I flew down to San Luis Obispo (SBP) today to visit an old friend of mine. I was going to bring my daughter with me, meet up with my friend, fly her on a brief sight seeing flight, and then fly home. My friend is really excited about flying and I really wanted to finally have a chance to show a non-pilot how cool it is to fly. Plans change however. Starting last night the "little voice" was telling me my daughter shouldn't come. That was strange.. usually I get tips that I shouldn't fly, not not to take specific people with me. OK, I thought, she'd rather hang out at home with friends anyway. She jumped at the opportunity to not take the trip with me.
I flew down to SBP at 3500 feet, there were headwinds forecast at all altitudes but they were slower at lower altitudes. I had no problem on the way there. It was hazy with a good headwind but smooth. On the way, however, the little voice then told me, don't take my friend for a flight. This was harder to listen to. I figured it had been a long time since I'd flown, it was hazy and likely to be a little turbulent in the areas right around SBP so maybe it wouldn't be a good day to take her for a flight. So after I landed instead of going for a flight we had lunch and I showed her the plane. We talked a bit about family and friends and life. It was good.
It was time to go home. I checked the weather on DUATs to supplement the weather briefing I got this morning and nothing looked different. No hazardous conditions or very strong winds at my altitude. I took off and encountered some gusts immediately after take off. No matter, I expected some roughness as the winds were picking up over the hills. I expected that to stop when I got up to cruise altitude of 4500. It didn't. It got worse and worse. I had flight following and no one else was reporting turbulence, but I was sure feeling it. I has power set for a cruise speed of 115 knots and saw on the GPS I was averaging a ground speed of 125 knots or so. The plane would settle for a minute or two and then suddenly it was shoved left or right or up or down. The ASI would read 120 kts, then 100, then 115 again. I decided to slow down to maneuver speed. I didn't know how bad this would get.
I kept my left hand lightly on the yolk and put my right hand on the ledge of the dash. That way when the bigger bumps hit I could grab the dash instead of putting any extra pressure on the yolk beyond keeping the wings level. I considered climbing higher but the winds at higher altitudes were predicted to be stronger. I tried to just remain level and at a reasonable speed. Reminding myself my CFI wouldn't consider this to be "moderate" turbulence, though I sure did. I was glad that my daughter wasn't with me and glad I didn't take my friend for a ride through this. I was able to focus on flying the plane.
I was considering asking ATC for some information on the winds at higher levels.. or at least making a pilot report about what I was experiencing. It was then that I saw an unwelcome sight. VOLTS the annunciator light flashed. Just a brief flicker. I decided I must have imagined it. A couple bounces later I saw it again. VOLTS. Damn. Another alternator failure. I did not need this. I tried the usual routine, reset alternator, nothing. I shut down some of the avionics and the VOLTs light went away... for a few minutes. VOLTS. VOLTS. VOLTS. Fine. I knew what to do. I contacted ATC and cancelled flight following. I told them I was having problems with the alternator and was going to shut down my com gear. The controller asked if I needed assistance. I said no. I'd dealt with this particular issue before.
I was approaching King City now. I considered briefly landing there but discarded the idea. I knew I could fly back to RHV without VOR or GPS because I've flown this route many times. I got one last read on the heading to Salinas off the VOR because of the haze, then shut down the avionics bus. The VOLTS light turned off. At this point I was wondering why the "little voice" didn't tell me not to take this flight! I guessed it must be another one of those great learning experiences that I'll survive and learn from.
I was trying to maintain the appropriate VFR cruise altitude but there were strong up and down drafts. I found myself climbing over 500 fpm with the nose pointed down. I knew no free lift without free down. Sure enough, I got caught in a strong downdraft... all of the sudden the ASI was reading 120 knots (with a power setting for 105 knots) and I was flying down, fast. I pulled power back to 1500 rpm and managed the airspeed as well as I could. I didn't want to be flying in the "yellow arc" in this rough air. That's when I saw it... the VSI was pegged all the way to the right, showing the max descent rate it could show. I'd never seen that before! I was doing the best I could. I had to wait it out.
As quickly as it started I was out of the downdraft. I brought power back up to the "green arc" and decided I'd had enough of the bouncing. I was going to try a lower altitude. I bounced and jolted my way down to 3000 ft. The air smoothed. I breathed a sigh of release, re-leaned the plane and settled into cruise for the remainder of the trip home.
I finished the flight with only a couple other relatively minor bumps at the usual spots over the hills between Salinas and Hollister and on approach for RHV. I turned on one radio and the transponder in time to do the 10 mile call to RHV and did a normal approach and landing.
I was amazed at how well I kept my heading through all of the bouncing with no GPS or VOR to help guide me. I thought about how it is likely to be turbulent in clouds when flying in IFR. I sure hope I don't have to feel that too often. I'm sure five years from now a flight in turbulence like that won't bother me so much. Today it bothered me, but I handled it. After I landed I went online and looked for any sign that I should have expected what I encountered. Winds were still what was predicted in the morning. No strong winds from different directions at different layers. No AIRMETs for turbulence... nothing that I could see to indicate I should expect almost moderate turbulence at 4500 feet.
I can't say that return flight was fun, but it helped me gain some confidence that I can handle unexpected situations pretty well. And, I'm pretty amazed at how smart that "little voice" is. I'm going to ask my CFI some non IFR related questions this week... :)
- Another pilot from my airport reports the ride at 8500 feet was calm. Would it have been smart to climb more to try to find a smoother ride? I had plenty of fuel for a climb.
- I double checked the VSI on that plane, when the VSI is pegged all the way to the right that means at least a 2000 fpm descent (or ascent depending on your direction of travel).