Friday, February 18, 2011

U-Turns

My usual goal is avoid anything to do with aviation on my day off, but I feel compelled to help out today because I’ve learned something important over the years: Everything in aviation is connected - people, planes, airports, weather. Today’s short flight is to ferry an aircraft to a nearby airport for it’s 50-hour oil change and to have some squawks (minor problems) addressed. I haven’t flown this aircraft in a while, but things can change in a heartbeat. I never know when my teaching schedule could make me dependent on this particular plane. Obviously others are flying this plane, otherwise it wouldn’t need an oil change and the best time to wrench on a plane is when the weather prevents it from flying anyway. Unnecessary down time causes everyone to lose and the simple act of ferrying this plane will help the owner, the operator, other instructors, other pilots, and ultimately myself. The way I look at it, aviation is just a really big family.

For the last six weeks the weather has been nothing short of spectacular, better than many summer days. Today the conditions just turned decidedly winter-like with the first of what promises to be a series of cold fronts. The surface winds are out of the Southeast in the vicinity of 15 knots with gusts up to 30 knots, the ceilings and visibility near my house are low with light rain and mist, but the departure and arrival airports are still reporting weather consistent with visual flight rules (VFR). Experience tells me the conditions near my house will eventually spread to the Southeast, engulfing both airports, making them switch to the more complicated and time-consuming instrument flight rules (IFR). It only takes a little imagination to see that if I begin the flight soon, it will be a short, simple affair under VFR. A later departure will make the flight more complicated and time-consuming. I hope for the simple version, but because I know life is complicated I also file an IFR flight plan before leaving the house.

With traffic, I’ll need about 40 minutes to complete the 15 mile drive to the airport. There are a bunch of non-aviation chores to be done on my day off that I’m hoping to do first. And since the ferry flight will be a one way trip, I coordinate a ride back to my car with a friend. Glancing at the time, I do the mental math, consider time to dispatch and preflight the plane, add an extra 30 minutes, and decide on a departure time of noon. On the way, Google maps on my iPhone shows slow freeway traffic. Only after experiencing the slow-and-go firsthand does the cause become clear: Two blocked lanes where CalTrans is sweeping the median. 20 minutes of my 30 minute fudge factor are now gone.

During the dispatch and preflight, I take note of the minor discrepancies other pilots have reported. More delays slowly eat into the remaining 10 minutes of my fudge factor before I have the engine started. Then I discover a minor problem with the number two radio that was previously unreported. Hey, it’s not my fault! As a freight dog friend of mine used to say, “I don’t break ‘em, I just fly ‘em.”

The delays have compounded and the weather is deteriorating rapidly. Low ceilings and rain are creeping in from the Northwest, but the Bay Area is on the Southeast plan and that will help my cause: I’ll be headed directly to my destination right after takeoff. What doesn’t help is that the ground control frequency is busy and the controller seems distracted. I call for taxi and am told to hold my position. I hear two landing bizjets inform the tower they broke out on the approach at 500 feet. The current Automated Terminal Information Service (the airport’s weather report) was reporting an overcast ceiling at 2500 feet. The ATIS obviously need to be updated and that may explain the distracted controller. As I sit and wait, I can see my VFR plans fading rapidly. After another two minutes of waiting I throw in the towel, switch to clearance delivery and request an IFR clearance. I’m glad I filed that IFR flight plan. Calling ground control again with an IFR clearance, I get immediate taxi instructions.

The last card I may be able to play is to depart IFR and hope to remain out of the clouds long enough to see the nearby destination airport. That could allow me to call the field in sight and still proceed visually to the airport. That plan looks doubtful as I hit the clouds at 500 feet after takeoff and aside from brief glimpses of the ground, I can’t see the destination airport.

Looking on the bright side, I’ll get a rare, solo IFR flight in a nice, steam gauge aircraft. A change of pace is always good. The ride gets a bit bumpy, then I break out between cloud layers for a few moments. Further to the East the conditions are still VFR. I can see the Livermore airport for a few minutes before I’m turned back into the clouds toward my destination.



All the instrument approaches to my destination are to the West-facing runways. The strong, gusty surface winds dictate a circle to the opposite, East-facing runway once I enter visual conditions. In essence, the entire flight has been a very large U-turn in the sky, followed by another U-turn before landing. This flight is a good illustration of how IFR flights can be much more complicated and time-consuming that a short VFR hop. Southeast, three miles out on the approach I see the destination airport and the slow-moving wall of precipitation closing in from the Northwest.

The tower controller’s instructions are to circle to the South and I’m cleared to land on the East-facing runway. Flying the downwind leg, parallel to the runway, requires about a 20 degree wind correction angle to the left to keep the wind from pushing me over the runway. Though I’m in visual conditions, I’m careful to not descend below the minimum circling altitude until I’m on final approach to the runway. My base turn is just clear of the rainy goo that is about to engulf the airport.

Completing the final U-turn and aligned with runway, the 20 degree wind correction angle is now to the left. Unprompted, the tower controller informs me the surface winds are out of the South, gusting to around 25 knots. Flaps 30 and this will be a good crosswind component. The little gray cells are fully engaged as I focus on the white paint on the runway pavement. The aiming point on the runway appears to move up the windshield and the plane is bounced about. A little wind shear, but my left hand has unconsciously moved the throttle in to increase engine power. A few seconds later, the aiming point is moving down the windshield and I reduce power. This dance continues until the aircraft is right over the runway pavement.

Tracking right over the centerline, the nose is still pointed to the right to compensate for the wind. Slowly move the throttle toward idle, the plane sinks to the pavement, just ease in left rudder to align the nose with the centerline, simultaneously turning the yoke to the right to offset the wind. The right main wheel touches first, lightly, and time seems to stop with the plane balanced on one wheel. Gradually the left main wheel touches down, the nose wheel follows, and it’s time to turn the yoke all the way to the right, retract the flaps and gently start braking.

Taxing clear of the runway, the ground controller clears me to taxi and there’s a moment to reflect. Few things in life as satisfying as a well-executed crosswind landing, but that’s just icing on the cake. I’ve hit the trifecta - a nice solo flight, an instrument approach, and I’ve done my part to keep my aviation community running smoothly. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but today the shortest distance between two points consisted of two U-turns.

2 comments:

propbalance said...

John, often you read in the columns of Flying and AOPA Pilot such "day off" articles such as this one. Dick Karl, Rod Machado, certainly that training captain (Flying) who's always describing his trips to Paris and his commute to the airport, etc. Point is this piece is every bit as good as anything of this type that I've read in the slick aviation magazines. Just a piece, a commentary, on the everyday world of aviation. Well done as usual.

John Ewing said...

Propbalance,

I appreciate your comments. While I've tried to get articles published in AOPA Pilot (for one), I've yet to break through. In fact, I never seem to get a response. Perhaps I don't know the right people or perhaps it's because I've been known to be plain-spoken and critical of AOPA in the past? And so it means a lot to me when readers tell me they appreciate what I've written.

Thank you.