Monday, October 27, 2008

One Trip Made All The Training Worth While

Growing up in Florida in the '60s and '70s, there was only one baseball team nearby (sort of) to root for. As a result, I was raised on Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves. Several times as a kid, Dad drove the family up to Atlanta to watch the Braves play in Fulton County Stadium. These were great times and the trips were always fun.

Fast forward to today...Dad and I are quite a bit older and Floridians have two teams to choose from. Dad now lives on the Gulf coast of Florida and I'm still in Jacksonville. This year the Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series! I used to find a couple of tickets to game 2 in St. Petersburg and asked Dad if he wanted to go. It isn't every day that you get to take your dad to the World Series.

The plane that I've been flying for the past year, N2469U, a Skyhawk with the Garmin G1000 panel was not available. The only plane that had enough open time was N341PA, a Piper Archer III that is showing some wear. This meant that I was back to flying on steam gauges and with no autopilot. The forecast was not good. Definitely not a VFR opportunity, so I'd be hand flying single pilot IFR in low conditions.

I got my briefing and filed two Instrument flight plans, one for CRG-CGC to pick up Dad and one for CGC-PIE to get to the game. The winds were fierce and gusty on the ground, but I would have a tailwind on the way down. Craig's beacon was lit signifying IFR conditions. After fueling the plane, I picked up clearance and departed Craig on schedule. Almost immediately after takeoff, I found myself in the clouds bouncing all over the place. Since I hadn't flown an Archer in over a year, I paid very careful attention to my checklist. ATC vectored me around the restricted area that was established over NAS Jacksonville for the airshow. As soon as I was past the restricted area, I was cleared direct to Crystal River. Most of the flight was conducted in instrument conditions, but the clouds thinned out a bit as I neared Crystal River. ATC was giving me vectors for the GPS approach to CGC and I entered that in the GPS. About 4 miles out, I started to pick out the airport through the clouds. ATC dropped me down to 2000 feet and I was able to cancel IFR and landed VFR. The skies were scattered at 1,300 feet with an OVC ceiling around 2,500 feet. The winds were light and variable, and there was no traffic in the pattern, so I entered a left downwind for runway 9 and landed.

Dad and I loaded up and I took off again this time headed for KPIE. I attempted to raise JAX approach on 118.6 several times and they never acknowledged me. As I flew closer to the Class B airspace around Tampa, I began to get aggravated. I could hear ATC, and I could hear other aircraft, but ATC never responded to me. Another pilot tried to relay for me, but the controller was ignoring me for some reason. Frustrated, I had to circle outside the Class B at 3000 feet waiting for clearance. I called Tampa Approach and was told that they couldn't get my clearance and was instructed to contact JAX on 118.6 - but that was the frequency that was not responding to me. The Tampa controller then told me to contact St. Pete. the St. Pete controller was able to pull up my clearance and told me it was on request - thinking I was on the ground. It advised the controller that I was over a particular intersection (I forgot which one) at 3000 feet and he then gave me my clearance and squawk. I was then instructed to intercept the localizer for 17L at PIE and I flew the ILS in.

The game was great and we had fun time. The next day, dad and I flew back to CGC and I flew on to CRG. This time the weather was also pretty cruddy. After getting my clearance at KPIE, ground control instructed me to taxi to 17L via taxiway Alpha. I taxied on alpha and crossed 9/27 and then found myself at the end of 35L. Thinking that I had missed a turn, I called ground control and asked if I had made a mistake. The controller told me that 35L was the continuation of alpha and it was not used as a runway currently. I was fine. I completed my runup as I taxied and was ready to go when I reached the end of 17L. The tower cleared me and told me to fly heading 270 on climbout. Passing through 700 feet, I turned right and was cleared to 4000 feet. Eventually we were turned to the north and we proceded to Crystal River. About 15 miles south of the airport, I was about to request a lower altitude and ATC handed me off to Jax approach. Approach told me to expect the GPS approach and said that they had no weather information at CGC. I advised that I had the numbers for CGC and that they were reporting 1300 feet scattered. ATC gave me vectors for the approach and I spotted the airport off my left wing. When I advised ATC that I had the airport in sight, ATC cleared me for the visual approach and I made a left turn to base - but I was still way to high to land. I advised ATC that I would be back in the air in about 10 minutes after I dropped off my passenger. The controller advised me to contact him on 118.6 when I was airborn and gave me a new squawk code for the next flight. This was a far cry better than the previous day's situation. I canceled IFR and I began a steep turn and a descent to lose altitude until I was low enough for a safe approach. There was no other traffic in the area and I flew straight in on runway 27. I dropped dad off and was back in the air shortly.

Once I was away from the pattern, I contacted ATC and was cleared to 6000 feet and direct Craig. I entered cloud layers around 2000 feet, passed through one layer and entered another layer around 5,500 and flew in clouds almost the entire way home. Craig was IFR and landing using either the VOR14 or the GPS14 approach. Winds were at 18 knots gusting to 26 from a heading of 130. Nearing the Jacksonville area, ATC advised that she could save me some time if I could fly the ILS32-Circle to 14 which I eagerly accepted. She vectored me around the airshow's restricted area - although I seriously doubt that there was any airshow practice going on in this weather. ATC brought me down to 3000 feet and then dropped me to 2000, turned me to 350 and told me to maintain 2000 until established on the localizer. I passed through some cloud layers and found myself in the clouds until about 1000 feet. Craig tower advised me to circle to the west, so I made a slight left turn off of the localizer about 2 miles from the departure end of 32 and flew a tight pattern at 600 feet. At this altitude, I was bounced up and down quite a bit and I was thankful I didn't have a passenger with a weak stomach. I landed and parked the plane just as the rain began again.

There is no way that I could have made this flight without an instrument rating. To borrow from the MasterCard commercials - flight lessons $12,000; World Series tickets $700; Taking Dad to the World Series in style, PRICELESS!

Lots of instrument time on these flights. 3.9 hours total time. Two instrument approaches. An absolutely terrific trip!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Good Pilot Is Always Learning

Recently I had the pleasure of flying with a student pilot shortly before he earned his wings. I had never met the pilot in person - we had corresponded when he was researching flight schools and came across this blog.

We made arrangements to get a $300 hamburger (inflation took its toll) at HighJackers at the Flagler Airport (KXFL). I've flown down there many times and like the food and the atmosphere, so I thought it would be a good place to take him. The weather was fine for an instrument rated pilot, but marginal VFR conditions prevailed. I filed an instrument flight plan and we jointly preflighted the plane. This was also the first time that Hank had flown in a G1000 cockpit. I took the left seat - I'm not an instructor and I have very rarely flown in the right seat. With a student in the plane, I didn't want to take any chances.

I got the clearance, taxied and after a short wait, we were cleared to depart on runway 5 and were told to fly heading 100. We encountered a few clouds on the climbout and during cruise. I demonstrated the autopilot, the GPS and explained the basics of the G1000 PFD and MFD. I also hit the reversionary mode button so my copilot would have the exact same display that I had.

During the flight we talked about Hank's training. He described a situation where his instructor had him flying in what he described as instrument conditions without an IFR flight plan. Further discussion revealed that these were not actual instrument conditions but hazy conditions that obscured the horizon. He also explained that he had an actual engine out condition that his instructor deliberately caused. They were over a non-towered airport and pulled power to idle. The instructor apparently had him pull back on the throttle until the prop stopped windmilling. Once it stopped, he pushed the nose over but the engine did not restart. They went through the emergency procedures and were able to restart. I found the situation quite disturbing and unnecessarily risky. It is a potential violation of FAR 91.113 and I told Hank as much.

Nearing the airport, ATC instructed me to descend to 2,600 feet - but I heard it as 2,000 feet and I repeated the same. ATC did not correct me and neither did my co-pilot who later said he heard it correctly. In level flight at 2,000, ATC told me, "fly 2,600 as assigned". Oops. Busted altitude. I replied that I was climbing back to 2,600.

As we approached Flagler, we could see a few aircraft on the Traffic Information System and I heard several talking to ATC. One was a Cirrus on instruments that was going to cause us a bit of a delay. ATC told me I could cancel IFR in the air and avoid the delay. Unfortunately, the airport was obscured by clouds and we were in and out of clouds at our altitude. I explained the situation to ATC who vectored me to the East where there were fewer clouds and he dropped me down. Clear of the clouds and low enough to stay below them, I canceled IFR and entered the pattern to make a landing to the East.

After a nice meal served by an attractive waitress who bore a striking resemblance to Sarah Palin...maybe hotter, I filed IFR for the return.

We taxied to runway 6 and were number 3 behind a Warrior and a Cirrus. The Warrior departed and the Cirrus taxied to the hold short. An aircraft in the pattern announced he was turning base and the Cirrus decided to wait. I don't know why. The Cessna that was on base was flying a very wide pattern and took a full five minutes to land. The Cirrus waited quite a while after the Cessna landed and executed a touch-and-go. As soon as I saw the Cessna airborne, I called on the radio, "Be advised that touch-and-gos are prohibited at Flagler". I felt like telling the pilot to read his A/FD, but my co-pilot had confided that he had done the same thing a few weeks earlier without noting the A/FD's warning, so I cut him some slack.

After the Cirrus' inexplicable delay that caused quite a back up of traffic behind me, I taxied onto the runway and watched as the Cirrus aborted his take off. He turned off of the runway quite a way down and as soon as he was clear, I departed. As I passed through pattern altitude, I leveled off below the clouds and contacted Daytona Approach to pick up my instrument clearance. We were cleared Direct to Craig as filed but we were assigned 6,000 feet as our cruising altitude. On climbout, I turned over the controls to hank. We encountered clouds on climbout and he did a pretty good job of handling the plane in spite of the unfamiliar display and right seat. He leveled off ok, but had a little difficulty trimming it. Encountering clouds, he busted altitude a few times and when focused on altitude, he drifted off of his heading, however he did an overall good job of handling the plane.

During the flight, we encountered some VFR traffic that was reported at 500 feet below us in the opposite direction. ATC announced the traffic and we spotted it on our scope. Since we were barely above the broken cloud layer, I advised ATC that we did not have traffic in sight and it was probably in and out of clouds. I then heard ATC instruct the traffic to remain VFR - so I suspect that someone was violating VFR. I see that quite a bit especially with the students flying planes with tail numbers that end in Echo-Romeo - YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. This is dangerous and unacceptable behavior. What happens when two ERAU pilots encounter each other in a cloud and neither is talking to ATC? Not a good situation at all. The FARs were mostly created in response to some tragedy and are intended to protect all of us. Follow the damn rules guys!

The conditions at Craig required that we fly the ILS-32 Circle to 5 approach . I took the controls when ATC told us to descend and I flew the approach.

Hank had to postpone his check ride that was scheduled for Tuesday because the aircraft was down for maintenance. I got an email last Friday announcing that he got his ticket punched. I think he'll make a great pilot. Congratulations Hank!