Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas Night IFR

Before heading to my sister's house for Christmas dinner, I checked the forecast for the flight home that I was planning to make later that evening. The weather along the route provided no obstacles, but the ceiling at Craig was forecast to drop from its current 1200 feet overcast to 400 feet overcast with layers later that night. 400 feet is just a little more than the minimum 241 feet for the ILS approach and was below minimums for all of the non-precision approaches. I wasn't worried, but this would be as big a challenge as the prior day's approach to Tampa North with no instrument approaches and 1,600 foot ceilings.

After a wonderful meal and lots of time with my neices and nephews, I called 1-800-WX-BRIEF and got a standard briefing for the flight home. The weather in the Tampa area had cleared somewhat from the morning's broken skies and it now appeared that I could depart VFR and pick up my clearance once airborne. The alternative was to try to raise ATC on the ground or call the Lockheed-Martin 800 number for clearance. This could result in having to wait on the ground for a while until ATC had cleared the sky around me and with a busy Tampa International nearby, the big jets always get priority.

Arriving at the airport, we had calm winds and few clouds. I completed my preflight and set the altimeter to the airport elevation of 68 feet. I set the local CTAF on the radio and tuned 119.9 in the standby frequency for Tampa Approach. I then entered my route in the GPS: X39 direct OCF direct Craig. Runup showed no problems, so I announced my intentions on the CTAF and departed on runway 32 just as the sun was setting.

Climbing through 1000 feet, I completed the climb checklist, announced a departure to the north and turned the plane direct to Ocala. Then switching the radio to the ATC frequency, I listened for traffic and called, "Tampa Approach, Skyhawk 7-2-1 Victor Alpha".

The controller instructed an airliner to slow to 170, waited for his response, then acknowledged me by saying, "Skyhawk 7-2-1 Victor Alpha, Tampa Approach".

I requested my instrument clearance, "Approach, 1-Victor Alpha has just departed Xray three niner. IFR on file for Charlie Romeo Golf. I'd like to pick up my clearance, please."

The controller gave me a squawk code for the transponder which I acknowledged and entered into the device.

A minute later, the controller radioed, "November 1-Victor-Alpha, radar contact three miles north of the Tampa North Aeropark. Cleared to Craig as filed, climb to 6000 feet." I repeated the clearance and altitude then set 6000 as the warning in the autopilot and as the bug on the altimeter.

I leveled off at 6000 feet and before I reached Ocala, the controller cleared me direct to Craig.

Just past Ocala, I could see a cloud layer building ahead of us. It looked like a thin layer that covered a wide area ahead. Eventually, the horizon disappeared and I was completely on instruments.

There weren't many aircraft flying this evening so the radio was quiet except for the occasional frequency change to accommodate handoffs to different controllers.

I could see the lights of towns and cities below causing bright spots in the cloud layer, but the ground was otherwise completely obscured.

I listened to the ATIS for Craig and learned that CRG was landing on runway 32 and was IFR with a ceiling of 009 broken. I pulled up the plate for the ILS 32 approach, briefed it, loaded it into the GPS and followed ATC's instructions for descent to 2000 feet into the clouds.

I slowed the plane to 90 knots for the approach and was vectored by ATC to the final course.

The controller cleared me for the ILS 32 approach which I repeated. I activated the vector-to-final in the GPS and set up the auto pilot to line me up which it did wonderfully. Once established inbound, ATC handed me off to the tower.

I called, "Craig Tower, Skyhawk 7-2-1- Victor Alpha, 4.9 miles from runway 32 on the ILS with whiskey, full stop. The tower immediately cleared me to land and I continued to hand fly the approach. We popped out of the clouds at 800 feet with the approach lighting directly ahead of us. I greased the landing - a very smooth landing especially considering it was at night.

I made the turnoff and was advised by the tower to taxi to the ramp and monitor ground on point-8. I thanked the tower and then advised him that the ceiling was now down to 800 feet.

Flying in IMC is a pleasure for me. I get a great sense of satisfaction from flying an approach through the clouds and navigating directly to the runway. Popping out of the clouds to see the runway right where I expect it makes me just a bit proud.

1.6 hours of Night cross-country with 0.7 in actual IMC and one instrument approach...a good day of flying by any measure!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Down through the clouds - without an instrument approach

My trip from Craig Airport (KCRG) to the Tampa North Aeropark (X39) on Christmas Eve, started with a hitch and got more complicated as the flight neared completion. The aircraft was far from ready when I arrived at the airport. It had been flown two days earlier for 3.5 hours and was left without refueling. When I arrived at the airport, only a skeleton crew was available and they were focused on repairing both of the air charter jets that were down for unscheduled maintenance.

The engine gave me fits trying to start, which is surprising for a fuel injected aircraft. Finally, I got it started and taxied over to the fuel depot for refueling. The end result was a departure that was about 40 minutes behind schedule.

The weather at Craig was clear with few clouds. But prior to departure, I checked the METARs for Brooksville, Vandenburg and Tampa International to get some idea what the weather was like at Tampa North. Nothing looked promising. Brooksville was reporting 900 feet and overcast, Tampa was 1400 and Vandenburg was about the same. The past few hours of METARs showed increases in the ceiling and that was promising and the TAFs suggested there would be some clearing later in the day, so I expected that we'd eventually be able to land.

I picked up my IFR clearance and ran through the runup. The winds favored runway 32 for departure and I picked up my clearance and a departure heading of 280. The tower handed me off to JAX approach who cleared me to 5000 feet and cleared me direct to OCF once I had passed 2000 feet.

Headwinds slowed our progress somewhat, but it wasn't too bad. About 20 minutes into the flight, I came upon a solid white layer of clouds below me that reached up to envelope the aircraft from time to time. Using the NEXRAD capabilities of the G1000, I kept tabs on the nearby airports as I flew along. The situation had not improved much.

Closer to the destination, the clouds near our altitude thinned out only to reveal a solid layer further below. South of Ocala, ATC dropped me down to 2000 feet and that put me in and out of clouds. Tampa Approach asked me for my flight conditions and I had to tell him that I was in and out of IMC.

ATC then said, "November one-victor-alpha, cleared direct Xray-three-niner, if you aren't already direct". A few minutes later, I received clearance to descend to 1600, then minimum altitude that the controller could give me. Unfortunately, I was still in the clouds and there was no instrument approach into this airport.

The controller asked me for the conditions, and this time I told him that I was getting glimpses of the ground, but I had zero forward visibility. He asked me what I would like to do if I can't see the airport when I arrive and I replied, "I'll divert to Crystal River, Charlie-Golf-Charlie". There is a single, non-precision approach to Crystal River, but more importantly, that's just a few miles from my Dad's house and if he handn't already left for my sister's house, I could catch a ride with him.

A few minutes later, the controller asked me if he could make a suggestion. I told him that I would love to hear any suggestion that he might have. His idea he had really surprised me - it was a great idea and definitely not something that was ever taught in flight training.

The controller suggested that I fly the ILS to Vandenburg, but once I was safely below the cloud layer, I could go missed, cancel IFR and fly VFR back to Tampa North. He could not legally give me an altitude below 1600 feet on and IFR plan, and I couldn't cancel IFR when I was still in the clouds, so the key was to find a legal way to get below the clouds. With the ceiling at 1600 feet and 1600 feet being the minimum altitude, we had a challenge that the controller found a very creative way of overcoming.

I could legally decend below the clouds on the Vandenburg approach and since the ceiling was at 1600 feet, I could legally fly at 1100 feet - still 500 feet below the clouds and over 1000 feet above obstacles on the ground.

As I flew along, I reduced speed to 85 knots to give myself lots of time to spot the airport. ATC called me to say that they were showing me at 1700 feet - but my altimeter showed 1640. I dropped down to 1560 to take advantage of the apparent fudge factor. But, the greatest advantage I had was the GPS.

The GPS took me directly over the airport and just as I passed the airport, ATC told me that I was passing it and asked me what I wanted to do. I had just spotted the airport's new hangers as I flew over, so I immediately told ATC that I had the airport in sight, was dropping lower and canceled IFR.

I dropped the 500 feet to pattern altitude very quickly made a quick pass to see if I could spot a wind sock, then lined up for the downwind for 32. I never spotted the sock, but the winds at Brooksville would have favored runway 32, so I assumed that this was the case. Crossing the fence, my engine was pulled to idle, but there was about an 8 to 10 knot tailwind, so I sailed along wasting runway as I finally greased the landing.

This was a unique flight in that I learned a new trick from the air traffic controller. The flight took about 1.6 hours with .6 of that in solid and challenging IMC...all cross country.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


It is now 1:35pm and I still have not seen the sun today.

Craig field was reporting a ceiling of 600 feet overcast with mist. Visibility was ranging from 1 3/4 miles to 2 1/2 miles. The minimums for the ILS32-CRG are 241 feet MSL. So a 600 foot ceiling would make for some fun flying.

I filed IFR for CRG-VQQ-CRG with PLA in the notes section (Practice Low Approaches). After getting my clearance and performing a quick runup, I pulled up to runway 5 and announced that I was ready to go. After about 60 seconds, the tower cleared me and told me to make a left turn to 280.

Just as the METAR indicated, I entered clouds at 600 feet and executed my climbing left turn to 2000 feet. The tower handed me off to Jax Approach who gave me 3000 feet as my final altitude and asked for my intentions. I asked for the ILS 36 Right at VQQ and was vectored to the southwest. Level at 3000 feet, I tuned the ATIS for Cecil on my second radio. Once I had it I told Jax Approach that I had information Sierra.

The winds at 2000 and 3000 feet were varying between 29 and 36 knots from 070 according to my GPS. At the surface they shifted to 020. At no time did I break out of the clouds.

I loaded the approach on the GPS and clipped the plate to the yoke. Reading through it I noted the minimum altitudes, headings, etc.

Shortly, ATC dropped me to 2000 feet and vectored my base leg.

I turned off the autopilot and hand flew the approach. The winds required wind correction angles of as much as 25 degrees as I lined up on the localizer. I flew the plane lower and lower...still deep in the clouds. Finally, the ground began to appear beneath me...and then later ahead of me. At about 500 feet, I could see the rabbit directly ahead of me followed shortly by the rest of the runway environment. I leveled off about 50 feet above the runway, pushed full power, retracted flaps, then pitched nose up for my climb out.

I announced to the tower that I was executing my missed approach and turned the plane to 270 as instructed. Almost immediately I was in the clouds again.

Once the tower handed me back to JAX, I requested the VOR9R approach and was told to continue on 270 at 2000 feet. I loaded the approach in the GPS, tuned NAV1 to the VQQ VOR and read over the approach plate that I had clipped to the yoke.

In this case, the approach vector is 109 degrees for a runway that is 90 degrees. At some point, the controller asked how this approach would terminate and I told him perhaps a bit too verbosely that on the last approach I broke out at 600 feet, and that the minimums for this approach were 640 feet, so I expected to have to go missed.

I was cleared for the approach and lined up on the VOR with help from the GPS. Heading steadily towards the airport I descended to just above the MDA of 640 feet. I was in and out of clouds bouncing along for 4 miles at this altitude. I held the plane steady as I flew peering out of the window to spot the runway. The tower asked me to tell him when I could see the runway...but I didn't see it yet. Just then, the controller told me to advise when going missed - a silly instruction since that is the normal procedure. As soon as he called me, I spotted the runway below me. I could drop right down to the runway. I then executed the missed and headed back to the west...and immediately found myself back in the clouds.

ATC asked my intentions this time and I asked for the ILS 32 at Craig.

The controller turned me to a heading of 105 (first time I didn't have an even heading like 100 or 110). I leveled off at 3000 feet and headed 105. Because the wind was so stiff in my face - 36 knots, I pushed the power to 2600 RPM and fought the wind a bit. Still in the clouds, I pressed on towards CRG and loaded the approach. I checked the ATIS, but it was still Quebec.

Several minutes later, I heard ATC tell another aircraft that Romeo would be current soon at CRG, so I tuned COM2 to the ATIS and got the latest weather. The barometer had dropped to 30.14, and the wind was stronger with gusts, but the ceiling was still 600 feet.

As I approached the ADERR fix, I could see another aircraft approaching from my right. ATC called the traffic for me and said that he was bringing me in behind a Cirrus what was twice as fast as me - a bit of an exaggeration, but fine.

I told the controller that I had the Cirrus on my scope showing 900 feet above my altitude to my right, but I was in IMC and could not see it.

He held the Cirrus at 3000 feet and brought him onto the ILS above me. I slowed the plane down considerably to ensure adequate distance between us.

It looked like I was going to overshoot the localizer when ATC turned me to a heading of 300 to intercept. I executed the turn, but because of the wind, I never crossed the localizer and would not have intercepted it on that heading, so I made my own adjustments. Again I was having to keep about 25 degrees of wind correction to stay lined up. The wind on the ground favored runway 5 - the only one without an instrument approach. Consequently, the instructions were to fly 32 with a circle to 5.

ATC advised that it appeared that I was lined up with the localizer (I was) and cleared me for the approach. I repeated the clearance and added that the GPS was showing winds around 30 knots from 070 and he thanked me for the info.

I continued the approach down to 500 feet, breaking out of the clouds at 600 feet. There was the runway out the left side of the windshield - all that wind correction had me crabbing severely.

I made my circling turn and greased the landing - well before the first turnoff, as usual.

An OUTSTANDING FLIGHT! 1.4 hours total with nearly all of that in solid IFR. Three excellent approaches, too. There are few things that can build confidence like flying an approach to near minimums as a single pilot!

Jacksonville Craig Municipal Airport

A few weeks ago, someone who read this blog commented to me about the controllers at Craig saying that they were the meanest controllers. He also said he flew every day at Craig.

While I have encountered some less then congenial controllers here and at other airports, I think for the most part, the controllers at Craig are professional and very easy to deal with.

A few weeks ago, I was completing my FAA wings program and had been getting some recurring instrument training with an instructor from Sterling Flight Training. We had flown approaches at Cecil Field (VQQ) and were coming in on the ILS32 at CRG. The winds were from the east, so this would be a good time to practice crosswind technique. There were several planes in the pattern including helicopters doing flight training exercises and a banner tow pick-up getting ready to go. When I was handed off from Jax Approach to Craig Tower, I was on the ILS32 with a circle to 5. I asked the tower if I could continue and execute a touch and go on 32 to practice cross winds, then cancel IFR and remain in the pattern.

Considering that by the time I was on short final, there were five aircraft in the pattern for runway 5, I fully expected to be told to circle, but the controller was very kind and allowed me to land on 32. His hands were full with student pilots in both fixed and rotary aircraft, yet he was nice enough to accommodate me.

We made 7 landings that day since the Wings training requires a total of 3 hours of instruction. We practiced every imaginable type of landing - short, soft, no flap, partial flap. I managed to stop the plane inside of 500 feet on one landing and most were excellent landings.

In one instance, I had to side step the runway and go around because a student had landed way long and could not get off the runway in the first 2500 feet! In this case, we were told to make right traffic for that lap around the pattern.

In another instance, the banner tow plane cut across the pattern while climbing beneath me. I climbed to 1400 feet to give myself ample margin as he flew beneath me across my path. In this case, the controller didn't warn me about the banner tow, so I advised him that I had the tow plane in sight.

It was a great afternoon of flying with 2.0 hours total time with a good portion of that under simulated IMC. This gave me my FAA Wings qualifications in lieu of a BFR, so I'm good for two more years!

Response to Vegas & Grand Canyon West Question

The round trip time was 2.0 hours. It could be done much faster as the straight line distance is only around 75 nm. But, this was a sightseeing tour, so I followed the river once I got out of the Class B around McCarran. I also flew at 55% power so I could see everything.

As for the altitude, I flew at 9,500 feet based on the recommendation of the check ride instructor from WestAir Aviation. There are many sightseeing aircraft flying lower. Lots of helicopters and twin engine tour planes. Most of the tour planes are flown by low time commercial pilots - translation: 20 somethings who take too many chances. To provide a margin of safety, I flew well above them until I had to land at the Grand Canyon West airport.

When I departed, I flew west over the canyon on climbout up to 8,500 feet and got an excellent view of the features.

If you are going to rent a plane, plan on about 2 hours for a check out beforehand. I've done checkouts in .6 hours and this one took about 1.0 hours, but there is paperwork and preflight work that must be done.