Tuesday, May 19, 2015


It is difficult to predict what kind of knowledge is transferable, whether in aviation or in any other realm.  Sometimes it's obvious one way or the other: a Course Deviation Indicator reads the same in a helicopter as it does in an airplane, and you can't bring an airplane to a hover except in the most unusual circumstances.

But I have also written about using the no-rudder-pedal Ercoupe to teach some stick-and-rudder skills.

Yesterday was to be my first helicopter training flight in a month, and when we last left our hero he was wondering how to smooth out his approaches and noticing that his airplane approaches had become sloppy, too.

Was holding a constant glide path a transferable skill?  If so, shouldn't I practice in a $75/hr airplane rather than a $300/hour helicopter?  And isn't practice part of the reportoire of a craftsman?

So before my helicopter flight I took an airplane and spent nearly an hour flying extremely precise approaches.  Let me rephrase that: I took an airplane and spent nearly an hour trying to fly extremely precise approaches.  I was most concerned with the portion from 500AGL to 30AGL, because you can't hover an airplane.

I told my instructor what I had done, saying it was really smart or really stupid and we would have to see which.

After an hour in the helicopter he concluded that it had worked and my approaches were much better despite a month's worth of rust.  A few more autorotations and it will soon be time to solo.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Last Leg

The IFR system is not kind to the unprepared.  And I suspected that I was one of the unprepared: I can count on one hand the number of times I've filed IFR in the last few years.  I have been scrupulous about staying instrument current, and have regularly spent time reviewing charts and procedures and regulations.  But not in the system is not in the system.

Until this week.  Regular readers may recall me writing about a Cessna 414 that we would be operating for the owner (ie, under Part 91, rather than Part 135, for those savvy about US regulations).  I had been training other pilots to fly it, but with the university in session I had not taken an actual trip.  It had been so long that I needed 3 landings to be legal to carry passengers.

But now school was out and I was scheduled for my first 414 trip in 9 years.

Pick a day 3 weeks in advance and you know the weather's gonna suck, right?  The morning of the trip arrived with marginal VFR conditions and a pretty significant chance of icing based on the icing tools at aviationweather.gov.  I hadn't blown a boot since 2009, but icing was an important part of the training package I had prepared.  But the system is not kind to the unprepared.

I flew a short leg to pick up the owner and his colleagues, mostly IMC, and was waiting for them in the FBO lobby when they drove up (this is very important in the charter/corporate world).  He had some concerns about the weather but I reassured him that the airplane could handle it.  Could I?

The departure was a little bumpy and I was in IMC for almost an hour.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

Luckily I had played with the radar during training and it showed safe air ahead.  Still, the system is not kind to the unprepared.

I was at 16,000 and did not think FL180 was available because of the low altimeter setting, and Center confirmed that.  But maybe I could get on top?  I had to try to get to FL200, which the airplane could do, but I spent a lot of time staring at the pressurization controller, because the system is not kind to the unprepared.

After 15 minutes at FL200 we were in the clear.  Actually, we would have been in the clear at the same time at 16,000, but who's counting?  We were going to the KPDX area and the whole Presidential range was in view.

But the system is not kind to the unprepared.  "I have an amendment to your clearance, advise when ready to copy."  I had not heard those words from any mouth other than mine, in training, for years.  It seems I had picked the wrong IAF for the approach in use, and the new clearance involved an intersection that I couldn't find.  With a crossing restriction.  You see, the system is not kind to the unprepared.

This 414 has a good pressurization controller, but I didn't have any way of knowing that until I had to descend from FL200 to Sea Level.  (Other 414s I've flown had touchy controllers.)  I spotted the airport about 12 miles out and made a competent landing.  (For that I was prepared.)

Oh, one more thing: this was my first actual trip flying a Garmin 530.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

OK, flight levels, radar, reroutes. Garmin 530, crossing restrictions.  Nice trip.

The next day dawned with a weather inversion: Idaho weather in Oregon, Oregon weather in Idaho.  Time to see if I remembered how to dodge thunderstorms in IMC.

But the system is not kind to the unprepared.  I fired up and called for a clearance and of course it was nothing like what I had filed, so I quick had to program a DP into the Garmin and into the VORs just as a backup.  And Foreflight as a backup to the backup.

The takeoff and climbout went well.  I have family in the Portland area and I think I flew right over their house on the departure but my hands were full with altitudes and reroutes and traffic.  ATC knows when you are single pilot and wait until you start the level off before clearing you higher, as usual.

The air smoothed out climbing through 7,500' and I spent a fair amount of time just watching the time tick down on the Garmin FPL page.  There was a cloud deck ahead and it looked like we would be higher (we were) but a big thunderstorm was also in sight and on the radar.  Everybody was deviating and I told Center about my plans, but the thunderstorm was actually moving away from the destination.  I did some step-down descents trying to stay out of the clouds but eventually had to go through with both radar and stormscope showing that I had picked a good route.

Approach control at the destination told me to expect a visual to 26, but the tower put me on left base to 8.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

Just one more leg home, and the last leg is special.  No passengers.  No schedule.  Airline pilots don't know this pleasure, and most people flying for themselves miss out, too.  It happens when the passengers go to an airport other than the home base, or you are returning empty.  Sure, we'll fly a King Air home VFR from Salt Lake City, indicating 199 knots under the Class B, or across the desert at 1,000AGL.

I decided to finish the trip VFR, dodging thunderstorms, and hand flying.  There is a difference between eluding (what you do with passengers) and dodging.  It was time to dodge.

There were two big ones straddling the course.  With passengers I would pick a single heading, but in an empty airplane it's much more fun to turn the airplane at the storm and see what it looks like on radar.  And take a picture.  And then turn away.

And, of course, the best landing of the trip is in an empty airplane at a deserted airport.  Sometimes, the system is kind to the unprepared.