December 7, 2004

No News Is Bad News (Cough Cough...)

So I return to Sunny California after nearly four weeks in Sunny Australia (and Frigid New Zealand, but don't get me started...) and promptly catch bronchitis. Two weeks of flying lost, and it's now the second week in December. I don't think I'll remember how to land VFR, let alone how to setup the GPS 27R approach coming back into Oakland. This is actually the longest I've gone without some sort of GA flying in several years.

December 9, 2004

Once Upon An Oakland Winter's Night...

A typical Oakland winter's night: temperature 12C, dewpoint 11C, wind calm, thin scattered cloud at 20,000', altimeter 30.32. A quick jaunt out to Concord (KCCR) for the LDA 19R approach (twice around the block) then back to Oakland for the ILS 27R. The aim tonight: to gently get me back into the swing of things, both IFR and VFR, and to do a club checkout in 2SP, the club's new(ish) 172S that I haven't seen yet, let alone flown (it was added to the fleet when I was in Australia). It's been about 6 weeks since I last flew, and I don't feel too confident about even my basic VFR flying and radio skills, let alone my ability to setup and fly an approach. But I can't wait to fly...

And the results are gratifying: as usual, I don't kill anyone or break any bits of the plane, and modulo a few of the usual recurring Death Grip problems and some rusty radio work during the first 30 minutes or so, I fly mostly to PTS standards and feel pleased with things VFR and IFR (the first time around the CCR LDA 19R approach was about the best I've ever done it). Cool!

* * *

A Nice Clean Panel...2SP turns out to be a very nice 2001 172S that the owner (and the club) does not let students use for primary training. The checkout's a bit of a non-event -- yes, there are thirteen fuel sump drain points to be individually checked on preflight (at least three of which spray fuel everybloodywhere all over face and hands (as I discover), and yes it's got a fuel injected 180 hp engine that can be a little difficult to start -- but there's nothing about actually flying it that's much different from 4JG (and of course, unlike Lou's Arrow, it has fixed gear and prop so it doesn't require a complex endorsement).

2SP's panel is fairly conventional (with individual instruments that are much nicer than the corresponding ones in most of the other club aircraft -- even the ADF looks like something out of the 90's rather than something from WWII), but augmented by an IFR-certified KLN 94 GPS unit. I don't really get to use the GPS on this flight, mostly because I didn't have time to download the manual from the website, but it seems to have all the right bits in all the right places, and looks fairly decent, if a lot less visually gratifying than the Garmin 530. Predictably, learning the KLN 94 interface and procedures will take a few hours (especially under the Cone Of Stupidity), but after watching John use it as a backup for my steam gauge instrument approaches, it doesn't seem to have any odd quirks or surprises. I'll have to download the manual and absorb it properly for the next 2SP flight.

But the really novel thing (for me) about 2SP is the KAP 140 single axis autopilot installed -- it's simple, easy to understand, and works a dream. John has me do almost the entire second time around the CCR LDA 19R approach with the autopilot coupled, switching between heading and approach mode as appropriate (with reverse sensing on the outbound leg before the procedure turn), and the results are an eye-opener. The ability to concentrate on maintaining altitude and monitoring the approach performance while not having to spend half your brain power keeping the plane stable is a godsend (hey, this is how the Big Boys do it!). Learning how to safely use an autopilot like this (and the various gotchas that come with it...) has to be a plus -- if nothing else so you can use it when the stress levels are up on a real IMC approach into unfamiliar territory. In any case, the PTS says that if I do the checkride in a plane with an autpilot, I must be able to show that I know how to use it properly (which strikes me as more than fair enough). Yes, some people are going to complain that I'll overuse it or that my own wing-leveling / heading control skills will wither, but like GPS, you have to be able to take advantage of new, proven, technologies where appropriate, and you just have to work to make sure you don't lose the other fundamental skills.

Overall, this plane flies nicely -- it's quite a bit more stable than our other 172s at all speeds (even stabler than 4JG can be at lower speeds), and although it costs proportionately more to rent, the quality of the instruments and the availaibility of a decent GPS and autopilot make it a natural for IFR cross countries. As I said, it's a tossup between 2SP and 4JG at the moment...

* * *

It rained for a few days earlier in the week, and the ground's still saturated. So with the non-existent temperature / dewpoint spread and the drop from the daytime temperature of about 16C to 10C later in the evening, by the time we return at about 21.30 there's a thin layer of light ground fog developing over the airport. It's eerie -- from 100' up, on the approach, the air is crystal clear, the forward and downward visibility almost unlimited; on the ground, forward visibility is in some places only a few hundred metres. As we taxi back from refueling at Kaiser, the fog swirls thinly around us across the taxiways and aprons; by the time I leave the clubhouse 30 minutes later, the fog's become thick enough to be a real danger in places -- even though you can easily see the stars above. The layer's probably only a few metres thick. It's easy to see how tricky this effect -- very common in Northern California, especially the Central Valley, at this time of year -- could be on landing.

* * *

Once again I have to bow to the inevitable -- my contracts (etc.), combined with my earlier bronchitis, are going to delay things even further. I may be able to restart properly early January; until then, I can probably fly only once every couple of weeks. We shall see...

December 18, 2004

Two Fer One

A Famous Local Bridge.Two leisurely unplanned VFR joy rides in one day, the first real VFR flying I've done in months. Light relief, basically. A meandering daytime cross country over the Golden Gate then up the coast to Jenner, then across the coastal range to Santa Rosa (KSTS) and back in 2SP with Barb, an artist friend of mine, then a nighttime cross country to Monterey (KMRY) and back in 4AC with Boyan, a fellow pilot who's flown with me to Santa Barbara and other places as a rideshare.

The weather's perfect, sunny, calm, clear, and warm, the company's great, and it's all a pleasant diversion from constantly thinking about approaches, holds, headings, etc. Santa Rosa is (predictably) a zoo, and we're cleared to land number six behind a bunch of student pilots while still several miles out. There's even a Jet Provost in the pattern somewhere (but I never actually see it). We slot ourselves into the pattern as smoothly as we can. I count it as something of a triumph that while Tower is continually issuing commands and (quite good-naturedly) chiding a bunch of different pilots for not following instructions or making the wrong entry (etc.), we get the bare minimum of attention and are cleared for take off again ahead of a bunch of other planes waiting around the runway entry who'd checked in earlier than us. Sometimes I think it's my accent...

2SP at the Old T's.Later, I fly back PIC from Monterey in the right seat, trying to polish a skill I learned a few years ago when John gave me a couple of informal lessons in flying from the right seat (basically, at the time I was curious, but I also think it's useful if you're with another pilot who decides they want you to fly and you don't want to have to land just to change seats, or you're ferrying a plane with a bad push-to-talk switch, etc.). It's not hard, just a little odd at first. I do the ILS back into Oakland (but not, this time, under the hood); from the right seat it's a little harder than usual to see the DG and the airspeed indicator, but it doesn't go too badly, and even if I'm not under the hood it's good experience. The landing goes fine. It's good to do this sort of thing sometimes...

Coming back from Monterey we use my GPS 195 handheld to check progress; just before South County (E16) Boyan sets it to go direct Reid Hillview (KRHV). We've both done this flight dozens of times, and we both know exactly where RHV is, so this is basically just for fun. But when Boyan hands me the unit, it's telling us RHV is about 20nm away, magnetic bearing 330 -- even though we can actually see RHV dead ahead (mag bearing about 030). It seems to think we're about 10nm to the east of where we actually are. We check the satellite reception page -- no anomalies there. A sobering experience -- if we didn't have local knowledge, or were relying solely on the GPS, we'd be heading straight for somewhere like Woodside (OSI) at this point instead of RHV and Oakland. A minute or two later I can actually see RHV's rotating beacon dead ahead -- and the 195 is still telling me to make a 40 or 50 degree left turn on course. A few minutes later it's better, and we don't see any more problems, but I'm not sure what caused the problem -- I've never seen this unit go bad like that before, and there was no indication whatever of any problem, and no NOTAMs for GPS outages in the area. Hmmmm.

December 21, 2004

Rock and Roll

SAC RWY 2 circle to landIt's 8.30 pm, it's dark, it's cold (at least for a Bay Arean like me -- it's a cloudless bone-chilling 7 degrees Celsius), we've got a very variable and gusty 30 knot headwind, the turbulence has been quite bad since before the IAF (COUPS intersection), NorCal has cleared us some time ago for the practice Sacramento Executive (KSAC) GPS RWY 2 approach, we've just passed the final approach fix (SAC VOR), I'm having a lot of trouble holding airspeed, heading, and altitude due to both the turbulence and my own death grip problem, the GPS 530 has suddenly announced that the approach (which had sequenced perfectly up to this point) is "not active", and suddenly the Executive tower controller seems to be asking me where we're flying today. I sit there under the Cone of Stupidity wondering why the hell is he asking me this? Is this a trick question? Is it some kind of intelligence test that I'm failing miserably? We're flying to Sacramento, dummy! Why do you think you just cleared us to land there?!

I actually blurt out something like "4JG ... um, er, ... Sacramento?" on air and just manage to stop myself from adding anything snide. A loud stage whisper from John in the right seat: "I think he's asking what we're flying...". OK, I can cope with that: "Uuh, tower, 4JG, sorry about that; we're a Cessna 172/G" (A quick muttered aside to John: "Why does he need to know that? He already knows what we are..."). "4JG, roger, thanks". A few seconds later, the controller again: "4JG, did NorCal give you any missed instructions?". Again, I sit there wondering: why the hell is he asking this -- NorCal gave us the standard KSAC missed instructions and the standard hand-off to tower (don't they talk?!). I get suspicious: what's he really asking?! Is he hinting that I'm off course or something? Me, slowly, suspiciously: "4JG, affirmative, we've got heading 250, climb 2,000 on the missed". "4JG, thanks". John (fiddling with the 530): "Just keep flying the approach. Don't worry about the GPS. We're inside the FAF and it's still giving you the correct approach info. Plus we've still got the VOR [it's a VOR overlay approach]". Yeah, well, that's easy for him to say...

A few seconds after this, as I try to interrogate John about what's going on with the GPS: "Uh, 4JG, did you say you wanted the circle-to-land for 20? I can give you the straight in for 2 if you'd like". At this stage I just throw up my metaphorical hands ("Dude, whatever...") and mumble something on air about taking the straight-in. "4JG, cleared for the option runway 2. Report going missed". OK, so I really wanted the circle-to-land for circling practice, but I'm already well on my way to losing it mentally -- the approach is steadily going to pieces as I concentrate too much on the radio and the GPS problem, and not on the flying. As I struggle to correct for some potentially serious-looking airspeed and heading deviations I tell John I'd go missed at this point in real life -- I'm just so far behind the plane and the approach it doesn't feel recoverable. He just says confidently "Keep going...", which I do. A few seconds later he tells me to look up -- and there it is, runway 2 in all its glory, sort-of straight ahead(ish). I land just fine (if a little long by my own standards -- there's an abrupt transition at a few hundred feet AGL from strong headwind to near-calm -- and a few seconds later we're off again on the missed.

I have to admit that for a few seconds I have the suspicion that maybe John somehow organised this ahead of time with the tower controller. In any case, it's a good lesson in resource and bandwidth management, but right now I have to get back under the cone of stupidity and do the missed. We check in with NorCal at about 1,000' on heading 250, and the controller asks us what's next. "4JG, we'd like the GPS 25 into Rio Vista [O88], please. Pilot nav". After a short pause: "4JG, OK, where do you want to start the approach?". D'Oh! Where's the O88 plate? I'm already behind things again and we're still rocking and rolling in the turbulence miles from the next approach. This isn't going well.

Then (with a bit of prompting from John) the light goes on! "Ah, NorCal, 4JG, standby..." (yes, finally I'm asserting some sort of control). No problem -- after a minute or so of setting up the plate and absorbing the information at my own pace, it's back to NorCal: "NorCal, 4JG, sorry about the delay, let's try for EPPES". "4JG, cleared for the approach". The major controversy from this point on is how to pronounce "EPPES". I say "Eppies". The controller later somewhat hesitantly uses "Eeppies". John uses "Eepps".

The initial and intermediate approach segments go OK (given the turbulence and heavy crosswind), but once again, just at the FAF, the 530 tells us that the (properly-armed and activated) approach is suddenly "not active". John curses and tells me to continue flying the approach again and to ignore the problem (we'd done RAIM checks before departing Oakland, and we'd noted that the database was set to expire on January 20, so we assumed it wasn't either of those two problems; and there were no extant NOTAMs for GPS coverage or outages. When we reported the problem earlier to NorCal they'd sounded quite unconcerned). I struggle with the wind and the plane until John tells me to look up just before the MAP -- and there's the runway, a little to our left. We'll obviously have to circle, even though it's a straight-in approach, as we're way too high and fast for the straight-in. No problem, I think, but the next few minutes are a lesson in the realities of circling-to-land at night. Even VFR, I botch two attempts in a row to land -- the first time in literally years in a non-taildragger that I've had to go around because of something I've done rather than something someone else has done. It's mortifying -- twice I come in way too high and way too fast, mostly, I think, because I keep in too close each time around due to paranoia about breaking the 1.3 nm circling radius, and because with all the stress I just forget the basic VFR stuff (like S turns on final if you're too high, etc.). Added to this is the irritating fact that 4JG's flaps are seemingly ineffective -- the 30 degree full flap setting acts more like 10 or 20 degrees in any other C172 -- and the damn plane just floats along on landing. And the sometimes quite heavy turbulence in the pattern doesn't help, either. I'd hate to have to do this in real weather -- which is the whole point of the lesson (John clearly delayed my look-up long enough to force the circling). Third time around does the trick, and after a quick touch and go we do the missed (a dream with the 530...) and check back in with NorCal (who was probably starting to wonder where we'd gone after all the time in the pattern...). Once around the hold at OAKEY for the missed (with a strong 30-40 knot crosswind) and we depart VFR back to Oakland.

I take off the cone of stupidity and fly us back to Oakland VFR -- I'm exhausted, and it all looks so nice out there. So much has gone wrong tonight, and so much of what I did was done poorly, that I just have to relax and potter back without the stress. We spend some time playing with the GPS, when John has one of those Aha! moments -- Will, the plane's owner, had loaded in the new database from Jepp last night but it's not actually valid until tomorrow. So it won't go past the FAF without a warning. No big deal on the approaches we did since the approaches are identical to the old versions (I checked the plates before we departed); and, we're inside the FAF anyway and it's a clear night. The real question is why the 530 waits until the FAF to tell you that the approach you've previously activated isn't actually active. No warning, nothing.

* * *

Later, in the clubhouse, John comments that the SAC tower controller was probably just bored and wanted someone to talk to, and I should learn to just say something like "4JG, standby" if I'm past the FAF in actual or under the hood, and just cope with the flying unless it's a real issue (like a go-around or forced runway change). After all, in this case we'd already been cleared for the option, and there was no other traffic on-frequency. And 'round here, at least, tower controllers tend to be pretty forgiving of stuff like that -- and it's what they do when the situation's reversed....

* * *

The major lessons from this evening seem to be the importance of the whole grace under pressure thing (again), and just how essential for a good approach it is to get the airspeed / trim equation down properly and repeatably (a lot of tonight's other altitude and heading roughness problems can be somewhat excused by the rather trying wind and turbulence). I may go out and just practice with 4JG on my own sometime next week to get the airspeed control better internalised. The other lesson, of course, is just how dangerous and difficult circling to land at night or in marginal weather can be. None of these lessons is new, but this evening's little adventure brought it all home again with more than the usual force.

One of the good things about this evening is that even as everything seemed to be falling apart or I felt I'd just done something really badly, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the entire lesson. I didn't feel depressed or down about it all at all, which is part of the whole learning thing, I guess. Progress?

December 29, 2004

Not A Difficult Decision

Surface winds 180 at 34 knots gusting to 51 knots, visibility 2 1/2 miles, heavy rain, mist, ceiling 3,100 feet broken, 4,100 feet broken, 5,000 feet overcast, isolated thunderstorms. Icing levels 3,500 to 5,000 feet. Not a hard decision. Maybe next week...

(The trouble with doing the instrument rating around here is that the weather is either pretty good (cloudless VMC for literally months on end, except for the thin coastal stratus layer) or just too damn bad to fly a light plane in at all. So not much actual actual -- and, crucially, not a lot of chances to exercise or hone the go / no go and weather-related judgement that are probably more common in places with "real" weather).

January 8, 2005

Or Maybe Not.

Three weather-related cancellations in a row -- two this week plus the one last week. Really bad weather by Northern Californian standards, and bitterly cold (the temperature may even drop to freezing level here in the next few days, the thought of which sends shivers up any normal Bay Area spine...). Very frustrating -- I'm in danger of losing momentum. The good news is that I downloaded the KLN 94 GPS manual for 2SP and read all 280 pages in one sitting (translation: I have no life). The scary thing was it all made perfect sense (translation: I am a real nerd). Ditto for the KAP 140 autopilot. I can't wait to try them out for real again....

January 30, 2005

The Doldrums

Only two flights in more than six weeks now, and I feel like I'm making no progress, just standing still (if that). Each of those two flights was a good lesson -- I learned a lot about managing workloads (and controllers) and the fickleness of GPS interfaces each time, and I chalked up more than 30 minutes in continuous night actual on last week's flight to Napa (not written up here, unfortunately) -- but I'm unable to put enough into this at the moment to keep last year's momentum going. Part of this has been weather-related (we've had a bad winter so far by Northern Californian standards), but it's mostly due to my business and contract-related pressures. I simply don't have the time at the moment to do more than turn up, mostly unprepared, once every week or two for a local flight late in the evening and take whatever comes my way in 2SP or 4JG.

I'm getting rusty, and my flying shows it. I'm not having any real problems with procedures and things like visualising what to do or where I am, etc., I just keep getting behind the plane and flying sloppily -- and wrestling with the old Death Grip. I still have problems with airspeed and altitude control (and yet I can do hold entries or procedure turns almost in my sleep, and I've been able to look at a strange approach and have little difficulty understanding how I'll fly it for some time now...). And some of the details keep tripping me up -- like forgetting to time the final segment to get the MAP right, or missing the fact that I'm turning off-course on the ILS while I talk to NorCal. And there's the Grace Under Pressure thing again. It's frustrating, but it probably won't change until I can stablise my current contract and job situation (the good side of this is that with the busyness comes the income that keeps me flying :-)).

The workload also means the diary suffers -- it'll probably miss a few more flights in detail as well. Oh well.

February 4, 2005

Those Rainy Days

What does an instructor do on those proverbial rainy days? I don't actually know. But I do know that over the past few rainy weeks John managed to dream up and chart a new approach into Oakland: the Oaktown VOR/DME RWY 15 approach.

Oakland's not exactly hurting for approaches -- I count at least fifteen separate approach plates for KOAK, along with a dozen DPs and eight STARs all specific to Oakland -- but it's still a useful addition, actually filling a real need. When the weather's bad and the big boys are landing on Oakland's runway 11 rather than 29, the approaches to Oakland's runways 9 intersect the ILS for 11, meaning long delays for the GA fliers. Runway 15's big enough for an approach, and with a bit of care on the missed, it'd give us all a nice alternative way back into Oaktown during bad weather.

We've tried it on the sims and did the early parts once on an actual flight (in late-evening VFR) with NorCal and Tower's unwitting approval (well, they didn't tell us to stop). It's quite a flyable approach, in fact. The sources of the intersection names are left as an exercise for the reader (local knowledge helps).

I shouldn't have to say it, but: absolutely not to be used for navigation. Void where prohibited. Some assembly required. Your mileage may vary. Don't try this at home. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Etc.

February 6, 2005

Doug Johnson, RIP

Doug Johnson -- Lt. Col. Douglas Johnson, USAF (Retd.) -- a man who piloted B17s over Europe in WWII, flew fighters in Korea, and who later helped form the Alameda Aero Club -- died last week after a short fight with cancer. He'll be greatly missed.

Doug was for a long time the maintenance and procedures backbone of the club, and was a mentor and tutor to many of us who became pilots and instructors through the club (you can glimpse him behind the scenes here and there in my original flying diary -- Doug did a lot to encourage me and keep the planes running during that period). Doug had the sort of common sense and experience that a club like the AAC needs, and (lucky for us) over the years he ensured that most of that was passed on to others.

Doug had a sharp mind -- even in his late 70's he actively adopted things like email and the web before many of the rest of us, and he was always one of the first to understand how to use things like the new web-based scheduler effectively for the club, or how to use spreadsheets for maintenance tracking and rental rate calculations, etc. Years ago when I was the club's webmaster and helping to set up the new scheduler, I'd receive a steady trickle of email from him commenting on a particular page or suggesting a new external link or whatever (he particularly delighted in making fun of my inadvertant Britishisms).

Doug often described himself as a "redneck from backwoods Arkansas", but he was also the sort of guy who drove a small Toyota, liked the Bay Area life (while still pining for those backwoods...), and who railed publicly against the US's isolationism on Iraq (he once said he couldn't understand why the US didn't defer to the UN on Iraq -- "Wasn't the UN one of the best things that came out of WWII? Wasn't it one of the things we fought for?" -- and proceeded to wonder out loud what it would take to get Colin Powell to run for president...). He and I sometimes sparred in the club over things like tax policy or welfare (he was predictably a lot more conservative than I am), but he was always funny and friendly about it, and he was better at conceding his opponent's points than I'll ever be.

Doug was also reputedly one of the few people to actually get away with replying to a lightspeed clearance from clearance delivery at Oakland with a (very) obscene variant of the classic old "Very impressive. Now how about giving it to me at the speed at which I can write rather than the speed at which you can read?" line. When I once asked him about it a few years ago, he just grinned and said in that distinctive Arkansas voice of his: "Boy -- I ain't saying. But if that's the worst you can dig up on me, you ain't trying!".

February 8, 2005

By George, I've Got It!

Well, almost. After several weeks of cancelled flights and iffy flying, everything comes together this evening and I seem to fly the best I've flown in months. I nail the ILS back into Oakland to ATP standards, and the two approaches and associated holds at Tracy (KTCY) also go well. I feel on top of the plane and the procedures, and keep the stupid mistakes to a gratifying minimum.

The difference? Firstly, I got off work early, spent some time preparing, and we started an hour earlier than usual. Normally I can't even turn up at the airport much before 7pm, meaning we're often still at it at 10pm, which dulls the mind for me if I've spent the previous eight or more hours down in Silicon Valley then driven for two hours to get back to Oaktown just in time to fly. Things were much more leisurely this time. I'm trying to arrange for the earlier exit from the Silicon Valley job on Tuesday to become permanent. We shall see.

Mostly, though, I suspect the improvement came because I cheated. Well, not so much cheated, as used the autopilot strategically during the early part of the flight to keep headings under control automatically while I concentrated on altitude, power, airspeed, and the procedures. This worked a dream -- I'm hoping the lesson will stick so the next time I do it all uncoupled I'll be more savvy about control -- and since I have fewer problems with headings than the other aspects, it's not such a bad strategy (it was John's idea, actually). I did the Oakland ILS and the last GPS approach uncoupled, but it was a good lesson learning how to get George to drive us around a hold or intercept the VOR-A inbound with a bit of knob-turning and situational awareness. It's magic.

February 18, 2005

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

Another good confidence builder -- a long flight in 2SP through interesting weather (interesting by Bay Area standards, anyway), a bunch of actual, a lot of real-world experience in complex on-the-fly clearance changes, a new approach (the GPS RWY 13 into Gnoss (KDVO)), a stretch of airwork on the way back into Oaktown (not terrible, but definitely needs improvement), and a lot of clouds and rain. And an early start (15.00), which is making a difference. I fly OK, and don't make too many stupid mistakes, and really enjoy the whole flight. There was one point somewhere around Concord VOR (CCR) where we broke out of actual into a beautiful cloud canyon, with the walls of cloud to both sides of us, and the ground visible 6,000' below us; off through another canyon to the left we can see the low sun reflecting against the Bay. Then it's straight back into the soup...

* * *

It's a Real IFR kind of day, so we file using DUATS. I look at the charts and pick V195 SGD V108 STS as the route; it's about 80nm for what would be a 40nm flight under VFR, the extra being due to the usual victor airways and feeder routing contortions, but nothing too onerous. John just smiles and says he has a feeling we might get something a little different. Half an hour later sitting on the ramp in light rain the clearance comes back from Deliverance: heading 090 then vectors to V244 ALTAM V334 V108 STS direct... i.e. the long way round, a 130nm trip for the 40nm direct flight. Even as I'm getting it down from Clearance I understand why -- NorCal's got the main Bay Area airports going on the SouthEast flow plan rather than the much more usual Westerly flow plan, and there's not a hope in hell that they'd route us straight into the incoming. Wish I'd thought of that myself... (not that I'd have filed any differently, but I'd have been better prepared). A good lesson in real-world IFR.

Later, even that plan gets amended on-the-fly, and once again I curse the KLN 94 as it just sits there staring blankly at me as I make yet another silly input mistake in IMC. This unit is even worse in some respects than the GPS 530 -- in some cases nothing you can seem to do will save the loss of several minutes worth of keystrokes due to a stupid blunder, and the unit rarely tells you in any coherent fashion what it is you've done wrong. I guess I'm just going to have to get better at getting it all right the first time. And this is with a unit whose manual I've read completely, several times. Urgh.

* * *

We depart Gnoss VFR for Oakland and do a bunch of airwork over San Pablo Bay before calling NorCal and heading back to Oaktown. The first thing I see when John tells me to get out from under the Cone Of Stupidity over Richmond is a flash of lighting out over the Golden Gate. Hmmm. The way ahead looks dark, grey, wet, and uninviting, but the horizontal visibility is OK, and the ceilings surprisingly high despite the constant rain. And no one's going missed due to the weather yet, at least not as reported by NorCal. So we decide to get back as quickly as possible before we get stuck in the storm coming across the Bay at us; we can always divert to Concord if it gets too bad. We do the Oaktown VOR/DME 15 approach all the way back to runway 15 in the rain; I land in a stiff variable quartering tailwind in increasingly heavy rain. The VOR/DME 15 approach is -- once again -- a very flyable approach; here's hoping that it, or something like it, might one day be available instead of the (not-as-usable) approaches for runways 9.

Fifteen or so minutes after landing the storm's directly above us; another thirty minutes after that there's just some drizzle, and a bunch of lightning in the distance. This is the second thunderstorm this year in the Bay Area -- the newspapers are already calling it a record year for storms. Well, it may sound pathetic to those of you raised in stormy climes (as I was), but it was quite dramatic approaching Oakland just ahead of it...

* * *

As we're tying 2SP down in the rain and gloom, I can't help muttering about the weather and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Almost as I'm saying this -- with the storm still directly above us -- we watch a Lancair depart noisily for the north, straight towards the worst of it. We can't tell if it's VFR or IFR (the former, by the looks of the departure path), but it looks suicidal. Hmmmm, again.

February 21, 2005

Kicking The Doldrums...

...or some such mixed metaphor. A 10am flight in 2SP (I'm not even sure I can fly that early -- I'm still unused to being able to do a preflight without a flashlight, and I've done so few daylight landings in the last few months that I keep making bad jokes about not being day current...). Another interesting sky with moderate turbulence and some serious windshear at all altitudes (I have trouble holding altitude within 200' for significant portions of the flight; headings suffer similarly). A quick semi-VFR jaunt over to Concord (KCCR), then the Buchanan 7 departure (REJOY transition) from Concord for the GPS RWY 20 approach at Vacaville / Nut Tree (KVCB), with a rather iffy circle-to-land on Vacaville's runway 2 in a stiff breeze (I'm learning a healthy distrust of circle-to-land procedures), then the SOKOY 2 departure back to not-so-sunny Oakland and another bash at the Oaktown VOR/DME RWY 15 approach. The most galling part of an otherwise pretty reasonable flight was getting a lot of the plain VFR bits wrong -- forgetting to report a 2 mile final for Concord tower on the VFR approach, bungling the base-to-final turn at Vacaville, forgetting to check the transponder and lights before takeoff, etc. Luckily I got most of the IFR stuff right(ish).

* * *

An interesting lesson in the limits of 2SP's autopilot: on being told to head direct Concord VOR (CCR), I engage it in NAV mode and watch as it struggles over the next ten miles or so with the wind shear and turbulence. At one stage it's several dots out, and not looking like it's going to recover any time soon. I take over and fly manually. The good thing is that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing: keeping a paranoid eye on the heading indicator, OBS, etc., and seeing what's going wrong as it happens. It's got to be a rough old day when I can actually fly the plane under the Cone Of Stupidity more accurately than the autopilot....

* * *

John's started talking seriously again about the checkride -- the whole trip-to-Concord thing is to get me familiar with the place, as it's where the likely DE, Richard Batchelder, is based (Lou Fields is unfortunately out of the picture at the moment due to medical problems). This sounds appropriate -- I feel like I'm flying as well now as I was before I had to go to Australia and before I lost the momentum; and I also feel like I actually know quite a bit more (especially about GPS units and autopilot usage) than I did back then too. We shall see.

* * *

As I'm leaving the airport for home after the lesson, yet another thunderstorm breaks out, with torrential rain, lightning, etc. As the breathless reports in the local media never let us forget, this is the third thunderstorm of the year -- we're already running at 150% of normal annual storms!!!!!!! (Urgh. Sorry. But if I see one more damn self-dramatising and self-absorbed report on the local TV news reports about the "immense storms" bearing down on the Bay Area, I think I'll scream...).

February 26, 2005


I discover that Lane Wallace -- author of those rather sentimental and brightly-coloured columns in the back of Flying magazine that seem aimed at readers who loved the even more sentimental columns by the original Bax -- has a degree in semiotics (from Brown, I believe).

Wow. I'd never have guessed from her Flying columns. I confess to having spent a significant amount of time in a University Far Away studying semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism, and was once on intimate terms with the writings of people like Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, etc. (the usual suspects, many of whom would probably eschew the "semiotics" label, but never mind). I can't imagine what deconstructionary havoc those usual suspects would make with some of her paeans to the spirit of flying, etc....

Not that it matters: that supposed havoc is always going to reflect a lot worse on the academic mileu that thinks that havoc important (or even interesting), than on its targets. Not that it matters (again): I like her normal -- non-column -- articles for Flying a lot. She's a good writer and excellent journalist (as if I'm in any sort of position to judge that...); the degree just makes her rather more interestingly multi-dimensional, I guess. I have to wonder just how many pilots Out There have degrees in semiotics...

March 5, 2005

I Have No Life, Part 43

I Have No Life, Part 43: Saturday Night, Another Simulated Checkride.

The Buchanan 7 departure / REJOY transition out of Concord (KCCR), the ILS RWY 2 into Sacramento Executive (KSAC), the VOR-A into Rio Vista (O88) with circling (urgh!), then the GPS 19R back into Concord. Plus sundry holds, partial panel stuff, autopilot coupling, etc. It goes well, mostly at or above PTS standards, and I keep the stupid mistakes to a minimum. I feel reasonably confident again -- more so now than before I had to go to Australia -- and we decide on a potential date for the checkride, modulo Mr Bachelder's availability, etc. It looks likely to be March 25, but this isn't set in concrete yet.

Once again, I'm somewhat appalled at how badly I fly VFR nowadays, making simple errors on the approach into Concord and taking way too long to get my bearings visually when coming back over the Oakland hills into Oakland.

March 10, 2005

Underground Airports For Future Air Traffic

Underground Airports For Future Air Traffic

"The proposed subterranean terminals doing away with the primitive, dangerous nuisances of the present day flying fields."

OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing (and it's a good break from thinking about the checkride). It's from a great little transportation futures exhibition just up the road in Berkeley that I unfortunately missed last year. The sections on commercial aviation and helicopters strike a strong chord with me; and the Oddities section has a bunch of just great stuff, not least of which is the "Escape pods can prevent needless air-crash deaths!" page from March 1960's Mechanix Illustrated. Oh, and there's a very futuristic-looking rendering of my local BART station as envisaged in the 1960's. Kewl! Nothing dates quite as quickly as The Future, I guess. Just be thankful we're not (yet) sitting on these things on the LA / SFO shuttle (as they say, "When leg room is not an issue, seats may be much closer together"):

March 13, 2005

Work And Play

31V and 36B Heading Back Over The Golden Gate

I get to combine work and play by doing some formation shooting in Ginny Wilkins's 172 (with Ginny as pilot...) for the club and for Alameda Magazine with Dave Penney's twin Texas Taildraggers, 31V and 36B over The Bay, Marin, and the Golden Gate. Dave piloted 31V, Ben Freelove piloted 36B (with Gabe Schlumberger as co-pilot and second photographer).

The full (unedited) web proofs from the shoot will be up here for a few weeks (maybe longer). Note: these are lo-res web proofs only, and haven't had proper sharpening, colour balance, cropping, etc., work done on them, so don't get too critical. And yes, the shots suffer from way too much glare in some cases, but there's a couple of shots there that'll survive editing (this was my first attempt at air-to-air photography as opposed to in-air aerobatics photography. I have a lot to learn...). And an hour in formation over the Golden Gate in the warm early evening Northern Californian spring sunshine -- all VFR! -- revives something of the sense of flying I used to get in 36B or the Decathlon...

March 24, 2005

The Checkride

The short version of the story: after two weeks of nonstop stressed-out work, work, work down in Silicon Valley -- and a bit of hurried flying when I could get the chance -- I pass the checkride with some of the worst flying I've done in months. I don't feel anything much other than very relieved -- I guess the sense of accomplishment will come later. And I'm grateful to John for getting me through it all, especially the last two weeks when I've been really cranky due to things at work getting utterly out of control. Too many 7am meetings and all-weekend work shifts to make flying an easy thing...

The long version will have to wait for the weekend, at least. I have a long day's real-world work to do tomorrow...

March 26, 2005

The Long Version

Yes, I passed the instrument rating checkride last Thursday, first time through. A close thing, though -- throughout the checkride my flying was mostly pretty mediocre, and several times I thought I must have failed after that little screwup or this major blunder. I should feel elated, but all I still feel is a huge sense of relief -- finally my life is going to return to normal. No more late nights or long drives back up Interstate 880 for a hurried flight under the Cone of Stupidity. No more relentless practice flights to Sacramento or Stockton through fading light or indistinct grey skies (that I can't actually see anyway). No more anxiously checking my bank account to see if I can afford another week's flying...

* * *

I meet Richard Batchelder, my Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE, or traditionally just DE), as he comes across the apron from an earlier checkride. He's pretty much what I'd been told to expect -- friendly, affable, larger than life. And late. I've arrived at Concord airport (KCCR) in 2SP at least 30 minutes early; he's returning from the previous checkride late, and by the time we get going on my checkride, we're maybe 90 minutes late. So I get to sit around the apron in the sun and watch the little Schweizer 300's from Helicopter Adventures hover and flit around a few metres away (these things are loud), and talk with the previous candidate's instructor. That candidate -- a full-time student from Sierra Academy -- has just failed his instrument checkride, which doesn't make me feel so good, but his instructor's a nice guy, and very encouraging. Over the years I've had a bunch of personal connections to Sierra, but I don't really know anyone there now, especially since they moved away from Oakland airport.

We start the oral after a whole bunch of paperwork, and proceed pretty quickly. No surprises here, just the usual menagerie of questions, most of which I get right(ish), some of which I should get right but in the heat of the moment say the wrong thing, and some of which (mainly things like the minutiae of weather charts), I just get plain wrong. Oh well. At least that part's over and done with satisfactorily; now on to the checkride itself...

Mr Batchelder's checkrides are notoriously intense workouts -- as I'd been told, just one damn thing after another, with barely space to breathe -- but he tells me that even if I do something really badly, I should just keep pressing on unless he tells me to stop.... If I need to redo a checkride later, I'll only have to do the things I failed. Sounds good to me.

So after the preflight we get in, and the blur begins: depart runway 32R VFR, a simulated Buchanan 7 departure with the REJOY transition, two times around an impromptu hold at REJOY followed by some unusual attitudes and other airwork in the vicinity, then straight on to the ILS RWY 2 into Sacramento Executive (KSAC), then go missed back to Sacramento VOR, then straight on to a partial panel VOR-A into Rio Vista (O88), then a circle-to-land for runway 25 at Rio Vista (luckily there's no one else in the pattern), a quick touch-and-go on 25, vectors from Mr Batchelder to a DME arc to near the final approach course for the GPS RWY 19R approach back in to Concord, then an autopilot-coupled intercept and approach (the GPS RWY 19R) to full stop at Concord. Or something like that.

Several times duing the flight he barks at me -- "what do you think you're doing?!" or "where the hell are you going" -- things like that -- but this seems to be mostly an attempt to see if I can cope with being rattled, or to see how well I can articulate what I'm trying to do (and, in at least one case, it was because I'm about to make a stupid blunder...). I feel bad about it at the time, of course, but it's pretty effective. At other times he just sits back, looks out the window, and muses about the birds down there in the Delta or why we Brits (and others) call an autopilot "George".

Departing Rio Vista he explains what he wants for the DME arc, and what follows is a comedy of errors as we both argue about how to set up the GPS to do what he wants. Basically, I say that the damn thing really can't quite do what he's asking for, and suggest setting it up for a much simpler method; he more-or-less agrees but still thinks it can be set up his way anyway with a bit of effort. After a minute or so of to-ing and fro-ing 3,000' above the Delta like this I finally tell him we'll have to do it my way or we'll probably be out over the Pacific before we have anything set up at all. He basically agrees and lets me do my thing, which has the advantage of simplicity -- and workability. Again, it sounds bad now, but while it's happening it's actually quite funny, and he's gracious and good-humored about it as it's happening ("Hey, you're the boss!"). Similarly, he's quite happy to let me do my (non-standard) thing with the autopilot a few minutes later after I explain what I'm going to do, and why.

* * *

So what went wrong? A lot of things... my altitude control was just terrible, I did two really bad landings, I circled the "wrong" way at Rio Vista (never mind -- there's really no "right" way there, given the stringent noise abatement rules, and I made it up on the spot as I came out from under the Cone of Stupidity), I got quite a bit to the left of course on the early stages of the partial panel VOR-A approach into Rio Vista (but corrected OK and kept -- just -- within PTS standards), I did a poor job of briefing the approaches, I was pretty rough with controlling airspeeds, and I really confused Mr Batchelder several times about what I was trying to do -- apparently it was far from clear what instruments I was relying on to identify a fix, for example (GPS? DME? VOR cross radial?), and he thought several times that I'd made a mistake when I had basically changed instruments on the fly without informing him (that sort of on-the-fly change is not a smart thing to do).

And what did I do right? Apparently, Mr Batchelder didn't have too many doubts about my basic safety, or that I knew what I was doing (or what should be done...), and that I had reasonable positional and situational awareness. That is, the basics were OK, if a little rough -- and when I got something wrong I apparently recovered quickly and smoothly. My radio work was also OK (as it should be at this stage...). Headings and clearances and the approach procedures themselves all went fairly well. The hold entry and the hold itself went OK, if a little rough. Despite the comedy of errors surrounding setting up the DME arc to the GPS approach back into Concord, I actually flew the DME arc just fine (no more than about .5 miles off the required distance), and I apparently did OK at staying on top of the GPS and the autopilot on the approach.

* * *

So it's all over (at least until I start the Commercial -- I give myself a while before I want to start that...). There'll be a few more postings here about the event and associated musings, but in the meantime I want to again thank John Ewing, CFII for getting me through it all with such good humour and teaching skills. The last couple of months have been less than than ideal for me learning anything, let alone something as difficult as this, but John got me through calmly and successfully...

March 28, 2005


A few thoughts in the aftermath:

It's hard to believe that suddenly, as a result of the checkride, I'm actually allowed to fly approaches to minimums in IMC. A 200' decision height on even a familiar ILS is scary enough under the hood in VMC with an instructor sitting impassively in the right seat, but single pilot IFR in IMC? No way. It's tempting to impose at least an airport's highest circling minimums on myself for any approach to that airport in actual, regardless of what's legal; I certainly wouldn't fly a non-precision approach in IMC to anywhere close to minimums (except in an emergency). Perhaps the only ILS I'd fly to close to minimums would be Oakland's 27R, an approach (and surrounding terrain, etc.) that I'm utterly familiar with -- but even here I wouldn't want to go below (say) 500' in IMC (and, luckily, probably would almost never need to, given Oakland's weather). And I doubt I'd do any serious IMC flying without a certified GPS for positional awareness at least. And a decent single-axis autopilot would help too...

As both John and Mr Batchelder have said, I need another bunch of hours just flying the system and getting better at everything without the unreal stress of checkrides and instruction before I attempt any real sustained flying in actual. I guess I already knew this, and plan on flying IFR in the system -- with or without the hood -- pretty much wherever I go for the next year or so anyway (I have a long-planned trip to LA (KSMO or KBUR) sometime April or May which will be ideal for this). And then a slow transition through small amounts of coastal stratus actual to the real thing. I'm actually looking forward to this, with a whole long Northern Californian summer full of coastal stratus just about to start.

As with the private pilot certificate, basically nothing went wrong -- so once again, this isn't a Triumph Against The Odds sort of story, just a rather more realistic diary of trying to get an instrument rating in Northern California while also trying to keep a full-time business going. I didn't experience any major existential crises, any real problems in understanding procedures, any problems at all with disorientation in actual or under the hood, etc. -- i.e. nothing that would make this diary / blog really interesting.... The main problems were (predictably) external: getting time away from my business, and, towards the end, having to be ruthless about my finances. Nothing insurmountable, but if you're committed to getting the rating, having a life that's constantly changing around you probably isn't the best way to arrange things (understatement).

Was the rating the hardest thing I've ever done? No, not even close. Nothing has so far been harder than the honours year of my undergraduate degree, or sustaining some of my relationships over the years. Even the checkride wasn't as intense as doing the honours exams (oral and written), or as difficult as the stand-up graduate studies interview in front of the committee at the LSE all those years ago. But both the checkride itself and the year or so of training were definitely draining and difficult, and a fair bit harder in some ways than my initial private pilot license experiences.

The rating took pretty much the amount of effort and time I expected it to -- I'm no prodigy or over-achiever, and didn't do it in minimal time -- but I'm a little disappointed not to have been able to get it all over and done with last year before I had to go to Australia. No big deal, but it would certainly have made the last few months a lot easier by not having to cope with the rating as well as a new job, growing business, etc. etc.

I'm glad I did the past few months mostly in 2SP -- the combination of a stable, well-rigged and powerful (180HP) plane with a GPS and autopilot made it a great platform for learning some real-world IFR. I thought that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew, or that maybe a DE would mark me down for having all the extras that any Real Pilot would do without. Quite the contrary -- Mr Batchelder said he cut me some slack for turning up in the sort of plane that you really might fly single pilot in IMC, and for knowing how to use the GPS and the autopilot on the fly and with changing clearances (he has a gentle rant about some of the planes he's seen being used for instrument checkrides and the unreality of learning in something like them). The extra effort and time to become at least somewhat fluent in both was definitely worth it, and I'd recommend it for anyone out there wondering about the issue.

And finally -- my choice of instructor turned out to be excellent. I'll have much more to say about John in a separate article, but for now, let's just say I've generally been blessed with good instructors, and John's obviously the main reason I got through it so smoothly.

April 5, 2005

A First...

A leisurely trip in 4JG through the twilight to Modesto (KMOD) with Boyan (my sometime flight-share partner) and back. I fly out, under a proper filed IFR flight plan -- my first as a certified gen-u-wine IFR-type pilot thing -- and Boyan flies back VFR. Boyan's curious about what a Real IFR flight's like, and I do it without the Cone of Stupidity so I can answer his questions. Everything is utterly straightforward and predictable, but I'm still somewhat nervous -- which is ludicrous, but there you are. A severe clear VMC evening, little-to-no traffic outside the main airways, a bunch of laid back Northern Californian controllers doing their competent thing with humour and grace, and a flight through Yet Another Boring Bay Area Sunset.

Flying 4JG again after 2SP brings home just how much better the Garmin 530 can be than 2SP's KLN 94 -- not just the bigger display, but the interface still seems friendlier, or at least less prone to inducing user error. It's still not friendly -- will there ever be a GPS unit that's as simple to use as an OBS or HSI? -- but somehow I make fewer errors setting it up and changing it on-the-fly (inevitably we didn't actually fly any of the original clearance beyond the initial departure vectors -- we got cleared direct Modesto within five miles of Oakland...).

I have to say I'd miss 2SP's autopilot on long flights or high workload segments, but it's not the big deal I sometimes think it could be. But then I wasn't under the Cone of Stupidity, was I? Makes all the difference...

April 15, 2005

Dirty Socks Springs

I think it finally hits me as I'm standing in the High Desert glare at Dirty Socks Springs near Olancha, watching a California Air National Guard C130 doing exuberant-looking low passes over the dry lake bed a few miles to the north -- hey, I have an instrument rating! Finally...

Instrument Training Diary -- Hamish Reid

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