Thursday, February 21, 2013

First Instrument Flight in a 182

My passengers awaiting
departure from RHV

A Weekend Trip to Oceano Dunes

My husband and a couple friends and I flew down to San Luis Obispo area last weekend to spend some time in Oceano on California's central coast. This was the first time I've been on a flying trip with friends in two planes and it was a lot of fun. I flew a 182P, N20791 with my husband, Jeff, and friend, Randy. I planned on flying the 182 so I could get more familiar with the plane. My other friend, Craig, flew a 180HP conversion 172N with his other half, Kim, and daughter Alexis. We stopped at Harris Ranch on the way down on Sunday for lunch. That was my first time landing a plane at Harris Ranch and being able to land the 182 on that narrow and short runway boosted my confidence managing the plane considerably. Then we headed out to San Luis Obispo after a pass over the Oceano Dunes so Randy could see them. I landed there well and we tied down for the night at San Luis Obispo (SBP) airport. Two good flights and landings at very different airports were very good for me. We landed at SBP instead of Oceano itself because we could pick up a rental van for our group and save money on cab fair. We went to a show called the "Great American Melodrama" which was very fun. Then we went back to the hotel, had a drink and chatted into the night.

Oceano Dunes from the air
We woke up Monday to overcast low clouds. Not at all surprising for this area. That was another reason I wanted to tie down at SBP. SBP typically clears up before Oceano does because it is further inland. I didn't want us to be stuck waiting for clouds to clear and end up flying into the teeth of a cold front and storm predicted to hit the Bay Area late Monday night. When I checked the TAFs when I first woke up they did not promise clearing. I figured the next TAF after 10AM PST would forecast better conditions. However, just in case, I did a quick round of flight and fuel planning and filed an instrument flight plan out of SBP for 1PM.

Our friends "waving goodbye" under the cloudy skies.
Click on the photo and zoom in to see the "wave".
At 10:30 we checked the TAF's for our route again and every update was trending towards lower and more complete cloud cover. The satellite loop view of the area showed clouds thickening and pushing inland instead of the opposite which is what normally happens in this coastal area. That did not bode well. Our group had a leisurely breakfast and discussed options. The ceilings were 1800 to 2500 feet near the airport. The terrain around the airport rose to 1500-3000 feet MSL. The only direction without rising terrain was over the ocean. I could get out IFR, but I was the only pilot in the group who could. The other three pilots, Jeff, Randy and Craig weren't instrument rated.

None of the options we had to get both planes home that day were really good. The one that was probably the best was the idea of me flying the 172 over to Paso Robles (PRB) IFR, Craig's family driving there and then they could hope to fly VFR out of Paso Robles back to Reid-Hillview (RHV). Then I could drive back to SBP and fly IFR out of SBP in the 182 with Jeff and Randy and head back home. The problem with that idea was the ceilings at PRB were barely MVFR. In the end Craig decided to wait at the FBO at SBP and hope for some clearing weather. Worse case he'd rent a car, drive his ladies home and then come back later to get the plane. I took the IFR option and headed home with Jeff and Randy.

Fluffy, Friendly Clouds

SBP tower and low overcast
I used Randy's hand held radio to get my clearance from SBP ground prior to engine start and we were cleared as filed including the CREPE3.PRB departure route I planned and have flown before. Being able to fly a departure procedure I've flown before from this very airport helped reduce my tension flying in a relatively unfamiliar airplane - the 182.

The ceiling was reported at 2800 feet when we launched on our IFR flight. I got my scan going immediately and we entered the clouds at 3000 feet. I was braced for some good turbulence in the clouds but these were the friendly type of clouds in spite of their dark appearance, no turbulence at all. Our clearance changed immediately when I contacted Santa Barbara Approach, instead of flying the departure procedure they had me turn direct to PRB when we got to 4000 feet. At 4000 feet, still in the clouds I turned towards PRB. We finally broke out of the clouds around 5000 feet and leveled off at 7000' as cleared. I told the guys the change in clearance was totally normal. You rarely get what you file and even more rarely actually fly what you are cleared to fly. You just have to be ready for the changes when they come.

We were in clear air flying over a sold layer of clouds that seemed to cover the entire Salinas Valley from its southern end at Atascadero north as far as the eye can see. When we were transferred to Oakland Center we heard many planes flying IFR on approaches into Paso Robles airport (PRB). A US Air jet gave a pirep reporting the only hole in the clouds near PRB was 40 miles north or 30 miles east. We could see an edge to the clouds out to the east, it appeared to be on the other side of the Diablo range between the Salinas and central valley. That means one would be able to get under the clouds there, but wouldn't be able to make it into the Salinas valley. At this point we knew it was the right decision not to fly the 172 into Paso Robles, Craig and family would not have made it out of there VFR.

Clouds over the Salinas Valley
The en route portion of our flight was in the clear air with very little turbulence and a lot of radio traffic. On the way Jeff suggested I practice using the autopilot. I had received the 5 minute - this is how to use and disable the autopilot - info from my CFI but hadn't actively used it before. Frankly, I prefer to hand fly. It gives me something to do on the en route portion of flights and I get to hone my skills that way. Then I remembered my CFI saying, "You WILL use the autopilot in IMC." That's exactly what he said. He is actually able to speak in all caps, must be something they teach in CFI school. This seemed like a good time to listen to my CFI and my husband. I engaged the autopilot heading and altitude hold at 7000'. Eventually we were cleared to 8000' and asked to change headings slightly for traffic. Finally we were cleared direct to GILRO, the Initial Approach Fix for my approach into RHV.

We were handed over to NorCal Approach and the radios were even busier as the controllers had to funnel jets into San Jose and flibs like me into RHV. About 10 minutes from HENCE (over Hollister) the controller asked if I was going to continue IFR, because if I was I should expect a 20-30 minute delay due to traffic into SJC. I could see no real breaks in the clouds ahead so I told him if they could get me under the clouds I'd be happy to cancel but unless they could I'd have to stay IFR all the way into RHV.  He said he'd let the next controller know. About five minutes to HENCE I started slowing the plane down. I knew I'd be getting a descent soon and knew the plane doesn't go and slow down, so I had to get one done before the other. I was glad I had discussed just this situation with my CFI two days before. This plan worked out well because I was told to descend to 6000' about the time I had slowed down the plane to where I wanted it.

Flying in a Box

Our route to RHV with the delay vectors
We got to HENCE and were told to turn right 90 degrees as a delay vector for SJC traffic. We were in a "box pattern" that my CFI had told me he gets often flying IFR in and out of the Santa Clara valley but I had never encountered. We had all the time in the world. The thing we didn't have was all the fuel in the world. Normally I always fly with full fuel, this time, however, I didn't. I had a heavily loaded plane and a climb gradient I had to maintain to leave SBP safely, so I did not take on fuel as I had originally planned at SBP. When I did my flight planning I used a conservative ground speed and fuel burn rate and calculated we would have a little over an hour and a half fuel remaining when we landed. Jeff checked the fuel levels before we took off and we had 38 gallons in the tanks which matched my expectation. If we had a 30 minute delay we'd land with an hour of fuel to spare. If the delay was more than that, we would be in a less comfortable position.

When we got the delay vector I started a timer and  slowed down even further setting MP to 19" which had us flying this hold at approx 105 knots ground speed. The other benefit of slowing down was we were using less fuel. The engine monitor reported 7.3 GPH fuel burn rate. I was intensely aware of the fuel situation and figured we could allow no more than 30 minutes delay before I would have to tell ATC we were at minimum fuel. When we took off the fuel gauges were showing one tank empty and the other more than half full (the plane was parked on a slope at the airport), at this point the other wing was showing empty and the "full" tank was showing 1/4 full. I had never flown a plane to this level of fuel and it was not a comfortable feeling.

As we cruised slowly in our delay vectors we considered alternates. I called up the ATIS information for airports in the Santa Clara valley, South County, Hollister and Reid-Hillview. We could see the edge of the clouds to our east and were thinking maybe we could get down below the clouds and through the pass over highway 152 into the valley VFR. All of the ATIS reports were just barely good enough. Which meant if we were lucky we could get through, if we weren't we'd be stuck. Not a good plan. I decided we would stay in the box and if we we got to 30 minutes of delay I would notify ATC we were at minimum fuel. I re-briefed myself on the approach we would use into RHV and made sure I was prepared.

Not So Friendly, Fluffy Clouds

We were cruising southeasterly towards the edge of the clouds in our box. I was watching the clouds pour over the ridge line silently. It was a mesmerizing sight. ATC directed me to turn to 330. I went to turn the heading bug to 330 and all of the sudden the plane shakes like we were a bug in a tin can. "What the hell is THAT!" I said as I quickly disengaged the autopilot and manually managed the turn to 330 and altitude. Jeff suggested we must be hitting the turbulence of the winds spilling over the hills. As quickly as it started the turbulence stopped. I turned the autopilot back on.

Cleared to descend, we headed
directly towards some less
friendly looking clouds.
"Skylane seven niner one, cleared direct ECYON. Descend and maintain 3700". That was music to my ears. That meant we were going to be able to start our approach and ATC was trying to get us low enough to cancel IFR if we could. I turned on the pitot heat, turned off altitude hold, and started a nice controlled descent towards the clouds ahead.

I then ran into a new challenge. If I was flying a plane with a 430W GPS I would have activated the GPS Z 31R approach at ECYON. But I couldn't find ECYON as a waypoint on the GPS Z 31R approach in the GPS in this plane. I don't know if this was operator error or GPS error or what but it wasn't there. So I manually input direct to ECYON and let the autopilot manage the track to ECYON as I managed the descent and monitored the what the autopilot was doing as we descended into the clouds. I would activate the approach when I got cleared for it.

This time the clouds were much less friendly. We were getting bounced around pretty good but my passengers were perfectly silent. We got down to 3700 feet and leveled off still in the clouds. So much for getting down and canceling IFR. I was grateful for the autopilot for reducing my workload as I was fighting my body's mixed signals with the turbulence and less familiar instrumentation and plane I was in. I've lost count of the number of approaches I've flown in 172s. This was my first approach (simulated or otherwise) in a 182. I checked manifold pressure, prop and mixture and we were OK. Jeff or Randy said it was really wet outside.  I spared a glance at the windscreen and saw water streaming by. A quick double check of the MP showed it still in the green. I decided I would turn on carb heat the moment we got out of the green, to prevent carb icing.

Water streaming off struts and
trailing edge of the wings.
We were cleared for the approach. I put in 10 degrees of flaps to descend in a controlled manner and the plane seemed to launch itself upwards, I failed to anticipate that and had to push the nose back down to level and then start the descent. I activated the leg of the approach closest to us and let the autopilot get us on course as I managed the descent again, this time pulling more and more power as we got closer to the airport. ATC directed us to switch to the tower and we were instructed to continue. We could hear many planes in the pattern there. RHV's ATIS reported the ceiling at 3300 feet but we were past that level and still in solid cloud. 2500 feet we were still in the clouds and I was high on the glide slope but starting to capture it. I ran through the pre-landing checklist in the clouds, no boost pump, carb heat on, fuel on both, gear down and welded, mixture full rich, pushed the prop full forward and we were ready.

At 2000 feet we broke out of the clouds. The air was crystal clear and the windscreen nicely cleaned from the rinsing we got. I was still high so pulled more power and put in more flaps and finally even more flaps. I was cleared to land and another plane was cleared to take off from the same runway. It seemed like the plane was moving in slow motion as it took the runway to take off. We were less than a mile out and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to go around. So I slowed the plane even more to allow the other plane to take off. Then the tower told me there was a dog running lose on the Bravo taxiway. Are you kidding me?!? I really hoped the dog would have the good sense to run the other way, cause I was going to land this sucker! The other plane took off just in time and for once I didn't float the 182 down the runway. I landed the plane nicely and got a round of applause from the back seat of the plane as I exited on Delta. I did the after landing checklist and contacted ground to taxi back to Squadron2.


Passenger view of an IFR flight
We taxied back to Squadron2 and shut down the plane. We piled out of the plane, all smiling ear to ear and I distributed hugs all around (being a woman I can do that *grin*). If my CFI was there I would have kissed him. I was absolutely elated. All those hours of training paid off that day. For the first time I actually had to consider fuel, weight and balance, climb gradient, weather, managing a high performance plane in IMC, using an autopilot to reduce workload, ATC delays, passengers, other planes in the pattern on arrival, etc, etc. and I did it. The integration of all of the different skills I've learned in flight training, from private through IFR through high performance endorsement came together in that one flight and it worked! Yes, many areas for improvement, but I did it. My friend Randy said he felt I had things under control the whole time and that I knew what would happen before it happened. In other words, I was ahead of the plane. And, for the most part, I actually was. I can only get better from here.

PS. You may be wondering, how much fuel did we have when we landed? I checked both tanks and one tank was empty (falling into the never-done-that-before category), the other was showing 15 gallons on the dip stick. When we had the plane refueled we found we actually had 13 gallons left total. Right at 1 hour of fuel at a 13GPH fuel burn. Completely legal but if we had flown much longer we would have been flying on reserves and correct in declaring minimum fuel if we had to.

PPS. Craig ended up renting a car and driving home that night. He had some adventures getting the car and his ladies were offered some rides down to LA on some "very nice planes" according to the 3 year old. Wednesday he drove back down to SBP and flew the 172 back with beautiful view of snow dusted hills and mountains from the Monday night/Tuesday morning storm. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Celebrating First Solo

Two years ago on Feb 10 I did my first solo flight. I remember it like it was yesterday. The extra careful pre-flight ... the four trips around the pattern ... my CFI climbing out of the right seat and me launching into the air on my own. I'll never forget it. Fast forward two years. I'm instrument rated, can fly high performance aircraft and am knocking on the door of 300 hours flying soon. Some of the best hours of my life logged in the left seat of small aircraft.

So, how does one celebrate the anniversary of their first solo? I started by emailing my CFI and my husband, the two people who are responsible for introducing me to flying, a little song that celebrated the second anniversary of my first solo. Then I had a day of running operations and emergency dispatch for our National Auto Sports Association (NASA) race event at Sonoma raceway. After which it was time to fly home. :)  Like all fun stories this is a slightly long one.

The day before, Saturday the 9th, I went for a 10 mile run as part of my marathon training. Then my daughter, Katie, and I had to get up to Sonoma Raceway. Katie suggested that we fly instead of drive! Well, it doesn't take a lot of convincing to get me to fly somewhere so I reserved the last 172 that was available for the weekend, got a quick weather and outlook briefing, and down to the airport we went. On the way there Katie asked if she could fly the plane a bit on the way! That blew me away... was my daughter showing a bit of interest in aviation? Of course she could fly! 

We launched on a Bay Tour route up to Gnoss field near Sonoma Raceway. Katie had her camera with her and was taking photos. She is a natural photographer and got a beautiful picture of the SJC VOR, the Golden Gate Bridge, a jet ready to take off from SFO and more. I hope I can get her to share them with me. I digress. We had a strong wind aloft and the ride was not smooth so my daughter didn't get to fly the plane there. Luckily for her, however, turbulence doesn't bother her in the least, she just complained the bouncing made it hard for her to get good pics. My approach to Gnoss was sloppy and I had to go around for the first time in a long time. That was humbling and reminded me that I need to be mindful when flying. I am getting a better understanding of how and why pilots die between 200 and 300 hours of flying. I don't want to be one of them.

Sunday, 2nd anniversary of my first solo, we needed to fly home. However, this time my husband had to ride back with us. This was upsetting to Katie because she wanted to fly the plane on the way back.  This was disturbing to me because this meant we would be flying at just below max gross weight, something I've never done before. Not something dangerous, just something different. Then I checked the weather forecast and there were strong winds forecast at 3000 feet and stronger winds at 6000 feet. Add to that there were AIRMETs for turbulence over most of Northern California. However, the many airports along the route were all reporting very low or no winds. Pireps for the area reported light or moderate turbulence aloft but no turbulence below 3000 feet.

If you've read my blog for any length of time you know, I do not like turbulence. Normally I'll cancel a flight if there is an AIRMET for turbulence unless my CFI is with me. This time, however, I "had to get there". We needed to get home, we couldn't drive. So I was more motivated to find a way, knowing there may not be a good way, in which case we'd need to land. My husband, Jeff, and I talked and he suggested flying back down the peninsula at 2500 or 2000 feet with a Class Bravo transition over SFO. With the direction of the winds we'd be less likely to encounter turbulence there, not to mention it would be cool to fly over SFO at night. Yeah, I forgot to mention, the whole flight would be at night.

So, two years and 8 hours or so after my first solo, I launch into the air in a plane loaded to just short of max gross weight with my whole family aboard, at night, with a high likelihood of turbulence planning to fly right through the airspace of one of the nation's busiest airports, SFO. Amazing how two years of experience and training can change someone isn't it?

In case you are wondering how the flight went... it went very well. The air was crystal clear. The ride was smoother than it was the day before. We got the class bravo transition we requested at 2000 feet through SFO's airspace and got to talk to the towers of four other airports along the route. There were many jets flying in from Hawaii and the pacific rim as we flew down the peninsula and they were lined up like diamonds on a necklace on approach to SFO, OAK and SJC. One jet in particular had its contrails lit up from below as it passed over head. It looked like it was riding a laser through the night on its path.

My favorite part was the approach and landing at RHV. Since I'd never landed a plane at max gross before I went back to basics and focused very hard on maintaining appropriate airspeed and track, just as my CFI taught me two years ago. As a result, I landed the heavily loaded plane, at night, very nicely right on the center line. Proving, once again, flying really is easy if I just do what my CFI taught me. I'm at a stage in my flying now that I need to remember while it may be easy, it's only easy when its done right. Doing it right is easy if I plan and think.

In any case that flight was not a bad way to celebrate the anniversary of my first solo at all. I wonder where I'll be when I celebrate the third anniversary of my first solo. With luck I'll be flying :)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Just Plane Fun

This afternoon a friend of mine, Craig, and I went for a Bay Tour. Craig is another pilot and another student of my CFI. He's the guy that I consider key in me finally getting my PPL by reminding me our CFI never taught us how to land.  In the little over a year since we both finished our PPL's we, and our families, have become friends. Anyway, Craig hasn't been flying as often as he'd like and wants to be able to fly some Bay Tours but he'd never done one. I do them often so we decided I'd fly him on a Bay Tour and show him what it's like and what to expect on the way. Craig brought his little girl with him for the trip.

We had a great time on the Bay Tour...The air was smooth, skies were clear, and there wasn't much traffic at all. ATC behaved themselves and did what I said they would. We flew up the penninsula, over San Francisco and right over the Golden Gate Bridge (of course). I did a little circle around Alkatraz island too. 

Since Craig was with me and I knew he would be able to help with navigation I decided to return down the East Bay over Oakland instead of going further east down towards Livermore as I normally do. That is where it got really fun. ATC would tell me to go towards a landmark, Craig would look at the moving map on my iPad and figure out where that landmark was and tell me what direction to go to get to the landmark. I'd see the landmark eventually but it would have been a lot harder without his help.

The "South Route" if you don't talk to HWD tower.

Oakland Tower asked if we wanted to go the East route or South route. I didn't know either one so I picked South. They had us fly right over the arrival end of runway 29 at Oakland International at 2000 ft as a jet landed beneath us. Then we were directed to fly towards midspan of the San Mateo bridge at 1400ft. We were given the option to talk to Hayward Tower or remain clear of the airspace and I decided to remain clear.

There we were, all of 1400 feet off the water over the San Francisco Bay using the GPS and moving map to stay clear of Hayward's Class D, Oakland's Class C, San Francisco's Class B and San Jose's Class C airspace. I am not very comfortable flying low over water, I want more space and time to glide in case of engine failure.. so I was nervous. But I have to admit, it was a very cool view to be flying over the Bay at what is essentially pattern altitude!

We came back in to land only 1.4 hours after taking off... the flight was just plain (plane) fun. I'm glad we got to do it. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lithium Sunset

Jeff and I went up last Friday evening to figure out IFR power settings in the 182. We flew into a relatively quiet area of the central valley between Los Banos and Castle airports to do this. On the way back we caught video of an incredible sunset. Enjoy...