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 :-).

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