Monday, August 07, 2006

VFR & the need to practice

I've been very busy for the past few months and have not been able to fly every weekend as I would like. Even skipping only one week, I find that rust tend to accumulate on my skills. The last few times that I've flown, I've missed steps in my preflight check and my landings were not nice stable approaches other than a few full instrument approaches. Therefore, I decided to knock the rust off a bit by practicing some landings and making sure I caught everything on the preflight checklist.

Sunday I flew N51313 a fairly new Skyhawk with just over 1000 hours on the tach. It's the plane that I prefer to fly for cross country flights as it is reasonably roomy, has a nice 180 hp fuel injected engine, a great Bendix-King moving map GPS and autopilot.

I took my time with the preflight and found that the plane had about 30 gallons of fuel on board. The pilot who flew it before me must have been a student who has not been properly trained on securing the aircraft, though. He used slipknots on both wings which are a major pain in the ass to untie. He also did not switch the fuel selector away from the "Both" setting. This is required to prevent fuel from shifting from one tank to the other due to sloping ground or the inbalance caused when the plane is being refueled. It's not a big deal, but I'm pretty particular about flying and it bugs me when things are not done to the letter.

Anyway, the plane had about 30 gallons of fuel on board which was more than enough for the hour or so that I planned to fly. The engine started after a few turns of the prop - a few more than usual, but it ran fine and all gauges checked out. I turned on the avionics stack and the radios came to life. The first thing I checked was the push-to-talk button on the pilot's yoke. The last time I flew this plane, it did not work and it was a real pain to have to switch my headset cord to the far side of the aircraft and use the co-pilot's controls. There's always something going wrong with these planes, it seems. This time, the GPS could not receive any satellites. I've seen notams recently that warned about temporary outages, but I hooked up my portable GPS and it worked fine. The biggest drawback is that the lack of the GPS results in having no DME and DME is required for many of the approaches that I do. It is also critical for situational awareness. Triangulation simply takes too much time and is not all that accurate. DME and a VOR will put your position within a few tenths of a mile. Without DME, you're lucky to get within a half mile.

The winds were favoring runway 14 - the farthest from Sterling. After starting and taxiing to the boundary of the controlled area, I called ground control.

"Good afternoon Craig Ground, Skyhawk 51313", I called.

"Skyhawk 51313, Craig Ground, Good afternoon", she replied.

I responded, "Skyhawk 313 is on Delta holding short of Bravo, VFR southbound, with November."

To which she replied, "Skywawk 313, Taxi to one-four".

Since I had so much distance to cover - that's about 2 miles to get to 14 - the length of runway 5 plus most of the length of 14 - I completed the runup on the roll. Everything was working but the GPS. When I got to the runup area, I fiddled with the GPS - restarted it. Nothing worked, so I turned the brightness down so I wouldn't be tempted to look at it.

I saw a plane approaching for landing on short final, so I pulled up to the hold short and waited until he passed and called the tower for my clearance. I was told to hold short of 14.

The landing plane was doing a touch and go, and as soon as he was airborn again, the tower called back, "Skyhawk 313, cleared for take off on one-four, right turn southbound approved, the aircraft ahead of you is making left traffic."

I turned the transponder to ALT, noted the time, turned on the landing lights and taxiied onto the runway. Full power, feet off the brakes and we were rolling. At 50 knots, I pulled slightly back on the yoke and the plane lifted. I released the pressure and held the plane in ground effect as the speed continued to rise. At 75 knots, I pulled the nose up and she began her climb out. At 700', I made a smooth right turn to 180. I leveled off at 2700' - just 300' below the altitude at which I needed to worry more about direction and altitude and just above the controlled airspace at St. Augustine and JAX NAS. I ran through the cruise checklist and was pleased to see that the EGT gauge had been repaired since the last time I flew - the taxi light had not.

I engaged the autopilot to hold altitude and heading while I pulled out my portable GPS and bolted it to the co-pilot's yoke. This would at least give me DME.

I flew south for a short while, then pulled out a VFR sectional chart to get the ATIS frequency at St. Augustine. I made a 235 degree turn to the right to keep me away from St. Augustine as I flew over World Golf Village. I then shook hands with the St. Augustine Tower who told me to continue NE, then make a teardrop turn to the left to join an 8 mile straight in for runway 13. He also told me I would be following a Navy T-34 which he assumed that I had probably alreay saw. I had not. As it turns out, he was already 1200 feet below me and not a factor. I made my turn and heard the tower talking to a Piper in the pattern. I spotted the T-34 well below me and several miles ahead. The tower had told me the T-34 was flying the VOR-13 approach which should have had him on the 318 radial, but I was lined up with the runway and he was way off to the right.

When the tower cleared me to touch and go, I acknowledged and then told him I would be departing to the north.

I made a beautiful, stable approach and concentrated on landing smoothly. I went just a little long, but touched down softly on the centerline. I retracted the flaps, gave full power and was quickly on my way back to the north.

I then tuned the ILS at Craig and flew along the beach at 2000'. I was making very good groundspeed of around 130 knots and I reached the localizer sooner than I expected. I tuned the ATIS for Craig and had just written down the figures when I noticed the localizer centering. I made a steep turn to the left after checking for traffic and lined up on the localizer. At 8 miles out, I called the tower and was told to enter a right downwind for 14. I reduced speed to 90 knots and flew the localizer until I intercepted the glideslope, then popped the first notch of flaps and flew the ILS to 4 miles out. I then angled over to the left to enter the downwind an halted my descent at 1000'. I announced midfield and as I passed the numbers, I reduced power to 1700 RPM and pushed the nose down for a 500 FPM descent. As the runway passed behind the right window pillar, I made a steady descending turn to the right and dropped the second notch. I turned about 100 degrees because the wind was down the runway and this would give me a fairly square pattern. I then lined up on the runway and dropped the final notch of flaps. I was on the glideslope and descending at about 500 fpm. I started to drop below the slope because of the headwind, so I gave a bit more power. I was maintaining 75 knots on the approach and as I got closer, I reduced power to idle and continued the descent. I flared the plane and it seemed to want to climb, so I reduced the nose and let it drop closer to the runway. I nosed up again with the stall warning in continuous squeel. The mains touched down with a chirp and I concentrated on keeping the nose wheel off the ground. I released the back pressure and the nosewheel made its own chirp.

Back on the power and one more time around the pattern - this time in left traffic. Another smooth landing, but this time I was getting lots of gusts just before I reached the runway. I gave the plane a little extra power to compensate for the gusts. This made me land a little longer, but still in about 1000 feet.

Today, I flew VFR for the first time in a while. I concentrated on a few skills which I long ago mastered. Three landings and 1.1 hours of PIC.