Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Having Fun in Actual IFR Conditions

It is no secret that I love flying. In spite of this strong affection for a rather expensive hobby, my familial duties and other financial responsibilities have made it challenging to put the wind beneath my wings as often as I would like. Therefore, when I am about to fly, it is always a welcome sight to find numerous clouds in the sky without the presence of cumulonimbus and the lightning that they bring.

Monday was a holiday even though the 4th of July was on Sunday. (Gotta love working for the #1 Best Company to Work for!) When Christy suggested that I should go fly, I quickly agreed with her.

Last week, a hurricane passed through the southern Gulf of Mexico and we were still experiencing some of the farthest outer bands of precipitation and cloud cover along with light easterly winds. I did my usual thorough job of pre-flight preparation online and noticed that there would be more cloud cover inland than along the coast. As a result, I decided to fly to Gainesville rather than up or down the coast line. I filed an IFR flight plan for KCRG-VQQ-GNV-SGJ-KCRG and I intended to make use of the cloud cover to make instrument approaches at each of these airports in actual IFR conditions.

Because I don't fly as often as I used to, I am particularly careful when conducting my preflight checks. I begin by removing the yoke lock, inserting the key, and turning the fuel switch to both. Next, I turn on the auxilliary battery and once the PFD comes alive, I jot down the tach time and check the fuel gauge indications. Then, I turn on the master battery switch, extend the flaps and turn on the lights and pitot heat. I make a quick pass around the left wing, tail, right wing, across the nose then back to the pitot tube where I remove the cover and check to see that the tube is hot. As I walk around the wings and tail, I remove the tie downs and the chocks. Then it is back inside where I turn off the master, lights and pitot heat. I grab the fuel testing cup and test the five sumps on the left wing, the gas collator under the fuselage and before climbing up the wing, I check the air inlet on the side of the fuselage. I climb up the wing and return the clean fuel to the left wing. I then walk along the left wing to the tip, then back along the back side checking the ailerons and the flaps. As I walk to the tail, I check the antennae and look for wrinkles on the fuselage and double check the baggage door. Next comes the empennage where I check the elevator and rudder. I walk to the back of the right wing, check its ailerons and flaps, then out to the end, and back up the leading edge, followed by the five sumps on the right wing and the two remaining sumps beneath the fuselage. Up on top of the right wing, I carefully pour the fuel from the tester back into the tank. Hopping down, I check the oil in the crankcase, then the propeller and the alternator belt. I peek at the air filter to make sure it is clean, check the exhaust for tightness, look at the front strut for cracks and inflation then a step back to make sure the tires are inflated properly. With everything checked, I take one more walk around the entire plane looking for anything out of the ordinary. Satisfied, I open the left door and climb in.

Once inside, I plug in my headset, attach my radio holder to the windshield just behind the dashboard on the left and open the windows. I switch the PFD to report the engine status and reset the fuel available to 53 gallons, then take out two for good measure. I test my handheld radio by tuning the ATIS and copy down the numbers before I start the plane. Since the aircraft costs me $2.68 per minute that the engine is running, it makes sense to do as much as possible with the engine turned off rather than with the engine running.

Finally, with all my checks completed, I double check the checklist to ensure that I didn't miss anything. Satisfied, I run through the startup procedure and get the engine fired up. I called for and obtained my IFR clearance and plugged the squawk code and frequencies into the PFD, then switched to the ground control frequency. Radio calls are the hardest thing to master in my opinion and they are also the easiest thing to get rusty, too.

I called ground, "Craig Ground, skyhawk six-two-zero-zero-quebec with Oscar, ready to taxi for IFR".

There's the rust. I forgot to tell him where I was and at Craig, we usually do a courtesy call to ground rather than the more common request technique.

The controller responded, "Skyhawk six-two-zero-zero-quebec, where are you?"

Even though this aircraft is based at a flight school right below the tower and the controller probably gets 50 taxi calls a week from this particular plane from the same location, he isn't allowed to assume anything.

I replied, "Ground, sorry about that, zero-zero-quebec is at North Florida".

"Skyhawk zero-zero-quebec, taxi to runway five via bravo", came my clearance which I acknowledged.

Runway 5/23 and 14/32 intersect at the easternmost point of both runways and North Florida is situated just inside the vee that is formed. Taxiing to runway 5 requires that I taxi the full length of the runway, therefore I have plenty of time to go through my runup checklist on the roll as long as there isn't another aircraft right behind me. In an effort to minimize my down time, I did my runup while taxiing. Unfortunately, this was all for naught because when I arrived at runway 5, there were three planes waiting to take off and three or four in the pattern. It took about 10 minutes before I finally got my place at the hold-short line...and then I had to wait for release.

The line ahead of me

At long last I got the call, "Skyhawk zero-zero-quebec, cleared for take off on runway five fly heading 100". I repeated the clearance and taxied onto the runway and began my flight.

On climbout, I was instructed to turn to 130 for climbout and to climb to 4,000 feet. This amended my initial clearance which was for only 3,000 feet. ATC then asked me what I wanted to do. I advised that I would like to fly the VOR 9R approach at Cecil field. The controller then wanted to know if I wanted the full approach or vectors, I opted for vectors. He instructed me to go direct to the VQQ VOR then fly 270 for the approach. As I cruised along, I pulled out my IFR plates and loaded the approach into the flight plan. Eventually, I crossed the VOR and turned slightly right to my westbound heading. Straight and level and in and out of clouds for about 10 minutes, I eventually received the call to turn to 360 followed shortly by and instruction to fly 030 and maintain 2000 until established on the VOR 9-right sidestep to 9-Left (9Right is closed). I repeated the clearance and made my turns. Entering the approach in the flight plan automatically tunes the VOR, and I had previously switched the CDI to the VOR indication. The OBS was already set at 109 for me as per the approach plate. I disengaged the auto pilot and flew the intercept and the descent to minimums by hand. I was in and out of clouds as I drew closer to the airport. I had been asked to advise when I was making my sidestep, but the controller cleared me to land before I made my call so I sidestepped (which really meant that I turned from 109 to 90 just a bit early.) I lined up with the runway, dropped the flaps and made one of the smoothest touch and go landings ever. Then back into the air where I was advised by the tower controller to execute my climbout instructions and contact JAX departure.

My climbout instructions were to fly 270, climb to 2000 feet and contact approach on the previous frequency. I flew west and ATC asked me what I wanted to do. This time I advised that I would like to go to Gainesville. There was a line of rain showers between me and Gainesville and the controller asked me to verify my destination. I looked at the NEXRAD display on the MFD and there was clearly a band of rain, but it was only showing light green and dark green and the view out the window didn't look too bad, either, so I said I would like to go to Gainesville. He vectored me to avoid what he thought were the worst part of the showers. I flew right into rain storms, but other than some updrafts and downdrafts that necessitated me making some rapid adjustments to the throttle, there wasn't really any difficult weather.

Enroute to GNV, I passed Keystone

I tuned the ATIS at KGNV on the number 2 COMM and learned that they were using the ILS29 approach. JAX Approach called and informed me of the previous ATIS report that had different runways in use and asked me which approach I would like and how would my approach end. I advised that I had the ATIS at GNV and I would like the ILS-29 and would then go directly back to KCRG. Time was running out and I didn't think I could fit St. Augustine in on this flight by 1PM. The controller got the new numbers and vectored me for the ILS 29. I hand flew the entire approach - no autopilot for me. In and out of bumpy clouds...lined up perfectly on the localizer and glide slope. I did another touch and go and also set this one down very gently. Then back in the air, and a heading of 360 while climbing to 2000 feet through the clouds.

During the short time that it took to do my approach at KGNV, the line of showers between me and KCRG had intensified. ATC advised me to fly 010 to avoid the worst of them. Somehow, I heard 110 and I turned eastbound while climbing. Looking at the NEXRAD, it seemed like the showers were lined up for about 40 miles straight in front of me and I would be taking the line lengthwise. This probably wouldn't give me the best ride home. So I called ATC and asked if he had said 010 or 110 and learned that I was headed the wrong way to avoid the storms. This conversation took place right about the time that I should have been leveling off at 4,000 feet. Since I was busy changing my heading and talking on the radio, I didn't notice that I had busted altitude and this prompted ATC to politely remind me that I should be at 4,000 feet. I said "Oops" and headed back down to 4,000.

I proceded through the clouds, got tossed around a bit, but all was well. This is what instrument flying is all about!

VFR pilots are advised to avoid holes like this

Heading due east, the skies got clearer and clearer. My vectors took me on a heading of 010 directly pointed at Glen St. Mary along highway 301, then east just south of Cecil Field where I had previously landed. I took this shot from 3,000 feet. That long runway is 12,500 feet long.

KVQQ from 3,000 feet

Eventually, I was vectored to the East and direct to one of the fixes on the ILS-32 approach at Craig that I had previously requested. I was in the clouds for most of the way home until I got close to the St. Johns River. ATC dropped me down to 3,000 feet and I found myself below the cloud layer with clearing skies ahead of me - meaning no chance of an actual instrument approach. Rather than go through the motions in clear skies, I requested a straight-in for runway 5. ATC complied and I was turned to the north as I passed over the Buckman Bridge.

Passing over Hooters San Jose

I was just about to tell ATC that I had Craig in sight when she asked. I told her that I had the airport and she cleared me for the visual to 5 and warned me about the antenna farm. I advised that I had both the antennae and the airport in sight.

Descending from 3000 feet from only about 6 miles away requires a significant reduction in power and a relatively rapid descent. I pulled power, slowed the aircraft and dropped the first notch of flaps. With 2 miles to go, I was still above the glideslope. I dropped my last two notches of flaps and lined up with the runway. My speed drained off and my altitude dropped. The tower cleared N512MA to depart - that brought back memories as that is the plane I used for my instrument training and check ride. I saw another plane pull to the hold short line and I thought I would demonstrate a perfect landing on the numbers. I crossed the threshold at 65 knots indicated while pointing the nose at the numbers. I then pulled power to idle and slowed further. Just as I touched down, the stall warning sounded and the numbers slipped behind the aircraft. I held the nose off the runway for a few seconds, then applied the brakes slowing for the first taxiway, B-2.

This was a very satisfying flight. I logged two approaches in instrument conditions and made three landings total. Total flying time was 2.0 hours with about .7 or .8 in actual instrument conditions. Since KGNV is far enough from KCRG, I get to log this as cross-country time, too. All in all, a great day of flying!