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.