Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Night of Firsts

I've not blogged in quite some time.

Maybe this is as it should be, because as a blogger, you'd rather recount the unusual, since it means something perhaps worth reading, and as a pilot, the last thing I want is to be telling you about the unusual. Meaning, if I don't have much to say, it means things have been going smoothly. And I've been trying really hard not to find something to blog about.

On the other hand, flying truly is experiential, and if you aren't learning something, you aren't doing it right. It's always good to share what you learn.

The gold standard is probably to share something unusual that happened to you that also led to a learning experience. Well, in this context, I finally have something to blog about.  It certainly was unusual, and it was definitely a learning experience.

The Backstory

In July I got my IFR rating after one failed oral and a few months of intense study to make sure I didn't fail twice. Great instructors came to my aid to fill in the gaps with addition training so that I could get my rating. As you might expect, blogging about all this took a backseat to lots of flying, reading, and practice for the oral exam.

Since getting my rating, I've flown exactly three solo IFR flights, all which started at my home field of MYF, and all which ended at my home field.

The first of my solos was sort of a right of passage. A friend who is a pilot pointed out that "if you don't go out do that first flight (in IFR conditions), soon, you never will". He predicted I'd experience something similar to what a pilot feels just before his first solo during his or her private training. So, a week later, I did it. An ILS MYF to MYF. Conditions in excess of my personal minimums regarding ceiling and visibility at the field. It took a whole .7 on the hobbs. He was right, it was a bit of a challenge to do this all alone. But what a load off my shoulders for doing it! I had conditions in my favor: it was severe clear on the approach end of the flight, but cloudy on departure (as typical here in San Diego) and I managed 30 or 40 seconds of IMC at the start of the flight. Popping up out of the clouds while in a climbing turn to 090, and not being under the hood to witness it was magic. And so I crossed that milestone off my list.

During the past eight or so weeks, I've been working on my next goal, to transition off of steam gauge and onto GPS. Two planes have been involved in this process, a 172N with a Garmin 430, and a 172N with a Garmin 650 (most of my IFR time has been in a Piper Cadet where the only GPS in the plane was in my iPhone). To walk the learning curve, I made few VFR flights close to home to get used to the radios. I also did some playing with simulators and reading of the FAA advanced avionics book, among other things. Recently, I sat as a safety pilot for a friend during a night IFR that was based on GPS approaches and a 650, and I marveled at the difference between this and steam gauges.

What's that light mean?

Which leads us to tonight, when it was time for me to take the next step. I took up a 172 with the 650 and with a simple goal, to fly the GPS as if it were stream gauge, and build upon my experiences with the radios I had already gained in VFR flight. In extreme VFR conditions, with unlimited ceiling and 10 miles visibility, and a dew point spread of 20C, I filed IFR once again from MYF to MYF, this time with the plan of flying a VLOC-based ILS approach.

The aircraft is one I am very familiar with, as 14 years ago, I flew it from San Diego to Jacksonville Florida, VFR.

The only material differences from when I flew it back then was that it now had an upgraded avionics stack (primarily the 650) and a fancy looking digital EGT/Engine/Fuel monitor (EDM 900). Below the monitor were some placards advising, among other things, that pilots should lower the nose should annunciations go off, to reduce the heat of the engine in climb, etc.  I read these carefully.

Directly in front of me, was an LED light with the word "engine" placarded below it. I glanced at it, and took note of it's existence. More on that light later.

Before we get to the flight, let me set the stage by going thought all of the "firsts" that occurred for me during this flight:

1) first IFR flight in a Cessna 172. Not my first flight in a C172 by any means. Not a problem.
2) first IFR flight using the 650 as primary in VLOC mode. I used all the skills needed already with some flying in VFR conditions, I should be ok here, too.
3) first near-dark IFR flight (takeoff was about 60 minutes prior to sunset). I'm night current, plenty of experience flying at night, and I have a headlamp and two hand-held flashlights at the ready, in case I get diverted somehow. And the flight really won't be at night based on the planned duration, but I will get a taste of what it might be like to fly at this time of day. All sounds good.

Now for the two unexpected firsts:

4) first declaration of an emergency during an IFR flight (well, actually, technically the first declaration of an emergency ever).
5) first visual approach clearance (because there was no way I was going to fly anything else after declaring that emergency).

To describe 4 and 5, let me try to recount the radio back and forth that occurred with ATC. If you are an IFR rated pilot, this is the best way to describe it (VFR pilots, try to read along, but certainly read below for the lessons learned, they apply to you as well).

MYF tower: Cessna 123, contact so-cal.
Me: Cessna 123, contact so-cal
Me: So cal approach, Cessna 123 heading 270 1200 for 3000
So cal: Cessna 123 radar contact climb maintain 4000
Me: Cessna 123 climb maintain 4000.

And so it went, I was soon cleared to a heading of 090, as expected, and at around 3400 feet, somewhere above and to the north of MYF, the "engine" annunciator LED in front of me went yellow.

Ok. Maybe not good.

So, what does that mean? Clearly, some kind of engine issue. A glance at the engine monitor didn't really indicate a problem to my eyes.

Am I really all that prepared to expertly interpret its display?

Fact is, I don't know nearly enough.  I don't know if it is a warning that can be ignored, or even if it is coupled to the monitor. For all I know, it means the engine is about to blow up.

It took about 5 seconds to process it all and do something.

Me: So cal, Cessna 123 I need to get down, an annunciator just went off indicating an engine problem.
So cal: Cessna 123 descend 2800 feet
Me: Cessna 123 descend 2800 feet

10 seconds later:

Me: So cal, I'd like to declare an emergency.
So cal: Please state nature of emergency, fuel on board, number of occupants.

So, I go thru it. Calmly. They ask if I need assistance on the ground, I say negative.

A bit later:

Me: the annunciator is no longer showing, but I still want to get on the ground.

(likely cutting back on the engine and descending took it out of the state that led the annunciator to go off)

So cal: Do you have the field in sight?
Me: Yes, at my 4:30 (it was also maybe 2 miles back, I'm still at around 2000 feet, and high as a kite).
So cal: cleared visual approach Montgomery 28R. Contact tower 119.2
Me: Cessna 123 cleared visual approach 28R contact tower.

Me: Montgomery tower Cessna 123 inbound for landing.
Tower: Cleared to land 28R - do you need any ground assistance?
Me: Negative.

I commit to the landing, because I don't want to try and go around with an unknown engine state. A giant forward slip gets me down fast and on the glideslope (glad I practice those!). This is followed by an uneventful landing.

So, what did I learn?

While I had a lot of firsts tonight, I found I was able to manage the situation because I was careful in selecting what new things I introduced and the degree to which they were new.

1) flying IFR in a Cessna 172 was new, but flying a 172 was not. Said another way, if I had never flown a 172 before, this might have been quite a bit more stressful of an experience, as I might have not been able to get down to the glideslope as I wanted to, or I may have landed badly due to poor airspeed choices.


2) by flying in the immediate area of my home base airport and flying the simplest possible approach, I reduced what I had to worry about as a new IFR pilot, which helped me manage the situation better,

3) by just flying VLOC, instead of trying to tackle a GPS approach, the actual IFR part of the mission was completely familiar to me, and again this helped me to respond more readily to what happened.

But in terms of learning, two things standout:

a) it really is ok to declare an emergency. No sirens went off, the world didn't come to an end. Doing so helps you get what you need in a situation where inaction might otherwise lead to a bad result.

The thought of declaring an emergency, and acting on it, didn't come too hard, and I am thankful that I didn't hesitate. I'm not surprised by this, as everything that I've read and everything that I have been taught supports the decision I made. While it wasn't a big emergency, like an inflight fire, it was a situation that was unexpected, not well understood, but clearly could have led to a more dangerous situation had I not taken decisive action. In declaring an emergency, I communicated to ATC that something wasn't right with the flight, what I wanted to do to handle it, and that I needed to do it now, making sure the controller knew this in suitably strong, clear, and unambiguous terms. Declaring an emergency does this for you. You have to make the decision yourself to declare, following what your best information and training is telling you to do.  ATC won't argue, or ask you to prove why you think the situation merits an emergency declaration or not.  What they will do is ask you what is wrong, and what you want to do about it, and then help you toward accomplishing that goal.

Afterwards, on the ground with the plane tied down, I called the owner. I told him what happened. And he told me how to respond to the yellow light (it wasn't nearly that big of a deal, it still had to turn red to be of any concern, and only then if the red persisted any length of time). Therefore, finally, and most importantly, I learned that:

b) while the EDM 900 is not required IFR (or even required VFR) equipment, I failed myself by not reading the documentation cover-to-cover, with comprehension, before flight, so that I would know how to interpret the annunciator that went off. I also needed to understand the relationship between that LED and the EDM 900 (I still have questions about it, just now found the manuals online and plan to do the reading soon).

Just because the EDM 900 was not listed as required equipment by the FARs doesn't mean I could ignore it. It's my responsibility to know everything pertaining to the flight, required equipment or not. Tonight proved that one little light going yellow can surely bring you down in a hurry if you don't know exactly what it is trying to tell you. Had I done my homework more completely, what should have been a smallish step forward on my path towards flying GPS-based approaches would have gone on as filed, instead of ending up with an emergency declaration and an early landing.

A final thought: I'm really glad that I committed to landing and not going around (I had an incident back in 1994 that I won't go into here that really enforced that sort of thinking). One can read plenty about accidents that have occurred because pilots did otherwise only to find themselves painted into a corner where the only option was landing in a grocery store parking lot or into a grove of trees. I'm really glad to see that I considered this in my response, and took steps to get down on the runway on the first attempt.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Tracking Positions Enroute

Flight Data

Airplane: Piper Cherokee PA-28-161/A N9206N

Hobbs: 1.6

Landings: 1

Instrument Approaches: 2

Flight Overview

In this afternoon's lesson, we worked on tracking ETA/ATA (estimated time of arrivals, actual time of arrival), ETE/ATA (estimated time enroute, actual time enroute). We did an approach at Oceanside, some unusual attitudes, and the ILS back to Montgomery.

The flight was unusual in the we made the approach to MYF in the dark, and there was weather in the area - at several points in time during the flight we were IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions, or flying in clouds), most notably at Oceanside where the clouds were 1300 AGL, scattered, and during the ILS approach into MYF.

ETA/ATA etc.

Part of what I will need to demonstrate during my Instrument checkride with the FAA next month is my ability to file a flight plan, and then fly the first leg or so of that flight plan. The flying part, in and of itself, is something that I have had plenty of practice with. Today, however, a wrinkle was added - I needed to compute, for each leg of the initial part of this flight, the estimated time enroute, in minutes, given an groundspeed provided by my instructor.

At takeoff, I would (as usual) note the clock time of the takeoff, and then as the flight progressed, compute estimated time of arrival at each component of the flight plan, noting the actual time of arrival at each, and compute the ETA of the next component using that time plus the estimated time enroute of the next leg. Sounds simple, but doing that while flying adds to workload.

The workload was higher due to the relatively close spacing of the reporting points as fabricated by my instructor - entering V23, CARIF and HURSI intersections, See the following portion of the Low Altitude IFR chart to see the spacing of these reporting points (approximately 8 DME from KMYF to V23, 13 DME from OCN VOR to CARIF, and 4 DME from OCN VOR to HURSI):

MYF to V23 to CARIF to HURSI
The trick to doing this right the first time, I think, is to try and fly the route, if you can, in your head ahead of time while on the ground, going through the motions of recording the times before getting into the plane.

The reason tracking positions is important is because of the need to be prepared to provide position reports and estimates if required by ATC. In the event of a loss of radar coverage, the FAA requires an IFR pilot to report reaching any compulsory reporting points (as defined on the charts as shown above and on the approach plates) as well as the elements that make up the route of the flight. In summary, the following must be reported at each reporting point (to quote the FAA):

1. Aircraft identification 2. Position 3. Time 4. Altitude or flight level (include actual altitude or flight level when operating on a clearance specifying VFR-on-top) 5. Type of flight plan (not required in IFR position reports made directly to ARTCCs or approach control) 6. ETA and name of next reporting point 7. The name only of the next succeeding reporting point along the route of flight 8. Pertinent remarks 

Flying IMC and at Night

This flight must have been really fun for my instructor. Clouds at 2000 feet, flight from dusk to dark, IMC at times, and a full moon (!!!) was visible. I got to take the hood off when we arrived at the missed approach point at Oceanside, and during parts of the missed approach we were in and out of the clouds. I also got to see the flight the last 2 or 3 miles on the ILS into Montgomery Field. Part of that approach had us going in and out of clouds as well. It was beautiful! I look forward to getting my IFR ticket next month and seeing for myself an entire IFR flight in similar conditions, without the hood on.

VOR Approach, Oceanside

Speaking of Night Flying...

I was well prepared for night flight (technically, we landed 35 minutes after sunset, as so it wasn't officially night per the FAA, as night doesn't start until 1 hour after sunset, but it was plenty dark, I assure you). I had in my flight bag both a head mounted light with a red lens, and a handheld flash light with dual red and white led lenses, both colors controllable via separate on/off switches. Great flashlight! Here are links to what I recommend.

It was especially important to have both of these lights I found out. The headlamp allowed me to make glances at the charts without fumbling for a flashlight. And the flashlight came in handy because the light on the mag compass was pretty much not working, and I found it much more convenient to use the flashlight to check the mag compass than using the headlamp. This was because the headlamp was positioned on my head optimally for chart use, not for lighting the panel or compass. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Partial Panel

Flight Data

Airplane: Piper Cherokee PA-28-161/A N9206N

Hobbs: 1.6

Landings: 1

Instrument Approaches: 3

Flight Overview

Today was partial panel work. The plan was to fly the following approaches: Oceanside VOR missed, Carlsbad ILS missed, Montgomery Field ILS full stop.

During the flight to the first approach, Oceanside, I was expecting that my instructor would introduce a partial panel situation. 

What is Partial Panel?

Partial panel is a simulation of the loss of flight instruments associated with loss of vacuum. The airspeed indicator and attitude indicator become inoperative as a result. The intent is for the student to demonstrate his or her ability to perform flight with less than a full complement of flight instruments while in instrument flight.  The instructor uses a cover which has suction cups attached to it in order to hide an instrument from the student. The student must compensate for the loss of instruments by using other instruments in the panel.

Executing the Partial Panel

We were approaching the Oceanside VOR from the south somewhere close to the V23 airway. I was expecting we would go partial panel at some point prior to crossing the VOR. At the VOR, the approach can be performed by doing a teardrop entry. The holding pattern inbound leg is 90 degrees, the outbound 270 degrees. Approaching from the south, the procedure would be, upon positively passing the VOR, turn left to a heading of 240, fly 1 minute, then turn right to intercept the 90 degree radial to the VOR and complete the approach. 

VOR Approach, Oceanside

Prior to arrival, we were advised that we would be number 2 for the approach and to expect a hold. That added a wrinkle to the process. My instructor decided not to put me into partial panel mode as a result, doing an actual hold is rare and I suspect he wanted to give me that experience without overloading me with the burden of doing it partial panel. However, we were given a descent to 2500 feet and it was obvious that we would not hold, so my instructor hid both the attitude indicator, and the heading indicator.

It's hard to be sure exactly how I dealt with this. I did well enough, plenty of experience scanning instruments over the years probably accounted for the bulk of my approach to compensating. I do know that I replaced the attitude indicator with the turn and slip indicator plus mag compass for turns. As far as the use of the attitude indicator, I suspect scans of airspeed indictor, rate of climb indicator, turn and slip indicator, and altimeter all came into play.

We basically found the field, and the missed approach point, and the panel instruments were uncovered.

Compass Errors

Here are some memory aids about compass errors that I picked up during the preflight discussion:
  • ANDS - accelerate north, decelerate south. On a west or easterly heading, accelerating will cause the mag compass to show a turn to the north, and decelerating will cause the mag compass to show a turn to the south.
  • UNOS - For turns of 90 degrees or more from a west or east heading, undershoot when turning north, overshoot when turning south. How much depends on the latitude where you are flying. Given I am flying at 32 degrees north latitude,  the undershoot or overshoot amount for a 90 degree turn would be equal to the latitude, or about 30 degrees. For less then 90 degrees, interpolate - e.g., 45 degrees would be half, so the amount to undershoot or overshoot would be half of my latitude, about 15 degrees. Yes, at the equator, there is no need to compensate. And things reverse in southerly latitudes. The following video illustrates this:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

ILS is down. Localizer is up. And where is my DME?

Airplane: Piper Cherokee (PA-28-161/A)
Hobbs: 1.5 hours
Landings: 1

Flight Profile:

Cleared Oceanside Airport
After takeoff, Left turn 270 radar vectors OCN VOR
Climb and maintain 3000 expect 4000 10 minutes after departure
Frequency is 119.6
Squawk 5301

Flight Summary and Lessons Learned

The plan was to fly to OCN missed approach partial panel, then LOC/DME approach Carlsbad CRQ, then ILS Montgomery.
During ATIS prior to engine start, we found out that the ILS at Montgomery was down (for the next couple of days). We queried ground on 118.22 and found out that the localizer was up. So we planned on doing the LOC 28R approach into MYF after approaches to OCN and CRQ. 
We got into the system after takeoff and were told to go to 4000 and we stayed on 270 much longer than usual. During the flight up V23 (or thereabouts, we were told to fly direct to OCN VOR) we noticed there was a lot of traffic going into Oceanside. Eventually the controller we were with told us that there would be a 15 minute delay if we wanted to go to OCN and offered us the ILS to Carlsbad first. And we took it. We got vectored far to the east, but eventually flew the ILS, executed the missed approach, got back with ATC and we started our flight towards the LOC approach at MYF. OCN continued to be busy, so we contacted ATC and updated our plans to omit an approach at Oceanside.
Once the MYF localizer came alive on the nav radios, we noticed there was no DME coming in from the MYF localizer. I tuned the DME to the Julian VOR to see if we could get a read from it and we did. 
Localizer approach, KMYF RWY 28R
After a short while, I looked at my approach plate and noticed the IF (initial fix) at MIBBY was defined by the R-196 radial from Julian. I also looked at the plate and noticed that there was a chart that indicated time to the missed approach point from the FAF (Final Approach Fix). I decided to tune that radial but the problem was between this point on the approach and the FAF, how would I know when I could step down? I could have flown the highest known altitude from the IF to the FAF without any step downs (4200 is the MEA at MIBBY and the MEA at the FAF is 2500) but the descent would have been steep. Because at this point we were given a VFR practice approach, I decided that I could pull out my iphone and use ForeFlight. I overlaid on the sectional map the approach plate, and during the flight on the localizer, I was able to identify roughly where I was relative to various step down fixes.
This all worked fine except for the missed approach point is defined based on DME, which we did not have, or the time from FAF at 80 so knots, which I did not start timing and had to think about once on the ground. My instructor, and the fact we were on a practice approach, allowed us to get this far but by the time I was at the FAF, had this been a real flight, I would have been executing a missed approach. And, really, I can't use an iphone app to navigate. So, what in the end should have happened?

What Should Have Happened

Once we found out we had no DME, which we assumed was available given the localizer approach was up, we should have notified ATC. This hopefully would have led us to getting radar vectors, which were acceptable for this approach (position can be determined by radar or by DME). Whenever equipment for a flight that you expect to have for an IFR flight or approach (and especially if it is required for the approach or by FARs to perform the flight) becomes inoperable, it's time to tell ATC.  With radar position reports in lieu of DME, ATC, and then the tower, would have been able to tell me the critical points on the approach, including the missed approach point.  It would not have been as accurate as DME, but it would have gotten me in.
Of course, other possibilities would have been to go to an alternate, or ask for a visual approach, or given that the ceiling was unlimited and visibility was unlimited, we could have just canceled and flown in VFR (which really is what we were doing anyway given it was a practice approach). We missed out on an opportunity to see what it would have been like to fly with radar position reports probably because we didn't report DME out to ATC. Looking at the NOTAMS after the flight (see below), they advise that the ILS navigation is out of service, and do not mention explicitly that DME situated at the localizer is unavailable.

!MYF 08/010 MYF NAV ILS RWY 28R OUT OF SERVICE 1608091600-1608120100

JLI VORTAC OUT OF SERVICE. 1608081617-1608161617EST

In Real Life, Should I Use My iPhone?

Maybe. It was an amazing thing to see my plane on the map flying down the approach plate. In real life, if DME suddenly went out, tower was closed, I had no radar vectors, and I was in IMC, or conditions were marginal, I would have been talking with ATC and executing a missed approach. In any other case, I would have had the phone out for situational awareness as a cross-check, but the aircraft equipment would have been final authority.

Flying the Clock

One thing I think I am going to try, assuming workload permits and I am well ahead of the plane, is to be aware of the speed and time to MAP from the FAF, and time it. Let's say I am going down the approach and DME goes out at the FAF or beyond. If I am timing that segment of the approach, then I can continue on or above MDA for the time given (e.g., 5 minutes in the case of the approach today into MYF) before executing a missed approach. The ability to do that would allow me to reasonably determine the MAP and might mean the difference between landing and having to execute a missed approach when I otherwise could have landed. I might also have my ipad or iphone out like I did today, as a sanity check for situational awareness.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Holding Patterns

Piper Cherokee (PA-28-161/A)
1.5 hours
Flight Profile:
Before departing, I got the following clearance from my instructor (first part of the flight was done under the hood but VFR):
Cleared Rancho Intersection
After takeoff, left turn 270 intercept V23 CARIF intersection
Julian 246 Radial Rancho
Hold west of Rancho
Climb and maintain 3500 feet
Expect Further Clearance 1325 local
After executing the three holds, we would obtain an instrument clearance in the air for ILS Montgomery Field, full stop.
Flight Details:
Today's lesson was holding patterns. The plan was to depart MYF under the hood, intercept V23 and fly to CARIF intersection, and then execute three holding patterns. The first was west of Rancho intersection (344 degree radial from Mission Bay VOR and 246 radial from Julian VOR). These would be right turns (the outbound leg south of the Julian 246). Then we would transition to holding east of Rancho, also right turns, with the outbound leg north of the Julian 246). Finally, we would, at Rancho, attempt to enter a holding pattern with left turns east of the Mission Bay 344 radial). The picture looked something like this:
The three holding patterns
What complicated things a bit was the wind was strong out of the south, and the heading indicator was not functioning properly (after right turns of 180 degrees, which you do constantly in a holding pattern, the heading indicator was off 20 or 30 degrees. It seemed to function ok after left turns). I had to constantly update the heading indicator. Guess I will be ready for next week's partial panel exercise, at least as far as the heading indicator is concerned :-)
Lessons Learned:
  • I identified CARIF by intersecting two radials (Julian 246 and MZB 326 (or V23)). I should have used V23 and DME distance to identify the intersection.
  • It's easy to get confused. I initially held *east* of rancho in pattern 1, not west.
  • In the Cherokee, 3 minutes or so before reaching the holding fix, reduce airspeed (via pitch and power) to about 80 knots and fly the holding patterns at that speed.
  • Don't panic - there is plenty of room on either side of the holding fix for errors. The 1 minute leg timing guarantees you won't be more than 2 minutes from the holding fix.
  • The first fix was entered direct. The second teardrop. When it came time to do the third, which was supposed to be parallel, it was easier for me to visualize teardrop, and that's what I did. I turned north 30 degrees right of what I would have flown for the parallel entry, flew for a minute, then turned back to the inbound leg heading (164). My instructor was happy with that - keep in mind that for the practical test, any method that gets me into the holding pattern is acceptable.
  • I need to pay attention to the nav1/nav2 switch that controls what radio the DME is remoted to. I flew at times with it remoted on nav 2, and was confused by what was happening until my instructor pointed it out. I'm trying to think of a reason I would ever want to have it set on nav 2, so need to add that to my preflight checks.
My notepad after the flight with assignments from ATC
  • The ILS into MYF was uneventful, except once again, given a practice approach. Once again, 4000 feet was last assigned altitude, and this worked well.
  • Needed to do better identifying tuned VORs. I did it on the ground before takeoff (was able to receive both MZB and JUL) but in the air, I seemed to forget the importance, and flew for a while on the wrong VOR. 
  • Calling in for a clearance from the air is pretty easy: "Socal approach, cherokee 9206N in vicinity of Lake Hodges, instrument request" - "Cherokee 9206N go ahead" - "Cherokee 9206N is PA-28-161/A requesting instrument approach montgomery field full stop". After that, basically got cleared to class Bravo, fly VFR, sqwawk and ident, headings and altitudes to the localizer. I was prepared to get a more complete clearance and readback like when calling from the ground but pretty much we just jumped in (I think my instructor called it a "pop-up request" when you get a clearance from the air).
N9206N back on the ground

Friday, July 29, 2016

A night flight

Piper Cherokee (PA-28-161/A)

0.7 hours

4 (3 to a full stop to obtain night currency)

Panel fully lit

It's been years since I have been up at night. Regardless, night is one of my favorite times to fly. The air is calm (unless there is some kind of storm present, coming, or going), it's peaceful, and it's magic flying above the city lights below. There are some risks, such as finding a place to land in the event of a failed engine, but otherwise, it's just as safe, if not more safe if you consider that it's easier to see other planes in the air with their lights on at night than it can be seeing them in daylight.

It's also just a better experience from the point of view that few others are typically out flying at night. You get the feeling you are all alone, you own the airport and the tiedown area.

The reason for making the flight was to get night currency. As a private pilot, I am able fly at night anytime - you have to have a couple hours logged night time as a part of getting your private pilot certificate.  Night currency simply means needing 3 take offs and landings, to a full stop (not touch and go) within the prior 90 days, one hour after sunset or no less than one hour before sunrise, in order to take up passengers with you at night. A similar day currency also exists; 3 takeoffs and landings (touch and go are ok) within 90 days to take up passengers during the day. Having both allows you some flexibility - I can fly out to Catalina in the afternoon, and depart at sunset with passengers knowing that I am legal to do so.

Some notes:
  1. While cockpit lighting usually is enough to see the panel (see the image above), you need a flashlight (in case the panel lights go out, and to light areas away from the panel). I carry two, one that I wear on my head (advantages: I can't misplace it, and the light follows my head as I look around), and a nice smith and wesson led light that I store in the map/checklist pocket fore of the left seat.
  2. The flashlights must have a red lens as well as a white one. You'll need the white light for preflight and postflight duties, but while operating the plane, red is the color you'll want to shine from your lights. This is because there are dangers using white light due to the eye being better suited to red light at night. The main danger is if you are looking around the cockpit with a white light, and then gaze out the window into the night, your eyes will miss things as they adjust. This could have bad effects if you need to see something to avoid it, or for example at critical phases of the flight such as landing or takeoff, where vision at night is quite important. Your eyes adjust much faster in the case of red light (or no adjustment is needed at all, as the same part of your eye that sees in the dark is sensitive to red light).
  3. Good to know the runways and taxiways for the airport ahead of time at night, and have an airport diagram for reference. While the signs are lit and the blue runway markers will be present to identify taxiways and the like, it's not as easy to place yourself in the airport environment as it is during the daytime. MYF has some closed runways and taxiways due to reconstruction of runway 23/5, making this more critical.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

SDM VOR circle to land, SEE LOC/DME, MYF ILS

Piper Cherokee (PA-28-161/A)

2.0 hours


Flight profile:
Instrument flight. File and fly VOR circle to land approach Brown Field (SDM) full stop (Depart runway 28L Montgomery Field MYF). File and fly LOC/DME approach Gillespie Field (SEE) missed approach, practice ILS approach land 28R MYF. 

LOC/DME Approach, Gillespie Field
Interesting things on this flight:

Today I flew my first 2 non-precision approaches in many years. For the MYF to SDM leg, a couple of things to note:

  • I made the approach without having obtained the ATIS at SDM. I'm pretty sure the controller never asked us to get the ATIS and reply back when we had it, and when we realized we didn't have it, it was a bit late in the game to go calling for it, as we were about to get handed off to the tower and just about to the missed approach point (thus the workload was getting heavy). Lesson learned: don't expect ATC to remind you about getting ATIS, and be prepared to initiate conversation with ATC if it is getting to a point in the vectoring where it might be too late (or workload too high) to switch over and obtain it.
  • I was prompted by my instructor when we were already far along in the approach to ask ATC if we should contact tower (they replied in the affirmative). My instructor made a comment that basically he felt that ATC had forgotten us. Here, the lesson again is to know what to expect and when to expect it during an approach, and when the expected does not happen, get on the radio and ask.
We landed full stop, taxied to transient parking, got set up there with a new clearance to KSEE. We went full stop to give me a bit of a breather after having flown the first non-precision approach before going on to the second.

Nothing particularly noteworthy occurred during the SDM to SEE approach portion of the flight. I had studied the approach plates ahead of time, but given the high approach angle and the fact I almost never fly into SEE, I felt a little concerned about the approach. But my instructor and I, prior to the flight, went over the details of the approach. I had a plan coming to the airport for how to manage any non-precision approach -- scan the DME and approach plate while being vectored ahead of intercepting the localizer, to get a feel for about where in the approach we were going to ultimately join, and the corresponding altitude. During the approach, the process would be to look ahead the next step down fix (DME) and following altitude, and of course, the missed approach point and decision height/altitude. My instructor pointed out that we would be likely vectored on all approaches to within 3NM of the Final Approach Fix (FAF), which helped to narrow to the step down fix just before the FAF, and just after.

Talking through all of this on the ground actually made the approach quite doable and enjoyable. Trying to figure out a strategy and learn the approach in the airplane on the spot without a plan and prior study of the plates would have resulted in some moments of stress and mistakes, I believe. Thinking ahead of the airplane is not all that unusual, in fact, I believe it is a core competency of a safe and effective pilot. Even as a VFR pilot, you don't just get in the plane or go (at least I don't). I always have a plan of what I am going to do before the prop starts turning.

The other interesting thing I learned about today was the practice approach. We were given a practice ILS approach into MYF, and effectively, what it meant was that I was still on an instrument clearance (ultimately, ATC contacted me and asked me to switch to tower), but they were not going to provide altitude and heading assignments, I was on my own. When they gave me the instruction that I was cleared for the practice approach, it was done after being given a heading that would lead me to intercept the ILS, and an altitude of 4000. I continued on to 4000, which put me above the glideslope on intercept (but in IFR flight, I suppose above is always better than below!). Getting down to the glideslope and the rest of the approach was uneventful.

Some tips from my instructor. Stop using "with you", "looking", and "this is" in my communications. Also, need to work on saying tail number at start of communications, not at the end (with ATC, not necessarily tower).

All in all, a great flight.

Next week, we take to V23 and do various holding pattern entries.