Saturday, May 26, 2012

When The Clouds Are Low And I Hear The Planes Flying

When the clouds are low and I hear the planes flying, I want to be there too. Yes, in the clouds, on the gages, with earphones tight on my head, mouthpiece against my lips. Center:" 232 Alpha cleared to…."Sure, just daydreaming now, but I’ve been there. Flying IFR (on the gages or now on the screens), is the ultimate type of flying. Ok, I’m not comparing it to aerobatics, but let’s just say to VFR piddling around, that can be fun but is not very challenging. Once in the clouds the visual world is history and one relies on instruments to stay upright, on course and out of trouble. It is 100% commitment to the dials or gages, as the inner ear will fail us within a minute or less without visual stimuli, resulting in an out of control airplane and almost certain death. Yes, that is part of the thrill of instrument flying, staying out of the hands of the grim reaper.

So how does one start out on an IFR flight? It starts out by obtaining a good weather briefing. This has to cover the time period of the trip, including the destination and alternate in case of bad weather. I can’t stress the importance of considering the weather enough. Once satisfied that the trip is doable, it is time to go out to the plane and do a thorough preflight. In addition to the standard, I always check the fuel in each wing tank visually, gages can lie. After completing the walk around ground check, it is into the cockpit by climbing up on the right wing, and settling into the left seat, the one I have occupied for the last several years. It is a wonderful older twin, a B-55 Baron. Well equipped, with IFR certified avionics, some deice capability and sweet to fly. The Baron, for those who haven’t had the luck to fly in one, handles like a responsive single.

After settling in I look over the instrument panel and the rest of the cockpit. Then before doing anything else I check for my instrument charts (Jepps) supplied by Jeppesen, the chart publisher. Now I’m ready to get things going.  First turn on the master switch and listen for the electrically driven gyros to spool up. Open the throttles, mixture rich and fuel pumps on until flow established. Magnetos , throttles to idle and hit the left starter.  Once the left engine is running smoothly, do the same thing for the right engine. Now turn on the avionics. Tune in ATIS(auto taxi info) and call for IFR clearance. That goes like this:” Raleigh clearance Baron 855Charlie(for C) with foxtrot for clearance”. The reply:” November 855Charlie cleared as filed, expect the Guppy one departure, contact ground control”. No more radio calls as I am running a bit too verbose.

Well, now I know that I am cleared as filed to what ever airport I requested. I contact ground control and advise them I am ready for taxi. I will be called back with taxi instructions. These can be complicated as at Boston Logan airport, and requires strict attention. Then when ready for take off call the tower and say:” Baron 855 Charlie ready for take off”.  By this time I should have my departure chart and enroute charts out and studied. The instuctions come at one quickly, and in busy terminal areas, things don’t get repeated easily. So listen carefully and anticipate the commands.

So here we go:” November 855Charlie clear for take-off, climb to 2000 feet and turn to a heading of o6o”. That’s not quite what I expected but ok, short hand it on my knee pad and off we go. Once in position at the end of the runway, I turn on the transponder and advance the throttles. A quick check of the engine instruments satisfies me things are as expected. At lift off speed, I pull back on the control column and watch the airspeed increase. My left hand finds the landing gear switch, and as I verify a positive rate of climb, I move the gear switch to the up position. The gear is up in seconds, and the plane responds accelerating smoothly to around 120 Kn. Well I am on my way.

Out of 1500 ft. we enter the clouds, initially broken, but becoming solid between 2500 and 11000ft., our final altitude. As we enter the clouds, my attention and focus is on the attitude indicator and compass all included on the HSI or horizontal situation indicator. Yes, this is the old stuff. Instrument gages, not a digital display. Now I turn on the autopilot and let it track the correct radio bearing or heading and set the altitude hold to the elected 11000 ft, and lean back and enjoy the ride. I try to recall the visual experience of flying in or around the clouds, something like bits of cotton wool dancing around and over the wings and windshield, almost spiritual at times.

 So that’s it until we reach the destination area and are handed off to approach control. Before being handed off to approach I listen to ATIS, advising me of weather and runways in use. If I like what I hear, meaning the weather is above minimums, I proceed. Otherwise I consider going to my alternate, which hopefully has better weather.  So, after being handed off to approach I switch over the avionics to the approach phase. The weather in this instance is just above minimums with a 300 foot ceiling and ¾ mile visibility. The type approach for these conditions is an ILS. This has two components: the localizer for the r/l guidance and a glideslope needle  for the vertical. This info can be coupled to the autopilot but I elect to hand fly instead, keeping the needles centered by adjusting the power, vertical trim and heading. If the needles stay centered I should be over the runway threshold in perfect landing position in about 3 ½ minutes after leaving the outer marker. (I haven’t discussed everything here by a long shot.  See this website for more This trip everything has worked out. I successfully was able to track the localizer and glideslope to just above touchdown, and there awaiting me was the runway. One very welcome sight. After touchdown, it is taxi to the ramp and shut everything down.

I hope you enjoyed this short, fairly typical trip in instrument weather. We were lucky not to have to deal with things like turbulence, thunderstorms or ice. But we’ll deal with those on another flight.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

As I Offer Advice To An Older Pilot........

As I offer advice to an older pilot who hasn’t flown seriously for quite some time, I try to choose my words carefully. Thoughts are racing through my head. From, “what , are you crazy at your age?” To  “great  give it a try, you’ll love it.”  Somewhere in between lies the right advice.  My hesitation is in part, due to the fact that I’m talking with a busy professional.  A person with lots of responsibilities, including, being the head of a large family.So, what’s the big deal? The big deal, is that I believe flying takes a certain amount of dedication. A dedication of time, money and enthusiasm. Some of these are hard to share. Time here, means time in the cockpit as well as time taken to study and think about the complexities of flying. My personal belief is that to be a good pilot, one must fly often, perhaps as frequently as once per week. The more frequently one flies, the more familiar the whole thing becomes. Just jumping in the plane after kicking the tires and doing a fast walk around is not enough.  No, after your thorough pre-flight, sit quietly and think about what you are going to do flying wise. Things to concern yourself with include: weather, flight plan if one was filed, taxi instructions if at a larger field etc. In other words, confine your thoughts to this flight and all it involves. Leave everything else behind and get ready to fly. I’ll confess though, that as I flew a lot before quitting a few years ago, I shortened some routines of the pre-flight as I flew my plane daily. But I wouldn’t suggest that the casual flyer, who rents a plane do the same.

In that vein, I will have to admit to having done some things that I was lucky to walk away from. These were done in haste, and before I adopted a more thorough approach to flying. For example, hopping in a small Cessna and starting to taxi only to hear the scrape (luckily) of a still attached tow bar. Now that was early in my flying career, and never repeated. This kind of happening only reinforces how important it is to adopt safe, reproducible routines. For example: in your walk around, not only look at the control surfaces, but move them to insure things are ok. Not only check the oil level but look inside the engine compartment as much as possible, especially in the spring to check for bird’s nests. I won’t belabor this, but you get the idea.

Well, I am getting off my pedestal. If you decide to fly, give it all you’ve got. Fly as often as you can. Pay attention to your instructor and have a good time.

Before I sign off, I'll mention two recent aviation events. The first was another Cirrus crash. This occurred in North Carolina during landing take-off practice maneuvers in clear weather. No cause as of yet. I will await the NTSB report.
The other event, involved two ATP's(airline transport pilots) flying  an airliner, distracted by a cell phone on final approach, resulting in a go around. Yes, they forgot to lower the landing gear. Use their checklist did they?? 
Finally, another FAA "breakthrough". Apparently they have now authorized the use of IPad type devices for displaying approach data and possible enroutes as well. This makes me nervous as I don't fully trust digital devices as an end all be all. They can fail. When and if they do, will you have your paper back ups?

That's it for now. Be happy and fly safely and well.