May 18, 2009

Around and About (Still Alive!)

Given the somnolent state of this blog, my few readers probably wonder whether I'm actually still alive or not, but never fear: as of this morning, the FAA has again certified my aliveness (if not my alertness at that time of the morning), and it's really only the high price of flying and the recession's grip on me and the local economy that's kept me from being more active. In any case, as with last time, my medical got renewed without fuss or bother, and the whole visit to the medical examiner was an enjoyable experience (as unlikely as that sounds — I've been using the same AME for a decade, and he's quite a character…).

In other flying-related news I helped shepherd a friend of mine's two-year-old kid through the Hiller Aviation Museum at San Carlos Airport (KSQL) over the weekend, which was a lot of fun (he's way too young to actually come flying, but he already likes airplanes and seems to have a good idea what they are for a two-year-old). When the Aviatrix had coffee with me in Berkeley a few years ago she'd just come up from visiting the Hiller herself, and her description of the place made me want to visit some time (like so many local pilots I've done dozens of touch and goes at San Carlos airport without ever stopping there, let alone visiting the museum). For a variety of dumb reasons every time I'd planned on going there the visit got canceled, but yesterday seemed like a good day, so off we finally went (it helps that it's mostly indoors in air-conditioned modernity, given that yesterday was wiltingly hot, by far the hottest day of the year around here so far).

Even with Aviatrix's description, I was unprepared for how good it was in reality: it's a sign of something, at least, that while at most aviation museums I can identify maybe 80% of the planes and gear (at least approximately), I couldn't do better than about 40% at the Hiller. Even more enjoyable (especially with kids in tow) was the way you could sit in and play with various real cockpits — a 747, a 737, an ex-Blue Angels F-something-or-other (wish I'd noted it down…), etc., and a bunch of hands-on simulators and other working displays. It's very different in size and focus from somewhere like Castle Air Museum, another local(ish) museum I like a lot, and I'd thoroughly recommend it for kids and adults of almost any age. They even have a little raised platform right next to the museum near the west side of the runway that you can stand on to watch the local air traffic in the pattern or on the runways and taxiways (and, of course, that's exactly what we did, regardless of the heat and glare).

I think one of the high points for me was buying a soft Southwest 737 plush toy that Alex, the kid, immediately took to heart, and apparently cuddled all night. It seemed kind of appropriate given Oakland's role as one of Southwest's main hubs, and the number of Southwest 737's flying past his place that he sees every day. He certainly seemed to know what the fuzzy purple-and-orange 737 was :-).

May 12, 2009

Real Enough

It was a dark and stormy night… I'm sitting in a nice G1000-equipped Cessna 172 on runway 15 at Martin State airport (KMTN), ready for takeoff. It's night time, and there are flashes of lightning illuminating the runway every ten seconds or so. Sitting there I reflect that a dozen or more years ago I sailed the Chesapeake — somewhere out there in the impenetrable darkness a few hundred metres off the departure end of the runway I'm on — for a week on a small sailboat based near Baltimore. Somewhere I still have the Approaches to Baltimore Harbor maritime chart that advises mariners to contact Martin State tower on VHF channel 16 if they'll be transiting the area off the end of the runway and they have a mast or superstructure higher than about 36'. I knew I'd heard of this place before.

More flashes of lightning. Good thing this isn't for real — I'm sitting at the California Airways certified G1000 sim again — but the pre-takeoff tension I always feel on IMC departures feels real enough. For me the transition to IMC out of visual flying immediately after takeoff is always by far the hardest part of real-world IFR flying, mostly because you're typically still getting a feeling for everything at that point — aircraft trim, ATC requests, slightly-unfamiliar instrument layout, orientation, etc. — and in cases like mine, you're a little rusty (I'm sure this is less a problem for the well-practiced out there). At least when you hit IMC on an approach or in cruise your aircraft is (hopefully!) well-trimmed, you're comfortable with the instruments, you've had time to get familiar with things, etc. (in fact, descent into benign IMC in those conditions is something I absolutely love).

John releases me into the void, and the sim gets gratuitously nasty by giving me a pretty realistic-looking bird strike on the way out, smack bang in the middle of the windshield. Talk about topical…. Never mind — on with the show. John repositions me away from the airport, and I dig up the charts for the selected approach: the Martin State (KMTN) VOR/DME OR TACAN Z RWY 15 approach. Take a look at it sometime — you'll see why John's chosen it for this evening's IFR currency workout. The approach is a continuous DME arc that ends at the runway, aligned with the centerline. Cool! Not in itself particularly difficult, but you need to keep pretty much exactly 14.7 DME from Baltimore VOR as you approach the threshold or you'll miss the runway; and DME arcs, while not difficult, can be demanding in cases like this, especially when carried on for a full 90 degrees or so — in a dark and stormy night.

I'm actually most interested in how the G1000 + GFC700 autopilot will handle the arc (I can fly a DME arc fairly well on my own), so when the sim can't find the approach in its database, I'm mildly irritated, but decide to press on regardless, using the raw OBS and DME display against Baltimore VOR, and hand-flying the last few miles. Nothing too strenuous, for sure, and it turns out to be a lot of fun, with a mild mental work out here and there, and it's gratifying to be at 14.7 DME when the runway comes into view just above the MDA. I land, surrounded the sort of weather I'd normally run screaming from in the air or on the Chesapeake, and we suspend the sim to prep the next approach.

* * *

The rest of the "flight" goes well — smoothly and without incident, at least. We'd started with the ILS into Oakland's runway 29 (only because I'll probably never fly it in real life, even though it's my home airport, because I don't really want to pay the landing fee :-)), then Oakland's RNAV 27L as an LPV approach (something I do in real life regularly), then the long arc into Martin State (above). And then — for light relief — the Silver City, Arizona (KSVC) LOC/DME RWY 26 approach which has DME arcs to the localizer from a couple of the outer IAFs. This time the approach is in the database, and I watch with my usual sense of amazement as the G1000 simply flies the plane around the arc smoothly with the autopilot coupled. Well, nothing's ever quite that smooth in the world of sims (otherwise what would be the point?), but nothing went horribly wrong, and, as always, I learned a lot about systems management and the devil lurking in the odd approach detail here or there. Plus it's a fair bit cheaper at the moment than going out in a real G1000 C172…