Monday, July 12, 2010

Orcas Island [ Part 3 ]

When we went to Friday Harbor on July 6, I had talked to the airport manager at Orcas Island about the weather, how clear it was, and when we were leaving. Bea told me, "You're going to have a clear trip home!" And from that point onward, I remained stressed out about the weather.

On Saturday the 10th, we were thinking about whether we should just head back toward the bay area and forfeit the last night of rent that we'd already paid for the place we were staying, or if we should do all of our flight back on Sunday. As we were considering this, the place we were staying called us, wondering why our stuff was still there -- apparently we had NOT paid for that final night! Well, that made our decision easy. We went back, packed up our stuff, did a couple of last minute errands, and made for the airport. It was pretty much clear, but looked like parts of Oregon might be cloudy.

I took off VFR, and picked up flight following from Whidbey Approach. We set a target of Roseburg, OR, for the day's trip. There was almost no wind -- what happened to the 30 knot winds? Why do we never get 30 knot tailwinds? Well, at least we weren't going into a headwind, so we flew along uneventfully, just curving a bit around a bank of clouds over the mountains west of Portland. We passed over Kelso and located the airport, which was fun. It took about 3 hours to get to Roseburg, and I thought about going farther, but to do so we'd either have to go to Medford (and by this time we'd developed an affinity for the small airports, rather than the big ones) or Grant's Pass (accommodations not as close by as with Roseburg, and more potential for cloudy weather in the morning), or try to get in somewhere at the coast, but it was already cloudy there and looked like it'd be socked in in the morning (I love satellite weather on the G1000).

So, we stuck with Plan A and went into Roseburg. It looked beautiful from above, with a river to the north and another to the south, and a nice wide/long runway. I made the appropriate calls for left traffic and landed (flaring a bit high), and filled up the fuel tanks while Kay went looking for....anyone at all. I pushed the plane into one of the hundreds of empty tie downs, and saw that a taxi had appeared, so I grabbed our stuff and went over there. But even with the rush, it did not escape my attention that absolutely no one was there at the airport. I guess, 6pm on a Saturday...but still, it was eerie.

The hotel (Windmill Inn) was great, and cheap! So we had dinner and went for what turned into kind of an eerie walk (through a neighborhood full of feral cats, past a series of abandoned baseball diamonds and onto a river trail, also mostly abandoned). Eventually we ended up in a VA hospital area that was an absolutely gorgeous campus setting. Crazy. There was a classic car event in town that weekend, so periodically we'd have some AWESOME car drive past us on the road. We went back to the restaurant's bar, had a drink, and went back to the hotel.

I was afraid that when we woke up the next morning, we'd be socked in, based on the forecasts I'd looked at the night before. Not sure why I worry about this so much; it's not that complicated -- either I can take off IFR, or we wait. No big. Anyway, when I woke up and looked out the window, I actually laughed out loud, because it was CAVU. Not a cloud in the sky. It was actually HOT, and by the time the hotel shuttle took us to the airport (for free) and dropped us off AT our airplane (sweet!), it was 28 degrees C on the tarmac. We took off ahead of someone on a 3-mile final, and made a very wide left downwind departure to avoid a hill that sits on left downwind (nice). Climb performance was predictably horrid, and I needed to get to 9000 if I wanted to get up over the mountains in the Shasta area. Well, the climb was going slowly, and it looked like there were clouds atop the mountains that to me suggested that it might be a turbulent ride. So I turned toward the coast, and weaved my way up to 9000 as I aimed for low points in mountains. We went over Grant's Pass and many other airports along the way, comforting sights in case of engine trouble over mountains.

After getting near the coast and finally getting to 9000, we followed the Eel River for quite a while. We got a great view of Clearlake, and then eventually we started getting into familiar territory -- Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and then suddenly into the bay area. I'd descended to 5000 by the time I requested the bayshore transition to Palo Alto, and they gave it to me at 3500 (there was a pretty good cloud layer over the city of SF). The rest was easy; we landed at Palo Alto, tied down, and we were HOME!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Orcas Island [ Part 2 ]

We awoke on the morning of July 3 to cloudy skies over Kelso, WA, in a quaint hotel that served a free breakfast and had free wi-fi. So Kay went for the breakfast, and I went for the wi-fi, to check the weather. Looked like ceilings were around 5000, and I needed 6000 to go IFR to Orcas, so I filed it.

As our taxi approached the airport, I thought about another first that was about to happen -- getting an IFR clearance from a non-towered airport. When we arrived, Denny was there in the terminal, so I asked him how people usually do it ("they call WXBRIEF?"). No, he informed me, and he gave me a frequency to use.

So after a preflight, I started my taxi and radioed for my clearance. They gave me a clearance with a void time of 8 minutes, which was generous, so I took off well before the void time and made with the departure procedure. This time, I did have to go into the hold...and in retrospect, I think I did it exactly backwards. Luckily I wasn't there very long before being cleared to 8000 and direct someplace. At 8000, we were above the clouds, and were treated to views of Mt. Rainier blasting up through the cloud layer.

The flight was smooth, and as we approached Puget Sound, the clouds broke up below us. We went all the way in to Orcas IFR, but we were VMC from that point forward. The islands were absolutely beautiful!! We flew up through the middle of the horseshoe of Orcas Island, at the center of which was the airport, and we circled to land on the opposite runway. Smooth landing, easy parking! We made it to our island paradise!

I had originally thought that, having an airplane at our disposal on an island, we'd be flying all over the place, using Orcas as a home base. But that was not what happened, at all. We pretty much just wanted to stay on Orcas, and hang out. Many reasons for that, none of which were aviation related (except to say that the thought of going to Boeing Field or Victoria seemed impossibly complex, compared to eating pie on an island). The only trip we took was to Friday Harbor, on Tuesday, July 6 -- that was fun, old school flying, none of the IFR preparation -- it was a bright, sunny day, so a quick preflight and a review of the noise abatement procedures, and off we went! We took an S-shaped path over to Friday, landed, parked and walked to town for lunch; came back, took off, reversed our pattern back to Orcas. 0.8 hours on the Hobbs.

That was it, until it came time for the return flight back to Palo Alto.


Saturday, July 03, 2010

Orcas Island [ Part 1 ]

Through school and through work, I've always found that learning comes in bursts, forcing one to drink from the firehose for a short time and absorb as much as possible, while trying to perform one's best, and then (in the best of circumstances) allowing one a little bit of time to try to digest and absorb all that may have been missed in the fury of the moment.

This flight, especially the journey outbound to Orcas Island, was a firehose moment.

We departed at 9:30am on Friday, July 2, with the plan to fly to somewhere in the middle of Oregon, probably Roseburg. Originally we'd thought Salem, but no, the winds were against us. Then Eugene, but no, the winds were pretty strong. So, I planned for Roseburg, filed IFR at 10,000 (the weather was overcast at around 4000' across the state of Oregon, it seemed), and departed once we had our clearance. It was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) as we left Palo Alto, and we climbed easily to 3000' and then 5000' as we climbed over Sunol and Livermore and headed toward Sacramento. Eventually we were given a clearance to 10,000', which, in a Cessna 172 (even the SP) is not a quick destination. We did eventually climb to 10,000, dropping down to a 300 foot per minute climb, then 200, then finally arriving at our assigned altitude.

We coasted across the bright, sunny state of California at what seemed like a snail's pace, in what was luckily an extremely comfortable 172. As we cruised north, we approached the Mount Shasta area, and were treated to an extraordinary view of Shasta, both the mountain and the lake.

Then we crossed into Oregon, and immediately, we were skimming just on top of a thick cloud layer. There were several uncomfortable elements of the trip at this point, one being the state of our bladders, another being the clouds, and another being the state of the right fuel tank, which was indicating .. all over the place, really. It actually looked like it was indicating full, most of the time, but the fuel valve was on "both" so theoretically it should've been emptying like the other tank. So the worry was, what if it's not able to draw from the right tank; when the left tank runs out, are we out of luck? So we eventually asked for and received 11,000, which I wasn't sure we could successfully climb to, but we made it without much trouble. And shortly thereafter, we were at about 3:30 flight time, and the left tank was indicating about 5 gallons to go, so I made the call to divert to Medford instead of going to Roseburg.

In retrospect, by the time I got vectored all over the damn place for the ILS at Medford, I probably could've shot an approach into Roseburg, or close. But, knowing what I knew at the time, this was absolutely the right call. We were in and out of the clouds through the approach, but everything went smoothly, and we circled to land and were presented with a choice of FBOs to dock with. I went with MillionAir, since I'd dealt with them before in Burbank and felt there was value in a sure thing, even though I'm pretty sure it was the most expensive option, because I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at that point. They were awesome; they filled up 30 gallons, and lent us a crew car to go get lunch.

After a tasty veggie burger, we came back to our fueled up plane, hopped in, turned the ignition, and ... nothing. Drat. I'd left the standby power switch on and the G1000 had drained the battery. So, the MillionAir folks came out and jumped us, and we were on our way. Destination: Kelso, Washington (KKLS)!

We departed IFR with a departure procedure, so we followed the procedure and luckily got high enough before the assigned holding pattern that we never had to enter it before proceeding direct RBG and onward. I tried asking for 6000, but got bumped up to 8000 (and 6000 was in the clouds anyway, as was 8000). I was feeling uncomfortable about being at 10,000 and above, especially so close to the clouds, because the plane didn't have much power to spare at that altitude, and what if I hit an updraft? But now, at 8000, the outside temperature was approaching freezing, and we had ourselves a quandary. We could potentially ask to go down to warmer air, but then we'd definitely be in the clouds and we'd have ourselves a bumpy 3 hours ahead. Or, we could go up to 10,000 and hope it put us above the clouds.

I opted for the latter. Interestingly, while trying to make this decision, I heard my friend Tim check in on the frequency! Small world. Anyway, so we climbed to 10,000, and only picked up a tiny chunk of ice on the right wing spar on the way up. That did indeed put us above the clouds, so we coasted along for the next two and a half hours, pretty much uneventfully.

As we neared Portland, approach asked whether we wanted to shoot the approach at Kelso, or get under the clouds and go in VFR. I opted for the latter; it sounded fun, and shorter. So shortly after we got handed off to the next controller, we were cleared for 7000. OK, here's a problem...the outside temp indicator read 30 degrees F. We should theoretically gain 2 degrees C per 1000 feet we descend, but it'll also be colder in the clouds (at least, that's what I'd noticed earlier on the trip). So I told Kay to keep an eye out for ice, and I descended at 500fpm. As soon as we entered the clouds, we started picking up ice. It collected in a thin sheet on the wing spars, and presumably the wings. I knew that I wasn't much below freezing, and that a couple of thousand feet would put me above freezing, so I dived for it. No idea what my descent rate was, but it was a decisive descent. As we got below 8500, we saw the ice start to melt off, and by 7000 it was gone, just like that.

The controller gave us 5000, then 4000, and asked if we were visual. Not yet. 3500, how about now? I was technically visual, but surrounded by clouds and there appeared to be hills below my present location,, I'm staying IFR, thanks very much. OK, 3000, she said, but that's all I can give you. Suddenly I was out of the clouds and over a river! Before I could chime in, the controller, eager to get rid of this particular speck on her radar, asked me: How are you seeing? "We're visual, cancel IFR," I told her. We followed the river and found the airport, and made left traffic and landed.

At the Kelso Airport, Denny Wise greeted us, helped me fill the fuel, recommended a hotel and called a cab. It was an awesome stop, and we got a great night of sleep as I thought about all I'd learned on this day. Diverting while IFR, dealing with icing conditions, even self-fueling the aircraft, were all new experiences, aside from having a plane this far from home in the first place. And, tomorrow, we'd go even further.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Day, Another Flight Into IMC

I really needed yesterday's flight/fright. For as frightened as I was, I flew pretty well, and if I can fly pretty well when I'm that freaked out, then my training is still effective.

Today, Mark and I took N824LB out and re-flew my flight from yesterday: SNS VOR 13, WVI LOC 02, in pretty much exactly the same weather. This time, I did better. No fear response (OK, perhaps a touch of anxiety dipping down into the clouds, but nothing major), and I was much more ahead of the airplane, even remembering to manually start the time at the FAF on the VOR approach. On the LOC, I misinterpreted the GPS and didn't realize I was past the FAF, so didn't descend until Mark prompted me. Then, for some reason, I had the hardest time getting the plane to stay in a 800fpm descent attitude, and my descent was more like 350 to 400 feet per minute. I got down to the minimums pretty much at the missed approach point, which is right at the beginning of the runway (being 700 feet above the runway at the beginning of the runway is not a great recipe for landing successfully). But, other than that, I handled it well.

I now feel ready for the trip on Friday. I'm so glad I did all that flying in the last week.

Monday, June 28, 2010

First solo IMC approaches to minimums. Scary.

It's been a long time. Flying has been understandably sporadic, and even though I'm theoretically working on my commercial license, the phase of that I'm on right now is to pass the written exam, which doesn't involve doing any actual flying. Besides, neither of the 172RGs with Advantage Aviation are available at the moment -- one's off the flight line entirely, and the other is seemingly constantly in maintenance.

In the mean time, my girlfriend's sister got an internship on Orcas Island, near Seattle (but closer to Victoria, BC, Canada), and we immediately planned a visit. And, my first thought was, why not fly there?

So I did some training in flying a Cessna 182, and we decided to take an older (a.k.a. cheaper) 182, N9870E, up to Washington. The plan was to take our bicycles in the plane and not rent a car, and just ride around Orcas Island. We did a test run of that plan a couple of weeks ago, renting out 9870E and bringing our bikes, and flying to Santa Rosa. It failed. We brought tarps to protect the plane's aging interior from the bikes, but we did not protect the bikes from each other. And besides, getting them in and out of the plane was a complete pain in the ass. Do not attempt this plan.

Also, N9870E had deteriorated a bit since the last time I'd flown it, most notably in that the magnetic compass was duct-taped in place. And, not very well, I might add -- it was actually hanging down. I guess the requirement is just that it's IN the plane, which it was, but no way was I about to fly into a potential IFR situation with a badly duct-taped-on compass. AND, also, the club put the plane in maintenance on the first day of our trip. This plan was not working out at all.

So, I managed to book a nice 172SP G1000, N16894, for the trip. The 172 will be slower, but the journey is part of the fun, right? I've spent the last week getting IFR current and night current, and basically getting my bearings about me when flying IFR. My instructor, Mark, and I went out to Half Moon Bay last Thursday, and flew a couple of approaches to minimums before breaking off for the missed approaches -- this was my first time actually HAVING to fly a missed!

Today was another first: I rented out N16894 and took it to Salinas, where the weather was reported as OVC070 (overcast at 700 feet). The VOR 13 approach has an MDA of 560 circling (which this would be, with 31 active), so it was right on the edge. As I planned my flight, filed IFR, pre-flighted the plane and readied myself for takeoff, I couldn't help but dwell on the fact that I had another first coming up -- I'd never flown an approach solo in actual IMC. In two years of being an instrument rated pilot, I'd never done that (weird, huh?).

So I was cleared KSNS via SNS direct, and eventually was given 7000 direct SNS. I was over the cloud cover, and cleared for the approach. The tower at Salinas had closed, so I was to make unattended airport style calls. I descended along the approach path, and just before I entered the clouds, I felt it: "So this is how, and when, I'm going to die." It was so strong, and I was so scared, I don't know how to describe it; all I knew was that I felt like this was it, like my time was done. Note that though I felt this way, I didn't actually *think* this way. My brain was busy telling me, "You know this, you can do this."

Well, I flew it pretty well. Actually I flew it pretty much perfectly -- in terms of technique, I was relying too much on the G1000 and not enough on my Time/Turn/Twist/Throttle/Talk technique, but I flew it really well. I made it down to my minimum, exactly on course, and couldn't see squat. I was shaking -- my arm was shaking holding the yoke. As I readied for the missed approach, though, I saw it -- Runway 13, right in front of me! I could've landed it! I executed the missed, and made my way to MARNA. As I climbed, my foot was shaking as it pressed the right rudder. I called NorCal Approach, and the act of communicating calmed me a bit; I think part of the stress of the approach was that I wasn't talking to anyone.

So I regrouped in the hold, and debated whether to do SNS GPS 13, or WVI LOC 02, eventually deciding on the latter (I kind of had to pee, so didn't want to go back to SNS, which was farther from home). After three rounds in the hold, I called Approach and made my request. He was friendly, which helped. I got vectors to the localizer course, and flew it perfectly (again, not TTTTTing enough, relying too much on the G1000, but flying it well) -- no shaking, no fear. I had some trouble holding the MDA, it was up and down, but as I crossed over the airport, I saw the runways. I think landing it would've been tough, if I'd wanted to, but it was interesting nonetheless. I executed the missed, a right turn back to SNS, and called Approach with my IFR request back to PAO.

I am SO glad that I did this flight. There is a pretty good chance I'll have to shoot an approach in actual IMC on our trip, and thank goodness I've now done it a couple of times on my own and have the confidence to do it. I'll do another flight tomorrow morning with Mark, but after tonight, I'm ready for the trip!