Friday, September 25, 2015

Taking chances, fulfilling dreams

A long time ago, I had some idealistic vision of what it would mean to be a pilot. I'd fly to gigs with my band, to client meetings for work, to visit friends who were far enough away to make driving a hassle. It was just about 10 years and 500 flight hours ago when I started taking lessons, and as I look back at the last few weeks, I feel closer to really living those dreams than I ever have before.

On the surface, it's not even that mind blowing: I flew to KSMO for a work meeting about 4 weeks ago, and I flew down to Carlsbad to visit family about 10 days later. As a part owner of a Turbo Centurion, these are the kind of trips I should be making frequently, and yet, the last trip was only my fifth trip to Southern California, with two of those prior to my purchase of my share of N6824R. 

I think what feels different about these trips is that I didn't feel like I was totally in my comfort zone. For the work trip, I was flying to somewhere I needed to be. I haven't done much of that, and it does change the equation. Granted, there was a lot of safety built into the plan - I had a Southwest ticket as a backup plan, and the flight to LA was the day before the meeting because the meeting was early in the morning. Worst case scenario on a late scratch, I could just drive till about 1:00 AM and still make it. Thankfully, it didn't come to that, and I nailed my estimate of when I'd arrive at KSMO.

On this trip, it's the longest trip by far that we've taken with the kid. We had a brilliant plan to time it so he'd fall asleep in the plane, but instead he fell asleep in the car on the way to the airport. Luckily we timed it better on the way home, and it worked beautifully - he slept for the first hour of the 2.3 hour flight! The problem is that when he's not sleeping, he's generally trying to remove his ear protection, which is not ideal.

I'd really love to be IFR current for my next trips. That would add a level of confidence and flexibility that would go a long way in planning.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hot starts and hurried descents

Let's take a moment to review 2014, since I didn't post at all last year. I did fly some; generally a few shorter trips into the foothills, probably a couple of bay tours, a flight review, some maintenance flights, and some practice approaches.

My second to last flight was in October.  I went to Marina (KOAR), and was tons of fun. I flew down and landed, and went to refuel, but my engine died before I got to the fuel island. I couldn't get it started again, so there I sat on the thankfully-quiet taxiway.  I got out and got my towbar, and pulled the plane up to the fuel pump. A guy who had just refueled his Van's RV-7 (I think) asked if I needed help - by that time I'd already gotten the plane there, but he and I got to talking; he let me sit in his RV, which was awesome, and eventually, he helped me push my Centurion into a tie-down.  Then he and his (wife? girlfriend? I don't remember...) significant other drove me to the beach (in their Fiat 500E!), stopping for ice cream, hung out with me on the beach for a little bit, and drive me back to the airport!  Nicest people ever!  I eventually got the plane started (with difficulty) and flew home.  I don't have their contact information, and I've forgotten their names because my relatively-new-dad brain is a sieve.  If you're reading this, please get in touch with me!

My last flight was on January 3, 2015, and was incredibly frustrating. I flew to KCPU, Calaveras County airport, and read my flight plan wrong so didn't descend or slow down nearly in time.  So I dilly-dallied around the foothills for several minutes trying to bleed off some speed, before getting into the pattern and landing.  As I taxied back, I saw the fuel pumps and decided to go for it.  I filled up, and....couldn't get the plane started, again.  Now this time, the plane's battery was low as well, so while the initial trouble was probably that I flooded the engine, after a time, the battery was too low to start the plane anyway.  So I had to wander around and get help, which is always fun - luckily, more nice people here!  Not only did the guy I met give me a jump start, he also gave me a second jump start when my engine died because I'd left the fuel pump on (the jump start is done with the master switch off, so when I flipped the master on, the fuel pump came on and re-flooded the engine).

Since then, I've read a lot about Continental start procedures, and I think I know what to do next time:  1) Throttle open, mixture full lean, high fuel pump for 30s.  2) Throttle most of the way closed, mixture full rich, fuel pump OFF, crank the engine.

Today, however, I chose not to stop the engine.  I flew from SJC to LVK, and after bouncing through some turbulence, arrived way too fast and too high (sound familiar?).  After I broke off my pattern to go descend and lose some speed, I did a nice gusty crosswind landing.  I taxied back and took off toward SQL, and as I approached Coyote Hills (fast!), the tower frequency was nonstop. I found a gap and said quickly, "Centurion 6824R, Coyote Hills, 1500', landing, negative ATIS." I wasn't receiving ATIS for some reason; "negative ATIS" wasn't a great thing to say to a busy controller, but my options were limited. I got to the sunken ship, and still hadn't heard back, so given the madness of the airspaces around there (HWD and SQL below, OAK and SFO above), I got down to 1200' and started making a hard circle. But thankfully the controller acknowledged me and routed me inbound. I landed decently and taxied back.

The flight back to SJC was great. Right downwind off runway 30, handoff to PAO, handoff to NUQ, handoff to SJC, left traffic for 30L, and actually squeaked the wheels on landing.

As I look at the sequence of flights, going back to the one in January, I was clearly underestimating how fast the plane is, arriving at airports too high, too fast, not in front of the airplane enough.  Today, my arrival at LVK was crappy, but then at SQL was better (though still too fast initially) and at SJC was good.  Just another "rust" phenomenon to work through.  In any case, it was great to fly again!

Monday, December 23, 2013

I only write when I don't fly!

Since my last post, I've flown a good amount.  I did some IFR training, a couple of trips to San Luis Obispo, an intense IFR flight and approach (more below), and even a lesson in a powered hang glider (or, a "trike") in Hawaii!

I now have over 40 hours in the T210, and truth be told, I'm still not feeling altogether comfortable with it. I don't have a good enough handle on aircraft systems or emergency procedures. While the procedures to slow down and not shock-cool the engine are second nature, I still struggle to find the appropriate mixture. And now we have GAMI injectors, I should probably be trying to run lean of peak, but haven't had the brain space to take that on in the air.

Today, I was going to go try to get better at VOR tracking - in my last flight to JAQ and back, I realized how bad my technique had become, and with a little work, got quite a bit better in flight. I think two flights focusing on just that would be a most useful exercise, so I thought I could go do the SNS VOR 13 (it's bright VMC today, and I wouldn't have been foggled), fly a missed with a hold at MARNA, and then track my way over to PXN, and see if I could find KLSN by following a radial.

During preflight checks, I popped open the gear bay doors (which I do sometimes, but not always), and discovered a small amount of fluid collected by the hinge on the door.  Not sure what it was (probably either brake fluid or hydraulic fluid, given the location), but there wasn't that much of it - probably 2 tablespoons total.  Still, I canceled the flight.  If I couldn't figure out what the fluid was, I need to study systems more.  Given my current state of restedness (very good, considering the 8-week-old baby at home, but that's not saying much), could I manage slowing the airplane with only one brake?  How about a gear-up landing?

A couple of months ago, I made a set of decisions that were uncharacteristically bold for me.  My airplane partner and I decided to fly out to Modesto to have the GAMI injectors evaluated. There was a storm coming in, and I wouldn't have even gone, were I solo, but after we talked about it, we decided to go. All the forecasts had the ceilings at about 1600' and we could make it back from Modesto at 1000' if we went the long way around the south end of the hills.

By the time we were coming home, the storm had come in, but I decided that with a 1600' ceiling, I could shoot an approach. So we climbed up to 6000'.  It was challenging just to fly the plane, hold my heading, keep my altitude, but I did it. Then we were given the ILS, which to my memory I flew horribly (looking at the FlightAware track later, it looks much better than it felt).  Almost lost the intercept twice, was low on glideslope twice (my partner had to call it out; thank goodness he was there).  The weather was amended twice on the approach, but frankly I was so busy flying the approach that I have no idea what they said.

I probably should've listened, because we were descending on glideslope through 700, 600, 500 feet and still no runway.  As I glanced over to remind myself of the missed approach procedure (a moment of disbelief flitted through my mind, but I managed to dismiss it as quickly as it appeared), my partner called, "I see it" at 450'.  I shifted my focus, continuing on the descent, and at about 325' I saw it.  DA is 257'.  It was pouring rain, and I made a beautiful landing as I held the airplane off, off, off to not land on the apron.  As we taxied back through the downpour, avoiding the rats that were scurrying about on the taxiway, I felt that what I had just done was dangerous and reckless, and that I'd gotten away with one.

As I look back at the decision chain, I feel I have to cut myself a little bit of a break. I wouldn't have even gone on my own, but I knew I'd have an experienced pilot in the right seat. I certainly wouldn't have tried to come back if there were any indication at all of a 300' ceiling - there simply wasn't, until I was in it.  I'm sure one of those weather reports while on the approach had some indication of it, but by then I was already on the approach - what reason is there (as a non-commercial operator) to not fly the approach to its conclusion?  In my opinion that's actually safer than trying to call an early missed, because it's something standard, that we practice, vs. something off the cuff.

Judgment is a strange thing in aviation.  In recent years I've had to relax my standards just a little bit - otherwise I might never go at all. There seems to always be a reason to not go.  That said, there's a line, and this is why I believe people establish personal minimums.  I need to formalize mine, but today's decision to not go when there was a problem I couldn't fully characterize is a good start.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Deciding NOT To Fly

It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than vice versa.

That's what I've always heard, and it seems like obvious wisdom.  I promised to myself a long time ago that as a private pilot with lots on my mind other than aviation, I would always make the conservative decision as to whether to go flying on a particular day, and to always be able to do an honest assessment of my comfort level with various situations, and make the safe choice.

My plan this weekend was to fly to San Luis Obispo for a friend's graduation, stay over, then fly this morning to Oakland for the A's game, and back home afterwards.  This was one of those classic "why would I do this in a car when I can do it in an airplane?" moments!

As I watched, nay, obsessed over, the weather at SBP through Friday, I saw what I didn't want to see: OVC008 (overcast, with the clouds starting at 800' above the ground, for you non-pilots) until 10am.  It changed a few times over the course of the day, and by Saturday morning, the actual weather was OVC007, set to change to SCT010 (scattered clouds at 1000') at 10am.  We had to get there pretty much AT 10am, and it's not like cloud cover changes instantly, so I'd pretty much have to shoot an approach.

San Luis has an ILS. The IFR routing would be dirt-simple: SNS to PRB and into the ILS approach structure.  This might be the easiest ILS with actual that I would ever fly.  I honestly thought I could have flown it without a problem.

BUT.  My last approaches were just under six months ago, on a simulator. My last approaches in actual IMC (clouds, in an airplane) were in February, 2012!  Sure, I did an IFR flight in February of this year, but it was in clear conditions, I did a poor job staying on airways using only VOR guidance (N6824R has an enroute-certified GPS, but its database is not current), and I got disoriented on the approach because I'd twisted my NAV incorrectly.  Glad it was clear, but it was still scary, and I was by myself!  (it was also LA area, which was stressful)  Also, everything happens faster in a faster airplane - my only IMC experience is in a 172.

So we drove to SBP and back, and we'll be driving to Oakland this morning for the game (there's apparently a marine layer over Oakland today).  And, by the way, the weather in SBP was OVC012 even at noon! But, while I was driving, I took a peek up at the partly-cloudy weather, and remembered how much I love instrument flight.  I'm going to get back into it, the right way, with regular training, in this airplane, and once I'm ready, heading into IMC with an instructor a few times to gain some familiarity and confidence.

Monday, March 18, 2013

There Is An A In Airplane, And In Arizona!

Last weekend I took a little trip to the Phoenix, AZ, area to get a few days away, and to take in some spring training A's baseball. And by "little trip" I mean the farthest away from home I've flown solo, and the farthest without a G1000 (the trip to Orcas Island was much longer, and slower, but the G1000 is very nice for situational awareness).  So in the days preceding the trip, I created a VOR-based flight plan, made sure my charts on my iPad were up to date, and made sure everything was charged up.

I woke up at about 6:00 Sunday morning, and .. could barely stand.  For some reason I was really dizzy.  My plan was to take off around 8:00am so that I could get to the game that started at 1:00, but wow, IM NOT SAFE.  [Aside: IM SAFE is the acronym for evaluating aeromedical factors and fitness of flight from a mental health perspective: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotion are all factors that could lead to a bad day in the air.]   As I contemplated canceling my trip, I drank some water, ate some food, took a shower, and quickly began to feel better.  By about 8:30, I felt totally normal - I tested myself several times, closing my eyes and shaking my head around, to make sure the dizziness was gone, and it was.

So I headed for the airport.  I had preflighted on Saturday, and gotten the fuel filled up, but there was still plenty to do. I still did a basic preflight, hooked up and tested the oxygen, towed the plane out, checked the fuel and oil one more time, went to the bathroom like 15 times (all that water, to hydrate myself, had to go somewhere).  By the time I took off, it was after 10:00am.

I had resolved to try to use the old Cessna 400 Nav-O-Matic autopilot on the way down to Glendale (KGEU). It was supposed to have a mode (two, actually) that could track VORs, and I had read the manual on how (theoretically) to accomplish this.  Unfortunately, every time I tried to follow the procedure, the plane turned sharply to the left.  Good thing I was VFR.  So I ended up just using the heading mode.  And the altitude hold was pretty much useless.

I once again was asked (both there and back) to "say on-course heading."  This time I had anticipated the question and had the answer ready.  I also got asked (both there and back) to say my route of flight, which I thought was interesting.  The hard part about that was translating the VOR names to English to read them (my flight plan just had the 3-letter abbreviations).

Just south of Avenal, ATC asked me: "Do you want to just fly direct to destination?"  I had routed myself around all the military areas and restricted areas, but on a Sunday afternoon, these were mostly inactive.  Sure, I said, and told my iPad (and the expired GPS in the airplane) direct KGEU. Nice!

For the next couple of hours I flew in a straight line at 13,500, getting nothing but the occasional frequency change from ATC.  Eventually I decided it would be a good time to descend, so I told ATC and started down.  Nothing too eventful, except when I was over Luke AFT at 4000, they told me "Flight services terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved."  Huh, no handoff to GEU tower, when I'm right next to his airspace? That's nice.  So I quickly called tower, told them where I was, made right traffic for Rwy 1, and landed OK and taxied to the FBO.  It was 1:20pm, and I got to the game around 2:00 in time for the 5th inning.

On Tuesday, for my return, I had planned to basically take it easy.  I had all day to get back.  But instead, I ended up spending 1 1/2 hours trying to figure out what weight of oil the airplane needed! Sigh.  Things one should know about one's own airplane.  The answer, by the way, is 15W50.  Eventually I filled the oil and got on my way.  This time I didn't have the luxury of flying through the restricted areas, and the controllers down there I think expected me to be a lot more assertive.  They'd give me a restriction, and then forget all about it so I'd query them later ("Center, 6824R - let me know when I can climb to cruise altitude, 14,500"  "6824R.....altitude your discretion (sounding confused)").

The scariest moment was climbing through 13,000, when I was startled by a loud POP!  Gauges looked OK, oil pressure still good, RPMs and MP still up...I'm still climbing...turned out a bag of chips (PopChips, actually) had exploded in my backpack!

I flew the way back with no autopilot, and it was easier than flying with the autopilot.  Maintaining altitude was not an issue. The only glitch was that my iPad's batteries ran very low, but by that time I was on SF sectionals, which I had on paper as well. After a quick stop at South County (E16) for fuel, I was back in San Jose!

Monday, February 11, 2013

KSJC <=> D83 (Boonville)

They say when you get married that what's yours is hers, and what's hers is also hers. Naturally, my wife wanted a ride in her new airplane, since it had been almost three weeks since the purchase and she hadn't been in it yet.  So I asked her where she wanted to go: San Luis Obispo? Santa Barbara? Monterey? Las Vegas?


She wanted to go to Boonville, near Ukiah and in the middle of nowhere.

I kid, I kid.  I mean, she really did want to go to Boonville, but I never offered to go to Las Vegas.  And we'd been to Boonville before, in a 172, and really liked the fact that the airport was about a mile walk from the center of town, which featured some cool restaurants and stores, and the cutest little ice cream shoppe that made their own popsicles.

So I planned a flight to Boonville via the San Francisco class B transition so we could get a good view of the Golden Gate on what was an absolutely beautiful day.  I asked Clearance for a straight out departure and told them we were VFR to Boonville, via SFO Class B.  After runup, I was cleared to take off, so I followed the clearance - Runway Heading at or below 2000, and when requested, I switched to departure frequency.

And then I got the dreaded question: What is your on course heading?

I really need to get better at answering this question.  I just said "Standby" as I tried to figure out the correct heading toward SFO, but frankly, flying the plane was taking priority. The T210 is complex enough that there's a lot to clean up upon entering a low cruise. After a few moments, the controller asked: "Are you familiar with the Dumbarton Bridge?" Affirm. "Roger, N24R, fly to the east of the bridge, at or below 3000'."  So. He got sick of me and didn't want me in SFO airspace.  Fair enough, so I crossed the bay and headed toward Sunol.

As I was handed off to the next controller, he asked me: "Are you on course to your destination?" This time I was somewhat smarter: "Affirm, cancel original request for SFO Bravo transition, I'll follow 680 north."  Efficient, and I let him know, professionally, that I had made an adjustment for their traffic flow.

The rest of the flight to Boonville was smooth. We stayed at 4500' simply because there didn't seem to be a good opportunity to climb. A controller over the East Bay (with an Asian accent of some kind, which was a first for me) told me "altitude your discretion" but I was still under a 6000' shelf, so 4500' it was.

My wife spotted the airport before I did, but in my defense I was busy slowly lowering the power settings so as not to shock cool the engine. I overflew the airport, saw the windsock, quickly turned out to the right, and while protocol would've been left turns to enter a right pattern, there was no one there (and the airport is nestled in between a lot of hills) so I kept it tight and just turned downwind. Everything was happening very quickly, but I got 10 degrees of flaps in, slowed below 140mph, got the gear down, did my prelanding checklist, and by the time I turned final, I was configured and going about 90mph with 20 degrees of flaps.  I put in the rest of the flaps, and .. I was a bit high, but airspeed was fine at 80mph.  Given the relatively short runway, I probably would've been better served to come in slower, but I landed and stopped about halfway down the runway - not bad.

The airport is just a paved runway with a downward slope starting about halfway down, and no taxiways - you have to taxi back on the runway.  I did so, and pulled off into the transient parking area, and pushed the plane back against a fence that separated the airport from a horse ranch.  So tranquil!  Nobody was there - no planes, no people - I guess this is what they mean when they refer to an "unattended airport."  My wife remembered all this from our previous trip, but for some reason I didn't at all.

We walked into town and had lunch, and poked around in the shops and had homemade popsicles.  It was an amazing day up there, weather-wise, and we found we didn't need our sweatshirts at all.  Fun!

On the way back, I'd decided to stop at San Carlos for fuel, because it was more than $1.50/gal cheaper than at San Jose, and not as far out of the way as Livermore (which is cheaper still).  Plus, by requesting San Carlos as a destination, we would have to fly over the Golden Gate.  I climbed to 5500 and stayed there, for an alarmingly long time. As I approached Sausalito, I had already been pulling back power, anticipating a descent. At that point, Approach asked me: "Do you want to descend?" I'm thinking..uh, yeah, usually don't you guys tell me to descend? I answered, "Affirm, VFR descent." They told me: "Maintain at or above 2500, do not enter class Bravo, notify if unable."  Well...I was at 5500, class B was at 3000 and above and right in front of me, so I ended up making a couple of sharp turns, to the left and right, descending rapidly.  Again, luckily I had cooled the engine prior to all this.

We were cleared into San Francisco airspace, and headed for 101.  As we talked to SFO tower, they requested we "hold at Candlestick."  OK, that should be I flew over Candlestick and made left turns (even though right turns are standard, I didn't want to turn toward the SFO airport). I was at 1200 feet, and we were circling over San Francisco and Candlestick point.  It was awesome! Eventually we were cleared to progress, and we made our way in to San Carlos, parked and got fuel.

On takeoff from San Carlos, we did a "Bay Meadows Departure" - it had been a while, so I had to confirm what that was, but it was pretty simple; fly straight until abeam Bay Meadows (which is gone, but I knew where it used to be), then left turns to fly to the west of 101.  All went well until HOLY CRAP WHAT IS HAPPENING all we could hear was a loud, high-pitched squeal in the headsets! Finally I hit the "AUTO" button on the audio controller and it turned off.  It took me a good 20 seconds or so to realize, wait, I can't hear anything the controller is saying now.  So I turned down my wife's audio controls, and turned AUTO back on.  About 30 seconds after that, I got, "N24R, are you still on frequency?" "Affirm, 24R" as if to say, "of course, why do you ask?" It was busy, no time or need to explain.

We passed through Palo Alto and Moffett airspaces and as we were handed off to San Jose tower, the squeal happened again - my wife had turned up her controls again, so I turned them down again (sorry, dear, you can't hear what's going on) and the squeal went away.  I flew a clean pattern and landed nicely.

Apart from the audio troubles, this was a smooth, fun flight! And I think the audio problems were just because for some reason we had to turn up my wife's audio controls to the maximum, and I'm guessing that we were also accidentally turning up the rear passenger's controls (with nothing connected) which might have created feedback.  I'll have to experiment with that next time I fly.

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Last Friday, I flew N6824R down to Hawthorne, next to LAX, for the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival. I decided on Hawthorne as it seemed easier to get to USC from there than from Santa Monica.

Despite the beautiful, sunny weather, I decided to file an IFR flight plan and fly it down, so that I wouldn't have to cope with the LAX airspace VFR, which has always seemed daunting.  But 24R has no certified GPS, so for the first time, I ended up flying IFR enroute using only VOR navigation. And I realized just how inaccurate VORs are - I was on course, as best as I could tell, less than one dot deflected, but when you're almost 40 miles away from a VOR, that's way off course!

I get the impression that with the prevalence of GPS, there's a higher expectation for being on course to a fix, even though ATC knew I was /A (without GPS).  Once I fired up my iPad, I saw what they were talking about, and proceeded to use the iPad and ForeFlight very heavily for situational awareness.

On the way in, I made one very critical error - for some reason, I inverted the approach course on the LOC approach into HHR before dialing it in.  In retrospect, this makes no sense. So my turn on course was very confused, and caused a moment of franticness - but I figured it out. Not in time that ATC didn't ask what I was doing and whether I need to be turned outbound for another vector, but in time that I could respond, "negative, moving to intercept the course now." Good thing it wasn't IMC - not that I would've attempted this in IMC at this point.

One win on the way down was that even though I meant to fly at 12,000, below required O2 levels, I had hooked up and preflighted the O2 system and had the cannula hanging at the ready in case I needed it.  I monitored my O2 levels with an oximeter, and all was fine, but they did send me up to 13,000 along the way, so it was great to just pull up the cannula and turn a knob.

The way back on Sunday was gorgeous. I came back VFR and flew the Mini Route over LAX (and I think I did it well).  There was a lot of confusion about the flight following; controllers kept terminating flight services instead of handing me off (though they'd give me the next frequency - "N24R, flight services terminated, squawk VFR, for flight following contact approach on xxx.x. Good day.").  So I cruised along at 8,500, and picked up flight following again once I was out of the busy section.

The approach into SJC was great - I found the Pruneyard, I slowed the plane down gradually, and landed it easily (it's a very easy plane to land).  All in all, this was an awesome first trip!