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.

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