Sunday, April 21, 2013


Last weekend seems so long ago but it was less than 7 full days ago that my husband and I launched into the air into another strong wind and AIRMET Tango situation. We were up in Willows, CA for the NASA Race Weekend (NASA as in National AutoSuports Association, not the other NASA). Our flight up to Willows airport (WLW) was in relatively calm air, my first flight in a while without an AIRMET Tango raising the tension in the cockpit.

Sunday night it was time to return and the weather was not as calm. I had watched the winds pick up and grow stronger throughout the day from my perch in the track control tower. As I checked the online weather information I saw what I expected, another AIRMET Tango. This time I saw not only the AIRMET, but PIREPS along near route for light and moderate turbulence. They were from earlier in the day and different altitudes than I was planning to fly, but that definitely did not indicate we would have a smooth ride. Two of our friends flew back from Willows to RHV around noon and they both reported a bumpy climb out, smooth en-route and exciting approaches at RHV with the winds there. There was a layer of high clouds moving north to south but they would not cause IFR or even MVFR conditions on my route. One good thing, we looked to have a 30 knot tail wind on the return trip, so if we did have a bumpy ride, it would be relatively brief.

We caught a ride to the airport after the race event and the winds were very strong there. There was no wind sock but I didn't need a wind sock to tell me the winds were over 15 knots and direct cross wind to the main runway. They were directly at the tail of the plane where it was tied down. We untied the wings but I decided not to untie the tail until right before we were ready to go. A Cirrus SR22T landed and taxied by, headed straight to the fuel tanks. My husband discovered he forgot his phone so we had to wait some more for his phone to be brought out to us. He went back to the diner to wait for his phone and I finished the preflight with the exception of removing the control lock and the tail tie down.

I saw the pilot and passenger of the Cirrus out of their plane and getting fuel and I decided to go and get a PIREP from them. I walked up and introduced myself and asked where they came from and what it was like "up there". They said they launched that morning from Van Nuys into a 50 knot headwind. The headwinds were down to 15 knots at their cruising altitude once they got into central California. The real turbulence started at Sacramento they said and the cloud layer was at 8,500 feet. They were headed up to Vancouver that day and had a very long way to go with the headwinds they were flying into. I thanked them for the info, wished them luck and walked back to the plane.

I saw my husband walking back from the diner so I untied the tail and took off the control lock. The ailerons were flipping left and right as the winds caught them. I reviewed my flight plan and pre-flight making sure I didn't forget anything and mentally urged my husband to hurry. I didn't like sitting in the plane with a strong tail wind directly on my tail. The winds were definitely favoring the shorter, narrower runway at the airport, runway 34. So I planned on where I would do my runup (facing into the wind) and how I would taxi to the take off end (time to practice those quartering tailwind taxi skills!). This runway didn't have a full taxi way so I knew I'd have to back taxi and expected the Cirrus would be taking off on the same runway.

Husband finally arrived and got into the plane and I started up and taxied to my planned run up location. I did my run up and looked for the Cirrus, sure enough it was lined up at the far end of runway 34 and not moving. I waited for a bit and after the Cirrus continued to not move I figured I should tell him I was not going to taxi across the runway. I got on the CTAF...

Willows traffic, Skylane 791 holding short of 34, will take off on 34 after the Cirrus.
The Cirrus responded...
Willows traffic, Cirrus 123 taking 34 for a straight out departure, thanks for waiting. 
No problem, I responded. Good luck! 
We'll need it, the Cirrus pilot said and took off into the winds.

I waited another minute, just in case the Cirrus had an issue and would need to return to the one runway that it was safe to land on. Then I announced my intention on CTAF, looked for NORDO planes and taxied down to the take off end of runway 34. I had the strongest quartering tailwind I'd ever experienced blowing on the plane so I held the elevator full forward and turned the ailerons away from the wind as taught. I had to use the rudder as well to counteract the winds as they pushed on the plane.

A careful turn into the winds and I was lined up with the runway. Still with a cross wind but much less of a cross wind component than I would have had on runway 30. I don't remember wanting to be up and away from an airport as bad as I did at that moment. I knew I would be up for turbulence in the air but at that moment the thought was much more appealing than being blown around on the ground. I forced myself to go through my pre-takeoff checklist carefully not skipping a step and then recalled everything I was taught about cross wind take offs as I smoothly advanced the throttle and the 182 moved forward.

We were in the air in almost no time and it was turbulent, but not the worst I'd experienced. The 182 is a nice plane to be in when the air isn't smooth. Soon we climbed above the most turbulent layer of air and contacted ATC for flight following back to the Bay Area. I didn't file IFR this time because I wanted the flexibility of flying any altitude I want to avoid turbulence without having to ask permission. There weren't many planes flying this night. Not surprising with the winds covering most of California that day and night.

The sun went down before we reached the delta in a somewhat muted sunset. We kept track of the wind directions and used that to decide what side of Mt. Diablo to fly on in order to have the smoothest possible (not smooth, just smoothest possible) descent into the Bay Area proper. There was a small layer of clouds right over Calaveras so I went over the Sunol grade and into the bay that way.  The winds were gustier near the bay as they bounced over and around the surrounding hills.

Soon we were cleared for landing at RHV. The winds were very strong from the east on my base leg and I didn't adjust for that so I overshot final badly. Fortunately there were no other planes in the immediate environment! I have to improve my adjustments for strong winds. In the end I landed the plane very nicely on the center line in spite of more crosswinds on approach and over the runway. The winds were much lower, only 15 -20 knots or so, on the ground at RHV. I was happy to have another minor adventure in flying come to a safe conclusion.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Buttonwillow and Back

I just started a new job so I haven't been able to get away on weekdays and, on the evenings I wanted to fly the Arrow the winds have been too strong. However, the weather's been just good enough for me to fly cross country to two race events. The first event was in Buttonwillow, CA. Buttonwillow is just over the edge of the LA sectional from us, just south of the border that becomes southern California. The weather forecast for the flight down to Buttonwillow was not looking too friendly. There was an airmet for turbulence (AIRMET Tango they're called) and conditions were Marginal VFR. I had the 182 reserved for the flight, the same one I flew back from San Lois Obispo in IFR conditions before. But I also had a passenger that didn't fly all that often with an unknown tolerance for turbulence that was supposed to fly with me.

I was seriously considering canceling the flight but I figured I would describe the situation and if the passenger was up for it... we would give it a shot. When I described the potential conditions for the flight to my passenger, he grinned a huge grin and said, "OK!" Little did I know, he was NOT looking forward to those conditions but he figured if he wanted to learn how to fly he'd have to get over his fear of turbulence too. My daughter was strongly in favor of flying because she didn't want to drive. She has no fear of turbulence at all.

We took off into the broken clouds over the South Bay on an IFR flight plan and ATC expertly guided us around every cloud. I don't know how they do that! Eventually we climbed to 7000 feet and cruised in calm air to land at Shafter-Mitner Airport with only mild turbulence on the descent and approaching the airport at pattern altitude. 

Flying back from Buttonwillow there was another AIRMET for turbulence. I checked for PIREPS and didn't see any moderate turbulence reported near our route, but that was no guarantee of smooth air. There were no clouds where we started, but there were clouds building in the South Bay that were likely to make a VFR flight there not impossible, but not as desirable as simply flying IFR. So I filed an IFR flight plan using the most common IFR route back from the area of SoCal I was in.

We took off into a brisk surface wind and I got on course to Avenal VOR with a strong headwind. I picked up my IFR clearance once I was settled into the cruise climb. No need to pick it up sooner since we were in severe clear conditions at the time. Bakersfield Approach cleared me present position to AVE then as filed.. exactly as I expected. Then Bakersfield Approach said...

Skylane 791, I have something special for you. Today. One time only. Would you like to be cleared direct GILRO?
Approach, I would love to be cleared direct GILRO.

From 160 nautical miles away I was cleared direct to the IAF for the GPS approach to my airport! How nice was that? Normally ATC has to route IFR traffic around the MOAs between Shafter and the Bay Area but it was Sunday and the MOAs were "cold". That allowed ATC to give me a very direct routing which saved us a lot of time on the return trip in spite of the headwind. The ride was, once again, relatively calm until we got close to a small cloud bank at our altitude and over the low mountain range between the central valley and the coast. Then we picked up some occasional light chop. I thought it would be cool to do a PIREP reporting on the conditions we've flown in so far. So I did.

We were cleared direct ECYON from about 30 NM away which made our route even shorter and I could see we would definitely get some time in the clouds. I told my passengers to expect some turbulence. I told my friend in the right seat to grab his seat belt if he got disoriented, not the yoke, and explained to him how to use the artificial horizon to combat the feelings of disorientation if he had them. I slowed down the plane and prepared for the approach. All of the sudden the plane started bouncing up and down rhythmically. That wasn't something I expected! I looked at my friend and asked him if he was doing it... no. Then he looked in the back set. My daughter was literally bouncing up and down with excitement at the thought of going into the clouds. I told her there is strictly no bouncing on the approach and we descended into the clouds for an uneventful IFR approach and landing.

When we touched down at RHV my passenger friend was thrilled. He loved the ride through the clouds declaring it was like being in control of a roller coaster. My daughter loved the flight through the clouds too. She said she closed her eyes and felt like she was turning upside down - and she enjoyed it. For me.. I found out the transition into turbulent clouds is less disorienting than a transition into no turbulence clouds. On the approach we descended through two layers, the higher layer had some turbulence. Then after being cleared for the approach we flew through a layer of stratus, that layer had no turbulence to feel. It was just flying a descent when all of the sudden the outside world went away for a while, then it came back. It was a bit disorienting to have that transition without the bumps, but it was nice.

I am enjoying the additional utility and safety of flight my instrument rating has given me. It allows me to plan for a safe instrument flight instead of trying to fly below the clouds and squeeze into and out of valleys as I would have had to do on both legs of this trip. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

If only I could describe how it feels...

Me with the Arrow after earning the complex endorsement.
A whirlwind couple of days... completing the ground and flight training required for a complex endorsement and to meet the insurance requirements for me to fly the Arrow as Pilot in Command.


Monday after a quick pre-flight briefing we take to the pattern to practice take off and landing procedures and simulated engine failure. Cleared for take off I line the plane up on the center line of the runway. My CFI, Scott, stops me and tells me to burn this image into my brain. This is what I should make every landing look like. If I want to be a commercial pilot I must be able to land on the center line every time.

I take off and launch into the pattern, feeling behind the plane and stumbling through verbalizing the pre-landing checklist. I am too high on final and round out like I'm landing a 182 with the nose way too high for an Arrow, but I get away with it and land gently if not correctly. I land exactly on the center line. The next two times have similar results. Exactly on the center line but a too high pitch and not really rounding out over the runway, more like stalling the plane over the runway rounding out and touching down just at or above stall speed. My CFI tries to get me to focus on the pitch I need to maintain the airspeed I need and the right landing attitude I need to hit for a good and safe landing.  We also verified the landing gear emergency extension lever worked. It did. One time the gear lights failed, I heard the gear come down, felt the kicks of the gear locking in, but the lights didn't come on. I flew downwind not sure what to do, my brain running through what I've learned and drawing a blank. I started to ask for help, then my eye went to the panel light switch. It had mysteriously turned itself on. I turn it off and the gear lights came on.  We do 10 trips around the pattern that day with me starting to understand better what I need to do but not quite executing on it.


Tuesday, I have to complete 8 more take offs and landings and 1.2 hours of flight before endorsement and insurance sign off is possible. Depending on my performance it could take more time. I have another pilot in the back seat as ballast so I can see how different it is to land a heavier loaded Arrow. He is also hoping to learn some more about landings in the process. This time my CFI promises to cause the gear to fail often and I'd have to identify, troubleshoot and resolve it in the pattern. The pre-landing checklist is key. We do normal, short field and soft field take offs and landings. I feel less behind the plane and am stumbling over the pre-landing less. Boost, (carb), Gas, Undercarraige, Mixture, Prop, Safety. I keep forgetting to verbalize the final check of the landing gear on short final. Three green over the fence I should say. I forget. I'm not as perfect with the center line as I was the day before, but I get better. Each time we taxi back he points out what the requirements are for commercial pilot landings, what is required for a normal landing and a short field landing. If I want to be a commercial pilot, no time like the present to start working on that effort. We should be getting off at Delta easily each time he says.

Every time I put down the gear I wonder if it will come down, or how it might fail. Sometimes it works. One time the gear doesn't come down at all. I quickly use the emergency gear extension lever and it locks into place without a hitch. Another time the gear comes down and I'm on an approach that I think is good, I have the right pitch and airspeed. I'm over the fence and my CFI prompts me to check the gear. I glance at the gear lights and see green so I say Three green over the fence. I get told, Go around! Why? I ask. I was set up for a great landing, I thought. Go Around! I execute the go around and see why. The left main gear light is out. I see the bulb is loose. Damn it. I shove the bulb back into place and we have the three greens. I'm going around. I let the tower know. Cram, climb, clean - flaps, gear, flaps and flaps. As we climb away from the runway I have no problem verbalizing. That won't happen again! Now I'm mad. That won't happen again.

The next time around I verbalize the checklist and when I'm on short final I touch each green bulb quickly. Three green over the fence, I say. My landings are starting to come together better, my reactions are quicker and I feel less behind the plane. Around again, on downwind, gear down, I hear it, feel the gear lock into place, no greens. My hand moves quickly to flip the panel lights off. Three greens. We land and taxi back. Three more times, my CFI says, make them count. The mysterious gear failures stop and my CFI is silent. I am able to concentrate more on my landings. The sight picture I needed for the pitch and airspeed on final was coming together. Then it was over.

We taxi back to the club and my CFI grabs my logbook and goes inside. Our "ballast" and I tie down the plane. We go inside and my CFI is waiting for me to sign in the plane so he can enter the required endorsements into the computer system so I can check the plane out solo. Then he asks for my pilot's license so he can put my pilot certificate number into the complex endorsement. No asking me if I felt confident I wouldn't kill myself this time. No need to waste our breath. He knows and I know, I can do this.


Today, Wednesday, I have the Arrow reserved early. I want to take it up solo quickly to cement what I've learned. I'm not near as nervous for my first solo, or even my first solo in the 182. I am calm. I do the run up and line up for take off. I'm cleared for take off and flip on the boost pump. On the center line of the runway I review the situation, Blues, reds, all greens, no reds, I say. Meaning I've checked the mixture, the prop, gear, oil temp and oil and fuel pressure gauges and there are no red warning lights anywhere. I move the throttle to full smoothly and off I go. Lift off at 68MPH and pitch for 100MPH. Positive rate of climb, no more usable runway, gear up, I say and move the gear lever to up. The gear goes up, Hear it, see it, feel it. Gear transit light is off. Noise abate turn crosswind, at 750 AGL shut off the boost pump, make sure fuel is still flowing, reduce MP to 25", pull prop back to 2500 RPM. Already at pattern altitude, pitch, then power to 17" and 2350 RPM since I'm staying in the pattern, trim.

Turn downwind. Boost on, gas full tank, gear down. Gear comes down, hear it, feel it, see it. Three greens, one, two, three. Mix is full, Prop leave alone. Cleared for landing. 14" MP and 10 degrees of flaps. Slow the plane to 100MPH. Let it start descending, turn base. 25 degrees of flaps. I'm high, 40 degrees of flaps. Boost, gas, undercarriage, mix, prop full, safety. Pre-landing checklist complete, I say.  Turn final. I maintain pitch for 85MPH. Keep the numbers in the same spot on the windscreen. Adjust the power a bit for some sink over the mall. Three greens over the mall, I say, touching each one, just to be sure. Maintain that pitch, aimed at the numbers, round out and reduce power at the same time. I touch down ON the numbers, ON the centerline, lightly. I let the nose gear down, reduce power and turn off on Charlie. This time I let out a whoop! There! Check that out, Scott! I say out loud. Yes! THAT's the way to do it!

I pull clear of the runway and stop the plane to clean up and review the after landing checklist, another habit to get into for commercial flying. I tell myself if I do two more like that, I'll stop early. My next two didn't land ON the numbers, but they were ON center line and perfectly within the commercial spec I was secretly thinking was a long way away from my grasp the day before. I easily taxi clear of the runway at Delta.

What a glorious feeling! I'm adapting to newer and more complex planes quicker. Flying the Arrow doesn't seem as difficult as I thought it should be. I was able to do some my best landings in what feels like forever in a plane I've flown all of 5 hours. I never know when a particular phase of learning and flying will come together with relative ease or difficulty. But when it does come together, be it easily or with difficulty, when it all clicks .... sigh .... I just don't know how to describe it. No matter what, it is wonderful.