Friday, November 23, 2007

Practicing Approaches

After several weeks of thinking about it, I finally decided to go out on my own and practice approaches by myself. I wanted to make it a cross country, especially after just missing the minimum cross country distance on my last flight, so in addition to the Stockton and Livermore approaches I wanted to practice, I decided to start with an approach at Modesto and conclude that approach with a touch and go.

So I called up Norcal near Sunol and picked up flight following to Modesto. I got ATIS at Modesto, and configured my radios for the approach. My first thought was to go via the MOD VOR, and then up to WOWAR and do the hold/procedure turn to get back inbound. But then I thought I'd save the time, and about 20 miles out, turned direct WOWAR and began my descent. ATC then began giving me vectors; I carefully stayed above KMOD's Class D and descended below 2400' only after I was clear. ATC then cleared me for the approach, at which point I clarified with him that I'm VFR and this is practice. He apparently knew that; I guess they say "cleared for the approach" even for VFR practice approaches.

Problem #1: I never actually switched my nav source to NAV instead of GPS. So luckily I was VFR, otherwise the approach would've been illegal. At WOWAR, I reported as requested, descended and started my stopwatch. About halfway to the MAP, for some reason I was showing a full scale deflection on the CDI, which made no sense because I was exactly on course. Oh well, at that point I could see the runway so I went ahead and landed (nice one), powered back up and raised my flaps, and took off again. As had been instructed, I turned to heading 360 and climbed to 2000'. I called back to Norcal, and they gave me heading 290 toward Stockton.

At this point I realized I was still using GPS as a nav source, so I tuned ECA VOR and the inbound course, and changed my nav source to NAV1. At some point I found myself depending more than I wanted to on the moving map display, so I dimmed it to black. I intercepted the inbound course, and had my clearance, so made my way inbound. This approach went totally smoothly, and since I had a better idea of what to expect on the radio, I was much more efficient with my calls. I did just a low pass at MDA and made the left turn that had been requested by Norcal before I switched the radio back to them.

And when I did, I went ahead and requested Livermore ILS 25R. Again, the whole thing went pretty smoothly, except there was one point where I lost my situational awareness and had to undim the moving map display. In fairness I'd gotten some odd vectors, and had been given a "maintain until intercept" clearance (request, really, since I was VFR) while being vectored through my course. Still, I should've been more aware of my situation. The ILS was interesting; I decided to try to keep my airspeed at full for as long as possible. Right around REIGA, the FAF, the tower requested that I slow to "slowest possible" approach speed, so I slowed to 90 knots, and then just to try it I put in 20 degrees of flaps and dropped to 75 knots. However, in all that chaos, I neglected to start my timer at REIGA. Considering all that, I kept on the ILS very well. I got to the DA and again did a low pass, with a left turnout, and flew back to Palo Alto. Upon reaching PAO, I did a short approach just for practice, and nailed it, easily leaving the runway on the first taxiway off.

All in all, it was a good flight to do. I did fall behind a few times, and lost situational awareness at least once. But I think if I do this a couple of times, I'll be way ahead of where I was, in terms of ability and confidence. It was also nice to be fully responsible for ATC communication through the whole flight. I did very well, I thought, nobody got annoyed with me and I was pretty efficient. I am planning to visit a friend in Tracy on Sunday, so I figure I can do something similar to today -- Modesto, Stockton, and then just do an approach to full stop to Tracy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happiness Is Being Committed

Commitment, rooted in belief both in oneself and in some intangible entity such as love or God, is a very odd phenomenon. Commitment to another person requires an undying belief in that person, as well as a deep belief in oneself. Commitment to a hobby, pastime or career path also requires a strong belief in oneself, combined with a guiding belief: If I achieve X, I will get/feel Y. Commitment to a psych ward requires such an extreme belief in oneself that even in the face of logic, sanity and all that is good in the world, that belief is unshaken. But I digress. Thank you all for your comments on last week's post. I'm still flying, I still have questions, but I feel like I have options. That's a great step.

I took my cousin's sons up to Petaluma for lunch today, and it was the kind of magical flight that causes one's perhaps shaky beliefs to be propped up, stabilized, held aloft proudly like Excalibur, allowing one to be the ruler of the fickle kingdom of his emotions for a fleeting moment. Pardon me while I wax poetic -- basically, I had a great time, and found that upon landing, I was in a completely different state of mind than I was when I'd started. What had happened?

I'd done something relatively difficult really well. I'd been able to relay a totally different view of the world to two people I love very much. I also flew very well, and handled the radio much better than I would've expected after a 10-day layoff. We took off from San Carlos in 610SP, a plane that I'd remembered as being very solid but hadn't flown in a long while. Luckily, my memory served correctly. We got our code for SFO's Bravo transition, took off on 12 for a left downwind, and went north. Talking to SFO, I was smooth and professional, and got my clearance. I maintained 1500' pretty much exactly through the transition, then flew out over the city and gave my passengers a nice view of the Golden Gate. We continued up to Petaluma, entered the busy pattern perfectly, and glided to a nice landing on runway 29.

Lunch was good; the weekday staff at the 29er Diner seemed a bit overwhelmed by the pre-Thanksgiving crowd, but the food was good. We took off on a right downwind, and as we neared Sausalito, I'd still been unable to get a word in edgewise to Norcal. Finally there was a gap and I fired my request through. I got my clearance, and followed the freeway back to San Carlos. I crossed overhead at 1200', made right traffic for 30 and landed smoothly. Totally uneventful flight EXCEPT when departing Petaluma I had my comm on the wrong radio. Luckily I discovered this before ending up in a disruptive situation.

And now I'm happy. I flew, I flew well with passengers, I handled my responsibilities with aplomb. I think much of my consternation from before is that I've spent WAY more time than usual lately looking at balance sheets, and if that won't get one committed, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Crisis of Faith

Lately I've been having a crisis of faith regarding my fanatical devotion to aviation. I'm a smart guy -- I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm quite smart, certainly smart enough to be able to justify just about anything. This gets me into a lot of trouble, and frequently, by allowing me to get into situations that end up making me miserable. But I'd gotten into these situations through a series of rationalizations that even now make so much sense that I fear I'd make the same bad decisions again. I've spent a lot of time rationalizing my love of aviation -- straight lines are more efficient paths, you don't burn fuel in traffic, it's worth the money for the same reason that college is, etc, etc.

But really, here's the straight scoop about flying, aviation, piloting, whatever you want to call it: I love doing it, and I'm reasonably good at it. Actually, there are aspects of it that I'm very good at. GPS operations are not among those aspects. But I digress. I love to fly, I love being in the air and I love being the pilot in command. I love the communication with ATC and towers, I love taking passengers up in the air, and I love being able to land on a runway I've never seen before. I love when something unexpected happens and I have the right reaction. I love it when a flight plan comes together. I love nailing an instrument approach and sticking a landing. I love all takeoffs and landings, I love busting through a cloud, I love tooling around when there are no clouds. I love emerging from a plane all sweaty and exhausted, and thinking how much cooler it was than driving. I love showing up at work and telling my friends that just an hour ago I was in Stockton, or Tracy, or Sacramento or Ukiah or Salinas or someplace. And I love the thought that there's SO much more to learn that this will never get old. Bored? Faster plane, mountain checkout, new airport, some new piece of avionics, multi-engine training, tailwheel....the list goes on, long enough to be a challenging pursuit for a lifetime.

So what's the crisis? This is a crisis in two parts, both practical, one much more immediate than the other. The first, most immediate part of this crisis is that flying is really expensive. It's REALLY expensive. I make a very good salary as a software engineer in the bay area, and I really can't afford all this flying I've been doing. My last flight, including instructor costs, cost me over $1000. One thousand dollars!! To go to Ukiah, screw up a missed approach, land briefly in Sacramento, and go home. $1000, over six hours!! If I'd spent six hours in Vegas and lost $1000 in the slots, I'd be really upset! In two weeks, I will be responsible for a mortgage payment, and my savings will have been decimated by a down payment. I absolutely cannot go dropping $1000 on a random Sunday to fly to Ukiah and Sacramento, touch down in one of the two cities, and come home.

I estimate that my 220 hours of airplane time have cost about $30,000, taking into account that much of my initial time was in older 172Ns, which are cheaper than the newer 172SPs. That does not include instructor time, which totals about another $10K. So, I've spent $40,000 on flying over the last two and a half years. That is mind boggling. I spent less on grad school!

Now, say I want to get my commercial license and my CFI rating so that I can start getting paid for some of my hours. How long will THAT take? Won't I need to use a more advanced aircraft for my commercial rating (I don't actually know the answer to this; it's just what I've heard)? This is such a financial sink hole, with no promise of ever returning on the investment, especially because fuel costs are only going up, which will put the aviation industry in a bind, potentially taking away the only monetary motivation, however far-fetched it may have been, for me to continue this route.

And speaking of fuel, that brings me to Crisis Part 2: Flying is TERRIBLE for the environment. Yeah, I know, I've tried to justify this six ways to Sunday, but there is no way around it. If I take a Cessna 172 up to Petaluma, aside from it costing about $250 round trip (see Crisis Part 1), it burns about 15 gallons of fuel. LEADED fuel. The exhaust from this LEADED fuel falls on the happy people below me who are none the wiser but become infinitesimally less healthy as I glide overhead on my joy ride. Say I did the same trip in my car. Well..MY car might be tough to beat; it gets 45 MPG on the highway running biodiesel. Round trip from Palo Alto to Petaluma is about 150 miles, so I could do it on about 3.3 gallons (of veggie oil). Say I drove a Honda Civic that got 30 MPG: That's 5 gallons. How about an SUV, say a Hummer H3 with a V8 and an automatic transmission? Beast still gets 16 MPG, using a little over 9 gallons for this round trip.

So the little Cessna's about a time and a half worse than the most egregiously consumptive SUV I could come up with off the top of my head. We are using up the Earth's decidedly finite oil supply, and here I am doing the equivalent of driving not one but TWO Hummers (or, maybe a Hummer and a Honda) just to go have brunch. This is not good, and there's really no justifying it. Planes are terrible for the environment.

On this front, though, there is a little bit of hope. While a 747 burns about a gallon of fuel every second (yes, you may gag), the world's first all-biodiesel jet flight was recently completed. Also, a small plane recently achieved an efficiency of 48MPG at 170MPH! That's five times more efficient PER PERSON than a 747. More immediately, a whole slew of planes are coming out that go about as fast as a 172, that burn about half the fuel. But until I can rent those from a club or somehow afford to buy and maintain one, that remains a crisis.

So what to do? I don't know. I do know that I have to just finish my Instrument Rating at this point; I'm about five or six flights away from being done with it, and it'd be ludicrous to stop now. After that....I don't know. I'd love to find a more efficient and cost effective way to continue flying and training.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Long IFR XC: Done.

After a cold, ugly, rainy day yesterday that would've been perfect IFR weather, I awoke this morning to the most unwelcome sight of sunshine streaming in my bedroom window. What a terrible time to have a beautiful day! I hate the bay area. Just kidding. I woke up at about 8:00 and had a nice relaxing morning, getting ready to be at the club by 10:00. At 9:45, John called and said, "Are we going flying today?" I said, "Well, the weather looks good..." He said, "Yeah, I was wondering more about the student.." Turns out, we were scheduled at 9:00.

OK, so things didn't get off to a great start, but I finally got to the airport, and we reviewed my plan briefly and talked about how we expected to get routed. We were going to fly to Ukiah for the LOC 15 approach, followed by Sacramento Executive for the ILS 2 and then back to Palo Alto. Ukiah is north, which presents the problem of trying to get around San Francisco -- to John's knowledge, it's quite rare to get routed via the SFO VOR, so in filing, I chose a route that took me via Oakland and then cut back over to Santa Rosa on the way to Mendocino. I also filed for Ukiah to Sacramento, and for Sacramento to Palo Alto.

So we got to the plane, which John had already preflighted ("and did a 50-hour inspection while I waited," John joked), and taxied out. Runup was smooth, and the clearance we got was in fact SFO - V443 (I think; I'm going from memory) - ENI (Mendocino) - Direct. The first part of the flight went well, though we were a bit at odds with the controller in that there seemed to be much more wind than any of us were expecting, and she was confused that our heading of 310 seemed to result in a course of 270. I also had some trouble trying to intercept V443 (or whatever) because I'm less familiar with GPS units than I ought to be.

The rest of the flight up to Ukiah was quite smooth, if a bit slow due to what became a strong headwind. A true airspeed of 128 knots had our ground speed at 93 knots, at only 6000 feet! Good thing I wasn't flying a Piper Cub or something. Anyway, the flight was smooth; I'm sure it was beautiful too except I wouldn't know since I was wearing my foggles. Once I got into the approach, things started going south a bit. I made the mistake of flying outbound on the localizer course for only one minute, instead of the recommended two minutes (and totally screwed up the "reverse sensing" -- when flying outbound on a localizer, the indicator needle shows the inverse indication from what you'd expect), which meant that I wasn't prepared to be inbound by the time I was inbound. Plus, the GPS was being a complete mystery to me, and I needed it to get the required DME distances from the localizer. Basically I fell pretty far behind, and got flustered. All that considered, I flew the approach OK, until I was on the missed approach, and for some reason decided it was more important to contact ATC than to put in my course guidance. Stupid.

So, with John's help I made it onto the missed approach and back toward ENI VOR, and requested (John requested) an IFR clearance to SAC. We got the clearance, and as I tried to find the appropriate radial out of ENI, I stayed at 90 knots (85, actually) because I didn't want to go too far without course guidance. John of course questioned this, but at least I had a reason for it when he asked. He did suggest that I use the autopilot as I was clearly overloaded, and my response was that I thought the autopilot would add more work -- a clear indication that I need to be more familiar with autopilot ops as well.

The flight to Sacramento was not bad, except for a moment where all indications were that we were entering an extreme climb, and yet our altitude was constant -- John figured and later told me that it must have been an extreme downdraft off the nearby mountains, combined with the autopilot trying to hold altitude, so my action of adding power and disengaging the autopilot was pretty much correct. The approach at SAC went very well (John even complimented me on it later), except that in the circle-to-land, I circled-to and nearly landed-on the wrong runway. Not good. Just a lapse in attention, the kind of thing that I can't allow to happen.

So we landed on 30 in Sacramento, and taxied back and awaited our clearance back to PAO. When it came, I had some fun trying to copy it. SAC-R157 MOVDD ECA-R215 CEDES SJC Direct. Radials? That's new for me. But I copied it, found it on the charts, and flew it without incident. I was tired, and Palo Alto was a very welcome sight. By the time we taxied back and shut down, it was 4.2 hours of engine-on time. Definitely my longest single flight ever, and most of it under the hood!

So I'll do a couple of flights with John to get more comfortable with the GPS, then do my phase check with Ali, and then on to the FAA check ride. I need to study!