Thursday, November 11, 2010

Duck, Duck, Goose

My student Dan is hustling to finish his Private before he has to move, so we've been flying every day. This has required a little creativity on my part since my University workload seems so much heavier this semester.

Yesterday afternoon was turning into yesterday evening after an unusually moist morning. The ceiling was on the low side, but not too low to stay in the pattern. Turning downwind for the first time I saw about 40 geese flying just a couple of hundred feet above, headed north. I swear, they were heading north! I mentioned this to the tower, but the radio call included "Oh! There's another flock! And another! And another!" The birds actually winter in the nearby marshes.

Another airplane was out flying a practice ILS, and the tower duly warned them about the birds, and I felt like a good citizen. And, sure enough, every pattern brought a new bird sighting.

"Birds, 10 o'clock," I would say. On the first few patterns Dan acknowledged, but soon he was no longer seeing them. Experience really does make a difference.

And the birds were getting lower. A flock of 25 or so passed below us, and in the gathering twilight they were getting harder and harder to see. Dan didn't see the large flock even though they were very close.

I started to think how lucky we were not be flying at night with so many birds in the pattern. Lucky? With the clouds and the glare, it was already night, even though the regulations say that we had an hour of "daytime" left.

So we called it a day.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Too Good?

The pattern in Pocatello was all ours, which was good. Strong south winds meant that runway 17 was in use, and that traffic patterns were pretty distorted. I was flying with a student, and we had calculated the crosswind component; it was waaay beyond his current skill level. The tailwind meant a quick downwind leg, but he was keeping up.

A Mooney taxied for departure on 17 to stay in the pattern. Now there would be two of us in the pattern, which is not usually a problem. Then a Skyhawk taxied for departure. I recognized the pilot's voice: a good friend who is also one of the most skilled pilots I know. He asked to depart runway 21; the crosswind was not pushing his skill level. But notice that the departure paths for 17 and 21 intersect...

"Oh, no," I thought, "this could get interesting."

The tower had us fly runway heading off 17 to make room for the Skyhawk departure just as the Mooney using 17 called "Ready." When the tower cleared the Skyhawk for takeoff, the Mooney thought that he was cleared. The tower stopped him quickly, but the frequency was tied up while everyone straightened this out.

And now we were flying toward high terrain. I wished I had brought my Garmin so my student could watch the "Terrain" window pop up with the big red X's denoting where we were going to hit the mountains.

The tower cleared us to start a left crosswind as soon as the 21 departure was airborne. Whoops! We didn't have enough of a wind correction, and our square crosswind leg was really a diagonal to the midfield point on the downwind. This put us directly over the departing traffic, and I asked my student to fly behind it.

Worse, the departing Skyhawk was headed northeast, right through our downwind. So we got to do a 360 to let it out.

Once the Skyhawk was high enough, ATC cleared the Mooney to go. Now we had three airplanes pointed at the same piece of sky. The Mooney's pattern was distorted by the wind, too, and he ended up following us too closely and had to go around.

When things get interesting it's worth examining the chain of events that got us there. You can't really blame the Skyhawk pilot; when he called and requested 21 he had no way to know that there were airplanes in the pattern for 17.

You can blame me a little bit for not flying a square crosswind; that would have saved us the 360.

You can blame the Mooney a little for mishearing the radio call, and poor planning in the pattern, but the wind was an extenuating factor.

But you can blame the tower a lot. With two airplanes in the pattern for 17 the proper reply to anyone requesting 21 is "Unable."

Now somebody might insist on using 21 for length reasons, but then there will be a delay. This reminds me of a story from many years ago. I was in the jumpseat of an Airbus 320 departing Boston. It was the FO's leg. "We're 4000 pounds too heavy for runway 4L," he declared. There were 15 airplanes taxiing to 4L and 15 more on final to 4R.

"What do you want to do?" the Captain asked.

"We need to use 15R." Runway 15R crosses both 4L and 4R.

"OK," the Captain replied, maybe rolling his eyes just a little bit. And we taxied to 15R. We weren't going anywhere with all of that crossing traffic, and the FO was jumping out of his seat, shaking his fist at the tower, and yelling "It's not that busy here!" The Captain just smiled. By the time we were cleared for takeoff, we had burned so much fuel that we would have been light enough for 4L.

Back in Pocatello we had another option: if the Skhawk had done a left downwind departure before turning north the runway 17 traffic would have been able to continue in right closed traffic.

But nobody thought of that at the time.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

What Goes Around...

Last Saturday's EAA Young Eagles rally in Blackfoot, ID was a bit of a disappointment. Somebody had dropped the ball on publicity, and there were a lot of chapter members milling around and socializing because there were no kids to fly. I walked the line and visited a friend's hangar; that seemed like it was going to be the best of it. Oh, except for the cookies. A chapter member passed away suddenly last summer (not aviation related), and when our president asked people to bring cookies for the memorial service we all pulled together and brought cookies. There were far more cookies than even the large crowd could eat, so the president keeps them in her freezer and brings some to chapter events. We all miss John, especially at Young Eagles events, so the cookies are a bittersweet reminder.

Finally some kids showed up and I got to take a brother and sister on a search for their house, which we found easily. They were so excited! I took a cell phone picture and emailed it their mom after we landed. They really enjoyed the flight experience and I did, too.

But now we were back to the lots of pilots standing around scenario. I got an idea: this was a great opportunity for some IFR proficiency flying. It was easy to find an eager safety pilot and even another pilot who rode in back for the fun of it.

So I did an ILS and a hold and headed back to do the VOR approach into Blackfoot. The VOR approach into Blackfoot is a little silly, starting at Pocatello VOR and following the 016 radial for 24 -- count 'em, twenty-four! -- miles. Being that far from the VOR the obstacle area is pretty large, so the minimum descent altitude is actually above the ordinary VFR pattern altitude. Plus, you're flying away from the nav source, so the needle gets less sensitive as you get close to the airport.

Worse, the approach shuts down both Pocatello (KPIH) and Idaho Falls (KIDA), at least for a while. Pocatello is a long way from Salt Lake Center's radar antenna, so it's not clear to me that radar separation is even possible; in any event, the separation criteria are loose enough that someone on the VOR-C into Blackfoot is also taking up the airspace for the ILS into Pocatello. And the missed approach is Idaho Falls VOR at the airway MEA, so nobody's getting into IDA, either. For a long time the approach was NOTAMed out of service.

(I had a hand in designing the Pocatello ILS, but nobody asked me about Blackfoot. One of the approaches in the original draft for Pocatello had a missed approach point at an airway intersection 500' above the MEA, which was 7000 MSL. This meant that 7,000 and 8.000 were unavailable on two airways, shutting down low-altitude IFR traffic for a 60 mile radius.)

But a logged approach is a logged approach, and I was going to Blackfoot, so I flew it. At the right point I lifted the hood and entered the pattern, making the usual calls on downwind, base, and final. While we were gone, though, some kids had shown up, and there were airplanes in the runup area. No big deal. Until when we were about 100'AGL, a red Skyhawk took the runway and started his takeoff roll.


I went around.

Blackfoot was the site of the near gear-up landing a couple of weeks ago. I think I'll avoid it for a while...

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