Monday, October 11, 2010

In the System from Tampa to Craig

Lately in AOPA Pilot magazine as well as in a couple of email newsletters that I receive, there has been discussion surrounding the pros and cons of flying in and out of towered airports. Non-towered airports do not have a controller to bark at you when you say something wrong, nor do you have to wait for a controller to clear you to taxi and take off. However, when flying in and out of an area where there is a fair amount of traffic and especially if that aircraft flown in that area are piloted primarily by students, having an extra set of eyes and clear communication requirements would be my preference.

Craig airport is a tower-controlled airport most of the time. Only if you fly very early or very late will you find the tower closed. In the past few years, I have not noticed any harshness directed at pilots by any of the controllers. This wasn't always the case, as there was once a controller that had a tendency to yell at almost everyone. The system has a way of weeding out these types and he is no longer found in our tower.

When flying in and out of a non-towered airport, the communication burden is placed squarely on the shoulders of the pilot. Often, pilots take this reporting responsibility with a grain of salt. Likewise, without a tower, there are many options available for approaching and departing the airport - some are encouraged by the AIM and some are not. Towered airports, on the other hand, require communication with the tower prior to entering the controlled airspace. Once communication is established, the tower provides clear instructions to the pilot for his or her approach as well as additional communications requirements. These requirements add an additional margin of safety but they do not eliminate the pilot's responsibility to see and avoid other traffic.

Learning to fly an airplane is pretty easy. Most people fly their first solo between 10 and 20 hours of flying time - and part of that logged time is actually spent taxiing. One of the more challenging lessons in flying is learning how to communicate properly over the radio. I suspect that this is the main reason for many pilots' aversion to towered airports. In a non-towered area, you talk to the thin air announcing your position and intent. You listen to other pilots for their reports, but you rarely have any one-on-one communication with another person. Contrast this with a towered environment where every communication is directed at a specific person and is expected to follow a certain protocol, be concise, and be correct. Communicating with the tower is no time to practice saying "ummmm". Yet even professional pilots have some issues when they communicate. Many begin their communication with "and". Why? To me, that is a waste of breath. "And, Tampa Approach, United 212 checking in at one-two thousand." An otherwise perfect communication marred by an unnecessary transmission. Still others use totally incorrect terminology. Radio communications, with the exception of the proper way to request an instrument clearance, are described fairly precisely in the AIM. 12,000 feet is pronounced one-two-thousand. 7,500 feet is seven-thousand-fife-hundred". Almost every time I fly, I hear an otherwise professional sounding pilot using something like, "Mooney three-bravo-alpha, out of seven point five for nine". That should have been "out of seven-thousand-fife hundred for niner-thousand". We all make mistakes, though. When it comes to communications, mistakes are expected and there is no shame in making a correction. Deliberate and consistent mistakes should always be avoided, though. In spite of mistakes, my preference is to fly in the system as much as possible. I like the added safety and professionalism.

Tampa International Airport is in Class B airspace. From a communications perspective, this is the most tightly controlled airspace. There are numerous commercial flights in and out of KTPA every hour and quick, clear communications are essential to preventing aircraft from bumping in to each other.

After my short visit with my mom, my sister, and my neices, we packed it up for the airport where I paid my bill and made my way on to the tarmac to my waiting Skyhawk. The tanks had been topped off - REALLLY topped off - I couldn't pour the sumped fuel back in to the left tank it was so full. As part of my pre-flight, I have added a check of the computerized fuel management system, so I reset the fuel system to full fuel (53 gallons). I like the precision of knowing how much fuel has been burned down to the tenth of a gallon.

I listened to the ATIS on my handheld radio before starting the plane - this saves me a few minutes of engine time. At current rates, one minute of time costs $2.68 or a tenth of an hour costs $16.05, so minimizing unnecessary idling time can save big bucks! I never used to worry so much about this, but with twins on the way, I'm counting my pennies as I pick them up off the ground!

After getting the ATIS and plugging the altimeter setting into G1000, I called for my instrument clearance, "Tampa Clearance Delivery, Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-quebec, ready to copy IFR to Jacksonville Craig".

A few seconds later, a woman's voice came back with, "Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-quebec, cleared as filed to Craig, after departure fly heading zero-siz-zero. Initial climb out to one-thousand-six-hundred, expect six-thousand in ten minutes. Departure frequency one-one-niner-point-niner, squawk seven-four-one-zero."

I wrote this clearance down as she spoke and then repeated it as, "Cleared as filed, heading zero-six-zero, climb one-thousand-six-hundred, six-thousand in ten, one-one-niner-point-niner for the frequency and seven-four-one-zero for the squawk. Zero-zero-quebec."

This is a shot from my kneeboard of the ATIS and the instrument clearance. The first part shows that I got ATIS information X-Ray, winds 230 at 6, visibility 10, few clouds at 5,500 feet, temperature 29 dewpoint 13, altimeter 30.01. Landing and departing on runway 36L. Clearance delivery on 133.6. The clearance is below that followed by my departure runway - 9 at Echo.

She answered, "Cessna zero-zero-quebec, readback correct. Current information is Xray, say your position".

I replied, "zero-zero-quebec has X-Ray, we are at Signature".

She then told me, "zero-zero-quebec, contact ground on one-two-one point seven when ready."

I acknowledged and then plugged in the frequency for ground followed by the tower frequency and then on the second radio, I entered the departure frequency. I entered my squawk code into the transponder (which is actually built in to the G1000 panel) and then I plugged KCRG as my destination in the GPS flight plan. It was nice to get a direct routing.

I called ground control and advised, "Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-Q with X-ray, ready to taxi for IFR to the northeast."

The ground controller told me that winds were 230 at 6, and asked if I could accept a departure from runway 9 at echo. I was expecting this since I knew that 18L/36R was closed and there was no direct taxiway over to 18R/36L with all of the closures. Before flying down to Tampa I had checked out the runway lengths from various intersections and knew that even with a stiff tailwind, I would be able to depart on runway 9 from the Echo intersection. I told the controller, "niner at echo would be just fine, zero-zero-quebec."

With my taxi clearance, I made my way to my assigned spot and did my runup as I rolled. I requested departure clearance and was quickly given the go signal. It felt odd having such a tailwind on the roll and the plane seemed to cover quite a bit more distance before it wanted to fly, but fly, it did! On climbout, I made my turn to 060 and that heading took me directly over Raymond James Stadium where a ball game was going on. Must not have been much of a game as there were lots of empty seats.

I flew my heading and about the time I was ready to level off at 1,600 feet, ATC handed me off to Tampa Departure who cleared me for 4,000 feet. I leveled off at 4,000 and continued my 060 heading until I was nearly out of the Class B airspace at which point, the controller cleared me for 6,000 feet and turned me to 020 before clearing me direct to Craig, which not coincidentally was on a heading of 020.

Clouds were right at 6,000 feet so I found myself in and out of them quite a bit. There was a fair amount of air traffic around Tampa and since I began this entry with a discussion about radio communications, I am compelled to relate the following interaction.

If you are flying VFR, you must contact the Class B airport's approach controller, establish two-way communication and receive permission to enter his airspace before doing so. It is usually a good idea to have "VFR Flight Following" and fly "in the system" as this will simplify contact with approach and it will provide a greater measure of safety as ATC will warn of traffic workload permitting.

I heard two problematic communications in a span of about 15 minutes. First, a VFR pilot without flight following called Tampa Approach speaking with a very thick, almost unintelligible accent, "Tampa Approach, ??? 1-2-3-6-6".

Approach responded, "V-F-R traffic calling Approach, call back in five minutes".

This elicited another call from 12366 immediately and identical to the first call. This second call was ignored by Tampa Approach. The controller was busy; he didn't have to respond the first time. The VFR pilot should have shut up. When he called back five minutes later, the controller, undoubtedly annoyed by the initial interaction, told him again to wait five minutes. Eventually he was given a squawk code and was permitted to head towards Vandenburg.

The second interaction involved a Mooney. I automatically assume that if a pilot is flying a Mooney, he knows what he is doing. Mooney's are high-performance, complex aircraft, so one would assume that a pilot of such an aircraft would have some experience. This is not a good assumption - it would be like assuming JFK,Jr. was a competent pilot. His inverted landing in Long Island Sound suggests otherwise.

So the Mooney pilot who had a tail number ending in six-zero-quebec, similar to mine, contacted approach control. Approach told him to wait and he would have his code for him shortly.

A few minutes later, the controller called "November six-zero-zero-quebec, squawk 1053".

This was not the tail number of the Mooney, but it was close. It was also close to my tail number. The Mooney pilot responded, "Approach, was that for Mooney six-zero-quebec?, if so, say again, please."

The controller sounding quite annoyed replied, "Standby".

I wasn't sure if the controller had made a mistake, so I hit the playback button on the radio. Yup, the controller screwed up.

The controller never owned up to his mistake - he probably didn't know he made one and the Mooney's subsequent conversations with ATC suggested to me that he was fairly inexperienced, so the controller would probably have assumed the pilot made an error. Eventually, they sorted this out.

The point is that pilots and controllers both make mistakes in communication and the only safe thing to do is to say "Say again" when you aren't sure what either has said.

Flying in and out of the clouds, I made my way back to Craig. About 25 miles out, I was cleared to descend to 4,000 feet at pilot's discretion. The sky was very clear and I spotted Craig field about 15 miles out. I has already listened to the ATIS and had adjusted my altimeter. I called Jacksonville Approach saying, "Approach, Skyhawk 0-0-Q has Craig in sight."

The controller replied, "November-0-0-Q, cleared for the visual to runway 5. Be aware of the tower farm on your left. Contact the tower on 1-3-2-point-1"

I acknowledge and immediately called the tower, "Craig tower, Skyhawk 0-0-Q is 10 to the south with India, full stop."

She responded, "November 0-0-Q, make 2 mile right base for 5".

I began my descent from 4000 to pattern altitude, 1000 feet and leveled off. The tower farm was about a mile to the west of me, nevertheless, the controler's alarm must have sounded as she called me with the alarm blaring in the background warning me of the towers.

I touched down gently on runway 5 and taxied to the ramp.

The flight each way took 1.5 hours with tailwinds in each direction. I encountered more IFR on the return flight, but it was clear at the destination. Another great day of flying.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jacksonville to Tampa

I woke up early this morning so I could fly to Tampa to attend a meeting with my mother that was scheduled for 10am. I would need time to pre-flight, fly, and to get from Tampa International to mom's house, so working backwards, I thought that a 7:30 wheels up time would do the trick. Checking the weather for the trip I discovered that the METAR at Craig Airport (KCRG) had recently deterioriated according to three special issue reports. Visibility had decreased from 7 miles down to 1/4 due to fog or mist. As I drove to the airport, the sky was clear, but I could see wispy pockets of ground fog in low lying areas. Driving past runway 5-23, I could see the cloud sitting on the ground - it was only about 10 to 20 feet thick and it wasn't very dense. I took this shot of runway 14/32 as I preflighted. The fog got just a bit thicker before takeoff.

I completed my preflight quickly and found the fuel to be down about 18 or 20 gallons which was confirmed by the onboard computer, but that would still be more than enough fuel for the 1.2 hour flight. Checking the ATIS with my handheld radio, the report showed clear skies and good visibility - which was strange since there was definitely some fog obscuring the runway.

After I started the engine, I called for my instrument clearance to Tampa International. I had requested a direct route, but was cleared via radar vectors to the Ocala VOR, then V581 to the DADES intersection then direct. That would add a few minutes to the flight, but I'd rather fly in the system than VFR especially when flying in to Class B airspace, so I didn't complain.

I was cleared to taxi and I had to rev the engine a bit to clear the moisture from the windshield enough to see where I was going. I taxied to the runup area and did my run-up check using my checklist. With that completed, I taxied to runway 23 and called the tower for my clearance that came as "November 6-2-0-0-Quebec, cleared for take-off on runway 23, fly heading 140." I acknowledged the clearance and off I went. I climbed through nearly 2000 feet before the tower handed me off to JAX Departure control. Since a heading of 140 was not in the direction that I needed to go, I climbed at Vx to minimize the lateral distance traveled while climbing. I would have to make up for that distance once I was turned towards my destination. After the handoff, I was cleared direct Ocala and I eventually leveled off at 5000 feet and flew a heading around 220. Note that this is one more example of ATC assigning an altitude that is different from what the AIM recommends. This is common in Florida and is due to the fact that most travel is North-South rather than East-West. South gets odd altitudes and North gets even whereas the AIM gives even to West and odd to East headings.

About 30 minutes in to the flight, I passed over a portion of the former Cross-Florida Barge Canal - a big ditch that was originally intended to go all the way across Florida to save shipping time. Environmentalists put an end to that about half way from completion. There are locks, dams and canals near the east coast and the west coast, but not much in between. The sunlight and fog on the ground created a surreal picture as I flew over - here's one of the shots I took with my iPhone.

Shortly after taking this picture, ATC cleared me direct DADES and that made my flight just a bit shorter. I was encountering headwinds at about 8 to 10 knots for the duration of the flight and anything to shorten it was appreciated.

At Tampa International, runway 18L/36R is closed along with quite a few taxiways. I suppose that this must make commercial traffic in and out of KTPA a bit slower than usual. It also meant that runway 9/27 is about the only option for GA aircraft regardless of wind direction. Taxiing from a landing on 18R/36L would require passage through the commercial ramp as there is no open taxiway that would take you across to the GA ramp. This would be a very slow process and might create some security concerns.

I was cleared to land on runway 27 and I did so flawlessly. After securing the plane and meeting mom, the clock on the wall in the FBO showed 9:00AM, so I had timed the flight perfectly.

My visit was short, but I got to see my sister and my lovely neices at grandma's house. Here's a shot of them having lunch with one of mom's cats.

Total HOBBS time 1.5 hours, .1 hours of actual instrument time. All in all, a very nice trip.