Thursday, August 22, 2013

Smoke and Pop Up IFR

Sunday my daughter and I were flying back to RHV from Willows after a weekend of racing. The enroute forecast reported occasional smoke due to the fires that have been burning around California and Oregon for a couple weeks. I figured the occasional smoke would be either very low to the ground or very high and, either way, being "occasional", not an issue for my flight. My husband was flying another, faster, plane on the same route as well. He took off first, then I did my run up and took off. The sky looked OK from the ground.

On climb out I could see what looked like a wall of smoke, it appeared to start around 3000'. I kept climbing. It looked like I would climb on top of the smoke and be in clear air for the flight. My husband radioed back to say he could still see the ground but there was a lot of smoke. I leveled off at 5500' and it seemed like I was just at the top of the smoke layer. The air in front of me was clear but I could only see the ground looking directly down. The hills to the west were vaguely apparent in the haze and the sun light slanted through the smoke dimly as it set.

Since I couldn't see landmarks ahead of me I practiced my instrument techniques and flew the tracks I programmed into the GPS. The GPS "track" and "desired track" information to guided where I flew. I knew at my altitude I was in no danger of flying into terrain. I was in contact with ATC and under VFR flight following but there were almost no planes flying that night. My husband radioed back to say he was nearing Nut Tree and he couldn't see Mt. Diablo with all of the smoke, or any of the familiar mountain and hill landmarks that we used for flying in the bay area. He was going to stay high until he could see something specific and then descend.

I looked around, the sun was down, the smoke was still thick starting just below my altitude. I couldn't see any landmarks or Mt. Diablo either. I had a decision to make... I could continue the flight VFR (flight visibility met VFR minimums at 5500 feet) and stay high until I could see the mountains and hills. Or I could get a pop up IFR clearance and fly the remainder of the flight IFR. I hadn't flown IFR in that particular plane before, which worried me a bit but I couldn't see the very large landmarks, which worried me even more.

I asked ATC for a pop up clearance to RHV. It was easier than I thought it would be.

Travis Approach, Arrow 55X, with request.
Go head Arrow 55X.
Approach, I need a pop-up IFR clearance to Reid-Hillview.
Arrow 55X, standby.
Brief pause
Arrow 55X, I have your clearance, advise when ready to copy.
I already had "CRAFT" written on my notepad. 
Ready to copy, 55X.
Arrow 55X is cleared to the Reid-Hillview Airport via radar vectors, turn 150 and descend to 5000'. 

I read that back and with that I was "in the system" with ATC helping keep me from flying into any solid objects in the smoke and night. 

I turned to the heading and descended to 5000'. That put me directly into the smoke and true IMC conditions. The good thing was, the air was smooth in the smoke and the winds were consistent so once I dialed in good wind correction angle to stay on the heading I was given I didn't have to adjust it too often. I flew in the smoke for about 15 minutes just taking the headings ATC was giving me and knowing they were flying me east and south. If I had to keep getting vectors they'd probably vector me over the CEDES and then send me in on the approach.

I took my eyes off my scan for a moment every couple minutes and checked outside to see if I could see anything. Eventually the smoke cleared enough after passing the delta that I could see the ground and Mt. Diablo and the hills around the Livermore Valley and Sunol Grade outlined in hazy city lights. That was what I needed to see. I cancelled IFR and turned west towards the Livermore Valley. After crossing the valley I went into the Bay Area proper over the Sunol grade and was cleared to land immediately when I contacted  RHV tower.

After landing my husband met me at the plane. He stayed high as planned and was able to see well enough to descend after he passed the delta. In this case both methods (IFR and VFR) worked just fine. It was a good experience for both of us.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Playing in the Pattern

Its an evolution... a couple short years ago I chafed at being restricted to solo pattern work before I earned my private pilots license. It drove me crazy to not be able to go somewhere, anywhere, but around and around my home airport or to the local practice area to practice Private Pilot PTS maneuvers.

After I got my license I immediately launched on as many cross country trips as I could dream up. On those cross country trips I would have happily flown to whatever destination it was and not landed. I was just happy to be free to explore Northern California and, to be honest, I didn't like landing at new airports. Eventually I found landing at new airports gave me an opportunity to meet new people, see new sights, interact with other pilots and enjoy more of the freedom of flying. Also, the more often I landed at new airports the better I got at it.

Then I started instrument training - only one landing per flight there. I'd spend up to two hours in the air flying approaches and going missed at the MDA or DA, every approach, every time. Landing became something I would laugh at how bad I got... landing after instrument flying was hard for some reason. My CFI told me everyone has that problem. It was weird.

Instrument training over it was time for high performance and complex endorsements. Learning new planes was a lot of fun and I was doing more flying in the pattern again. This time was different however, pattern work was enjoyable, fun even. Then I went on my very long cross country flight, almost 17 hours of solo flying across the desert southwest. Landing at all kinds of strange airports at strange altitudes in unfamiliar air spaces. I expected to be bored flying alone and instead I really enjoyed the alone-ness in flight.

Now I find myself in a bit of a holding pattern waiting to start training for my commercial license. In the mean time I am flying cross country when I can and enjoying flying in the pattern too. When I fly cross country I enjoy the beauty and fun of cross country flight, but I find myself wishing I got to land more often.  So sometimes I just go up and play in the pattern and enjoy landing and honing my skills there. 

Funny how the cycle turns from student pilot wanting nothing more than to get away from the pattern to pilot finding fun in the same pattern, in play.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pushing My Envelope

I've been thinking about doing some aerobatic style training for well over a year now, on and off. I was wanting to do it to get through some of my remaining fears in flying. Fear of large load factors and spins. I've never done a spin and am sure I will never do one by accident because I know how not to stall a plane and how not to be cross controlled. However, if I ever do want to be a CFI spins (more important, spin recovery) is something I'll have to do.  One thing I've learned in my flight training is if I push out past the boundaries of what I'm comfortable with, the boundaries of what I am comfortable with expand.

Extra 300L - 300 HP of pure fun!
Recently I decided it was time to push out the boundaries some more. I will be starting my commercial training some time soon (I hope!) and found myself feeling that little fear again when reading the descriptions of the commercial maneuvers. Frankly, I'm tired of those little fears.

Fear definitely has its place when flying, but not these fears. Time to move past them. What better way to do that than take things to their illogical extreme and do aerobatic flying with an instructor that specializes in that in a plane purpose built for the experience? So I signed up for "Pilot Confidence Training" through Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety. Its a school founded by Sean Tucker, a world famous aerobatic pilot and it happens to be in King City, relatively close to me.

The Short Story

Saturday and Sunday were spent at Tutima. In a brief summary of what I learned:
  1. How much fun it can be to fly a plane designed for power and precision - the Extra 300L. It was incredible!
  2. What scares me doesn't make me sick.
  3. What makes me sick doesn't scare me.
  4. I hated the spin more than I thought I would.
  5. I liked rolls much more than I thought I would.

The Long Story

The standard curriculum has four flights and about 5 hours of ground instruction. We started at 9AM Saturday morning.  The first flight was control exercises like squares, diamonds, circles, wing rocks, dutch rolls, and rudder only turns and stalls. We used a wing over when we had to turn to stay in the box and that was very cool. The wing over was my favorite maneuver. Pitch the plane up to about 45 degrees, put in a little bit of aileron and the plane quickly turned 180 degrees. It's a low load maneuver that lets you turn around really quick. Great for canyon flying if you get stuck the CFI said.
We did all kinds of stalls. Power off and on, accelerated and turning stalls. Slipping and skidding stalls. I didn't feel sick at all until we did a particularly energetic accelerated stall. That got my stomach upset and we had to stopped shortly after that. The stalls didn't scare me, but that one did make me sick. We met back up three hours later for a second flight but the winds were strong and my stomach still wasn't happy. So we decided to meet back up the next morning. Because I live close there was no pressure to do it all in one weekend.

Sunday morning was more control exercises and stalls, controlled stalls, steep turns (no problem doing 60 degree bank in that plane!).  I was feeling good about how well I flew the plane and how I was able to be precise in the control exercises and the steep turns. The controlled stall (this is a thing where you stall the plane and keep it stalled using the rudder to keep the wings level) was really violent. He demonstrated and the plane bucked and kicked until he finally stopped the stall. That really bothered me and I refused to do the controlled stall right then. 
We also did minimum altitude loss stall recovery. I had trouble with that, my responses were slow and sometimes opposite of what they should be. To be honest I lost more altitude than I did on a regular recovery in the same plane ... one time I put the plane into a major dive trying to recover from the stall but I recovered from my recovery the right way - pulled power and pulled out of the dive and then added power again. Its much easier to do a minimum altitude loss recovery in a 172 I've flown for 10s or hundreds of hours than it is in an Extra 300L I've been flying for 0.7 hours.

Then the spin... I figured it couldn't be as bad as I thought it would be, as what I was afraid of. I was wrong. It was worse. We just did one, he demonstrated it. Power off stall then a kick of the left rudder. Quicker than thought the plane suddenly pointed straight down and the world was spinning fast. The entry into the spin and the spin itself was faster and more violent than I expected. I'll be honest..  I just screamed. I guess I didn't panic because I didn't do anything crazy, just screamed. If I didn't know the spin was to the left I wouldn't be able to tell you what direction it was in... everything happened so fast. He stopped the spin in one turn and leveled off. The whole thing probably took less than 5 seconds. I couldn't bring myself to try one right then.

We went ahead and kept flying and did ballistic aileron rolls. Well, actually he did them. I was along for the ride as he demonstrated but I really liked those. Did one left and right and then a "two point" and a "four point" rolls. Those were really cool. Being upside down and sideways in the rolls didn't bother me at all, and it was really fun.  I want to do those myself and will. I imagined what it must look like to watch this silver plane dive and then point straight at the sun and roll over and over on the way back to level. The way the plane could be pointed directly at the sun and keep on flying was just amazing to me. It was like riding a rocket ship!
That was pretty much the end of the flight, the only thing left for us to do from this lesson was more spins and I didn't want to tackle that right away. Turns out it was good time to go back, by the time we were crossing midfield to land I was feeling sick again and was feeling sicker and sicker until I got out of the plane. 
While I expected to complete the full curriculum over the weekend, I didn't. However, I'm signed up as a student there now I can return at any time to continue the spins and the rest of the course. I will too. This is a fear I want to conquer but it will take one little step at a time. Even though I didn't finish everything I intended, I did learn a lot and, on my next flight, definitely felt more confident in the plane I was flying. Just another step on my journey of flying.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Brain Sparkles

I'm studying for the FAA Commercial Written test on my own in hopes I will have that test done before the end of September. No important date in September, I just think that the end of September would be a good time. In any case, I am going through my first pass of the Gleim Commercial test prep book. I am using this first pass to identify which areas I am already strong on and which areas I need to study.

What I'm finding is, I know the knowledge items related to activities I've done recently or often or have integrated into my regular flying. For instance, I did extremely well on flight operations, aeronautical decision making, aircraft performance, density altitude, weight and balance, navigation, charts, en route, climb and descent time, distance, heading, fuel required calculations and aviation weather. I did good-enough-to-pass on aircraft systems and instruments, ATC and airspace. I need to study advanced aerodynamics concepts and brush up on the old aviation weather services.

This makes sense. I've had to use all of the skills and knowledge I have regarding what I would call flight planning often in the last 3 months with my long cross countries and flying various planes at various weights (heavy and light) in various conditions (low and high density altitude for instance). I've had to actually think about climb rates and time and fuel burn during climb vs during cruise, etc. I exercise ADM on every flight. So the skills/knowledge I've used in real life are the ones that I am strong at. 

Aerodynamics concepts, not so much. Not that I don't have a good grasp of aerodynamics, I do. However, I don't have the correct terminology engrained in my brain any more. I haven't had to use it (the terminology) since I studied for my Private written and oral. The nice thing about going back and re-studying these same concepts now after literally hundreds of hours more flight experience, is the concepts have much greater meaning to me now. When I study different aspects of aerodynamics now, I can mentally visualize and feel what I'm reading about in a way I couldn't do two years ago. I have the experience that goes with the concepts today. As I learn and experience, my understanding evolves. Its like peeling an onion and finding more and more different layers of complexity and simplicity at the same time. It is one of the things I love most about flying, the constant learning and how no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn.

My daughter said once, "Did you know? When you think, your brain sparkles."

I can feel my brain sparkling right now and it is pretty fun :)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Flying with an Open Door

Since I started flying I've been listening to LiveATC. This site streams live audio from various airports (tower, ground and clearance delivery) and en-route air traffic control facilities like TRACONs. It is a great learning tool to help a new pilot get used to the terminology and cadence of aviation communications. Particularly interesting, sad or funny audio clips are often captured by listeners and posted to the site for later review.

The Hazards of an Open Door

One recording in particular stays in my memory. It is a recording of a pilot taking off from Montgomery Field in San Diego, CA for a flight. He was flying an experimental and all was normal until shortly after take off. Suddenly he reports to the tower in a panicked voice that his canopy was open and he needed to land. The tower cleared him for an immediate landing on whatever runway he wanted. We never hear from him again. The recording goes on with other pilots that were on the approach to that airport offering to try to find the plane and the resulting search. In the end the pilot crashed the plane and died.

I don't know what type of plane the pilot was flying and I don't know if, in that type of plane, a canopy opening is really an emergency situation or something that one can continue to fly on. The thing I do know is, for the planes I fly. An open door is not an emergency situation, the passengers will not fall out and the plane will not fall out of the sky. I resolved a long time ago, probably when I heard that recording, that I would not be a pilot who panics with an open door and dies.

My Open Door

Yesterday I got to test that resolve. My daughter and I were flying back from Columbia, CA to Reid-Hillview in the Arrow. We had just had a fun afternoon eating a fantastic meal at El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, wandering around the little mining town state park and getting some ice cream at a the ice cream parlor with our friend Randy. The density altitude was over 4500 feet when we took off. My recent high altitude and high DA flying definitely came in handy.

Right after take off we heard a loud POP noise. My first thought was I had left the baggage door open, but I hadn't. Katie's door appeared closed, the top was still latched, the plane seemed fine. So I kept climbing out. Then Katie said the bottom of her door was open. I looked near the back of the door and could see from my position about a 1/4 inch of blue sky starting about 1/4 of the way down the door frame all the way to the bottom of the door.

We had two options, return to the airport we just left and close the door or continue the flight. The door seemed secure on the top latch. The plane was flying fine. I knew this was not an emergency. I asked Katie if she was comfortable flying home with the door the way it was. She was, of course. I double checked she had her seat belt on good and tight and kept on course for home. I flew as smooth as possible and enjoyed the extra cool air circulating in the cockpit. Katie fell asleep.

The flight was totally normal until we arrived at RHV. I don't know why but the tower asked me if I would do a short approach. "Unable short approach." I told them. My response was instinctive and immediate. They readjusted whatever their plan was and cleared me for a normal approach and landing. I declined because I didn't want to do any sharp maneuvers with the door open as it was. Especially with my daughter being on the "low side" of the plane for a right pattern short approach which was what they wanted me to do. I knew the way I was flying so far, normal and smooth with no large banks, was working well and I didn't want to find out the hard way if a short approach and the more sudden and steep maneuvering required was a bad idea with an open door. I'll have to ask my CFI about that.

In the End, Just Another Flight

We came in for a normal landing with me putting the plane down on the numbers nicely. Even my daughter said the landing was good. She's become a critic now that she's a landing expert with 4 landings under her belt! Since she asked I let her steer the plane on the taxi back to parking. She even did some flying on the way to Columbia. All in all it was a great day with an uneventful flight with my daughter enjoying flying more now that she's had an opportunity to fly herself. Who could ask for more?