Tuesday, August 28, 2012

From Number to Direction

I had a great instrument training flight yesterday evening. My CFI had nothing in his notebook to critique me on at the end of the flight. He even complemented my landing! I'm getting very close to checkride time. But I have time off and my CFI has time off and corporate flights to do so there will be a pause in progress soon. But that's not what I'm writing about.

Typical Cessna 172 Heading Indicator
On that training flight I had a real breakthrough... something I didn't even realize happened until much later that night and today too. My brain has finally made the transition from flying a heading as a number to flying a heading as a direction. From just flying 120 if I'm told to fly 120 ... by aligning the 'lubber line' at the top of the heading indicator with the 12 ... to knowing 120 is about 10 degrees to the left of parallel with the runways at my home airport, therefore I'm turning slightly away from the runways. For the first time I was on a radar vector of 010, then when I was cleared direct to a waypoint (which happened to be a bearing of 010) for a hold I was able to visualize where I was compared to that waypoint and how I would approach the waypoint and how I would enter the hold as a result. When I approached the waypoint and the GPS suggested a direct entry, I overruled it and did a teardrop entry instead because it made more sense for where I was entering the hold from. And my CFI agreed with my decision.

In over 229 hours of flying that is something I'd never been able to do, to really understand where I was and where I was going beyond just flying to a number and doing some mental math. I think this change will be a very big help for me when I do partial panel flying on my checkride. That is likely to come right when I'll be getting radar vectors for a VOR approach (and through the VOR approach) so being able to know what a heading of 030 means beyond just a 0 and a 3 and a 0 will help my situational awareness and ability to interpret what heading changes mean and predict what that will mean for the approach and navigation.

Other things that went really well last flight. I was ahead of the plane at all times. Every action I did had a purpose. I knew what altitude I was going to descend to before I started any step down. I planned on leveling off 50' over MDA on each approach and I did. I think all of that was due to me taking the time to sit down and write down the sequence of each approach including headings and altitudes and missed procedures. Writing things down helps me, even if I never look at what I wrote again.

I remembered what my CFI said and kept my scan rapid, wings level and made corrections no more than 5 degrees on the approaches. When I got down to MDA on the LPV approach at Tracy, I looked up and I was lined up with the runway. I flew a very good, solid, missed approach that got the plane up and away from the ground quickly and safely. When I got down to the MDA on the ILS at Livermore, I looked up and I was lined up with the runway again! I didn't bust once.

So much attention to detail is required. So many corrections and small adjustments have to be made to fly in the instrument environment. When it all comes together, it is just amazing. But the one thing that just blows me away is now I know what 120 means as a direction and not just a number. How cool is that?!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Instrument Cross Country Highlights

So I did it.. completed my Instrument Cross Country flight with my CFII. One of the last requirements to complete the aeronautical experience portion of the instrument rating. It was a 4.9 hour flight and 3.9 hours of it was under the hood. About 30 minutes was partial panel. Three flight plans. Three approaches, VOR-A to San Lois Obispo (SBP), ILS 31 at Castle (MER) and then GPS Z 31R at Reid-Hillview (RHV). Three full stop landings. Three clearances requested and copied. Three instrument flights flown from take off to landing. 

Route on Low Altitude Chart
I'm not sure what I expected, an exhausting flight, yes... perhaps increasing difficulty flying each approach the more tired I got. Maybe some poor landings? I didn't know. But if there is one thing I know by now... flying is always a learning experience. So I was ready for whatever happened. In the end the flight(s) went remarkably well. I even got a "great job" from my CFI. Those are rare indeed.

I flew these instrument flights take off to landing with what felt like no more difficulty than my cross country flights after getting my PPL. Actually it was less difficult! Think of it.. when you fly VFR cross country, you fly a plan (or the magenta line) to where the airport should be, but if you've ever flown to an unfamiliar airport in and unfamiliar area VFR you know sometimes it can be very hard to actually find the airport. When you fly IFR, the approach points you, if not right up the runway, at very least definitely at the airport.

I was excited about the opportunity to fly some published instrument departure procedures which I had not done before. Instrument departures from my home airport typically don't use the published procedure. We usually get a heading to turn to and then radar vectors to our route. On this trip I got to fly an actual SID, CREPE3.PRB at SBP and the runway 31 Obstacle DP at MER. My CFI thought I wouldn't be ready for that one, but I was. I had reviewed the DPs for the airport before the flight and had the written DP ready to go when I got the clearance.

The controllers were different too. It was not busy at all when we were flying and there were long silences on the frequencies. I think this let the controllers get distracted. On the approach to SBP and to MER we had to remind the controllers we were approaching the FAF and needed to get a clearance to fly the approach. This is something my CFI has emphasized more than once, that I need to be on top of what the controllers should be doing. And if they forget, remind them I'm out there and what I need. One cool thing one of the controllers did was give us a very early descent from 8000 ft to 2000 ft. We had so long to do the descent that I dialed in about a 200fpm descent rate and got the plane's airspeed up to 115kts (and ground speed up to 125kts). 125kts ground speed is very speedy for this plane!

When we took off from Castle I executed the ODP and then was cleared direct to ECYON (part of the GPS approach back to RHV). This put us on a heading directly into the setting sun. Foggles make lousy sunglasses! The sun was glaring in my face and I couldn't shade my eyes. I found I couldn't see the attitude indicator so I switched to using the turn coordinator to keep the wings level. I mentioned that fact to my CFI and asked him jokingly if that meant I was flying partial panel. That gave him the bright idea to "fail" both the attitude indicator and heading indicator and I got to fly the last leg of the flight partial panel. That didn't bother me at all. I fell into the groove of using the turn coordinator and other instruments and GPS to control the plane and navigate. I didn't even think about the partial panel aspect as I flew the final approach into RHV.

Ah yes, the last approach. I expected by this time to be falling apart from sheer tiredness. A 5 hour flight in any condition is tiring. A 5 hour flight with almost 4 under the hood? For a 220 hour almost instrument rated pilot? That was exhausting. I knew it would be, but I didn't feel it as I flew that last approach. Lined up on the final approach course at RHV my CFI started repeating something that I really liked to hear, I still hear it in my head. "Wings level, no more than 5 degrees correction and you will be successful." He repeated that several times and I started doing it. At one point he tapped the CDI and GlideSlope indicators, they were lined up perfectly in the center of the circle. He said, very deadpan, "I should squawk that, it seems to be broken."

Oh, how I wish the whole approach was that way! About 300 ft over MDA I started to get blown left of course more and more. I didn't catch the errors quick enough and had to make larger and larger corrections. I got behind the plane. Finally he had me take off the foggles at MDA. I was 400ft AGL, perfectly lined up  ... with 31L! I was cleared to land 31R. I quickly moved the plane back to 31R dumped another 10 degrees of flaps, had to mess with the power and trim a lot but in the end I floated down to the runway and greased the final landing. That made me feel better about that last approach.  Next time, and there will be a next time, I'll be ready for that wind and increase the speed of my cross check. I know I can get this right. 

Next stop.. mock checkride. Then we will see what else I need to polish up before my actual checkride is scheduled. I've enjoyed this training quite a bit so far. If I keep the right attitude I am sure I will do well in the next month or so and get to my checkride as soon as I am able.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What makes a great flight?

After many months of flying consisting of instrument training in the heat and turbulence of the afternoon I had the opportunity to do some evening and night flying. Each flight was special and great in its own way.

Sunday Night

Last Sunday night... I needed to get night current again because I expected to do some late evening flying this week. I went up after dark in my usual plane, 93K. It is not very well lit in the cockpit, not like 446SP. However, I was planning on flying that plane later in the week so I wanted to see just how poorly lit the cockpit was and see how well I could handle it. The flight was great. What made it great? The air was smooth and cool. The city lights glowed all around, the moon was almost full. The plane jumped into the air with more enthusiasm than the afternoon flights with CFI on board. Oh, how I flew! Just three loops in the pattern, smooth and confident, each landing better than the one before. The final landing was so sweet I stopped there. It felt so good to be back up where I belong.

Tuesday Night

Two nights later... a good friend of mine was in town and we were going to fly up to Santa Rosa for dinner. 93K was down for maintenance so the owner of the club suggested 52492 for the flight. That happened to be the same plane that inspired this blog. I hadn't flown that particular plane in over a year but that didn't bother me. We took off on the Bay Tour route and my friend remarked how smooth the air was. That surprised me, I had expected some bumps due to the heat... but no, it was very smooth. Our flight was cut short by low voltage lights on this plane. I didn't want to risk flying back at night after the battery went dead.

We completed the Bay Tour and flew back over the East Bay. The air was smooth and cool, the bay, beautiful, the moon was even brighter. We listened with great interest as a regional jet declared an emergency at Oakland airport due to a gear issue. My friend, also a pilot, complimented my light and confident touch on the controls. I even did a perfect power off landing back at the home field. Absolute heaven, enjoying a flight with a friend who understands the joy in such wonderful conditions.

Wednesday Night

My favorite plane still down for maintenance, so this time I went up in 6525D. I'm going up with a friend who is also a very experienced instrument pilot. I'm going up to do some practice ILS approaches with him as safety pilot. Purpose, knock some rust off and try to improve my tracking and scan while doing an ILS. Once again the air was smooth! My friend is a Bonanza and Baron pilot.. probably 10 years or more since he flew a 172 he said. So we flew out of the Bay Area proper and I gave him the controls so he could renew his acquaintance with 172 handling. After he said he was comfortable I put on the foggles and flew instrument for an hour. He commented how he had forgotten how good the view is from a 172.

This plane's attitude indicator and turn coordinator didn't agree - precisely - on what wings level was. If I was wings level on the attitude indicator the plane would turn right, just a bit. First ILS approach I did very poorly on track and glide slope. Second approach was slightly better, I figured out what wings level in THIS plane was. Third approach, kept the wings level and increased the frequency of my scan of the GPS track information. Didn't mess with the power settings... flew the approach with the needles centered. Got down to 50ft over decision altitude, took off the foggles and landed. Well even. That was an hour of instrument time and I was ready to go home.

We headed back home .. the sun was going down, the moon was full. My friend told me a good story about why it is so important to check tune and IDENTIFY any and all nav aids. Yeah, I'll be doing that from now on. The air remained smooth and we had some relaxing fun flying home. He said that I did good instrument flying, no sudden moves or "oh shit" moments. He also complimented me on my light touch on the controls and how precisely I fly.

In the end it was another great flight.. I got to improve my skills and spend time with another pilot who loves to fly.

What makes a great flight? 

Hard to say really... smooth air is nice, a beautiful view, a full moon, having my hard won skills recognized, working on improving those skills and making progress, spending time with friends that love flying as much as I do. I'm sure the characteristics of a great flight will continue to change over time. It was so SO nice to have three very enjoyable flights in a row. Back where I belong, in my element, feeling like I belong there.