July 06, 2015

I'm Sorry, Dave. I'm Afraid I Can't Do That (Me and Autopilots)

Somewhere over the Central Valley...

I get an unexpected extra day off work over the 4th of July weekend, so I do a sobering but weirdly-pleasant IFR-in-VMC flight on my own to Stockton (KSCK), where I do the ILS RWY 29R with the missed as published, all hand-flown (for fun!) under the guidance of the G1000's flight director, but not under the Cone Of Stupidity or in actual, of course. Following that, a leisurely VFR-only flight back to Hayward (KHWD) including a diversion to Livermore (KLVK) for some touch-and-goes on runway 25L there (and what a pleasure that always is!).

I’m rusty as hell on real-world IFR procedures, and it shows — and it’s the reason I do this flight on a real IFR flight plan but in clear VMC, and to a destination and along a route and including an approach all of which I'm familiar with. I can barely remember how to get my clearance on the ramp at Hayward (which takes me all of ten seconds to get right, but still…), I bungle several radio calls, I input the wrong heading on a vector, I can’t initially get the autopilot to do the right thing with altitudes (below), and I ask for the wrong approach at Stockton. I make it sound terrible, but really, nothing was so bad that I busted any limits or anything, as far as I know (the heading was 10 degrees off and I caught it quickly, for example), but it still left me seriously glad I did this today rather than in IMC. After this flight, I actually feel like I could do it for real again now; as always, it's all about complexity management.

The autopilot? A real brain failure on my part here, as usual. Initially on the departure out of Hayward I can’t seem to get it to do altitude arming using what I think is the “obvious” way, but it’s another of those weird problems I have with altitude arming on both this (the Garmin GFC 700) and the older non-integrated one in the other DA-40’s: I confuse arming and capture, and somewhere over the Central Valley on my way to Stockton I feel like kicking myself when I realise (with a few seconds of metaphorically standing back and thinking) what I should be doing (that “ALT” button in both cases means “capture / hold”, not arm, unfortunately). The good news here is I didn't obsess about it, or spend a lot of time debugging it on-the-fly (as it were) — I just shrugged and kept hand flying. The autopilot in the DA40 is a technological wonder — and increases single-pilot IFR safety an order of magnitude over hand-flying, and it’s more obvious in use than the other models — but it’s still a bit intimidating when it sits there (silently) doing the autopilot equivalent of “I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that”. I'll get over it….