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.