Sunday, December 03, 2006

Low Clouds Aren't Always All That Low

This entry will probably be a bit long. It covers approaches and landings at three airports in the Jacksonville area when the TAFs predicted IFR conditions and METARs showed marginal VFR conditions. Overall the conditions would have been nice for a sightseeing flight - the ceiling was higher than forecast and the IFR conditions really didn't materialize. Because of the forecast, I didn't bring my camera - which I now regret.

With TAFs predicting IFR conditions for much of the local area, I thought today would be a good day to get some actual instrument time and shoot a few approaches. However, from a flying perspective, the weather was better than forecast - from a not flying viewpoint, it was just a blustery, ugly, overcast least for those on the ground.

I filed IFR for CRG-VQQ-SGJ-CRG. All three airports forecast either IFR or marginal VFR conditions. My plan remarks included "PLA" for practice low approaches. I don't like low approoaches. I would much rather drag the wheels across the runway and log an actual landing. Today, I was going to focus on landing in as little distance as possible.

After listening to the ATIS, I tuned clearance delivery and heard the controller pulling double duty. He was giving clearances and filling ground control duties simultaneously. I waited for the airwaves to clear and requested my clearance.

The controller said, "November 1463Foxtrot, cleared to Craig as filed, climb 2000, expect 4000 in ten minutes, departure on 118.0, squawk 5515."

I correctly repeated my clearance and taxied on Golf until I was on the boundary of the controlled taxiway and contacted the ground controller with a courtesy call.

After his response, I radioed, "63 Foxtrot is on Golf short of Bravo request taxi for IFR departure to the west."

Since I neglected to tell the tower that I had information echo, he cleared me to taxi to runway 5 and asked if I had information echo.

During the runup, I programmed VQQ, Cecil Field, as a direct-to in the GPS and made sure that the CRG VOR was programmed in the NAV radio. I had previously entered my squawk code and entered the approach control frequency in the standby on COM1.

Following a thorough runup, I switched to the tower frequency and requested takeoff clearance.

After being held for release, the tower announced, "November 63-Foxtrot, cleared for takeoff runway 5, left turn 280."

I acknowledged and taxied on to the runway, lined up in the center and gave it the gas.

At 55 knots, I pulled back on the yoke and the plane bounced a few times and then began a steady climb out. With only one person in the plane, I think that the trim should be set a bit higher than the takeoff position. This would cause me to use less backpressure on initial takeoff and I would be less likely to exceed the optimal climbout speed. I'll keep that in mind for future flights.

I adjusted the pitch for a steady 74 knots on the climb and after passing 700', I began my turn back to 280. During the turn, the tower handed me off to approach who cleared me to 4000'.

During my climb, I pulled the instrument approach plates for VQQ and tuned the ATIS on the second COM. The ATIS announced that winds were light and variable and runway 31R was in use.

Jax approach asked my intentions at Cecil and since 31 was in use, I requested the ILS31 approach followed by vectors to St. Augustine.

The controller gave me my climbout instructions, "November 63foxtrot, following your low approach or touch-and-go, fly heading 270, climb to 2000 feet, departure on this frequency."

I double checked the frequency and replied, "climbout on 270 to 2000 and 123.8, six-three-foxtrot."

He then gave me a heading of 230 which took me directly over JAX NAS. I leveled off and adjusted my speed for 110 knots TAS since this is what I had filed. This required a throttle setting around 2340 RPM. With the headwinds coming from the southeast, I was only making around 90 knots of ground speed.

I double checked the ATIS, adjusted the altimeter and briefed the plate for 36R. I set the autopilot to heading mode, and activated the approach in the GPS.

The controller vectored me for my downwind, then descended me to 2000'. He then gave me my base leg heading of 270, and I was starting to wonder if he had forgotten me because the localizer was starting to come alive - the needle was starting to move away from full deflection on the HSI. Just as the needle moved to 4 dots, the controller gave me a heading of 330 and advised me to maintain 2000 until established on the ILS. I immediately turned the heading bug to 330, reduced power to 2100 RPM to drop my speed down to 90 knots, and then switched the autopilot to NAV mode. This would make the autopilot intercept the localizer and get me nicely established on a proper approach course.

I watched the glideslope diamond start to descend and when it was one dot above the middle, I dropped the first notch of flaps, disengaged the autopilot and trimmed a little nose down to maintain a 500 fpm rate of descent. I had to reduce the throttle to about 1800 RPM to keep the airspeed at 90 and the descent at 500fpm. I was pleased with the way that I was maintaining my track and glideslope, but noticed that it was much easier to stay on the localizer if I used the GPS display on the multi-function display zoomed in to just a few miles. The track indicator clearly showed where I would be heading and if it ventured too far to the left or right, then I knew I would soon be off course. This was a much more responsive indicator than the localizer needle shown on the HSI.

I kept my head in the cockpit - with the traffic display, I wasn't too worried about other aircraft in the area. If decided to look up at 500' and saw the runway dead ahead. The rest of the aproach, I completed visually. I reduced speed to 65 knots - with a fully loaded plane, the approach speed for a short field landing would be 68 knots - with just me on board, I reasoned that 65 knots would be just fine. When it was clear that I would reach the runway, I reduced power to idle and kept my hand on the throttle just in case I needed a push. I flared the plane just before the numbers and then dragged rubber right across the big 36. I probably could have had the plane stopped completely within 700'. I was very pleased with this landing.

Ok, time to retract the flaps, push the throttle to full and give it some rudder to maintain the centerline. Nose up at 55, then climb out at 74. With somewhere around 11,000 feet of runway left, I had lots of room to climb. I reached 700 feet and made my left turn to 270 - I still had not reached the crossing runway! The tower controller handed me back to departure and I called, "Jax Departure, Skyhawk 1463Foxtrot out of 1,100 for 2000."

"November 1463Foxtrot, radar contact 1 mile west of Cecil, climb to 3000, after passing 2000, left turn to 130", the controller advised.

I leveled off and entered SGJ as the direct-to in the GPS. My current heading of 130 was perfect. I would go straight to St. Augustine. I set the autopilot to follow my heading bug and maintain 3000'.

When I was almost south of NAS JAX, I heard the controller talking to a Navy pilot - couldn't hear the pilot, just the controller. The controller advised the pilot that he should maintain 4000' due to skyhawk traffic four miles south of the airport heading southeast. That had to be me. ATC then told me to alter my course to 090 - there was a navy jet inbound from the south on an attack pattern. I looked all over to the south for this plane, but he must have been above the cloud layer that was right around 4000'. As I passed the river, ATC vectored me to 130 again and I never saw the Navy fighter.

I tuned the ATIS for St. Augustine and heard that they were landing on runway 31 - and also that the ILS was unmonitored and the glideslope was out of service. Visibility was 5 miles in mist and the sky was 5500 scattered with 8000 overcast. This was much higher than Craig or Cecil. The problem with the ILs has been that way for quite a while. I don't get it. The St. Augustine VOR was out of service for over a year without any explanation. Now the glideslope is OTS. With Florida weather, a fully functioning ILS is a very good thing for an airport to have.

ATC then asked for my intentions following St. Augustine and I replied that I would like to go back to Craig and get the ILS 32 approach. The controller advised me to fly 360 and climb to 2000, approach on 120.75, which I acknowledged.

Like before, I received vectors for my downwind leg. I heard ATC talking to another aircraft that reported 10 miles out on the ILS 31, but I never saw it...never even saw it on my traffic indicator. Although I was only 5 miles from the airport, he gave the other aircraft priority - he must have been much faster. He canceled his IFR clearance at 10 miles saying that the airport was in sight - I guess the 5 miles of visibility wasn't really 5 miles after all. Since it was clear to me that I was being sequenced, I reduced my speed to 85 knots - no sense in flying miles out of the way if I didn't have to.

Finally, I was given vectors to intercept - "...Fly heading 270, maintain 2000 until established on the localizer, glideslope is out of service, cleared for the ILS 31 approach."

I acknowledged saying, "63Foxtrot, 270 and 2000 until established, I understand that the glideslope is out of service and will make this a localizer approach, cleared for the ILS31."

As I turned to intercept the localizer, ATC handed me off to the tower who told me to report reaching the coastline. I began descending to 1600 as this was the minimum altitude at the FAF. Crossing the FAF at 1600, I established a 500 fpm descent at 90 knots with one notch of flaps. I reported the coastline and was cleared for the option. When I was down to 1000', I looked up and noted that even though the localizer said I was dead on and my heading was exactly what was prescribed in the plate, the runway was slightly off to the right. It was at this point that I payed more attention to the GPS display on my right and noted any deviations. At 500', I slowed the plane to 65 knots and pointed the nose at the bottom of the numbers. There are a few hundred feet of runway overrun area before the threshold, so I've got a nice concrete buffer if I land short. I progressively added the rest of the flaps and pulled power to idle. I nailed the landing on the numbers and could easily have made a very short landing. Flaps up, trim to T/O, full power and I was cruising down the runway again.

I payed careful attention to the GPS display on climb out and made sure I was perfectly lined up with the runway - the localizer was showing full deflection - which clearly told me that it is not a straight-in localizer otherwise the back course would have showed me dead on as well.

I was paying so much attention to my heading that I almost forgot to make my turn to 360. At 1000' I made my turn and the tower handed me back to departure control.

Since St. Augustine is only about 25 miles from Craig and I would be flying the ILS32 approach, I would not have much time to brief the plate and get my stuff together. ATC told me to climb to 2000and kept me on my 360 heading. I entered and identified the ILS on 111.7, punched up KCRG and selected the approach on the GPS, and then listened to ATIS information Foxtrot on COM2. Wind was 040 at 5 with 5 miles visibility, skies OVC at 060. I was told to expect the ILS32-circle to 5. So I clipped that plate to the yoke and read it over.

In no time I was very near the approach course, so I activated the approach on the GPS and set the autopilot to NAV mode. ATC cleared me for the approach when I was about 4 miles from ADERR and told me to turn left to 350 and maintain 2000 until established on the ILS. Once I was established, he handed me off to Craig tower who advised me to circle to runway 5 and turn southwest for a right base - report circling.

I followed the ILS down to 600 feet, leveled off and at 1 mile, I made my left turn. I reported my circle to the tower who cleared me to land. I slowed the plane to 75 knots and turned my base and began descending again. On the base, I dropped the second notch of flaps and then turned final. This happened pretty quickly because I had made my circle fairly close to the runway - I was making a very tight pattern. On my downwind, the GPS had indicated 17 knots of wind, but this had dropped to a 4 knot indication when I was on final. I reduced the throttle to get the speed down to 65 while dropping the last notch of flaps. I pointed the nose at the numbers and as I got closer, I reduced power to idle while pointing the nose short of the numbers. Crossing the threshold about 10 feet above the tarmac, I started pulling the nose up and the wheels made their black marks across the big 5. I kept backpressure on the yoke and then slowly dropped the nose to the ground while applying brakes. I could have stopped this very short - probably in less than 600 feet. I actually gave the plane a little gas to get me to the Bravo-2 turnoff which is right about 1000' from the end of the runway. I coasted through the turnoff and the tower told me to hold short of bravo - contact ground on point 8.

I stopped the plane on the far side of the hold short line and tuned the ground control frequency. This plane automatically turns the transponder on and off, so I didn't have to worry about that. I called ground and requested taxi clearance to Sterling which was given to me right away.

For some this might seem pretty boring or even run of the mill, but I love this stuff. Writing this, I feel like I'm right back in the cockpit - my favorite place to be. Nothing conveys a greater sense of freedom than flying thousands of feet above the earth with complete control over your destination. And nothing builds confidence like being able to stick three short field landings at three different airports in a single session.

I had hoped to encounter a great deal more weather en route than I did. On my initial climb out, I quickly entered the clouds before reaching 2000 feet even though the METAR only reported a few clouds at 600' with an overcast ceiling at 6000'. Heading towards Cecil, there were occasional patches of clouds, and I encountered IMC on my climb to the west. When I was flying Southwest over NAS JAX, I could see a band of clouds that began around Cecil and extended quite a ways to the North. On my climb out from Cecil, I encountered these clouds and hit just a few more bewteen Cecil and St. Augustine. I'm estimating that I was actually in IMC for about half an our out of a total of 1.6 hours of flying time. I flew three instrument approaches and made three short field landings. I had a great time. Single pilot IFR is not all that difficult when the low clouds aren't really that low.

David West

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