registered: Jan. 2006
Relearning Old Lessons – The unexamined flight is not worth flying.
The last few weeks I’ve been flying Angel Flights here in California (relatively) near where I live. I do this for several reasons, chief among which is the fact that I own photo scenery for all of California and Arizona, so I can see familiar local landmarks from the air. As always, I take a certain approach. I select an actual scheduled Angel Flight and I fly it in a small GA aircraft in actual weather. This takes me into and out of a lot of small GA airports I might not otherwise visit, airports which frequently either don’t have any instrument approach or have an approach which is much harder to fly than the ILS at a major airport.
I do this because I learn a lot from reacting in “real time” to situations which come up that I didn’t anticipate or plan for. After all, this is what happens in “real world” aviation; no P key and no quitting the flight and trying again tomorrow. These options, and the lower probability of actual death, are what prevent me from going to my local FBO and taking flying lessons. I was tempted to add “lower cost” as an additional advantage of flight simulation, but reviewing the investments I have made in my system over the past 13 years, I’m not sure that is actually the case. Anyhow, the possibilities for learning something have been particularly ripe for the last few weeks, as we have been having a wet winter in California, replete with rapidly moving weather fronts and a lot of pretty turbulent winds. Two recent flights, in particular, have been very educational, although they have only retaught me lessons I learned over ten years ago.
The first was a flight from KIPL out in the Imperial Valley, just north of the Mexican border, into KMYF, a small field in metropolitan San Diego. When I left IPL the weather was good (130/10, 4 SM, SCT 25000, 14/6). The 10 Kt. wind was not a problem, as it was closely aligned with Rwy 14. The weather in San Diego appeared to be unstable, but I didn’t spend the time I should have reading the TAF for MYF. Those things are pretty tough to decode sometimes, but I do have the FAA book on how to read METARs and TAFs. It’s a good thing that the weather was clear in the desert because on the way in ATC (Radar Contact 4) started to give me altitude instructions that would have had me flying into the terrain. This happens sometimes with RC4, I’m not sure why, but it’s unnerving, particularly when “unable” isn’t on the list of available responses. So, struggling with that got me a little rattled before I got into the San Diego basin. But, I wasn’t too worried, as Rwy 28R at MYF has an ILS approach which looked like it should be well-aligned with the typical on-shore wind, so I figured I could handle it. So, I let RC4 give me vectors for the ILS approach to Rwy 28. However, as I got closer to the airport, I got into strong, variable winds and intermittent clouds. One minute I could see the ground, and the next I couldn’t see anything. While I was using the HDG mode on the AP to follow ATC vectors, I was using GPS navigation in place of NAV1 on the primary CDI (aka PFD) as a check on ATC instructions and it looked like everything was going OK. However, the fact that I had GPS on my NAV1 input meant that I had to put the Rwy 28 ILS on NAV2 and that meant it would display on the secondary CDI. It’s nice that the Beech B60 has two displays for NAV2, both a typical VOR CDI and an ADF pointer type display. So, I was monitoring the ILS on the secondary CDI to confirm that I had the localizer. So, once I captured the localizer, I switched the primary CDI to the NAV1 (ILS) input and pushed the APP button on the autopilot. However, I either didn’t see or misinterpreted the GS indicator on the secondary CDI display and didn’t see a GS indicator on the primary CDI. Shortly thereafter the aircraft began a precipitous descent which was clearly anomalous. So, I disconnected the autopilot and called a missed approach. At that point, I was in a solid overcast and hand flying the aircraft in hilly terrain, way too close to the ground. That transition from AP to hand flying in zero visibility is always tough and you’ll find yourself in an “unusual attitude” before your know it. I finally got control of the aircraft and reminded myself: “aviate, navigate, communicate”; in that order. Finally, I asked ATC to vector me around to Rwy 28 ILS again. They took me out around Robin Hood’s barn, but finally got me back to the FAF, when I realized I was too high to intercept the GS (again). That makes sense. If RC4 didn’t know the terrain elevation out in the desert, why would I expect it to know how to thread me through the hills to the FAF below the glide slope. So, I called another go around and resorted to the GPS to fly me back around to the whole ILS IAP, starting with a long trip out to the IAF and then a transition to the ILS before I reached the FAF. This time I had a good ride down the ILS. So, I dialed up the MYF ATIS and got the bad news: (190/14/G25, 13/4 SM, RA BKN 500, OVC 1100). That’s above the minimums for the approach (200 – ½), but it’s a “real” instrument approach and the potential 25 Kt. Crosswind component is probably above the demonstrated crosswind capability of the aircraft. At that point, I should have called an abort and gone back to IPL, rather than risk the life of my patient by trying to land at MYF. But at this point, I had well over an hour in something that should have been a ½ hour milk run, so I stubbornly pushed on. At touchdown, the wind was 178/21; that’s a crosswind component of 20.5 Kts. I had to crab about 30 degrees to hold the runway C/L on final, so it took a lot of rudder pedal to line it up and keep it on the pavement for the runout. If I had been my passenger, I would have vowed never to fly with me again.
So what did I relearn: (1) Read the TAF and don’t go if the weather is going to be nasty. Angel Flights are not an emergency. (2) Beware of ATCs bearing gifts. The pilot is responsible for navigating the aircraft; don’t trust someone/something else. (3) Don’t hand fly in IMC unless it’s absolutely necessary. I should have gone back to HDG and ALT mode on the AP and (4) If you are going to make an ILS approach, fly the whole darn thing and make absolutely, positively certain that you are under the GS before you push the APP button.
So, appropriately chastened by this experience, I undertook an Angel Flight this afternoon from KSNA (Orange Co./John Wayne) to KHND, just south of KLAS in Henderson, Nevada. The only problem with SNA is that it is deep in the Los Angeles basin, scene of what is quite possibly the largest aerial goat rope in the country. A glance at the LA sectional is always another reminder that I can’t really read aviation charts. There are so many overlapping controlled airspaces and other flight restrictions that it is a challenge just to connect the symbols on the map with the supposedly associated text. I still haven’t tried to navigate through this maze on my own, trusting instead that ATC will keep me safe flying through what a friend of mine refers to as the “one molar Aluminum cloud”. To help add a little realism, I filed for the ANAHM8.HEC SID, thinking that would at least keep me out of the incoming traffic flying the other direction into Long Beach, LAX, etc.
That all seemed to go well on departure; at least I didn’t get close enough to any of the other traffic to actually make out the type of the other aircraft. However, the approach into HND was not quite so straightforward. There are only two published approaches. One is a VOR approach using a VOR which is 12.6 east of the MAP, on a course which is at right angles to both of the runways. In other words, it’s all “circle to land” and while it might be usable in IMC for finding the airport, but it’s not going to give you any help stabilizing your approach. The other is an RNAV approach which is not supported by the GPS in my B60, and thus of no use at all. Fortunately, the visibility was good (220/27/33, 10 SM, CLR, 19/-6). However, the runways are 17/35, 50 degrees from a potentially 33 Kt. wind. So, I steeled myself for another nasty crosswind landing. KLAS, with its 1/19 runways would have been a better choice, but it’s probably a pricey taxi ride. So, I opted for a visual to 17R. That was OK, except that HND is in a cutout from the LAS Class B airspace, just 6 NM south of the 25 runways. This limited the length of my downwind leg and meant I needed a very well chosen offset from the 17R runway to get a positive base leg. Unfortunately, I screwed that up and overshot the final, so I had to claw back to the runway C/L against the crosswind to line up with the runway. This meant I had a very short final, which is bad for stabilizing your approach in a crosswind. In the event, the wind on landing was a horrific 208/37, a 29 Kt. Crosswind component. Again, I was forced into a large crab angle to hold the centerline. I undershot slightly and only made an acceptable landing by using the extra width provided by a taxiway entrance to the runway as a touchdown zone. I will post some shots of this feat and of the equally squirrely approach to MYF for your amusement. Later, I reshot the HND approach and used the low wing + rudder technique to hold the center line, resulting in a much prettier landing. I’ll post that too. But, you don’t get do-overs in the real world – another argument for flight simulation. In the real world, I should have requested KLAS 19R and paid for the taxi.