Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cost Splitting And Mentorship

Today was a brand new experience for me. I answered an ad on Craigslist where a former and future flying student wanted to ride along with a private pilot to re-familiarize herself with the cockpit environment prior to jumping back into lessons and paying instructor rates. Great idea, really, so I answered the ad, and we had our flight today.

I won't use real names here, again; you never know how people will feel about their stories being on the internet for anyone to read, not that it's all that interesting, but you never know...Jessie brought a friend of hers from Ireland, Sean. It was his birthday, so we thought we could kill several birds with one stone by flying to Petaluma for lunch, having her do some simple turns and aircraft control along the way, and give him a nice view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate on the way.

We met up at the Caltrain station and drove over to the airport, picked up the keys, created a flight plan and headed out to the plane. The preflight went smoothly, and we got in and listened to ATIS. I called up PAO ground and requested a straight out departure -- at which point the controller informed me that no Class Bravo transitions were being granted at the moment.

Interesting. Now what? I told him I'd go the coastal route; he offered to hand me to Norcal to see if maybe they'd give me a high transition (instead of the usual low transition where the handoff is handled by San Carlos Tower). I declined and said we'd just take the coastal route; it sounded easier.

But as we were on our takeoff climbout, we saw some puffy clouds out over Half Moon Bay. It was hard to tell whether there were more clouds out there, so as we turned left and climbed, I figured I'd just give Norcal Approach a call and see whether I could get the transition. They did indeed give it to me, and vectored me up to basically the Sausalito VOR. It worked out well, since the Golden Gate ended up on the right side, where Sean was sitting. We got out over San Pablo Bay, and Jessie took the controls for a little bit and did a few turns. After she was satiated (at least temporarily) I took the controls back and headed for Petaluma.

The pattern at Petaluma was quite busy; there was a plane on every leg of the pattern at any given time. I crossed overhead high, about 2000' above TPA, because I already knew that 29 was the active runway. I kicked out very wide of the right pattern to give myself time to come in perfectly and to give everyone else time to adjust to my entry. I called the 45 entry, and just as I was turning to the downwind, another aircraft called downwind as well but they were on a departure climbout. We saw them late, but they were above us. The rest of the pattern was fine, and on final I ended up in a pretty significant crab for the crosswind. The landing was...not great; I had too little airspeed and leveled off high, so I came down a little hard, but it was OK. I definitely should've realized I needed more airspeed; I had only 20 degrees of flaps because of the wind, I had a third person in the plane, and I had a nice long runway. My landing was actually a very good short field landing! Not that it needed to be..

Lunch at the 29er Diner was really good. I had french toast, and it was excellent! Conversation with my flying companions was very nice; we talked about flying but also other stuff. After about an hour or a little more, we headed back to the plane (which was 739TW, by the way), and headed out. We took off and headed out for San Pablo Bay again. This time Jessie took quite a bit more time, setting up standard rate turns, trying to maintain her altitude while turning. She did well, and for me, it was my first experience with kind of doing a very tiny tiny bit of teaching. And I enjoyed it! It gave me the rough idea that I could actually do it -- I was encouraging, I had ideas for things she could do from the right seat that wouldn't exceed my comfort zone.

We then came back toward SFO. I was expecting another high transition, but he gave me 2000' or below. So I descended, and immediately started hitting some mild turbulence. The ride was basically slightly rough the rest of the way; not a huge deal, and my passengers seemed to enjoy it. We got a nice relatively low pass off the Golden Gate, over the city and in a very cool turn of events they sent us over mid-field at SFO as a 777 took off below us! That was awesome.

Coming into Palo Alto, they gave us the numbers: Wind 270 at 10 gusting 22. 10 gusting 22??? Um..OK. So I made left traffic, set up a very good pattern, and came in again with 20 degrees of flaps. My approach was good, and I leveled with a little extra airspeed. I ballooned a little, gave it a bit of power, re-leveled, and squeaked the landing beautifully. Jamie even applauded.

Everyone seemed to have a great time! I definitely did. I guess flying actually can be a way to meet some new folks and go on some new adventures. There's a little bit of added pressure, since I feel responsible and all that, but even that's kind of nice to cultivate. It's kind of like the first baby step toward being a commercial pilot of some sort. Very cool feeling!

Friday, May 18, 2007

I Am Above Such Petty Games.

This entry really isn't about flying, though I will talk about it. No one reads this crap anyway, right? So I can vent all I want.

My new motto is, "I am above such petty games." Let's face it: Most of humanity is not above such petty games. You all know what I'm talking about. We live in a culture where we glorify the failure of others (exhibit A: almost all of pop culture, such as American Idol and most sitcoms), we have so little going on in our own lives that we get overly involved in the drama of other, sometimes fictitious people (pretty much every reality show, and the current stupidity at my office), we obsess about totally insignificant things and completely ignore problems that are real and huge, like global warming, oil and gas depletion, overcrowding, famine, and poor decisions regarding foreign policy (and this isn't a political statement; everyone across the spectrum pretty much agrees at this point that there has been some poor decision making). Currently there are many aspects of my life in which people feel they have some say over how I conduct my affairs, and in some cases have decided to express their opinion via petty games.

So, as of this moment, I am above such petty games. One way to be above things (and I mean literally, here, I have not lost my humility as a pilot -- believe me, instrument training keeps you humble!) is to have a propeller and wings, preferably attached to a hunk of metal (or plastic) with comfy seats. Today I flew N21705, a Cessna 172SP brand new to the fleet -- in fact I believe I was the very first renter! Actually that is kind of scary. I ended up doing an extra long preflight. It needed fuel, so I had to call for fuel. It had one of those really annoying covers, so I had to deal with that. It had the wrong type of fuel collection jar (the one in the plane would've fit a Piper aircraft just fine) so I had to change that out. My 10 minute preflight routine took 25 minutes, which isn't a big deal if you're flying 2 hours away but kind of is if you're on a lunch break.

She flew nicely to Livermore (except for one really scary cough from the engine just over the Sunol hills), I had lunch and came home through a little bumpiness. Very well behaved on landing, and very stable in the air, plus a nice GPS. Probably a keeper!

I've been continuing my IFR training. On Wednesday I decided with help from my Mom that the objective was not to focus more on the attitude indicator, or not chase needles, or leave the plane alone in level flight, but to just have fun. I'm paying for the training, I'm working as hard as I can at it, so instead of obsessing about it, I should just enjoy the process and let it happen. We flew to Salinas and Watsonville; one cool thing about Salinas is that I executed a "circle to land" procedure pretty much flawlessly. Next lesson is Monday; before then I'll be taking some strangers to Petaluma with me on Sunday. That should be interesting...

Anyway. I'm kind of in a grumpy mood (as if you couldn't tell). Only stuck at work for a couple of hours more, and then I can go home and be not only above, but far away from such petty games.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

ILS Approaches

Today's lesson was both kind of fulfilling and somewhat frustrating. I showed great improvement in some fronts. I had much better situational awareness, and I even flew a holding pattern all by myself. En route, I did a lot better with maintaining my altitudes and headings.

We started with the VOR 29R approach at Stockton. This is the same one we'd been flying the last two times out, and I think I did..OK. I had better awareness, overall, but I still didn't really know exactly what to do ahead of time -- staying ahead of the airplane, they call it. I'm having the same problem with this as I do with cooking: I read the recipe (or brief the approach), but can't remember it and have to keep referring back to it for every single step. Maybe what I need to do is commit to memorizing recipes before cooking. It might be the same skill.

The same goes for missed approach procedures. There's no time to think about the missed approach procedure and have to look it up when you're a couple of hundred feet off the ground, potentially in a high traffic environment, unable to see the ground. I have to memorize the first couple of steps of the missed approach before I get on the approach.

THEN there's the ILS approach. I did terribly on this; I was all over the place and John had to say something every couple of seconds (not his fault, I was just that far behind -- Airspeed. Altitude. Heading. Airspeed. Relax your grip. Glideslope. Watch the attitude indicator. Heading.) It was so frustrating that after flying the missed (at least I knew the first step this time) I channeled my frustration into that perfect holding pattern. John said nothing; I think he sensed my frustration and helpfully let me get myself through it while safely in my excellent holding pattern.

Basically, the deal is this: 1. I'm far too controlling on the yoke. I need to let the aircraft go, let it do its thing, which in general is to fly stably. This is especially true on the approaches, where not only am I too overcontrolling but 2. I need to fly the attitude indicator and not chase needles. I started doing this toward the end, in en route flight, to great effect. Attitude indicator is my friend. 3. I need to memorize my gaits. I'm making too many power adjustments (related to the overcontrolling) to unknown RPMs.

Friday morning, I'll try doing those three things, and that's all. And we'll see how it goes from there.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Nice Refreshing Flight

Sunday seemed like just as nice a day as Saturday seemed like but was not. My friend Kindra wanted to go flying, so I checked the weather; there was definitely some wind but nothing like the gustiness reported for Saturday. Plus, it was the second warm day in a row, so theoretically there would be less turbulence. I was still concerned about taking a passenger up after Saturday's experience; if I'd had a passenger on Saturday I'm pretty sure they would've tossed their cookies -- in fact if I had been a passenger on Saturday, I'm pretty sure I would've lost it.

We didn't have much time, so we just decided to do a real bay tour over San Francisco and the Golden Gate and all that. We got 236SP out of SQL; it wasn't very busy and I got my squawk code for the class B transition almost instantly. 236Sp is a nice plane, very well taken care of and relatively new -- that's the problem with the Cherokees; they're all from the early '80s. So we preflighted, I wavered a little bit on the decision to go because of the wind, then decided we could always turn back if we wanted to.

So we took off, called up SFO tower, got our clearance through their airspace, and after crossing the airport, where I would ordinarily turn and head straight for the bridge, I got vectored directly over downtown SF. I tend to stay away from this area, just because I'm not sure where I can and can't go yet, but I'm learning! It was very cool; we saw the Transamerica building and Coit Tower, and of course the whole marina. We went up toward San Pablo Bay, twisting to get better views of Treasure Island and Alcatraz. I was holding 2000' exactly, in stark contrast to the previous day's sudden deviations of 200' or more. We flew back down, over the Golden Gate, and then took the coastline down to Ano Nuevo. That was new; I had to do some concentrating to not bust SFO's airspace since I was out of it, and there's a small area where it comes down to 1500' but mostly it starts at 2100'.

We turned around and came back over Crystal Springs, and into San Carlos where the controller helped me out by putting me in front of a plane doing pattern work, but of course this also resulted in my having to maneuver a bit more steeply than I would've liked. My landing was my best in a really long time -- winds were 320 at 10, nearly right down the runway and pretty strong, so I went with 20 degrees of flaps. I held it off for a really long time, and touched down very smoothly!

Next instrument lesson is Wednesday; I'm going to try to fly before then, maybe a quick cross country to someplace like Modesto or Salinas or Monterey.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Oh. My. God.

The only thing I can say about today is that it was difficult. It was not fun, I don't even think it was educational, it was just difficult. And annoying -- difficult and annoying. Holy crap.

My plan was to go to Nancy's Diner at Willows (KWLW) Airport. It's a 24 hour diner, and I thought it'd make a great midnight destination, so I wanted to scope it out in daylight hours. Today looked beautiful; no clouds anywhere, and good visibility. It started out a little bit windy, but not a big deal.

I took off straight out from PAO, contacted SQL tower like a pro, got cleared through SFO's class B, and was on my way. During the transition, I hit quite a bit of turbulence passing SFO. Didn't think too much of it, I just figured that once I climbed to my cruise altitude, 6500, everything would be fine. As I got out over the bay, I started my climb and held it at 4500 by the time I got to SGD VOR. It was not any smoother, but it was manageable. At this point I noticed that I was having a lot of trouble with keeping the plane at a constant altitude. I'd set it up, and suddenly the engine sounded like it was racing, the RPMs were 100 higher than before, and I was climbing. So I'd reduce it, re-trim it get it all set up again, and a few minutes later, it would be descending, airspeed decreasing and power down by 50 RPM. I never did figure this out; it could have been an effect of the strong and shifting wind, but I don't know.

I continued climbing to 6500, and it got a little more manageable. I was starting to wonder whether I was still on flight following, because I'd heard nothing at all from the controller in about 40 minutes, but as I passed the Maxwell VOR I got switched to a new frequency. Shortly thereafter I began my descent and made left traffic for runway 34 at Willows. The approach was bumpy, but again, nothing too concerning.

I had lunch at Nancy's, which was really good, and only $7.50 including tip for 2 eggs, excellent hash browns and toast. I'm going back soon!

Then the fun started. I got back into N81034, got all set up, went to start, and...nothing. After a few more attempts I realized that every time I tried to start I lost electrical power entirely. Great. I'm stuck in Willows, and kind of need to be home at some point in the near I called the club. They were pretty much useless; I guess maintenance doesn't work on the weekends? I don't know, but eventually I found someone at the airport who knew how to jump start an airplane. I was so clueless, but luckily the guy knew more than me. "12 or 24 volts?" he asks me, like I'm supposed to know..I probably AM supposed to know, but you any case, the POH had all the answers, and he quickly figured out exactly how to get it done. It's just like jump starting a car, pretty much, and it did work, so after careful examination of the alternator gauge, and making sure it wasn't on 0 (it was close, but not 0), off I went. I was very nervous about whether the alternator was working -- I know I didn't leave the master switch on, even though that's the simplest explanation. I have no other explanation. I started out with the GPS (which I was only using as a comm device; it was pretty old) and the DME off to save electrical power, but as I flew it made its way back so I turned the additional equipment back on.

I took off and headed back south. Everything seemed to be in order as I climbed to 5500 and got flight following from a friendly controller. But then I started really getting knocked around by turbulence. And it just kept getting worse! I climbed to 7500, and it pretty much didn't help at all. I crossed SGD VOR at 7500, getting knocked all over the place, just trying to maintain a wings level attitude, which was actually somewhat challenging at times. When I had the Golden Gate in sight, I started a descent (hesitantly) and got handed off to a new controller. That controller told me to cross the Coliseum at or above 3500. What?? I told her that was inconvenient from my present location north of the Golden Gate. She cleared me through Class B at or below 2000. OK, that's better.

SFO Tower had other ideas, though. Instead of the usual transition at 2000 west of Highway 101, he routed me over Candlestick Park and to mid-span San Mateo bridge, at or below 1500. This was not comfortable -- it's the widest part of the bay, and I was still getting destroyed by turbulence. Losing 100 feet suddenly at 6500 is not a big deal. Losing 100 feet suddenly at 1500 feet IS a big deal, at least to me. About half way to the bridge, SFO Tower must have sensed my consternation, and gave me a new altitude of "at or below 1000." Bloody hell. OK, so now I'm at 1000...UNH! I mean, 850 feet above the water with no hope of any sort of emergency landing should anything go wrong with my engine, which, by the way, was still shifting somewhat erratically by 50-100 knots, not that I had any time to be concerned about that since I kept worrying that I would end up upside-down due to some jolt of turbulence.

Finally I was talking to PAO tower, and got the numbers at Palo Alto: Wind 310 at 20 knots. 20 knots, but right down the runway, thank goodness. My landing was bad, but safe -- level too high, balloon, add power, releveling, balloon again, add a little power, level too high, land flat. But safely. I taxied to my parking row and crawled out of the plane, and sat on all fours on the wing for a minute, breathing deeply, really glad to be on the ground.

And now I'm totally exhausted. I did a few things well; I did a good job maintaining my altitude for the most part, given the circumstances, and I did a very good job tracking VORs and courses. Fuel management was good. I did not keep track of the time elapsed on my trip; that wasn't so good. I did deal with an unexpected situation reasonably well, swallowing my pride and asking questions. My radio work was excellent, with the possible exception of the controller who told me to fly to the Coliseum. And I got 3.1 hours of cross country time. And a good breakfast. All in all, a decent bit of experience. Just no fun.

Update: There were definitely PIREPs of moderate turbulence all around the area, and a few of severe turbulence. Also, a Cessna made an emergency landing on a road in Newark, CA after losing its engine and electrical system, allegedly because of turbulence. I'm not sure how that works; I suppose a bad enough hit could shake something loose, but engine AND electrical? That's some bad luck. Apparently though the pilot showed some incredible airmanship to get the plane down on the street that had high tension electrical wires on either side of it, so I'm sure he'll call it even.

I now know my fears were justified when flying at 900' over the middle of the bay in this stuff.

Real Airplane, Real IMC

I had two lessons last week; I've managed to create enough time in my life (and in my brain) to step up the lessons which really helps me feel like I'm on a path toward a goal. John has been great as an instructor, and as I found out, much more tuned into the touchy feely stuff than Sergey. That's both good and bad; it forces me to deal with it, which is good, but sometimes before I'm ready, which is bad. Anyway, this'll make a lot more sense in a bit..

On Tuesday, we went up for my first actual instrument approaches. I was really nervous. I still don't know why, I think it has to do with feeling like I was being tested. This isn't John's fault, it's purely a creation in my own head -- I'd been on a simulator a lot, and I felt like how I responded in an airplane was a test of how well I'd learned and how much I'd studied. We decided to fly to Stockton (KSCK) and do the VOR 29R approach.

Basically, I did far more poorly than I would've imagined. I couldn't even read back the clearance, I couldn't maintain my altitudes, I got completely lost and by the time we were doing the approach I basically had no idea what was going on. Not a good feeling, and John was doing his best to try and help me out but there was really nothing he could do -- I had psyched myself up so much that I couldn't think clearly, and that's a bad thing especially when flying IFR. The flight did accomplish a few things, though -- for one, I was able to see how the system worked, to learn where I would fall behind the most and what would present the greatest challenge.

After the lesson John basically asked me what was going on -- I think he knew that something was wrong, and I felt bad that I couldn't explain it to him because I didn't really understand yet. So, I tried to convince him that it wasn't going to be an ongoing problem, and that everything would be fine. I was also trying to convince myself, which went less well...

So I thought about it for a while, and realized that I was just putting too much pressure on myself to do something that I've only just started training for. By Friday's lesson, I was feeling very calm about the whole thing. Who cares if I mess up? I have an instructor sitting there. If I sound like an idiot to ATC, so what? I hear a lot of people WITH their ratings sounding questionable to ATC. They're used to it, they get paid to do it, they'll roll their eyes, say "stupid rookie" and move on.

Friday was just amazing, in every way. For one thing, there was weather! There were actual clouds, with PAO at a ceiling of 1500'. I was calm, I read back the clearance (almost) correctly, I took a few chances and learned. Takeoff was uneventful, until the ceiling got closer and closer, and I had to fight all my "avoid the clouds" instincts to force myself to keep climbing! I turned right heading 060 as instructed and just before we penetrated the cloud layer, I said to John, "I'm not sure how I'm going to react to this." He said, "Don't look outside." Ah. Brilliant!! So I didn't, and I flew (in my estimation) extremely well. John had taken over the radio work, except for simple heading or altitude instructions. I held my altitudes, I held my headings, I stayed mostly coordinated.

I did, however, lose my situational awareness. Once ATC starts vectoring me to places, I lose track of where I am. I could not picture how to enter the holding pattern at Stockton, which is the entry to the approach. Once John told me, I kind of figured out where we were, but this is clearly something that will need work. That's OK, though, I just need to work at it -- I know I can do it.

I also could not copy our clearance back to PAO when we were in the missed approach holding pattern near SCK. Holding itself is a ton of work! I managed to do that OK, but just to drill myself I tried copying the clearance too, and did not get very far.

On the way back, we used the GPS and the autopilot for some of the flight, which helped ease the workload considerably. I did lose my location again once we got vectors, but not as bad as the other end of the flight, probably in part because I'm so much more familiar with the area.

Anyway, it's been a great week, and I'm looking forward to the next time!