June 28, 2012

Traffic's A Coyote At 8,000 Feet

I'm under the Cone of Stupidity in Cessna 051 somewhere a mile or two out from the runway threshold on the Stockton (KSCK) RNAV 29R approach when the tower controller tells us to exercise caution for (as I hear it) a coyote at 8,000'. Several things immediately go through my mind as we bump along the approach: a) Umm, what?! It's bad enough that the approach is seriously bumpy, but we have to contend with a coyote at 8,000'?! b) Is "Coyote" actually some sort of aircraft type, and he's calling traffic? c) We're below 1,000' — why would he call out anything at 8,000' unless it was dropping like a brick (or, for that matter, a coyote). It's a mystery to me, so I quickly ask Evan H., my safety pilot sitting in the right seat, what the hell the controller just said.

Evan patiently explains that it sounds like there's been a report of a coyote on the runway at around the 8,000' marker. Well, that makes much more sense, but I still ask the controller to say again. He does, a bit more clearly this time, and I reply with an enthusiastic "Yeah! we'll definitely keep a lookout for that!". In the end there's no sign of any coyotes anywhere on this or the next few landings, but it's hardly the first time I've either seen or been warned about a fox or coyote or dog on the runway here at Stockton or Livermore or even at my home base, Oakland (KOAK).

And it's already been that sort of flight, not the flight I expected, and a flight full of little errors or miscommunications, none of which amount to much, but all of which when put together make me feel glad I was under the hood in clear (bumpy) VMC rather than in actual IMC.

* * *

It started a few days ago, when Evan and I were supposed to do this flight on a weekday evening (rather than a Saturday morning), but the flight was scrubbed when I noticed that the port side (red) nav light was inoperative (no matter how much I banged on the wing); we rebooked for this morning.

Then came the forecast: I'd filed a real IFR flight plan to and from Stockton because the forecast the previous night had implied there'd be a deep coastal stratus layer over much of the Bay Area today, and the weather had been rather weird for the previous few days (it very nearly rained in Oakland last night, which in California terms is surely one of the four horsemen of some sort of apocalypse). But the day dawns bright and clear, if a little cold and blustery. So none of the benign actual IMC I'd really hoped for, unfortunately.

I check NOTAMS and such, and notice that Oakland's radar — a large part of the Bay Area's approach system — is NOTAMED OTS, and with it out, Oakland's Class C surface area and associated services are temporarily gone. No big deal — this has happened before when I've been flying and it's not going to make any difference to the flight.

Then doing the rental paperwork at Oakland Flyers, we hear that 051's G1000 has some sort of problem that supposedly makes the database out of date, and that cross-filling from the PFD to the MFD also isn't working. OK, I guess we can do this flight VFR with practice approaches then… (I prefer to do things on a real IFR flight plan just to keep current on things like copying clearances, etc.).

Out at the hangar I notice the lock's missing from the hangar door and point it out to Evan, thinking "that's careless…". Then I open the door and burst out with a surprised "Where's the bloody plane?!" The entire hangar is empty. OK, time to actually look at the book — sure enough, in tiny characters on the front where it used to say "Hangar XYZ" it now says "Hangar ABC" — RTFM, I guess, but no one at the club mentioned it'd been re-hangared a few hundred metres away — and it'd been in the original hangar only a couple of days ago when the original flight was scrubbed. No big deal, I guess.

We pre-flight 051, then get in and start up. Three things are immediately obvious: 1) the database is actually up to date — maybe we can do this on the IFR flight plan, after all; 2) Yes, there's some sort of weird PFD / MFD cross-fill problem, which is going to make things irritating but not too difficult with the two of us paying attention (I wouldn't want to do this in single pilot IMC); and, 3) The standby (mechanical) AI seems to have lost its tiny mind and is revolving and swirling like something from The Exorcist (a movie I've never actually seen, but never mind). The standby AI doesn't settle down after a couple of minutes, and since it's quite distracting, Evan covers it with one of his inop covers. We decide we'll depart VFR and just do the approaches as practice approaches — after all, this is just an IFR currency flight, and the weather is clear VMC as far as Stockton, at least.

By the time we've done the runup off 27R the standby AI's settled down, but we still depart VFR. We head for the Central Valley — and that lovely weather turns out to be bumpy. Not quite continuously, and not severely, but it's a factor in almost every approach and cruise segment for the next two hours, and it's the sort of bumpiness that anyone not a pilot would probably find tedious at best, sick-making at worst.

We get the practice approaches set up with a bit of extra programming (Evan just replicates on the MFD what I'm doing on the PFD), and after plodding on bumpily across the Central Valley we do the RNAV 29R into Stockton with full pilot nav, including the hold-in-lieu at OXJEF. The bumpiness is close to too much for the autopilot, but I sadistically keep it engaged for most of the way to see how well it could cope. Not very well, is the answer, and after the coyote thing and a smooth touch-and-go, we go missed back to NorCal approach. I re-engage the autopilot at about 2,000' in what I think is the correct altitude mode, but the bloody thing just keeps the plane climbing; at 2,200' I cut the autopilot out of the equation and start diving back to the assigned 2,000'. I can sort the issue out later… and, after setting up the next approach that's what I do.

This time around on the same approach it's just too bumpy for the autopilot, and I hand-fly the entire approach, a little roughly, but quite a lot better than the autopilot last time. However, this time my landing is really pretty bad — I blame the sudden windshear just as I'm flaring, but whatever it was, we bounced, and I had to use the throttle to ensure we didn't land hard on the second bounce. Not too bad, but a lesson in wariness. And, once again, on the missed I engage the autopilot in what I think is straight and level mode at 2,000' — and it starts climbing. This time I'm more on top of it and we don't bust altitude too badly, but I'm always a bit aghast at how much trouble I have with this unit in altitude mode (it's all me, the unit itself is just fine). Just to add to the overall feeling that not everything is going as well as I'd like, I keep making minor radio errors (missing calls, not understanding the controller, etc.) for the approaches (it seems to clear up as I get closer to Oakland for some reason).

We request, set up for, and get the ILS 29R with vectors, and things go better with the autopilot this time around, but I watch it like a hawk. And this time around my landing is OK, considering the windshear, but there are still no coyotes to be seen, which kinda disappoints me. We go missed as published and I let the autopilot drive us around the hold at ORANG, just because I really enjoy seeing this particular chore automated (and I am, after all, an engineer who delights in technology like this). After once around the hold we depart with VFR flight following back to Oakland.

This part — the VFR flight back to Oakland — is not without its hazards either. For much of the past 45 minutes we've been hearing parachute drop zone announcements (there were several drop zones NOTAMED for today in the area), and we have to be careful and listen to the controller to ensure we don't get caught in anything bad. There's a drop in progress over Lodi, but that's quite some distance north of us, and another supposedly closer in to Stockton, but nothing was ever announced on air as we flew by. And just as we're getting towards Byron (C83), Evan suddenly points out a flight of four or five military jets slightly below us, maybe two miles away, going rather quickly towards Sacramento. A nice sight (they're maneuvering in not-quite-aerobatic ways as they shoot past), but I kinda wish NorCal had pointed them out to us as traffic. Oh well. We watch them disappear rapidly northwards, hoping they don't reappear back in our direction.

All through the flight from just after takeoff one of the G1000's MFD fuel gauges intermittently shows a red 'X' for a few seconds and then reverts to normal; it seemed to stop doing this around Stockton, but it's back again. Oh well, another thing to squawk when we get on the ground.

We set up for and request the RNAV Y 27L back in to Oakland, and potter on towards JUPAP as requested. Nothing much to report about this segment except it's still bumpy, but (predictably) the air's clear and cool. We get vectored for the approach, and at first I let the autopilot handle things, which it seems to be doing OK. But just past the final approach fix, even though it's captured the (LPV) glideslope, it just can't seem to cope with the near continual windshear, and we end up two dots above the glideslope. Time to take over, I think, and I disengage the autopilot and hand fly the rest of the approach successfully and fairly smoothly down to about 400'. It's a weird sort of day when my hand flying is smoother and more accurate than the autopilot, but there you are. But however smooth the approach, I land badly on 27L. Once again, due, I think, to low-level windshear in the flare, I billow down the runway and have to salvage things with some throttle work. Nothing terrible, but a bit of a blow to the ego, I guess.

Back in Oakland Flyers I do the paperwork and notice that the tach time we took from the MFD is way out. I suspect that maybe the G1000 cross-fill problem has affected the tach time (or not — I just don't know) on the MFD without affecting the rest of the engine instruments. Whatever the cause, it means I have to trudge back out through the security gate to the hangar and back again just to see what the tach time is on the PFD; it's much more believable this time (and yes, I check what the MFD displays — we didn't misread it, it was maybe ten hours out). Back in the clubhouse again, my pen stops working as I'm trying to finish the paperwork. It's been that sort of day, really….

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