Monday, March 31, 2008

Cole Sits Left Seat in a DC-9

This is a regular blog post. Check out the other posts for show notes, audio, etc.

Who says you can't get into an airliner cockpit anymore? Returning from a recent vacation with the kids in a DC-9, we let everyone else off the plane first so we could take a little more time with the kids and our bags getting up the aisle to leave. When we got to the cockpit, the FO offered the kids a chance to see the cockpit up close. Pretty darned cool.

Cole got into the left seat. The FO offered Ella the right seat, but she was a little intimidated. I was on the verge of asking for the right seat myself, but thought better of it.

And the coolest part? Sitting there in the left seat, Cole looks the FO straight in the eye and says "Y'know, my dad's a pilot!"

Love that boy, I do . . .

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Instrument Rating Checkride - Part 1

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At last! I’ve finally had the opportunity to edit the audio from my instrument checkride and I’m going to bring it to you in this two-episode series.

There’s relatively little editing here. If I left something out, it was usually because it consisted of a lot of silence or other radio chatter by other people or because it just wasn’t a very interesting part of the flight. I didn’t edit our any blunders, so they’re all here for you to enjoy. As you guys know, Airspeed is about the real experience of flight. Most of what you’re going to hear is a great instrument checkride and I’m proud enough of it to hold it out as containing stuff that you may want to incorporate into your own instrument checkride if you have one coming up. There’s only one real blunder and I’ll point it out in the second part of this series when we get there. It involves Korea. More on that later.

To set the stage, it’s October 25, 2007. This is the fourth planned session for the instrument checkride. I had to cancel the first two for weather and, even though the weather was good enough to do the oral portion on the third try, the ceiling and winds kept us from flying on the third appointment. So finally it’s a nicer day. There’s a low scattered layer at around 4,000 feet, but we should be fine as long as they don’t come any lower. Surface winds are a little brisk at 10 to 15 knots, but the crosswind component of those winds shouldn’t affect us much. The winds aloft are another story. They’re really howling from the northeast. The forecast is for 30 or 40 knots. So I’ll have to watch that.

Work and lots of other things had really intervened in my flight training and it was hard to put together a string of instrument training flights. I flew on August 2, 6, and 31 and September 17 and 24. I got a little flight time in the Otter at Skydive Chicago on September 25, but then went without flying the actual airplane for almost a month. I flew a lot of simulator time by myself, but was worried that I might get to the checkride without having flown in an airplane for a month. Fortunately, I got up in the morning on October 23, two days before, for two hours and three approaches. I had actually planned to do the checkride that afternoon after flying with by instructor, but the weather didn’t permit.

So, the morning of the 25th, I showed up pre-dawn and did my preflight, then headed over to DTC Aviation to fly an hour of simulator. Then back to Tradewinds to meet the examiner.

The airplane is a 2004 or 2005 Cessna 172R that’s outfitted with a KLN 94 GPS and a two-axis autopilot. It’s one of two aircraft on the line at Tradewinds that have non-glass cockpits but don’t have Automatic Direction Finders (or “ADFs”). On the assumption that any instrument in the airplane is fair game for the examiner, I decided early on that I didn’t want to fly any NDB approaches and resolved that I’d do my checkride in an aircraft with no ADF so I wouldn’t have to shoot any NDB approaches. For those who don’t know about NDBs, they’re “non-directional beacons” and they’re some of the most primitive navaids in the system. NDB approaches require much higher minimums and can be a pain to fly if you’re out of practice. And the FAA is phasing them out in droves. I flew the required NDB approaches in the training and I don’t have any philosophical problems with NDB approaches. But I was a raving, sleep-deprived stress monkey for weeks as I balanced work, family, and training for this rating and, if I could eliminate some small element from the list of things I might be required to do by merely selecting the right airplane, I was going to select that airplane.

Note that I could have flown an NDB approach using the GPS, but it seemed unlikely that the examiner would make me do that. I had never done a GPS-overlay NDB approach before, but I was confident that I could do it if it came down to brass tacks.

But no ADF and no NDB approaches. Tradewinds is usually very good about making sure that you get the airplane you want for important stuff like checkrides. But, just to be sure, I told Steve the week before that I was bringing a hammer and an “INOP” sticker to the checkride just in case.

In the right seat is designated examiner Mary Carpenter. Mary did my private checkride in 2004 and I really enjoy her style. She’s living proof that you can be all about adherence to the practical test standards and competence as an aviator while still putting the candidate at ease, not being afraid to laugh a little, and always managing to teach you something in the process. And I’m not just saying this because she passed me on both the private and instrument checkrides. I earned each of those passes. She just made it the objective and even pleasant experience that any checkride can be if you walk onto the ramp the obvious master of the aircraft and the examiner puts you through the required paces in a fair and constructive way.

I’ve planned a cross-country flight under instrument flight rules, or “IFR,” and we’re ostensibly going to Traverse City (KTVC), which is about an hour and a half away under the usual wind conditions. The checkride will start out with Mary giving me a clearance to Traverse City and I’ll fly that clearance just as though I were actually going there. At some intermediate point, if she’s satisfied that I could make my way to Traverse City, she’ll announce that we’re not going there and we’ll do some other elements of the checkride.

In the course of the flight, we’re going to shoot three instrument approaches. Instrument approaches are published by the FAA and they lay out the procedures and the navigation aids that you use to safely descend through the clouds to land at an airport that you might not be able to see out the window until you’re as low as 200 feet off the ground and a half mile from the runway threshold. I’ll post links to the approach plates on the website as part of the blog entry for this episode.

Flint RNAV Runway 18:
Flint VOR Runway 9:
Pontiac ILS 9R:

A few technical notes.

You’ll hear me say on a few occasions something like “I’ve got my altitude.” That usually means that I’ve identified that I’m off my altitude by some amount, but tells the examiner that I know that and that I’m correcting. I usually point to the instrument as well to reinfore that I know what I’m doing or not doing.

An approach briefing is a self-brief where the pilot goes over the essential parts of the approach out loud in order to prepare to fly the approach. You generally want to get them done far enough before the initial approach fix that you’re comfortable with the procedure and can devote your attentions to flying the approach without having to refer to the approach plate or tune radios and do other things at a time when you’re flying closer and closer to the ground with tighter and tighter tolerances without looking out the windows. My approach briefing consists of:

Tune and identify navaids
Missed approach
Button of Death (the GPS/Nav selector for Nav 1)

(The Button of Death is the bane of my existence. There are two kinds of pilots. Those who have blown through approach courses with the BoD in the wrong mode and those who will.)

You’re going to hear bits and pieces of approach briefings in the audio here. I really wanted to John King the self-briefs and checklists but one of two things usually happened. One, I got interrupted by ATC or the examiner or I looked up to find myself about to bust an altitude. Or, two, there was just too much chatter on the frequency and you wouldn’t be able to make any sense out of what was going on. But be assured that I went through each of the briefings completely, even if it didn’t make for pretty audio.

So climb into the back seat. You’ll have to slouch down so Mary can’t see you. I’ve got full fuel aboard so you being in the back seat there would throw the weight and balance all off. But try to get a peek every now and then and, if I’m off course, tap me on the shoulder toward the approach course!

We’ll pick up the audio just after I turn on the avionics master and we’ll do the rest of the start-up and pre-taxi checklist and then taxi.

[Audio 01]

As we taxi, I do some of the instrument checks. I want to see that the magnetic compass, directional gyro, turn coordinator, and the ball all respond as they’re supposed to. The “needle” part here is not entirely correct because I have a turn coordinator and not the older turn-and-slip indicator, but Don Fuller, one of my instructors for the private ticket, used to use this terminology and it just stuck.

One other thing here. I always forget to do these checks before I get to the run-up area. I have not remembered to do them this way before or since. I just happened to have my John King on as we taxied.

[Audio 02]

Here’s the runup. We’re still on the ground near the end of the runway and this is where we do the final checks of the airplane’s systems to make sure that it’s safe to fly.

[Audio 03]

Next, we’re ready to take off. I’ll call the tower and get a takeoff clearance.

Mary has already given me an IFR clearance to Traverse City to copy and I have that ready to go on my kneeboard.

We’re going to be under Visual Flight Rules (or “VFR”). I’m going to be wearing a view limiting device for most of the flight so that I can only see the instruments in front of me and, in any case, I can’t see out the window. You’ll hear Mary take the flight controls at about 200 feet off the ground so that I can swing the device down over my eyes and then I’m flying again.

The scattered layer turns out to be lower than expected, so we have to fly lower than expected.

Mary clears me to intercept a course line extending 118 degrees (that’s roughly east southeast) from the Flint VOR and then track it inbound to Flint. So we start heading for that radial.

[Audio 4]

So we intercept the inbound course to Flint and get the ATIS - or automated terminal information system - broadcast in preparation for going in to Flint’s airspace. As you can hear, Mary keeps questioning me throughout the process. It becomes apparent that all the time with the flash cards and other materials is paying off.

[Audio 5]

Mary’s satisfied with the initial part of the flight and announces that we’re not going to Traverse City. She gives me a right turn, which is probably going to be a “clearing turn” so she can look around for other airplanes and set up to put me through some maneuvers.

[Audio 6]

We’re going to do some unusual attitudes now. Mary is going to take the controls and I have to close my eyes and put my chin on my chest. She’s going to maneuver around to get me disoriented and then put the plane in a nose-high or nose-low attitude with a bank in one direction or the other. When she gives me back the airplane, I have to look up at the instruments and immediately recover the stated attitude, altitude, and airspeed solely by reference to the instruments. If I’m nose-high, I have to immediately go to full power, get the nose down to the horizon, and level the wings – In that order. If I’m nose-low, I have to pull out the power, roll wings-level, and then bring the nose back up – In that order. There are reasons for the order that I won’t dwell on here, but suffice it to say that you have about three seconds to start doing something and it had better be the right thing. I’ve only genuinely scared instructors twice that I know of and once was when I pulled when I should have pushed. Stall horn. Shouting. Hitting. Bad juju. It’s ugly. Don’t do that.

I’ve noticed that no PC-based flight training device seems to have a random unusual attitude generator for use in practicing unusual attitudes. Sure, an instructor can put you into those attitudes, but it’d be nice it the machine would just do it so you could spend a couple of hours just practicing. You really need to be able to just look up and understand all of the six primary instruments (or such of them as haven’t tumbled their gyros by that point) at a glance if you’re going to reliably do the right thing. And there’s no way of doing that without a lot of practice. I got through the unusual attitude training well enough to pass this checkride, but I’d be a lot better it I could just go use a simulator that would just throw these at me automatically.

Microsoft, are you listening? How about something in the next version of Flight Simulator? And how about you On Top guys?

Toward the end I mention that I have the “leans.” That’s IFR-speak for being spatially disoriented. You feel like you’re leaning one way or the other even though you’re flying straight and level. Much of instrument flight is learning to ignore that leaning sensation and believe what your instruments are telling you. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to get the leans. But you’ll also be surprised at how quickly you get over them if you’re disciplined and train hard. You’ll still feel that leaning sensation, but the little voice in your head that tells you to obey your kinesthetic senses gets a lot quieter than the voice that tells you to get on the gages and believe them.

[Audio 7]

We also did some steep turns and other basic attitude instrument flight at that time. Basic maneuvers that allow the candidate to demonstrate that he or she can control the airplane solely by reference to instruments.

Now it’s time to go in to Flint and do some approaches. We start out by obtaining the ATIS information for Flint. You’ll note that the ILSs are out of service. I knew that ahead of time and Mary and I planned to do approaches other than the ILSs.

Mary says we’re going to shoot the RNAV 18 and the VOR 9. Each of these are non-precision approaches, meaning that they don’t have the precision of an ILS approach and that, if we were actually flying in the soup, we’d have to break out of the clouds and be able to see the runway at a higher altitude if we were going to land.

The RNAV approach is flown with the GPS unit. You’ll hear me fumbling around with the approach charts to figure out which initial approach fix we’ll probably be assigned. We’ll probably get a waypoint called FIBIN, so I set that up in the GPS as we’re waiting for the clearance.

[Audio 8]

Here’s the last part of the approach briefing for the RNAV 18 approach. You can hear that I’m holding the pen in my teeth as I read through it. Basically, the approach is a capital T. We’re going to enter the T at the right-hand side of the crossbar, proceed along the crossbar to where it meets the stem, and then turn south and fly down the stem to the runway, which is at the bottom of the stem of the T.

We’re doing a “circle to land,” which is that you’d do if you were flying an approach to one runway but wanted to land on a different runway. You might do this for any number of reasons. You might be flying in from the north but the winds are howling out of the east, so you’d shoot an approach for Runway 18 and then circle around to land on Runway 9. Or Ukrainian terrorists could have taken over all of the navaids for all runways except for 18 (a la Die Hard 2), making it the only operational approach, even though you actually wanted to land on Runway 27.

In this case, we’re going to be flying south on the approach until we get within a mile of Runway 18, which is oriented north-south, and then we’re going to turn to the right and make a quarter circle before turning left to land eastbound on Runway 9. I get to look out the window for the circling part because we’re assuming that there’s at least a mile of visibility and, as long as I stay within a mile of the runway complex, I’d be able to see the runway upon which I intended to land.

[Audio 9]

Here’s where we go part techno-cool and part smartass. There’s a feature on the KLN 94 GPS unit that calculates the winds aloft. You tell the GPS your magnetic heading and true airspeed and it calculates the wind direction and speed based on your drift. I run the calculations, both because I actually want to know what the wind is doing up there so I can set up a good crab angle for the approach and because I want to show off how much I know about the GPS. If what I tell the GPS is correct, I’m going to have a crosswind at the initial altitude of close to 50 knots. Considering that my true airspeed is about 110 knots more or less out of the east and that I’ll be flying this approach more or less directly south, that’s a monster crosswind. Mary’s going to be looking at the runway almost out of her side window. I don’t get to look at the runway for another 10 or 15 miles and more than 1,000 vertical feet, so I don’t care just now.

Anyway, I report the winds aloft to the approach controller. She seems incredulous, but admits that surface winds are getting a little brisk, too.

[Audio 10]

If you’re following along on the approach charts, I’ve started the approach from the northeast initial approach fix on the “T”-shaped approach. That’s called “FIBIN.” No doubt named for somebody’s pet hamster. From there, I fly more or less directly west and reach the intersection of the “T” shape, which is called “JUBER.” I think I went to elementary school with that one’s namesake. From there, I turn more or less directly south to the final approach fix, “CODAG.” The next communication comes when I’m just short of CODAG – Five or six miles from the runway threshold and at 2,400 feet getting ready to descend to 1,280 feet.

Now it’s over to the tower. I’m cleared to complete the approach and to do my circle to land northwest of the airport and then I’m cleared for the option to Runway 9. It’s a good time to do my pre-landing checklist, so I get that out of the way.

[Audio 11]

I get down to the minimum circling altitude of 1,280 feet and, a mile out, Mary tells me that I can come out from under the hood and fly the rest of the approach. I’m flying this approach at speeds that place me as either a Category A or B aircraft, meaning that the circling minimums give me obstacle clearance 1.3 to 1.5 miles out from the airport. We’re pretending that visibility is one mile, so I’m keeping the airplane within that one mile.

I turn right and make a counterclockwise circuit a quarter of the way around the airport and then, when I’m on the extended centerline of Runway 9, Mary tells me to descend to the runway threshold and prepare to land. On a quarter-mile final, she’s satisfied that I could make the landing and tells me to bring the hood back down while she flies the airplane and becomes my eyes again.

I call up the tower and then departure and we start setting up for the next approach – The VOR for Runway 9. Note that both I and the controller are pretty busy and there’s a momentary misunderstanding about which approach is next. Obviously, we’re going for Runway 9 and not Runway 27 and we clear that up pretty quickly. Imagine shooting an approach for 27 at normal power settings with a 50-knot tailwind! Might get me a ground track of 140 knots inbound. Maybe good at Edwards Air Force Base, but not here at Flint.

Note that I give departure control my tower-assigned heading and altitude. This isn’t standard, but I often find that departure at Flint asks me for this information. I’ve gotten so that I provide it almost automatically. As long as the frequency isn’t jammed, I recommend proactively filling in any information that controllers at that facility tend to request. Flint handles a fair amount of airline traffic and there are bigger fish to handle than me. Anything I can do to help out the controller sort out and facilitate FLIBs like me I try to do.

[Audio 12]

So that’s the first part of the checkride. Join me in the second installment for a partial-panel VOR approach to Runway 9, getting kicked off the miss for lack of cloud clearance, the hold at the Pontiac VOR and the ILS approach for Runway 9R at Pontiac. And that little part about Korea.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Beverage with Midway Six, Finding a New Place to Rent Airplanes, and a Visit from the Rodent

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Midway Six, fellow Civil Air Patrol captain, guest on Airspeed, and publisher of CAPblog was in town visiting family and we got together for an adult beverage and to talk flying, CAP, and flying. This just seems to be the couple of weeks for meeting folks from the podsphere and blogosphere in person. (Note visit to see Greg Summers of The Student Pilot Journal below.) It's really gratifying to know that the folks whose content you really like turn out to be just as cool in person as you'd hope they'd be.

I spent some time Saturday afternoon at Flight 101/Pontiac Flight Service looking around. As a recent refugee from Tradewinds, I need to find another place to rend airplanes. Flight 101 has 152s, 172s, and a couple of DA-40s. I'll probably get checked out in their 172s (and maybe the 152s for the heck of it) initially and then go for the DA-40 checkout later this summer.

Turns out that Robert Ericson, a CFI at Flight 101, is a listener! It was hardly a celebrity moment, but it's really cool to run into someone who knows the show and recognizes your voice.

In other news, I scheduled my multi training with Tom Brady of Traverse Air for April 19-21. The more I ask around about the guy, the more good things I hear about him and his aircraft. Really looking forward to getting that done. Then it's on to the the DC-3!

And what would an Easter post be without a photo of the visit from the Rodent du Jour? EB is making the rounds of the neighborhood and stopped at our house this afternoon. Kind of nice, considering that I made Cole and Ella hang around at Flight 101 well past their attention spans the day before.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Short Vacation and a Little Flying out of KSSI

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Just back from a long weekend down south. I hit Kennedy Space Center on Friday to touch base again with the space program. Really nice to hang around where a lot of it happened and is still happening.

Went to see Greg Summers of The Student Pilot Journal. Greg's an IT guy at Astrotech in Titusville and he and his colleagues were kind enough to give me a tour. I didn't take any pictures other than these out of respect for Astrotech and its clients, but did get to stand within 30 feet of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), which was undergoing checkout in preparation for launch aboard a Delta II rocket targeted for 11:45 a.m. EDT on May 16. Yeah, there was a glass partition and all, but it was really cool to see the telescope from that close.

I spent the next few days on Jekyll Island in Georgia. I rented a C-172R from Golden Isles Aviation at Malcolm Mc Kinnon Airport on St. Simons Island flew around the perimeter of Jekyll Island a few times. This is a shot of the Oceanside Inn and Suites where we've been coming for more than 15 years.

And here's a guy I met on the golf course on Monday. Probably 6-8 feet. This is a telephoto shot and you can be assured that I didn't walk up to him with a measuring tape. They apparently went around the course and took all of the really big gators out this year or last year. This one was about the biggest I saw.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Lake Parker Arrival

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Very much in the mood for an air show this week. Only a few weeks until Sun ‘N Fun down in Lakeland. I leave tomorrow to go see Greg Summer of The Student Pilot Journal in Titusville near Kennedy Space Center and then go play some golf with my brother and my dad on Jekyll Island in Georgia. But it won’t be an airshow.

I now have almost 30 outtakes from my checkride all set to go and the commentary is about a third of the way written, but my voice is still shot, thereby making a new episode a little difficult to cut just now.

So I sat down this weekend and recorded a little meditation I’m calling The Lake Parker Arrival. It’s me on 12-string guitar, six-string guitar, and mandolin. I tried laying down a little Ashbory bass, but I think it muddied the mix, so I left it out. Kind of like Ben Folds leaving the string section off Give Judy My Notice. Actually, nothing like Ben Folds, but you get the idea.

Anyway, there’s a link to the file here: Please feel free to listen to it and pass it around for noncommercial purposes or use it at any airshow for which you happen to need music. Just give me credit.

I’ll be back online soon with an update for preparations for the Battle Creek air show and, as soon as my voice comes back, I’ll record the checkride episodes. In the meantime, it’s time for a little R&R with the family.

Tray tables and seat backs!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

You Can Go Back

This is a regular blog post. Scroll up or down if you’re looking for episode info or audio.

I drove back last night from seeing clients in Chicago earlier this week. An earlier lunch had been called off so I had an hour to spare and still tuck the kids in back in southeast Michigan. So I did something that I’d been thinking for a long time about doing. I turned off I-94 and headed into downtown Kalamazoo.

In 1989, I took my first job after college. I was a commercial credit analyst at Old Kent (now Fifth Third) until 1992 and then moved over as a commercial loan analyst and later recovery specialist at First of America (later National City). I got my MBA at Western Michigan University (because that’s what you do at least one evening a week if you’re a commercial banker in Kalamazoo and don’t have an MBA yet) in 1993 and finally resolved to go to law school.

During late 1993 and early 1994, I sent resumes over to the east side of the state (where the Wayne State University School of Law is) and interviewed a lot. I also worked on my skills for the Law School Admission Test (the “LSAT”) – an amazingly worthless test of most of the qualities that make for a good law student (although, if prompted, I can tell you that the LSAT is, in at least one instance, highly predictive of how a taker will do on future LSATs – I scored in the same percentile all three times I took it between 1988 and 1994).

The Water Street Coffee Joint opened at about that time. It’s on a little sliver of street right near the railroad tracks on the east end of downtown near where Main Street and Kalamazoo Street (the two parallel one-way main drags of town) meet to form the two-way version of East Main that heads out toward Comstock.

It was cozy and had little parking. Really, really good coffee. I had a particularly memorable evening there working on the LSAT review book (Kaplan, I think) and ruminating on this new direction that I was about to take. Sometimes, I’d take what remained of my coffee and drive over to the park to smoke little Italian Ammezzati cigars (favored by Michigan Supreme Court justice John Voelker, better known to most by his pen name, Robert Traver, author of Anatomy of a Murder, People vs. Kirk, and Laughing Whitefish) and read the Detroit area want ads.

But it wasn’t the kind of place that you’d usually expect to make it more than a couple of years. Little or no pedestrian traffic in that area. Limited parking. Heavy vehicular traffic. You sometimes take your life into your own hands getting across multiple lanes to pull in.

I had often wondered whether the place might still be there after about 15 years.

Since then, I have completed law school (cum laude and Order of the coif, thank you!), joined a great firm, and become a member (the equivalent of “partner” for PLLCs). Not to mention CMA, CFM, instrument-rated pilot, father, and lots of other things. But 15 years is a long time.

To my great satisfaction, it’s still there. And the coffee is just as I remember it. They’re not afraid to sell really bold coffee brewed strong. And the seating area is still configured more or less as I remember it. Although I couldn’t stay around, I did poke my head into the seating area and my little table (or something very closely approximating it) is still there. No little bronze plaque declaring that “Here sat the future Stephen Force in 1994 and dreamed he large, grandly, and well,” but there needn’t be. It’s enough for me that it’s still there in more or less the same shape as when I last walked out the door to move to the Detroit area.

The Water Street Coffee Joint was someone’s dream in 1994 or so. The grand challenges of the law were my dream then. The dreams crossed briefly in time and space and time and each helped the other in some small way.

And now, close to 15 years later it’s good to see that the coffee joint is still there and still doing for others what it did for me.

You can go back. If you choose your places and moments carefully, and if the proprietors of the places where you hatch and nurse your plans are successful and kind. And if you’re both very, very lucky.

Thanks, Water Street, for being there. I’ll try to make sure that it’s less than 15 years before I’m back.