December 19, 2008

On Autopilot

People sometimes describe themselves as being "on autopilot" when they mean they're figuratively sleepwalking through a situation, but after crossing Roanoke VOR (ROA) inbound for EXUNE, the initial approach fix (IAF) for Roanoke's LDA RWY 6 approach on autopilot, I can't help thinking that's a really silly usage. Whenever I fly a coupled approach with an autopilot in IMC I spend my entire time probably more awake than if I were flying the approach by hand: as John once remarked sometime during my instrument training, you really have to treat autopilots like wayward students and keep a paranoid eye on them every second of the approach. Otherwise you might sleepwalk your way into the ground. So I'm not sleepwalking, I'm concentrating intensely on the G1000 screens in front of me, with a workload that's greatly increased by my using the unfamiliar Garmin GFC700 integrated autopilot coupled to the G1000. I've really never seen this combination before, and learning on the fly probably isn't the smartest way to cope. Never mind; damn the torpedoes, I guess. I can always fly by hand if things get too complex, and I have a strictly minimalist need-to-know approach to the G1000 and associated autopilots when I fly single-pilot IFR anyway. In any case, as always with this unit, I'm curious to see how it flies the course reversal (this part — along with automated holds — always seems a miracle to me).

Of course the G1000 / GFC700 works flawlessly around the hold, and I head back to EXUNE and then RAMKE for glideslope capture. Somewhere before RAMKE as the G1000 switches to localizer mode and I'm looking for the glideslope to couple, I sense that something's wrong: I've been dead on track for the localizer according to the GPS version of the approach, but the switch to the localizer comes with a sharp deflection indicated on the CDI and a smooth right turn by the autopilot to compensate. OK, I think, maybe there's a mild alignment issue here and it'll sort itself out; in the meantime, the glideslope comes alive properly and couples. A few seconds later I'm still well to the left of course according to the G1000's CDI, but the magenta GPS course overlay is now receding to my left. Something's horribly wrong, and I know it. I don't know what's wrong, but I blurt out that the localizer seems to be broken and I'll go missed.

Well, I'd go missed in real life, anyway; in this case, John clicks the mouse and suspends the sim. We're both puzzled by what just happened: the sim seems to think the localizer's way out to the right, while the GPS has it basically correct when cross-checked with the other fixes. After a quick discussion we think it's probably because the sim doesn't understand LDA's and thinks the localizer is aligned with the runway, which, being an LDA, it isn't (never mind that this LDA has a glideslope too, which is pretty special). We abandon the attempt and set up for the Bishop KBIH RNAV (GPS) Y RWY 12 approach, starting somewhere before the RBRTS initial approach fix.

A useful lesson, if unintended: cross-check, cross-check, cross-check. Unlike with the Air New Zealand case highlighted on John's blog, the GPS makes my job easier: a graphic display of inconsistency that's much easier to interpret than the basic DME / OBS / ILS gear in the Air NZ plane; and much as I hate to admit it, I probably trust GPS (in something like the G1000 implementation, anyway) nowadays at least as much as I trust a localizer. Trust, but verify.

* * *

A few weeks ago John had mentioned that California Airways had a new FAA-certified G1000 C172 sim available for rent; it's loggable, it's cheaper than flying the Real Thing, and since I'm a member of CalAir (although not particularly active since the long(ish) freeway drive to Hayward (KHWD) is a real pain compared to the local jaunt to Oakland (KOAK)), I leap at the chance. The sim's in one of the rooms at CalAir's new premises across from the Hayward Toys-R-Us on the eastern end of the airport, and it turns out to be a full physical panel full physical controls thing with a large HDTV screen in front of it for terrain, all coupled to X-Plane and full G1000 emulation. Not bad, and, as far as the panel and instrument operation go, very realistic (even down to the operation of the wet compass and the annoying lack of approach plate clip on the yoke). Everything seems pretty familiar about it except the new autopilot buttons and the flight director software that comes with it for the G1000. The control behaviour isn't particularly realistic for a C172, but it's definitely better than with most sim controls I've experienced. The seat is realistically Cessna-GA-ish in being quite inscrutable and clumsily difficult to set up for this pilot's absolutely average physique — top marks for realism there.

The basic plan is to do a handful of varied approaches to get used to the GFC700 autopilot and to keep current on the G1000. I'm supposed to study up for the GFC700 beforehand, but I blow it and turn up with only a vague idea of how it's different from (or the same as) the autopilots I already use. Flying blind, I guess. John gives me a quick rundown on how it all works, and we start with a couple of easy approaches: the Oakland KOAK ILS RWY 27R and the KOAK RNAV RWY 27L (LPV minima) approaches. I can do both of these in my sleep, but the autopilot and flight director are novel, so I hand-fly the ILS (with a missed to REBAS, which is unrealistic in real life) and fully couple for the RNAV. No real problems here — but no sleepwalk, either — but as with any sim, it's harder to fly than a real plane, and difficult to land accurately (my sim approaches tend to end with a victory roll at decision height over the runway because that's actually easier for me to pull off as a lapsed aerobatics type than landing the damn sim nicely).

We move on to Aspen (KASE) for the LOC/DME-E approach, mostly because it's justly famous as a difficult and occasionally lethal mountain approach with a backcourse established solely for the missed, and a long visual segment that's a source of trouble. Plus, of course, I've always wanted to fly this in real life; I can't ever afford that, so a certified sim will have to do. In any event, the approach goes fairly smoothly except for the final segment where I have trouble lining up to land (again, I'm going to blame the sim's unreal control feel for this…) and we have to reset things so I can do the missed smoothly. The backcourse is easy to intercept by hand, and after a short run along it, we stop the sim and set up for the next approach, the Roanoke (KROA) LDA RWY 6. Which is where things go wrong…

By now I've sort of got the G1000 / GFC700 combination under control, but as John notes, I'm having trouble estimating the sink rate needed to get down to appropriate segment altitudes or for the ILS glideslope capture, and I tend to be too gentle with the descents, meaning I miss the target altitudes or join them a little later than I should. This seems odd to me — in real life I don't have much trouble with this — so it may just be an artefact of the unfamiliar autopilot controls and coupling: in all my previous coupled flying with the G1000, the autopilot (usually the King KAP 140) has to be told what to do separately, and things seem simpler to keep on top of; here, I suspect, I'm still a little too unsure of how to command the autopilot to do what I need it to do, and I'm reluctant to force the plane down as fast as I should with the unfamiliar gear. It's all good practice, anyway, and the associated flight director on the G1000 is great for hand-flying the plane (as long as you're on top of setting it up, which is much the same as setting up the autopilot) — we don't have this setup on the G1000 C172's I fly, but maybe one day it'll all come in handy in Real Life. The flight director is to an HSI as the HSI is to one of the old HI's: magic!

The final approach is the RNAV approach into Bishop, my fave Owens Valley town (I've been visiting there at least annually for twenty years). The approach goes well with John emulating an imagined Bob Channel-like CTAF at Bishop; I actually land the sim this time in the teeth of typical Owens Valley wind without breaking anything, and without departing the runway in search of elk or tumbleweed or (this being Bishop) LADWP trucks.

* * *

So I get to log a handful of approaches and learn a lot about what can go wrong and what can go right with them and the associated equipment, and to do it all in the safety and comfort of CalAir's upstairs aerie (plus, of course, it's cheaper, by some way, than actually flying). I really like the G1000, and I think I really like the G1000 + GFC700 combo, but I probably need to do a little more reading of the associated literature before I do this in real life. In fact, I probably need to start reading the literature — flying the combo blind was a challenge, but my head didn't explode, and with a great deal of prodding from John, I didn't fly things too badly; I still feel good about recognizing early on that the LDA wasn't right at Roanoke, but that's the beauty of simulation: I'm sure in real life I'd have been a little slower on the uptake, but it's given me one more real-life(ish) item for the mental checklist.

December 01, 2008

Catching Up

Mt. Diablo from the East

It's not so much that I haven't been flying, it's that I haven't been blogging (well, not here, at any rate). Too much work and not enough money or time to sustain the habit the way I'd like, unfortunately. But I did get to do an enjoyable IFR currency flight with Evan to Sacramento (KSAC) and Rio Vista (O88) and back a month or so ago, with me under the hood for a little under one and a half hours, and Evan for a little less. There was really quite a lot to blog about from that flight, including an occurrence of the sort of botched hand-off and ATC miscommunication we're seeing more of in NorCal as more trainees seem to be coming on line, and a truly classic GPS Moment on my part just past the initial approach fix on one of the KSAC approaches (I'm actually getting pretty good at doing the "damn the torpedoes" thing nowadays); but otherwise, all I have to show here are some pix taken during the flight (the top one's of Mt Diablo from the northeast; the other's of the wind farm to the south of Rio Vista in the Delta; click on an image to see a larger version). More next time, for sure…

Wind Farm near Rio Vista, California

September 21, 2008

Real World

The World Upside Down

We're 4,000' over the cold, cold, Pacific on an IFR flight into Monterey (KMRY) from Oakland (KOAK), about fifteen or twenty miles out from the airport itself, cleared direct MUNSO, the ILS 10R approach outer marker / LOM. As a result of an earlier ATC-initiated descent for traffic, we're a few thousand feet lower than I'm used to at this stage, but nothing truly out of the ordinary. There's a pretty solid coastal stratus layer below us; I'm estimating tops are about 2,000', but I'm not sure; Monterey ATIS is saying the ceiling is something like 800' overcast (I don't remember the details, but whatever it is it's pretty typical for a late summer / early autumn morning 'round here). The scene is beautiful — we're in bright sunshine, the various rugged mountain ranges around the Bay Area and Monterey are clearly visible poking through the stratus or further off across the landscape, and the stratus layer itself is one of those classic benign-looking fluffy-topped layers that's probably only a thousand feet thick.

Just as I'm admiring the view and reviewing the ILS 10R approach I've set up on the G1000, the NorCal Approach controller tells me to descend and maintain two thousand feet. Hmmm, I say to my safety pilot Evan, this is a new one on me. Two thousand feet this far out… way out over the ocean? And it's likely to leave us in the murk almost the entire way to the final approach fix (not that I'm complaining about that). My (by-the-book) response to the controller apparently comes across as so skeptical that he responds again with "83Y, two thousand feet, correct" (or maybe it was my accent). So I start us down by programming in a slowish 600 feet per minute descent on the autopilot, and look over at Evan. Hey, how well can you swim? I ask him with a grin. There's sharks down there. And it's bloody cold. If one doesn't get you before you swim the ten miles to Santa Cruz or Moss Landing, the other one will.

I watch the top of the stratus layer rise up towards us until, just as we're about to hit it, we level off at 2,000 feet. I'm about to put on the cone of stupidity when I think "bugger that! This looks so cool…" and put the hood aside. And the next five minutes or so are just magic — one of the most visually enjoyable vectors-to-the-localizer I've done in years. We dip in and out of the layer as it rises in soft-looking waves up and over us and back down, the tops being roughly our altitude, and the alternation of sunshine, blue sky, almost unlimited horizontal visibility, and blinding white waves around us is really cool. The controller asks us for best forward speed to the final approach fix as he has faster traffic behind us. I briefly wonder whether having us this low that far out was an attempt to let the faster traffic overtake us a few thousand feet above us, but I let the thought go as I get preoccupied with actually approaching the approach. Due to the coastal stratus and fog, this is one of the few airports I regularly fly to where you may have to go missed at ILS minimums on days when it's benign clear weather even ten miles inland (or a thousand feet above you), and I have the missed approach procedure burned into my brain. Nonetheless, I look over it several times again just to be sure; there's a lot of terrain around here you just don't want to hit….

As we get closer to the ILS, the layer rises up completely around us, and we intercept the localizer and turn in towards the outer marker deep in the now dark grey murk. This I like, of course, and the air's fairly still and the plane predictable, making for an easy approach. We intercept the glideslope a little early and start on down, still in the murk. I predict we'll break out somewhere just past the outer marker, and it'll be one of those weirdo abrupt Monterey break outs that's more horizontal than vertical due to the cloud layer sometimes ending suddenly around the coastline. I slow us down at MUNSO, the outer marker, and start mentally preparing for the landing itself. There's a mild quartering tailwind, and I don't want to blow the landing in front of Evan or any observers on the ground.

Tower clears us to land, and the approach and runway lighting slowly become visible through the windshield as the stratus starts clearing patchily around us. We break out fully well past the coastline, quite a bit further past the outer marker than I'd predicted, and softly rather than abruptly. So much for predictions, I guess. But it's always really cool to watch the runway lights slowly appear in the right place in front of you at times like this, I have to admit. The landing's pretty routine, and since I have this nagging mental image of a Citation or Gulfstream or something like that barreling down the ILS just behind us in the greyness, I turn off 10R at the first taxiway, trying not to rip the tires off or brake too hard.

And now for the next Big Challenge: where to park. Evan and I have been pondering this the entire way down, as we want to get both fuel and coffee, and I haven't actually used an FBO here for years (despite all the approaches and landings I've done here) — and Evan's apparently never actually done a full stop landing here at all. There used to be a transient parking area on the south side ramp near the tower, and what my Blue Book tells me is a Chevron self-serve pump in the same area, so we decide that's where we'll go — we can get coffee in the main airline terminal building (there's a security gate you can usually get through). But when I tell ground we're going left to to transient, he tells me there's no transient parking at Monterey any more — we can either go right to Del Monte Aviation or past Del Monte to Monterey Jet Center. Hmmm, I think, that doesn't sound so good — the last time I was at Del Monte (building complex hours years ago in the Arrow) it was an expensive place full of jet drivers with stripy epaulets. And the Jet Center's likely to be even worse…. But what the hell else can we do? It's still IFR, we need fuel, and I could really do with some coffee (and bagels if there's any such thing down here). Oh well. I tell ground we'll do Del Monte, and turn right on taxiway alpha. Just as I'm reaching for the Blue Book to see what UNICOM frequency is here, a Del Monte guy strides out on to the ramp and starts waving us into the corner parking lot, and a few seconds later I've signed up for twenty gallons of Avgas. As we wander into the rather nice-looking old Del Monte building to do the paperwork, we can see what looks like a King Air breaking out on the ILS over towards the coastline. I'm still not sure what the rush was, if that was our traffic. But who cares? It's coffee time….

* * *

Runway 10R, Monterey (KMRY)

The view along KMRY runway 10R on departure (note the terrain in the middle distance, itself hiding much higher peaks a little further along and to the right…).

This is actually Evan's first IFR flight as a certified instrument pilot. The original plan is to do a day trip much further down the coast to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) for lunch, maybe getting a few approaches and holds and whatnots in wherever, and just generally admire the view (if you do the coast route past Big Sur, the view's spectacular). But that plan falls through late in the day when Cessna 051 is delayed coming back off a 100 hour inspection, and instead we're only able to take Cessna 83Y (the club's other G1000-equipped C172) for a morning trip IFR to Monterey and back. The weather at both ends is light IMC, so we're going to need real clearances and some real-world IFR flying. It's clearing quickly here now at Monterey (within a few minutes of landing it's basically clear to the east and marginal VFR in the other directions), and we sort of expect Oakland to be VMC by the time we get there, but my ForeFlight iPhone app is reporting that Oakland is still IMC. In any case, Evan decides he's going to file a real IFR flight plan, and starts using his own iPhone to file.

I wander off to find the coffee, which turns out to be not too bad for machine-made stuff, but I can't see any bagels or cookies or anything. The counter staff are too busy handling the King Air's passengers (a family of four or five) and fuel to ask, so I walk back outside to the entrance area. The King Air's right outside, and the pilot's hanging around talking to another passenger. He looks over at me and nods, so I introduce myself and tell him I was flying the tiny slow Cessna in front of him on the ILS — hope I didn't cause any problems…. We spend the next five minutes or so talking — he's a friendly guy about my age, based in Palo Alto doing charters and private flying, and we spend a few minutes bemoaning fuel costs and the dearth of flying opportunities for potential pilots these days. He says he had to slow down to 140 knots before the approach because of us; we both laugh — 140 knots is about what our little 172 could do in a dive at full throttle. But then I didn't use forty-something gallons of Jet A just to cross the Santa Cruz range, did I?! He grins and says something like if he wasn't being paid he'd probably do it in a tiny 150.

I go back in (it's still quite cold out there on the ramp) and find Evan. He's filed his flight plan and got some coffee, and we lounge around the lounge for a while. According to several flyers and posters around us, the Thunderbirds are in town next week (or rather, the airshow's at nearby Salinas (KSNS), but they're normally actually based at Monterey for the duration). A few years ago I once landed at Monterey on 28R (the smaller runway) while various massed Thunderbirds did the overhead break and formation landing on the left. Way cool. Especially when the leader ironically saluted us as he taxied past in a cloud of dust, burnt jet fuel, and fumes (dammit, that's what I want to do when I grow up!). Pity I won't be in town for the Thunderbirds this time — I always seem to miss them… (as a kid my parents took us to airshows at RAAF Richmond (I think it was) several times, and I always really enjoyed that). At least I get to see (and hear) the Blue Angels locally during Fleet Week.

Our plane's been refueled, so I go back to the front desk to sign the bill. The staff there are friendly, efficient, and funny, and one of them does a dead-on "oh mahvelous!" in imitation of my Anglo-Australian accent as she takes the signed bill. This sort of thing always makes my day.

We wander back out on to the ramp and preflight the plane. What follows — pretty much the entire flight back to Oakland — is a real world flight, for sure, but not what either of us planned for or really expected, and not (I'm sure) quite what Evan would have wanted as a first Real World IFR experience :-).

* * *

Evan pre-flighting 83Y at Monterey

Evan Pre-Flighting Cessna 83Y On The Ramp At Monterey.

Back in 83Y Evan starts up and calls combined clearance and ground for our clearance. The controller sounds confused and not entirely on top of things, and issues us a standard VFR clearance out of Monterey's Class C airspace ("proceed on course…") rather than the expected IFR clearance back to Oakland. Evan questions the guy; he swears there's no clearance for our aircraft in the system. We swear. Now what?! We can certainly depart VFR towards the east at this particular time (ATIS is reporting marginal VFR, but there are no clouds at all past the departure end of 10R all the way to at least Nevada), but half the point of this flight is a real world IFR workout. We decide against pushing the issue with the Monterey controller — Evan's starting to suspect he put the wrong departure time in when he filed the flight plan, but I can't help wondering whether the controller's a trainee and just missing something — and plan on departing VFR to the east with flight following. We'll pick up a clearance from NorCal further along, probably somewhere near South County (E16). Oakland ATIS is still reporting IMC at Oakland, so we're going to need a real IFR clearance for the approach anyway unless it clears soon.

So we depart VFR with Evan in the left seat; I'm just along for the ride until Evan dons the cone of stupidity nearer Oakland. On departure I look out over to the right at the old transient parking area — it's still physically there, but there are no aircraft parked there at all. The place looks dead; I don't know what the story is.

The view's excellent, the air's smooth, I take a bunch of photos of all the interesting and bizarre sights on the ground, and things go pretty well until somewhere near Hollister. On NorCal's frequency we can hear a string of planes asking for pop-up clearances back into various Bay Area airports due to the long-lingering stratus, and a good proportion of them are being denied by NorCal with a simple "unable at this time". This doesn't sound promising, even if we're already in the system due to flight following, and especially since we have to have the plane back by 13.00. Evan wisely decides to put in an early request for the Oakland ILS 27R, well before South County.

The good news is we're not immediately rejected (no "unable"); the bad news is we're not given any sort of clearance, either, just a variant of the usual "request on file" response. Better than nothing, I guess, and we press on. We can always land at Livermore (KLVK) if we can't get in to Oakland, and wait for the stratus to clear (which it clearly will, and soon), but that would mean blowing the return time. Oh well. At every hand-off Evan reminds NorCal of our request, and in each case we get pretty much the same response — either remind them again in a few minutes (which we do), or they're still working on it. At one point on air someone asks for "the approach" back into Hayward (KHWD, a little southeast of Oakland, at that time reporting the same sort of mild IMC). The pilot sounds confused and doesn't seem to know what he's asking for, but he also doesn't sound like a student; the controller keeps prompting him until it's clear he wants (or will take) the VOR approach. Sometimes I wonder why controllers put up with this sort of thing….

We can still hear pop-up requests being refused for other aircraft and airport combinations, so we feel pretty lucky that we haven't been completely rejected, but I start feeling edgy as we approach Reid Hillview (KRHV), the traditional decision point for East Bay airports when approaching from the south. The most annoying thing, though, is that although we can almost see the individual runways at Oakland from where we are (some thirty miles out at 4,500'), Oakland ATIS is still reporting IMC at the airport itself. We still need that bloody clearance, even though I'm betting we'll never see even a second of IMC on the way in, and we'll probably land in bright cloudless sunshine. But I was wrong about Monterey earlier, so I don't complain too loudly.

Then out of the blue the NorCal controller asks us to "navigate towards SUNOL" (using that exact phrase). I like this sort of thing: an informal instruction that's basically saying something like "I can't give you a clearance right now or even vector you, but if you head off towards SUNOL [the traditional initial approach fix for many of Oakland's approaches] it'll probably make things much easier for both of us if I can suddenly slot you in". It's what we were going to do anyway, but it's a sign that things are progressing. Even so, I still feel edgy and worried that we might miss the boat or get lost in the rush.

In the end although we don't get an actual clearance until we're turning onto the localizer, we're formally vectored for the approach well outside SUNOL, and Evan (of course!) flies the ILS 27R approach flawlessly back into Oakland under the hood. We didn't even get the NorCal slam onto GROVE several thousand feet above where we should be. In any event, we land dead on time for the next renters. And as predicted, while it's still supposedly IMC at Oakland, we never come close to even the smallest of clouds (because there aren't any, dammit), and we land in bright cloudless sunshine.

Back in the office, as we're doing the club paperwork, we can hear Oakland ATIS still now reporting marginal VMC, on what's essentially a cloudless early-autumn day right across the Bay Area. Oh well. Welcome to the real world, I guess.


August 29, 2008

Big Bird, Part Two

Sometime a week or two ago I managed to get my high performance endorsement (and log a bit of actual IFR, a couple of approaches, and an ad hoc hold) from John in the club's G1000-equipped Cessna 182 that I've flown a couple of times now (thanks John!).

I think the only thing that struck me as unfamiliar was the use of flaps 10 (degrees) at the beginning of a cruise or approach descent, i.e. miles from anywhere, and at a relatively high speed and altitude. In all the planes I've flown so far (well, those that had flaps, anyway), flaps typically didn't get used until well into the final approach or even only once you'd joined the pattern — mostly, in the case of the older planes, because the flaps could only be used at relatively low airspeeds (from memory, the Arrow allowed you to lower flaps at a fairly high airspeed, but I seem to remember lowering gear first before the flaps in that plane). The cowl flaps were also novel, but hardly complex or conceptually difficult; and the increased attention to leaning was predictable and fairly easily done with the G1000's engine analyzer display.

Landing was initially a little odd — the plane felt predictably nose-heavy — but it didn't take more than a handful of landings to get a feeling for the stabilized final approach and the various sight lines and to round out and flare at the right altitude for some nice smooth landings.

In any case, the club's 182 is a joy to fly: very stable, very predictable, and the engine has that same smooth powerful operation I remember from the Cirrus SR22; the G1000 and associated autopilot also make things more manageable. But hell it's expensive to rent and refuel, and it's difficult to believe it'll stay on-line at the club much longer unless more members see it as a way to do longer trips fairly economically with passengers. I'm unlikely to fly it much if at all myself unless it's to Santa Monica or Corvalis or somewhere like distant like that, with The Artists or someone who's willing to help defray the costs.

* * *

Oh, and I know I mentioned this in a comment elsewhere, but sometime safety pilot and instrument student Evan H. got his instrument rating first try with Rich Batchelder, DPE. Congratulations to Evan (and of course John, his instructor).

August 17, 2008

Captain Dan

Short final, KOAK 27L

I was roughly nine or ten when I first flew in the front seat of an aeroplane (it was Australia, so it was spelt that way), a Cherokee piloted by a friend of my father's. We flew out of Belmont airport (usually known as Aeropelican by the locals in those days), and I spent about half the flight in the right seat propped up on top of a cushion manipulating the yoke as we flew down and around my then home-town of Woy Woy and back around the lower Hunter Valley. I loved it, but then my parents and my father's friend knew I would.

So when Stephen, a long-time friend of mine from Australia, and his seven-year-old kid Dan visited me for the day we just had to go flying. I wasn't sure, but I sort of suspected Dan would enjoy it a lot, and if nothing else, Stephen would get to see a lot of the Bay Area from a perspective most people never get to see it from. I'd informally planned the flight a week or so in advance as an extended Bay Tour, but unfortunately the weather didn't quite cooperate, and rather than circling the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the City, and doing the 101 transition south (east) to Palo Alto, we had to step over a coastal stratus layer and concentrate on Napa (KAPC), the Delta, Mount Diablo, the Diablo Valley (landing at Livermore, KLVK), and just generally pottering around VFR under the benign oversight of various bits of NorCal approach and sundry towers. Dan, of course, spent about half the flight in the right seat, propped up on a couple of cushions, flying the plane along with me or on his own. Cool!

As far as I can tell they both enjoyed it; Dan said several times later that he really wanted to fly again and (maybe) be a pilot. Stephen — who has a lot of experience being flown around in GA planes taking photos over Sydney — while probably not wanting to be a pilot quite as much as me or Dan, at least got to see the sights from an unusual perspective. All in all, a lot of fun, and a really welcome break from the rush of the rest of my life at the moment.

Oh, and since Stephen's also a photographer, there's some great snapshots from the flight done with his little point-and-shoot; here's a tiny handful from the back seat….


The Maze

Richmond Bridge

Suisun Bay


Mt. Diablo

August 10, 2008

Catching Up

I know I'm not the only blogger in the neighbourhood playing catchup, but sometimes in comparison to the usual suspects like Cockpit Conversation, Blogging at FL250, or Flight Level 390 (just to pick some obvious examples from my daily reading list of blogs that have been going roughly the same length of time as this one), I feel positively lazy. It's not that I haven't flown lately, it's that I haven't been able to sit down at my leisure and edit up anything compelling (or otherwise) about my flying, so the blog stays bare. So, instead, a few telegraphic lines before I have to run out and do something else….

First news is that John's student Evan and I went flying together again a few weeks ago, alternating PIC / safety pilot duties for a really enjoyable long flight to and around Napa (KAPC), Sacramento (KSAC), Rio Vista (O88), and Oakland (KOAK, home base). Lots of real-world IFR work under the hood (and just enough actual IMC for me to have to do the flying in and out of Oakland to get through the unexpectedly-persistent stratus), including being slammed onto Napa's localizer some two thousand feet too high and way too close-in, being vectored around and around (and back again) while being sent to Oakland's ILS 27R for an IMC approach (I don't think I've done that approach straightforwardly now for several years — it's always one damn thing or another nowadays, usually the result of traffic spacing issues by the sound of things), my forgetting to cancel IFR on the missed at Napa and unintentionally tying up the airspace for billions of nautical miles around us (or so the Oakland Center controller rather testily implied when he finally got around to asking whether we really intended to stay IFR; usually I cancel on the missed and tell the controller we'll do the rest as practice approaches, which is essential at Napa but not so essential at Sacramento or Stockton or places directly under NorCal's control rather than Oakland Center's), and landing straight into the teeth of a steady 30 knot headwind at Rio Vista (Evan did the landing after a perfect VOR approach from Sacramento VOR under the hood; I remember looking out and thinking we could as well be walking at that speed). Evan's booked for his instrument checkride sometime soon, and unless he makes a silly mistake, he'll pass it with better flying and instrument work than I'm capable of.

Second news is that the other E, "E." (another of John's students and an occasional safety pilot for me), got her instrument rating last week on her first attempt. Cool! Congratulations...

July 18, 2008

Big Bird

Not much time to blog here at the moment, so I'll keep this short and … well, short, anyway. I'm sure I'll have more to say later, but I've started working with John on getting my high performance endorsement in the club's G1000-equipped Cessna 182. So far so good — it's all about power management, better attention to detail and landings, cowl flaps, endlessly trimming, trimming, trimming (this is a heavy-feeling airplane that lets your shoulder and leg muscles know when it's even slightly out of trim), and ginormous fuel bills — but then the fundamentals are pretty familiar to me (I've had a complex endorsement for many years now), and I enjoy a challenge (even if it's not quite the same sort of challenge as getting an instrument rating or learning aerobatics). More on all this later, for sure.

Otherwise, not much to say except to revel a bit in the joys of being on the North Field ramp at Oakland late evenings — the shiny private 757 parked at Kaiser looming over the Citations, Gulfstreams, Learjets and such (the ramp fees for the 757 must be enormous, especially since it's been there for weeks), the Airbus ACJ A320-derivative business jet further down the ramp looking small by comparison, the little fleet of Piaggios looking sleekly futuristic in a very retro way (especially so close-up), the Abex 767 creeping along taxiway Charlie in the dusk, the omnipresent Amflight twins arriving one after the other in the dark, the tart pink lemonade in the (very pleasant) Business Jet Center FBO, the cool Oakland night….

June 04, 2008

Flying To A T…

The approach starts going a little awry just as it always does returning to Oakland at rush hour: after having successfully requested the practice ILS 27R back into Oakland (KOAK) from way out over the Central Valley with NorCal approach, with me under the Cone Of Stupidity and E. in the right seat as safety pilot, the closer we get to Oakland the more irritated and stressed the controllers sound, the more overloaded the frequencies are. Approaching GROVE intersection on the localiser at best forward speed and on vectors for the localiser, and several thousand feet above that leg's minimum altitude, a new voice on NorCal's frequency suddenly barks out "83Y! Right 360 for traffic; break; XYZ! heading 180, vectors for traffic, traffic is a Cessna at 2 o'clock, 5,000; break; ... ", and for hardly the first time I get to do a loping 360 right next to the extended ILS while under the hood, without a clue what's about to happen next. I can hear a series of re-adjustments going on for traffic on the ILS, and start wondering whether I'm about to be sent back out past SUNOL (the initial fix for the approach) for twenty minutes holding while NorCal sorts out what sounds like a few close calls with spacing.

As with the last time (that I can remember, at least), although I was implicitly asked to do only one orbit, I'm not sure whether to rejoin the vector onto the localiser or keep doing a 360. E. can see conflicting traffic barreling down the localiser about a mile away slightly below us; the frequency is absolutely jammed with traffic being vectored, cleared, acknowledged, and generally shepherded, and I haven't a hope in hell of getting through to the controller before the 360's complete. So I head back towards the localiser after the 360, after making damn sure E. can't see any conflicting traffic (I also take off the hood for a short time to do my own checking), and a few seconds later, just as I'm about to turn onto the localiser, I get cleared for the approach. Someone else (a Citation, if I remember correctly), is cleared for the same approach a few seconds later behind me. Too bad I'm nearly two thousand feet too high for the leg I joined, and that that leg ends in a mile or two with the glideslope intersection point coming up way too quickly….

Ah, home! I've grown to love this sort of thing. It's a challenge. And it's a nice VMC day, so I disengage the autopilot and decide to try to hand fly the plane the rest of the way, or at least until I can get the plane below the glideslope so the autopilot can couple properly (it won't couple to the glideslope from above). That's a shame, though, since part of the whole point of this approach for me was about keeping current with keeping on top of the G1000 and autopilot. Oh well — maybe next time. I get handed off very early to Oakland tower, and maintain best forward speed and a huge sink rate while trying to avoid ripping the wings off or exceeding any recommended airspeeds. In the ensuing rush I deliberately delay checking in with tower while I set the plane and instruments up a little more to my liking. Tower calls me after a short time sounding concerned — I hadn't checked out of NorCal's frequency and hadn't checked in to tower. Well, I had checked out from NorCal, but the frequency was so busy I was probably stepped on. Tower sounds a little short with me, but it's me that's flying, not him, and his frequency is a lot less crowded than NorCal's, so I just apologise and tell him we're fine. We get cleared to land number three a long way out from the runway.

I really never make it down to the glideslope until only about a mile out from the threshold, and have to hand-fly the plane the entire way to the ground. Good practice at real world IFR flying, of course, but if it had been IMC, I'd probably have gone missed a short time after joining the localiser: I really don't like the idea of plummeting like a rock in IMC with the terrain and traffic around Oakland. In any case I look up at about 400' (I'm worried about the traffic around us in the pattern); we're more-or-less right on the centreline and at the right altitude, if a little fast, and the landing's fine. We exit 27R at golf and breath again.

* * *

After having whined about barely flying in the past few months, I get to make a second flight in several days. Woohoo! This time it's another flight with E., one of John's students, and this time there's really no set agenda or purpose.

Since E.'s still working on the last stages of her instrument rating, I mentally plan a few alternatives: an IFR training flight to somewhere like Stockton or Sacramento with E. flying a bunch of approaches under the hood, a quick seat swap and me flying back and doing an approach into Oakland; or maybe a longer IFR flight to somewhere scenic like Monterey or Ukiah, with E. flying the outbound leg and approach under the hood, and me returning. Or something else — I don't know. The weather's clear Northern California VMC almost anywhere we're likely to fly, so that (for once) won't be a factor; even the evening stratus isn't forecast to return until around midnight. In any case I do a bunch of work with DUATS and such and am prepared for almost anything (except a trip to LA or Reno or Vegas :-)). We have 83Y, one of the club's G1000-equipped Cessna 172's, out for the afternoon.

So when E. gets to the hangar after I've preflighted 83Y (I got there early), my mind's fairly blank, and I let her chose what we'll do. The result turns out to be one of the more enjoyable flights I've done for a while: a nice VFR cross country to Pine Mountain Lake (Groveland, E45) and back, with my under-the-hood approach the only even vaguely IFR bit. E. flies out; I fly back, which suits me just fine: Pine Mountain Lake airport's a fun fly-in location with a slightly-challenging location, pattern, and runway, and it's nice to watch someone else discover the joys of heading out over the Tuolumne river canyon and back in the pattern towards the little scar on the ridge that's the runway….

At the airport itself we get out and wander around for a while. I particularly want to visit the wind T that's sitting up on the little hill next to the runway, a particularly nice spot for a picnic or planespotting. I'm also motivated by Aviatrix's posting from a while ago about the rarity of wind T's (amongst other things) — that post had reminded me of the airport and made me want to see it again sometime — and it turns out that E.'s never seen one before, from the air or up close like this. So we clamber around in the warm sunshine for a while exploring the place, and also meeting some locals, who seem uniformly friendly and approachable. Pine Mountain Lake's like that — small and friendly, and the airport's an integral part of the town (it's also one of those airports where houses with hangars are next to the runway). They're having an air show on 21 June; pity I can't attend. We get to see a couple of aerobatic Extra EZ's taxiing and taking off in formation (one of them German-registered); apparently the pilot in the orange Extra is someone famous in the aerobatics world, but I missed who it was. There was some excitement as what looked like a powered glider approached, engine off, and landed; this turned out to be the first Pipistrel Sinus (what a name — its sibling is the Virus) I — and everyone else standing around — had ever seen. An interesting looking plane, very much a long thin rather bendy glider wing attached to a light sports body, and very quiet even with the engine on. Quite a contrast to the Extras….

June 03, 2008

Review: ForeFlight for iPhone

[2008/7 Update: the new iPhone native app version of ForeFlight, ForeFlight Mobile 2.0, is now out and available through iTunes. I have the new version, and I'll probably review it in more detail later, but in summary, I like it a lot for pretty much all the same reasons I like the earlier version, and it has the added bonus of being a native iPhone app with an improved interface and interesting potential for off-line storage and working in the longer-term. Bear all that in mind when you read this review, but, basically, everything written below still stands…].

Yes, I have an iPhone. How sad is that? Well, my hand was forced last year when I came back from my Australian vacation and discovered that both my five-year-old mobile phone and my seven-year-old Palm Pilot no longer worked properly (I guess I was surprised they still worked at all, but never mind). So far, no regrets.

But it's not the iPhone that's the subject of this posting, it's ForeFlight for the iPhone, a great little flight planning application from fellow bloggers Vectors To Final. I've actually had the app for quite a while now and have been meaning to review (or at least mention) it here for ages, so my apologies to the ForeFlight crew for leaving it so late (and no, no one from ForeFlight has vetted this article or probably even knows I exist, in case you were wondering). And note: all screenshots shown here were stolen shamelessly from the ForeFlight web site, and do not necessarily represent the latest version of the software, etc.

In short, I like ForeFlight a lot, and would recommend it quite strongly if, like me, you have an iPhone, you fly VFR or IFR in the US (I do both), and you're realistic about some of the inherent limitations of any current iPhone app (think: you must be in range of WiFi or AT&T's Edge network in the US). It basically does most of what I want a flight planning app to do on my iPhone, and does it well; it doesn't entirely replace DUATS access (which I also have on my iPhone), but it's certainly complemented DUATS with a bunch of nice features (approach plates, airport information, etc.), and made DUATS feel clunky and graceless by comparison; it's also entirely replaced the A/FD for me. No, it doesn't do NOTAMS, but it can file flight plans.

Anyway, I'll let the extensive ForeFlight web site speak for itself about features, pricing, etc. (take a good look at the screen shots for an idea of what it can do), and simply discuss what I think are the good and bad sides of the app, and illustrate how I use it to give you some idea of why it's useful.

So what do I like about ForeFlight? Firstly, it fits into my planning workflow really well: I usually do the initial heavy lifting on my laptop, including filing a flight plan if I'm flying IFR, and then check again on the tarmac just before engine startup. Foreflight works really well for this last stage, where you can do a last-minute spot check or sanity check without lugging a laptop around or calling flight services. It's also great for informally checking weather, airport information, etc., for an intended flight whenever and wherever you are (a cafe, a hangar, a wireless-free (as opposed to a free wireless) FBO, an office…), and for prepping approaches informally before flying when you don't have the plates handy. And it'll let you file that last-minute flight plan, as long as you have a DUATS account.

Secondly, it's a good combination of information sources: a really convenient and well-presented subset of DUATS and the full AF/D. It's the presentation that makes all the difference to me: yes, I can read raw METARs and TAFs, and even the AF/D, but it's nice to see it in legible and nicely-formatted plain language, and in a package and layout that's intuitively easy to use and navigate. The information presented for each airport typically includes weather information, airport information (runway lengths, airport diagram if there is one, frequencies, etc.), chart abstracts, and full approach plates, at least.

Thirdly, it's nicely integrated into the iPhone. As described below, you can display the airport on Google Maps or call an ATIS or AWOS number with a single touch of the screen, and, being an iPhone app, it's just easy to use — the full power of the iPhone's gestural interface works nicely with ForeFlight (OK, I'm starting to sound like an iPhone Bore, so I'll just keep that part suppressed).

There's really nothing I don't like about ForeFlight, but you do need to be aware of some inherent limitations. Firstly, it's not an official briefing source: it's no substitute for DUATS or other official sources; in particular, it can't show NOTAMS. That just doesn't bother me, but it might be a problem for some. Secondly, of course, you have to be within range of a suitable data network (WiFi or AT&T's Edge network) to access ForeFlight — like all current iPhone apps it's actually a set of web pages with embedded Javascript, and can't access or show anything much when you can't get in touch with the main Foreflight servers. This hasn't been much of a limitation for me, but then I'm rarely out of range of a mobile phone tower at the airports I visit, and if I will be, I'll plan ahead accordingly.

Here's a typical example of how I use it, drawn from real life:

I'm at Oakland airport (KOAK), next to Cessna 83Y, doing final work for an informal VFR fun flight. We've done the pre-flight, we've agreed on where we're going (Groveland / Pine Mountain Lake, E45), and it's time to do a final weather check (it's been an hour or two since I did a full DUATS check). Firstly, what's the current weather at E45? I pull out the iPhone, access the quasi-public WiFi mysteriously available at the hangars, fire up ForeFlight on my browser, log in if I haven't logged in lately, and enter E45 for the airport. A few seconds later ForeFlight's got a nice screen with airport details (runways, altitude, location, frequencies, etc.) for Pine Mountain airport. I show the page to my copilot so she's familiar with the details (it's a tiny place, so there's not a lot to see :-)). I touch the link that says "View with Google Maps" to bring up a separate Google Maps page that I use to show my copilot the general vicinity of the airport. I also touch the "Charts" button to bring up a page showing the VFR and IFR chart extracts for the immediately surrounding area. I also touch the "Approaches" button to see the available approaches; I touch the one I want, and, voila, the relevant NACO plate is displayed, scalable and browsable like any other page on the iPhone (using the iPhone's excellent gestural interface). Very nice... and basically a convenient hand-held web-based combination of the old paper Blue Book, the AF/D, and some useful bits of DUATS.

ForeFlight reports that there's no weather available for the airport, which is expected, but there's also no ASOS or AWOS available (which is less expected, given the presence of what's always looked like an automated weather station near the wind T there). So I scroll down a bit and find the "Nearest airports" section; it lists a useful selection of airports, one of which is Columbia (O22), about 15 miles to the northwest, and in similar terrain and with similar weather patterns. I touch that link to bring up Columbia's page; it also says there's no weather reports, but it lists an AWOS frequency and phone number. I touch that phone number and the iPhone calls the Columbia AWOS; I listen in, hear that the weather's excellent, if a little cooler than I'd have expected for this time of year, and then exit the call back into ForeFlight. Time to go….

At Pine Mountain, we want to check whether Oakland's still VMC (it's an almost perfect day, but you never know at this distance…). Luckily, although there's no public WiFi at the airport (well, none that I'm going to hack into, anyway :-)), the iPhone's AT&T Edge network's available, and while it's quite a lot slower than WiFi, I'm able to use ForeFlight in the iPhone browser pretty much as described above. This time, though, since it's Oakland, there's copious weather details available on a separate linked ForeFlight page, including weather radar, plain English METARs, TAFs for the next day or so, etc. — i.e. pretty much what you'd see in DUATS, and really just what you need to make a decision at this distance on a day and flight like this.

Again, note that none of this replaces full DUATS briefings, or having real charts or approach plates available, but if you're hanging around an airport or somewhere where you want to get a spot check on the weather or your destination's runways, airport diagram, etc., and you've got an iPhone, and there's public WiFi or the Edge network available, it's a great resource.

May 29, 2008

Weather Whine

I've barely flown lately: the weather's been weird and uncooperative (at least by Northern California coastal standards); my work schedule hasn't exactly given me much free time; and the cost of fuel and aircraft rentals keep increasing much quicker than my income… but none of this should really excuse me. And this time I have no excuse: the weather's OK (not great, but not malicious either), I have a few hours to spare, I have an enthusiastic passenger, and I can afford another hour or so in the air.

So I meet my passenger, J., a friend and colleague from San Jose, at my place, and we drive to the airport (Oakland, my home base, a short ten minute drive from my studio). J's never flown in anything as small as a C172 before, but she's keen, and the plan is to do a leisurely Bay Tour out over the Golden Gate, The City, Angel Island, etc., for maybe 45 minutes. I don't like the typical summer's-evening low-hanging stratus coming in from the Pacific, but that's what an instrument rating's for, no? But I don't really want to subject J. to the ILS back into Oakland in IMC on her first flight in a Cessna, so I'll keep a good look out and stay close to home.

And that's what happens — a nice low-key Bay Tour through the twilight as planned, and a quick run back as the clouds push in through the Golden Gate and over The City. We get back just as it goes marginal VFR or even IMC across much of the inner Bay Area; it's blustery and cold back on the ground (typical Bay Area coastal summer weather :-)). Not much else to say about the evening really except (once again) it's fun to fly VFR like this, and it's really fun having someone along who's new to flying and who ends up liking it so much she's already talking about the next flight. J. wants to fly again on a longer trip, maybe up the coast; I kinda like the idea, but I don't know when I'll get the chance. We shall see….

April 29, 2008

(Yet Another) Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset

No big bumps today, but for a while before the flight I wonder what things are going to be like Up There, given that Down Here there's what feels like a minor gale blowing leaves and dust and small animals all over the place…. A couple of hours later, I'm sitting in the left seat of Cessna 051, the club's G1000-equipped Cessna 172, watching Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset again over Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the Golden Gate on the Bay Tour. The air's mildly bumpy, but it's nothing that's going to spoil the flight. Which is a good thing: a friend of mine, A., is sitting in the right seat, enjoying her first GA flight, and a lot of bumps and roughness would have really spoiled this.

In any event, there's not a lot to say about this flight beyond the fact that A. appears to enjoy it a lot, and although the flight was short (less than an hour total Hobbs time), it's really refreshing just to potter around VFR over the Bay with flight following from NorCal Approach. So much of my flying is IFR nowadays, I tend to forget that I can just point the damn plane anywhere (within reason) locally and just … fly. It's fun. And with today's clear VFR weather, it's also scenic, and deeply relaxing. Perfect!

At one point while we're circling the Golden Gate, NorCal calls traffic at about 1 o'clock, distance 2 miles, "type and altitude unknown, appears to be maneuvering". I can't see any planes anywhere within about five miles of us in that general direction at any altitude, and reply with the usual "negative contact". But suspiciously enough, there's a small bulker heading briskly towards the bridge from the Pacific side with a pilot boat next to it, at my 1 o'clock and two miles away (and at sea level, surprisingly enough). A few moments later NorCal calls "traffic no factor" and we circle on. It wouldn't be the first time I've had ships on the Bay or on the approaches called as traffic….

* * *

051's been moved. It's still in one of the Port-A-Ports, but it's now a row closer to Hangar 7, and this Port-A-Port has a decidedly different way to open and close the hangar door (bits of old rope and springs rather than the thumb-crunching portcullis), and of getting the plane in and out. Just opening the main door almost proves beyond me: in the fading light I can see where the door is supposed to latch on each side when fully open, but nothing I do seems to be able to get the latches to actually latch. I'm not dragging an expensive plane out of the hangar with unlatched doors, that's for sure, especially not in the still rather blustery wind blowing around the apron. But after a bunch of attempts (and a lot of swearing), a combination of a long broom handle and help from A. gets it done. The whole thing feels like an intelligence test I fail — I can loop and roll and fly an airplane upside down, I can hand-fly an ILS to minimums in IMC, but I can't get a simple hangar door open. Humph. And in front of a GA novice, too :-).

* * *

My old nemesis, the combination lock on the paperwork lockbox outside the club, proves to be the one irritating blot on the evening. It opens first go on the way in to the apron, but when I have to return the book and fill out the paperwork, nothing I do over a ten minute span opens the damn thing again. Since A.'s sitting there getting cold in the wind (and she's cut her finger on the plane door earlier), I decide I'll just have to leave it and come back early tomorrow morning. So I drive off with A. and drop her off at her place, intending to go home and get up early next day to drop the books off. But on the spur of the moment I decide to go straight back out to the airport (it's very close to where I live), and try again. This time, of course, the bloody thing opens first try. Oh well.

March 13, 2008

A Few Small Bumps…

We're cruising steadily at 5,000' in Cessna 051 (the club's G1000-equipped C172), on an IFR flight plan to Stockton (KSCK) for some IFR practice. The forecast has some scattered but benign IMC patches along our route. I've set up the G1000 and the autopilot to get us direct as cleared to JOTLI, a convenient IAF for Stockton's GPS 29R approach. The plan is to do that approach full pilot nav with the autopilot and G1000 coupled, as tonight's flight is supposed to be mostly about IFR systems flying rather than just a raw IFR workout (any excuse to watch the G1000 get us around the course reversal hold automatically again :-)). After the initial approach we'll try to get one or two more approaches in before returning to Oakland (KOAK), where we'll probably need a real clearance to get back in anyway, given the approaching cloud bank (I have one pre-filed just in case). I'm under the hood; E., one of John's instrument students, is doing safety pilot duties in the right seat. It's about 19.30 (7:30 pm for all y'all Americans), so it's dark(ish) outside, but it's easy enough to see the stratus a short distance ahead of us at our altitude. It's not particularly thick, extending maybe a few thousand feet (from about 4,500'), and doesn't extend more than a few miles along our route (at least according to the forecast).

We enter the clouds and I take off the hood. I turn off the strobes and the landing lights. Everything looks good to me: on course, at altitude, the approach has been set up, we've got the ATIS for Stockton. The cloud layer feels benign; the outside air temperature (OAT) is well above freezing. There's some very minor turbulence, but nothing very interesting.

Suddenly there's a few small bumps, then an almighty series of crashing thumps as we're battered around by what I'd characterise as severe turbulence. The autopilot disengages automatically, but only milliseconds before I hit the disengage switch myself. My head hits the cockpit ceiling several times (we're wearing those bloody "smart" Cessna seat belts with the airbags); I lose my headset down the back of my neck. Over the next few seconds we gain and lose several hundred feet in each direction and get into some pretty unpleasant pitch and roll excursions. I grab the yoke with both hands and try to regain control, throttling back to about 2300 RPM (I do this by feel and instinct, since I can't actually see the engine instruments on the MFD at this point). It's clearly not going to get better quickly, and while I'm not having too much trouble keeping us more-or-less upright, we're in all sorts of trouble with the altitude excursions, and we're not going to be able to continue like this for long without a great deal of continuous effort on my part (and a lot of discomfort and the possibility of losing control in IMC). I decide we need to get below the clouds now: I know the area, there's nothing below us, and my guess is that even 1000' below us it's smoother. But I'm wondering how the hell I'm going to get the headset back on while keeping both hands on the yoke. At any rate we have little or no control over our altitude at this stage, so I start doing what I can to descend. It's getting slightly smoother, so I risk reaching back and sitting the headset back on my head, albeit a little off-kilter (understatement). It'll do for now. Both hands back on the yoke, I manage to blurt out something like "NorCal, 051's in heavy turbulence in IMC, any chance of 3,000 now?". We're at 4,500 by now anyway, and it's already smoothing out. "051, I can only give you 4,000. Descend and maintain 4,000". "051, We'll take it. Descend maintain 4,000. Thanks…". I level off in relatively smooth air, clear of the clouds, at 4,000, and start to look over the systems and controls. Everything looks fine, but I'm not going to trust it all immediately. The way ahead looks clear of clouds. My thinking at this stage is basically that even if it's not smoother down here, at least it's VMC, and losing control is a lot less likely. I'll hand fly for a while without the hood on just to see what happens. At least we're still probably on course (I'll check in a minute).

I look over to see if E. is still here. Thankfully, she is, but she's still holding onto the side of the cockpit, just in case. I ask if she's OK; she says she's fine. I'm not sure I believe her, but in any case there's not much we can do at the moment except recover the plane and then work out whether to continue on or do something else. It sure looks and feels benign under the clouds and all around us now. I spend a few seconds giving a mini-PIREP and explanation to NorCal, basically just saying we'd hit unforecast moderate-to-severe turbulence in IMC just back there, and it's a lot smoother at 4,000'. I probably sound a bit shaken on the radio at this point; the controller sounds a little concerned, and I'm actually gratified that he's taking it seriously.

E. and I discuss things for a short while as I recover the course (and my approach plates, which are now on the floor), and decide to press on to Stockton as planned. I mention the possibility of hitting the same thing on the way back, but since the return leg is a fair way to the south of where we are now, and somewhat higher, I decide to play that bit by ear (literally in some ways: I'll have my ear (figuratively) glued to the frequency for reports of any turbulence on the way back). There's no shortage of places to land below us on either leg, and it's basically a nice VMC evening below the clouds. I hope E. hasn't been scared off instrument flying (or flying right seat with me) for ever. She sounds O.K., but you never know, so I stress that I'd really be just as happy if we abandoned the flight as if we continue. But she's up for it. We press on.

* * *

The whole episode probably didn't last more than about ten seconds, and in reality the turbulence wasn't quite the worst I've ever experienced in a light plane. I think I'd characterise it as on the low end of "severe" by the FAA's definition (I had little or no control over altitude, and maintaining pitch and roll control was quite a struggle), but I'm also guessing it was fairly localised and would probably have petered out fairly quickly. It was in many ways a more sudden and prolonged IMC version of the encounter with turbulence I blogged about last year. My first thought after we'd leveled off at 4,000' was "wake turbulence!", but it continued on too long for that and there wasn't any likely culprit in the area (on-frequency, at least).

And it was unforecast, and happened in IMC, which always adds another dimension to things. At the time it just didn't seem too hard to right the plane, keep it under some sort of control, and keep flying with my eyes glued to the G1000. But I'd hate to have done it all with the crappy old mechanical AIs in an older 172 — the potential for losing control in that situation, or in partial panel with no PFD or MFD, is sobering. In any case, it's definitely not something to be complacent about, and, according to E., it was the worst turbulence she's experienced so far [and a few days later I still have a bruise on the top of my head from the experience].

* * *

Luckily, the rest of the flight feels pleasantly anticlimactic, and apart from some mild turbulence in actual IMC on the ILS back into Oakland, things go fairly smoothly and as-planned. E.'s a good safety pilot and keeps me on my toes; it's good having an instrument-savvy co-pilot, and apart from a few minor lapses on my part (below), things go about as well as you'd reasonably expect for someone (me) who really doesn't get to fly enough to be in perfect practice all the time.

The G1000 gets a good workout during the flight. Or, rather, I get a good workout in G1000 usage, and — as always with the G1000 — I'm reminded of what I dislike as well as what I really like about it. There's a lot to like, but when — as happened a couple of times during this flight — you get into an incomprehensible situation where no matter what you seem to be doing the G1000 just sits there presenting an unexpected menu or menu item, or won't let you do what you think you've always been able to do before, well, I think I'm slowly becoming an expert in G1000 workarounds.

For example, on the way out to Stockton (before The Bumps), I ask for and get direct JOTLI for the full pilot nav version of the GPS 29R approach. So I reach over and hit "proc" to load and activate the approach with JOTLI as the IAF, which should send us direct JOTLI. But no matter what I do it only gives me approaches back at Oakland. This ignites a few "WTF?" moments and responses from me, and both E. and myself notice that there's actually an extraneous KOAK at the end of the entered flight plan as well as at the beginning. How the hell did that get there? I think. But it doesn't matter, does it? What matters is how to get direct to JOTLI right now; so let's just scroll up to KSCK, hit "direct", then select the approach; this does the job (especially since at this range direct KSCK is roughly the same heading as "direct JOTLI"). Yes, a simple thing, but a few years ago I might have spent way too long sitting there dumbly wondering about the extraneous KOAK and how to clear the flight plan or how to dial in direct JOTLI while debugging the situation. By any means necessary, as I've learned over the years.

Later, on departing Stockton, no matter what I do, I'm absolutely unable to delete the current flight plan from the inset flight plan window so I can input the new one back to Oakland. Luckily, when we'd picked up the departure clearance midway through the previous approach I'd pre-set the VOR 2 receiver and OBS to give me the VOR version of the initial (30 nautical mile) leg along V195 from Manteca VOR, and when it quickly becomes obvious that the G1000 isn't going to cooperate, I just let the autopilot fly us to and then along the relevant VOR 2 radial. At my own leisure I then simply do a "direct KOAK" with the GPS, then get SUNOL (the end point of V195) from loading the KOAK ILS 27R (our intended approach, of which SUNOL is the IAF for arrivals from our direction). When actually on V195 (according to VOR 2), a simple "activate approach" gets the GPS in sync and in control once again. OK, standard instrument stuff, but (as John will confirm), quite a few instrument pilots seem to get complacent with the better GPS units and forget to setup a fall-back based on VORs or whatever. Again, a few years ago I'd probably have spent several increasingly tense minutes debugging the G1000, with only the initial ATC heading setup properly, and with only a hazy idea of where V195 actually was in relation to my current situation. I'd probably have blundered into the correct course eventually and without incident (but with a great deal of silent swearing :-)), but it's pleasing that I can actually keep cool enough (and think far enough ahead) nowadays that the whole Grace Under Pressure thing seems to be on the verge of happening (all this expensive instrument flying must count for something :-)).

About the only other thing of note was a PIREP to NorCal from a light GA plane of carburettor icing somewhere near Sacramento Exec (KSAC) at roughly our altitude. When I hear this I guess I'm not surprised — the OAT's fairly high, the air's moist, and conditions for carb icing seem just about perfect. What is (pleasantly) surprising is that the pilot reported it at all, and that NorCal also took the report seriously. No, I haven't flown a carburetted plane for several years now, but hearing that someone else is experiencing it might help save a few tense moments (or worse) for someone out there.

* * *

Later, back in the impending drizzle at the Oakland Flyers parking lot, I ask E. (again) whether she was OK with the whole experience. She still insists that she enjoyed it and learned a lot; I hope so. I'm guessing that it was definitely a learning experience for both of us.

February 06, 2008

Other Than That…

I sit there in the mid-evening darkness in the runup area just off Oakland's 27R thinking it's good to be back in the left seat again. As John points out, the Bay Area weather has been pretty dreadful for flying lately, IFR or VFR, and although I've been scheduled to fly since early January, this evening's the first time everything's come together well enough that I could actually fly without encountering ice or major winds or snow or whatever. In fact it's a perfect clear VMC California winter evening, meaning almost unlimited visibility, relative warmth (10C), an essentially cloudless sky, and no real wind.

The plan's simple: a short night IFR hop up to Napa (KAPC) and a few approaches and holds there to maintain currency, then a short VFR skip back for light relief. I've dragged my usual safety pilot Boyan along with me, and he's sitting in the right seat idly watching a Pilatus PC12 being towed across the ramp a hundred metres to our right. Tower clears me to depart on 27R and I start moving forward up to the flashing hold short line. Simultaneously as I look to my left I see the dark shape of (what I immediately recognise as) a Justice Department MD-80 bearing down on us as it crosses 27R inbound from runway 29, exiting at our location, and I hear tower's rushed "051! hold short of 27R!" (or something similar — I don't remember the actual words). I stop dead where I am just short of the hold-short line (if I remember correctly) and off to one side (the taxiway / runway interaction here is a little complicated), and the MD-80, now stopped on the threshold of 27R, has all its lights blazing away at us, and it's going to be a close thing. At this point I'm also worried about being blown back across Airport Drive if the MD-80 turns onto taxiway Charlie just in front of us. I don't (of course) hear the MD-80's side of the whole saga, but I call tower and tell him that the MD-80 can get around us — just — if he's careful as we're somewhat off to the side of the main runway entrance. My call isn't acknowledged. I don't move, because at this point any movement by us will bring us closer to the now-stopped MD-80, and might just confuse things. A few moments later the MD-80 gingerly lumbers past us, its wingtips only a few metres from us, and turns onto Charlie. We get rocked a little by the jet blast as it slowly taxis away from us, but basically nothing much else happens, and a short while later we're cleared (again) to depart 27R. This time it's all uneventful, and a few seconds later we're airborne and being vectored by NorCal towards Napa's LOC 36L approach. In all this time, there's been no apology, no real acknowledgment (to us, at least), nothing from tower at all. Just another night in Oakland, I guess. At least I didn't get shot (sorry, Oakland in-joke).

A few observations and Wednesday-morning quarterbacking from the next day:

  • I'd switched from ground only a short time earlier, but I hadn't heard any exchange with the MD-80 before switching, so I wasn't aware of its existence at all. I pride myself on positional awareness through listening on-frequency, but this time either I completely missed a crucial exchange on-frequency (or at least half on-frequency), or any exchange happened solely on South Field ground. I don't know, but I suspect it all had something to do with the next point…
  • North Field tower (the usual tower for these runways in Oakland's split-field / two-tower setup) was temporarily closed, and there was a confusing set of frequencies and associated instructions in use. I was first on combined clearance, then North Field ground, and then South Field tower frequencies; I suspect the MD-80 was on South Field ground as a convenience to either the controller or the MD-80's crew.
  • When North Field tower's closed, South Field tower takes over, but it can't see parts of the North Field, and if I remember correctly, it's precisely the North Field runup area off 27R that it can't see. That's no excuse for losing situational awareness, of course.
  • I suspect the MD-80 was taxiing without its main lights on, presumably (and ironically) because the MD-80 crew saw us in the runup area from some distance away and didn't want to blind us with its main lights. Throughout this incident I'd guess that the MD-80 crew were at least as surprised as we were, and I'd also guess it was a call from the MD-80 that alerted the South Field controller to the situation (a call that we wouldn't have heard, of course).
  • Ironically, one of the reasons I didn't notice the MD-80 earlier was the brightness of the flashing hold short lights embedded in the taxiway just in front of us, which combined with the usual crappy Cessna windshield optics and the busy visual environment of that part of the airport (runways, taxiways, hangars, off-airport lighting, etc.), can make it difficult to see aircraft on the runways or the connecting taxiway Bravo.
  • A few minutes earlier ground had instructed us to taxi to 27R normally, but had omitted to mention that it would be immediately behind an Airborne Express 767 freighter that had just crossed in front of us (ground didn't call out that traffic at all; it's very unusual for Oakland ground controllers not to caution you about other taxiing traffic or to at least mention other aircraft in the area). Not a real safety issue in that I could easily see it, but just a foretaste of what was to come, I guess.
  • Yes, I should have done a much better job of looking before I started moving, but, again, while I glanced that way, I didn't see anything I didn't expect to see, and while it's no excuse, the visual environment at that point at that time of day can be rather confusing. And this is my home-town airport we're talking about, an environment and place I learned to fly in, and that's as familiar to me as large parts of the rest of my neighbourhood….

Of such things are NASA reports made, I guess.

* * *

Other than that little incident? A very pleasant and productive flight: alternating hand-flown with automated (G1000-driven) approaches is a lot of fun (I'm still amazed by just how well the new G1000 software drives the autopilot around holds, course reversals, etc.); the Oakland center controller's laid back, competent, and anticipatory ways work nicely with me on the Napa approaches; and the VFR flight back over San Pablo Bay and down along the line of the hills over Berkeley and Oakland back home is the usual wonderland of light and landscape.

All in all, an Interesting flight, at least in parts.

* * *

[Postscript (later the same day): prompted by John I called Oakland tower and spoke to a quality assurance guy there and gave him my side of what happened (and a small piece of my mind). He called back later after listening to the tapes, and while his version is a little different from mine (and he seemed to treat it a little less seriously with a sort of "shit happens" attitude by my reading), and his understanding of the relevant transmissions is slightly different), the agreed-to bottom line is that while no actual incursion occurred, I was wrongly cleared onto a runway that was already occupied, and that the relevant controller will be, ummm, re-educated. He noted that if I hadn't called they wouldn't have known any such incident had happened. He stated that North Tower was closed due to a leaking roof and associated problems, and that (sort of off the record…), yes, staffing issues were probably a contributory factor, especially given the South Tower blind spot. He didn't seem to take my wild complaints about the flashing hold short lights terribly seriously, but hell, I don't expect anyone to really (unless they have a lot of experience with crappy Cessna windshields :-)). I'm not really pleased with the outcome — the situation's inherently unsafe there — but I'm hoping that at least the NASA ASRS report will add some weight to any internal enquiry. Or not. I dunno…].