July 29, 2006

Follow The Turkey

I plan a short trip with Ben, a friend visiting from New Zealand, down to Monterey (KMRY) and back to Hayward (KHWD). At least parts of it are going to have to be IFR — Monterey's reporting the usual summer coastal stratus — but I need the IFR exercise, so that's OK. And Ben's flown with me before (he used to live just down the road from me in Berkeley), so he's not worried by the idea of disappearing into the clouds, and the view's always great along almost any route to and from Monterey. So I decide to do it as a full IFR in (mostly) VMC thing.

But Woodside VOR (OSI) has been NOTAM'd out of service for a while, and my interpretation of the FARs indicates that even with the spiffy new G1000 and GPS I can't use OSI for en-route navigation with the usual Victor airways route to Monterey. So I file direct, mostly just to see what happens when I call Deliverance at Hayward a few hours later. Sure enough, I get the usual clearance — basically vectors, OSI, SNS (Salinas VOR), direct — and, for the first time in my short IFR life, I get to say "unable clearance". I tell the clearance guy that OSI's NOTAM'd out and while we can navigate it easily, I don't think we can do the clearance legally. He sounds a little surprised that OSI's out and that it would make any difference, but he's friendly and rather curious about it, and says he'll talk to NorCal and see what they say while we taxi off to the runup area and sort things out over there. He comes back a minute later and basically asks us what clearance we'd want instead of the canned one. I reply something along the lines of "basically the same route but with vectors — a sort of a wink and a nod thing" (it helps to have a British(ish) accent at times like this). He says "gotcha!" and a minute or so later we have a clearance that cleverly never mentions OSI but in the end will probably have us flying pretty much exactly what we would have flown had OSI been in service. I feel really dumb doing this — it's VMC around the Bay and we could probably have navigated visually to OSI from at least 10 miles away (you can actually see OSI VOR from that distance if you know what you're looking for up there in the hills), and GPS would get us there more accurately — but I push the point with bloody-minded determination (OK, I have to admit I'm also curious about what happens in circumstances like this as well).

We spend the obligatory 15 minutes waiting next to Hayward's 28L for release, watching the steady stream of Southwest 737s passing just 1000' above us on the ILS into Oakland's 29, and then we're off. And as soon as we're handed off to NorCal we get a clearance mentioning Victor 25 And The Forbidden VOR and I have to remind them it's out of service. This time the reaction's a lot quicker, if less friendly, and I negotiate a vector routing. So vectors it is, all the way down the coast towards the approach. And, for one reason or another (mostly traffic), there are a lot of vectors this time… (and much as I end up feeling like I've caused a lot of irritation to the ATC people, I don't want to be the one picked on by the FAA just because I tried to make things easier for the controllers. I sort of resent being made to feel bad about all this, but that's life, I guess).

The ILS 10R approach into Monterey is fairly straightforward, and I've done it before in actual, but sinking into the marine layer over Monterey Bay — with the various nearby ranges poking out of the layer in several directions — never gets old. This time it's going to be to near minimums, with reports of what sounds like a darkening gloom below a 500' ceiling (that would be a good description of pretty much any summertime evening in Monterey, approach or no approach, come to think of it). And, for reasons that have always escaped me, autopilot (coupled) approaches are prohibited on the ILS here, so I'll be flying manually the entire way, or at least from somewhere before the FAF (yes, I know it's not a FAF for the ILS, but the localiser-only FAF is still a mental checkpoint for me). I may have to go missed for real. I prep carefully, internalising the missed procedure several time while Ben looks out over the cloud layer and takes a bunch of photos. I can hear that there's a Cherokee about five miles ahead of us; the controller keeps pronouncing "Cherokee" a lot like "turkey", so much so that Ben finally asks me in all seriousness what sort of plane a "turkey" is (like most people 'round here, I heard it as "Jerky", but never mind). I can hear that there's also an American Airlines regional turboprop behind us out of San Francisco bound for the same approach.

Things seem pretty quiet and I'm enjoying the view when the first little sign of trouble insinuates itself into things: the NorCal controller confuses us with the Cherokee in front of us. Just as we're recovering from that rather minor slip, a VFR flight at the very edge of the controller's radio range starts repeatedly calling for flight following, stomping on several transmissions. In the air all of us can hear the VFR flight just fine, so the controller asks whether any of us — the Turkey, the Turboprop, or our little Cessna — can either get the tail number of the other aircraft or encourage him to wait a few minutes until he's in range. This goes on too long, and while the controller's juggling the VFR request thing and getting the Turkey onto the localiser, he keeps us high too long for my comfort. We approach the extended localiser way out over the (rough, cold) Pacific on a vector at least 3,000 feet higher than I'd like. When I can get a word in edgewise I ask for lower and the controller, sounding apologetic, immediately clears me for what would be the appropriate altitude at this stage, then goes back to juggling the Turkey and Turboprop. But he's about to blow us through the localiser, and I'm having to drop out of the sky (and into the marine layer) at a deeply-uncomfortable vertical speed of above 1,000 FPM. I start feeling bad about all this, but we're still well outside the glideslope interception point so we'll have time to stabilise. I plan to use the autopilot to get initial trim and heading correct on the extended localiser centreline then disconnect it and fly manually before we hit the cloud bank. No big deal. But that extended centreline is coming right up and the controller's still trying to sort out the VFR flight. Suddenly he asks me for ten knots slower, something no one ever asks a C172 for on the approach; it's especially odd since I'm already only doing about 90 KIAS because I can hear that the Turkey in front of me is not a long way ahead of us. In response I blurt out that we're about to bust the localiser. That gets his attention, and we get an immediate heading for the localiser, and cleared for the approach. I make a sharp turn onto the localiser, blow through it a few dots, then converge on the correct track. By now I'm feeling a little stressed, and we're about to sink into the marine layer; but I set the plane up, track the localiser with the autopilot, set the AP's vertical speed appropriately, get it all into trim, then disengage the autopilot before we hit the clouds.

The decision altitude for this approach is 480' for a touchdown zone elevation of about 190', so the decision height is significantly above the usual 200' ILS decision height. ATIS is reporting a 500' ceiling, which sounds fairly doable, but personal experience with Monterey tells me that's not the full story: the marine layer over the coastline (the approach end of the runway) is often slightly lower than over the airport itself, so I have the feeling that we may not break out at 700'; we may not even break out at 480'. We descend in the gloom with a fair tailwind and droplets of water streaming across the windshield, and get switched to tower. I can hear the Turkey getting taxi instructions on tower frequency, which means he didn't go missed, which helps my optimism a little, and apart from the early little SNAFUs, things are now going fairly smoothly; I feel fully in control again. The autpilot's set things up nicely, and tracking the localiser manually goes well. We're cleared to land, and we keep going down the glideslope, a little high, but slower than usual (still at 80 KIAS). 1000' … 900' … 800' … 700' … no sign of breakout, things as gloomy and impenetrable as ever … 600' … at 550', just as I'm about to firewall the throttle and go missed, we suddenly see the approach lights ahead of us, then a few seconds later I can see the runway lights. Cool! It's like winning a video game… I land and get off the runway as quickly as possible, thinking of the regional behind us. It lands as we're turning onto the parallel taxiway; the regional back-taxis down the runway for the main terminal.

I'd told Ben not say anything from very early in the approach because this was going to be stressful, and I finally ask him what he thought of it all. He claims he enjoyed it a lot, which surprises me, but then he has to get me to fly him back up to Hayward, so he would say that, wouldn't he? He asks me whether I could have refused the approach when the controller didn't seem too on top of things (he's flown enough to follow the basics on the radio), and I explain about going missed and that I'm supposed to be in charge and could have gone missed without penalty at any time if I'd got uncomfortable enough. Like me, he really enjoys the let-down into the soft clouds, and the appearance of the approach lights through the gloom. I'm glad he enjoyed it — I'm not sure too many other friends who fly with me would have quite the same reactions to a near-minimums approach in early-evening IMC.

The flight back is pretty straightforward, the only IMC being the first few minutes of departure. Predictably, the ceiling on departure is several hundred feet higher than on the approach, and the late sunset visible from above the marine layer on breakthrough is stunning. On handoff to NorCal I ask for and get the usual shortcut via BUSHY intersection, saving nearly 80nm off the canned route, and except for the fact that several controllers seem to think we're heading for Oakland rather than Hayward, things go smoothly and nicely all the way back. It's late Saturday evening by the time we arrive on the ground at Hayward, and the place is dead.