Tuesday, November 28, 2006

If it's Baroque, Part III

Time is a valuable commodity, especially when you are hand-flying an aircraft by reference to instruments. You need to have good aircraft control to hand-fly in the goo or you won't have time to attend to other flying chores. Staying ahead of the game is the name of the game while flying on instruments, yet I often give instruction to pilots so fixated on precisely holding a heading or altitude that they squander plenty of opportunities to finish other important IFR tasks. To manage a precious commodity like time, you need to set priorities or you'll fall into the hole.

Pilots who like to get a jump on things, who like to optimize, who seek precision, maybe even perfection, usually make good instrument pilots because single-pilot IFR in a small aircraft is like riding a mountain bike while simultaneously playing chess. That's why the really good instrument pilots find a way to reconcile their perfect, ideal vision of precise flying with the harsh realities of the turbulence, weather, icing, and equipment failures. While striving to fly precisely and smoothly, instrument pilots need to remember that VOR courses are rough, DME units quit working, GPS receivers give RAIM failures, and ATC often finds the worst possible moment to give you an amended clearance. That's when you find yourself in the hole. Now it's time to cut to the chase, take a bite of your Powdermilk Biscuit™ and do what needs to be done.

To get yourself out of the hole, there are really just four existential questions that you need to be able to answer.

Where am I?

Where am I going?

How will I get there?

Where am I going after that?

In a perfect world, we complete the approach briefing while more than 25 miles away from our destination airport. We already have the ATIS recorded, the altimeter(s) set, the radio frequencies set, the navigational aids' Morse code identifiers verified, and a RAIM prediction completed. But sometimes the real world doesn't cooperate - your plane ices up, you need to divert around some weather, or ATC vectors you all over hell before dumping you on the approach course, too close and too high. When you find yourself behind and getting further and further behind, you need to be able to implement the crisis approach briefing and get yourself out of the hole.

The first step is to quickly digest and configure the minimum navigation setup that will get you to the airport. I find that once a pilot has completed this initial set-up, most are able to relax and complete a more thorough briefing as they get vectored to the approach course. So forget about having three different ways to verify the final approach fix, at least initially. Later you will carve out some time to do a complete briefing at bit at a time (including all three ways to identify the final approach fix). To illustrate the crisis briefing, consider the localizer approach for San Diego's Lindbergh Field.



I flew this approach several times as a freight dog and SoCal approach often wanted to clear me for a visual approach. The first time this happened, I went along with the notion of a visual approach because it would save me time. Then I realized that I was heading into the setting sun and couldn't call the field in sight. The lesson I learned was to make a point of being prepared to fly an instrument approach, even if my destination airport was reporting VFR conditions.

If you checked in with ATC without reporting that you had the current weather for San Diego, the controller should have given you the altimeter setting and asked you to report when you had the current weather. If you lied and told ATC you had the current weather when you didn't, now is the time to tune in the ATIS and at the very least note the wind direction and speed, the ceiling and visibility and the altimeter setting. Not having the current weather at the destination airport and not having the correct approach briefed prior to being handed off to the last approach controller are the hallmarks of a poorly-prepared pilot. Regardless of your concept of your own flying, today you are poorly prepared. You'll have to deal with it and move on if you want to get out of the hole.

San Diego is a big city airport and SoCal is going to give you vectors to the localizer, so this will make your life easier, right? Not necessarily. Frequent heading changes and altitude assignments can be a distraction, actually increasing your workload. So start answering the four existential questions.

Where are you? Somewhere to the east of Lindbergh Field.

Where are you going? To Lindbergh Field, of course!

How will you get there? You're getting vectors to the localizer approach.

Where are you going next? You going to descend on the localizer approach and ultimately see the runway and land or fly the missed approach.

Look at the title of the approach and read it out loud to make sure you have the correct chart. Fly IFR long enough and all approach charts start to look the same. It may sound pedantic to read the name of the approach out loud, but I've seen pilots (including yours truly) do some astoundingly dumb things when under pressure.

Next, glance at the briefing strip. Virtually all NACO approach charts have a briefing strip format similar to Jepp charts. The briefing strip contains the main items that will get you to the runway, namely 1) the localizer and 2) the DME. The briefing strip also tells you the approach course, the touchdown zone elevation, the missed approach procedure, and the important communication frequencies.



Many pilots I fly with insist on struggling with the chart and setting up the frequencies by hand, which is fine if you have an autopilot or another pilot sitting next to you. And if you aren't flying a plane equipped with a later model GPS receiver, this is what you have to do. If you are flying an aircraft with a Garmin 430/530 or a G1000, do yourself a favor - Swallow you pride, press the PROC button and just load the damn approach! Many pilots do this as an afterthought and in the process they create a lot of work for themselves.

In the case of the localizer approach into Lindbergh, loading the approach in a Garmin 430/530 or G1000 will automatically put the localizer in the back-up frequency. All you have to do is swap the localizer frequency in the active slot, identify it (this should be done automatically by a Garmin 530 or G1000), and then set course and source: Set the OBS or HSI (for non-G1000 systems) to the approach course and verify that the navigation source is the localizer and not the GPS. Tune the DME to the same frequency, take a deep breath, relax, and go back to concentrating on flying the vectors and altitudes that ATC is giving you knowing that a big chunk of the approach set-up work is complete.

What about activating the approach in the Garmin GPS, you ask? Simply loading the approach will display the step-down fixes and where you are in relation to those fixes on the moving map, but you'll have to do some fancy knob-twisting and button-pushing to activate the correct leg of the approach. If you think you're back on top of the approach, go ahead.

To get you on an approach course intercept, ATC should give you your position relative to a published fix on the approach, a heading to fly, an altitude to maintain until established, and your approach clearance. Before this happens, you should have plenty of time to digest the rest of the approach.

Once you are established on the localizer, keep the localizer needle centered and keep track of your distance from the missed approach point. This is a good time to let your focus shift to the profile view, which lists the fixes and the altitudes to fly as well as the basic missed approach instructions. When you are a about 5 miles from the final approach fix, then press the PROC button and select Activate Vectors to Final if you haven't already activate the approach.

And what about that missed approach procedure, you ask? Note that the missed approach instructions tell you to fly the 272 degree bearing from the AN LMM to a VOR cross radial, which defines SARGS. Funny thing, the chart doesn't say that ADF is required nor does it say you can fly the localizer backcourse to SARGS. It's quite likely the backcourse is unusable, since there is an ILS approach to the opposite runway that uses the same frequency and SARGS is the final approach fix for the ILS. What gives? I wish I knew, but I don't. I've seen other approaches like this and when someone asked the FAA instrument approach procedures folks for an answer, the answer was often that the chart was updated to say "ADF required." If you are not flying with an IFR-certified GPS, you're going to have to work this out. Hopefully you have ADF in your aircraft or perhaps an FMS since you're flying into a busy Class B airport.

If you do need to fly the missed approach with a Garmin 430/530 or G1000 equipped plane, you'll have two important button pushes to make after you have passed the missed approach point and after you have configured the plane to climb (remember to climb and fly the plane first): Press the OBS button to re-enable waypoint sequencing and set the navigation source to the GPS. In non-G1000 aircraft, you'll also have to set the desired track on the OBS or HSI.

Hopefully you will not have to fly the missed approach and you will find yourself safely on the ground, where you will promise yourself that next time you'll be better prepared and that you won't fall into the hole.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

If it's Baroque, Part II

The best way (maybe the only way?) to get good and stay good at reading and preparing for an approach, departure, or arrival is to practice. Sorry, I have no silver bullets. You can always practice in a real aircraft, but practicing a ton of procedures is not only time-consuming, it can get damned expensive. The good news is that you can also practice procedures in a simulator with a much smaller investment in money, but it may still take a significant time commitment. Airlines realize this and use everything from cockpit-based trainers (often just a cardboard aircraft cockpit with realistic switch layouts) to sophisticated simulators that can do anything the actual aircraft it is simulating can do. Except become airborne, that is.

If you are a GA pilot trying to stay sharp, a PC-based simulator won't have most of the gee-whiz stuff that Level D sims have. And it doesn't have to. Taken with the proper attitude, Flight Simulator, X-Plane, or any basic flight simulator can help you get sharp and stay sharp. Even with just a basic control yoke, such as the one offered by CH Products, the benefits of simulator practice increase dramatically. If you want to invest in rudder pedals, too, that's up to you. Some might argue that a decent simulator setup could end up costing well over $1000. This is true, but with the cost of 100LL over $4 per gallon you should make that investment back pretty quickly. And it doesn't really matter if the time you spend on the simulator can be logged. The real benefit is increased safety and proficiency when you get in a real aircraft.

After you have assembled you flight simulator, have it set-up, debugged it, and it is running reasonably well, you're ready to start putting it to good use. I define good use as practicing departure and approach procedures in an aircraft similar to what you'd fly in real life. Practicing hand-flying an ILS with the A320 flight model that you just downloaded may be a hoot, but it is probably not going to help you fly an ILS in a Seneca in real life. To borrow an adage often repeated by many musicians: "If you play when you practice, you'll find yourself practicing when you play."

All of the simulations of ATC interactions that I've seen ... SUCK. There, I've said it. Simulating all the possible interactions with ATC is a tall order, but the simulations I've seen don't even handle the routine radio interactions very well. Since I use my simulator to practice procedures, I don't waste my time with simulated ATC. If you have a good instructor who knows the ATC patter well, that is worth more than any ATC simulation. And I don't fiddle with having other simulated aircraft flying around me. And since I'm using the simulator to practice procedures, I will go through the motions of getting me clearance, reading it back, and configuring the radios and the aircraft just like I would in real life.

Years ago I was a beta tester for a now-defunct flight simulator that had some navigation database issues. Most of the VORs were there, but some NDBs, DME stations, and marker beacons were missing. I resigned myself to the fact that the only way to test this stuff for my area was to fly each and every approach. So that's what I did. Not all at once, mind you, but about 10 to 12 approaches per day. In a couple of weeks, I had gone through all of the approaches for California. And learned a ton in the process. I still have a book of approaches next to my simulator and every few days I sit down and sight read a new approach, departure or arrival. With the NACO web site, you can access a huge number of procedures for free.



So when Annonymous pointed me to the Martin State VOR/DME RWY 15 approach, I couldn't wait to find some spare time to fly it. This a fun approach to practice because you get two DME arcs (one on the intermediate/final approach course and one on the missed approach). I'd like to try the NDB approaches that Aviatrix suggested, but my Elite simulator doesn't have terrain or navigation databases for areas outside the U.S. I'd like to run X-Plane, but it doesn't interface with the Elite hardware that I have. Which simulator and what hardware to use is a whole 'nother topic.

An effective technique I've found for working my way through a book of approaches is to start by flying an airport's departure procedure, then navigate my way to an initial approach fix for an approach back into the airport. If the current, real-world weather for that airport looks challenging, I'll import that weather and use it. Otherwise, I'll set up some challenging, but not insurmountable ceiling, visibility, wind and turbulence conditions. And if I'm feeling particularly cocky, I'll set up one or more random system or engine failures to occur when I least expect it.

So if you want to be able to get good at setting up for and flying instrument procedures without breaking the bank, grab a book of approach plates and fire up your simulator. It's go time!

Monday, November 06, 2006

If it's Baroque, Fix it!

Reading an instrument approach chart is much like reading music. And as in a musical performance, flying an approach involves executing a sequence of tasks, at the right time, in order to arrive at the airport or runway. And like music, reading an instrument approach chart and setting up the navigational equipment is easier if you have flown the approach before because you already know the tune. In spite of recent advances that are making single-pilot instrument flying more manageable, there are many procedures out there that may still involve a dangerously high workload for the average GA pilot to manage single-handedly.

If you are flying an approach you've never seen before, reading the approach chart is very much like what musicians call sight reading: Translating squiggles on a page into music you've never heard before, in real time, often in concert with other musicians. To maintain sight reading skills, whether from a piece of music or an approach chart, you have to practice. If you don't practice flying unfamiliar approaches from time to time, your sight reading skills will deteriorate. Playing wrong notes during a musical performance can be embarrassing, but the results of a mistake on an instrument approach chart can be far, far worse.

The Oroville NDB RWY 1 approach has a very simple layout and the sad fact is that there seem to be fewer and fewer approaches like it. The disadvantages of this type of approach are that accurately flying an ADF indicator is admittedly a bit harder than a VOR and definitely harder than flying to a GPS waypoint. The approach requires a procedure turn and the minimum descent altitude is not terribly low. This sort of approach works well in relatively flat, obstruction-free areas, but doesn't work as well in mountainous areas. And of course there all the vagaries to which NDB transmissions are heir. The advantages of this approach are that it is clean, easy to read, and flying to the missed approach point involves just one navigational aid. Ah, the good old days ...

At first blush, the Tracy VOR or GPS A approach seems simple, which is why I like to assign it to instrument rating candidates and pilots during a proficiency check. I've witnessed pilots fly this approach, oh, at least 80 times in aircraft with equipment of varying sophistication. Even though I know this approach pretty well, I'd prefer flying it in instrument conditions as either a GPS approach or in an aircraft with DME. Here's why.



The intermediate and final approach segments are based on the Manteca 220˚radial and if you have DME, identifying the step-down fix, final approach fix, and missed approach point is easy. To navigate to the MAP, you only need to do a minimum of three tasks: Set a VOR receiver to the Manteca VOR, set the DME to Manteca, and set the correct radial on the OBS. To be ready to fly the missed approach, you'll accomplish two more tasks: Get the Sacramento VOR tuned in on the number two VOR receiver and set the 157˚ radial on the number two OBS, though you could identify TRACY intersection with just one VOR receiver and DME. So with VOR and DME, you have a grand total of five tasks (six, if you count resetting the OBS to the Manteca 229˚radial on the missed approach).

If you have two VOR receivers and no DME, you'll have five more tasks to accomplish. On the number two VOR, you'll need to tune and identify the Modesto VOR, set the OBS to identify MANCO intersection, and passing MANCO, you'll need to set the OBS to identify the final approach fix. If you have a flip-flop frequency feature, put Sacramento in the backup frequency so you'll be ready for the missed approach. Passing MANCO, make the Sacramento VOR frequency active in the number two receiver and set the 157˚ radial (this requires you to twist the OBS nearly 180˚). And if your aircraft has an ADF and you want to be really thorough, the designers of this approach have even thrown in the Livermore REIGA LOM into the mix, though I'm not sure what this buys you. So if you don't have DME, you'll have at least 11 tasks to accomplish to fly this approach all the way to the missed approach.

What might not be obvious is that this approach starts with a relaxed tempo: The descent profile is very gradual all the way to the missed approach point. But things unfold very quickly when flying the missed approach: You only have to climb to 2000 feet and TRACY intersection (where you hold) is not at all far away. The devil is in the details, as they say.

Flying this approach with GPS involves loading the approach, then (depending on the model of GPS) possibly activating the approach, and setting the course (unless the plane is equipped with an electronic HSI). Throw RAIM prediction and this brings you to a grand total of two to four tasks. Flying the missed approach involves just one or two tasks (depending on the GPS equipment being used). What's not to like?

The Tracy approach I've cited is not the worst of 'em in terms of complexity. Consider the Roanoke LDA RWY 6 approach, which is one of the more complex approach charts I recall seeing. Aside from all the restrictions, walk through the missed approach procedure and imagine what sorts of knob twisting and button pushing you'd need to do. And you want to make sure you get it right because there is plenty of cumulus granitus around Roanoke.



As the specifications for developing instrument approaches gradually became more complicated, it was inevitable that some instrument approaches would, themselves, become complicated as well. Pilots usually don't have much say in the matter. We just want a procedure we can safely fly in bad weather.

So how can the average GA pilot go about handling complexity in instrument approaches when flying single-pilot IFR? I'll offer some strategies in the next installment. In the meantime, if you have a favorite procedure that is particularly arcane, please feel free to share it.