November 08, 2007

And Nothing Went Horribly Wrong… (Back in the Saddle)

It's been a while, that's for sure. I sit there in the darkness between the rows of Port-A-Port hangars on the ramp at Oakland, looking at the 172's G1000 glowing there in the cockpit in front of me, thinking "this sure looks familiar". Well, it had better, hadn't it? I'm about to trust my life — and that of Evan H., my safety pilot — to it in a night IFR practice flight in what looks like a bit of night IMC and the usual crowded airspace. The plan's simple: a pre-filed IFR flight plan out to Stockton (KSCK), a handful of practice approaches there, then another clearance back to Oakland for the RNAV approach with LPV minimums through the coastal stratus. Nothing too difficult, but I sure feel rusty, and while I'm not anywhere near getting out of instrument currency, I do get a little worried about proficiency now and then. I don't want to make too much of a fool of myself on the radio or on the approaches with Evan — who's not far from getting his instrument rating with John — sitting there eagle-eyed in the right seat.

The engine starts first go, which is always a good sign; I taxi out past the Port-A-Ports and stop before I get to the movement area. Time to call Deliverance for my clearance; at Oakland this can sometimes be a bit like joining a poetry slam mid-show since the controller's also doing South Field ground as well as giving both North Field (GA) and South Field (the airlines and the Big Boys) clearances (and you can't hear the responses to South Field ground, making it way too easy to step on someone). I like slams but sometimes I've had to struggle to get a word in edgewise, and once waited several minutes to read back my clearance, all the while thinking "they've forgotten me, they've forgotten me…". This time it's a snap — just one other plane, a Southwest 737, is on clearance frequency — and after copying down the clearance I start to feel better about things. Until I call ground, that is, and give our position as "the New T's", which is totally wrong (at least I didn't say "the Old T's", which would be even more wrong, but a lot more forgivable after all the years I spent based there). After a verbal nudge from Evan I amend it to "the Port-A-Ports", which is close enough for government work. We saunter out onto taxiway bravo.

Since Evan's the IFR student and co-pilot, I pull rank and ask him if he'll program the G1000 for the clearance (hey, I can program the damn thing in my sleep nowadays, and I can always rationalise making him do it as "real world IFR training" or some such guff :-)). In any case, at this stage in his training he ought to be better at this than I am; he starts programming a plausible flight plan as we taxi off towards the 27R runup area. Almost immediately we hit taxiway delta ground asks us to cut over to 27R on golf and back-taxi down 27R to the runup area for traffic. We potter slowly down 27R and watch a Justice Department MD-80 and a FedEx Caravan cross 27R's threshold a few hundred metres in front of us, all flashing lights and movement in the darkness, both of them making a quick left onto the taxiway we've just vacated. This is entertaining, especially watching the little Caravan scurry along close behind the MD-80. And you don't get to back-taxi down 27R here that often, given the traffic (the last time I did it, I think, was when there was a plane sitting temporarily disabled on taxiway delta just next to 27R).

We get to the runup area and do the runup — all systems go! I look over Evan's G1000 program and apart from a minor disagreement about how to program the first leg of the clearance, it's identical to what I'd do; and this being NorCal Approach territory, we won't fly much of the programmed plan anyway, so the disagreement's pretty moot. Just pulling rank, you know…. We edge up to the hold short line, and I look around again. There's some coastal stratus around Oakland (which is currently IFR), but it doesn't extend very far inland, and it's pretty shallow. I start feeling pretty good about things — no real mistakes so far. This could actually be fun…

* * *

And so it is. There's just enough real IMC to make things visually interesting, and frankly, things under the Cone Of Stupidity (a.k.a. "the hood") felt comfortable the entire flight (well, at least Evan doesn't start screaming "we're all going to die!!!" at any point, or try to depart the plane on the ground at Stockton). I put the G1000 / autopilot combination through its paces for a couple of approaches, and hand-flew the others. No real problems to report with anything, but my hand flying isn't as sharp as it should be after the time off (but not outside PTS standards, which I count as reasonable). As happened the first time I flew the new version of the G1000 software, watching the G1000 command the autopilot around the full pilot nav version of the Stockton GPS 29R approach from Manteca VOR (ECA), including a full course reversal teardrop entry hold over the IAF (OXJEF), is, well, it's just magic. I don't think I'll ever be nostalgic for steam gauges, even though they were at the heart of my basic instrument training.

On the way back, after the somnolent-sounding NorCal sector over Stockton, NorCal's 125.35 sector over the Diablo Valley and into Oakland's a bit of a shock, a non-stop circus of requests, vectors, commands, and errors, and we hardly get noticed. But we're on a real IFR clearance, and even with the half-jammed frequency we get competent (if terse) vectors for the RNAV 27L (with LPV minimums) back into Oakland. At one stage the controller clears me "direct BAM[something]" (sounded a bit like "BAMPY"), which threw me — I know pretty much all the relevant intersections and waypoints for Oakland and Hayward approaches and associated airways, and I've never heard of this one. I fumble around uselessly with my charts and reply with "was that direct 'BAMPY'?". After a slight pause she returns with "051 never mind — cleared direct JUPAP", which makes a lot more sense [later: I still can't find any intersection or waypoint with a name like that in the area; at first I suspected she was clearing us for one of the runway 29 approaches, but none of them have fixes named something like that either]. A few minutes later she gives us a vector for the segment just outside JUPAP and clears us for the approach.

Then it's my turn to screw up: for some reason I reactivate the approach on the G1000 as we're getting close to JUPAP (the intermediate fix that's commonly used for vectoring). This has the predictable result of suddenly trying to send me to SUNOL, the IAF, an almost complete course reversal. I sit there for a few seconds wondering "what the hell?! Why's the needle suddenly swung around?" before it sunk in (with a little prompting from Evan). A few years ago I might have panicked or sat there a lot longer trying to intellectualise what was happening, but this time I don't spend much time thinking: I just put the autopilot into heading mode with the old heading (which was bugged, of course; and we hadn't deviated more than a few degrees at that point), then hit the flight plan window, scrolled to the SUNOL JUPAP leg, then hit "join the leg" (or whatever it's called). Voila! Back in business (well, that's the simplified form, anyway). Nothing dramatic, nothing special, nothing requiring any special airmanship or anything, but I think it does reflect how much a few years' experience flying IFR can make in recognising, debugging, and correcting mistakes like this in the real world.

Back on the ground there's an old privately-owned 737 sitting near the fuel pumps at Kaiser. We park right in front of it and wander off to wake up the fuel truck guys (the pumps are broken, apparently). I stroll up to the 737 in the dark and take a few pictures — it's a nice looking plane, and it has the old early-series low-bypass narrow engines — then go back to the fuel truck to watch $6-a-gallon being transferred swiftly from (my) wallet to fuel tank. Urgh. I sometimes wonder how much more flying I can really afford nowadays….