Saturday, June 10, 2017

Stuck Between Airspace and a Hard Place

I am learning, the longer one flies, the more opportunities are created for failures, and experience, to happen. Today's failure... a stuck switch made what should have been a routine flight into a mentally exhausting trip. Un-forecast constant light to moderate chop made the flight physically exhausting also.

I was flying to McClellan Airport, 82NM from my home field, to pick up my daughter. I checked the weather in the morning and strong surface winds were forecast for the afternoon but no AIRMETS or SIGMETS were active.  I was flying the club's Bonanza and expected about 45 minutes to get to McClellan once I was in the air. 

I got VFR flight following so I wouldn't need to dodge the Delta and Charlie airspace of three of the four airports in the immediate vicinity of McClellan. I wanted a simple flight after a long week. Immediately after take off I got turbulence instead. It wasn't bad... and I was planning on climbing above the scattered cloud layer where I expected the turbulence would be less. 

I was handed off to NorCal Approach and contacted them. As expected I was told to remain below 4,500 feet. With the clouds where they were I leveled off at 3000 feet and continued over Calaveras Reservoir and the hills north east of Reid-Hillview. The turbulence got worse and I was cruising over the hills in light to moderate chop. As the turbulence was not forecast and if I was feeling the roughness in a Bonanza I thought it would be good to report for the other planes that might be flying that day. 

I keyed the PTT and asked Approach if they had time for a PIREP. When I released the PTT I immediately realized that I was still transmitting. Ugh! This was not a frequency I wanted to block. Commercial traffic flying into Oakland used this frequency to sequence. I tried physically pulling the PTT button out but it seemed stuck. I tried resetting the radios turning them both off and on, no change. However, suddenly the transmission stopped. 

I was instructed to change frequencies to the next controller and was able to do my initial call. Then I was told to climb to avoid traffic. I attempted to respond and was unable to transmit. So I initiated an immediate climb and hit IDENT on the transponder to show I heard. I was given another instruction and when I tried to respond the PTT stuck in transmit mode again. This time I told the controller I was having problems with my radios, asked to cancel flight following and change frequencies. There was relief in the controllers voice when he told me to squawk VFR and frequency change approved. 

I switched the radio to 122.75 (an air to air frequency) so the transmissions would go to a rarely used frequency. I tried some of the same things I did previously that seemed to stop the transmissions. Restarting radios, switching frequencies, switching between radios. Nothing seemed to work but eventually the constant transmission stopped on its own. A quick review of IFR lost com procedures wandered through my mind along with the thought that, just that morning, I had told my husband I would be willing to take the Bonanza into IMC. Not any more - at least not for a while. *sigh*

McClellan is in the center of this picture, surrounded by airspace.
At the same time as this was going on I was being kicked around by turbulence and planning a route to get to McClellan (KMCC) without the benefit of radios. MCC is a non-towered airport and I wouldn't need a radio to land there. However, it was under the Class Charlie shelf of Sacramento International and right next to two other Class Delta airports, Sacramento Executive and Mather. The thought hit me... I'm stuck between airspace and a hard place (the ground). I'd have to blog this one!

I knew the thing I needed most right then was time, time to plan my route. So I slowed the bonanza down by dropping the gear ... slow enough that I was flying 172 ground speeds while I made my plan. I dropped down low because I knew the Charlie shelf was down to 1600 feet. Then I found some GPS waypoints for precise navigation between the Charlie and Deltas while I approached McClellan. I still couldn't transmit but I could receive so I got the weather and monitored McClellan's CTAF for other planes as I approached and landed. 

I taxied over to McClellan Jet Center and took an open spot. They weren't there to guide me in because no one heard me coming! My daughter was there and I spent a couple minutes planning my return trip to avoid airspace and hopefully some of the constant turbulence by climbing higher and flying south of RHV and cross into the Santa Clara Valley near Los Banos instead of over Calaveras. I turned on the bluetooth on my headset and called my husband after we started the engine to test it out. It worked, barely. I figured I would call RHV Tower from near San Martin airport and let them know I was coming in NORDO (no radio). 

We took off, still unable to transmit but able to receive. I used my handheld radio to make position reports at MCC but I doubt anyone could hear me. No one responded but it still felt better to try to say where I was. I climbed up to 5500 feet to cruise once out from under the Charlie shelf and hoped for smooth air. It was still constant chop but not as rough as it was before. Fortunately, my daughter is not at all bothered by turbulence. Eventually we encountered scattered clouds at 5500 feet. I chose not to climb further and descended again to 3500 feet. I had the power pulled back to 18 inches but the plane was still cruising at 150 knot ground speed with a powerful tailwind. 

As we neared Stockton Airport I noticed the PTT was transmitting again. I still had MCC's frequency dialed in and I was hoping I wasn't blocking transmissions there. The thought occurred to me to switch the "mic" to intercom instead of COM1 or COM2. When I did that my daughter could finally hear what I said over the radio instead of just by yelling. Score! I thought. I had her look up the ATIS for Stockton airport, dialed it in to COM2 and monitored COM2. I had found a way to monitor radio frequencies and not block them. I modified my plan for RHV. I'd call them on my phone and let them know I could receive but not transmit. That made me feel better. 

As we approached Los Banos and the turn across the hills between the central and Santa Clara valleys the turbulence increased. For the first time in my life I was starting to feel a tickle of nausea from the constant bumping and jolting, it was probably a response to the stress of the radio situation as well. It would not be good for me to throw up. I distracted myself by asking my poor daughter what her favorite song was. I slowed the plane down again and extended the gear as we went over the hills, just to stabilize the plane. We were almost clear of the hills and we decided it wasn't that bad. Gear up and bang - more turbulence. Oh well. I decided the quicker I got out of this the better and left the gear up until it was time to approach to land. 

When we were abeam San Martin and I tried to make my call to the tower with my cell phone. I don't know if it was lack of reception, something wrong with my head set or what but the call failed many times. I found myself getting closer to terrain than I normally do in my distraction and decided to discard that option. Fly the airplane, damnit! 

Then I tried my hand held radio multiple times ... we were within line of sight of RHV and I was hoping it would work. It didn't. I started to resign myself to the lost comm procedure and dialed 7600 into the transponder. I was annoyed. I could hear RHV clearly but the moment I switched to tower frequency we'd block that frequency. Then it hit me. Switch the mic to tower frequency when I want to talk, switch back to intercom to listen! So that's what I did. I switched the mic to tower frequency, made my call and immediately switched back to intercom. They responded with my tail number and I was in! Communications problem solved. I used that method for all other coms needed and it worked flawlessly. 

That wasn't the end of the adventure however. Remember the surface winds I talked about at the beginning? RHV was reporting winds 320@14G22 when we got the ATIS. I had the plane in a stabilized, if bumpy, approach to land when, over the airport fence, we got hit with the strongest gust I'd ever experienced on final. The plane jumped left about 40 feet and suddenly dropped. I had anticipated this and had some extra airspeed ready. I moved the plane back over the runway and rounded out, ready to go around if necessary. After some fighting we were in ground effect and able to land smoothly. On my landing rollout I heard the tower tell another plane winds were 350@20. Yeah, I'd agree with that. 

That flight was one of those "learning experiences" ... I experienced first hand how powerful distractions of troubleshooting problems can be. And I have a new trick in my tool bag to handle com issues in flight :) 

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