper than the other segments on this approach; but, more importantly, at the canonical planned ground speed of 90 KIAS, that's a roughly 700' per minute descent. Not too bad -- if a little steep -- but the DUATS forecast has winds coming almost directly down the final approach course from behind us at about 15-20 KIAS. So we're going to have to descend at closer to 900' per minute or more, which is quite the descent rate in a little 172. Especially when getting so close to the ground (about 1000' AGL at the end of that segment)...

The plate for the VOR RWY 32 approach also has some small print that's essential reading -- firstly, "When local altimeter not received, procedure NA." This is pretty straightforward -- if you can't get the local altimeter setting from ATIS or Center, you can't do the approach -- but I can imagine someone missing this one day without thinking (there isn't a lot of terrain in the direct path of either STS approaches, but there are some nice mountains only a few miles to either side; the published MSA around STS is 5,900'). Secondly, it says that "S-32 Cat D DME minimums visibillty increased to RVR 6000 for inoperative MALSR." OK, we're not a Category D aircraft (sadly), but it's still a good reminder that the approach lighting is an integral part of the approach, and its being out of service will affect certain types of approach significantly.

Plus there's that old standby, alternates not authorised. But I don't miss that one easily any more...

Dueling Bonanzas

On the approach into Santa Rosa, just after we announce about 5 miles out to an otherwise entirely quiet CTAF that we're on the VOR approach for 32 and we'll be doing a straight-in touch-and-go on 32, first one Bonanza and then another comes on line and announces they're approaching VFR from the southeast for 14 (the wind's calm and doesn't favour either runway). No problem -- we call the lead Bonanza and establish an informal plan with him, and all goes well (except I botch the landing a bit in a hurry to get out of there -- Bonanzas are fast, especially when going the opposite way from (or perhaps to) you in the pattern...). But in the pattern the Bonanzas start a sort of local Bob Channel thing, and we're subjected to several minutes of slow(ish) drawl about "crawling it in", landing long, and (I'm not quite making this up...) "Bob, are you on-frequency?". The Bob Channel's reach is expanding, I guess.