Sunday, January 13, 2008

Contingency Plans

The rain is gone, and with it went the sorrow of instrument training. OK, not entirely true; the rain will be back at some point and the instrument training will one day be less sorrowful.

The bird strike from last week left a few repercussions in its wake. N222MF is still off the line since then as they give it a thorough examination (my apologies to the owner, again), and a few days ago I received an email from my instructor that indicated that I would be liable for any damages incurred, up to the club's deductible.

West Valley Flying Club has a "deductible waiver" program that they introduced last year. It's a good idea, because these deductibles are fairly high -- as I just found out, the deductible in a no-pilot-error scenario such as mine is $3500. The deductible when there is found to be pilot error is $5000. However, I was turned off from the deductible waiver program because of how hard they kept pushing it. When an organization pushes something that hard, I'm always suspicious, so I opted instead to keep my AOPA renter's insurance, which covers me up to $5000 on aircraft damage, and has an additional liability component. The AOPA policy also has the added advantage of being useful on non-WVFC aircraft.

Well, after the recent course of events, I strongly encourage any pilot to have SOME kind of deductible insurance. $3500 is a lot of money, even in aviation, and spending $100-$150 to protect oneself from that is totally worth it.

Today, my pilot-friend Roland and I went up to Napa for breakfast. We got to Palo Alto around 9:00 (actually, I got there at 9; Roland was there I think at 8:30!!), and faced our now-standard dilemma of deciding where to go. We really wanted to go to Petaluma, but it's impossible to get weather reports from anywhere near there, so we decided to try Petaluma but keep Napa as a contingency plan.

We took off straight out from Palo Alto, switched to San Carlos tower, requested a Bravo transition and were denied.

Denied? Turns out San Carlos had had a power failure and had no ability to grant a squawk code for a transition or handle the handoff. Nice. "Climb above our airspace and talk to Norcal," they said. Um...the airspace immediately above yours is Class B, we implored, but we were ignored. Fine. So we made a hard left and weaved a path in between San Carlos' airspace and the Palo Alto Class D we'd just departed. This would've been much less likely to succeed without GPS. We went out west, and gave Norcal Approach a call to request the transition. Once they figured out who we were, where we were and what we wanted (I don't know why it took so long; I told them all that on the first call), we were vectored for a coastal route at 3500' until we got to the Golden Gate Bridge, at which point we were allowed to navigate on our own.

The route to Petaluma was looking unpassable due to a solid cloud layer at about 1500'. So, we turned toward Napa. Norcal turned us back toward Petaluma for traffic, and then handed us off, which gave us a perfect opportunity to get ATIS at Napa, and tell the next controller at Oakland Center that our destination was Napa. As was the case all day, about 30 seconds after we got really impatient waiting for the controller, they gave us what we needed, which in this case was the handoff to Napa Tower. The landing was smooth, and we taxied in and had a nice brunch at Jonesy's Restaurant.

On the way back out, Roland took the left seat, and we took a right downwind departure off Runway 6 at APC. Once we left APC's class D, we tried to raise Norcal -- we agreed that I'd handle the Norcal communications for this, because it's a busy frequency and that way Roland could concentrate on flying. So I called Norcal. No response. Three minutes pass, I try again. No response. And again, several minutes later...same result. Ordinarily I wouldn't care, but we needed a Bravo transition, so I tried once more, and got a terse response that contained our callsign and a squawk code. Perfect, it's all we needed. Clearly the controllers at Oakland Center were busy today because traffic alerts were not a high priority -- evidenced most notably by one pretty close call where I was checking a chart and Roland I think had looked down briefly to check something (power setting or whatever), and he looked up and said, "Look at this guy!" So I looked, and there was another Cessna 172 headed right for us, opposite direction, same altitude, about a half mile off. Roland turned us to the right, and immediately afterwards we got handed off to Norcal Approach.

Norcal Approach was much better (despite seemingly being more busy...), gave us several traffic alerts, and cleared us through Class B. We were handed off to SFO Tower, and as they prepared to hand us off to San Carlos Tower, they said, "Descend to pattern altitude at your discretion." What? Whose pattern? You want me to fly from SFO to PAO at 1000'? Uh..OK....but of course our response was just "9TW, descending, own discretion." So we came down to 1200' which was the usual thing and switched to SQL Tower in time to hear him chew someone out pretty good for apparently not being able to follow an instruction. First it was "Make immediate right turn to avoid crossing into Bravo." Then it was a pretty good (but calm) tirade along the lines of "I'm not sure how I can say it any more clear than 'at or above 1200.' You need to follow these instructions." Nice; I thought the controller handled it very well, though the pilot merely acknowledged the transmission with his callsign, which left us looking for him so we could avoid him.

At the appropriate time we gave Palo Alto Tower a call, and .... nothing. I felt like a doctor with a dying heart patient and a defibrillator: AGAIN!! We called; nothing. Roland turned right to attempt to skirt around PAO's airspace until we were acknowledged. A few seconds later, we got a traffic alert: "9TW, traffic 9 o' clock 1700." OK..that counts as acknowledgement, right? So, onward. Still no landing clearance, no pattern instructions, instructions for other planes to look out for the "Cessna over 101 at 1200" meaning us. Finally one more call: "Palo Alto Tower, Skyhawk 739TW over Stanford 1200, we'd like to land, we have Golf." The response: "739TW, number one, cleared to land." Uh....OK, left turn for base! Roland maneuvered through the abbreviated pattern and set it down.

A fun flight, I thought, with lots of randomness on the radios to keep life interesting. And a new destination for me!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Yes, I'm STILL working on it...

Tonight's flight was really fun. Ceilings in the area were between 1600' and 3200', which meant that we got to go into, and stay in, some actual IMC for quite a while. There's something about being in actual IMC that is very different from just having the JeppShades on -- for one thing, it's a lot less constricting to be able to look around and not feel like I'm cheating. But it's much more than that.

When flying IFR in VMC, I basically feel like it's me against the world. The instructor is there, but essentially testing me. The controllers know I'm training, and at best I'm more work for them and at worst (if I'm actually sucking) I'm a pain in their collective ass.

When flying IFR in IMC, it's a different story -- it's all of us against the weather. The instructor is picking up what I drop, because it's more important for us to be safe than for me to learn a lesson right then. The controllers are friendly and accommodating, even though they still know it's a lesson. In that weather, we HAVE to be flying IFR; we're not doing it to annoy them, so they're on our side.

I know, these views probably have very little bearing on reality, but I'm not trying to describe fact; rather, I'm trying to describe why it's so much easier, emotionally and mentally, to fly in IMC than in VMC with the shades on. It's a very interesting effect, I think.

We left PAO while it was still light out -- the first thing we realized while sitting in the runup was that the plane's timer was dead. Luckily there is a secondary timer built into the NAV2 radio that worked fine, and kept us legal. After takeoff, we headed for SCK, being vectored almost immediately for SUNOL intersection (usually we get sent south for quite a ways toward SJC, since the pass in the hills near SUNOL is busy with VFR traffic). The autopilot was basically a complete scam -- I probably wasn't helping it by overpressing the right rudder, but it did not seem to be anywhere close to holding its heading, and when ATC asked me to turn 10 degrees to the right, the AP made no turn at all as I changed the heading bug. So I hand flew the ascent until reaching cruise, and then let the AP do the easy part.

I flew the SCK VOR 29R approach quite well; we went once around the holding pattern (in lieu of procedure turn), and then were cleared and crossed the VOR inbound. I had a moment of panic -- since the autopilot was again misbehaving here, I'd forgotten to start the timer at the VOR (which was the FAF), and also forgotten to press the "OBS" button on the GPS...thus, my two methods of identifying the missed approach point were not working. Upon realizing this about 30 seconds after passing the VOR inbound, I pressed the OBS button and the GPS did the right thing and gave me time and distance to the MAP. Shoulda started that timer...

The approach took me right over the runway, and I executed the missed approach and entered the hold at ORANG probably better than I ever have before. Holding at ORANG, we decided first to go to LVK. I asked for and received clearance, but then John thought about it and realized that we'd either end up having to do a lengthy missed approach back to Tracy afterwards (if they'd even clear us to do a low approach at LVK which was doubtful), or we'd have to do a full-stop landing and wait for a long time to be cleared back to PAO. And I'd had too much tea earlier in the I was not so much interested in the sitting and waiting! So we instead asked for IFR to PAO for the GPS 31 approach.

The way back to PAO was pretty uneventful; lots of hand flying, lots of twiddling with the autopilot when trying to use it, and eventually as we got into the approach structure I hand flew much of it because the autopilot was just so slow to respond to turns. The ceiling at PAO was about 1600' which gave us plenty of time to align with the runway and get ourselves down. My landing was a greaser!

As we walked back to the club, I ran into my old CFI for my PPL, Sergey. "Still haven't got your Instrument? What you been doing?!?" he chided. I know, I has been a really, really long time. I may have chosen the wrong year to do this -- it's not easy to do it without a lot of focus, with a lot of distractions and without consistent practice. I've been very inconsistent; I've had a lot of life changes, I've moved twice, my sister got married (twice!..same guy...long story...), I it's not been a terribly efficient training process. And, that is OK. This is not a footrace, this is training for a lifelong pursuit.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Bloody Flight

I was a little nervous about going on my lesson today, since I gave blood for my company's experiments in the morning -- that's right, my employer not only takes my sweat and my tears, but also my blood. But by some miracle of scheduling, I had an instrument lesson scheduled on the very day that the weather let up for a moment, by which I mean it was not raining cats and dogs, and the sun was evident if not abundant, so I had to go for it! I was actually feeling fine by the afternoon, just a bit tired, which may or may not have had anything to do with the bloodletting.

As we prepped for the flight, John asked me how I felt. We sometimes joke around; one of us will say "Let's go flying" and the other will say something like "Sounds dangerous." This time, I told him I was scared of flying with anything else in the air with me, including other planes, birds and clouds.

So John completely disregarded my deep-seated fears, and we went up in 222MF with the intent of flying the Stockton VOR 29R, Tracy GPS-A and Livermore ILS 25R -- standard trifecta of practice approaches, which I should theoretically be able to do in my sleep, but somehow still can't.

Stockton first. The flight over was fine; I found myself WAY ahead of the airplane, totally in control of everything....until, during the holding pattern in-lieu-of procedure turn, the GPS (which I was using only for situational awareness at that point, of course) sequenced me funny -- it claimed I was between the VOR and the MAP, when I hadn't returned to the VOR yet. I was later informed that it was because I'd twisted the inbound course after switching the nav source to NAV1, so the GPS didn't pick it up. Anyway, no matter, I don't need no stinkin' GPS for a VOR approach, so onward. I had a large deflection on the CDI, but since I was right over the VOR I didn't worry about it much. Actually I didn't worry about it enough. Alright. So it was a shaky approach, the missed went OK, and I held for three turns before being set up for Tracy.

We were sent direct ECA to begin the approach at Tracy, this time with John essentially prompting my brain. I guess this is what happens after some time off. What's next? What are you going to do when you get there? It's not hard, but the prompting did help. First fix, down to 2000. Next fix, 1600. Alright, here comes the....


What the hell was that?? We'd clearly hit something; I'd felt the plane jerk to the left. I pulled my JeppShades off, and saw John checking systems -- everything looked OK; we were still flying, which was a good sign. John told Norcal we'd be landing in Tracy, and took the controls. As we overflew Tracy and realized how dark and unpopulated it was, John suggested that we just go back to Palo Alto, since we seemed to be flying fine, and if we had a problem, we may only get one landing. So I took the controls back, and John grabbed his flashlight and started shining it out my window. The wing strut was covered with blood: We'd hit a bird, and not a small one. John said he'd seen something large and white off to the left as it happened, so it all computed.

So we made our way into Palo Alto, not bothering to tell them about our issues. John was slightly concerned that whatever it was had hit the nose gear, so after we entered right base for 31 at PAO, we made a nice soft field landing (meaning, I did, with John's help). We dropped the nose, and it landed normally. Everything was fine, which was a big relief.

We taxied back and pulled into the parking taxiway, and killed the engine. I jumped out and saw the strut and the leading edge with blood and feathers all over the place. Then, just next to the front intake behind the prop on the cowling, was a large clump of blood and feathers. Ugh. As I was taking this in, John said, "Oh god." He'd gotten out, and he said, "It's still there." I went over to his side, and at the bottom of the strut was most of the bird, stuck to the plane. Ugh.

Too much blood on my hands (only figuratively, thankfully) for one day. I'm very happy that we landed safely and got home OK, but it's pretty much impossible to feel good about a flight like that. Not that I flew particularly well anyway. John should've listened to me! But he points out, I had a clearance; the bird did not....

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

December Flights

One of the things that I've found a little bit disappointing about aviation is how solitary an activity it has been for me. I've taken cross country voyages by myself, I've gone and practiced by myself, and I haven't really met other pilots except for my instructors, who are great and I consider each of them to be a friend, but there have only been three. So in reflecting on the four flights I took in December, I'm psyched to discover that each one had a really nice social component to it.

Earlier in the month, I took my friend Barbara and her cousin Alice, who was visiting from Boston, on a Bay Tour. We got possibly the nicest day ever for it -- not a shred of turbulence, great visibility, not a huge amount of traffic, and a nice plane (610SP at San Carlos). As we went north through SFO's Class B, they routed us directly over midfield of SFO International, as a couple of the big guys took off in sequence on parallel runways beneath us. It was a beautiful sight, so much so that my passengers later told me that that was their favorite part of the trip! I guess it doesn't take a pilot to appreciate that view.

We continued north, checked out Alcatraz and the Golden Gate, and went all the way up the coast to Point Reyes. Turning back toward the Bay, we came over the mountains, back down over the Bay, over the Golden Gate again and down the coast toward Half Moon Bay, before cutting back in toward SQL. My landing was a greaser!

On the way out, we fell into conversation with a couple of guys from the club. One of them, Roland, was complaining about the lack of social interaction with other pilots, so we traded numbers, and a couple of weeks later (on Christmas Eve), after canceling one flight due to borderline weather, we took N35583 on a trip down to Watsonville (WVI), where I had never been. I really enjoyed flying with Roland -- he's got the same level of conservative decision making that I do, which was really nice, and I think possibly the most important thing about flying with another pilot. I took the outbound leg; we had to do some creative navigation to avoid clouds, but we ended up on the coast and made our way in. WVI's runways are huge! And as a result, I did the standard thing and flared high, but recovered for a decent landing. Zuniga's, the Mexican restaurant on the field, was closed, but we walked a bit and found the Happy Garden Chinese restaurant, which was actually quite good. Roland took the inbound leg, and we hit a fair bit of pretty heavy turbulence, which shook us up pretty good, but no permanent damage!

On New Year's Eve, I took N35583 again to Tracy to visit my friends Ian and Jessica and their awesome family. I've known Ian since High School, and the fact that he lives in Tracy gave me a nice excuse to hop in an airplane, practice an approach and turn it into a social visit. I flew the GPS-A into Tracy...kind of; I never actually contacted Norcal, so I didn't go all the way to Manteca VOR (the IAF), which lies inside Stockton's class D airspace (I could've scooted above it, but why be in the way?). Instead I got outside MANCO intersection (the first fix after the IAF) and pretended I got a vector. There was traffic in the pattern at Tracy, so I never descended below 2000 before entering a normal pattern for left traffic runway 30.

The way home was a bit more adventurous. When we arrived at Tracy Municipal, at around 6pm, all the entrance gates were closed and locked. Perfect. This had happened once before, but one of the gates had a gap big enough to sneak through. Not this time. So I ended up having to scale the fence, the whole time expecting air-raid sirens to go off and officers with machine guns to apprehend me, take one look at me and ship me off to Gitmo. Thankfully, none of that happened, but my friend kept his headlights on me as I walked toward the tarmac. I was thinking, "shut those off!!" but it was actually probably a good thing, to make it highly obvious to anyone watching/apprehending me that I was not trying to commit a crime (because how stupid would that be?).

The adventure didn't end there; I had a hard time finding runway 26 (which the winds were heavily favoring) because the lights weren't working. Perfect. They flashed on occasionally, but would not stay on for more than a 1/2 second. It was enough for me to ascertain that I was on a runway, which was enough for me to take off, but it wasn't the most comfortable experience, and in the stress of that I forgot to switch my transponder to ALT. I realized just after liftoff, so no biggie, but I made a note to myself: You're getting sloppy. I resolved to pay extra attention for the duration of the flight, and thanks to that, the rest of the flight was uneventful and I greased a nice nighttime landing at SQL.

The next day, New Year's Day, I asked Roland to be my safety pilot as I did a few practice approaches. We went up in N35583 again (nice plane!), and started by going out to Stockton for the VOR 29R approach. I put the hood on as soon as we entered level flight at 5500 -- my first time under the hood with no instructor present. But things went pretty well; I had a little trouble visualizing the holding pattern in lieu of procedure turn, but got it eventually and in plenty of time. On the inbound leg, things started going south a little; basically upon crossing the FAF I forgot to descend, for some reason (something distracted me). But at the MAP (more or less) I called the missed and flew it reasonably well, and entered the hold at ORANG. Roland informed me that I wasn't really near the runway at all, which didn't surprise me much -- I veered pretty heavily when trying to make a steep descent. Lesson: if something goes awry, just execute the missed, don't get clever. I went once around the hold to set up for the GPS-A at Tracy, which we did next.

This one was smoother, and again we only descended to 1600 before flying the missed. My hold at TRACY was a little weaker, and I was behind the airplane really for the first time. But I caught up, with the help of the autopilot, and set up for Livermore ILS 25R. Turns out the winds at LVK were favoring runways 7L/R, which I've never landed on, and I'd not done the ILS 25R circle to land either. Also, I knew that the minimums for LVK were NOTAMed to be higher than on my plates, but I didn't have the higher minimums due to a series of unfortunate events. I flew the ILS as an autopilot coupled approach down to 1400, and at 1100 at the instruction of the tower, began my circle to the south. At that point, I broke off the approach and went visual, and we headed back to SQL. Let me just say, it was really nice to be in a plane with TCAS -- there was a lot of traffic, including one that was same altitude/opposite direction that we didn't see for a while due to the hazy conditions.

It was an incredibly instructive flight! It's very different without an instructor sitting next to you, and being unable to see. There is a safety net, obviously, in the safety pilot, but it's in a much different place than when there's a CFII in the right seat, and therefore there is much more responsibility on me. I enjoyed it, and I want to do it again at least once prior to my check ride.