Friday, November 25, 2005

The Instrument Advantage

Thanksgiving always seems to be an interesting time for me and my family. Two years ago, Maureen, my sister's now ex-husband and I waited on the tarmac for the fog to lift before flying to Tampa to spend the day with my other sister. I didn't tell anyone that I had just received word that a plane had crashed about an hour earlier while trying to land at Craig airport. That would have made both of them much too nervous - I had earned my private pilot certificate only six weeks earlier.

Last year, we flew to Tampa again, but this time, while there, my sister called to announce that she and her husband were divorcing after almost seven years. Everyone loved her husband and we thought they were such a fun couple, so this was quite a shock. It is now a year later and she has met a very nice gentleman who she will be marrying in February, so alls well that ends well.

This year, the excitement was much more enjoyable. This was my first opportunity to fly with my wife on an instrument flight plan. I'm glad that I'm done with training and can focus on flying places once again. I missed visiting my family over the past year, so now, I expect that I will be making more trips to West Palm, Tampa and Crystal River. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to convince Maureen that we should fly to Atlanta or Asheville or someplace like that.

Today, the winds aloft were forecast to be quite intense. At 3000' they were forecast 280 at 41 knots and at 6000, the speed dropped to 31 knots. The speed was forecast to diminish about 10 knots the closer we got to Tampa. Direction remained unchanged, so even though I was flying a nice, fast Archer III, the headwind component would make the flight take a bit longer than normal. I was a bit concerned about the landing, too. The surface winds in the area (no ATIS, AWOS or ASOS at X39- Tampa North) were forecast to be 240 at 14 with gusts to 22 knots. Tampa north has a single runway 14-32 and it is only 50 feet wide. This would give me about an 80 degree crosswind that was slightly below the demonstrated 17 knot capability of the Archer. I was ready for the challenge and had practiced cross-wind landings often. Nevertheless, I warned mom and Maureen that there was a possibility that I would have to abort and land at Tampa International.

The surface winds at Craig were about the same as the forecast for Tampa. There was also a windshear indication due to the 41 knot winds at 3000 with about a 40 or 50 degree direction shift. Well, no one said this was going to be easy.

The preflight showed no problems and all systems were go when I called for my clearance. Instead of clearing me as filed, I was cleared via radar vectors to OCF, then via Victor-581 to DADES then X39. I had filed CRG direct OCF DADES omitting the airway. I had already programmed the plan into the GPS...which was not as simple as I had expected. It is quite different from my GPS III Pilot handheld. For climbout, I was told to fly heading 280 and climb to 2000 and expect 4000 in 10. I had filed for 6000, but 4000 should be ok, I thought.

The climb performance of the Archer was much better than usual due to the cool morning temperatures. Even though the atmospheric pressure was lower than normal for our area, the cold air made for a better running engine. Usually, our pressure is somewhere around 30.14 in the mornings. Rarely have I seen a day where it drops to the standard 29.92. But today, that's about where it was. The plane was climbing at close to 900 fpm once I stabilized the climb. This was a very bumpy climbout, though. I had some swirling crosswind as I rolled down runway 23 and that made for an interesting trip down the runway. Maureen later said that she thought I was going to have to abort - but I don't think it was ever anywhere close to that.

On the climb, I was handed off to Jax approach who cleared me to climb to 5000 and upon passing 2100, "Cleared direct Ocala VOR". I plugged the direct-to into the GPS and made a left turn towards the VOR. It occured to me that 5000 is an altitude normally reserved for flights on headings in the eastern directions, but because I am in controlled airspace, any altitude is fine as long as it is fine with ATC. As I climbed, I was getting tossed about quite a bit and I was worried about Maureen's stomach. She didn't have a problem, though. I had prepared by putting two plastic garbage bags folded neatly in the side pouches of my flight bag for easy access in the event of a regurgitation. I never needed them, and that was quite a relief.

As we neared 5000', the ride smoothed out considerably. This was a beautiful day with just some cumulous puffies building ahead of us. The GPS showed a ground speed of about 98 knots, while the indicated airspeed was just under 120 knots. About 20 miles before I reached OCF, ATC cleared me direct to DADES. GPS is a wonderful thing! I made the adjustment to the GPS and altered the course about 10 degrees to the right.

Soon, we started to encounter the cumulous clouds that had bases around 4000 and in some cases, tops as high as 6000. If I had been flying VFR, I would have been forced to alter my course to avoid these suckers --1000 feet above, 500 feet below and 2000 feed side to side. I would have had to make some significant course alterations to avoid them. I was very pleased with myself when I heard a VFR pilot on flight following announce a course deviation to avoid some weather. No deviations for me, thank you very much.

I don't think Maureen was quite as pleased, though. The cumulous clouds were building and as we entered each one, we were bounced around a little bit. It wasn't anything by my standards, but I don't have a weak stomach like Maureen does. I thought of requesting a higher altitude to get over them, but thought that I 'd just have to come down through them and we wouldn't get much benefit from a few minutes less tossing.

Pretty soon we were in range of the airport and ATC advised me to descend. This put me into a one-thousand foot thick layer that I had been flying above and it was exciting for me to pass through the layer. This was not unlike diving into a pool of milk and trying to open your eyes while swimming to the bottom of the pool.

Under the cloud layer, we were getting bounced around a bit, but the GPS showed we only had about 10 minutes to go. I had the airport in sight, so I canceled my IFR plan. X39 has no instrument approaches and no tower...and today, no traffic. What they did have was quite a bit of wind.

I switched to the advisory frequency and announced my position, intentions and requested advisories. No one was home. Overflying the airport, I searched in vain for the windsock. Since I expected the wind to be 240 at some velocity, I planned to enter the left downwind for 32 after descending to pattern altitude. It was clear that there was no one in the pattern and I confirmed the wind direction by noting the ripples on a nearby lake.

I entered the downwind at midfield, announced and reduced the throttle to 1700 RPM. I extended the first notch of flaps as I passed the threshold. I turned my base earlier than usual so I would not have as much time to get blown off course. Now the second notch and time for the turn to final. There is no VASI, PAPI or any glide slope indicator of any sort. The descent was as stable as possible considering the crosswind and gusts. As I descended to about 200 feet agl, a gust hit the plane and the stall warning went off. I held the nose down and increased power a bit. I was coming in hot by about 10 to 15 knots to account for the gusts, so I was a bit surprised to hear the stall warning. Now I finally saw the windsock. Nothing unexpected there. The sock was pointing straight out from left to right almost directly across the runway. Slight headwind - strong crosswind.

The runway continued to rise to meet me at about 400 fpm. I had my touchdown point identified and had a pretty descent side slip established to account for the crosswind. I thought about stalls that occur due to cross-control and double checked my airspeed. Ok, no danger of a stall. Crossing the fence, I reduced power to idle, maintained my side slip and waited for the speed to drop. I had the plane lined up on the center line and set the left main down gently, then the right and the nose wheel shortly thereafter. This was a pretty smooth landing especially in view of the wind.

I made my U-turn on the runway (no taxiways here except the ones that lead to private homes.) Taxiing back down the runway, I was careful to keep full nose down elevator and turned the ailerons away from the wind. It wouldn't do to have the tail lifted in the wind. Nearing the parking area, I searched for anyone to show me where I should park - the only person there was my mom waving at us from the porch of the FBO. There aren't many actual tie-downs at X39. In the past, I've parked in the grass in front of the old dilapidated hangers. This time, though, it looks like they've torn down the old hangers and that parking area is no available. New hangers are being built on the other side of the runway, but no parking there, yet. I'm always happy to see new construction at an airport! I pulled in front of the FBO and parked the plane next to a Mooney that was sitting on the tarmac just out of the way of the taxi area in front of the FBO.

I started out writing this about the "Instrument Advantage" and I don't think I've explained myself. Although the weather today was excellent for VFR, if I had been on a VFR flight plan, I would have had to dodge quite a few clouds and may have had trouble remaining VFR when the time came to descend into Tampa North Aeropark. Because I was flying IFR, the clouds were a non-issue. There were no thunderstorms in the area to worry about and the freezing levels were far to the north of Florida or much higher than I could possibly fly, so there was no danger of being torn apart by convective activity or of being iced over. I didn't have to make any deviations and flew an almost direct path to my destination. This is what I mean by the instrument advantage.

The flight took a bit longer than normal due to the strong winds and the fact that I kept the speed relatively low due to the turbulence. 1.7 hours total and about .2 hours of actual instrument time. Another adventure for the logbook!

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