Monday, June 9, 2008

VFR: Quantity or Quality?

It used to be that private pilots needed 10 hours of solo cross-country. Now, even though there is more to know, the requirement is 5 hours. This is one case where quantity is more important than quality, because of the laws of probability (a student would run into twice as many "interesting" situations).

Last week I had a VFR flight with lots of diversions. I had the family with me, and had opened a flight plan with Flight Service. We were being slugged around pretty well by turbulence. Turbulence slows you down, and the headwinds were stronger than forecast. At midflight we were running 10 minutes late, so I called Flight Service to amend my ETA. This was a pleasant surprise. In the old days, unless you amended with your destination FSS, you had to wait for the briefer to call the destination briefer on the land line, and then call you back with a confirmation. Now it seems that every briefer has access to the flight plan.

Flight Watch had been an unpleasant surprise. The briefer didn't seem to know the name of the outlet I was using (a VOR), and, based on the quality of his transmission, I would guess that he chose something further away. Worse, he couldn't get me destination weather, so I had to wait until I was in range of the ASOS. I was trying to make a "go over or under these clouds" decision, and would really have appreciated up-to-date information.

This is a real shame. It used to be (and maybe still is, elsewhere in the country), that Flight Watch provided a fabulous service. The briefers would take the risk of giving usable advice like an explicit route around the storms (when they could: I once heard "That line of thunderstorms goes from Guatemala to Hudson's Bay.") FSS would sometimes give you some bureaucratic behind-covering mumbo-jumbo ("Confirm you have the Airmets for IFR conditions" when on an IFR flight plan, "VFR flight not recommended", you know the drill), but Flight Watch always gave me what I needed. But this time the briefer didn't seem to understand my position report (straight out of the Aeronautical Information Manual), and I did not feel that I could trust the information he was giving me. I felt like an Air Mail pilot.

After amending the ETA I went back to trying not to fight the turbulence too hard. We were in the mountains and I was following the valleys. This strikes me as common sense, but I was reminded of the need to teach it when I recently flew a cross country with someone else's student. He had actually drawn a straight line through a mountain at an altitude below the peak as his intended course.

We turned a corner and saw a valley full of snow. In June. I flew to the snow shower, looking for a safe hole, but there was none to be found. A 180 revealed a lot of blue sky, so we continued flying away from home. The ASOS from Logan, in the next valley over, sounded good, and we had a lot of fuel, so we decided to overfly the remote airport below us and head there.

That meant amending the flight plan. The sectional showed a broad valley between us and an RCO 40 miles away. That seemed like a long shot at our altitude, but I was able to reach FSS and give them the amended destination and the new ETA. Cool.

We came around the corner of the valley for the new destination and were pleased to see lots of blue sky between us and home. It extended at least as far as the next airport up the valley, and we decided to head for home again. Again, I had to look at the chart, find an RCO, and amend the flight plan.

There was a little bit of a problem with this one. The briefer was talking to an airplane hundreds of miles away but on the same frequency. The frequency sounded clear, so I went ahead and called, only to hear the briefer tell the other airplane, with a distinct sneer in his voice, "Say again, you were stepped on," as if I had any way to know that. I guess he was having a rough day.

And so we made it home. The diversion added 1.2 to the flight. I used to like this better when I was paid for flight time, rather than paying for it.  Sigh.

This kind of flying uses a rather large skill set:

  • Preparing, filing, and opening a VFR flight plan

  • Caclulating (or, at least, estimating) a new ETA

  • VFR position reporting

  • Finding an RCO and using it to amend the flight plan

  • Evaluating unexpected weather and making a new plan that was within the capabilities of the airplane

  • Setting up a pattern at an unfamiliar airport

  • Calculating (or, at least, estimating) a new ETA

  • Finding an RCO and using it to amend the flight plan

  • Closing a VFR flight plan. Don't forget this one

  • When I was a student, each of these seemed hard; these skills are won by experience. But they are easier to win by guided experience. This also means that instructors should really make students do all of these during their training.

    It's a lot of stuff. Wouldn't it be better to spread it over more time?



    At June 28, 2008 at 2:13 PM , Blogger eric said...

    Seattle Flightwatch has been doing a pretty crummy job of taking down my pireps for the last six months or so. They usually get it eventually, but it shouldn't take 5 minutes to report bases, tops, and icing.


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