Soup University

I needed 4 instrument approaches for my IFR currency, which expired last month.  I flew three approaches last weekend, wearing foggles and with my friend Itay in the right seat.  That flight was mostly an exercise in controlling the autopilot on the 182’s G1000.  I’d give myself a B+ on my mastery of the autopilot: several times I thought that the autopilot was flying the approach, when in fact it was trying to hijack the plane, probably to Cuba, and I had to disable it.  I felt like Dave in “2001, a Space Odyssey”.

I flew three additional approaches today.  The ceiling was between 400’ to 800’, the constant pouring rain added strange sound effects, the windows were foggy, and my CFI John was in the right seat.  I wanted to take an Arrow for this flight, but it is grounded, so I flew a Warrior.

Although I had an iPad running ForeFlight with geo-referenced approach plates (and obviously running CloudAhoy as well), and although the Warrior has a Garmin 430, I decided not to use them for situational awareness, and use paper only.  There’s something pure and unspoiled about doing it that way.

Flying with John is always super educational. Flying with him, I think that on average I learn something new every 14 minutes; but in this flight the rate was even higher.  I started the engine and put it on 1000 RPM, then as I was dialing the frequencies in the radio John asked me if I looked at the engine’s RPM.  I looked, and it dropped to 900.  Ah, I said, I should use the friction lock to keep the throttle in place.  I reached out to push the throttle, but John suggested that instead I try carb heat.  I set carb heat and viola, in two seconds the RPM came back up to 1000.  I built ice in the carburetor! If I had flown the Arrow or the 182, I would not have learned this – both have fuel injection.

The first ILS approach was uneventful.  Not my best, nor my worst ever.  We broke out at 600’, and I could see the runway lights straight ahead although the runway was still in the mist.  Breaking out from a cloud base and seeing the runway lights straight ahead is probably the most rewarding price in aviation!  John asked me not to look outside and fly the remaining 200’ to the Decision Altitude looking only at the panel.  I flew the missed, and immediately got sucked back into the soup.  I sometimes wonder whether the term “soup” was coined in Boston, where the locals eat Clam Chowduh (myself, I don’t care much for this local delicacy).

On the second approach, which was a Localizer approach, John asked me if I ever flew partial panel in IMC.  No I didn’t, and today was therefore my first time.  John covered both the AI and the heading indicator, and my flight started to look like a drunken pilot’s.  John suggested that I use the 430’s compass-like display, and I did.  As I was trying to manage the situation, John kept asking me questions.  For example, if I wanted to use the magnetic compass, what type of errors should I be more concerned about: turning errors, or acceleration errors?  I figured that since I am not accelerating much in this flight, the correct answer would be turning errors.  No, said John.  He took the yoke and showed me what happens to the compass when the plane’s airspeed changes as it climbs or descends a mere 50’.  If you want to fly in IMC using the magnetic compass, said John, you better train for it.

I kept flying while John kept asking me a never-ending stream of questions.  What would be the next heading from ATC?  Where are we now relative to TAYUB?  What’s your primary gauge for pitch right now?  I think that in addition to teaching me, John was trying to saturate my brain, the way it would be in a real partial panel flight in IMC. Obviously, if you really lose your vacuum while in the soup, it’s a good enough reason to declare an emergency.

The third and last approach was ILS, still with the two gyros covered, and John suggested that I ask ATC for a no-gyro approach.  I have read about it once, but never practiced it, certainly not in IMC.  It was the coolest thing.  The controller acted in a very un-Bostonian manner, and worked with me with a lot of patience.  As I was flying, I said to John that the controller must be frustrated having to do this extra work, but John calmed me by saying that the controller probably appreciates the opportunity to practice this as well.  The idea in a no-gyro emergency is that instead of giving you vectors, the controller tells you when to start to turn and when to stop turning.  Looking at the CloudAhoy track above (with the published ILS approach overlay), indeed both of us learned during this approach.  Both he and I improved as the flight went on.

John then taught me another thing (I lost track of how many new things I learned).  Bend my leg so that the knee is higher and almost touches the yoke, rest my hand on my knee, and then fly the plane with my thumb and pointing finger.  This is so relaxing (assuming that the plane is well trimmed).  And is very precise as well, exactly the extra precision that the situation required.  I also used the pedals a lot for fine heading changes.

After intercepting the localizer, I started to chase the needles.  “Chasing the needles” is obviously a bad thing, something to be frown upon, but I think that without the vacuum instruments this is essentially what one does.  Looking at CloudAhoy’s altitude and course profiles below, it’s obvious that my chasing of the needles could have been done much better.

All in all, I was pretty happy with my performance, given the rust level and the workload.  CloudAhoy’s segments list, above on the left, shows that on my first ILS approach the missed was taken at 426’ (the minimums are 383’), and the missed on my LOC approach was taken at 721’ (the minimums are 720’).  The chasing of the needles on the third approach is shown in CloudAhoy’s profiles on the right.  While flying it, it did not feel as dramatic as it looks in the profiles, or as it looks in the ground track.  It’s one case where CloudAhoy has a sobering effect.  The two things that I am taking from this segment of the approach, thanks to CloudAhoy, are: (1) don’t turn more than 1/2 standard rate, (2) have patience: turn a little, stop the turn and see where the needle is going.

The rapid rate of teaching me new things did not end while taxing back to the ramp.  As I cleared the active, I pushed the VFR button on the transponder to set it to code 1200.  John asked me: supposed you pushed it by mistake, what’s the best way to put in the previous transponder code?  I did not know of a quick way but there is one (on that specific transponder): you long-click the button, and the old code comes up.  John said that it’s the same on the G1000.  Good to know!

But an even more important educational moment was 10 minutes earlier, when I was established on the localizer and Boston handed me over to the Bedford tower.  I repeated the instruction “6 November Delta, to tower”.  Before I clicked the frequency flip-flop to talk to the tower, John keyed the mike and said in his quite voice: thank you very much for your help.  The way he said it, it was clear that he actually meant it and was not only polite.  The controller said in a cheerful voice, you’re welcome sir.

What if your engine quits over New Hampshire?

Every pilot needs to have a bi-annual flight review (BFR).  A BFR must be taken either two years after the last BFR, or two years after the last checkride, whichever comes last. I had planned to start working on my Commercial rating in the summer of 2011, so that I will have the checkride in the fall and thus skip my BFR.  I’ve done it successfully two Novembers ago when I took my Instrument Rating checkride.

But this year my summer was spent on other things, I started my Commercial training in mid fall, and I will not have a checkride before the end of November.  So yesterday I had my BFR with John, plus I had an intro to Lazy Eights (which I will write about in a later post).

We did some airwork and then at about 4000’, somewhere between Lowell MA and Nashua NH, John pulled back the throttle and told me (wink wink) that the engine had just quit.

While trimming for best glide speed and pulling the prop RPM lever to reduce the prop drag, I searched for a suitable landing site.  At my altitude there was no hope of reaching the closest airport, at Nashua.  I identified a meadow in the forest and started gliding towards it.  John told me: did you know that this is actually an airport?  No, I did not know.  John pointed at some rectangular buildings and said that they are hangers.  As the ground got closer, I could actually identify a very short landing strip cut in the grass.

What new thing did I learn?  As I was circling the designated landing site, I had to decide in which direction to land.   So the obvious question, which John asked me, is what’s the wind direction.  I looked for obvious signs like smoke, but could not find any.  So I said, ahh, it is 250°.  I was cheating of course, using the wind direction at the departure airport.  John taught me how to find the wind direction while spiraling close to the ground. It’s quite trivial actually if you’re circling:  watch the lowered wing tip, and note where it is travelling faster or slower over the ground.  Should I have known it?  Yes.  Did I remember it as I was was losing altitude, preparing the plane for an emergency landing, and flying the plane?  No.

My first approach was not all that great – if I was actually landing, I would touch down farther from the runway end than I had wanted.  I pushed the throttle (aha!  The engine is working!  Music to my ears!), got back on the downwind, pulled the throttle back and executed another glide towards the runway, this time much better.

At home I debriefed my flight with CloudAhoy.  I defined a custom segment for the “engine loss”, and discovered two things: (1) on my approach I was 368’ AGL when I applied power.  I was actually on the downwind executing a short approach, and looking now at the terrain and the wind I realize that I would not have not made the runway.  I would have definitely survived the landing, but the plane might have been damaged.  (2) It took 4:07 minutes to glide from 4100’ to 825’ MSL, which is about 800 feet/minute.  I checked this against the Arrow’s POH (pg 5-31, Glide Time and Distance).  It’s about what the book has – so my glide was close to optimal.  That’s good to know.

I should start taking gliding in the summer.  The Hudson landing probably would not have been as successful had Sully  not been a skilled glider pilot.

I then looked up the landing site in Google.  It’s called the Steck Farm, and is located on 146 Jeremy Hill Rd Pelham, NH.  I also looked at Google’s Street View: the entrance is very rustic, and does look quite like the highway exit to Logan Airport.  I tried to find more information about the farm, but could not find much other that the owner is Mr. John Steck, and the manager is Mr. Paul Steck, both of whom seem to live on the farm.  Is John the father of Paul?  Did the extended John and Paul families dine together on Thanksgiving in the farm?  Did they fly Aunt Suzy to the Thanksgiving dinner?  Turns out that the flight debriefing cannot answer all questions.

A Death of an Aviator

Reading the title of this post one is likely to assume that it’s about a plane accident.  Not so.  The aviator, a guy by the name of Nate Saint, was a missionary who was killed in 1956 by people from the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador, the same tribe that he wanted to convert to Christianity prior to his death.  Nate’s son Steve continued his father’s missionary work, helped Indians in Ecuador, and is a pilot (now 60 years old and lives in FL).

My flight today with my CFI John is related to the work of the late Nate Saint, although we flew in MA, and did not  do any missionary work.

The connection between my flight today and the late Nate Saint?  Nate air-delivered gifts to the Huaorani tribe, whose village did not have a landing strip.  He would fly his plane over the village and lower a bucket connected to a line.  The bucket was full of gifts for the Huaorani.  After a few flights, the Huaorani wanted to reciprocate by putting gifts in the same basket so that Nate could pull the basket and fly home with their gifts.

Doing this basket-based exchange is easy if you’re flying a helicopter, but how do you do it from a fixed-wing airplane?

Answer: you gently lower the basket, then fly circles around it so that the basket is stationary at the center (and you make sure there’s enough slack in the line so that the turn does not have to be a perfect circle).  The indigenous people approach the stationary basket, exchange gifts, wave to you, then you gently increase the radius, climb and pull the line.  The same trick was also used by other pilots for two-way mail delivery.

Flying around a point, a maneuver called Pylon Turn, is tricky because of the wind.  Today we had 30 knots wind, so correcting the bank angle to maintain a constant turn radius is not practical.  Instead of maintaining a constant distance to the pylon (the object chosen to be the center), The idea is to lower the left wind (if you’re turning CCW, otherwise it’s the right wing), and have the point you’re circling fixed on the low wing’s tip.  Because of the changing wind angle, the point will move backward and forward on the wing tip, and to correct it you must climb or descend slightly.  The wind would in fact elongate the circle into an eclipse, but you will circle the pylon and always have it at the same angle.

We flew 5 circles for 8:44 minutes, then John introduced the next maneuver: Eights on Pylons.   In this maneuver, you choose two pylons.  You fly CCW around one pylon, then CW around another, and then repeat this, so you keep drawing the figure 8.  This is much more challenging, of course.  We spent 20:14 minutes on this.

We ended the lesson with four chandelles.  Turns out that I totally screwed up the chandelles I did on my own last week, partly because I did not apply full power in the turn.  Now I have a better chandelle to be used as a standard until replaced with a better one.  This one, which today is colored pink, started at 126 kts and ended at 70, was relatively smooth climb of 650’, and was close to 180°.

Today's flight

A Candlelit Dinner

Two of my kids, my wife and I went last night for a birthday dinner in a cute restaurant in JP (a Boston neighborhood).  Each table had a real candle.  I was thankful for that – I don’t like the fake electric candles that twinkle like the real thing, and send a message that it’s better to be safe than romantic.

The food was good, the wine was good, and the conversation lively.  At one point I wanted to share what I’ve been doing in the air this week.  On Monday I had a lesson with my CFI, John, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I practiced solo.

So I asked: imagine you are flying in a canyon, and there are magnificent mountains on your two sides.  You are flying low, and the view is unbelievable: a river flows in the canyon, reflecting the blue sky with occasional white clouds, there is a herd of caribou drinking from a pond, the mountains above you are snow-capped, and there are picturesque houses with red shingles here and there, their chimneys sending a plum of smoke to the clean air.

I could almost hear the thoughts of my kids: OK, dad, just push that fast-forward button, get to the question already.

I said: the canyon gets narrower and then, as you make a turn you see in front of you a huge mountain.  The canyon is closed!  It’s what pilots call a Boxed Canyon.  You are about to crash into the mountain.  What do you do?  Your plane is too weak to climb steeply over the mountain.  And you know that if you attempt to turn back, your turn radius is such that you would hit the side of the canyon.

The gravity of the moment, the despair of the caribou-admiring pilot who may never see a runway again, prompted everybody to seek a solution. Unless we quickly find a solution, the pilot’s day would be ruined, not to mention the fate of a poor mountain goat which is in the flight path of his PA-28R-201.

Well, any pilot who trained for Commercial rating knows the answer.  He needs to pull a Chandelle (candle in French).  It’s a 180° turn combined with a climb, so the turn radius is very small.  The waitress looked at us with puzzlement as we waved our hand in a simulated flight, exploring the intricacies of the maneuver.  She came to ask if everything was OK.  To demonstrate the sincerity of her question, she poured some more wine into the pilots’ glasses, thus significantly reducing our collective bottle-to-throttle time.

At home, I used CloudAhoy to analyze one of my chandells.  I chose the very first chandelle I did that day, where I turned to the left.  As a novice Chandellier, I find left chandelles more challenging than right ones, because I need to be much more precise with the rudder.  I clicked the “+” sign on the segments list and defined a new user-segment called Chandelle.  I painted it yellow.  Then I unselected all the segments, selected only the new Chandelle segment, zoomed and panned to see it from the side, and selected four flight profiles.

How well did I do?  This might be somewhat uncharted territory, I know of no analytical discussion of a chandelle with graphs.  But looking at my performance, I was far from being happy.

To begin with, I started the maneuver at 122 knots. That’s Va which is too high, given that I was the only person in the cockpit.  Well, in my defense I can say that the renter before me topped-off the fuel instead of what we normally do in the Arrow, which is fill to the tabs, so the airplane felt as if it carried two people.

I ended the maneuver at 74 knots.  Not good!  At the end of the turn I need to be near stall, so I was too fast.  This means that I did not convert the max amount kinetic energy to potential energy, and my turn radius must have been larger than optimal.  I turned on the display of wind vectors; it showed that I started the maneuver with head wind of 20 knots, and ended it with tail wind of the same magnitude.  I think that the wind had no effect on the turn radius.

Next I checked the course.  The maneuver was started at 225° and ended at 65°.  Now, that’s pathetic: only 160°.  The poor pilot would have been smeared onto the left side of the canyon.  But I did like the smoothness of the turn: the turn rate seemed to be have been pretty constant.

How did I do on the altitude?  I gained about 290’.  Is that good or bad?  I don’t know, I will have to ask John or compare it with other chandelles.

Lastly, I looked at the vertical speed.  That’s probably most telling about the proficiency level of the pilot, me, on this maneuver.  I think (but not sure) that an ideal chandelle should have a VS graph that looks trapezoid: quickly raising to a plateau (of how much?  Maybe 800 feet/minute or so in the Arrow if the air is cool?), then quickly decreasing to zero as I roll out.

The vertical speed graph reminded me of one of the first drawings in The Little Prince.  That’s appropriate:  the late Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was not only a Frenchman who could pronounce Chandelle the way it is meant to be pronounced, but he was also an aviator who could probably fly a perfect chandelle even if he drank a bottle of Bordeaux immediately before takeoff.  The graph tells me that I pulled too hard on the yoke at the beginning of the turn, then eased the pressure too much, then decide to pull again.  Kinda like my flairs early on in my flight training, when I pulsated the yoke trying to get the plane on the ground.

The one piece of information that is missing is where the ball was during the chandelle.  How coordinated was the turn?  I need to think whether the four graphs can provide some information about the plane’s coordination.  My gut feel is that they can.

My next lesson with John is on Monday.  I need to analyze a chandelle which he likes, if there will be one, and use it as a golden reference.

The main dishes were consumed, the empty plates collected, and I used the table’s candle to help me read the desert menu.  The FAA makes me wear glasses when I fly, but no one says I need to bring glasses to a restaurant.  I thought that the desert menu was a bit disappointing compared to the rest of the meal, which is OK with me because I don’t typically order deserts anyway.  Still I would rather have the deserts that I don’t order be first-class.  The waitress brought the deserts that my kids ordered, tried to pour more wine, discovered that the bottle is empty, and smiled with satisfaction like a mother whose baby had just finished her bottled meal.  She then gave me a spoon, so I can sample deserts or at least be cleared for the option.

We will definitely come back to this restaurant.

A blog is born

I’m working now on my commercial rating, and so I took the Arrow this afternoon to practice commercial maneuvers. I flew NW from my home airport KBED, and arrived at the area we call “the practice area”.

It was a bit hazy. The horizon was blurry.  Not a perfect day for Chandelles or for 55° turns, but not the worst day either.  As I cleared to the right at 3000′, I saw a Cessna about 1/2 mile away.  I waited for it to pass, then cleared again and saw a Warrior.

Getting too crowded.  I called Boston and asked for VFR advisories.  The controller started to bombard me with advisories.  And here’s the thing: whenever there was traffic, it was in the direction of the sun.  And it always was 500′ to 1000′ below me, no matter how high I climbed, no matter where I was relative to restricted area 4102 (which obviously had to be active).

Whenever I gazed at the sun and replied “negative contact”, the giggly controller would tell me “ah, and there’s additional traffic” and would then describe a plane which she is not talking to, at my 6 o’clock.

It occurred to me that stealth bombers are invisible to radar but visible to the eye, and here I am in a situation which is exactly the reverse.

It was a useful hour, all in all, and enjoyable too.  I was done practicing, heading back to KBED, musing about the differences between GA planes and stealth bombers, and looking for the Falcon I had to follow as number three for landing.  I am not sure exactly when, but sometime before landing it occurred to me that today is the day I will start the CloudAhoy blog.