Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of Another Year

We are in the last moments of 2012 here in Northern California. I have been trying to think of what to say about this year for some time now. Its hard in a way. My flying has been the high point of my year for certain. The adventures, new learning and simple joy of flying have kept me going while I've struggled through other parts of my life. The walk out on the ramp, flight bag over my shoulder, airplane bag in my hands, examining my plane as I approach starts the process of clearing my mind and focusing it on that singularly wonderful experience of flying. My family and friends have shared the joys and struggles with me and I've shared their joys and struggles as well. I am very grateful for these people who have been there for me in good times and in bad.

I've seen many people refer to to 2013 as "Lucky 13".
Wishing you all, my friends, my family ... a "Lucky 13", blue skies, and tail winds. 
Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas Eve

After a very wet three days where my home received over 10 inches of rain, the skies cleared and it was time to fly. It was also Christmas Eve and I like to spend holidays off flying with family or friends. I was anxious to show my husband, Jeff, what its like to do an actual instrument flight and there were some low clouds around, meaning I could get some actual too.

The night before (Christmas Adam as my siblings and I call it) I planned and filed an IFR flight plan to fly to Fresno Chandler Executive Airport (FCH) in the club's 180HP 172... why on earth fly to Fresno on Christmas Eve? Because Jeff and I recently decided that we wanted to fly to all of the airports we'd never flown before in California and Fresno is on that list. There was a good chance of getting some actual instrument conditions, not too much, but just enough.

I woke up Christmas Eve morning and did a quick check of the weather, everything looked good to go. I went downstairs to make breakfast and drink my morning coffee. Strangely I get a text message with a picture of an empty tie down spot where the plane should be.

My friend was at the airport practicing for his private license and noticed I had the plane reserved for later in the morning, so he went to check it out for the earlier morning... at which point he realized the plane was not there! He gave me a heads up to the situation. It turns out the person who rented the plane for the weekend before didn't bring the plane back yet. I was just SOL.

Time for a change in plans, I didn't want to fly the other 172s to Fresno, it would take a bit longer than I wanted to spend. So I filed another IFR flight plan for Half Moon Bay, a closer airport that required either dodging or flying through San Francisco's Class Bravo airspace. We would fly to Half Moon Bay IFR then fly our return down the coast and drop by South County to meet up with another friend and say Hi. 

I choose to fly without the foggles. I was curious to see if I could maintain the straight tracks and precise altitudes required for IFR flying while able to see out the window instead of monitoring the instruments 100% of the time. I am happy to say, I could without a problem. All of the flight was done via radar vectors until I was cleared for the approach. Unfortunately we were given altitudes that kept us just above or below the scattered clouds. I was bummed. When cleared for the approach we were in severe clear conditions and there were 4 or 5 planes in the pattern at Half Moon Bay so I cancelled IFR and flew into the VFR traffic pattern there and landed. Jeff mentioned that did not seem much more complicated than flying on a Bay Tour through SFO airspace. In reality, that particular flight wasn't.

After a nice lunch we went back to the plane and launched south to fly along the coast and head towards South County Airport. This time we stayed neatly under the Class Bravo shelf and clear of clouds. There were enough clouds that I didn't want to try to squeeze between them and the ridges around 3000 feet between the coast and South County so I went further south towards Watsonville and planned on cutting across near that airport.

About 5 miles past Watsonville we were headed for the ridgeline and ready to cut back into the Santa Clara valley when I heard a voice on the Watsonville CTAF.
Watsonville Traffic, radio check please, testing new equipment. Watsonville.
I didn't anyone reply, so I figured I would.
Watsonville radio check, you are loud and clear from 2,500 feet and 5 miles away.
The voice responded.
Roger that, Thanks alot. 
My reply..
No problem. Merry Christmas!
And his reply sounded almost surprised and very happy, you could hear the smile in his voice.
Well, Merry Christmas to you!

We stopped at South County and visited with our friend for a bit. It was great to see him. Then it was time to head back to RHV. One the way back I leveled off at 2500 feet, called in to the tower at the right time and tried to time my descent to do a nice stabilized descent right to the runway... it worked! I lined up for the runway from 5 or 6 miles away, set up a 500 fpm descent and keep that rate nailed. I've never done a descent as nice as that one (at least not when able to see!) It was a great way to top off a great flying day.

So, Merry Christmas again my friends... may the Christmas season bring you and yours peace, joy and happiness with time well spent with family and friends enjoying their company and all of the wonderful things life has to offer.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Flying a 182

N20791 - a Cessna 182P on the line at the flight club.
Never one to rest on my laurels long, as soon as I could after getting my Instrument Rating I arranged to start working on my high performance rating with my CFI.  I'm not sure "rating" is the right term but the FAA requires additional flight training and sign off by CFI before someone can act as PIC in a high performance aircraft.

A Cessna 182 is essentially an overweight Cessna 172 with a high horsepower engine and constant speed propeller. Flying a the 182 introduces the concepts of managing manifold pressure via the throttle and RPM via the prop controls.  It also challenges a 172 pilot's capability to stay ahead of a plane that is suddenly going quicker than a typical 172 will. Top cruise speed on a 182P is about 20 knots faster than the 172N. They can carry more payload and fuel and fly higher as well.

I had flown in 182s many times since my husband, Jeff, got signed off to fly them two years ago. On longer trips I've taken the controls (or sometimes the autopilot monitoring duties) and flown while he rested or did other things, so I'm not totally unfamiliar with the way the planes handle in the air. I also have the advantage of having watched how Jeff's managed manifold pressure and prop before. I believe this experience is serving me well so far.

I've done two flights in the 182 shown here to date. The first flight was late in the day so I did my very first landing in a 182 at night (thus the dark picture above). Not the best possible situation but I did pretty well. I was all smiles as we taxied back to the club to park the plane and told my CFI that it was fun. I really enjoyed how comfortable I felt flying the plane... Even in a new type of plane, maneuvers such as turning, climbing, descending, and straight and level flight require no conscious thought to make the plane do what I want. I am a much less awkward bird than I used to be when I started this blog :)

It is a lot of fun to learn new airplane systems and operations after spending so long flying 172s. So far I like managing manifold pressure actively on climb and descent. While I am accustomed to using the sound of the engine RPM as another input on airplane attitude and a constant speed prop removes that input, I like being able to set the RPM and leave it there.  A big difference between flying a 182 and a 172 is the glide characteristics (or lack thereof) of the 182. If you pull power on a 172 it glides pretty well. If flown right you can pull power abeam the numbers, fly a standard pattern and land on those numbers without adding power once in a 172. In a 182.... forget it. The thing glides like a brick. So I have to fly the plane with power on all the way down to round out and then pull power slowly. Once the plane is in landing attitude right over the runway, pull the last bit of power out and the plane lands smoothly. I got to practice that two more times (in daylight) on my second flight and did well.

The biggest challenge of flying a 182 for me is the descent planning. A 182 is the first plane that I've flown where the saying "you can't go down and slow down" is true. Reduce manifold pressure to start the descent, airspeed increases significantly. I have to slow the plane down too. That requires a plan for that as a separate phase of flight. It takes longer to slow down in a 182 than a 172. Not only that, I have to plan on a smooth reduction of manifold pressure, adding of fuel (mixture) and reduction of altitude to get to the right altitude at the right speed with the right manifold pressure and mixture so I can start the deploying the flaps for the approach. Its a good thing flying itself doesn't require so much attention anymore because this descent process certainly does.

My next 182 flight will be in a bit over a week. In the mean time I'm planning on taking Jeff with me on an instrument flight on Christmas Eve if the weather is good enough. In the mean time, its nice to be reviewing my notes and planning my strategy for both 182 flying and instrument flying. I'm in my happy place - learning about flying.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Merry Christmas :)

Merry Christmas from Boulder Creek, CA. Home of the forever mist. The forever mist is this light mist/drizzle that can rain constantly on our little mountain town for days on end, yet never appear on radar. Today it was misting hard, but that never bothers us mountain folk... we just get damp and carry on.

All three members of our little family were in town for long enough this weekend to join in the holiday spirit and decorate our home for Christmas. In this process my husband and I decided it would be cool to edge our long, steep, drive way with lights. From this view it looks like our driveway has runway edge lights. That is appropriate for a family with two pilots.

Merry Christmas to all and hopefully some good flying too!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Instrument Training - By the Numbers

I read recently a person can plan on spending about the same amount as they spent on their private pilot license on the training required for an instrument rating.  My experience was very different.

I started my instrument training in March 2012 and did the first half of my check ride on November 1, 2012, the second half on December 3, 2012. During that time I had, I think, at least three breaks of 3 weeks or more in the training process due to illness, vacations and travel. I also had a month delay between the oral and flight portions of my instrument check ride.

I did a combination of home study and one on one ground school with my CFII at the same time as the simulator and flight training to complete the knowledge requirements of the rating.  I did all but one of my instrument practice / training flights with my CFII.

Let's look at the numbers...

Simulator Time (17.9 instrument hours)
13.5 hours logged in a Frasca 131
4.4 hours logged in a Redbird
Approximately 3 hours of solo practice in the Frasca 131 not logged

Flight Time (37.3 instrument hours)
52.4 hours flight time of which 37.3 hours were simulated or actual instrument time (only .5 actual)
27.5 of those instrument hours were before I was ready for the check ride. The remaining 10ish instrument hours were from me practicing and maintaining proficiency with my CFII while waiting for the check ride and the check ride itself

CFII Time not included above
33 hours (includes ground school, flight brief and debriefs and general Q&A)

Total instrument hours to get ready for check ride: 45.4 hours
Total instrument hours from start of training through check ride: 55.2 hours

Your mileage will vary. I am happy to report this amount of time / expense was significantly less than spent on my private license.

I just want to fly

A note to all you who make your living flying, or do not have to make your living in other ways than flying, or maybe you are retired and fly for fun. Value what you have, it is priceless to those who do not.

I was seated next to a gentleman tonight for dinner in Macau, China who was introduced to flight when he was 12 years old. Who immediately took to instrument flying and has an instinctual understanding of how the instruments not only describe the world around you while flying blind, but can help you navigate through it.  I told him about recently gaining my instrument rating and he was so congratulatory about it. He, who doesn't have a PPL. He who has been dreaming of flight since he was 12 years old. He's 62 years old now. He's lucky. He has his health. He has the funds to do flight training starting this year. I wish him the very very best.

I guess I'm writing this to say to all current aviators, no matter what your particular vocation is.... please value what you have. Please stop for a moment and notice the joy of what you do. I can guarantee you, there are many vocations that do not and probably will never have the term "joy" attached to an activity. As you sit there in the pattern yet again, or dealing with a crappy captain on a regional jet or dealing with the unfriendly passengers as you fly your jet across the Atlantic or Pacific, look out the window, enjoy the view or the grey of the inside of a cloud. If not for yourself, do it for me and for people like me who want nothing more than to be there with you.... those who just want to fly.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Instrument Check Ride - Flight

Good to Go

I got an email late Friday night from the DPE saying she double booked herself for Tuesday the 4th and could I switch to Monday the 3rd. The weather might even be good that day. I checked my calendar and I could. Monday would be 12-3-12. I liked the symmetry of the date. I did my PPL check ride on 11-9-11. 12-3-12 seemed right for some reason.

When I got up Monday morning all online weather data showed clear or, at worst, patchy fog. Light winds were forecast for all altitudes I would be near. ATIS and AWOS for all airports on the route reported clear. Every airport reported calm winds. I wasn't sick. I got down to the airport to pre-flight the plane and the plane was fully functional. I checked the VOR receiver check logs and made a note that I needed to do a VOR check before we took off. I called Flight Services for a standard IFR weather briefing. The only AIRMET was for IFR conditions (not a problem for an IFR flight) and even the predicted IFR conditions were all south of my route. No TFRs or NOTAMs I was not already familiar with for the airports on my route. That was probably the shortest full weather briefing I'd ever had. I kept waiting for something to happen to prevent the flight, but nothing did.  I went back outside and cleaned the windscreen on the airplane, inside and out.

It was 15 minutes before my check ride was scheduled to begin and everything was good to go. I wasn't sure I believed it. It was actually going to happen this time. My adrenaline was pumping and I paced a bit. Then I got a bottle of water and sat and checked email on my phone as I waited. There was nothing else I could do. Nothing else I should do. I felt more nervous than I needed to, I thought. After so many delays, the flight was finally going to happen. All I had to do was not screw up. Just fly an instrument check flight according to the PTS. That's all. That's all?! That is one heck of a lot. But yeah, that's all.

I was staring at my phone when I heard a familiar voice, "Are you ready?" My CFI was done with his student and standing by the front desk. I was so distracted I didn't even hear him go by.  I smiled and told him I was almost too ready and I was very nervous. We talked about the finer points of making videos and his ideas for mounting a GoPro camera to the tail tie down of a plane as we waited for the DPE to arrive. This was a change, he was there "early" and she, the DPE, was running late.

Pre-Flight Briefing

The DPE arrived and we talked a bit about the recent storms. We all compared our relative rain measurements (I won with over 15" of rain measured at our house in the mountains!). I think all three of us, DPE, CFI and me, were excited about getting this ride finally done.  She went over the three possible outcomes of the flight: pass, fail and continuance. She also reminded me, no one does a perfect check flight. If I make a mistake, correct it and move on.

We discussed the plan for the flight. Pick up the clearance at RHV and depart the airport IFR. Then fly a GPS approach into Tracy with a procedure turn (counts as a hold), a circle to land at Tracy, then missed and partial panel VOR into Stockton, missed and ILS to Livermore followed by unusual attitude recovery. Along the way she would evaluate my flying, radio work, navigation, adherence to ATC clearances, cockpit resource management, etc, etc. against the Instrument PTS and special emphasis areas. With that we were walking out the plane and going to actually do the check ride. The sun was shining and there wasn't a bit of wind.

Pre Take Off

When we got to the plane I explained to the DPE where my binder with all of the paper instrument approach plates was in case we needed an approach at an airport we weren't planning on. I also pointed out the little binder I had within easy reach that had all of the approaches at the airports we were planning on in case we had to switch approaches for some reason. I asked her some detailed questions on what she was planning for the circle to land. Would we actually land or not? She seemed surprised by that question. I figured if this was an actual instrument flight I would figure out as much as possible on the ground, including where I was and was not likely to land. So I would do the same thing for the check flight.  Then I started to give her a passenger briefing. She said quickly I could do the pilot version of the passenger briefing.

We pulled the plane out and climbed in. The DPE reminded me to breathe. She could tell how tense I was. I took a deep breath but it didn't help much. I started going through my checklists both to prepare the plane for the flight and to try to calm my nerves. I contacted ground and told them we were pre-filed IFR to Tracy, the first airport of our route. I received the taxi clearance and taxied the plane to the run-up area, careful to keep eyes open for planes or other vehicles on the taxiways and checking the instruments as I taxied to make sure they behaved correctly. When I got to the run-up area I did my run-up and a VOR check.

I called ground for the IFR clearance. The ground controller read back the clearance very clearly and slowly.  Cessna 6525D cleared to the Tracy airport via left turn heading 290 Victor 334 SUNOL Victor 195 Manteca, Direct. Climb and maintain 3000 expect 5000 5 minutes after departure. Departure frequency 121.3 Squawk 0422. I copied it down and read it back flawlessly. So far, so good. I asked the DPE if she wanted to see me program the route into the GPS or load the previously saved route, she said to do what I would normally do. So I loaded the previously saved route, verified it matched the clearance I just got (it did) and then loaded the approach at Tracy. We were ready to go. I called the tower for IFR release, was told to stand by. 30 seconds later we were cleared for take off.

Radar Route of my Check Flight -
Some of the straightest tracks I've ever flown


We took off and flew the standard departure, left turn heading 290. Then things got a bit interesting, I was directed to fly a heading of 040 for a bit, and then back to 330 to intercept V334. When it was clear I'd intercept V334 the DPE told me to request direct to OYOSO. It was so quiet in the air ATC had no problem giving us that clearance. Actually for the whole flight every request we made was quickly approved. I requested pilot navigation from OYOSO so I could do the procedure turn there. Norcal told me I may have to do a couple turns in the hold for some reason and to report when established there. So I entered the hold and reported when established. Then we were cleared for the approach to Tracy. Per the DPE's instructions I asked at that time to cancel IFR but to continue this approach and other approaches VFR for faster routing. ATC obliged. 

First Approach

The first approach was the LPV into Tracy with a circle to land. The flying of the approach was actually easy, I did as I was trained and kept my corrections small. I let the DPE know we would have to circle to land to the northeast because southwest wasn't allowed. She asked why and I said, that's what's specified in the approach plate. I leveled off when I got down to the circling minimum and was told to go visual. Off came the foggles and I started the circle procedure until the DPE announced she was confident of the successful outcome of that procedure and directed me to execute the missed. For the first time I did all of the radio calls for this particular approach. There wasn't anyone in the pattern to hear the calls.

From Tracy to Stockton

I made sure to CLIMB on the missed and leveraged the VOR I had TunedAndIdentified earlier to choose the right heading to proceed to the Manteca VOR. The DPE brought out sticky-notes to cover the HI and AI and I was flying partial panel. I contacted NorCal and requested the next approach. They provided radar vector headings and I had no problem turning to the right heading or maintaining the right track. I did have one problem though... I was cleared to 2500 feet after the missed, which I leveled off at. After getting the next approach clearance NorCal told me the climb out instructions for Livermore would be heading 200 and altitude 2000. I wrote that down and repeated that back. I loaded the VOR 29R approach for Stockton and activated it using "vectors-to-final" as we were already on vectors. I was trying to get the weather for Stockton and the controller radioed back something about climb and maintain 3500. So I read back climb and maintain 3500 and started to climb. NorCal said nothing. The DPE asked me, Are you sure about that clearance? I told her what I thought it was but without prompting I contacted ATC and asked them to confirm the clearance. What the controller actually tried to do was tell me a revised clearance after Stockton to climb to 3500 when leaving Stockton. I read back the corrected clearance and advised ATC I was returning to 2500. Roger was all ATC said. You can see that brief climb towards (but not TO) 3500 feet in the picture below near the 8:40PM mark.
Altitude and Airspeeds for the check flight - courtesy

Stockton VOR

I let that mistake go, the check ride was still going on and I had to keep my head in the game. The distraction about the altitudes threw off my rhythm a bit and I had to get the weather. I got the weather and knew I'd be on the last vector for the approach soon. I started programming the radios for Stockton Tower and the DPE asked what approach I was doing. I said the VOR approach. I glanced at the VLOC/GPS indicator on the GPS. I had the right approach course on the OBS but the GPS was still set to GPS. That was going to be the next step to do, but I was definitely late doing it. I quickly hit that switch and TunedAndIdentified the Manteca VOR on the top VOR receiver. ATC announced the plane was three miles from the VOR and cleared me for the approach. I was only 2000' but I had 3500' in my mind so I was worried about getting down to the first step down altitude by the time I got to the VOR and then getting to the MDA right after that. I checked in with Stockton tower and was cleared for the option. At the same time I was doing a quick mental calculation of the descent rate I needed to make it down to the MDA in time for a potential "normal approach to landing". I did that descent rate, stayed on the right approach course and hit the MDA and leveled off briefly before doing the missed. Remember, all of this is going on while I'm flying with two of my six primary instruments covered - partial panel. I was glad I had so much practice flying partial panel.

Next Stop - Livermore

I hit the missed approach point and started a climb on the missed on runway heading as instructed by the tower. The sticky notes came off the instruments. When cleared I turned to a 200 heading and contacted NorCal again, continuing my climb to 3500 (there was no way I'd miss that altitude after my mistake earlier). I set the GPS to the next destination of Livermore and loaded the ILS 25R approach. We were on radar vectors but this time I loaded the approach from the point furthest away from the airport so I'd have the most options. The DPE wanted direct to FOOTO, so that's what I requested. We were cleared direct FOOTO immediately and had a long time to fly to the next airport. I got the weather from Livermore, flew the plane, programmed in the Livermore tower, flew the plane and remembered to TuneAndIdentify the ILS for Livermore well ahead of time.

The ILS into Livermore went smoothly, it was one of my better ILS approaches. While I was still nervous and keyed up, I was able to do it anway. I made sure my corrections were small and forced myself to not chase the needle instead focusing on keeping the wings level, just as taught. It worked. It amazes me how I am now able to fly that plane into a smaller and smaller "box" and keep it on the right track and glideslope using instruments alone. Great instruction, a lot of practice and some skill must be involved.

Unusual Attitudes

DH reached, I started a Vy climb on runway heading as cleared by Livermore Tower. I was instructed to squawk VFR and the DPE became my 'eyes' giving me headings and altitudes to fly on the way out of the Livermore area. She asked me if I could climb at 100 knots. That was a strange question. I said, yes, but I'm climbing out a Vy. She said she would prefer I climb at 100 knots so she could see to clear us for traffic. Oh! that made sense. I adjusted the pitch to a climb at 100 knots, still under the foggles and continued a climb up to 3000 feet. As I did that I thought about how cool it was I was so comfortable with flying by instruments that it wasn't difficult at all to use pitch to adjust to the the desired airspeed and keep it there.

Time for unusual attitudes, the last task I had to demonstrate. The DPE was careful to describe what would happen next, she would take the controls, put the plane into a nose up or nose down unusual attitude and I'd have to return the plane to straight and level flight. She also said she isn't near as 'rough' in the movements of the plane as some CFIs are ... I was happy about that. I was ready for this one. I had mentally practiced what I would do for unusual attitudes over and over in my head and with my hands until it got to the level of reflex.

She took the controls and I closed my eyes. I could hear the sound of the engine changing and feel the movements of the plane, but I knew not to trust my body. Ok, open your eyes and recover. I opened my eyes, we were in a nose high, turning attitude. Immediately my hands pushed power to full, pushed the nose level and then leveled the wings. I felt extra pressure on the yolk so I did a couple quick turns of the trim in order to reset the plane for hands free flight. She commented on that. She said no one's ever re-trimmed the plane before. I doubt it was a never thing, but it made me feel good that I did and it was positively recognized. Next unusual attitude would be nose down, I knew. She took the controls and I closed my eyes again. Open your eyes and recover. Nose down and turning attitude. Pull power, wings level, nose up, re-apply power and I was done. The last instrument maneuver was over. I was told to take off the foggles and take us home.

Take Her Home

We were over Calaveras reservoir with only one thing left to do. Go back to RHV and land. I couldn't let myself screw this one up. I got the weather and called into Reid-Hillview tower and forgot to mention I had the weather. The tower gave me the weather info. I thanked them for the help. I almost never screw up on radio calls and I've had some good mistakes today. Oh well. I'm still going. I came in for landing and managed for the first time in what seemed like months do to a good, square, base to final turn. I didn't even have to add power to make the runway. I felt very good about that.

And just like that it was over. I taxied the plane back to parking, went through the final checklist and shut it down. The DPE smiled and congratulated me on my successful flight. With that I was done. I had demonstrated all of the tasks in the Instrument PTS successfully, both in the oral test and in flight. I had earned my instrument rating.

We talked briefly about the flight and she offered a suggestion of creating my own pre-approach checklist to use on instrument flights. That may help me ensure I do the right things in the right order and not be so slow on that darned GPS/VLOC switch. That type of mistake can be fatal. I will definitely take up that suggestion.


As I pushed the plane back into its parking spot I was happy it was over. With so many delays for my check flight and before that, long breaks in my training that made the training take longer it could have, I felt more relieved than elated. Proud of my accomplishment, yes, but more happy that it was over than anything else.  I packed up my equipment and buttoned up the plane and then headed inside the club. The DPE printed out my temporary license a Private Pilot license with INSTRUMENT AIRPLANE on the back. She congratulated me again and said, halfway joking, she looked forward to being the DPE for my commercial ride. I assured her, this time next year, she would.

She left the club and I chatted a bit with the young man who manned the front desk. I had had many long chats with him since I started instrument training. Then I told the owner of the club that I was done, I had earned my rating. We joked around a bit. Time to call my CFI and share the happy results. If he wasn't there I wanted badly to leave him a message that I failed, just to tease him a bit, but I couldn't make myself do it. I didn't think I could pull it off. I got his voice mail and left a message saying simply, "I'm done. Give me a call." Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for my joke, the person he was on the phone with was the DPE, who told him that I passed!

He called me back and pointed out its not a good thing to leave that type of voice mail with a CFI as that would make a CFI concerned. I fessed up that I did that on purpose. We had a brief chat, he asked me for my perspective on the flight and then said it seemed that both I and the DPE appeared to have been in the same plane, which was a good thing. He congratulated me a couple times and asked how I felt. I had trouble explaining but he understood. He described it more like the feeling of getting over an illness. That was exactly right.

In the End

People say the instrument rating is the hardest to earn. It may have been hard, but I've enjoyed the learning and training process for my instrument rating thoroughly, even if I did not enjoy the wait to finally complete my rating. Now I can't wait to use it and fly in the clouds. A little bit at first and eventually more often. I'm also looking forward to flying under IFR rules. I like the increased involvement with the greater ATC system and knowing I won't have a problem finding an airport again if I file and fly IFR. I can't wait to use that rating to file IFR through Los Angeles airspace for instance. Another thing "they" say is a pilot's license is a license to learn. I'm already finding an Instrument Rating is a license to learn even more. If there's one thing I love, it is learning and experiencing more.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Runner Happy Pilot

This evening I was driving to the track (track and field track) to meet up with some friends and do a running workout. I'm supposed to be starting up my running training again. The weather was going to be nice for a run, cool but not raining yet. A series of strong storms are expected to hit this area over the next 5 days, bringing up to 10-12" of rain by the end of the weekend. So I knew this would be the last dry night for a while.

As I drove I saw the moon, bright and full in the sky. Half of the sky was crystal clear, the other half had high clouds. I checked ATIS at my home airport, expecting to hear strong winds... but there were no winds, ATIS reported calm. I continued in traffic to the track but the moon kept beckoning me. The sky looked so clear. I need to get night current. There is a storm coming. I need to exercise. I sat in traffic longer ... debating ... run or fly. Run or fly. Finally I gave in and diverted to the airport to fly.

I flew, not for a long time, but I flew. The air was cool but not too cold, the moon was full and bright, not a breath of wind or bump and few other planes in the air. It was perfect.

I am a bad runner sometimes, but tonight I am a happy pilot. :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No Sniffles in the Cockpit

Have you ever noticed? Pilots don't have sniffles. You never hear an announcement from the flight deck with a stuffy nose voice or a sniff, sniff, cough in the background. Have you ever heard a pilot on CTAF or talking with ATC or the tower with the sniffles? I haven't. You hear that plenty on conference calls or in the office or other place of work, but you won't hear that sound coming from a cockpit.

Well, let me tell you. It isn't that we don't get sniffles. We don't fly with sniffles. Why? because sniffles are often related with sinus congestion and one thing you really don't want to deal with is sinus congestion at altitude in an unpressurized (or pressurized for that matter) aircraft. I know many people reading this have experienced the sharp pain or throbbing of sinus congestion in an aircraft, or heard a baby crying on take off or landing. Babies don't cry because they think take off and landing is dangerous. They cry because the pressure behind their ears is not equalizing and it hurts. Bad. So, severe sinus congestion is one of those things you don't fly with. You get rid of the congestion first. Then you fly.

Why am I writing about sniffles? I woke up this morning with some of the worst sinus congestion that I've had in a long time. The morning before I was supposed to do my instrument check flight, finally. I had to put away my hopes of completing my Instrument Rating today and cancel the flight. I am sad. And sniffling and coughing and I have a head ache. I suppose I'm whining. *smile* I don't do sick well.

Anyway, my experience today made me think about the fact that pilots do not fly with sniffles. So, I'm in good company. If I feel better tomorrow I may do my check flight then. If not, I'll be on the waiting list for the DPE again. I have until the end of January to complete this ride before I have to re-do the oral. So I shouldn't feel hurried, but I do. I just want to be done with this phase of my training!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Elements of Enjoyment

This is one of the best descriptions of flying I've seen... and it isn't even about flying. A Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes the "elements of enjoyment" that comprise an optimal experience, or "flow". Here is Ken Robinson's description of these elements in his book The Element How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything...
... facing a challenge that requires a skill one possesses, complete absorption in an activity, clear goals and feedback, concentration on the task at hand that allows one to forget everything else, the loss of self-consciousness and the sense that time "transforms" during the experience. "The key element of an optimal experience," he says in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, "is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding."
When I fly.. I experience that "flow" or I'm "in the zone" or however you describe it. I've found my passion in flight, when I fly I'm in my own element. Where I know I belong. What's your passion? Your element? If you don't know.. try to find it. It will be worth your while!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Isolated Showers

Rain directly over the RHV airport - returning from check ride prep.

Friday I did what will probably be my final check ride prep flight for my instrument rating. I returned to town after a week of work and conferencing out of town and I was exhausted. The weather wasn't looking too promising with a scattering of clouds and low freezing levels. For the first time I considered cancelling a training flight for just being too tired. In the end I decided to go ahead with the flight hoping getting to fly would cheer me up and give me some much needed energy and peace.

I filed a flight plan for 3PM take off and my CFI checked the flights coming in to SJC to see if we would be likely to get off quickly. We figured if we hurried we would be able to take off before the 5 jets scheduled for SJC kept us on the ground. After doing the run-up and getting our clearance we were ready to go but we were told to taxi to the "penalty box" between runway 31L and 31R to await our clearance. Tower told us Norcal advised a 6 minute delay. Then we were told there would be another 8 minute delay. We decided to cancel IFR, depart VFR with flight following on the same squawk code, and do either practice approaches or try to pick up another clearance once we got away from SJC.

We took off and when transferred to Norcal for VFR flight following we requested an IFR clearance to TCY. The controller was very helpful and told us he could give us a clearance once we got over 3000 feet, so that's what we did. After picking up the clearance we did the full check ride run. I even got a little bit of actual flying through a couple clouds briefly. No icing happened, thankfully.

My altitudes were all over the place for most of the flight. Something I've struggled with pretty consistently. My GPS approach into TCY was OK, once I figured out I had the wrong approach chart. I didn't intercept the inbound track that well, but once on track I flew the approach to spec. Then came the missed, an old problem. I did OK on everything but the CLIMB portion. Then came the partial panel approach to SCK on the VOR. Not too bad there, except the CLIMB on the missed. After that was the ILS into LVK. The sun was shining directly into my face making it hard for me to see the instruments to fly. It was my worst ILS in a very long time. I never quite busted but it was not up to par for me. I also needed to more obviously use my checklists.

We departed LVK back towards RHV VFR and my CFI took the controls for unusual attitude recovery. I sucked at that. I kept getting the recovery backwards or in the wrong order. I was frustrated, its not like I don't know this stuff. I know how to do this, but I was even more tired by that time than I was earlier in the day. We kept doing it over and over and finally he had me watch (still under the hood) as he put the plane into unusual attitudes and then recovered swiftly.

Finally we were done and it was time to head back to land. My CFI said there was a rain shaft directly over the airport, did I want to see? Yes. I was so tired my main thought was to wonder how difficult this would make the pattern and landing. He was excited about the rain though and took the picture shown above as we approached the airport. With my CFI in an uncharacteristically chatty mood and me in an uncharacteristically uninspired mood I flew through a real rain the first time in my life as a pilot. The drops were relatively small so they didn't make too much noise but they did make it harder to see straight ahead. We flew out of the rain shaft on short final. The runway was soaked with rain and I got to do my first landing on a wet runway - very carefully. It was essentially a soft field landing with very careful application of the brakes.

We taxied clear of the runway and back to the club and my CFI was still telling me stories of flights in the rain and landing on wet runways. He has very good stories. I brought the plane to a stop and he finished a last story, then I shut down the plane. He told me to button up the plane and then we would talk about his notes from the ride. He asked me what I thought of the ride and I told him I thought it went much better than I thought it would given how long it had been since I'd done a long instrument ride and how tired I was.  He thought about that for a moment and agreed that did put a different light on my "performance" that flight.

When we sat down to debrief he gave me some information to write down and think about and discussed the comments in the context of passing a check ride and staying alive in IMC. Finally he said that I am absolutely ready for the check flight, as I was two weeks ago. We both know I know what to do and how to do it. We know that I will step up when the time for the ride comes.

As he left the club I sat down, exhausted but glad I did that flight. I got my mistakes out of the way with my CFI in the right seat instead of a DPE. I had some areas to focus my thoughts on as I travel for business again for the week. When my CFI sent me the photo above, I realized how beautiful that isolated shower over the airport was. I am looking forward to seeing more rain and more clouds in the near future after I get my instrument rating in my pocket.

Instrument Check Ride - Oral

Preflight Decisions

I woke up at 5AM the morning of November 1feeling good and sharp. Ready to take on the ride. I had much to do before my check ride at 9. For one I had to print all of the weather information so I could walk the DPE through my weather analysis and decision making process for the theoretical cross country flight that I had to plan. I also had to check the weather for the *actual* check flight. The night before I had decided to go ahead and attempt the check flight because the weather, while cloudy, appeared to be relatively benign with a likelihood of clouds for portions of the en-route part of the flight but conditions above MVFR and no AIRMETs for turbulence. In the morning, however, there were AIRMETs for turbulence near the route of my actual planned flight. This data was still 5 hours before the likely flight time so I decided to hold off on a final decision for the flight portion of the ride until I got to the flight club and got a weather briefing a couple hours later.

The sun was just starting to come out as I drove up to the flight club and the weather was dreary and rainy, not at all what someone wants for a check ride. But, this was an instrument check ride so it did not mean we had to cancel… not yet. I still had to preflight the plane, get the weather briefing and do my final cross fuel and time calculations based on that briefing. The DPE was supposed to arrive at 9, my CFI at 8:45 and I was there about 7:45 due to bad traffic on the way to the club.

I called flight services and got a briefing for my theoretical cross country. Then I got the real briefing for the actual check flight. The ceilings were slightly lower than predicted the night before and the cloud tops higher with more extensive coverage. It was still MVFR conditions or better but definitely more time in the clouds would be likely for the ride. This particular DPE is known for not wanting to take a long time on check rides so I figured that I may suggest not doing the ILS in Livermore as the last approach and instead doing the LPV into Reid-Hilllview (which can count as a precision approach) if the ceilings were too low to allow a VFR departure from Livermore. Then I got some news I didn't want. According to the briefer, there was an AIRMET for moderate turbulence just east of my first actual destination airport (TCY). The second destination airport, SCK, was further east than TCY and likely to be in the moderate turbulence area. It was so early in the morning there were no Pireps to confirm or deny that AIRMET. That sealed it. While I was comfortable with the idea of clouds for a portion, even a large portion, of my check flight. I was not going to go knowingly into a high stress, actual IMC, moderate turbulence situation on my check ride. That did not sound like a recipe for success to me. The flight portion was off the list for today.

I decided that I would tell the DPE that we would not be doing the flight portion before we started and why. After that I would suggest we go ahead with the oral portion because I was ready to do that and feeling very confident about that part (such a huge switch from my jitters the night before). I was hoping knowing that ahead of time would maybe get me a lower rate on the second part of the ride. Or if the rate was just too high I'd tell her we aren't going to start and we'd have to reschedule the whole thing.

Getting Ready

I started working on my calculations for the cross country plan when the DPE walked in, about half an hour early. This was the same DPE that did my PPL check flight. When she saw me she recognized me immediately. She seemed happy to see me and I was happy to be working with a DPE I was familiar with so I was much more comfortable than I would have been with a total stranger. We shook hands and she sat down. I told her we wouldn't be doing the flight portion and why. It turns out, she doesn't like turbulence any more than I do (in spite of being an experienced pilot with type ratings for jets, etc.) so she agreed with my decision. She said normally the charge for a continuance was another $350 (on top of the $550 fee) but since we knew up front she would think about the rates.  We agreed to go ahead and do the verification of my aeronautical experience, check my log book and endorsements, check the plane, etc. before we made the final decision about doing the oral or not.

My CFI finally arrived to do the endorsements in my log book and we all discussed the options regarding the ride. The DPE decided that, since we knew up front we wouldn't do the full ride to charge me $350 for the oral and then $300 for the flight. That was only $100 more than it would have been otherwise so I figured that would be OK, expensive but OK. I kicked the two of them out of the room to go verify the airworthiness of the plane and let me finish up my calculations.

Here We Go

Around 9:30 I was ready to go and I went out and got the DPE. We sat down and the test began. She started with the usual description of pass and fail criteria, what would happen if I failed, how she would evaluate me (against the Instrument PTS), etc. Then I handed over the $350 fee and we were off.

She asked me what things I would be able to do with my Instrument Rating that I can't do now. What airspace would I be able to fly in now that wasn't legal previously? how long does the instrument rating last? does it expire? what do you have to do in order to be legal to fly on an instrument flight plan, etc. I breezed through the regulations easily. Then she drew six circles on the white board and said that each circle was one of the instruments in the standard six pack. I should describe each one and how it works. So I went through and described the Airspeed Indicator, Turn Coordinator, Attitude Indicator, Heading Indicator, Altimeter and Vertical Speed Indicator and how each one worked. Then she asked me how each one can fail and what happens when they do, what would I see, etc. We discussed different naviads and how they work. What's a VOR or localizer. What's the difference between the two? What are the components of an ILS? What is GPS and how does that work? etc.

We then turned to the cross country. First I went through the weather, just as my CFI had taught me. I went through the Adverse Conditions, departure and destination conditions and forecasts, why I couldn't officially use the TAF for SJC but why I would use it to get an idea of conditions in the area. Same thing for the destination in Chico, why I would use the TAFs for Redding and Beale to get a better idea of what was going on around the airport. I explained why I would not be required to file an alternate airport (the forecast ceilings in the Area Forecast were just high enough) but why I would plan on one anyway (just because its legal doesn't mean its safe). This lead to a discussion of alternates, which airports you could and could not file as alternate and why, alternate minimums, etc. We went back to weather, I showed her the winds and temps aloft and pointed out how the difference between wind directions and speeds was my first indication that turbulence was likely. I also pointed the winds and temps aloft forecast showed conditions close to freezing much lower than shown on the freezing levels chart so I would be very alert for air temps and potential icing at those levels. By the time I was done going through all of the weather information I got the distinct impression I explained more than she needed to hear. She had no questions. I did very well. Soooo much better than I did for my CFI a couple days prior.

Time to talk about the cross country route… what is your initial altitude and why? What route? I described the route and why I chose it, the approach that would be used at the destination airport (due to winds) and the alternates I planned. I also explained the alternate would change depending on why I'd need one and what direction the weather was going. I talked through the fuel required for the flight and for the alternate, etc. what I expected at the alternate airport and why.

At this point the discussion turned to the en-route chart I used to describe the route. She pointed out various features on the chart and asked what they were. What I could do to avoid CFIT if I lost com at point X on the route. How would I continue the flight and how would I descend and land if I lost com at this other point in the route? What should I do when I land after I lost com?

What do you do if you lose GPS signal on an final approach to this airport? what if you lost signal at this point instead? Some more questions about GPS, how can you find out if GPS is working before getting into the plane?

Questions about charts and airports… how do you know if an airport has non-standard alternate minimums or take-off minimums? How do you know if you can file an airport as an alternate? what is a SID? what's a STAR? walk me through one of each. How do you know your charts are current? etc.

The topic switched to icing…. what kinds of icing are there? what's the difference between them? what would you do if you detected icing? What would you do if ATC refused your request to change altitudes? What types of de-icing or anti-icing equipment are on the plane?

We discussed a couple special emphasis areas and all of the sudden it was done. The oral part of the check ride was over and I had passed. She went out to do the continuance paperwork which gives me two calendar months to complete the ride. I packed up the notes and materials I had scattered all over the table in the course of the discussion and that was it. The actual test portion took only an hour and a half. I went out after packing up and my CFI congratulated me on the results.

Just like that I was halfway done with my Instrument check ride. I was glad I made the decision to go ahead and go through with the oral portion and very glad to have been through my mistakes with my CFI which prepared me so well for the actual test. The flight portion of my Instrument ride is now scheduled for November 20.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Pilot's Backyard

If you are waiting anxiously for the result of my Instrument Check Ride, I'll reduce the suspense ..  I passed the oral and haven't taken the flight portion yet. I'll write more about the actual ride soon. This is what was on my mind instead.

I don't remember the context of the conversation anymore but I remember one day my CFI was talking about his flying. He said something about all of Northern California or perhaps it was the state of California is his backyard. That phrase stuck in my head back then. I didn't quite relate to it, but I remembered it. I had an awkward moment over a week ago when I realized I had come to consider all of Northern California to be my backyard too.

Since earning my PPL almost a year ago I've done quite a bit of cross-country flying. In part to ensure I'd get enough cross-country time for my instrument rating, but mostly because, that's why I love to fly. I love to experience the journey and excitement of going to new airports and communities, watching the land roll by underneath my wings with the sun and clouds as my companions, talking to different controllers - who have become welcome and even familiar voices, and even, on occasion, experiencing different problems and scaring myself.

I've become accustomed to flying to Willows, CA for pie or to race, or to Santa Rosa Charles M. Shultz Airport to see the Snoopy statues and enjoy sushi at the SkyLounge restaurant in the terminal. To say I fly the Bay Tour (a flight up and around San Francisco Bay Area's most iconic sights - the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Sausolito and Tiberon, just to name a few) often is an understatement. My husband and I fly to Harris Ranch in the central valley for steak. I've been able to fly down to Oceano Dunes to camp under the stars at that airport and to San Lois Obispo to visit another friend at another. A quick trip to Auburn for breakfast makes total sense. All of these trips I consider day trips from my south bay base at Reid-Hillview Airport, sometimes just an afternoon jaunt over a long lunch break.

Distance becomes somewhat warped when you're a pilot. You think of trips in terms of time. An hour here, an hour and a half there. Three hours is a bit long but certainly doable. We joke about our range being limited more by bladder than fuel capacity. When you run marathons often, you don't think of 10 or 15 miles as far, but if you take the time to walk those miles or look at them on a map, you realize it is far. When you are a pilot, even of a relatively slow plane like I fly, you don't think of an hour flight as far… that's right around the corner. But if you look at a map, an hour flight is quite far. Especially if you compare that hour flight time to the driving time it takes to travel the same distance. That's where I had the awkward realization about my new backyard.

I was driving up to Healdsburg, CA to meet my good friends for dinner before a planned half marathon in Santa Rosa. That same weekend we were going to be at an auto racing event at Sonoma Raceway (aka Sears Point) which was near Novato, CA. All of these locations are in the North Bay, Healdsburg the furthest north of all. We race at Sonoma Raceway often, so I had internalized the distance there and, while far, it wasn't that bad. I go to Santa Rosa all the time for sushi and I'd popped over to the Healdsburg airport once, just because. So none of these locations seemed far to me.

After leaving Novato and sitting in Friday afternoon traffic for 45 minutes, making all of 20 miles progress and not even getting close to the "not far" airport of Santa Rosa, it hit me. I had become so used to flying to these places and points further, I'd internalized all of these locations as part of my own, personal, backyard. Just like my CFI had described. I realized I'd better think of my mode of transportation before I announce a location as "not far" again! The traffic cleared up eventually and an hour or so later I made it to Healdsburg. It would have taken me an hour and a half less to do that trip door to door in a plane (including driving from my home 45 minutes to the airport, prepping the plane and flying to Healdsburg).

Now I have a real appreciation for how large my backyard has become, thanks to the time, struggle and joy of learning to fly. When I started on this journey I didn't have in mind as a goal to make my state my backyard. I was caught up in the joy of flight. I still am. Now I get to add to that joy the incredible expansion of my horizons far beyond a comfortable (or uncomfortable) road trip.

This morning I logged my 250th hour of flight time. My husband and I rented two planes and flew with two pilot friends (one a private pilot and one a student pilot) to Sacramento Executive Airport for brunch. Just a quick hop and fun brunch with friends, in another part of my backyard.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Instrument Check Ride - The Freak Out

After many months of training and hours of simulated instrument time (and .4 hours of actual) my instrument check ride finally came this week on November 1. Before the ride though, there is always the preparation, study and pre-check ride nerves. This time was very different from my private check ride for me. This time I was nervous about the oral and less nervous about the flight portion. That is because I'd already done a complete mock instrument check ride and proven I can pass the flight portion. The oral portion was another story.

The night before the check ride I was freaking out about the weather portion of the oral test because when I went through it with my CFI I did really bad. However, I think that was what I needed to refocus my brain. I went back through the notes I made when I did my PPL check ride. When I reviewed those notes I started to remember the right way to do the weather portion. It was just like my CFI reminded me. OK, maybe I could pull that off. 

I was also freaking out a bit about all of the stuff you just need to know to do instrument flying. The rules, charts, procedures, lost com procedures, aircraft systems, failure modes, different types of icing, a better understanding of weather, currency (or is that recency?) requirements, etc., etc. What would I have to explain to the DPE? How would she ask the questions? Oh boy, I kept thinking. Oh man, oh man. How was I going to do this? 

I worried about the cross country I had to plan. I started that off with a big fail. I misread the email from the DPE telling me what airport to plan the flight to. So, I spent an hour planning a flight to the wrong airport! Fortunately I talked to my CFI about that airport and he pointed out - wrong airport! Good thing about that was, doing that plan got my cross country planning juices flowing. I re-planned to the correct airport. I did two plans actually, one for an approach using one runway, one for the other runway in case the winds favored it. Something important to think about, you never know which approach you will actually get. And then of course, I had to plan for the alternate and the route to the alternate and the fuel and time to the alternate. By the time I got done with all of that I was feeling a bit cross-eyed and tired. I didn't do the fuel and time calculations because I wanted to do that based on the weather the next morning.

I reviewed my study notes for the instrument ride one last time, and found I knew it. Have you ever read something and as you read each word you knew what it was? You didn't have to read it to know it? That's what I found myself doing.  Word after word, fact after fact, regulation after regulation and procedure on procedure, I knew it. That made me feel better.  It was getting late and I had to get up very early the next morning to get and print the weather for the check ride.  I went to sleep feeling more confident, at least I knew what I knew and that was no small thing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Actual Instrument!

After months and months of training and being ready to get some flying in actual instrument conditions with my CFI for just as long, I finally got the chance today! I actually flew in the clouds!

Me. And the grey stuff is cloud.
I finally know what it looks like.
I filed the instrument flight plan, almost out of jest, thinking that the clouds would clear out as they always did before I flew on an instrument flight plan. But when I got the the airport the clouds were still there. And they remained there. They were high enough to be very VFR conditions and scattered or broken depending on where you looked, but they were there.

I preflit the plane (making sure the pitot heat was working) and got more and more nervous. As I waited for my CFI to arrive I stood out on the ramp and looked at those clouds. They looked dark, wet, and not that friendly. I was going to go up in those. I got more nervous. I still don't like turbulence. I knew it would be.

He arrived and we briefed the flight briefly. He commented that he thought I would be all happy. I would finally get to fly in a cloud. I told him I was just as nervous as the first time I knew I was going to go up and take the controls of a plane. And I was. But off we went!

My nerves showed very quickly in my radio work. My pronunciation wasn't that great and one three right became one three white. I got teased for that one.. until I said, "Be vewy vewy qwiet. We're hunting cwowds." We laughed.

For most of the flight we were in the clear, but there were sections when we climbed up to the level of the clouds and spent some time going in and out of cloud after cloud. In the clouds it was turbulent and cold ... I think it was grey. I didn't look. I was too busy looking at the instruments! At one point we were flying between two sets of clouds in a bit of a cloud canyon. That was cool.

At one point we were in a cloud bank at 6000' (somewhere over Lick Observatory) and getting bounced around pretty good. I was given a vector to turn to 150 from 180 and started my turn, when I scanned to the turn coordinator, it showed wings level! The AI showed turning. The HI showed turning the same way.

I pointed it out to my CFI. We had vacuum, we had power, we had comm and GPS. We had no failure flag on the TC. Since we were in and out of clouds and the AI was OK we decided to keep going and see if the damn thing started working again. After about 5 minutes of me paying VERY close attention to the AI the turn coordinator started working again. *whew* It was a great opportunity to discuss what to do if the TC continued failed (descend to the VFR conditions about 1000 ft below us).

On the way back to RHV we got a strange (to me) clearance.. cleared direct CEDES then heading 180 cleared to RHV (180 headed away from RHV). So, we discussed what we'd do if lost com with that clearance. Because we had no EFC time and no filed ETA (I had filed to Tracy - we picked up clearance back to RHV on the go.)

Once we descended to 4300 feet on the GPS approach to RHV we were out of the clouds for good. For the first time I got to see what an LPV approach from 4300 ft to the airport looked like. It was rather strange to do a long, slow descent straight down to a runway and seeing it happen.

What a day though! The most amazing thing is ... when I left the club I looked up at the clouds again and they no longer appeared to be this solid thing I must go around, above or below... They looked like another route, another path. An path to be approached very carefully with planning and respect, but a path that I could travel nonetheless. Another avenue for adventure and discovery in the sky.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Just be Glad to Be Here

I was driving into work this morning through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many things on my mind as I tried to make it into the office early enough to get ahead of my day. I was listening to a mix I put together shortly before I got my PPL. It has some of my favorite music and always reminds me of the struggles and joys of flight. I turned a corner and saw this sunrise. The photo does not do it justice. 

Sunrise from Santa Cruz Mountains
I was in awe and carefully divided my attention between watching the winding two lane road in front of me and this sunrise. I smiled as I saw the contrails of a jet as it made its way through the brilliant colors. 

Just then I became aware of the lyrics I was listening to... 

Don't think about all those things you fear. 
Just be glad to be here. 

Good advice. I've had much fear on my mind recently. Fear that I won't do as well on my IFR checkride orals as my CFI thinks I will. Fear that switching planes two weeks before my checkride will cause me to fail. Fear that the stress at work will make me ill. Fear, fear, fear. That reminded me of a quote from a great man. "The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself." 

Once again, I have a decision. Be afraid, or set aside the fear and do what it takes to ensure my fears will not come true. Study and run through the orals with my CFI one more time. Get extra practice in the plane I will be flying. Relax and trust the fact that I already know. I have already demonstrated the ability to pass an IFR checkride, from start to finish, in my last practice run. All I have to do is do it. My CFI has confidence in me. He's taken literally hundreds of pilots through the instrument checkride process. He should know. 

So, my decision is, I'll just be glad to be here. And who knows, maybe, someday, I'll be the one flying that jet leaving contrails in the sky as another pilot watches from the ground and smiles.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Controlled Flight into Terrain

Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT). A pilot flies straight into a hill or a mountain or the ground with their aircraft under complete control, unknowing that they are flying to their death. I never thought I would do that. Fortunately, the experience I had today was in a simulator, so no one was hurt, not even my ego. I'm hoping the experience will cement in my mind the importance of something that I heard many times from my CFI and in the seminars I attended at the AOPA Summit; situational awareness. Knowing where you are. It can be absolutely critical. Good situational awareness can save your life, poor situational awareness can kill you (or prematurely end a simulation!).

The experience started off innocently enough. I had signed up for an hour in the full motion RedBird simulator at the summit, figuring it would be fun to learn a little about how to use a G1000. I showed up at 2:20 for my 2:30 start time and the guys running the sims said they were just informed everything had to shut down at 3. So my session would be shortened. Then there was a little girl, no more than 8 years old, who wanted to fly the simulator because she flew on her daddy's lap all the time and wanted to fly without his help. Of course, I was happy to let her get some time in before me.

Finally its my turn. The instructor is apologetic and in a hurry. The plane was positioned on the runway at Henderson Nevada airport (where the little girl successfully landed it) and he was thinking quickly about what to set up for me to do. I told him I'd be happy to fly an ILS approach somewhere. So he decided to set up some low ceilings and winds and set me up for the ILS RWY 12L approach at North Las Vegas airport. He grabbed an iPad and showed me the approach plate.

A portion of the approach plate for the ILS Rwy 12L into North Las Vegas.
While he was setting up the simulation I was figuring out how to program nav radios on this simulated G1000 and trying to figure out where to look to get critical information like airspeed, altitude, climb/descent, heading, turn rate, etc, etc on this very unfamiliar screen.

I decide I'm ready to go and we take off from Henderson into low clouds. The plane is in the clouds rather quickly and I'm on the instruments, using a G1000 for the first time to give me the information I need to control the plane. I climb on runway heading, figure out how to get a 75 knots airspeed, trim and wait for the promised radar vectors for the localizer at North Las Vegas. The instructor, playing controller, clears me to 6200 feet (the altitude for intercept with the localizer at the IAF). He then starts giving me radar vectors. It took a bit to figure out where the turn coordinator is (there isn't), RPM gauge is (on the other screen), etc, etc. but no matter what I kept the plane under control and even caught the simulated updrafts and down drafts, turbulence and winds and managed them.

The instructor kept playing with the display on the right hand screen to give himself a better idea of where the plane was in the simulation so he could give me good vectors. I ignored the information on that screen as a result, I didn't know what he was doing or what info he was showing, so I concentrated on flying the plane. I got vector after vector and figured out how to tell if I was doing a standard rate turn or not. The instructor was commenting on how well I was doing jumping into a totally unfamiliar environment with the G1000 simulation.

I was feeling pretty good and was getting into the rhythm of the flight.  I had been flying on a heading of 360 for a minute or so and noticed the simulated grey in front of the simulated plane turning to brown. I double checked my altitude (still 6200 as it should be) and said, "What is that?" A half a second later I found out.  Thunk was the simulated sound of the plane flying straight into a rock face and the screen went dark. Simulation over. If this was a real flight, I'd be dead. The instructor had given me radar vectors straight into the 8154 ft peak just south west of the localizer course.

The instructor was very apologetic after that. I said to him, "When a controller makes a mistake..." and he immediately said, "A pilot dies." He felt very bad. And yeah, in a way, it was his fault for vectoring me into a mountain.  And yes, I had only a couple moments to study the approach plate, and this was an unfamiliar set of instrumentation, etc. etc. On the other hand, I looked at the approach plate and didn't even make a mental note of the terrain around that approach. I knew what direction I was going and approximately where I was but I didn't relate that to the terrain. I didn't even try.  Real controllers make mistakes, real pilots die if they are not on top of where they are and where they're going and what they will encounter on the way, if they can see it or not.

In the brief debrief the instructor apologized again. I pointed out it would have been good for me to take more time to study the plate and understand the terrain and correlate that to where I was. He said I must have a great flight instructor to be able to switch to a totally unfamiliar set of instruments and be able to fly as well as I did. That made me feel better. But I feel like if I had listened to my CFI a bit better maybe I would have had a better idea of what was going on and perhaps not flown into a mountain.

In the end I'll never know... but I can certainly tell you, this experience was one that I hope will teach me to forever maintain awareness of terrain and where I am on instrument approaches. If that happens, this could be some of the most valuable flight training I've ever had.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Flight to Palm Springs

Lovely paint job on a very nice V35 parked next to
us at PSP. They are expecting 1000+ planes
at this airport for the summit in a couple days!
Yesterday my husband, Jeff, and I flew down to Palm Springs, CA for the AOPA Summit. We have been planning this trip for months. The summit itself is Thursday - Saturday but we decided to make a week of it and enjoy a vacation of doing nothing for a while. (Nothing, that is, aside from a little work, a couple meetings, and then actually enjoying a vacation!)

The plane I wanted to fly, a 180 HP Penn Yan conversion Cessna 172 was not running well yet. So we opted to rent one of the club's 182s for the trip. A faster plane, but one I'm not yet signed off to fly since I chose to pursue my Instrument Rating before getting the short training required to fly high-performance or complex planes. So, Jeff got to PIC and I handled the radio work. Which I like to do and he doesn't like to do.

We took off for Palm Springs around 11AM into a clear blue sky and had flight following immediately to accompany us on our way. About 30 minutes into the flight however, I start to hear a rattling noise that seemed to come from the roof of the plane, maybe in the interior or maybe from the exterior of the plane. The noise got louder and even my husband started hearing it. We took turns turning and trying to push and pull on the roof liner, trying to identify where the noise was coming from and we couldn't. The noise continued to get louder and we were both concerned. If this was something on the outside of the plane, it could be important! and the last thing we wanted to do is have a plane lose pieces at 9500 feet. We decided to divert to Los Banos airport, land and check things out.

After landing we taxied to transient, shut down and climbed out of the plane. Jeff pulled out the ladder and inspected the top of the plane. I walked all around the outside, we couldn't find anything loose or out of place. We reached back inside the plane and pushed and pulled on the trim panels again, nothing seemed wrong there or more loose than the trim on any other plane in this old fleet of rentals. So, we put everything away, started back up and took off for Palm Springs again. No noise. Not one squeak or rattle. The plane remained quiet for the remainder of the flight.

I got us flight following and programmed our flight plan into the GPS. Once we got up to our cruise altitude of 9500 feet Jeff turned on the autopilot which ran off the flight plan in the GPS. I'd never flown a long flight in a plane with autopilot before and found out very quickly how easily you can forget to look out the window with the plane essentially flying itself. An autopilot also makes a long flight rather boring. The weather was good and the ride smooth.  The air below us was hazy but I could still spot planes much lower than us taking off and landing at airports that we passed.

LA smog / haze pushing up against the mountains to the nort
We cruised along and got handed off to Lemore Approach, Bakersfield Approach and finally Los Angeles Center. When we did our initial call to LA Center they asked our intended route into Palm Springs. I had expected that question so I was ready to answer very quickly. Eventually we flew over a pass into the LA Basin proper. I looked off to the west into the haze and was glad I have been doing instrument training. In a couple weeks I'm supposed to fly into that basin to Fullerton airport and I had a feeling the instrument training will come in handy navigating through that haze, even if it is above VFR minimums.

We turned east away from the haze and headed towards Banning airport and Banning pass which is a common route into the Palm Springs TSRA. We hadn't talked to the LA Center controllers in a while (actually we were hearing the third voice on the same frequency by this time). I notified the controller that we were starting our VFR descent towards Banning. The controller was surprised by this and rather grouchy to find a plane on his frequency that he wasn't expecting. He wasn't actively tracking us and told us to return to the Bakersfield frequency to get a "correct frequency". I guessed what happened; as we flew through their airspace something got lost in the hand off from the first LA Center controller to the next and we got dropped. Or, less likely, maybe they told us to change frequencies and I missed it - much less likely, I don't often miss calls. I knew we wouldn't be likely to be able to talk to Bakersfield from the south side of the mountain range, but I gave it a shot. Sure enough, we couldn't raise Bakersfield approach.

Jeff and his new girlfriend from
Atlantic Aviation :)

I returned to LA Center and offered the frustrated controller an out. I told him we couldn't raise Bakersfield approach and in the same breath requested permission to change to the Palm Springs TSRA frequency. He thanked me for my help and approved the frequency change. Just in time too! When we switched to the TSRA frequency we heard them calling our N number. They were calling out traffic in our area. We acknowledged and found the traffic quickly. Banning pass, being a common route into and out of the LA Basin was very busy with aircraft. Palm Springs TSRA helped notify us about different traffic and eventually obtained radar contact.

After that it was a rather normal approach and landing into the Palm Springs International Airport. Jeff flew a very nice stabilized straight in approach into the airport and we taxied in and parked at Atlantic Aviation for the week. We were both in a great mood after picking up our rental car from Atlantic Aviation's friendly staff and arranging for the plane to be refueled Tuesday morning rather than waiting for Sunday to refuel right before we return. It will be a very busy airport this weekend!

Monday, October 1, 2012

My first Nordo IFR Approach

Well, it was a good learning experience anyway.

Today's plan. VOR approach at Concord (KCCR), then localizer at Hayward (KHWD) with lots of step downs and then maybe we'd get climb out instructions for the 13L approach/circle to land at RHV. Always be prepared for the unexpected.

It was hot, very hot. ATC asked us to maintain best rate of climb to 2100 ft. Pitching for 65 knots I was able to maintain 500fpm, barely. Not a problem though, we got up to 5000 ft eventually and were cleared direct to the Concord VOR. Everything was going swimmingly until we got handed off to the last controller. He starts saying the transmission was very broken and unreadable. We are sort of able to communicate for a couple more calls, then it gets to the point that neither myself or my CFI was able to get a clear word out, we tried both radios and turning on and off the intercom. No joy. We tried my hand held, that didn't work any better. We were just too far from the receiving antennas for ATC at our signal strength. We tried to cancel IFR, they couldn't hear us well enough to do it.

When this happens on VFR flight following, ATC will quickly spit you out of the system "93K, radar services terminated, squawk VFR" and you're done (ask me how I know). But IFR is different. IFR they can't cancel IFR on you, they have to handle you somehow. So they handled us.
"N5093K, ident to acknowledge my transmissions." ident, I reply.
"93K, turn right heading X, descend and maintain 3000" ident, I reply.
"93K, are you planning a full stop landing?" ... long pause. How the heck are we supposed to answer that? we want to cancel IFR and just leave the area. No way to tell ATC that with an ident and we didn't want to play 20 questions with ATC. ident, I reply. Looks like we'll just have to land and work this out with the tower at Concord.
"93K, maintain 2000 until established, cleared for the LDA approach, circle to land RW 32", ident, I reply.
"93K, contact Concord tower, they are aware of your issue. Thanks for your help." ident, I reply and switch to Concord tower frequency. 
When I switched to Concord tower they could hear well enough for us to cancel IFR and request permission to depart VFR out of their airspace. They were happy to oblige.

Side note: Always have all approach charts for any airport you intend to land at IFR within easy reach. You never know what approach you'll get or if the approach you are planning will be available. We had planned to fly the VOR approach at Concord. We got cleared for the LDA. I had all approach charts for Concord in a little binder in easy reach. My CFI had his iPad. So we had no problem switching to the other approach on the fly. 

Still under the foggles I climb out and turn east. CFI starts playing ATC and then he decides to cover the HI and AI so I can do more partial panel work. I say "I would tell ATC at this point I have a gyro failure, but I can't!" He laughed and gave me a point for that one. We worked our way back towards RHV with a plan to call the tower if the radios were still not transmitting well.

My CFI joked that if he hadn't had exactly this problem before, in this plane, on a hot day, just like this, flying this approach, at this airport, he would blame me! First the problem with the plugs on the other plane, now the com gear on this one. I pointed out the other common element was him, so maybe he was the problem. :) It was good to joke around a bit. 

On the way back my CFI finally said we should just schedule the checkride for a couple weeks out and get this done. I agreed. This wasn't the way I wanted to get my checkride scheduled, but I think the recent technical difficulties may be a sign that its time to move on.  I'm looking forward to the end of this process, taking a brief break and then starting the next round of training!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Partial Panel Missed into a Non Precision Approach

A little dry but sometimes you've got to boil it down to procedures... this is how to fly a partial panel missed approach and transition into a non precision approach at another airport.
Portion of an Approach Plate describing
the missed approach procedure from TCY.
  1. Stop descent at DH/MDA
  2. Proceed to MAP
  3. At MAP cram, climb, clean - establish Vy on runway heading
  4. Determine heading to fly for missed
  5. Turn to heading and continue climb
  6. Communicate: "on the missed"
  7. Set up for next approach
  8. Level off - pitch, slow power, trim
  9. Fly radar vectors/headings/altitudes as instructed
  10. Fly next approach once established & cleared
The specific order may change depending on circumstance... for instance, if you're at a towered airport, communicate before turning. And, if you have climbed to the missed approach procedure altitude before you set up for the next approach you'd obviously level off first, then set up the next approach.

Keep in mind all of this is to be done without the benefit of natural horizon, heading indicator and attitude indicator. All of those things that you've learned to depend on to stay safe... out the window. That's what makes partial panel so challenging, this is practicing an emergency procedure.

You know, I should give myself credit for knowing what that procedure means, being able to fly it and being able to understand what that picture of the chart is telling me. Yeah, I'm not doing bad at all! Just goes to show, study and practice anything long enough and you'll be amazed at what you can do without even thinking about it. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Breaking the Chain

If you study aviation long you will hear about the "accident chain". This is a series of events and decisions, sometimes related, sometimes not, which eventually lead to an incident or accident. At any point the chain can be broken by making a different decision. Often these decisions are very easy to make in hindsight, they are less easy to make when you are in the moment.

Today's instrument lesson was less about instrument flying and much more about breaking the chain. What was going to be about a two hour mock check ride turned out to be 0.9 on the hobbs, 0.3 simulated instrument and a different lesson learned.

Link #1 The day started with my CFI running late, really late, 90 minutes late. Which is very unusual for him. Not a big problem, I had nowhere I needed to be. So I relaxed, took my time preflighting the plane we would be flying (its a new plane at the club and not one I know too well). I wasn't pressured by the time, but my CFI was feeling the pressure.

Link #2 I did preflight of the plane and noticed a couple odd things. One, the flaps extended, but extremely slowly. The low voltage light wasn't on but I suspected a low battery. Low but not dead. Two, two of the three tires were visibly low, not flat but low. So after I completed the preflight, I filled the tires to the proper pressure.

Link #3 We go to start the plane and it won't even attempt to crank. The battery was dead. There was no excuse for it to be dead, the plane had sat for less than a week with everything off (I double checked that during preflight, nothing was left on). But there it was, dead battery. My CFI gets out of the plane, finds the A&P and ask if he wants to help hand prop the plane and see if the alternator was working. We hand prop the plane, it fires up and, after a couple resets, the alternator starts charging the battery. We decide to go ahead since I had a hand-held radio with me.

Link #4 (and 4a?)  In run-up I cycled the alternator again and when I turned off the alternator the Garmin 430W power cycled itself. Alternator back on, everything was OK. When I did the mag check one side was lower than the other but both were within spec. I noticed the whisky compass was about half full of fluid, the ball was still floating, but the fluid was low. About this time my CFI noticed, the second on the clock in the plane moved significantly faster when the RPMs were higher and slower when the RPMs were lower. We may have found the cause of the low battery.

Link #5 After the normal delay for traffic landing at SJC airport (6 miles away) we were cleared for takeoff. The takeoff roll was good and the plane took off quickly and climbed strong. CFI took the controls, I put on the foggles and off we went. This plane climbed so fast (for a 172) I actually got to request permission to climb higher from ATC! The fun was short lived however, the engine was running a bit rough. CFI told me to fly and he adjusted the mixture to see if he could smooth out the engine.

Link #6 We leveled off at 5000 feet and he kept troubleshooting the engine roughness as I handled the radio comm and intercepted the required airway. He finally deciding that there must be bad plugs on the right side. We were then cleared direct to OYOSO (the initial approach fix for the approach we were going to fly.)  I repeated back to clearance and then said to my CFI, "You know, I'm OK if we call it a day and go back to the airport." I felt we had dealt with enough problems and didn't need to see what the next one would be. He agreed, he said he had just texted the A&P and let him know we were coming back. He said this was a good lesson in breaking the accident chain.

After canceling IFR and reassuring ATC we were OK and did not need assistance, I took off the foggles and we turned back to RHV. To be on the safe side we stayed at 5000 feet until about 10 NM from RHV. There I started the descent, about 2000 feet higher than normal. I got to learn a new trick. If you want to end up at a certain spot, put that location in the center of the windscreen and keep it there, that will give you the descent rate you need to get to the spot. Pretty cool trick that worked great. I flew a normal approach and a good landing. Then taxied the plane back to its spot and gave the keys to the A&P who suddenly had a bunch of work to do!

We talked about what we'll do on the next flight. We were both confident I'd get to that instrument checkride soon. All in all, it was a good day and another minor adventure. That's one of the things I love about flying... the little adventures.

PS. I just stumbled across an eBook by NASA called Breaking the Mishap Chain. Looks like some excellent reading.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Just call me Rusty

Friday was my first instrument training flight in almost three weeks. Three whole weeks. I think this is the first time I went three weeks without at least practicing in the simulator or with a safety pilot ... and ... it showed. The previous training flight's debrief was "Great job!". This one, not so much. Never so great when my CFI asks if I want the short list or long list. I always opt for the long list. After all, I'm there to learn so I may as well get my money's worth.

The day itself was just off in general. I had problems with details at work - scheduling meetings with people and then forgetting key people - twice! I had to fight with technology too (bizarre PDFs that showed blank sometimes and other times had data, fax machines that would only accept the first page of a fax, stuff like that). It was one of those days that I would not have gone up in the clouds by myself, just because I knew I was off. Surprisingly, I've learned to look forward to training flights on days like that, it gives me a chance to see how I will screw up and how I'll recover. What I didn't expect was the very significant effect of not having that practice for so long.

The flight wasn't terrible - if you don't count the landing that I bounced so hard my CFI offered to log two landings instead of one! (I haven't bounced a landing that hard since long before my PPL.) The flight certainly wasn't anywhere near the skill I demonstrated three weeks before. The main thing I noticed is, when I'm rusty, the tasks or activities or skills or whatever you want to call them, that I have integrated into my flying thoroughly remained strong. Basic attitude flying, even partial panel, was never in doubt. Radio com, great as always. Intercepting and maintaining a track, good. Maintaining glide slope on ILS and LPV, good. However, things that I have been struggling with, nailing the altitudes on step downs and compass turns, I struggled with again. I knew I needed to work on compass turns, to get those integrated into my flying, but I didn't practice that as I planned in the last three weeks. That, especially, showed. Good news was, by the third approach I finally caught up with the plane and got a couple feet in front of it. The third approach was by far my best. To be topped off by a spectacular bounce on landing back at the home airport... oh well :)

It is funny though... in the debrief my CFI wasn't ready to call and get my check ride scheduled. I am. I'll just have to show him that I can do it. I know that all I have to do to nail my altitudes is just DO it. And for compass turns, that is a matter of practice. I can do that in the simulator for only $30 per hour. So tomorrow that's what I'll do. For the rest of the areas I didn't do so well on, I am confident I will do better, much better on the next flight. The rust is definitely knocked off as a result of that bounce.. I'll do fine.