February 25, 2006

Flying Glass (Part 3)

Finally, a day with decent weather and a few hours to spare, and — finally — I get the G1000 IFR signoff (with a full instrument proficiency check into the bargain) out of the way with John. It's taken since mid-November — much longer than I expected, mostly due to bad weather and the pressures of taking on a new job — but I suspect it's been worth it. It's certainly been an interesting and enjoyable look into another way of flying, and when you're sitting there looking at the beautiful displays and letting George do his thing, it's hard to want to go back to something like 4AC with its steam gauges and its lack of GPS and autopilot for serious IFR flying. I still wouldn't hesitate to use 4AC (or at least a similar plane) to just punch through the summer coastal stratus here once in a while, and I actually suspect that my main IMC flying will more likely be done in the plain old SP's with GPS and mechanical gauges, but so much about the G1000 feels right to this old engineer.

Today's flight is a mostly-unexceptional finishing up of the G1000 IPC needed for the club's insurance coverage: the GPS RWY 25 approach with circling into Rio Vista (O88) done partial panel, a bunch of times around the missed-approach hold at OAKEY, then back to Hayward for the GPS RWY 28L approach, with a bunch of unusual attitude recovery exercises along the way. I end up enjoying the flight much more than I'd expected, and much of the flight went smoothly, and even the landings were good.

Flying the G1000 partial panel turns out to be an irritating but not particularly difficult experience, with the PFD displayed on the MFD with the engine controls. It's irritating to have to look right all the time to concentrate on the reverted PFD, but it's not that hard; it's surely better than having no backup display at all. I also try simply looking at the backup mechanical guages under the space between the displays early on the approach — no nav instruments just an AI, the altimeter, and the airspeed indicator — this also turns out to be not excruciatingly difficult to use to keep the plane under control, but what you'd use for an approach in IMC isn't exactly clear. The location of the mechanical backups makes it difficult to follow any yoke-mounted hand-held GPS, and you don't have anything but a whisk(e)y compass for vectors. Again, though, it's a lot better than the backups available in something 4AC when the primary instrument systems fail….

The approach into Rio Vista involves using CTAF in the later stages to listen for other traffic and announce our intentions — no big deal under normal circumstances, you'd think, but it's a beautiful Saturday morning, and the CTAF frequency (yes, I know there's a redundancy there) is jammed with continuous transmissions from all over Northern California. From 4,000' over the Central Valley any CTAF frequency is going to have an endless stream of transmissions from the dozen or more airports within 150 nm that share that frequency, and today's a classic example of that. The actual traffic at Rio Vista itself is unexceptional (a couple of other planes in the pattern), but the effect's so bad I get John to handle the radio work (there was also a radio level problem I was having that we didn't solve until we'd departed Rio Vista, which certainly didn't help).

The circling part of the approach is the usual mild fear-and-loathing caused by suddenly joining a pattern with other aircraft in it and trying to balance the altitude / distance requirements for circling with the need to keep from hitting those other aircraft and the need to actually land properly. It all works out fine in the end, but a night IMC circling approach near minimums has to be one of those experiences I don't want to have to do for real any time soon. The first time I did the GPS 25 with circling at Rio Vista I bungled the circling bad enough to cause several forced go-arounds; this time, at least, I land normally. We depart for the hold, and later for Hayward, and the only interesting thing about the rest of the flight was the GPS 28L approach into Hayward, an approach I haven't done before. The GPS approach has an MDA of 440', only 40' above the localizer version into Hayward, and it shares the same drop-like-a-rock gradient of that approach around the FAF, usually exacerbated by NorCal Approach's tendency to vector you way above the segment altitude for whatever segment they're making you join (often at least a thousand feet above that altitude, usually just before the next leg…). This time we get vectored at a reasonable altitude, but at 100KIAS, even dialing in 900 fpm on the autopilot barely gets us down in time. In the 172 in IMC any time after the FAF, 900 fpm takes quite a bit of faith. Not quite the Santa Monica Slam, but enough to make you bloody watchful.

The other aspect of the enroute bits of the flight that I find helpful is having John show me a lot of the more useful display and instrument options hidden away behind the MFD menus. Little things like track vectors, range circles, etc., make a nice addition to the basic display, and help you visualise trends and needed heading or airspeed adjustments, etc., a lot more intuitively (at least for me). Again, not something you want to start relying on, but in the hold with a decent crosswind it's interesting to be able to pretty accurately see the heading and airspeed corrections needed to track around the hold nicely. Still, as John comments in the hold, I seem to find it easier to fly holds by hand rather than command George, and it's true — I used to really dislike holds, but increasingly they've become light relief from the other bits of flying IMC or under the Cone Of Stupidity. Which is what a missed approach hold should be, really — a time to gather your wits and start again.

One really irritating thing with the G1000 (and the similar system in the Cirrus) is the inability to turn off traffic warnings on the TIS service. Typically what happens is that a very loud voice starts announcing "Traffic! Traffic!" at just the time ATC is giving you a traffic report or vectoring you, and you miss the ATC transmission. This happens several times today, given the usual Saturday morning zoo over the Bay Area (we had traffic crossing us constantly all the way back from Rio Vista). I can't believe this is a safety improvement, especially since TIS misses a fair bit of the real traffic anyway, and a healthy paranoia about traffic is the default attitude here.

* * *

Back at Hayward, I'm surprised by a very familiar face and voice greeting me exuberantly as we're tying 04E down — it's Praniti L., a colleague of mine from my old job down in Silicon Valley. She's a student pilot not far from finally getting her private license (it's a long story…), and she's looking over California Airways to see if she could restart her license here. I'm really pleased to see her again (and to gossip about the old company, but that's not for public consumption :-)), and I'm even more pleased that she's restarting the whole flying thing. I used to kid her sometimes about the few hours she needed to finish off, and kept gently cajoling her to keep going; now maybe it'll happen (she's a natural pilot, I think, and she comes from a flying family).

* * *

Those of you who follow John's blog know that lately he's been whining publicly about his camera, a little digital point-and-shoot. I've called his bluff by lending him one of my older digital SLRs (with a decent lens), the Nikon D100 I use as a backup on real photo shoots. Now there's no excuse, John :-).

February 12, 2006

Heavy Weather

I look outside my studio window at about 7.30 am: a nice sunny morning, a typical Oakland winter's day -- temperature about 12C, no wind, a light scattering of high clouds. Perfect for finishing off the G1000 checkout. Cool! But by the time I've driven the 10 miles or so down to Hayward (KHWD) 90 minutes later, Hayward airport's covered in a thin layer of heavy fog. Visibility 1/2 mile; ceiling 100', tops probably 500', certainly less than 1000'. The locals are saying it wasn't there thirty minutes ago. Hmmm. Oakland (KOAK) -- 5 miles to the north west -- is still effectively reporting CAVU. It'll blow over -- it always does.

John arrives and we discuss this morning's agenda -- a GPS approach somewhere (we decide on Rio Vista, O88), a circle-to-land (Rio Vista again, if possible), and some partial panel and unusual attitude work along the way. Sounds good to me, and I preflight the plane. John has what he calls a mild cold and sore throat, but he sounds like he's about to die, while repeatedly insisting he's OK. I joke about dead bodies in the right seat, etc., but John's got a heavy schedule for the rest of the day, and I really don't want to screw that up for him if I can help it.

Thirty minutes later the fog still hasn't cleared. We sit there in the club listening to Hayward ATIS -- the visibility is up to a mile or so, and the ceiling is now 300' (still below the best Hayward approach minimums, so I can't depart), and Oakland's now reporting 200' / 1 mile (or similar, i.e. right on OAK 27R's Cat I ILS minimums), and it's obvious that we can't depart Hayward at all, despite it being sunny maybe 500' above us and pretty much all the way to Colorado to the east. We're still hopeful it'll clear, but by 9.45 am (for a 9am flight) it's obvious it's going to hang around for a while longer, and we cancel the flight. In the end it doesn't actually clear fully for another hour or more after that.

What now? John suggests we finally go through the paperwork -- the two long written tests I have to complete in addition to the practical checkride to be allowed to fly the C172 G1000 version. But I've left my mostly-completed paperwork at home (D'Oh!) and I did the original several weeks ago, so we have to start again, and I can't remember a lot of the answers.

What follows is excruciating -- two hours of searching the various Garmin manuals in vain for things you should be able to find instantly. An example: the test asks how you check system and / or GPS status on the MFD -- the sort of thing you'd probably want to do at least once each flight, maybe more. Ditto for RAIM status. Is there an index entry for any of these things in the Garmin manual? Not bloody likely. Is there even a paragraph or two in the entire manual about these status pages? Not bloody likely. An entry in an unrelated section of the official checklist implies that you can do this sort of thing with the MFD AUX pages, but that's it. OK, I'm sure that if I were sitting in front of the unit I'd suss it out pretty quickly, but sitting at a table in the club lounge it's less obvious. And so it goes -- Garmin does a great job in general with their products and things like simulators, but the written manuals are truly dreadful. It's hard to conceive of a manual that's intended to be kept at your side in the plane that doesn't even mention RAIM status, let alone tell you how to check it explictly.

Ditto -- in slightly less annoying ways -- for the Cessna 172 POH. I know Cessna has to use the approved FAA POH format, but it's astonishing how difficult it is to find the answers to things like questions about emergency S bus performance or battery current draws under alternator failure (etc.) in the POH. Urgh.

So, two hours later, with John's help, I get the paperwork out of the way and signed off. Shame about the flying...