Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm not qualified to land the plane

Funny news story today, about a pilot for Flybe who announced to his passengers that he wasn't qualified to land the plane at CDG, and so they returned to Cardiff.

Apparently the pilot just upgraded to the Q400 from the Q300, and didn't have the training required to land in the fog at CDG at that time. Rather than doing the macho-man thing, the pilot made the announcement and returned to the departure airport.

One assumes that the weather was adequate prior to departure, but levels dropped while the aircraft was in-flight resulting in the weather below the pilot's minimums at the time of arrival.

The press will be all over this, since the quote will grab headlines. And they will add their own points of emphasis and omission to make the story, torturing the story into fiction. I have low expectations from today's press.

What will get missed is the responsible act of the pilot. He stayed within his limits, and chose the safe course of action. Congratulations.

Though, perhaps it would have been better to announce "The weather at CDG has dropped below minimum requirements, we are returning to Cardiff" rather than " I am not qualified...."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Aviation medical - December 15

Being an old fart, my class 3 medical expires after 2 years. The date of my previous medical examination was January 2007, 23 months ago.

I visited the CAME today. I passed.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Some more circuits - Dec 14

With the pre-Christmas season life is busy. Ottawa also has just started a transit strike, which does not affect me since home and work are quite near each other, but does affect my wife (who works downtown and normally takes the bus each day) and my daughter (who works shifts that start at various times, needs to take the bus to work or mooch the car... which normally is not around during the day). The strike sucks up time, and the shortage of time cascades into all other facets of life during a season which is normally busy.

But today I flew a bit. The school had a Christmas pot luck, and I managed to snag a late-morning time slot so I could attend both on one trip.

A look at the radar showed a ring of snow-showers all around Ottawa, and bearing right down on the Carp airport. And the rising air temperature (yesterday was -19C, today was above freezing) meant that there was a chance of rain or freezing rain. My original plan was to practice slow flight and stalls in the practice area, but the changing weather meant it would be prudent to stay near the airport. I'm still not happy with my normal approaches, so that was fine.

My instructor wanted to come along for the ride, rather than cutting me loose directly. Primary reason was the snow-covered runways and taxi-ways - we had some more snow last night - and he wanted to ensure my ground control was appropriate.

Four circuits dual... started with a short-field take-off, the remainder of the take-offs were touch&go (normal). Though the runway still had a dusting of snow, the brakes and tires held against the application of full-power.

Circuits were routine... I talked about the last lesson, how I have been working on getting started early, staying ahead of the airplane and leaving lots of time to calmly fly the approach. My circuit agenda was to stick to 1000' AGL and avoid wandering altitudes, and to not pinch 10-20 degrees off my headings and crowd the runway when flying the circuit.

Final approach was horizontally stabilized, and the vertical stabilization was getting better. Getting into a stable attitude with stable power and airspeed, and tracking the runway numbers, was a good tool. Today I tended to come in a bit lower and flatter than ideal, but with no last-300-yard application of power.

I unloaded the instructor, and did two circuits solo. Started with a short-field take-off, where I got off the runway nice and early, got a bit higher than ground effect, and wandered off to the left side of the runway once airborne. More practice required.

On the second downwind I noted that the visibility to the north had really shut down, about 8 miles away. I called full-stop and came home.

I felt rushed in this final circuit since I didn't want to be flying in what might be white-out conditions in a non-IMC certified aircraft with a non-IFR pilot, but forced myself to be methodical on the checklist and the approach. When you're in an airplane and you rush things, bad things happen.

Time: 0.6 Dual, 0.4 solo
Landings: 4 dual, 2 solo
Take-offs: 1 Short-field, 1 soft-field, 4 touch&go normal.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Day of Firsts - Again - December 11

It is not unexpected to constantly experience "firsts" when you're in a new locale, or when you're on a steep learning curve. Today I was on both.

Flight booked from 1-3. I had a preflight briefing from the CFI as my usual instructor was at work (I was working "flex-time"). My plan was to work on the basics. She agreed. Winds were only 6 knots slightly from the right of runway 10, landings were not going to be a problem, so she launched me straight solo. That's a first - every previous solo flight required a checkride for a circuit or three to ensure my skills were within conditions before the self-unloading ballast got out and I went solo.

Temperature yesterday afternoon was -11C, and the air pressure (according to the altimeter when set to runway altitude) was 30.19. While I was physically 382 feet above sea level, I calculated the density altitude to be 3080 feet below sea level. The air was thick (dense), and both the wings and propeller were going to be high performance. I had minimal weight with only myself, and slightly more than a half tank of gas, aboard. This bird was going to climb like a homesick angel.

I had a long list of activities to practice. At first look it seems to be a too-long list, but it was all basic activity (climbs, descents, turns, etc).

Today's plan:
  • Normal take-offs were getting routine, so work on short takeoffs, and soft-field take-offs,
  • Fly to the practice area,
  • Practice the basics - turns to a heading while maintaining altitude, climbs and descents to an altitude while maintaining heading, maintaining altitude while in cruise, do some slow flight manoeuvres. If I was feeling comfortable I'd add steep turns and forward slips.
  • Return to the airport, then practice normal landings.
As the Diamond has a plastic canopy it is necessary to have a nice warm-up before taxiing, otherwise any FOD that hits a cold plastic canopy may pit or shatter, rather than just bounce off. The engine was warm from the previous flight, so the warm-up during the preflight checklists was sufficient.

Taxi was slow and careful - the apron and taxi-way were both snow-covered with occasional bits of bare pavement. The runway was mostly bare, with occasional icy bits. Another first - this was the first time I'd be working on anything except bare pavement.

First take-off was a short-field:
  • Position right at the end of the runway,
  • Elevator full-back, to maximize brake effect,
  • Stand on the brakes,
  • Full power, check guages,
  • Release brakes,
  • Release elevator to neutral, rotate at normal speed (44 knots), climb out at Vx (best angle of climb, 57 knots),
  • When the virtual 50 foot obstruction is cleared, lower nose to climb out at Vy (best rate of climb, 68 knots).
I proceeded solo to the practice area - the third first in a short while. While exciting, it also felt really weird. There was one other aircraft in the practice area, and three others transiting the area, so I claimed a patch of sky over Constance Bay and proceeded to work my plan.

  • Climb to 3500', and level off on a smooth transition (no floating feeling) and without busting through. I did a Vy (maximum rate) climb, and was climbing at 1300 feet per minute. Last summer I was seeing 600 FPM. Went well,
  • Shallow (15 degrees of bank) 360 degree turns in both directions while maintaining altitude. Went well - maintained altitude easily,
  • Medium (30 degrees of bank) 360 degree turns in both directions while maintaining altitude. Turns went well, altitude maintenance was sloppy. Exit on a heading went well. Using external references (the horizon), noted that most of my turns in the circuit were banked about 20 degrees. Since I've spent the last three months in Circuit Hell, thirty degrees of bank was more than I was used to, and a bit uncomfortable, so I decided that medium banked turns were the place to work, and didn't try steep turns (45 degrees, or even 60 degrees) on this flight,
  • Descents were slow. Most (almost all) small GA airplanes have air-cooled engines, so the front cylinders cool quicker than the rear cylinders. Thermal shock occurs when you put the cylinders through hot-cold-hot-cold cycles. With the very cold air, to minimize the thermal shock you want to re-warm the cylinders periodically when in idle conditions (like on a descent), or else just keep some minimal throttle. With the high density air and throttle for 1200 RPM, descents were gentle. It was easy to hit and maintain the desired target altitude,
  • Traffic starting coming in from the north and were announcing that they were passing over Constance Bay (exactly where I was practicing, although I was higher), so it was time to stop playing on the freeway. I set up for slow flight, with gentle turns, and transited down to Kinburn,
  • With the very cold air I decided to not practice forward slips (which is an engine-idle manoeuvre).
By this time I was bored with driving around in the sky, so it was time for some circuits. Descend below 2500 feet (gradual descent) to get under the Ottawa wedding cake, proceed to the town of Carp while continuing to descend down to 1900 feet (1500 feet AGL), pass over the airport, check the runway and the wind-sock, descending turn to circle back to the active side, cross at 1400 feet (1000 AGL), join the mid-left downwind, and practice normal landings, stop&go, and different take-offs.

On every landing it is essential to get stabilized, meaning that you're riding down on rails with only minimal control adjustments, and then only to keep yourself on the rails. I've found that my approaches are horizontally stabilized (tracking the centre-line, and land on the centre of the runway with no yaw), but not vertically stabilized. I tend to start off too high, use minimal power, get too low, bring the nose up to have a lower descent rate, get going a bit slow, then add in some power, arrive at the threshold with minimal energy, and run out of energy and drop (stall out) the last 2 feet to the runway.

It all starts with being too-high at the start of the final approach, so I wanted to get well ahead of the aircraft:
  • Fly the downwind at 110-120 knots, radio calls made, pre-landing checklist done, throttle back opposite the threshold, nose slowly up to maintain altitude and lose speed, reset the elevator trim, flaps to take-off, and then turn to base when at the correct position and speed is 60-65 knots,
  • After the turn to base is complete, flaps down to landing, trim for 60 knots,
  • I'm landing on runway 10 today, so I should be flying 90 degrees from runway heading, or a 190-degree, base leg. Often I will squeeze it to 70-80 degrees, which means I am closer to the runway threshold when turning final, and therefore compressing the final approach,
  • Turn final, make the radio call, and get stabilized both horizontally and vertically,
  • Pick my aiming point (difficult on a mostly snow-covered runway - it's all white), and see if it is static on the windscreen, or if it is tracking up/down (which means you will undershoot or overshoot). Adjust elevator to keep the aiming point stable, adjust power to maintain 60 knots), fly the final. Today the atmosphere was easy - no sink off the end of the runway, and the crosswinds were both mild and non-gusting,
  • Gentle flare to cruise attitude - I had been starting my flare a bit late and was therefore a bit rushed and aggressive,
  • Stop rotating at cruise altitude - no nose-up when rotating to the flare,
  • As the aircraft starts to sink, nose-up to maintain a very gentle sink rate (no sink if just above the runway).
I was doing stop&go (rather than touch&go) landings today, to practice the different take-offs. Post-touchdown, I needed to:

  • Pick an area of the runway which had good traction (or - at least - equal traction for both wheels),
  • Slow down carefully using brakes,
  • Radio the back-tracking call, turn,
  • Complete the pre-takeoff checklist while taxiing back to the take-off position,
  • Set up for the take-off,
  • Launch.
The next four take-offs were all soft-field:

  • On the soft part of the field taxi is done with some power (so you don't get stuck) and full-back elevator (to minimize the weight on the nose-wheel),
  • Turning at the end of the runway is completed without stopping,
  • Smooth application of full power,
  • Nose-wheel will want to come off the runway at much less than rotation speed due to the full-back elevator - when the nose starts to move relax most of the elevator so the nose wheel is only slightly off the runway,
  • At rotation speed (44 knots) lift the nose wheel up, and get the aircraft off the ground. My stall speed is 38 knots with take-off flaps, so we can easily fly at 44 since we're not at maximum weight, we are at full power so the airflow over much of the wing is in the prop-wash and much faster than my airspeed of 44 knots. And because of this aircraft's rapid acceleration we're probably up to 50 knots by the time we lift off.
  • Nose down, and stay in ground effect. This is not a short-field take-off, so there is no urgency to climb out. Accelerate in ground effect to Vy (68 knots), and climb.
Final landing, full stop, taxi to the gas pump, go do paperwork and de-brief.

Time: 1.4 hours solo
Take-offs: 1 short-field, 4 soft-field
Landings: 5 normal

Needs improvement:

  • Because I've spent so much time in the circuit in the last three months, medium and steep turns feel very unusual. Time to become re-acquainted,
  • Altitude tracking on medium turns,
  • Vertical stabilization on final approach. Today was much better, but it still needs practice and improvement to make it slick,
  • Flying downwind and base at 180 degrees and 90 degrees from runway heading. I have a tendency to pinch by 10-20 degrees,
  • On a soft-field take-off, I tend to yaw to the left when leaving the surface. Need more right rudder to counteract the propwash, and perhaps a bit of right aileron to counter-act the cross-wind,
  • On a soft-field take-off, staying within ground effect. I still tend to leap off the runway and get higher than ground-effect. It was especially tough today because of the dense air, which resulted in a very high-performance wing and propeller, and everything happened very quickly.
Needs a re-visit, just because it has been so long:
  • Need more time in very slow flight (50 knots), just to get comfortable with that regimen of flight,
  • Need work on stalls (didn't plan on working on them today),
  • Need practice on forward slips (smooth entry and exit). Didn't work on that today because I had a full workload, and didn't want to thermal-shock the engine,
  • Spiral dives. It has been a long time since I reviewed them. Must have an instructor on board to practice them,
  • Steep turns.
Went well:

  • Getting down to a good altitude at the start of the final approach. I tend to be too high, primarily due to getting behind the airplane in downwind and base. Even with a light load and dense air, today's focus on the pre-final phase of the landing generated very good results,
  • Climbs and descents were good today. But needs more practice, as there remains a tendency to blast through the target altitude on a climb, espceially when things are busy,
  • Slow level flight - 60 knots with flaps in take-off. But it is boring,
  • Gentle turns with altitude tracking and rolling out on a specific heading,
  • Radio work. Solo. With frequency changes,
  • Taxi on a slippery surface,
  • Short-field take-offs,
  • Horizontal stabilization on final approach.
  • Flare - today was much better, no climbing during flare, and the level-off altitude was good,
  • Nose-up during touch-down - I greased all five of today's landings.

  • Taxiways and runways which were not bare pavement,
  • Launched without a checkride,
  • First time solo away from the airport.
Next lesson is next Sunday. It's a short booking period - only 90 minutes - so I'll suggest we focus on slow flight and stalls.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Precautionary Landings - Nov 30

We started today with a 30 minute briefing, where we went through the Precautionary Landing methodology. Then, out to pre-flight, and off north to the practice area.

I started with a short-field take-off: Position as close to the end of the runway as possible, radio call "rolling", full nose-up elevator, full brakes, full power, check gauges to ensure full engine power has been realized, release brakes, relax elevator, rotate at usual speed (44KIAS), initial climb at Vx (57KIAS) until obstruction is cleared, then climb out at Vy (68KIAS), then flaps to cruise and climb at 75KIAS.

North towards the practice area only to see a bank of low-lying cloud due to the unfrozen Ottawa River delivering moisture into the below-zero air - but we found a corner of the practice area which was clear sky, and met the lateral cloud-distance requirement.

When practicing precautionary landings:
  • Be a nice guy - do one practice landing only per field, rather than buzzing the same farmer all day.
  • Make an informational radio call, as one normally already does periodically in the practice area.
  • Stay away from livestock, or any disruption of farming activities. Absolutely avoid any buildings which are marked with the livestock symbol (yellow and black marking on the roof).

Precautionary Landings are all about the choices, setup, and careful COWLS examination of the candidate landing area.
  • From altitude - survey the general area, determine the wind direction (or best guess from whatever tell-tales, ATIS, history, ground-track or the GPS will tell you). Select a candidate field (you want to land into the wind if at all possible, hence the determination of wind direction first).
  • Brief your passengers. Seats locked in the upright position, tray tables stowed, secure any loose items, sharp items out of pockets, etc.
  • Enter the circuit as one always does. Descend to 1000' AGL, and fly a downwind track after entering from the mid-left or the straight-in. Perform the pre-landing checklist. Abeam the threshold reduce power, start losing airspeed and start deploying flaps. Turn base at the usual point, full flaps, slow to the usual approach airspeed (60KIAS), but maintain 1000' AGL rather than descending, turn to upwind.
  • Fly an inspection pass along the length of the chosen field, from circuit height and distance along the upwind side. Perform the COW part of the COWLS check.
  • At the end of the landing area perform a recovery - full power, retract flaps in stages, maintain 1000' AGL, turn crosswind and then downwind.
  • On the downwind track a second time, perform the pre-landing checks a second time. Abeam the threshold start losing airspeed and start deploying flaps. Turn base, flaps to landing, slow to final approach speed (60KIAS), descend to 500' AGL, turn to upwind.
  • Maintain 500' AGL and 60KIAS along the upwind. Time the duration of the flight along the upwind track to get a landing zone length. Perform the LS part of the COWLS check.
  • At the end of the landing area perform a recovery - full power, climb to 1000' AGL, flaps to cruise. Turn crosswind and then downwind.
  • On the downwind track a third time, perform the pre-landing checks a third time. Issue the PAN PAN radio call.
  • Abeam the threshold, start the regular landing sequence. Start losing airspeed, start deploying the flaps, turn base, flaps to full, speed to 60KIAS, turn final.
  • Perform the landing. Perform a short-field landing, soft-field landing, or (more likely), both.
  • On a simulated precautionary landing do not descend below 500' AGL. Do a low&over along the field, and recover at the end.

The COWLS check:

  • Communications - After landing there will be a requirement to communicate position and a requirement for help, so if at all possible one should land where communications are available.
  • Obstructions - On the approach path (trees, communications lines, hydro poles), in the landing area (ditches, hay bales, livestock), and in the climb-out (in case of overshoot, or if you plan to fly the aircraft out of the field).
  • Width and Wind - Confirming the direction of the wind, and ensuring that the landing area is of sufficient width. A major issue with landing on most roads in this area is that they are not wide enough, they have wires criss-crossing them constantly, they have 3000lb hunks of metal on them that are not expecting an airplane to join them, and there are all sorts of low-level obstructions right on the side of the road (signage, mailboxes, fence posts, etc). Generally, landing on a road is a great idea from a surface perspective, and a rotten idea due to obstructions and width.
  • Length - Making sure the field is long enough. This is a precautionary landing, not a forced landing, so there is no excuse to select a field and then crash into a fence at the far end. Use a timer to measure the length... 60KIAS is (close enough to) 1 nautical mile per minute, or 6080 feet per minute, or 100 feet per second. If the field is 12 seconds long then it meets the minimum length requirement for the plane I fly.
  • Surface - Big obstructions (hay bales, cows) can be checked from 1000' AGL, but at 500' AGL one wants to carefully check the surface for ditches, depressions, piles of rocks, firmness, etc. If a crop is growing in the field then the height of the crop is of interest (a sod farm is perfect, freshly mown hay is great, 6-foot corn will ground loop you).

Returning to the airport the wind was variable and all over the place. We were expecting runway 10 (the same runway we took off from), but the windsock favoured 28. I crossed over the airport and descended and joined the circuit straight-in, got in too close and couldn't get down in time so we flew a low&over, and found the wind had switched back to runway 10. So we climbed back to circuit height, did a runway change, and landed.

Time: 1.1 Dual
Landings: 1

The instructor made a notation in my Pilot Training record (PTR) that I am now authorized to fly solo to the practice area.