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!