September 30, 2004

Here, FIDO...

A leisurely evening's lesson with John out over the hills on a filed flight plan to Stockton (KSCK) in 05D, a couple of times around the ILS 29R there, then over to Tracy (KTCY) for the VOR-A with the missed, then back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. A bit of holding and airwork, a bit of actual, a bit of partial panel, and a lot of fun. This time, everything seems to come together just fine, and apart from some sloppy flying here and there, I fly well, ahead of the plane and instruments pretty much the entire time. I even get the hold at TRACY intersection on the missed after the VOR-A approach right this time; unlike the first time, instead of obsessing about intersecting the SAC-157 radial (which didn't come unflagged, let alone alive, until too late), I just concentrated on getting to TRACY By Any Means Necessary -- DME, the ECA-229 radial, and a bit of pig-headed determination.

* * *

John talked to Ben today and they both think I'm making way too much of Tuesday's stage check problems -- Ben was overall fairly OK with my, erm, work, and told John I'd actually been dealt a pretty bad hand by ATC both times at Concord, and that while I could have coped better with that, without it things were reasonable. (Ben told John he'd watched amazed as -- while I made a bunch of wild twists on the OBS during the DME arc and seemed to be winging it and making it up as I went along -- I just kept determinedly steering the plane around the DME arc mostly well within the half mile tolerance and keeping within a few feet of assigned altitude, almost in spite of the damn OBS or any other damn instrument Ben suspected I was using).

John says I should take the FIDO principle to heart -- just F* It and Drive On. Just put it behind you. A more profane version of Ben's observations (on Tuesday and during aerobatics lessons earlier this year) that I let these things get me down way too bloody much. Good advice. I should also probably stop expecting my flying to be the best of all possible flying -- a deadly form of arrogance...

* * *

The first time around the ILS at Stockton there's a strong smell of burnt jet fuel around the outer marker. There's no sign of any jet landing ahead of us (Stockton has a lot of turbine freight operations), so it's not clear where it came from (it wasn't there the second time around). Just one of those mysteries...

September 28, 2004

Unravelled (First You Stumble, Then You Fail...)

I'm sitting there thinking "there's something horribly wrong here...". Travis Approach has given us a vector onto the Concord LDA 19R approach and cleared us for the approach, but we're nearly abeam the CCR VOR just outside the outer marker and the course needle's still not alive after several minutes on the same heading. Just as I start wondering what I should do, Concord tower calls me, tells me we're way off course, and asks what are my intentions? I look at Ben, who's sitting there poker-faced in the right seat playing DE for the phase check. No help there. Eventually -- with a bit of stage whispering from Ben -- I stumble back on air to tower and say we'll go missed as published. Tower responds with an irritated "05D, there is no published miss for this approach". This time even Ben looks confused. We're both looking at the approach plate and we can both see the published miss -- head for CCR VOR and hold. I'm completely at a loss on what to do, and ask Ben to take over the radio. Yes, I'm failing miserably here. I've just "failed" the stage check (well, you can't really fail a stage check, but that's how it feels). Ben tells Tower we'll return to Travis approach, head to the VOR, and hold; tower responds with a terse "approved", then tells us he had no idea we were on an IFR flight plan, or that we intended going missed after the actual approach (if I hadn't screwed it up completely), or what our intentions had been. But we've just been handed off to Tower from Travis approach and we've told Travis our intentions at least once. Something's missing, here, and it's not just me.

We go back to Travis who doesn't seem at all surprised to be talking to us again so soon, and who in his rather gentle laid-back sort of way cancels IFR for us, approves the hold, and tells us to call him with the next approach (VFR, this time) when we're ready....

And it only gets worse from here. The next approach -- the CCR VOR 19R with the dogleg after a couple of turns around the hold at CCR VOR -- goes awry at the dogleg, and an approach I've successfully flown many times both in the air and on my sim goes belly-up. After being unable to track the inbound 171 degree final course after the dogleg (or even find it properly) I tell Ben I'd go missed in real life right here, and Ben has me look up and do the landing visually. I've completely failed. Nothing gets much better for the rest of the flight -- yes, I do the DME arc, the airwork, the partial panel work, the ILS 27R into Oakland, and a bunch of other stuff OK (if very agriculturally), but if this had been real life I'd have been in real trouble, and if this had been the checkride I'd have failed early on the LDA approach.

* * *

So what went wrong? The usual cascade of small events.... It started well -- the climb out of Oakland and the initial vectoring for the LDA approach all went fine (with the usual missing details here and there). But during the vectoring, I forgot to check the heading indicator against the compass, and by the final vector I was nearly 20 degrees out. A very basic error. Combined with the fact that (according to Ben) the vector the controller gave me was pretty marginal anyway given the wind, I was simply never going to intercept the course, and it's no surprise the needle never came alive. But I should have caught all this earlier instead of just sitting there waiting for the needle to start moving -- I failed dismally on some absolute basics here. Ben would have been quite happy if I'd just declared I was going missed and done so, then sorted it all out in the hold. But no, I just sat there. And then the radio problem with Concord -- no, not my fault that the handoff was apparently botched and that the tower controller didn't seem to know the approach that well, but I handled it really badly. I should have been able to keep my wits about me and do exactly what Ben did -- come up with a course of action that amounted to the published miss and tell Tower that that was what we would do.

And I never really recovered for the rest of the flight. I should have been able to put all that behind me and start again at the hold (which would also have satisfied Ben -- I can botch one approach on this stage check without causing him much concern, especially since I'd recognised fairly early that something was wrong), but I kept obsessing about the earlier mistakes instead of thinking ahead. So the VOR approach goes badly, and then everything else gets off on the wrong footing as well, and I end up making simple errors even in things like the DME arc, which I should now be able to do in my sleep.

If nothing else, I think I can now guarantee that for the rest of my flying life I'll check the heading indicator against the compass every few minutes, and over every damn IAF, FAF, and significant point in any approach or departure.

And I can't help thinking that if we'd been flying 4JG with the Garmin 530, I would have noticed things a lot earlier. It's the sort of thing the 530's perfect for -- but you can't rely on it being there, let alone always working...

* * *

So what did I do right? According to Ben, he was happy with my overall altitude, heading, and airspeed control skills (I busted altitude a couple of times, but noticed it and corrected well); he thought I had good positional awareness on the approaches (I'd mentioned the early vectors didn't make much sense, and I'd noted out loud that the controller had forgotten to let us down in time for the VOR approach, meaning I had a couple of miles of over 1,000 fpm descent to do on the dogleg, increasing my workload); he thought my radio work was generally good, with the obvious exception of the Concord Tower Thing; the hold at CCR VOR went well, with only a few seconds to set it up; I flew the ILS back into Oakland OK, if roughly; and the general airwork -- stalls, steep turns, slow flight, bad attitudes, etc. -- was good (but then that's something Ben's being teaching me for a long time, hood or no, and I couldn't help treating it like basic IFR aerobatics with him :-)).

* * *

A humbling, mortifying experience. A really really good lesson.... (and thanks to Ben for being so good at emphasising the positives after what for me was a draining, depressing flight that made me question whether I really had it in me to be an instrument pilot).

I don't know quite why I made such a mess of things, especially since every damn one of the things I did wrong was something that John had patiently worked on for a long while. I guess the meta-lesson is to pay more attention to the lessons :-).

September 26, 2004

How Ya Doin?

After a little less than 40 hours total instrument time (Cone of Stupidity, the Elite simulator, and actual), I now feel reasonably confident that I can cope with flying IFR in the system without becoming unstuck in IMC or anything like that, and that I could probably fly most conventional approaches fairly safely (if not with great accuracy yet). But I also feel reasonably sure that I need a fair bit more practice to get to full PTS standards for the checkride. I don't think I'm that far off under most circumstances, but the real problem seems to be the occasional reversion to bad behaviour under stress (the whole (Dis)Grace Under Pressure thing) and a few bad habits I sometimes forget to surpress. I still seem to fall prey to backsliding, when the Death Grip takes over, or I obsess about radio calls or altitude holding at the expense of the bigger picture. This is basically just practice, practice, practice, I guess. Plus actually listening to John when he keeps pointing all this out :-).

And unfortunately for the Diary reader here, I just haven't had any real major stumbling blocks or intellectual crises yet -- no disorientation or major control problems under the hood or in actual, no problems understanding the different models underlying each approach type, few real problems with things like estimating vertical speed on the fly or intercept headings, etc. No bizarre halucinations while surrounded on all sides by fluffy white clouds. Etc. That is, nothing that would spice up the diary a bit :-). Sorry about that. Maybe things will improve when we get to the checkride, which looms large on my own personal Fear Factor scale.

And so when will the checkride be? I don't know. Too much hinges on what happens with my contract work between now and November 1, when I'm leaving for three weeks in Australia. I may simply not have the time to fly much between now and then, in which case I'll have to resume it all in December, which would be a shame. But there's some chance I may be able to feel ready enough to get Lou (Fields) to do the checkride as DE by the end of October. But I'd hate to fail the bloody thing because I rushed it...

September 23, 2004

Short Sharp Shock

Another short sharp lesson, again somewhat impromptu (John King, the club instructor who was going to do the phase check today called in sick this afternoon, so The Other John (John Ewing) offered to do a lesson on short notice instead): a filed IFR trip to Concord (CCR -- all of about 15nm away...), the LDA 19R and VOR 19R approaches there, then a quick double back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. No GPS, unfortunately -- this was 05D, with the old steam gauges.

The shock? Basically, just how badly I coped with (of all things) the radios today. I kept losing it for some reason, missing calls to me, not doing readbacks correctly, saying the wrong thing, etc. Nothing lethal, but I thought I'd done better than that up till now. Most of the actual flying was OK, if -- as always, way too imprecise -- and the approaches went fine (with some minor allowances for a broken altitude here or there -- see below...). Not much to write home about one way or the other, this time at least.

* * *

On the VOR approach into Concord, just as Travis Approach hands us off to the tower, and just at one of the highest-workload parts of the approach near the course dogleg, someone on the ground calls Concord Tower and proceeds to discuss a taxiway sign lighting problem at great length. I can't get a word in edgeways and start to think I'm going to scream -- we're barreling straight (well, as straight as I can fly) down the VOR final approach course next to the refinery towers at 100 KIAS and here's some guy on the ground making a set of confusing reports about signage on tower frequency. I do exactly what you're not supposed to do here -- I start obsessing about the damn radio and the landing clearance, and slowly lose altitude and heading control, and bust the minimum altitude for the leg on a course leading away from the final approach course. Urgh. A good lesson. When the guy on the ground finally shuts up, I call tower, who clears us to land just in time.

* * *

When we return to refuel at Kaiser, there's a beautiful P-51 Mustang sitting in the dark on the apron in front of the Kaiser terminal. After refueling we wander over to take a closer look, and meet Tony -- an Australian friend of John's who works as a supervisor for Kaiser -- as we circle the Mustang. The Mustang's in great condition -- brightly-polished aluminium, well-maintained paint job, etc. -- and we spend a few minutes discussing this and some of the other military and ex-military planes you see around Oakland. Tony's had what sounds like a grim day of fueling bizjets and the associated baggage handling, and when he hears that I'm doing my instrument rating, he drily observes that for him the most useful part of his instrument training was being able to maintain spatial orientation while clambering around in total darkness inside the cramped baggage compartments of the average commuter or bizjet. I always knew these lessons must have some real-life relevance somewhere :-).

Next to us on the ramp a smallish piston twin starts up without any warning, belching smoke and sounding like an outboard motor even after a short warm up. Not a pretty sound. And then the strobes go on, blinding us all; John mutters something about "bet he used to be a Bonanza pilot..." as we get out of the way.

September 14, 2004


I'm having trouble getting a club instructor to do the club phase check before the end of next week (was it something I said?!), so John and I take 4JG for a nearly-impromptu short lesson in The Usual (including another Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset on departure...). Holds, steep turns, and GPS approaches (Byron -- C83 -- and Oakland), pretty much all done partial panel. No surprises, no major issues, and while my flying is still agricultural, things don't seem to present quite the challenges they used to. Not that things are routine -- they're not -- but at least I'm usually ahead of the plane and instruments for most of the time. The steep turns under the hood didn't go as well as they should, but there's something a little weird about the way 4JG's rigged (it doen't seem to like turning steeply to the left -- the ones to the right went perfectly). Even John had trouble doing it well when he tried.

* * *

John's started talking about holding me to "2/2/20". No, it's not the date he expects me to finally get my rating, it's the 2 degrees heading / 2 knots airspeed / 20 feet altitude standard he wants me to aim for. Yeah, right! In the 172s I fly -- even 4JG, which is so nicely stable at speed below about 100 -- under the Cone Of Stupidity I have trouble with 10 / 10 / 100, and I'm not sure the instruments would even detect a 2 knot change in airspeed or 2 degree change in heading, let alone display the change usefully :-). But this evening's little flight was, for at least some of the time, close to a 5 / 5 / 50 standard, which makes me think I might be able to fly to PTS standards on a checkride (and at other times) with a lot of concentration.

* * *

A wrinkle's starting to develop in the schedule -- I need to be in Australia for most of November -- and I'll either have to do the checkride before then or after. I'm not sure I can do it before (in order to get to Oz I need to do a lot of extra contract work between now and then), but if I leave it for a month, it's going to take some extra time to catch up. I'm not sure how this will play out...

* * *

When we start up, OAK ATIS is announcing a ground hold for all aircraft leaving for the LA basin and San Diego. This sounds ominous -- 'round here you immediately think "earthquake!" when you hear something like that with such widespread disruption -- but later when we ask a NorCal controller what's up in the Great Southlands he says he's not too sure himself, but he's heard that there's been some sort of radio failure at SoCal Approach or LA Center. That turns out to be something of an understatement...

September 03, 2004

A Lot Of Fun

Diamond Eclipse 0DC at the Old TsYet another short sharp lesson, this time mostly in integrating GPS into a conventional approach (Livermore's ILS 25R, a favourite for DE's around here), the Livermore One departure, radio work, flight plan filing, the OAK GPS 27L approach, and just general GPS work, again in 4JG with the Garmin 530, and again mostly partial panel. A lot of fun, and nothing interesting to report except things seem to be coming slowly together, and the biggest problem I still have is the Death Grip giving me some control problems (nothing major), and a tendency to cause pilot-induced oscillation by trying to over-correct altitude and airspeed at the same time.

John's trying to arrange a club phase check for me with one of the other club CFII's next week; it may end up being with Ben, which would be an interesting change from sharing a Super Decathlon upside down over Tracy with him....

* * *

AAC CFI Adam Johnson checks out the new Eclipse at the Old TsBefore we start the lesson, I spend a few minutes taking photos of the club's new(ish) Diamond Eclipse for the website and gallery (the club doesn't actually own the Eclipse, it's on leaseback to us). A nice-looking two-seater with long thin wings and a T-tail, it looks more like a glider than a conventional Cessna or Piper, and the various procedures etc. are a little different as well. Its main attraction is probably that it cruises efficiently at a decent speed (125 KIAS at 5 GPH); unfortunately, it's not IFR-certified. But I still want to get checked out in it sometime soon...