December 29, 2004

Not A Difficult Decision

Surface winds 180 at 34 knots gusting to 51 knots, visibility 2 1/2 miles, heavy rain, mist, ceiling 3,100 feet broken, 4,100 feet broken, 5,000 feet overcast, isolated thunderstorms. Icing levels 3,500 to 5,000 feet. Not a hard decision. Maybe next week...

(The trouble with doing the instrument rating around here is that the weather is either pretty good (cloudless VMC for literally months on end, except for the thin coastal stratus layer) or just too damn bad to fly a light plane in at all. So not much actual actual -- and, crucially, not a lot of chances to exercise or hone the go / no go and weather-related judgement that are probably more common in places with "real" weather).

December 21, 2004

Rock and Roll

SAC RWY 2 circle to landIt's 8.30 pm, it's dark, it's cold (at least for a Bay Arean like me -- it's a cloudless bone-chilling 7 degrees Celsius), we've got a very variable and gusty 30 knot headwind, the turbulence has been quite bad since before the IAF (COUPS intersection), NorCal has cleared us some time ago for the practice Sacramento Executive (KSAC) GPS RWY 2 approach, we've just passed the final approach fix (SAC VOR), I'm having a lot of trouble holding airspeed, heading, and altitude due to both the turbulence and my own death grip problem, the GPS 530 has suddenly announced that the approach (which had sequenced perfectly up to this point) is "not active", and suddenly the Executive tower controller seems to be asking me where we're flying today. I sit there under the Cone of Stupidity wondering why the hell is he asking me this? Is this a trick question? Is it some kind of intelligence test that I'm failing miserably? We're flying to Sacramento, dummy! Why do you think you just cleared us to land there?!

I actually blurt out something like "4JG ... um, er, ... Sacramento?" on air and just manage to stop myself from adding anything snide. A loud stage whisper from John in the right seat: "I think he's asking what we're flying...". OK, I can cope with that: "Uuh, tower, 4JG, sorry about that; we're a Cessna 172/G" (A quick muttered aside to John: "Why does he need to know that? He already knows what we are..."). "4JG, roger, thanks". A few seconds later, the controller again: "4JG, did NorCal give you any missed instructions?". Again, I sit there wondering: why the hell is he asking this -- NorCal gave us the standard KSAC missed instructions and the standard hand-off to tower (don't they talk?!). I get suspicious: what's he really asking?! Is he hinting that I'm off course or something? Me, slowly, suspiciously: "4JG, affirmative, we've got heading 250, climb 2,000 on the missed". "4JG, thanks". John (fiddling with the 530): "Just keep flying the approach. Don't worry about the GPS. We're inside the FAF and it's still giving you the correct approach info. Plus we've still got the VOR [it's a VOR overlay approach]". Yeah, well, that's easy for him to say...

A few seconds after this, as I try to interrogate John about what's going on with the GPS: "Uh, 4JG, did you say you wanted the circle-to-land for 20? I can give you the straight in for 2 if you'd like". At this stage I just throw up my metaphorical hands ("Dude, whatever...") and mumble something on air about taking the straight-in. "4JG, cleared for the option runway 2. Report going missed". OK, so I really wanted the circle-to-land for circling practice, but I'm already well on my way to losing it mentally -- the approach is steadily going to pieces as I concentrate too much on the radio and the GPS problem, and not on the flying. As I struggle to correct for some potentially serious-looking airspeed and heading deviations I tell John I'd go missed at this point in real life -- I'm just so far behind the plane and the approach it doesn't feel recoverable. He just says confidently "Keep going...", which I do. A few seconds later he tells me to look up -- and there it is, runway 2 in all its glory, sort-of straight ahead(ish). I land just fine (if a little long by my own standards -- there's an abrupt transition at a few hundred feet AGL from strong headwind to near-calm -- and a few seconds later we're off again on the missed.

I have to admit that for a few seconds I have the suspicion that maybe John somehow organised this ahead of time with the tower controller. In any case, it's a good lesson in resource and bandwidth management, but right now I have to get back under the cone of stupidity and do the missed. We check in with NorCal at about 1,000' on heading 250, and the controller asks us what's next. "4JG, we'd like the GPS 25 into Rio Vista [O88], please. Pilot nav". After a short pause: "4JG, OK, where do you want to start the approach?". D'Oh! Where's the O88 plate? I'm already behind things again and we're still rocking and rolling in the turbulence miles from the next approach. This isn't going well.

Then (with a bit of prompting from John) the light goes on! "Ah, NorCal, 4JG, standby..." (yes, finally I'm asserting some sort of control). No problem -- after a minute or so of setting up the plate and absorbing the information at my own pace, it's back to NorCal: "NorCal, 4JG, sorry about the delay, let's try for EPPES". "4JG, cleared for the approach". The major controversy from this point on is how to pronounce "EPPES". I say "Eppies". The controller later somewhat hesitantly uses "Eeppies". John uses "Eepps".

The initial and intermediate approach segments go OK (given the turbulence and heavy crosswind), but once again, just at the FAF, the 530 tells us that the (properly-armed and activated) approach is suddenly "not active". John curses and tells me to continue flying the approach again and to ignore the problem (we'd done RAIM checks before departing Oakland, and we'd noted that the database was set to expire on January 20, so we assumed it wasn't either of those two problems; and there were no extant NOTAMs for GPS coverage or outages. When we reported the problem earlier to NorCal they'd sounded quite unconcerned). I struggle with the wind and the plane until John tells me to look up just before the MAP -- and there's the runway, a little to our left. We'll obviously have to circle, even though it's a straight-in approach, as we're way too high and fast for the straight-in. No problem, I think, but the next few minutes are a lesson in the realities of circling-to-land at night. Even VFR, I botch two attempts in a row to land -- the first time in literally years in a non-taildragger that I've had to go around because of something I've done rather than something someone else has done. It's mortifying -- twice I come in way too high and way too fast, mostly, I think, because I keep in too close each time around due to paranoia about breaking the 1.3 nm circling radius, and because with all the stress I just forget the basic VFR stuff (like S turns on final if you're too high, etc.). Added to this is the irritating fact that 4JG's flaps are seemingly ineffective -- the 30 degree full flap setting acts more like 10 or 20 degrees in any other C172 -- and the damn plane just floats along on landing. And the sometimes quite heavy turbulence in the pattern doesn't help, either. I'd hate to have to do this in real weather -- which is the whole point of the lesson (John clearly delayed my look-up long enough to force the circling). Third time around does the trick, and after a quick touch and go we do the missed (a dream with the 530...) and check back in with NorCal (who was probably starting to wonder where we'd gone after all the time in the pattern...). Once around the hold at OAKEY for the missed (with a strong 30-40 knot crosswind) and we depart VFR back to Oakland.

I take off the cone of stupidity and fly us back to Oakland VFR -- I'm exhausted, and it all looks so nice out there. So much has gone wrong tonight, and so much of what I did was done poorly, that I just have to relax and potter back without the stress. We spend some time playing with the GPS, when John has one of those Aha! moments -- Will, the plane's owner, had loaded in the new database from Jepp last night but it's not actually valid until tomorrow. So it won't go past the FAF without a warning. No big deal on the approaches we did since the approaches are identical to the old versions (I checked the plates before we departed); and, we're inside the FAF anyway and it's a clear night. The real question is why the 530 waits until the FAF to tell you that the approach you've previously activated isn't actually active. No warning, nothing.

* * *

Later, in the clubhouse, John comments that the SAC tower controller was probably just bored and wanted someone to talk to, and I should learn to just say something like "4JG, standby" if I'm past the FAF in actual or under the hood, and just cope with the flying unless it's a real issue (like a go-around or forced runway change). After all, in this case we'd already been cleared for the option, and there was no other traffic on-frequency. And 'round here, at least, tower controllers tend to be pretty forgiving of stuff like that -- and it's what they do when the situation's reversed....

* * *

The major lessons from this evening seem to be the importance of the whole grace under pressure thing (again), and just how essential for a good approach it is to get the airspeed / trim equation down properly and repeatably (a lot of tonight's other altitude and heading roughness problems can be somewhat excused by the rather trying wind and turbulence). I may go out and just practice with 4JG on my own sometime next week to get the airspeed control better internalised. The other lesson, of course, is just how dangerous and difficult circling to land at night or in marginal weather can be. None of these lessons is new, but this evening's little adventure brought it all home again with more than the usual force.

One of the good things about this evening is that even as everything seemed to be falling apart or I felt I'd just done something really badly, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the entire lesson. I didn't feel depressed or down about it all at all, which is part of the whole learning thing, I guess. Progress?

December 18, 2004

Two Fer One

A Famous Local Bridge.Two leisurely unplanned VFR joy rides in one day, the first real VFR flying I've done in months. Light relief, basically. A meandering daytime cross country over the Golden Gate then up the coast to Jenner, then across the coastal range to Santa Rosa (KSTS) and back in 2SP with Barb, an artist friend of mine, then a nighttime cross country to Monterey (KMRY) and back in 4AC with Boyan, a fellow pilot who's flown with me to Santa Barbara and other places as a rideshare.

The weather's perfect, sunny, calm, clear, and warm, the company's great, and it's all a pleasant diversion from constantly thinking about approaches, holds, headings, etc. Santa Rosa is (predictably) a zoo, and we're cleared to land number six behind a bunch of student pilots while still several miles out. There's even a Jet Provost in the pattern somewhere (but I never actually see it). We slot ourselves into the pattern as smoothly as we can. I count it as something of a triumph that while Tower is continually issuing commands and (quite good-naturedly) chiding a bunch of different pilots for not following instructions or making the wrong entry (etc.), we get the bare minimum of attention and are cleared for take off again ahead of a bunch of other planes waiting around the runway entry who'd checked in earlier than us. Sometimes I think it's my accent...

2SP at the Old T's.Later, I fly back PIC from Monterey in the right seat, trying to polish a skill I learned a few years ago when John gave me a couple of informal lessons in flying from the right seat (basically, at the time I was curious, but I also think it's useful if you're with another pilot who decides they want you to fly and you don't want to have to land just to change seats, or you're ferrying a plane with a bad push-to-talk switch, etc.). It's not hard, just a little odd at first. I do the ILS back into Oakland (but not, this time, under the hood); from the right seat it's a little harder than usual to see the DG and the airspeed indicator, but it doesn't go too badly, and even if I'm not under the hood it's good experience. The landing goes fine. It's good to do this sort of thing sometimes...

Coming back from Monterey we use my GPS 195 handheld to check progress; just before South County (E16) Boyan sets it to go direct Reid Hillview (KRHV). We've both done this flight dozens of times, and we both know exactly where RHV is, so this is basically just for fun. But when Boyan hands me the unit, it's telling us RHV is about 20nm away, magnetic bearing 330 -- even though we can actually see RHV dead ahead (mag bearing about 030). It seems to think we're about 10nm to the east of where we actually are. We check the satellite reception page -- no anomalies there. A sobering experience -- if we didn't have local knowledge, or were relying solely on the GPS, we'd be heading straight for somewhere like Woodside (OSI) at this point instead of RHV and Oakland. A minute or two later I can actually see RHV's rotating beacon dead ahead -- and the 195 is still telling me to make a 40 or 50 degree left turn on course. A few minutes later it's better, and we don't see any more problems, but I'm not sure what caused the problem -- I've never seen this unit go bad like that before, and there was no indication whatever of any problem, and no NOTAMs for GPS outages in the area. Hmmmm.

December 09, 2004

Once Upon An Oakland Winter's Night...

A typical Oakland winter's night: temperature 12C, dewpoint 11C, wind calm, thin scattered cloud at 20,000', altimeter 30.32. A quick jaunt out to Concord (KCCR) for the LDA 19R approach (twice around the block) then back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. The aim tonight: to gently get me back into the swing of things, both IFR and VFR, and to do a club checkout in 2SP, the club's new(ish) 172S that I haven't seen yet, let alone flown (it was added to the fleet when I was in Australia). It's been about 6 weeks since I last flew, and I don't feel too confident about even my basic VFR flying and radio skills, let alone my ability to setup and fly an approach. But I can't wait to fly...

And the results are gratifying: as usual, I don't kill anyone or break any bits of the plane, and modulo a few of the usual recurring Death Grip problems and some rusty radio work during the first 30 minutes or so, I fly mostly to PTS standards and feel pleased with things VFR and IFR (the first time around the CCR LDA 19R approach was about the best I've ever done it). Cool!

* * *

A Nice Clean Panel...2SP turns out to be a very nice 2001 172S that the owner (and the club) does not let students use for primary training. The checkout's a bit of a non-event -- yes, there are thirteen fuel sump drain points to be individually checked on preflight (at least three of which spray fuel everybloodywhere all over face and hands (as I discover), and yes it's got a fuel injected 180 hp engine that can be a little difficult to start -- but there's nothing about actually flying it that's much different from 4JG (and of course, unlike Lou's Arrow, it has fixed gear and prop so it doesn't require a complex endorsement).

2SP's panel is fairly conventional (with individual instruments that are much nicer than the corresponding ones in most of the other club aircraft -- even the ADF looks like something out of the 90's rather than something from WWII), but augmented by an IFR-certified KLN 94 GPS unit. I don't really get to use the GPS on this flight, mostly because I didn't have time to download the manual from the website, but it seems to have all the right bits in all the right places, and looks fairly decent, if a lot less visually gratifying than the Garmin 530. Predictably, learning the KLN 94 interface and procedures will take a few hours (especially under the Cone Of Stupidity), but after watching John use it as a backup for my steam gauge instrument approaches, it doesn't seem to have any odd quirks or surprises. I'll have to download the manual and absorb it properly for the next 2SP flight.

But the really novel thing (for me) about 2SP is the KAP 140 single axis autopilot installed -- it's simple, easy to understand, and works a dream. John has me do almost the entire second time around the CCR LDA 19R approach with the autopilot coupled, switching between heading and approach mode as appropriate (with reverse sensing on the outbound leg before the procedure turn), and the results are an eye-opener. The ability to concentrate on maintaining altitude and monitoring the approach performance while not having to spend half your brain power keeping the plane stable is a godsend (hey, this is how the Big Boys do it!). Learning how to safely use an autopilot like this (and the various gotchas that come with it...) has to be a plus -- if nothing else so you can use it when the stress levels are up on a real IMC approach into unfamiliar territory. In any case, the PTS says that if I do the checkride in a plane with an autpilot, I must be able to show that I know how to use it properly (which strikes me as more than fair enough). Yes, some people are going to complain that I'll overuse it or that my own wing-leveling / heading control skills will wither, but like GPS, you have to be able to take advantage of new, proven, technologies where appropriate, and you just have to work to make sure you don't lose the other fundamental skills.

Overall, this plane flies nicely -- it's quite a bit more stable than our other 172s at all speeds (even stabler than 4JG can be at lower speeds), and although it costs proportionately more to rent, the quality of the instruments and the availaibility of a decent GPS and autopilot make it a natural for IFR cross countries. As I said, it's a tossup between 2SP and 4JG at the moment...

* * *

It rained for a few days earlier in the week, and the ground's still saturated. So with the non-existent temperature / dewpoint spread and the drop from the daytime temperature of about 16C to 10C later in the evening, by the time we return at about 21.30 there's a thin layer of light ground fog developing over the airport. It's eerie -- from 100' up, on the approach, the air is crystal clear, the forward and downward visibility almost unlimited; on the ground, forward visibility is in some places only a few hundred metres. As we taxi back from refueling at Kaiser, the fog swirls thinly around us across the taxiways and aprons; by the time I leave the clubhouse 30 minutes later, the fog's become thick enough to be a real danger in places -- even though you can easily see the stars above. The layer's probably only a few metres thick. It's easy to see how tricky this effect -- very common in Northern California, especially the Central Valley, at this time of year -- could be on landing.

* * *

Once again I have to bow to the inevitable -- my contracts (etc.), combined with my earlier bronchitis, are going to delay things even further. I may be able to restart properly early January; until then, I can probably fly only once every couple of weeks. We shall see...

December 07, 2004

No News Is Bad News (Cough Cough...)

So I return to Sunny California after nearly four weeks in Sunny Australia (and Frigid New Zealand, but don't get me started...) and promptly catch bronchitis. Two weeks of flying lost, and it's now the second week in December. I don't think I'll remember how to land VFR, let alone how to setup the GPS 27R approach coming back into Oakland. This is actually the longest I've gone without some sort of GA flying in several years.