Sunday, January 27, 2008

More Fun With The Weather

I looked at my calendar and it came as a shock that I hadn't taken the controls of an aircraft in two whole weeks. No wonder I was drooling as I looked from my first row seat of the Airbus A320 into the open cockpit door. I pulled out my blackberry and reserved a plane for the next day.

I was awakened by the sound of rain beating on my roof Saturday morning. Checking the forecast, conditions did not look good for the day. Mostly IFR conditions throughout the day but with fairly calm winds at the surface. So with my coffee in my hand, I got a briefing for an 11am departure flying over to Cecil Field. The ceiling at Cecil was showing much better than Craig - Overcast at 900 feet while Craig was overcast at 400. Visibility was reported at 3 miles, but it was diminishing with light rain and mist. These are the METAR strips for the time that I was up yesterday:
KCRG 261653Z 00000KT 2 1/2SM BR OVC004 09/08 A3025 RMK AO2 RAB02E50 SLP242 P0000 T00940083 $
KCRG 261641Z 15006KT 1 1/2SM -RA BR OVC004 09/08 A3024 RMK AO2 RAB02 P0000 $
KCRG 261618Z 14007KT 2SM -RA BR OVC004 08/07 A3027 RMK AO2 RAB02 PRESFR P0000 $
KCRG 261553Z 00000KT 3SM BR OVC004 08/07 A3032 RMK AO2 RAE38 PRESFR SLP267 P0001 T00780072 $

KVQQ 261750Z VRB03KT 2 1/2SM BR BKN004 OVC010 A3022
KVQQ 261650Z VRB04KT 2 1/2SM BR BKN005 OVC010 A3026
KVQQ 261550Z 00000KT 2SM BR OVC009 A3034

The interesting thing to note is that the barometer was dropping pretty rapidly during this time period and that doesn't spell good weather.

Arriving at the airport I learned that a new VFR pilot had taken the plane that I reserved to St. Simons Island the night before and due to obvious reasons, he could not make it back. I think the chief instructor needs to take another look at this fellow's credentials. The weather on Friday Night was exactly as forecast, so there was no reason for him to expect that he could make it back VFR.

Fortunately, a new Skyhawk was on the line - fueled and ready for me. With the weather conditions looking miserable, I verified if the plane was reserved for later just in case I needed to land at an alternate. Sure enough, it was reserved at 2, but I expected to return by 1, so no problem.

I called a briefer and entered a new flight plan since my tail number had changed and then preflighted the plane. Since I hadn't flown it several weeks, I was very careful about the preflight - didn't want to miss anything.

Taxi, runup and departure were uneventful and I was cleared to depart on runway 5 and instructed to turn to 280 on climbout. The plane accelerated down the runway and I was airborne. The cold air's effects on the engine's performance and the wing's lift were quite noticeable as I was climbing more than 1000 feet per minute with full fuel. In no time I was in the clouds. I made my turn to 280 and was handed off to JAX Approach.

Approach assigned me 4000 feet as my final altitude. I leveled off and set the autopilot to follow the heading bug. I then loaded the approach into the GPS and clipped the approach plate to my yoke. I read the plate and then tuned the ATIS for Cecil.

I was flying between layers of clouds above and below me. ATC turned me to 190 for the downwind leg for the ILS 36-R approach to Cecil. Just prior to turning me for the base leg, the controller dropped me to 2000 feet and I found myself in the clouds once again. ATC turned me to 270 followed shortly by a turn to 320 and an approach clearance, "November- 2-4-6-niner-uniform, fly heading 320, maintain 2000 until established, cleared for the ILS 36-right approach to Cecil." I repeated the clearance as I adjusted my course and activated the vector-to-final. On the downwind, I had identified the localizer at Cecil, and the green bar and the diamond were showing on my G1000 PFD. ATC handed me off to the tower who I contacted and I was given clearance for the option on 36R. I hit the APR button on the autopilot and it subsequently lined me up perfectly with the localizer. Prior to reaching the fix, I slowed my speed to 95 knots. As the glideslope neared my current altitude, I dropped the first notch of flaps and waited as the autopilot stabilized the aircraft with the warning, "Trim In Motion". I was maintaining a descent of about 450 fpm when I disconnected the autopilot so I could hand fly the rest of the approach.

I was in solid IMC when the tower controller asked me to give him a base report once I broke through and I said that I would.

The ground finally appeared when I passed through 400 feet. The runway was dead ahead. Since I had the option, I touched the wheels to the runway and then took off all over again.

My climbout instructions were fore 270 and 2000 feet on the same ATC frequency. My touch and go had used less than a quarter of the very long runway (12,500 feet). The tower handed me back to ATC and I was quickly turned to 190 again for a left downwind for the same approach.

I was flying at on ly 90 knots when I heard ATC talking to a Seminole advising them that he might have to turn them for spacing. Recognizing that I might be the cause of the potential delay, I called ATC and offered to fly faster. ATC thanked me for that and I pushed the throttle for more speed. I accelerated to 125 knots IAS and set up the plane for the next approach.

I maintained my speed until 1 mile from the FAF receiving turning instructions from ATC as I lined up for the next approach. ATC asked my intentions and I said following this approach, I would return to Craig for a full stop. He ammended my climbout instructions to 360 and 3000.

I wanted to practice an emergency procedure - nothing in the book, though. Since I carry a spare radio that can tune and indicate the localizer, I decided to use this for navigation simulating an emergency where I lost the nav radios. This time, I hand flew the entire approach. I found myself wandering across the beam a bit more than usual and the handheld radio had a bit more variability than the regular equipment. I emerged from the clouds at 400 feet and about 20 feet from the center line pointed about 10 degrees to the right of the center. But the fact is that I was pretty close to being lined up and had no difficulty reaching the runway.

Following this, I headed back to Craig where I flew the ILS 32 approach. The weather had grown worse - lower ceilings and less visibility. The ceiling was reported at 400 feet and that is lower than every approach requires except for the ILS. I did the usual - ATIS, Radios, Approach Plate, GPS, etc. I entered clouds at about 2800 feet and was solidly in IMC as I was handed off to the tower. I made my call and was told that I could expect to emerge at 300 - that's damn close to minimums - 241'. A circling approach would not be possible. Fortunately the wind was light so I should have no trouble landing on 32.

I popped out of the clouds at 300 feet as expected, but I couldn't see the far end of the runway. Visibility was only about 1.5 miles, if that.

The runway was precisely where it was supposed to be as I emerged from the clouds.

Flying in such poor conditions and being able to make three successful landings without crashing was a very satisfying experience.

1.4 hours, 3 TO, 3 Landings, 3 Instrument Approaches, 0.9 hours in actual IMC.

Inexperienced? Maybe...but a damned fool? Absolutely not.

A while back I wrote an entry where I described getting a clearance for an IFR departure from a non-towered airport and explained that I was given a very short window to take off. I had called Tampa Departure Control - the controlling agency for the clearance. The airport that I was departing is beneath the Class-B airspace for Tampa International and is fairly close to the approach patterns for this busy airport. An anonymous writer was harshly critical of my comments and said that my acceptance of a 6 minute clearance was indicative of my inexperience. The anonymous pilot explained that he has been a corporate pilot for 20 years and frequently gets clearances for 20 minutes for zero-zero departures from non-towered airports. Bully for him.

First, I'm flying a Skyhawk and will not depart an airport that I cannot immediately return to should I have a problem on departure, therefore a zero-zero for me translates to zero airspeed, zero RPM. Second, his experience may tell him to demand longer clearances, but I won't be flying with him if he opts to depart in such conditions. He won't get a 20 minute clearance window departing from the Tampa North Aeropark in his corporate jet...oh, yeah, that big lump of aluminum can't land or take off from there anyway.

Third, I never claimed to be a 20 year corporate pilot. However, I have more experience than many of the instructors who are teaching new pilots...and most of my instrument experience is in IMC, not under the hood. Still, I recognize that I do not have the experience of many pilots and I am constantly learning.

It is extremely unlikely that Tampa Departure would give anyone a 20 minute window that would cause them to block a section of busy class B airspace. Perhaps they do things differently in the Great Lakes.

So, if anyone cares to comment on my entries - please feel free. Just keep the chest pounding to yourself. It serves no useful purpose. And if you've never flown from the place I described, try not to use irrelavent experience as the basis for criticism. Lastly, if you expect me to post critical notes that lack signatures, forget it. Anonymous notes will garner nothing more than my own response...if that.