May 15, 2012

Hand Made

Just as I'm turning to a new heading for the vector NorCal Approach has given us for the Livermore KLVK ILS 25R approach, the 172's autopilot gives up the ghost with a distinct lack of drama. Just a little blink, the usual autopilot disconnect sound, and then a blank panel display. Dammit, I think, this flight is supposed to be at least as much about keeping on top of the G1000 and autopilot combination while under the hood as anything else, and now half of it's lost its tiny mind and isn't quite all there…. John's sitting in the right seat as safety pilot and without missing a beat says "just hand fly it". Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Well, I would have said the same thing if I wasn't under the Cone Of Stupidity and thinking at the speed of molasses, and if my engineer brain wouldn't keep trying to debug things like this on the fly, but I know the deal, and we plod off towards the approach under my control in the cool clear darkness of the Bay Area night.

Predictably, closer in to the runway my flying gets agricultural (as we would say where I come from), and while I don't break PTS standards, neither do I set any records for accuracy and stability. I over-control the whole way down, and decide to look up 100' above the decision altitude before I make total hash of the approach. I salvage things a little bit (and over the next few landings) by absolutely nailing the landing, but still, I feel mortified — I usually do better than that on hand-flown approaches, and it's not like it's a difficult approach or the weather's getting in the way or anything. The only other saving grace is that — so far, at least — my radio work's not terrible: it's usually the first thing that goes to pieces after a long break from flying.

We do a bunch of stop-and-goes in the darkness at Livermore, then depart VFR back to Oakland (KOAK), but we already know we'll need a real IFR clearance to get home due to the coastal stratus layer that's moved in over the inner Bay area, and we gird ourselves for a stretch of ad hoc holding or circling out here in the clear skies above the Diablo Valley before we're allowed home. It doesn't sound promising when I call NorCal and ask for a clearance back from over Dublin (the one in Northern California, not the one I used to visit occasionally for my job when I lived in London…) — the controller effectively asks if we're OK with at least a ten minute delay in getting the clearance. I reply with a resigned "affirmative", but almost as soon as I've loaded the G1000 for the RNAV Y 27L approach back to Oakland, we're given a heading that looks suspiciously like a vector towards the approach just outside JUPAP, the initial fix. Sure enough, a few nautical miles closer in we're cleared for the approach, with a request for best forward speed (we're already doing that, but it's the thought that counts, I guess). I hand fly down towards the stratus layer, and in a few minutes, after a small amount of actual IMC and yet another smooth landing, we're on the ground. It's deserted down here, and we taxi off towards Landmark, unable to raise them on Unicom for fuel. At least I flew this approach with some sort of accuracy and stability, and it's all starting to come back to me. And as we wander in to Landmark to find out why they're not talking to us (we never find out in this case, but the Landmark staff are as pleasant and friendly to us as they always are), I feel pleased that I'm current again: IFR-current, night / day landing-current, and club-current. Every little bit helps….

* * *

This was supposed to be a simple short club- and landings-currency VFR flight caused by my having started a new job and losing the flying thread for way too many weeks, but the coastal stratus closed in on us earlier than predicted, and by the time we were at the airport preflighting the plane, it was obvious we'd need to depart and return IFR, even though (as usual) it was clear less than ten nautical miles to the east and / or 2,000' above us all the way east to (I'd guess) Nevada. I wasn't too upset — if I could get two approaches in I'd extend my IFR currency enough to be useful, and if John was up for a longer flight (we weren't going to depart much before 9PM), I was keen. And so it went — the only other interesting thing about the flight being that it was the first time I was using my new iPad with Foreflight for serious in-plane navigation. It's not like I haven't used John's iPad before (YAFB passim), and I'm an early Foreflight booster, so it's all fairly familiar, but actually doing it on-the-fly (as it were) while under the hood and on a real clearance is novel, and I occasionally have to ask John for advice on the best way to do things. On the other hand, I can't imagine flying IFR or even VFR in the future without the iPad (or something similar); I think the only really irritating thing was being unable to get the clearance down on the iPad — I had to scrawl it down with my left hand on my real (paper) pad. Yes, I'm vaguely ambidextrous, but still, I'll have to get a better way of copying the clearance on my iPad only. The other thing I need to get set up is the Foreflight checklist app, but that was just me being too busy over the last few weeks to get that together. Maybe next week (there's always next week).

The other thing that got our attention was a small underwing-engined RJ of some sort in Finnair livery parked at Landmark. As we taxi past we wonder what it is; I can't help noting mordantly that it looks a bit like the pictures I've seen of the Sukhoi that crashed in Indonesia last week, but Finnair (to my knowledge, at least) doesn't have Sukhois, and neither of us is sure what it really is. Later, I look it up on Wikipedia — it's an Embraer E-190, but what it's doing here in Oakland I don't know. I'm surely one of the tiny handful of Oaklanders who's not only actually flown Finnair, but who's been to Finland, so it doesn't seem likely they're scouting out a new Oakland direct Helsinki flight or have suddenly decided that Oakland's their new US hub, and it's unlikely to be a sports team charter (which usually accounts for some of the larger jets parked in front of Landmark). Just one of those Oakland mysteries, I guess.


Dave said...

Hey!! He lives! Glad to see you getting current and posting. Love the blog and your writing.

Hamish said...

Dave -- thanks. Still alive, but not always on top of the flying bits...

Ben Read said...

Thanks for the blog, Hamish. As someone who flies out of Watsonville but doesn't always keep IFR current, I'm encouraged to read about another amateur pilot who does put in the effort.

Hamish said...

Ben — thanks! I try to make keeping IFR currency something fun rather than a chore, but it's definitely sometimes really difficult to keep on top of things when you have a day job and a real life :-).