Saturday, June 10, 2017

Stuck Between Airspace and a Hard Place

I am learning, the longer one flies, the more opportunities are created for failures, and experience, to happen. Today's failure... a stuck switch made what should have been a routine flight into a mentally exhausting trip. Un-forecast constant light to moderate chop made the flight physically exhausting also.

I was flying to McClellan Airport, 82NM from my home field, to pick up my daughter. I checked the weather in the morning and strong surface winds were forecast for the afternoon but no AIRMETS or SIGMETS were active.  I was flying the club's Bonanza and expected about 45 minutes to get to McClellan once I was in the air. 

I got VFR flight following so I wouldn't need to dodge the Delta and Charlie airspace of three of the four airports in the immediate vicinity of McClellan. I wanted a simple flight after a long week. Immediately after take off I got turbulence instead. It wasn't bad... and I was planning on climbing above the scattered cloud layer where I expected the turbulence would be less. 

I was handed off to NorCal Approach and contacted them. As expected I was told to remain below 4,500 feet. With the clouds where they were I leveled off at 3000 feet and continued over Calaveras Reservoir and the hills north east of Reid-Hillview. The turbulence got worse and I was cruising over the hills in light to moderate chop. As the turbulence was not forecast and if I was feeling the roughness in a Bonanza I thought it would be good to report for the other planes that might be flying that day. 

I keyed the PTT and asked Approach if they had time for a PIREP. When I released the PTT I immediately realized that I was still transmitting. Ugh! This was not a frequency I wanted to block. Commercial traffic flying into Oakland used this frequency to sequence. I tried physically pulling the PTT button out but it seemed stuck. I tried resetting the radios turning them both off and on, no change. However, suddenly the transmission stopped. 

I was instructed to change frequencies to the next controller and was able to do my initial call. Then I was told to climb to avoid traffic. I attempted to respond and was unable to transmit. So I initiated an immediate climb and hit IDENT on the transponder to show I heard. I was given another instruction and when I tried to respond the PTT stuck in transmit mode again. This time I told the controller I was having problems with my radios, asked to cancel flight following and change frequencies. There was relief in the controllers voice when he told me to squawk VFR and frequency change approved. 

I switched the radio to 122.75 (an air to air frequency) so the transmissions would go to a rarely used frequency. I tried some of the same things I did previously that seemed to stop the transmissions. Restarting radios, switching frequencies, switching between radios. Nothing seemed to work but eventually the constant transmission stopped on its own. A quick review of IFR lost com procedures wandered through my mind along with the thought that, just that morning, I had told my husband I would be willing to take the Bonanza into IMC. Not any more - at least not for a while. *sigh*

McClellan is in the center of this picture, surrounded by airspace.
At the same time as this was going on I was being kicked around by turbulence and planning a route to get to McClellan (KMCC) without the benefit of radios. MCC is a non-towered airport and I wouldn't need a radio to land there. However, it was under the Class Charlie shelf of Sacramento International and right next to two other Class Delta airports, Sacramento Executive and Mather. The thought hit me... I'm stuck between airspace and a hard place (the ground). I'd have to blog this one!

I knew the thing I needed most right then was time, time to plan my route. So I slowed the bonanza down by dropping the gear ... slow enough that I was flying 172 ground speeds while I made my plan. I dropped down low because I knew the Charlie shelf was down to 1600 feet. Then I found some GPS waypoints for precise navigation between the Charlie and Deltas while I approached McClellan. I still couldn't transmit but I could receive so I got the weather and monitored McClellan's CTAF for other planes as I approached and landed. 

I taxied over to McClellan Jet Center and took an open spot. They weren't there to guide me in because no one heard me coming! My daughter was there and I spent a couple minutes planning my return trip to avoid airspace and hopefully some of the constant turbulence by climbing higher and flying south of RHV and cross into the Santa Clara Valley near Los Banos instead of over Calaveras. I turned on the bluetooth on my headset and called my husband after we started the engine to test it out. It worked, barely. I figured I would call RHV Tower from near San Martin airport and let them know I was coming in NORDO (no radio). 

We took off, still unable to transmit but able to receive. I used my handheld radio to make position reports at MCC but I doubt anyone could hear me. No one responded but it still felt better to try to say where I was. I climbed up to 5500 feet to cruise once out from under the Charlie shelf and hoped for smooth air. It was still constant chop but not as rough as it was before. Fortunately, my daughter is not at all bothered by turbulence. Eventually we encountered scattered clouds at 5500 feet. I chose not to climb further and descended again to 3500 feet. I had the power pulled back to 18 inches but the plane was still cruising at 150 knot ground speed with a powerful tailwind. 

As we neared Stockton Airport I noticed the PTT was transmitting again. I still had MCC's frequency dialed in and I was hoping I wasn't blocking transmissions there. The thought occurred to me to switch the "mic" to intercom instead of COM1 or COM2. When I did that my daughter could finally hear what I said over the radio instead of just by yelling. Score! I thought. I had her look up the ATIS for Stockton airport, dialed it in to COM2 and monitored COM2. I had found a way to monitor radio frequencies and not block them. I modified my plan for RHV. I'd call them on my phone and let them know I could receive but not transmit. That made me feel better. 

As we approached Los Banos and the turn across the hills between the central and Santa Clara valleys the turbulence increased. For the first time in my life I was starting to feel a tickle of nausea from the constant bumping and jolting, it was probably a response to the stress of the radio situation as well. It would not be good for me to throw up. I distracted myself by asking my poor daughter what her favorite song was. I slowed the plane down again and extended the gear as we went over the hills, just to stabilize the plane. We were almost clear of the hills and we decided it wasn't that bad. Gear up and bang - more turbulence. Oh well. I decided the quicker I got out of this the better and left the gear up until it was time to approach to land. 

When we were abeam San Martin and I tried to make my call to the tower with my cell phone. I don't know if it was lack of reception, something wrong with my head set or what but the call failed many times. I found myself getting closer to terrain than I normally do in my distraction and decided to discard that option. Fly the airplane, damnit! 

Then I tried my hand held radio multiple times ... we were within line of sight of RHV and I was hoping it would work. It didn't. I started to resign myself to the lost comm procedure and dialed 7600 into the transponder. I was annoyed. I could hear RHV clearly but the moment I switched to tower frequency we'd block that frequency. Then it hit me. Switch the mic to tower frequency when I want to talk, switch back to intercom to listen! So that's what I did. I switched the mic to tower frequency, made my call and immediately switched back to intercom. They responded with my tail number and I was in! Communications problem solved. I used that method for all other coms needed and it worked flawlessly. 

That wasn't the end of the adventure however. Remember the surface winds I talked about at the beginning? RHV was reporting winds 320@14G22 when we got the ATIS. I had the plane in a stabilized, if bumpy, approach to land when, over the airport fence, we got hit with the strongest gust I'd ever experienced on final. The plane jumped left about 40 feet and suddenly dropped. I had anticipated this and had some extra airspeed ready. I moved the plane back over the runway and rounded out, ready to go around if necessary. After some fighting we were in ground effect and able to land smoothly. On my landing rollout I heard the tower tell another plane winds were 350@20. Yeah, I'd agree with that. 

That flight was one of those "learning experiences" ... I experienced first hand how powerful distractions of troubleshooting problems can be. And I have a new trick in my tool bag to handle com issues in flight :) 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Evolution of a Pilot

Yesterday my CFII and I were flying together again. The first time in a very long time. We've been working on preparing me for the CFI-Instrument rating for the last few months. After covering all of the Instrument ACS and the CFI-I PTS it was time to get flying again. To see if I can teach at the same time as I fly instrument.

After the first approach he said, "The good news is, it can only get better from here!" Yeah, it was a cluster f*ck. I put that behind me, flew and "taught" the missed and holding procedure. Then flew the same approach a second time and did better both teaching and flying.

It was our first time up with me teaching instrument and it was an eye opening experience to say the least. To really teach instrument flying you have to be waaaayyyy ahead of the airplane, the controllers and the student. I'm at the point where I'm ahead of the plane and the controllers 99% of the time when I fly instrument. However, adding teaching to the process adds a whole new level of difficulty. It means I have to know what's going to happen, what has to happen, how to make it happen, diagnose why it doesn't happen when the student screws it up ... and ... be able articulate all of that at the same time in complete sentences a human can understand. Hey, if I can learn enough to be a decent CFI, I will be able to do this. Just takes practice.

But that's not why I'm posting about this... yesterday's flight brought to mind my own evolution as a pilot. Yesterday highlighted to me some other areas of progress that I hadn't considered recently.

  • Take off and climb out. On take off both he and I noticed the poor climb performance of the plane given the Vy airspeed. We both immediately figured the air speed indicator was off and when I adjusted the pitch for what looked like the proper Vy pitch. I got the right climb rate. I never thought I'd be able to do that when I started training... and now I tell my students that they need to do that!
  • Over the mountains - we flew directly out over the hills and were in some turbulence. Turbulence that, when I started flying, would have had me very nervous. I barely noticed it aside from how it made it difficult to hold altitude. 
  • I was muttering at myself whenever I didn't hold a heading or airspeed the way I was planning on it  - my standards for myself are going up significantly in what I consider good flying. At the same time I didn't let it bother me. 
  • His comment about how it can only get better didn't bother me either. Years ago that sort of comment would have been immediate dark cloud over my head for at least a couple days. This time I just agreed and resolved to make it better quickly, which I actually did. 
On the return to RHV I was thinking of a flight we he and I did a couple years ago. When we went out to the valley for some instrument work and came back in just before they shut down the airport. It was an incredible entrance. Then he said how he was reminded of that same flight. Knowing what I know now about how flights (and students) tend to merge together in the CFI brain I was surprised but pleased that he remembered that entrance too.

Yesterday was a nice way to start the a new phase of my own evolution as an instructor pilot.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A New Pilot is Born

What is the ultimate accomplishment in aviation? Is it earning your own certificates and ratings? or is it giving the gift of flight to someone else? I really don't know. However, I can tell you this... going through a check ride from the CFI's seat is much more stressful to me than doing a check ride myself!

On Wednesday, April 5th, 2017, I presented my first ever candidate for a Private Pilot Certificate to an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. Ty, my student, found me in Squadron 2 one day shortly after I earned my CFI certificate and asked me to train him. I didn't know him and he didn't know me. However, I think the experience was very beneficial to us both. He turned out to be a real pleasure to train and fly with. And, according to him, I was a great CFI. While we got along great and I was confident in his abilities, I was not prepared for the extreme stress of presenting a candidate for a check ride. Especially when my instructor told me many months ago that, statistically speaking, the first person a CFI puts up for a check ride will fail.

Examiner, New Private Pilot, CFI (aka me!)
My instructor was also the DPE for this check ride. Some would assume that would give me a special advantage and perhaps leniency from the DPE for my student. I knew better. I've seen him fail candidates from other CFI's he's trained. He'd already warned me that my candidate was likely to fail.  And I know, no matter how much it would sadden him, he would absolutely fail my candidate if he could not demonstrate he will be a safe pilot and fly to standards. So, no, I expected no handouts from this particular DPE. However, I couldn't think of a better examiner to validate (or invalidate) that my student was ready to operate as a Private Pilot.

Because I do know this DPE I was comfortable enough with him to validate that my student was, indeed, eligible before the check ride (he would do that for any CFI) and ask if I could be there for at least the start of the exam. His response was funny to me. He said, "Yes! Absolutely! Present your candidate!". I had this bizarre vision of putting a bow around my student and handing him over to the examiner as a present! 

The big day arrived and I was up early to let my student, Ty, into my office so he could prepare his flight plan. I told him from this point forward I couldn't help him unless he specifically asked for it. He was on his own. I worked on lesson plans for my CFI-I training while he did his flight planning. Then the examiner arrived at 9AM. Right on schedule.

He went through the paperwork and pre-amble explaining the ride and the potential outcomes. He re-validated that all of the endorsements and time were correct in my student's log book and verified the airworthiness of the aircraft. Then I was politely told to leave the room so the test could begin. 

Now I knew I had, if things went well, at least 5 hours to wait before the outcome of the test was known. Fortunately I had two students to fly with to distract me from waiting anxiously. Around noon I got a text from my student saying he would lock up my office when they were done there. But he didn't say if he'd passed the oral or not. When I taxied back to the club after my first lesson I saw Ty. He gave me a grin and a thumbs up. So that meant he had passed the oral. 

Time for my next student. I met up with him in my office and then we taxied out to the run-up. There I saw Ty was in the plane in the run-up with the examiner. My thought was "he made it to the run-up!". Then I saw them take off, "he made it to the take off!" Then I had to focus on the flight at hand. I had a great flight and was back at the club a little after 3PM. Then I had to wait. 

As I waited I got more and more stressed. My husband was there with his camera to capture the moments and tease me. At one point I told him and another friend that I would much rather be taking the check ride than waiting! Finally we saw Ty's plane taxi up to it's parking spot. I knew it was possible to fail even now and I sat so I couldn't see Ty or the examiner. I just couldn't take it. 

Finally they were done securing the plane and walking towards us. Ty looked grim and shook his head. The examiner looked stern. As they walked up to us, the examiner said, "You know, statistically, the first candidate a CFI puts forward fails.... but you never were one to stay in line with statistics!" Then he grinned broadly. Ty gave me a huge grin and a thumbs up! "You Passed!?!" I said. "Yep!" 

My first student passed his check ride. First try! I had given the gift of flight. It was amazing!