Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cloud Flying in a Baron

I get an email from a friend, Joe, last Friday... "I'm flying down to San Diego in my Baron to install a computer at my wife's parent's place Sunday. Do you want to come?" Do I?! Do I? absolutely! My husband, Jeff, wants to come too. I ask if there's enough payload in the plane for all three of us and a computer... I could almost hear the laugh his email reply. With full fuel this plane has 1900+ lbs available before reaching max gross. Yes, Jeff can come too. And, there's a high possibility that we'll be flying in some IMC also. I've flown with Joe before in his Bonanza and he showed me how easy flying an ILS can look, when you know what you're doing. Joe's a pilot I trust and I was looking forward to seeing the inside of some more clouds from a plane bigger than a 172. Not to mention experience cruising at 175 knots.

We exchanged several emails Saturday and Joe shared the route he was planning and why. He said I could co-pilot if I wanted. So I quickly agreed to manage radio comm and back him up on copying clearances and re-routes. The plan was set and we were going to meet at Palo Alto Airport (PAO) at 8:30 Sunday morning.
Joe's Plane N277MD

We arrived and Joe started his pre-flight. Joe's plane is a beautiful BE55 Baron. It is equipped with actual de-icing and anti-icing equipment too. Boots on the wings and props and an alcohol drip for the props as well. He just purchased it some months ago because he does a lot of weather flying and flying over unfriendly mountain terrain.  I called the FBO at KSAN - yes, Lindberg Field, San Diego's main airport right by down town - to reserve a rental car for the quick trip to deliver and set up the computer and give Jeff and I a way to see some of San Diego while the install took place. All I had to do was give the FBO our tail number and my name and they would have a car waiting for us. I told them we would arrive around noon.

We took off into clear if hazy skies and headed south. Surprisingly he got cleared on the route he filed which was over Catalina Island. He wanted this route to avoid the affect of 35knot winds from the west that he thought would give us a rather rough ride using the eastern route he normally takes. Once we got up to our cruise altitude of 9000 feet he asked me if I wanted to fly the plane. Of course! He had the plane trimmed rather well so, while we did have a few co-pilot induced oscillation in altitude we stayed well within 100' of our cruise altitude at all times.  I had no good idea of what the right visual on a baron cowling and low wing would look like on straight and level flight so I used the instruments to maintain our track within 1 degree. Another benefit of my instrument training. After a while I gave him the controls again. We had a great time chatting on the way.

Small amount of ice on the wing. The
de-icing boots were deployed but useless.
Not enough ice :).
We stayed in the clear until Oakland Center handed us over to SoCal. Then we were approaching the mountains north of LA and a cloud deck formed beneath us. It bothered me to be flying over mountainous terrain, knowing there were mountains below but they were covered with clouds. This was why, Joe explained, he bought the Baron. A single engine failure for him would be manageable and he would fly the plane to the nearest airport. I could see the advantage. About this time we were re-routed by ATC back to the route that he was used to flying, one that was more likely to be turbulent. Oh well, that's what we had to do. So far the ride was mostly smooth.

After a while the clouds started to pile up along the tops of the mountain ranges and we were flying in and out of them. Joe turned on the anti-icing alcohol spray and pitot heat before we got in. The turbulence wasn't bad in most of the clouds. Then we encountered one particularly angry looking and wet cloud. It was much more turbulent than the others and I had a close eye on the instruments and the iPad on Joe's lap. My CFI's definition of moderate turbulence was iPad hitting me in the head. The iPad remained in place on Joe's lap. We popped out of the cloud in about 30 seconds it seemed and Joe excitedly exclaimed, "Ice!" Yep. There on the front wind screen and the wings was a light coat of rime ice.

The world's most expensive
Lenovo desktop.
We navigated our way in and out of the cloud layers and got re-routed a couple more times. It was hard for me to understand what the SoCal controllers were saying. I think it was mostly because I was unfamiliar with the waypoints they were referring to. Aviation waypoint names are often meaningless and if you have no context they can sound like random noises. Joe was very familiar with the route though and when he read back the way points I was better at understanding them. Eventually were stepped down to 7000 feet. The cloud deck was below us again and broken. I could see glimpses of cities below in the shadows. The cloud tops started rising towards us and my eyes kept telling me we were descending, but we weren't.

We switched frequencies and eventually we were talking to the SoCal controllers managing San Diego's airspace. We were stepped down a couple more times and got cleared for the LOC approach in the clouds. When we broke out Joe had the plane in an amazing crab angle, seemed like 30 degrees, due to the winds. I wish I had a picture of the approach to San Diego. I was so absorbed in what I was seeing and paying attention to the approach - I was calling out the next step down as we passed each fix on the approach. We landed right after a 737 (caution wake turbulence) and before another one and taxied off the runway to the FBO. The rental car was waiting for us and we were off to eat lunch with the parents.

Joe preparing 2MD for departure
with many jets around.
After lunch and plane talk we dropped Joe off at the parent's house at the top of the hill over Ocean Beach and Jeff and I went down to the end of Newport Ave, parked and walked out on the OB pier. I used to live in OB about 20 years ago. If someone would have told me 20 years ago when I was a 20 something with no plan or thought to the future beyond that day that 20 years later I would be back in OB for an afternoon visit after flying to OB from Palo Alto in a friend's private plane, and I'd be a pilot too, and a marathoner, and, and... I wouldn't have believed them. No way. But there I was. It was good to go back to that old place and see how OB and I have changed.

After a couple hours the computer was installed and it was time to go back. When we got back to the ramp there were many more planes at the FBO. All more expensive than the now "little" Baron we arrived in. We all laughed about how no matter how nice your plane is, there is always one more nice somewhere. There were many nice private planes in San Diego that day. On the way back I let my husband ride in front so I got some more pictures. I also made sure to copy all clearances from the back too. I always feel better when I have another pilot backing me up, I figured Joe did too.

When Joe got his clearance it included a departure procedure he didn't know so he had to study that. It was a relatively awkward departure procedure with waypoints that had to be identified by VOR. After some study we were ready to go. We watched another 737 land (caution wake turbulence) and then we were cleared for take off. Immediately after take off the tower controller changed the departure procedure on us and gave us a vector for departure instead. We were handed off to SoCal quickly and climbed through the low clouds until we were cruising along on top of the clouds. Joe leveled off and let Jeff fly for a bit. Jeff had more trouble holding altitude and headings, he's not used to flying by instruments and had a completely unusual sight picture to deal with right seat in an unfamiliar plane. After a while Joe had the controls again and we were cruising above LA airspace at 10,000 feet.

Sunset off the wing. A sight that I just LOVE.
We got a couple reroutes and then we started to fly right at and in a cloud layer with a base alternating between 9,500 and 10,000 feet. The sun was starting to set off our left wing and it was very beautiful. This time it wasn't so turbulent in the clouds but it got turbulent over the mountains in the clear. It wasn't bad in the Baron but I was glad I wasn't in a 172 for that part. All in all the turbulence was a small price to pay for the beauty we saw.  As we got past one cloud bank we looked back and saw a shadow of a cloud over the mountains and the ground. This was a sight I know most people would never see.

Eventually the sun went down and we were out of the clouds for good.  The temperature was dropping rapidly at 10,000 feet on a clear winter night. Jeff finally announced it was time for oxygen, he was starting to feel the effects. Joe's plan had built in oxygen so all we had to do was plug into the oxygen ports with our cannulas. "All we had to do". I think at this point we were all at least slightly hypoxic. It took way too long to figure out how to connect into the plane's oxygen systems but eventually we were all hooked up and breathing well.

We were cleared direct DOCAL (the IAF for the GPS approach at PAO) after we left LA's immediate airspace which meant a very long flight on a straight line. Jeff and Joe chatted. I messed around with my iPad and kept an ear open for ATC communications. As we approached the Bay Area the skies got more and more busy with commercial traffic, pilots practicing instrument approaches at night and VFR traffic. At one point Joe turned his head to talk to me and spotted the full moon rising behind me on my right. It was amazing! Very large and orange just peaking over the mountains. What a sight! I tried to capture it in pictures but my phone's camera just couldn't capture the beauty.

Finally we were cleared for the approach back to PAO. On final approach I put away my stuff and spent my time trying to capture the moon shining over the lights of the Silicon Valley and reflecting off the bay like a spotlight. I think this is the best shot.

Just as planned, we landed at PAO at 7PM.  It was a fantastic trip. We are so very lucky to live in a country and a time where pilots have the freedom to get in a plane and fly almost anywhere with very little notice. I can't wait until I fly myself to San Diego.. hopefully with company as good as Jeff and Joe with me.

If you'd like to see more pictures from the trip please visit this photo album.

Monday, January 28, 2013

First IFR Flight After Rating

"Hun, do you want to fly me to Monterey tomorrow?" 

Long story short, my husband got back from two weeks of international travel and flying on United with someone else's suitcase. He realized this when we got home which is an hour or more from the nearest airport with a United presence. He calls United and they come up with a complicated plan where he delivers the other person's suitcase to Monterey Airport and fills out some paperwork and then United will deliver his suitcase to our house.

Rather than drive the hour and a quarter to Monterey and back, we decide it would be much more fun to drive the hour to Reid Hillview and then fly ourselves and the suitcase to Monterey in about 40 minutes, deliver the case,  then fly back and drive home, for a total travel time of four hours. Even better, it looked like there were enough clouds in the area with freezing levels much higher than normal so I could actually get a chance at some flying in actual IMC too!

I researched the likely routes on and filed my flight plan there and another flight plan for the return. I figured we'd have a good chance of clouds both ways and either way it was good practice to fly instrument. When we got down to the airport the weather had cleared somewhat but there were still clouds around. I was ready and excited to go.

We launched into a partly cloudy sky. Shortly after take off I had my eyes on the instruments and scan going, I didn't know exactly when we'd hit the clouds but I wanted to be ready when we did. We flew in and out of some cloud layers and banks as I flew the radar vectors provided and was cleared direct to CHRLE, the IAF for the 28L LOC/DME into Monterey. We were cruising at 6000 feet and most of the clouds were to our west or underneath us. We started to approach CHRLE and I made sure I had the weather, the right settings on the GPS, the localizer TunedandIdentified, final approach course, MDA and missed firmly in mind. ATC started to descend us towards CHRLE and there was a build up of big and mean looking clouds over the mountains near Monterey that the localizer would take us into.

I was a little nervous about the high possibility of turbulence, but that's what clouds are about sometimes and I knew all I had to do was fly the plane. Finally the call came, "Cessna X, turn to 270, descend and maintain 4500 until established on the localizer, cleared Localizer 28L approach." I thought this might happen but I didn't think to adjust the GPS to give me guidance to the first leg of the approach instead of the procedure turn. No matter, I thought, I had the localizer TunedandIdentified, I would just intercept the course that way and everything would be fine.

I descended to 4500, making sure not to go one inch lower, and entered the clouds. My eyes were carefully watching the heading on the heading indicator and making sure I was flying a 190 heading and not descending below 4500 until I was established. The needle started to move but it was moving very fast and I wasn't even close to the 278 heading I needed to be on course. I blew through the localizer wondering why and the controller very politely told me to turn to a 310 heading and let him know when I was established on the localizer. 310!? oh shit! Scott [my CFI] would be yelling at me right now. Actually probably a minute ago. I thought. I realized my mistake, I was supposed to turn towards 270 but stopped 60 degrees short. That explained why the needle moved so fast, I wasn't on the intercept course the controller gave me but a course almost perpendicular to the localizer.

I'm in the clouds. I can't let that mistake throw me off. I had to recover. I understood at that moment how much I've come to rely on the track and desired track information from the GPS to keep me on track. As I flew back towards the localizer I chose the waypoint at 7.0 DME on the localizer course in the GPS and told it to put me DIRECT-TO (that gave me distance information and a GPS CDI to help). Then I used the NAV1 CDI to intercept the localizer, tell ATC I was on course, and start descending.

The clouds over the localizer approach course into Monterey.
The next challenge was to figure out where I was on the localizer so I could make sure I got the step downs right. My husband was tracking our progress on my iPad so I asked him if we had passed RODNE (the next fix) or not. He said he thought so. I double checked the distance to the 7.0DME waypoint on the GPS, and we were more than 4.3 NM away, so we can't have been at RODNE yet. I told my husband we weren't there yet. He asked how I knew. I didn't have time to explain as we had just passed RODNE and it was time for the next step down. Still in the clouds I had 2.3 NM to drop down almost 1000 feet. This plane was faster than I was used to so I had to increase the descent rate, reduce power more and drop down carefully, still in the clouds. I was grateful for so much practice under the hood that keeping the plane upright in the clouds didn't require much thought. I was told to contact the tower.

Time to step down again this time to 2500. The airport's ATIS reported ceilings were scattered at 1800. I thought I should be breaking out soon and I did. The first thing I noticed was the green hills and homes seemingly right below and to my left. I knew from my altitude and location they had to be close to 1000 feet away, but they seemed so close. It gave me a shiver. How close had I come to killing us by flying that wrong heading? I wondered briefly. I had to put that aside. "Airport in sight," my husband said helpfully. He had no idea I had made a major mistake. I had forgotten to even look for the airport. I look straight ahead and there was the airport. We seemed high, but the airport was in sight with no more clouds in the way and I could now do a normal landing.

I landed normally and requested taxi instructions to Monterey Jet Center. I had read great reviews about the service there and I was not disappointed. They loaned us a crew car and didn't charge us a ramp fee or fee for the car. We returned the suitcase to United, did our paperwork, returned the car and it was time to fly back.

The brief intermission to drop off the suitcase gave me time to think through what I did wrong and how and what I could do to prevent that issue in the future. I know I have a habit of fixating on numbers and I also read back instructions really fast (and accurately) but sometimes I can repeat back without understanding. So I decided the key thing I could do immediately is SLOW DOWN. Slow down and double check every number I use. For instance, if I'm told to turn to a heading and I turn to the heading I think I should be at. I should just ask myself if this is really the right heading. Does the heading I'm flying make sense given where I am and where I think I should be going?

We got back into the plane and called Clearance Delivery for our clearance back to RHV. We didn't get the clearance I wanted but that was OK. In very little time we took off into the clear skies over Monterey Bay. We climbed over the ocean and I kept scanning the RPM, oil pressure, oil temp, etc. and listened carefully for any sound of roughness. I really didn't want to have an engine failure over the ocean, at night.

Shortly after checking in with ATC, they cleared me direct to ECYON (throwing my previous clearance out the window but taking me exactly where I wanted to go). I leveled off and flew through the dark skies and moonlit clouds. My passenger was so relaxed that he fell asleep. As we flew towards the Silicon Valley I could see layers of clouds below and expected that I would be descending through them on my approach into RHV. I briefed myself for the approach and made sure the GPS was in the right mode. I was nice and slow and careful. I was cleared for the approach and told to contact the tower and maintain best possible forward speed. I sped up to 120 knots and stayed right on the appropriate course. I stayed at that speed until I got down to the FAF when I slowed to a more normal approach speed.

The cloud layer below was lit up by the moon from above and the city below and was just beautiful. I had to pull my eyes away and start up my scan on the instruments before I entered the clouds. The pass through the cloud layer was brief and calm. I broke out, exactly on the desired track and I could see the runway lights right ahead of me. The air was crystal clear and calm. The lights were beautiful. I woke up my passenger for the landing. I practiced deploying the flaps to slow the plane down and adjustments in pitch maintain glide slope (something I didn't do a lot in training because we rarely landed at the end of an approach).  I landed the plane and was very happy. I got some actual instrument time and two actual instrument approaches. I didn't kill myself or anyone else and improved dramatically between the first and second approach.

In the days that followed I ordered some suction cup bugs.  Most of the planes I fly don't have heading bugs, so I'm getting my own. This is something I will use to help prevent myself from making that heading mistake again. I'll read back, set the heading bug and double check from here on out. Also, my next "practice" flight I'll go out and practice intercepting and tracking radials using the round gauge CDIs. I'll cover up the GPS in the process. I found out the hard way that I need to work on that skill some more.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Non-Towered Airports

Some pilots prefer to fly at non-towered airports. Airports where the FAA (or their contractors) are not watching you, and not controlling traffic. I am in the other camp. I prefer to fly to and at towered airports. The tower controllers try to help you stay safe, provide traffic advisories and control the air traffic flow. At non-towered airports you have to work cooperatively with other pilots to control and negotiate your own flow. Also, you have to watch for pilots that aren't working with anyone at all. The radio calls and position announcements recommended by the FAA are just recommendations and you don't have to have a radio to fly in the airspace around most non-towered airports.

An example, Friday I went up in the 182 to fly to Los Banos and Hollister, both non-towered airports, with the primary purpose of giving me more practice with descent planning and execution, secondarily work on my patterns and landings in the 182. It was an extremely hazy day. While the CTAF frequency for Los Banos (LSN) was very busy with calls from other airports, no one was in the pattern there. I still announced my position and intentions all the way around, I figured better safe the sorry. I landed and taxied back to take off for Hollister (CVH), which is also a non-towered airport.

Crossing the ridge towards Hollister I hear many planes in the pattern announcing their position and intentions on the CTAF frequency there. It was a busy place. I had some manifold pressure and altitude I needed to reduce so I decided to fly north of and past the airport then come back in on the 45 for the 31 runway. That would also give me time to slow down and slot into the pattern with the other planes. By the time I came back in on the 45 there was only one plane active on CTAF.  A light sport with a female pilot (unusual) practicing an emergency descent over the airport. As I turned onto the 45 the light sport plane was abeam the numbers and going to do their touch and go. Both the light sport plane and I were announcing our position and intentions as recommended.

As I turned onto the downwind I saw the light sport plane on the roll from their touch and go. At the same time I saw another small, slow and low yellow plane, maybe a Piper Cub, flying the downwind direction seemingly right over the runway (from my perspective). I continued downwind at pattern altitude and the yellow plane was about 500 feet below me and continuing downwind too. He was not talking on CTAF and I had no idea if this plane was aware of my plane at all. Was he going to climb, descend, land or turn away from the airport? All I did know is I was overtaking him at a very rapid pace and if I didn't do something I'd be above him in seconds.

I decided to do a big 360 to the right away from the airport in my faster plane to give this yellow plane plenty of space to do whatever it was going to do. When I did, I announced what I was doing on CTAF and why to warn the light sport plane of the silent yellow plane in the area. I was halfway through my turn and I hear the light sport announce it was turning crosswind and staying in the pattern too. I saw the light sport to my left as I continued my turn to the right. I announced I had the light sport plane in sight and I'd continue my right turn onto the down wind, the light sport announced she would to a large left turn and slot into the downwind behind me.

I'm on downwind and trying to figure out where that yellow plane went when my eye catches movement at the end of the runway. A small yellow plane had just landed on the very edge of the Rwy 31. He taxied off the runway at Bravo. A nice landing it seems, except the runway threshold starts at Bravo at that airport. It seems this yellow plane has no regard for FAA recommendations or regulations. Oh well. I had more important things to do than worry about that plane. He was on the ground and clear of the runway. I completed my pattern, landed and cleared the runway. The light sport did a touch and go behind me and headed north. I taxied back and took off for home. I was pleased with how well I handled the situation while flying a new type of plane with a lot more to manage in order to fly at the same time as I managed the traffic situation in the air.

Non-towered airports certainly provide more opportunity for adventure. And it can be fun as long as almost everyone has their eyes and ears open and no one gets hurt. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Instrument Failures in VMC

I have a feeling the mechanics at our flight club are going to learn to fear my squawks and the other pilots are going to love them, especially the IFR pilots. Since starting training on my instrument rating I am not very tolerant of instrument failures, even when they are not required for VFR flight.

I took my boss from out of town up for a nice, nighttime Bay Tour last night. Not a cloud in the sky, great visibility above the low haze and calm air. The plane I wanted was in its 100 hour annual. So I grabbed another 172 that I like for the flight. The engine on this particular 172 just purrs… its the smoothest running engine in the fleet I'm pretty sure. I think I'll fly it more often. Once its issues are fixed. I digress...

We take off with flight following and get cleared into San Francisco's Class Bravo quickly. As we fly along in the post sunset red glow of twilight I notice the Attitude Indicator (AI) indicating a left turn, when the turn coordinator (TC) indicated straight and level and the heading indicator (HI) didn't indicate any turning going on. This was night VFR conditions and I had good reference to the horizon at all times, so we weren't in danger. However, I have to admit, having one of instrument that I just spent months learning to trust indicating one condition and another instrument indicating another condition was disorienting, even in VFR flight. I knew by looking out the window I was not turning, but I needed to determine if this was a full vacuum failure or a failure of the AI only.

I did a couple turns left and right and the HI and TC both agreed with the direction I was turning, the AI stayed stuck. OK, AI is bad. Don't trust it. As a final check to see if I could actually trust the TC I put wings level on the basis of the TC and watched the compass and track information on the GPS. If I really was wings level, the compass and track would remain consistent (calm winds last night). If I wasn't wings level, I'd be turning. The HI, compass and GPS all agreed on track/heading while the TC showed wings level. So I could probably trust the TC.  Somewhere in the same 10 minutes I noticed the NAV2 CDI would go full deflection every time I used the pilots PTT to respond to ATC directions. I was glad I didn't take this plane into IFR conditions!

I actually enjoyed figuring out which instruments were working and which were not on that flight. Its very good to exercise aeronautical troubleshooting skill in VFR conditions. It reminds me instruments do not always fail the way I expect them to and to always cross check and be vigilant, in VFR or IFR flight.

Once I was done identifying which instrument(s) weren't trustworthy I returned my mind to enjoying the flight and the beautiful nighttime lights in downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate bridge, Oakland and the rest of the bay. We had a great flight.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Practice Instrument but Much More

Last Friday I went up for a quick instrument practice flight with a safety pilot. Since I got my instrument rating I'd filed and flown IFR a couple times, but haven't flown simulated or actual instrument since my check ride. I didn't want to lose the skills I'd worked so hard to develop, so it was time to go up again. What I expected to have happen would be three instrument approaches at a new airport, Modesto. Starting off a little behind the plane and not quite on track or glide slope and ending up pretty good. What I got was unexpected in many ways.

The sky over the bay had high clouds and it was cold enough that I suspected there would be icing in any clouds we would encounter. There was a build up of lower clouds over the ridge we would have to cross to get to Modesto from Reid-Hillview. RHV's ATIS reported an AIRMET SIERRA for mountain obscuration and an AIRMET ZULU for icing. Winds/temps aloft forecast -6 C at 6000 ft. Skies in the central valley were reporting clear. I had filed an IFR flight plan. The clearance I knew we'd get would put us straight into the clouds and potential ice. I decided to depart VFR with flight following and fly south to avoid being vectored into the clouds. There appeared to be less clouds to the south. We flew south and crossed the ridge near Hollister. It was out of the way but gave us plenty of clearance below the clouds and above the ground.

Once across the ridge I put on the foggles and re-familiarized myself with flying by instruments. After a bit I contacted NorCal and asked for practice approaches to Modesto. We got cleared immediately to the IAF for the GPS approach I requested and I fell into the rhythm of flying instrument approaches. I stayed on top of where we were and had to remind ATC where we were before we go to the IAF. By the time I was on the final approach course for the GPS I had things well dialed in. The safety pilot was using ForeFlight to track our progress and finally said, "OK. Now you're just showing off. Zero degree track error!" Well, the GPS indicated one degree error but I was happy and quickly adjusted to keep the GPS on zero error too. We reached MDA and I looked up. Right on the center line! It was nice. We went back around for the ILS and I felt a bit behind on that one. Well within PTS standards, but not as good as the first approach. When I peaked at the runway the second time at the DH (right on center line again) I took a glance at the clouds over the ridge between us and home and decided to not do the 3rd approach.

We turned towards the bay area and looked at the clouds. I climbed up to 4500 feet but my co-pilot estimated we wouldn't be able to cruise at 4500 without entering clouds. It looked like he was right. The skies were still clear or very high clouds where we were but the cloud layer we headed towards was not high. There were also more clouds than there were when we originally crossed an hour before. However, we could see clearly between the cloud layer and the ridge line. I tuned in to NorCal to listen to what was going on in the valley and heard a plane report icing. That re-affirmed my commitment to not exercise my instrument rating in the clouds that day.

I turned the plane south again heading the long way home to the pass between Los Banos and Hollister. That was the lowest terrain I knew of to cross the ridge and I believed we would have good clearance between us, the clouds and the ground. As we flew my co-pilot kept looking at the ridge line. I flew past a couple very inviting valleys that looked like they would cut through the ridge with plenty of space below the clouds, but I wasn't sure they would and I didn't want to find out the hard way. As we approached Los Banos I got the altimeter reading there to make sure I had an accurate altitude readout. We turned to cross the ridge at the San Lois Reservoir and followed the general route of the highway, well above the terrain directly below us and slightly above the highest of the terrain near us with the clouds what looked like 1000 feet above us.  We turned north once we had the Santa Clara Valley made and flew back to RHV at an altitude of 2500 feet under a broken cloud layer at approximately 3500 feet with the city lights shining like jewels below. The sun had just set.

It wasn't the nice instrument approaches that stuck in my mind that night or in the days after that, or the green hills or clouds or the sun shining between the clouds and the ridge or the jewel-like lights; it was the fact that I decided to fly below a cloud layer, across a ridge (yes at the lowest possible terrain I could find), with a much lower ceiling than I ever thought I would do. Being me, I went and analyzed the route I took and found, if the clouds really were at 3500 feet - I think they were higher because they were above the 3500 ft peak we flew near - with me at 2500 feet crossing the ridge, the highest terrain below me on my route was 1500 feet. Giving me 1000 ft clearance above and below me. I double checked the low point on the normal northern crossing route between the valley and the bay and its lowest point was about 1000 ft higher. My instincts were right not to head that direction.

OK, I'm sure some pilots would ask what's the big deal. My husband is one of them. And maybe there isn't one for them, but I don't want to have any less space than that between me, cloud and terrain if flying VFR. Especially if there is ice in the clouds. Other alternatives also come to mind. Stay in the central valley for instance. Climb high and get a clearance to drop through the clouds into the valley thus minimizing time in the clouds? Climb high and hope to find a hole in the clouds to descend through and then turn around if no hole was found? All options. All overkill for the situation at hand.

I'm still thinking about this one... what is a minimum I can establish for VFR flying to ensure I don't find myself flying between cloud and ridge some day and straight into trouble? I know I can legally fly 500 ft above ground and 500 ft below cloud in an unpopulated area but I definitely would not want to do that.  I still haven't decided what that line will be. I think it will depend on my familiarity with the terrain. If I don't know the terrain as well as I know this area, I will need to have plenty of clearance between me and highest peak. If I do know the terrain the minimum may between me and the lowest pass. I just don't know. But I guess the good thing is, that little, no-big-deal, practice instrument flight gave me a lot to think about. That flight is something to add to my bag of experience before my bag of luck runs out.

Update: After getting some input from other pilots I realize the thing that bothered me the most about this situation wasn't flying through a pass with 1000' above and below me clear. It was doing that without knowing for sure that I had the 1000' above and below me. I did what seemed right at the time. Which is fine and it worked. I would do the same route in the same conditions again without hesitation now that I know the terrain altitude better, but as an engineer it is an uncomfortable place for me to be flying without knowing. My pilot friends pointed out some other sources of information I could have used to help with my "knowing" on the fly, WingX has some nice terrain information features and the plane I was in had terrain warnings built into the GPS. I had both and used neither during this flight.  At this point I think the issue isn't safe minimums... the issue is knowledge. If I have the knowledge rather than the guess I know I'll make the right choice.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Solo in a 182

Today I went up for my first solo flight in a 182. That's the high performance aircraft I was signed off in last week. I have to admit, I was very nervous at first. My first time flying a high performance plane by myself after only four training flights, but I trust my CFI's judgement and know he won't sign someone off unless he is sure they can do it. That includes me.

I got into the plane to start it up and my nerves calmed immediately as I went through the process. There is something soothing about going through those pre-taxi and run-up checklists. They focus me and calm me and I become all about the business at hand. I took off and climbed up to 5500 ft, flew down to Hollister, turned towards the coastline and then started my descent for Watsonville. This plane was definitely much faster than the 172's I'm used to flying.

I managed the manifold pressure and mixture on the descent, remembered to put the prop full on final, did a great pattern and landed beautifully. I was on the centerline, light on the mains, round out and power reduction synchronized perfectly. It would have brought a tear to my CFI's eye. I smiled broadly and taxied off the runway, remembered to open the cowl flaps and taxied back to take off and head back to RHV.

I returned to RHV. Having no problem with the complexities of high performanceness.  I am starting to get a feel for the types of adjustments that can be made to pitch, power and flaps to make the plane do what I want it to do on final. My landing there wasn't quite so great. I landed flat *sigh* ... it is so hard to make myself not do the landing attitude that I know works for a 172 at that airport. I'm confident I will overcome that habit. My CFI told me something very important, a new skill I'll have to learn. He said to I will need to learn to put the sight pictures and flying techniques for different types of planes into separate boxes and bring out the right box depending on the plane. Right now my 172 box is a bit mixed with my 182 box. With practice I'll get there though. Its one of the things I'll have to learn how to do if I want to become a professional pilot.

Friday I'll be going up with a safety pilot to keep my instrument skills sharp in the trusty old 172. I wonder what flying the 182 will do to my 172 flying ? Hopefully I can put the 182 skills into a box and use the 172 skills right.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013 Flight Plan

"Over prepare and then go with the flow."

I read that quote today and I have to say I definitely agree with that sentiment. That is the way I've been living my life the last few years, over prepared (or at least planning to be!) and then going with the flow of the currents of life I find myself in. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you my plans for 2013. The things I want to accomplish in the year of the lucky 13. I don't know if all will be done, but then again, if I knew up front what would happen, that would take a lot of the fun out of life.

My plan has many facets. This year I'm focusing on continuing to build my flying skills and experience  (of course), rebuilding my running base, having fun in my auto racing world, somehow getting more satisfaction out of my job than just the pay check (I think this will be the most challenging), helping my daughter continue to grow into the amazing young woman she is and then there's my dear husband. Not much I can do for him aside from reminding him what he's got going for himself and how lucky he is :)

Flight Plan 

Lets start with the most fun part, the flight plan. My plan is as follows.
  • Earn a high performance endorsement. (checked off my list as of Jan 2)
  • Fly high performance planes for a couple months and get comfortable with that.
  • Earn a complex endorsement 
  • Fly complex planes for a couple months and get comfortable wtih that. Added bonus if the Bonanza at the flight club comes back online and I can start flying that plane! That should get me through the end of April or May.
  • Somewhere in May or June I want to take a week or two off and do my arial tour of the desert southwest. It looks like a flight to San Diego for my dad's retirement party in May and to Colorado for the sibling reunion in July are also in order. 
  • In June or July - depending on CFI schedule, start working on my Commercial Pilot's License with a goal of doing the CPL check ride in November or December
Not a bad plan, eh? Not to mention, I'm going to maintain Instrument Proficiency!

Running Plan

The second most fun and just as important for my mental health, the running plan. After taking running training to the over training limit many years ago and then taking training to the under training limit last year, resulting in injuries and more than a few races I had to not run, I've decided to try to push the pendulum back towards a happy medium. Here's the plan:
  • Get consistent with my running - run at least three times a week with two short runs and one long run.
  • Build up to a base of  20-30 miles per week by end of Feb. 
  • Start ramping up seriously in March. 
  • Run the Big Sur Marathon - one of the most beautiful marathons in the USofA the end of April
To do this I'll have to miss Saturday mornings of a couple race events and get up early on the weekends but that's what I'll have to do. So far I've run twice for 13 miles this year. I'm feeling good and looking forward to more. After Big Sur I'll ramp back down a bit to 20-30 miles a week again and probably just keep things in maintenance mode for the rest of the year. Signing up for some less than marathon distance trail runs and half's or 30Ks for the rest of the year as I switch focus to the CPL and auto racing.

One other item for my running plan. One of my best running friends and I are planning on going on a hike over Forrester Pass this summer. I believe that pass is over 14,000 feet. I've always wanted to hike that high, this will be my chance!

Racing Plan

My focus for racing will be keeping things fun and not letting it become work. I am a volunteer after all, my "pay" for my time racing is spending time with my racing family. That's all the pay I need. :) but it means it can, and sometimes does, take second place to other activities like running or flying. I do plan on doing race control for the 2013 NASA Nationals at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah this year and for the 25 hours of Thunderhill if I am invited to do so. I will be late to a couple race events at the beginning of the year as I do my long runs with my running group building up to Big Sur, but my racing family understands.

Work Plan

Not so fun and the one I am least confident in being able to pull off. Right now I am working for the pay check. That's it. It is not a good place for me to be, especially considering I spent 50 or more hours a week working. I want to get myself into a position at work, preferably for my current employer, where I can look forward to going to work some days instead of it being a necessary evil. My family, especially my husband, suffers for my unhappiness at work. I am hoping even if I do not manage to improve the work situation the running will help with my mood no matter what happens there. We will see.

Family Plan

My daughter gets lonely when my husband is traveling and I don't make it home from work or running activities until 8 or 9 PM. What can I do for that? I think the key thing is to work from home more often. Try to run more mornings and lunches than evenings (morning runs take time away from the husband, but if he's not in town he won't notice). I'll try that. I need to be around for her. I know what it's like to feel lonely. She got a new camera for Christmas. Maybe she will want to go flying with me and use that new camera to take photos. She's a natural photographer. She is such an awesome young lady. I really enjoy spending time with her at this stage in her life.

For my husband, ahhh, that's the hardest part of all for this mother bird to handle. I cannot do for him, I can't make his decisions or change his habits or give him coping skills. Those are all things he has to do on his own. It is SO hard to be unable to control but that's the way it is. I just hope he remembers how close he came to losing the privilege to be part of this little, wonderful, family last year and he doesn't go there again. He's a very smart guy and he loves us, I have hope.

No Battle Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

Another very true quote. Going into this year, I know, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. These plans are no different. Life, being life, will throw some unexpected weather or problems and I will have to divert and adjust as I go through this year. I don't know how things will end up. Lets return to this page a year for now and see, shall we?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

High Performance!

Check one item off my flying plan for 2013. Today I received my high performance endorsement from my CFI. Does this mean I'm expert in high performance airplanes - oh no. But this is another license for me to learn even more. I am actually looking forward to flying this plane in the pattern and on short local flights to gain greater familiarity with the plane. After a couple or four flights I'm likely to feel more comfortable with taking people with me in this plane.

In the mean time, it was a great, if brief, training process and my CFI promises when I get bored with this type of plane we'll move on up to a complex plane next. Learning and flying is so much fun!