Monday, November 23, 2009

Extra! Extra! Gull Loses Battle With Tiger! Tiger Wounded!

One of my oldest friends came to visit us the weekend before Thanksgiving. I'd spoken to Mara over the last several years about flying, but we had never been able to go up. This time we had time in the weekend and the weather was good. We decided to go to Tangier Island, a little speck of an island out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

I had heard that it was quaint and a fun place to visit. There had been an article in a recent publication highlighting the little island, and pilots from my flying club annually participated in the "Holly Run" to deliver evergreens to the island's inhabitants for the Christmas season.

It was a beautiful day, although a little windy and hazier than I would have liked for Mara. Still, our ride was smooth as we headed across the Chesapeake Bay. About an hour after leaving Gaithersburg, we approached the island from the eastern shore of the bay.

The island did look cute, and it was neat to see old hulls of ships and boats submerged around the island. It made me wonder how the original inhabitants happened to set up their village; were they shipwreck survivors?

There was a flock of seagulls in the grass to the left of the runway as we approached to land. I trusted them to fly away from us, i.e., further to our left, so I wasn't worried. I saw them scatter as we approached, then heard a loud bang. I knew what had happened, and I was mad. We were perhaps 10-20 above the runway and slowing through 70 knots, so I just continued our landing. Fly the airplane....

Our touchdown was uneventful, but there was definite damage to the left wing.
I needed time to sort out what to do. There is no FBO, no mechanic, not even a fuel pump on Tangier Island. It's just a runway. And I had no cell phone signal.

We set off to explore the island a bit and look for a land-line. That was when we realized that it was really the off-season and there was nothing open....

I finally found a spot where the cell phone signal made it across the bay to give me one "bar" on my iphone, so I called a couple people I knew. I'd like to highlight how happy I am that aviators are a community, and there were people I could call. The first couple of people didn't answer, but then I reached my flight instructor. I described the damage to him and he told me it would be fine to fly home. Then I called an airplane mechanic we know, who also said it would be safe for me to fly home.

They both agreed, however, with the sentiments of another pilot who had landed and provided his opinion as to what we should do. He told me that I should leave Mara on the ground, take off, fly around a little, and if everything was okay I should come back to land and pick her up. The corollary, which went unsaid, was that if everything was not okay, I would not come back to land and pick her up. This might seem a little dramatic: it's just a dent, after all. But airplanes fly because of the shape of their wings, and when you change the shape of one wing, funny things can happen.

Mara wanted to go with me. But here's the kicker -- she was four months pregnant. Even with the opinions of my flight instructor and mechanic that the airplane would fly safely, there was no way I was going to take off for a "test" flight with Mara on board.

I taxied down the runway, past my deceased assailant, turned around, and took off.

It was an anticlimax. The airplane flew perfectly, so I landed, picked up Mara, and we headed home.
Mara flew us most of the way home.

While she flew, I enjoyed the scenery. There was a beautiful sunset off our left wing, which kept drawing my eyes to the damage....

We landed uneventfully at Gaithersburg, tied the plane down, and went to meet Jodie for dinner. It was the beginning of a two-month, tedious saga to get the wing fixed, but a good end to an adventurous day. We were home safe and sound, and that's more than I can say for the gull....

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Got My Cloudbusters Badge!

On March 22, 2007, Mr. Robert Gawler, an FAA-designated examiner, wrote in my logbook: "Private Pilot Check Ride Satisfactory." I wrote about that here.

On the first Tuesday of November, he wrote: "Instrument Check Ride Satisfactory."

It took me a long time to accumulate the required hours of practice. That has been due to schedule, in part. Especially at the beginning, I had to coordinate my schedule with an instructor. In the latter half of my training, I could fly with a safety pilot, and my friends at the airport really stepped up to help.

It wasn't just schedule that made it take so long. In part, I just wanted to enjoy flying and looking out the windows. I wrote in March that, "[o]ne of the hardest parts of instrument training for me is that I miss the beauty of the world as seen from the air." It's so true, and that takes a lot of the fun away. For a recent example, on a recent flight I was looking at this:

My "hood" restricted my view to prevent me from looking outside. Meanwhile, my friend Gashaw, who was acting as my safety pilot, was looking at this:

Which would you prefer? Yeah, me too. So I dragged my feet. But then I flew with John, my instructor, and he endorsed me to take the checkride. The examiner was reported to be available Monday through Wednesday, so I emailed him to set a time.

The checkride was scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. I tried to take the whole day off, but I ended up working for a couple hours in the morning. Then I organized the airplane logs and tabbed pages that showed the required inspections. I tabbed pages of my 2009 volume of the FAA regulations (FAR/AIM). I tabbed pages of the current volume of the Airport/Facility Directory that show low-altitude preferred routes related to my assigned flight planning problem. I tabbed pages of my logbook to show my required training and endorsements.

When I had tabbed everything tabbable, I headed to the airport to meet Gashaw for lunch. He kept me company and talked about various topics that might come up during the oral exam. He assured me that I would do fine. (I wanted to believe him -- he spent over 7 hours in the plane as my safety pilot while I practiced under the hood.) While I was eating a sandwich, the FAA examiner came into the restaurant and joined our table. He spent a few minutes making me feel woefully unprepared (who knew that my 2009 regulations had been superseded with the release of revisions less than two weeks before?!?!), then suggested that I meet him in his office.

The oral exam went smoothly and was over before I knew it, even though it was well over an hour. I learned a few things, but for the most part it went just like the discussions I've been having with other IFR geeks. "What do you do if....?"

Then I almost didn't fly because the winds were so strong - stronger than forecast, and gusting heavily - but they were scheduled to lighten up. I went and drove around for a while, then went back to the airport. I sat in the car trying to decide whether to continue with the checkride. The winds on the ground were strong, but right down the runway. What worried me was that they were forecast to be over 30 knots at 3,000 feet. I was leaning toward postponing the checkride when John knocked on the car window. He encouraged me to go do the checkride and reminded me that I'd been practicing in worse conditions. That was just the vote of confidence I needed, so I went in to tell the examiner we would be flying after all.....

* * * * *

Now here's the part you'll want to skip unless you're (a) interested in the ins and out of instrument flying, and (b) familiar with the airspace around and to the north of Washington, DC. I'm recounting exactly what we did because I don't want to forget, but it will be boring to most people who might read this.

We took off on Runway 32. Immediately after take-off, the DE told me to put on the hood, then had me fly on a heading of north and climb to 3,000 feet. After a few minutes, ATC called and told us to squawk 1200 because we were outside the DC-area SFRA. Immediately, the DE took the controls and told me to put my head down. I felt him maneuver the airplane for an unusual attitude. "Your plane," he said. I looked up. The attitude indicator was covered with a suction cup. No problem -- I barely use it for anything anyway. I got the airplane flying straight and level again within a few seconds. "Again," he said. I looked down....

We did three recoveries from unusual attitudes, all with the attitude indicator covered. I finished each recovery back on altitude and heading, so may have also demonstrated my ability to do more than recover from unusual attitudes, because he didn't have me do any maneuvers. He removed the suction cup and gave me a clearance: "Tiger 244, you are cleared to Carroll County airport, expect the RNAV 16 approach. Proceed direct HYPER.

I programmed the GPS and headed to HYPER. Given our position and heading, I told him I would do a parallel entry to the holding pattern. He just said, "Okay." I'd been hoping for some affirmation, but I flew on. I entered the hold then started inbound. I had a strong tailwind, and was moving quickly across the ground, but I stayed on course and started the first descent.

"Tiger 244, I have an amended clearance for you. Advise when ready," the DE said. I was in the middle of the approach, dive-bombing to get down because of the tailwind, but I just said, "Ready to copy."

"After NISPL, turn to a heading of East and climb to 3,000 feet. Intercept the 360 radial of the Westminster VOR, then fly a 5 mile arc to the 293 radial outbound."

I read back the instruction, then got to work. This required me to switch from GPS navigation to VOR navigation, which meant getting the VOR configured and reconfiguring the HSI as I began my left turn and climb. It was a busy few moments, and there wasn't much time because of the tailwind, but I did it. A few minutes later and we were flying outbound on the EMI 293 radial.

The DE cleared me next for the ILS 23 into Frederick. Because of the strong winds from the Northwest, airplanes in the pattern at Frederick were using Runway 30. And the wind shear was a bit gnarly. It wasn't terribly bumpy, but there was a cross-wind for this approach that dropped about 20 knots in wind-speed in just 1,000 feet. The whole approach was one long exercise in cross-wind correction.

I was a bit worried about the traffic using the intersecting runway, so I was ready when the DE told me to level off at 1,200 feet (DH is 684) and fly the back-course outbound. Once we were clear of the traffic pattern for Runway 30, the DE told me to climb and begin the missed approach. As I was making the prescribed, climbing left turn, he told me to look up. The sun had set and there was a huge, golden moon sitting on the horizon. I paused for only a moment to enjoy it, then looked back down at the instruments.

I had climbed back into the strong winds. The missed approach procedure has you climb straight ahead to 1,300 feet, then a climbing left turn to intercept the 047-radial outbound. Usually, if you begin the missed approach right at the DH on the glideslope, you are east of the VOR by the time you complete the left-hand climbing turn, which makes it easier to intercept the 047 radial. Because we had flown west for a while to get out of the traffic pattern for Runway 30, I ended up right in the cone of confusion over the VOR. I was worried about the winds blowing me south, so I over-corrected, and ended up north of the VOR as I flew outbound on a heading of 047. When I finally exited the cone of confusion, I turned south, but it took me all the way to RICKE to get back on the radial. I was never that far off course, and I told the DE what I was doing to correct. He didn't say anything. I flew the hold at RICKE twice, then the DE had me turn to a heading of 210 and call ATC for re-entry into the SFRA.

ATC assigned me a code, but ordered me to stay clear of the SFRA. The DE had given me a southwest heading, so I suggested that I circle until we were cleared back into the SFRA. He agreed. I flew circles and maintained altitude while we waited.

When ATC finally told us we could enter the SFRA, I was southeast of the Frederick VOR and heading northeast. The DE said, "Tiger 244, you are cleared for the VOR 14 approach to Gaithersburg."

"Cleared for the approach" typically means that you have to fly the whole approach. The initial approach fix (IAF) for the approach was the Frederick VOR, back to the northwest, so I instinctively started to turn toward it. But ATC wouldn't like us heading away from the SFRA.... So I asked for clarification and the DE told me to intercept the 155 radial. THAT made more sense, and I turned southwest.

Once I was inbound on the approach, I asked the DE.... The sun had set and it was now dark. Winds had died down a bit, but they were still around 10 knots from the northwest. We were on approach to Runway 14, the only runway at GAI with instrument approaches. And the approach plates say that circling to 32 is not allowed at night. What did he want me to do? The DE asked me what I would do if it were a real situation, so I reasoned it out....

I could land with a tailwind. But I hadn't calculated how much runway I would need, and it was certainly NOT the time to fish for the POH to do the calculations while I was in IFR conditions (simulated) at night (not simulated). If I were in VFR conditions, I could cancel IFR and fly a normal pattern. Or I could ask to divert to a different airport. I told the DE that in real conditions, I would ask for a diversion. He agreed.

When we got close to the airport, the DE asked me what my normal traffic pattern airspeeds were, then gave me instructions. Heading, altitude, 90 knots.... Heading, altitude, 80 knots.... Then he told me to look up, and Runway 32 was right in front of me.

* * * * *

I landed and taxied off the runway. The DE hadn't ended the checkride early, so I was pretty sure I had passed, but I felt pretty well whipped. "What do you think?" he asked when I had exited the runway. "That was tough," I said. "Yes it was," he replied. "Don't screw it up between here and your parking spot." I grinned.

Instrument checkride satisfactory.