August 05, 2004

(Dis) Grace Under Pressure

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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