Thursday, October 19, 2006

Night IFR, or METARs don't always tell the story

Last night I flew night IFR in real IFR conditions. I wanted to maintain night currency which requires three night landings to a full stop in order to take passengers at night. I'm going to Las Vegas next week and want to fly over the Grand Canyon. Since I'll be arriving late in the afternoon, I'll want the freedom to come back after dark, so currency is important.

My plan was to depart around 1900 local (2300 zulu) and fly a few approaches at St. Augustine with stop and go landings. Unfortunately, the NOTAMs showed that the ILS was out of service at St. Augustine and at Craig the glideslope was out. At least there was the localizer. Consequently, I opted to plan my flight to make two approaches at Jacksonville International and request stop and goes. The short runway at JAX is 7000 feet, so there would be no problem assuming that traffic was not too intense.

Several hours before the flight, the weather had deteriorated significantly. Visibility was only 2 miles at both CRG and JAX. The Navy Jax tower was reporting even worse - 1/2 mile. Ceilings weren't too bad with Craig reporting a few clouds at 600 feet and a broken ceiling at 1,200 feet. JAX was better with layers at 1500, 4500 and a ceiling at 8000. The winds were fairly light from the southeast around 7 or 8 knots, but they had shifted from the southwest.

Arriving at the airport I noticed that my new favorite plane was still tied down - maybe I could switch from the old Warrior II with its poor lighting and no autopilot to the brand new Skyhawk SP with its G1000 glass panel instrumentation. Sure enough, the fellow who had reserved this plane canceled it. He had switched to the Diamond DA40.

After calling the FSS to switch the flight plan to the new plane, I pre-flighted and was ready to go. ATC was being staffed by one person. I knew this since there was the same voice on the clearance delivery, ground and tower frequencies.

My clearance came as "November 1463 Foxtrot, cleared to Craig as filed; climb 2000 expect 3000 in 10 minutes; departure frequency is 118.0; squawk 4222; Taxi to 14; What is you intention at JAX?"

What a mouthful! I responded, "six three Foxtrot would like to get an instrument approach to the active runway at JAX with a stop and go, if possible".

The controller responded, "Roger. I'll let 'em know."

Knowing that I hadn't yet read back my clearance, I read it back and the controller responded with a "Read back correct".

I flipped on my taxi light, eased the throttle and started my taxi run all the way around the airport to runway 14. On the roll, I ran through the preflight checklist and completed my runup. I tuned the tower on the standby frequency, and entered the approach frequency on my COM2 radio. I also punched 4222 on the transponder.

While taxiing, I heard the controller tell another departing aircraft that departure was now on 127.5, so I wrote that down expecting to get the same change.

Reaching the runup area, I parked just so I could go over my departure, pick up the METAR on the NEXRAD weather display and took a good guess as to the active approach that was in use at JAX. I pulled out the approach plate for the ILS25 approach and noticed that the clip on the yoke was busted. Good thing I have a lapboard.

I then pulled up to the hold short and announced that I was ready to go at 14.

After telling me to "standby for release" (odd because we "HOLD" for release, not standby), I was issued the following instruction:
"Six-Three-Foxtrot, cleared for takeoff on 14, left turn to 010, new departure frequency is 127.5"

This meant I needed to change the departure frequency on my radio - and this is best done before you get busy on climbout - so I immediately made the switch. I also adjusted the heading bug to 010 as a reminder. I then repeated my takeoff clearance and taxied onto the runway. Lights on, strobes on, nav lights on, note the time - 7:20 PM, the transponder is automatic in this plane, so no worries. Off I went down the dark runway lined with bright lights.

Between 300' and 400' I encountered an unreported layer of clouds that lit up like daylight when my landing lights hit them. So much glare in my eyes!

At 700', I began my turn to the left. As I made my turn, the tower handed me off to the approach controller who found me on radar as I passed through 1400 feet. He cleared me to 3000' and gave me a new vector. I leveled off and decided it would be best to use the autopilot while I briefed the approach. The autopilot makes flying so much more precise. I've reviewed my GPS track from last night and it is amazing how precise all of my turns were - even those that I flew by hand.

My first approach was great until I got down to around 1500', at which point the radios were so filled with static that I could not hear anything. The indicator showed that I was transmitting - but I knew that wasn't true. I could hear the tower sporadically. Thinking that I was having a problem with a single radio, I tuned the other radio to what I thought was the same frequency and I switched radios. The problem was that I had tuned the new radio to the approach frequency, but I had already been handed off to the tower. I was still getting static anyway. I realized my mistake when I heard someone call JAX approach on the frequency. I immediately double checked the frequency on my approach plate - 118.3! And I switched back to the proper frequency. As soon as I did, I heard the tower controller calling my sign with a radio check! I responded that I heard him loud and clear, but I had been experiencing quite a bit of static - which was true. He cleared me for my stop and go and then asked me what my intentions - I told him I wanted to do the same approach all over again, if possible, with another stop and go.

The landing was uneventful, but once on the ground, the tower asked me if I could make my climbout turn before crossing runway 13. That would give me about 9000 feet to climb and turn - so no problem. I responded that I would comply. He told me I had 757 traffic approaching 13, and I told him I had the traffic in sight. I climbed out smoothly, but I was a bit nervous making my right turn to 360 so early over pitch black pine forest. I glanced at the approach plate and didn't see anything to worry about, though.

ATC vectored me for the new approach and I heard them talking with a learjet that had some sort of emergency. The controller told me to expect to get waived off at one mile as they might not have time to clear the runway before I got there. Knowing that, I slowed down to about 90 knots hoping to buy some time for a stop and go landing. Once again, I started to get static while on final approach. I was cleared for the approach, and told to execute a low approach prior to crossing runway 13 - the missed approach point. I heard the tower talking with the emergency personnel and it sounded to me like the runway was clear. I was expecting to be cleared for a stop and go, but the static started to drown out all transmissions. Through the noise, I heard the tower call "Radio Check" and I keyed the mic saying, "JAX tower, 63Foxtrot is experiencing considerable static. I cannot clearly receive your transmission. Executing missed approach." And I began my right turn to a heading of 130 as instructed. As soon as I hit the throttle and started climbing, the static went away! The tower handed me off to departure and I got vectors for the localizer approach at Craig. I thanked the tower controller - he was very patient with my radio problems.

I'm sure the radio was being affected by the weather. Most of the flight I was in the clouds or in very hazy, foggy cloud-like conditions. Perhaps the slower moving prop and extended flaps were causing an excessive static charge on the plane and as this constantly bled off, the radio signal was completely blocked.

I proceded back to Craig via radar vectors and punched in the ILS32 approach on the GPS. I also retrieved the plate from my book of approaches. I know this one by heart, but I briefed it anyway.

The controller vectored me quite a few times - turn 130, 140, 150, then 220 then 270. Finally, I was told I was x miles from ADERR, cleared for the approach and handed off to the tower. I had pulled the METAR prior to getting to this point, so I called the tower saying, "CRAIG tower, Skyhawk 1463Foxtrot, 8 miles out on the Localizer 32 Circle to 14 approach with Sierra; Stop and Go". He told me to continue and circle to the south entering a left downwind for 14.

I flew the localizer down to 1000' then leveled off. At 3 miles out, I made a course adjustment to the right and announced that I was 3 miles out and entering the downwind. As there was no other traffic at that point, I was cleared for stop and go.

I slowed the plane, progressive extended the flaps and made my base turn. Dropped another notch of flaps and contined my descent. Then the turn to final and the final notch. Wind was reported at 150 @ 7 knots - almost straight down the runway. I maintained a steady approach speed of about 65 knots on short final and touched down at around 50 knots. It was a smooth landing, but a little long. I could have made the first taxiway - A5, I believe. I stopped, retracted the flaps and was told to stay put while another aircraft landed on runway 5. I had canceled IFR when I entered the pattern, so I double checked the transponder for 1200. Yup - I had remembered. About this point, I noticed that the altimeter was reading -40 feet. Hmmm...that's just outside of the parameters which mandate a reading within 75 feet. I checked the standby (traditional) altimeter and it reported correct altitude, so I made a mental note of the problem.

CLeared for takeoff and instructed to make left traffic, I climbed out and leveled off at 1000 feet. I concentrated on maintaining a stabilized approach and using the proper airspeed. Although I knew I could use the entire runway to save some taxi time, I wanted to prove to myself I could land this plane in minimal space. This time, I set it down quite smoothly right on the numbers, pulled the flaps, held the nose up as long as possible while applying the brakes - this was one seriously short landing! I made the first turnoff and called for taxi clearance.

Although I never went over 3000 feet on this flight, I was in the clouds amost the entire time. Where the METARs said I should have few or broken, I had solid. The METAR did not report the clouds that I encountered around 300 feet on my first take off from CRAIG, nor did the report the clouds that were solid at 500 feet on my first climb out from JAX. Checking my log, I saw that I had not flown for almost three weeks - the last time being when I took Jim, Jimmy and Paige up on a nice VFR flight. This was a real challenging flight - single pilot IFR in the soup with weather-related radio issues. I probably could have done some things differently - like making sure I had the first approach on the GPS as part of my checklist...there's an idea - Change the AMICEATM so that I plug the approach in the GPS properly.

This flight involved three full stop landings, three IFR approaches, one VFR approache, with 1 hour of NIGHT IFR and 1.6 hours total. I sure love this stuff!

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