Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Little Rituals

You may have heard the saying that pilots are creatures of habit. In part our habits are our protection. Routines we do every time we fly to ensure the safety of our flight.

Preflight, for instance, before every flight we examine the plane and ensure it is airworthy. My preflight of my chosen craft is always the same. I always review the items appropriate to the plane. If I don't consciously remember getting every single item in the preflight, I do it all again. It may annoy some people, but it's my butt on the line and I'm not willing to give it up for the sake of speed or convenience. The 10 minutes it takes is worth it. Even better, the preflight process clears my mind from the cares and distractions of the day. Walking out to the plane my mind switches to the task at hand... simply.. unconsciously... it happens and I am fully present, just me and the plane.

Cross country flight planning... its not just your route of flight, its building a complete picture of the route. Altitudes, air spaces, alternates, aircraft performance, weight and balance, fuel and winds. Winds, weather, clouds, hazardous conditions. Will the runway be open when you get there? Will there be fuel? Checking weather data online days in advance sometimes, calling for a weather briefing before the flight. I have a little ritual for that process that I follow every time. Sometimes its expanded for longer or more unfamiliar routes, unusual passenger loading, etc, but there is a bare minimum I do every time.

I've got a new ritual now that I'm learning flying under Instrument Flight Rules. Every two weeks I get the paper updates to the Jeppesen Airway Manual for California. I go through the updated plates, one and a time, and review the chart information. It gives me a chance to get somewhat familiar with new airports and their approaches. Then I swap out the old charts as needed, insert the new and in the process I learn a bit more. I look forward to the new charts every two weeks and this little ritual. Some day the information I'm absorbing will be very useful to me. And in the mean time I'm learning.

One of my favorite things about being a pilot... a good pilot is always learning. It seems like every flight I learn or experience something new. And every day I try to absorb another piece of knowledge that will keep me flying for years to come.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Minor Adventures

Yesterday Jeff and I flew up to Willows for the NASA race this weekend at Thunderhill. Not a sight seeing flight, a get there flight. Even when you are in get there mode, flying can become an adventure. This trip had a couple...

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... a plane.

We got flight following immediately after take off from RHV and our first little adventure was over Calaveras. Norcal reported traffic at our 11 o'clock just slightly below our altitude, opposite direction. We kept climbing and started looking for the traffic... we couldn't see anything. Norcal called out again and this time we could see a very large bird at about where Norcal said the plane would be. We looked and couldn't see anything else. Stupidly(?) I responded to Norcal we had some type of traffic in sight but it was a bird. Norcal was incredulous, "A bird?" they said. "Well, its a very large bird", I said. Just then I saw the twin engine plane, much larger than a bird just closer to us than the bird. "Norcal, traffic in sight and it is a plane. No factor." Even the controller laughed at that one. Then he handed us off to the next sector.

Rooms in the Sky

The next controller was handling the approach traffic for Oakland and SFO. He was BUSY. He kept up a rapid fire of instructions to what must have been 30 planes. Clear and concise. Everyone he talked to, including me, responded back just as clear and concise. We all sounded very professional. I was impressed with how well this controller handled all of that traffic. Jeff and I didn't talk with each other as we listened to the controller and the other planes. He vectored us around other traffic a couple times. Having spent a little time in the TRACON and seeing the screens the controllers look at, I marveled at how well this person was able to interpret the data blocks on that screen and provide instructions to us in the air that kept us all safe.

We cruised past Mt. Diablo and I started thinking we should be handed over to Travis soon. I was right. We were instructed to talk to Travis approach and it was like walking from a busy bar in the city into a room in an almost empty diner on a country backroad. All of the sudden the radio chatter stopped. The Travis controllers sounded much more laid back and conversational with not a whole lot to do. Jeff took the opportunity to show me how to lean the plane using an EGT instead of by ear. The plane I trained in doesn't have an EGT. This 172SP does. Made about a 1.5 - 2 GPH difference according to the fuel flow meter.

Traffic, 12 o'clock, 14 miles, 3, 9,000 feet

We were handed off to Oakland Center shortly. The frequency got even quieter and Jeff and I flew along. Bored. I couldn't believe it.. I was actually bored flying. I think its because I knew that we could get there so much quicker if we were in a faster plane, a 182 or Bonanza for instance. ATC tried to provide us with some entertainment though. "6SP, Traffic 12 o'clock 14 miles 3 9,000 feet". That was a strange call. Why were they telling us about traffic at 9,000 feet when we were at 4,500 feet? What did they mean "3"? I asked her to repeat and she said it again. I hadn't head wrong. We dutifully looked for the traffic and couldn't see it.  "6SP, Traffic. 12 o'clock 8 miles 3 jets 9,000 feet". 3 jets? Oh! This could be interesting. We looked harder. Finally we spotted the traffic. Three military jets, going fast and high above. Cool!  "Oakland Center, traffic in sight, not a factor." Oakland Center replied, "OK. I just thought you guys would like to see that." "Yeah, we did like that, thanks!"

Crop Dusters!

We approached Willows and started our descent. There were crop dusters everywhere. Flying around at 500 feet or lower it seemed. As I got into the pattern at Willows a crop duster was doing maneuvers right under the location for the base leg for my target runway. Another plane in the pattern said they were using all runways. I asked if he had any suggestions, he said, "See and Avoid!" So that's what I did. I turned base about 500 feet over the crop duster flying straight at me. I turned final early to get out of his way and landed. See and avoid indeed!

Even on a 'boring' trip that is just about getting there, there's always the possibility of a minor adventure for this aviator. That's one of the things I love most about flying ;)

Side Note: It was very nice to be able just fly up here in an hour twenty minutes instead of driving three or four hours. Amazing thing though, even at 120 knots both of us wanted to go faster. Once you know what its like to make the trip in 40 minutes, taking a whole hour twenty minutes seems far too long.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bigger Indications, Smaller Corrections?

After having to cancel two instrument training flights this week and knowing I have another week before my next training flight I didn't want to let my new found scan rot. So I went into the flight club this morning and practiced an ILS approach to Stockton in the Frasca 131 simulator. I wanted to see if I would crash and burn/get totally lost or if I could navigate and intercept a final approach and fly the approach on my own. This would be the first time I tried to navigate by instruments alone with no one else around.

Since I had little time, I positioned the plane somewhere off the Modesto VOR then navigated to MOD and from there to the appropriate spot to intercept the ILS and then the ILS all the way down. I figured it would be a good combination of experiencing and practicing various levels of VOR and ILS/LOC needle sensitivity.  I found I started to do better on intercepting and tracking courses off the VOR.

The second time I did the sequence I started to understand how the closer you get to the airport on an ILS approach the smaller the corrections need to be in spite of the wilder and faster swings of the CDI and GS.  It is totally counter intuitive. The way the needles move quicker and swing wider the closer I get makes me want to correct bigger! But that's the opposite of how it actually works it seems. If the needle makes a big swing, I need to make a little correction, quickly, especially closer in.

Another thing, I'm starting to be able to hold a mental picture of where the plane is in space as it moves in relation to the navaids. That's something I've been struggling with. The picture is still a bit fuzzy but at least I have one now. I've got a long way to go to my Instrument Rating but I think I'm headed in the right direction ;)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How to Make Those Tires Chirp

Ahh, yes, the holy grail for every pilot from GA pattern pilot to cross country adventurer to corporate pilot to the pilots who fly the largest iron in the sky. The good landing, the great landing, the greaser. We all measure ourselves by our landings. The good and the bad. We have descriptive names for what happens when the gear hits the runway. The greaser, short field, soft field, bounce, porpoise, wheel barrel and ground loop to name a few. 

To quote a rather experienced pilot that goes by the monicker of Ward Holbrook:
As of this morning, I am at exactly 11,781 landings (thank you Logbook Pro) - if you don't count the bounces. I have finally discovered the secret to making good landings, every time, in any airplane. In the beginning, I figured that it had to do with maintaining a stabilized approach and proper airspeed control; but, alas, that wasn't it. I then worked up a theory that involved planetary alignment and moon phases. I was getting closer. I finally put it all together when I figured out how to hold my mouth - you have hold it just right and the planets have to be in proper alignment and the moon has to be in the proper phase, in addition to flying a nice smooth stabilized approach and exercising proper airspeed control. If you get a greaser other than when you're doing all of that you're just lucky.
Well... I've never figured out how to hold my mouth just right.. but I figure I've only got 477 landings (if you don't count the bounces) in my log book so I have a long way to go. That's OK. I've got time.

But what I wanted to write about is a new realization I had in a IFR training flight last week. True to predictions, my landings suck when I do these IFR training flights. We usually get about 500' AGL before my CFI has me take off the foggles and land. The transition is difficult to say the least.

I've bounced two out of three of them. (I haven't bounced that hard since before my check ride.) Each time my CFI said I wasn't looking at the end of the runway. This is not a new tip, from my first unassisted landing, looking at the end of the runway has always been emphasized. I have to admit. I haven't been looking at the end of the runway much at all. And I've been getting away with it, until now anyway.

My last IFR training flight, I'm coming in for landing. I round out with the ground whizzing by and my hands are active trying to keep the plane at the right attitude and land. He says, "You aren't looking at the end of the runway". I immediately transitioned my gaze to the end of the runway and everything slowed down. Suddenly I wasn't fighting to keep the plane at the proper attitude. My corrections were smaller and more accurate, the landing was ... smoother ... not a greaser, but a heck of a lot better than the last two. I was amazed at the immediate difference between looking at the end of the plane and looking at the end of the runway. I resolved on my next flight I would make absolutely sure to transition to looking at the end of the runway.

My next flight was Sunday with a friend of mine, four take offs and landings planned so I'd get to test out this look at the end of the runway thing some more. So, on each landing I did the round out as the ground started to whiz by and then.. immediately.. transitioned my gaze to the end of the runway. I was floating just over the runway light as can be, making small adjustments, not landing, until the plane touched down on its own with a light chirp of the tires.  This is what landings were supposed to be like. I remembered the way this feels. This feels right! Ah ha! Over and over I transitioned my gaze and over and over the landing was a joy. If you've never flown a plane I don't know how to describe how good it feels to touch down like that, but trust me. It feels good!

My friend caught this video of our landing at King City... the approach wasn't perfect, I wasn't on centerline, but the tire chirp was so cool!

I'm four for four now. We'll see how well I do on my next IFR training flight. I won't be upset if the landing is still rough, but it shouldn't be because I forgot to look at the end of the runway anymore. :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

More Ups and Downs, Such is Life

Its been an interesting time of my life recently... as in the ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times". Not all bad, not all good. Just interesting.

Last Saturday I ran a half marathon trail run with a lot of up, little down. It was a tough course with great friends and the running helped me process what is going on with my youngest brother. He has been having some major problems... some of his own doing, some not. After the run I met up with him as he came through the area on his way back to New Mexico. We chatted, I helped him with some groceries and gas and with my parents help got him some extra money to get him back home. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting day. Sunday was a neighborhood BBQ. Very fun and even more exhausting.

Monday, work and then IFR training, in a plane, in strong winds and turbulence. Did two GPS approaches in simulated instrument conditions and did well on some things, not so well on other things. During my first IFR training flight in the plane the previous week I had trouble getting the GPS into my scan. Monday I did better on including the GPS in my scan, I noticed when I was going off course much quicker, but my corrections were slow and the wrong direction sometimes. Towards the end of the flight I started to get the hang of it. Then it was time to take off the Foggles and land, in a 20 knot wind (small crosswind component). The landing was a bit rough, didn't look at the end of the runway, but we got down safe and my CFI didn't have to take the controls so it wasn't horrible. I was a bit bummed about the landing but much more interested in capturing and understanding what I was learning. My daughter let me know that she got two A- grades.. she was very proud of how she's improved her grades. I am too! Monday night I also heard from one of my siblings that we didn't know where my brother was. Then later we heard he was in AZ.

Today, is it only Tuesday? I got to take a former boss of mine flying. We met up at the office and drove down to the airport. Then we got in the plane and flew a Bay Tour up the San Francisco Peninsula, over the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz Island, then up the Napa valley to Charles M Shultz airport (STS) for lunch at the Sky Lounge. It was a bumpy flight but my passenger had no problem with the bumps. Its amazing how those same bumps would have left me whimpering two years ago and now they are just part of flying sometimes. We ate lunch on the patio and watched small planes and helicopters take off and land for a while. Then it was time to head back. We flew back over the Benecia Bridge, Concord Airport, past Mt. Diablo and over Livermore Airport. Normally I would come in over Calaveras Reservoir but I was tired of the turbulence so I turned over the Sunol grade and came into the Bay Area proper on that route. I got to log one good and one great landing. Nice to do that after the not so great landing Monday.

After the great flight it was back to work for four hours and then I went to meet up with some friends that I've run with for the last 6 years to take a group picture. The picture is for another friend of ours. He moved to Canada a couple years ago and was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer is already in his brain and spine. He is getting treatment and in good spirits. It was good to get together in his honor and I hope the pictures brighten his day. I don't know where my brother is today. I hope he is OK.

So, my dear IRs, that was a brief overview of the recent ups and downs that are part of the life of this aviator. Joys and sorrows, things that I can be control and things that I cannot control. Without the sorrow, would I truly appreciate the joy? Would any of us?