Friday, July 23, 2010

Tanking Up

Yesterday's training flight brought me a lot closer to total instrument proficiency, although I still have a way to go. My goal is perfection, a goal impossible to reach; the value is in the trying. With the medical problems both my currency and proficiency lapsed, despite some work with various Flight Training Devices (aka simulators).

I did not make things easy for myself. First, all of our club planes are tied up, so I rented a 172XP. I've flown this XP a lot, but never IFR. Unfamiliarity with avionics is a link in a lot of accident chains. In this case I said "Where is the ADF needle?" out loud, but that's the same kind of confusion you see when someone doesn't understand what, say, a Garmin 430 is showing, or how to get it to do what you want. Time spent looking for a needle in a haystack is time not spent managing the airplane. And, with no autopilot, not managing the airplane meant that my heading control was by no means perfect.

Of course it was hard to tell what my heading was: This XP's heading indicator precesses too quickly.

The airplane has no DME and I was using a handheld GPS as training substitute. Between the NOS approach book and the GPS my lap was pretty full. The polite phrase for this disorganized behavior is what the Practical Test Standards now call Single Pilot Resource Management. I'm planning to buy a new GPS, so this area will need some more work. I can use my struggle with it to help my students, especially the ones with their own planes, which tend to have every portable toy available. (The worst I ever saw was the owner of TBM-700 who, despite having every Moving Map, Primary Function Display, and Multi Function Display known to humanity installed in his panel, got lost while being vectored for an ILS.)

The wind was an issue, too, in a good way: a strong westerly flow that distorted my mostly north-south approaches, and made timing in the hold tricky (outbound groundspeed 80, inbound groundspeed 140). That's just good practice.

I flew one approach to an airport just north, planning to intercept the transition for the ILS back home. The first approach went fine, despite the spinning heading indicator and large wind correction angles, because I used the GPS "track" display to make sure that we were moving in the right direction. I started the published missed approach, and tried to tune the VOR for the transition. The NAV flag stayed visible and there was no ID, although I didn't remember seeing a NOTAM in my DUATS briefing.

It was time for plan B. I tuned the ADF to the outer marker for the ILS and headed there. This was a fine plan, except for something else that was not in my briefing. Fire season has begun, although due to El Niño and a late monsoon it is starting late. There were two heavy tankers (P-3s) and two SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) working the fire, and they were coming back just a little east of the localizer. I had a good safety pilot and we spotted everyone, but I have done a lot of fire fighting and know that the tanker crews are busy; holding at the marker would definitely be in their way. (I checked: there was no Temporary Flight Restriction last night, although there is one this morning.)

So now it was time for Plan C: hold at the VOR, then head out for the ILS.

You just don't get this kind of rapid decision making in any of the simulator scripts I have followed. The simulator has a lot of value, but in any case you have to fly to get the full picture

After we were done, Dan (who is not instrument rated) asked me how often I fly approaches in IMC. The answer was embarrassing: the last one was about two years ago. My medical difficulties explained a lot of this, but still...two years? I had filed IFR in that time, and flown plenty in IMC, but always got a visual approach. When I flew King Airs or freight I flew a lot of approaches, but I haven't been PIC of a King Air in a few years. My personal flying is in airplanes that cannot handle ice, so the winter is dicey at best. We tend to vacation to the east; if we took a trip to the Oregon coast there would be plenty of approaches.

Be that as it may, I am current and ready. The trick will be to keep the tank full and stay that way. I wonder if my wife would like a trip to Oregon for her birthday?

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