June 08, 2005

This Is For Real...

We've been flying in continuous night IMC now for more than 20 minutes, and after a long series of short vectors NorCal's just cleared me for the Oakland runway 27R ILS a few miles outside GROVE. I can hear on-frequency that he's sequenced a Gulfstream behind me; apparently there's a Citation ahead of me somewhere. I can't see a bloody thing outside. Boyan -- my sometime flightshare partner -- is in the right seat, following along as he contemplates starting his own instrument rating. He's been briefed to double check the altitudes against the GPS waypoints I'm using as backup (he has some useful experience over the years as a passenger in actual). NorCal asks me -- again -- to maintain current airspeed (120 KIAS) until at least FITKI (the FAF). Oakland's ATIS is reporting 500' broken, 1100' overcast, light rain, mist. I sit there thinking -- this is it. This is for real. I can't just put up the hood if something goes wrong, or have someone else recover a botched attempt.

Strangely, it feels good. The plane and the approach are set up properly; both are going smoothly; Boyan appears to be relaxed and enjoying himself; and I'm on very familiar ground. We intercept the glideslope at 1500', cross FITKI maintaining 120 KIAS, and switch to tower. Cleared to land, 27R.

At 1,000' we still can't see anything. I slow down to about 100 KIAS, put in one notch of flaps. At 800' I start noticing lights on the ground immediately below us through the clouds and rain. We slow to 90 KIAS; another notch of flaps and trim. We're tracking the localiser almost perfectly, deliberately one dot high on the glideslope. There's a slight left crosswind, but the air's otherwise fairly still. At 700' we start seeing enough lights on the ground to fly visually, but we can't see more than a mile or two ahead of us through broken cloud and light rain. I keep watching the ILS. At 600' we break out for real -- and there it is, Oakland's 27R, dead ahead. Woohoo! We land a few seconds later in the drizzle. Tower asks us where we're parking; I tell him the Old-T's. "27R, taxi down 2SP then 33... uh, 2SP you know what I mean... taxi down 27R then 33 for the Old T's...".

This feels great. Now if only I could get things going so smoothly in the rest of my life... :-).

* * *

It's one of those very rare things for the Bay Area: a day with sustained, widespread, benign IMC. No thunderstorms. Icing levels well above 10,000'. Layered overcasts all the way up to the flight levels, reaching down to below 1,000' around Oakland, but not much below about 4,000' in the Central Valley. Ideal for training and confidence building. I've had 2SP booked for this evening for weeks anyway, but this seems like a great chance to go out and fly some actual. I call John who's apparently lounging around down in the pilot lounge of his "California Coastal City", just to get a PIREP on the real weather out there and to see if there wasn't some obvious thing that I'd missed (it all seemed too good to be true). He confirms the weather's actually fairly benign out there -- go for it! So I do.

Taxiing out to Kaiser to get fuel before departing we see first one, then another, SouthWest 737 landing on 27R a few hundred metres from us. And then another... I ask Ground what's the deal with the 737's -- is 29 closed or something? (Note: Oakland's airline and heavy freight traffic uses runway 29 -- all 10,000' of it, a mile or so from the 27s -- and its ILS almost exclusively, leaving the shorter runways 27R and 27L to the rest of us. Oakland is also one of SouthWest's main Left Coast hubs, so the vast majority of airline traffic into Oakland is SouthWest 737s). Ground says 29's localiser suddenly went belly up a few minutes ago and since the ceiling's way too low for the visual, they're using the 27's with 27R's ILS. The results are pretty interesting, much the same as you see at John Wayne / KSNA -- lots of noise, heavy braking, clogged taxiways, spray, all sound and fury from where we are on taxiway delta. Quite a sight. But I can't help thinking this can't be good news.... We'll be coming back down that same ILS in about 90 minutes in night IMC and the thought of wake turbulence in IMC, and all the damn vectoring for traffic we'll get on the way to the ILS as the result of losing 29, well... I have visions of holding for 40 minutes in actual, miles from SUNOL, or ground holds at Stockton (our filed destination), but hey, it's all flying, and good real-world IFR practice, so off we go.

* * *

The flight out to Stockton (KSCK) itself is uneventful -- we enter actual IMC at about 500' and don't see the ground again for the next 15 minutes or so out towards ALTAM. I lower the Cone Of Stupidity when we start getting clear of clouds a bit later. I do the ILS 29R into Stockton with the autopilot coupled, mostly to keep in practice, and to test it (in VMC) after repairs last week (it started rolling slowly to the right in roll mode last week -- every other mode was fine, though). The repairs seem to have worked, and it tracks the localiser within a dot or two from quite a distance out. Nice to know I have it if I need it later this evening...

We land normally, then pick up our clearance back to Oakland. There's a few minutes' ground delay for us before tower lets us go, then we're off again. Back under the Cone of Stupidity and handed off to NorCal, we get an almost immediate clearance direct SUNOL (a slight short cut), then NorCal says (sounding quite apologetic) that we should expect "extensive vectoring" (his words) for sequencing closer to SUNOL due to the Oakland 29 ILS being out of action. No problem -- I'm up for it.

We enter actual IMC after about 15 minutes and don't see the ground -- or anything much else outside the cockpit -- again until breaking out for 27R. As with the flight out, the flight back is uneventful, but getting closer to SUNOL we start getting vectored all over the place, with several changes in altitude. We get handed off to 125.35, the final NorCal sector for OAK approaches from this direction. The frequency is non-stop talk; I don't get a chance to check in before the controller calls me and vectors me to my left for sequencing ("2SP if you're on-frequency left turn 210 vectors for sequencing climb maintain 5000", or some such). 29's localiser is still out, and there's a stack of SouthWest 737's on frequency all probably struggling to learn (or remember) how to program KOAK 27R into the FMS rather than 29, and to cope with the much shorter runway. A few miles from SUNOL the controller tells one of the 737's that 29's ILS is back in action, and asks whether they want it instead of 27R. The reaction's immediate -- "Uh, yeah, sure, that'd be a relief..." and within a few minutes it sounds like a general resequencing has happened, and the 737's are (mostly) back on 29. We get a few more micro-vectors, then we're approaching GROVE...

* * *

This was a great experience, a really enjoyable confidence builder. I guess I knew I could do it -- I'd done similar things with John in the right seat -- but it's great to have it confirmed, and to have things go so well the entire time without an instructor sitting there.

As with training, flying in actual wasn't much harder than under the hood -- it's just the stakes are (obviously) much higher. The hardest part for me -- predictably -- was entering actual at about 500' departing Oakland, where the transition was abrupt, and was combined with a hand-off to NorCal and a new set of headings and altitudes. I handled it OK, but for a minute or so the headings were a bit rough as I struggled to get into the groove. I'd have grave misgivings about entering actual any lower immediately after departure -- at least I'd stabilised the climb by that point.

2SP's autopilot is also a great resource for times like this (but I didn't actually use it extensively this time except for the Stockton ILS, as I wanted to brush up on my IMC control skills). I'm (not surprisingly) strongly with John on this -- as he puts it, the autopilot's a resource, a second-in-command, a very effective tool for keeping you ahead of the game. As with GPS, there's no excuse for not knowing how to use it effectively if you've got it -- and it's hardly cheating (as some people seem to view it) to use it to decrease pilot load, especially in single-pilot IMC situations like this. It's just another (albeit important) tool -- and if it's there, use it. I'll shut up now.

* * *

As I'm tying 2SP down in the darkness and drizzle of the Old-T's, I reach up and grab the pitot tube to start putting the pitot cover on. It takes a second or two, but suddenly I'm aware that a) the tube's bloody hot, and b) it's burned three of my fingers quite painfully. The pitot heat was on the entire flight, and I forgot to turn it off after landing -- and it only just went off when I turned the master switch off a few seconds ago (as I've said countless times, with things like this I'm really not the sharpest tool in the toolshed...). I now have a burned left hand that's going to require a lot of working around (I'm naturally slightly left-handed). That's about the only thing that's marred the evening.

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