Category Archives: Aviation

Writings about aviation, including chronics of my flight lessons, product reviews, and so on.

My first real IFR trip: Decatur-Manassas and back

My trip to DC to compete in the Nation’s Triathlon was my first “real” IFR flight. I say “real” because it combined flight in actual instrument conditions with busy airspace and a long cross-country—conditions I expect to encounter often as I fly around.

Earlier in the summer, I had signed up for the tri.The timing was such that I would come home from GATTS, have a couple of days to pack, and then fly up to DC, hopefully with my instrument rating. That turns out to be what happened.

Flight planning was straightforward. The DC metro area has a number of general aviation airports scattered around, but it also has significant restrictions on its airspace. Without going into all of the gory details, it’s enough to point out that the airports that are closest to central DC are heavily restricted. In order to fly to the so-called “Maryland 3”, you have to go to either Dulles or BWI, get fingerprinted, have security interviews with the FAA and TSA, and then get a PIN that you use when filing flight plans. I didn’t have time to do that, so I settled on Manassas, which is further out but would provide a reverse commute into and out of the city—it also helped that the route from Manassas to the hotel passed right by the bike shop where I’d made arrangements to rent a road bike.

I planned an early departure Saturday morning. Because I’d been out of the office for most of the week, I couldn’t leave earlier than about 5pm, and I didn’t want to fly night IFR in unfamiliar, complex airspace after a full, and tiring, day at work—that’s how accidents happen. My original plan was to fly from Decatur to KGEV, fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then continue on to Manassas. The weather at Decatur at departure time was OK, with an overcast layer about 2000’, and Huntsville Approach quickly cleared me to my target altitude. The first hour or so of the flight was smooth on top, then things got a bit bouncy because there were clouds at my filed altitude—with some light rain and a fair bit of chop. Once past that, though, things were looking good until I looked at the weather at my destination airport and alternate . Both were below minimums, so instead I flew a bit further east and landed at Winston-Salem, which was nicely VFR. It turns out that the airport there has self-service or full-service fuel, with a whopping $1.69/gal price difference—but getting to the self-service pump from the FBO is an adventure that involves runway crossings and, in my case, aggravating the pilot of a Malibu who had to hold short while I taxied. Such is life.

The flight into Manassas was perfectly uneventful, just the way I like. I had filed direct from Winston-Salem to Manassas, but I didn’t expect to get that routing, and sure enough, I didn’t; Potomac Approach sent me direct to the Casanova VOR, then direct Manassas. It was fun watching the Foreflight traffic display en route, since I could see a ton of traffic into Reagan.

Watch out for the big iron!

Watch out for the big iron!

Going to CSN first wasn’t much of a diversion, so it was no big deal. Manassas was VFR, but storms were expected later, so after I landed, the fine folks at Dulles Aviation hangared the plane. (I also want to point out that they provided stellar service: the rental car was ready when I got there, saving me a commute to the nearest Avis office some 12 miles away, and they treated me like I had just flown in on a Gulfstream.)

The return trip looked simple enough too. I filed direct Manassas to Greenbriar, WV. The race was on Sunday, and I needed to be at work Monday morning, so I had to leave late in the afternoon, meaning that several of the airports I would normally have considered as fuel stops were either closed, or would be. Greenbriar was reporting 900’ overcast, which was fine with me, so I filed, preflighted, and started up, then called Manassas Ground to get my clearance.

Here’s what I was naively expecting: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared as filed to LWB, climb and maintain 9000’, departure frequency…”

Here’s what I got instead: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared to LWB via the ARSENAL FOUR departure, thence the Montebello transition, then direct NATTS, then direct LWB; departure frequency…” Thus we see how ATC deals with the expectations of a novice IFR pilot. This set off a frantic burst of knob-twiddling as I tried to set up the KLN94 for that departure (which it didn’t have, since its onboard database was too old). I eventually got it set up, was cleared for takeoff, and then got a series of ridiculous vectors from Potomac Approach that sent me well north of where I wanted to be. However, the flight to Greenbriar was nice and smooth between layers, and, as advertised, the weather on arrival necessitated shooting the ILS, which I did smoothly. After taking on fuel, it was off to Decatur; the rest of the flight was unremarkably smooth except for a great sunset and some tasty snacks (yay vanilla wafers!) I considered it a very successful trip!

A great sunset to cap off a great trip

A great sunset to cap off a great trip. Not shown: vanilla wafers.

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GATTS days 8 & 9: judgment day(s)

The title of this post gives it away: I didn’t pass my check ride on the first try. Read on to find out why…

On day 8, I woke up early, loaded the car, and drove to the airport to meet Peter. We’d arranged with Ken to meet early because the weather from Manhattan to Topeka (and the surrounding area) was poor: 1200’ or less ceilings, with lots of wind and a good bit of rain. Peter and I agreed to head east and see what the weather looked like when we got there. Short answer: it was terrible. The entire flight was in clouds, with plenty of bumps, then on arrival, ATC gave us about 20 minutes of holding on the localizer, which was, um, invigorating, not to mention bouncy. We finally landed and this is what we saw:

Paul robichaux net 20140903 001

Ken was there waiting for us, so we went inside and went through the standard check ride prep; he and I both signed into IACRA to complete my check ride paperwork, he briefed me on the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, and so on. Then we spent about an hour on the oral exam, which was perfectly straightforward. I wasn’t surprised by any of his questions, largely thanks to the combination of Peter’s coaching and my own study. The weather wasn’t good enough for us to conduct the practice approaches on the check ride under VFR conditions, so we adjourned to the airport restaurant for a snack (which was interrupted by a business phone call for me, alas). After about an hour and a half, the weather had lifted enough for us to fly. We took off, and Ken had me intercept V4 to give us some distance from the airport. We flew west a bit, then he had me recover from unusual attitudes, which went well… except.

See, I was having a hell of a time keeping to my assigned altitude. I’d like to blame it on the wind, but it wasn’t just that; my scan was deteriorating faster than ever before. I’m still not sure if I was nervous, rattled from the weather, or what, but after a few gentle reminders from Ken (example: “Do you know what the PTS requirements for holding altitude are?”, just in case my poor performance was due to ignorance vice lack of skill), he had me head in to the ILS for runway 13. I flew fairly well despite the wind gusts, intercepting and tracking the localizer without a problem.. but, again, my altitude control was poor, and I let the glideslope needle hit full deflection down. I was too high, and that was that: he had me land, gave me the dreaded letter of discontinuance, and held a short debrief with Peter and me. Then I flew us home, in a funk the whole way; we did some remedial training en route, which I obviously needed but didn’t want. After landing I went back to the apartment, sulked for a while, worked a bit, and then mentally steeled myself to repeat the process the next day… and that’s exactly what happened. The next morning, we went back to the airport, flew to Topeka, met Ken, did the same IACRA stuff, and went out to the airplane.

When you retake a failed (or interrupted) checkride, the examiner doesn’t have to retest you on the portions you passed, although she can. In my case, Ken just wanted me to fly the approaches and holds, which I did, starting with the ILS for 13. It was still breezy, but nowhere near as windy as the preceding day, and/or maybe I was less nervous. In any event, I flew a textbook ILS approach, did a decent job on the hold (despite a stiff and inconvenient crosswind), and followed with the VOR and localizer back course approaches. I landed, taxied in, and Ken shook my hand to congratulate me. Here’s what the airport looked like when we taxied up:

Paul robichaux net 20140901 003After another debrief, in which the often-heard and completely true phrase “license to learn” was tossed around several times, we bade Ken goodbye and headed back to the ramp. After a short and uneventful flight back to Manhattan, I shook hands with Peter for the last time, got a fresh diet Coke, and headed home. The flight home was smooth and clear, so I didn’t actually get to perform any approaches, more’s the pity. After such a long time away, I was delighted to get home, sleep in my own bed, play with the cat, and generally settle in a bit.

Once a little more time has passed, I’ll write up my overall impressions of GATTS. It is safe to say that I’m pleased with what I learned and their teaching methods, but I feel like I need a bit more experience before I form a complete opinion. Meanwhile, I’ll be flying!

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GATTS day 7: checkride prep, plus a race

Day 7 of my GATTS experience happened to be Labor Day. That didn’t really make any difference to the flight schedule, but I did talk Peer into a later start time so that I’d have time to go run the Summer Send-Off 5K race in nearby Chapman, Kansas. The race was a lot of fun; I ran well despite getting lost on the way there and arriving literally 30 seconds before the starting gun. (Irony of the day: just as I was passing the high school demolished by a 2008 tornado, my iPod served up Flux Pavilion’s “Blow the Roof”).

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

After the race and a quick shower, I met Peter at the airport for a mock checkride. Checkrides are normally administered by people who hold the role of DPE, or designated pilot examiner. They’re not FAA employees; many of them are very high-time instructors, often retired. Every instructor knows, or should, the local DPEs: what they think is important, what they emphasize in the oral and practical exams, what their habits and idiosyncracies are. Although Peter didn’t attempt to imitate the DPE’s mannerisms or anything, he did tell me that I should expect to take off, intercept the V4 airway westbound, return to do the ILS 31 approach at Topeka, execute the published missed approach, transition to the VOR 22 approach, and then come back to do the localizer backcourse for 13. This last was necessary because of FedEx’s failure to deliver my updated GPS card on time, the dirty rats– I couldn’t legally fly a GPS approach without the updated data card, so I was stuck with the backcourse.

The first part of any FAA checkride, of course, is the oral exam, so Peter quizzed me for an hour or so on weather, procedures, approaches, lost communications procedures, and pretty much everything else we had discussed at any time during the preceding week. That went well, I thought; I felt well prepared by the combination of my study and his teaching. Then we went out to the ramp, fired up the airplane, and flew to Topeka to simulate the flight check portion. The flight went very well, although it was windy and bumpy, so I had trouble maintaining the nice oval shape we all associate with a well-flown holding pattern. Part of the goal of the simulated checkride is to put the applicant at ease with the flow of the ride, and it definitely helped; despite the blustery winds, I flew within the PTS and felt good once we got back on the ground and put the plane away. I had an easy night, packing and making one last visit to Hibachi Hut for bread pudding and a sandwich, then went to bed, eager to face the DPE on the morrow…

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GATTS day 6: building comfort

[ sorry about the gap in posting the rest of my GATTS writeup; I've been kinda busy. ]

Day 5 of my GATTS experience was all about refinement. We started in the classroom, where we covered the rules for filing alternate airports and spent a good bit of time on decoding IFR charts (which, luckily, was one of the areas where I worked extra hard when studying for my written). Then we got in the airplane and flew to Topeka to shoot the ILS runway 32 approach, something that Peter told me would almost certainly be featured in my checkride. The GPS in 706 is not equipped with a WAAS-capable GPS, which means that I can’t fly precision GPS approaches. That means that, if I want a precision approach (and who wouldn’t?), it’s the ILS for me, at least until we can upgrade to a newer GP

Of course, one of the most important parts of flying an approach is the missed approach procedure– the sequence of steps you take when, after flying the approach, you’re unable to land because of poor visibility, runway misalignment, and so on. When you’re practicing an approach, it’s common to tell ATC what you’re going to do after the approach– land, execute the published missed approach procedure, or do something else. In our case, we flew the published miss for the ILS 32 approach, which involves flying to the Topeka VOR and then flying a racetrack holding pattern. For a real missed approach, ATC might send you to the normal missed approach holding point, or they might vector you around for another try, depending on the reasons why you went missed.

After the missed, we flew on to Miami County. No, I’d never heard of it either. It turns out that there is a superb BBQ restaurant at the airport, We B Smokin, so after shooting a good GPS approach, we had lunch. I accidentally ordered enough food to feed two normal humans, so by the time we were done eating I was a slow-moving hazard to navigation. We fueled up and departed for Forbes, flew the VOR/DME, and then went back to Manhattan. This was fortuitous timing, because there was a line of thunderstorms poised to attack from the west, so we called it a day and I went to Manhattan’s only movie theater for November Man (pretty decent; worth the $6) and a large bucket of popcorn, followed by watching the storms roll in from the safety of my balcony.

By this point in the training, I was feeling very comfortable operating “in the system”: my radio calls were concise, I was getting better at visualizing what the approach I’d selected would require me to do, and I was much more comfortable with the workload required to brief and set up the approach, then fly it to either a landing or a missed approach. The steady diet of daily flying, in whatever weather we happened to have, was a key part in building my comfort level. Although the flying weather to this point had been pretty good, the stiff, variable winds we had all week were more than enough to challenge me– just what I was looking for.

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GATTS day 4: all sorts of approaches, plus “Lady Liberty”

I’m writing this recap a few days behind, and by now honestly lots of the flying is a blur– so I may have missed a few details here and there. Feel free to request a refund of your purchase price.

Day 4 started in the airplane, and whew. We flew arcs on the VOR-A at Emporia, then went to El Dorado, Kansas (which I never even knew existed) for fuel and an ILS approach. The airport there is named for Jack Thomas, a Marine fighter ace in World War II, and there is a nifty commemorative plaque. I hope he wasn’t watching, because I flew clumsily and nearly blew the approach. It didn’t help that on final approach I was distracted by a loud beeping; our backup radio was picking up a nearby emergency locator transmitter (ELT) that someone had accidentally triggered. Peter suggested that perhaps Captain Thomas’ ghost had affected my approach. Maybe he’s right….

Capt. Jack Edwards, USMC. Semper Fidelis.

Capt. Jack Thomas, USMC. Semper Fidelis.

When we left, our next stop was Hutchinson, where we flew the localizer backcourse (LOC BC) approach to runway 31. In a previous entry, I mentioned that an ILS provides precision lateral and vertical guidance; the lateral component is based on a radio transmitter known as the localizer. It transmits a narrow beam aligned with the runway centerline.. but it can broadcast in both directions. Hutchinson is a great example: the localizer on runway 13 is used for the ILS 13 and for the LOC BC 31. The difference: when you fly the backcourse, is that the course deviation indicator (CDI) is backwards! It’s still showing your lateral deviation from the runway centerline, but its direction is reversed than it would be on the front course. So instead of turning right when the needle is to the right of center, you turn left. This is wicked confusing until you get used to it. Having the GPS in map mode helps a lot because you get a good picture of the correct track to the localizer line.

After a pretty good landing at Hutchinson, we ate at the Airport Steakhouse. Sadly, there was no steak, but the buffet was decent. Right next to the main building, there’s a large repair shop, Midwest Malibu, that specializes in Piper Malibu, Meridian, and Mirage aircraft– very pretty, multi-million dollar birds. We walked over and had a quick tour, which was neat; I always like seeing the guts of interesting machinery. The highlight of the stop in Hutchinson for me was seeing Lady Liberty, the A-26 bomber flown by the Commemorative Air Force. She had an engine failure on final approach, so the picture below was carefully framed not to show the side with the missing engine.

WP_20140829_003

When we left Hutchinson, our next stop was Marshall Army Air Field, part of Fort Riley. We didn’t stop there, of course; instead, we flew what’s known as a precision approach radar (PAR) approach. In a PAR approach, the controller gives you continuous verbal guidance on which way to fly and how your lateral and vertical alignment is holding up. You don’t acknowledge the controller, you just apply course corrections based on what he tells you. It’s both harder and easier than it sounds, but it was neat to do it. Civilian air traffic controllers can conduct similar approaches, but PAR approaches are unique to the military. Then it was back to Manhattan and the GPS for runway 21.

In the afternoon classroom session, we switched gears and moved to a different simulator, this one based on the Garmin G1000. I was familiar with the G1000 for VFR flying, but I hadn’t used it for IFR approaches before. The combination of the G1000 and the GFC700 autopilot is capable of flying a complete approach all the way to landing. Not that we did that, of course, but I did fly a couple of practice approaches into Alexandria, something that will come in handy when I go visit. Today’s classroom topics included more on currency, the start of a few days’ worth of discussions on weather, and coverage of the conditions under which you must designate an alternate airport as part of your flight plan (basically, if the weather at your destination airport is below a certain set of minimums, you have to pick an alternate and make sure you have enough fuel to get there).

Nifty portable G1000 simulator

Nifty portable G1000 simulator

After such a long day, I was pretty tired, so I went back to the apartment, read for a bit, and then headed out to find the Kansas State University rec center, where I’d read that there was a lap pool. Long story short: nope, it’s in another building (the Natatorium), but I eventually found it, got in the water about 845pm, and swam 800m, a new distance record. Then it was home for a turkey sandwich and a good night’s sleep. Luckily I wasn’t further troubled by ghosts.

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GATTS day 3: DME arcs and Nebraska

First, I forgot to mention a couple of other things that Peter and I discussed in the day 2 classroom sessions. We talked about IFR currency rules (remember, kids, 6 6 HIT), as well as the procedures to be used if you lose radio contact with ATC. The most interesting topic to me was the discussion of DME arcs on approaches, like the one shown below:

See that arc? It's called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

See that arc? It’s called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

This is the VOR/DME-A approach to Emporia, Kansas.  Depending on where you are when you join the approach, several different things can happen. If you’re approaching from the southeast, you’ll probably get cleared straight to LUYIY, and you can just fly the approach inbound. If you’re coming from the west side of the airport, you might get sent to the triangle labeled ANUGE (those triangles mark intersections, imaginary points in space that you use for navigation); from the northeast or east, you’d probably go to KICRE. In those latter two cases, you’d fly a constant-distance arc from the intersection to the final approach course. They’re called DME arcs because originally they required you to have a special navigation receiver known as distance measuring equipment. Now you can use GPS instead, unless you happen to have a DME receiver. To fly these approaches, you basically fly to the intersection, fly a distance, turn 10 degrees towards the center of the arc, and fly another distance. Think of it like making a circle out of straight lines. (There’s a decent explanatory video here if you’re interested in more detail).

Anyway, on to day 3’s work. Since we’d finished day 2 in the classroom, day 3’s morning was spent in the airplane. We took off from Manhattan and flew to Marysville (where we shot the GPS 16  approach) and then on to Plattsmouth, Nebraska: my first time to visit the Cornhusker State. I flew the GPS 34 approach, but not until Omaha Approach vectored me all over the place to accommodate some KC-135s working the traffic pattern at Offutt AFB. After landing, we borrowed a crew car and went to– no joke– Mom’s Cafe, where I had a chicken-fried steak about the size of my laptop screen. In fact, it was so big that I couldn’t eat the whole thing and declined the offered dessert.

After fueling the plane, it was off to Beatrice (pronounced “BEE-at-riss”), where I flew an approach– can’t for the life of me remember which one though; then we flew back to Manhattan, shot another GPS approach, and spent some time in the sim practicing ILS and VOR approaches into Topeka. Why Topeka? Tune in tomorrow to find out…

 

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GATTS day 2: ILS and VOR approaches

Day 2 was a busy day– by this point, I was settled into the apartment and was able to navigate around through Manhattan fairly well. We spent the morning in the classroom talking about various types of approaches, primarily ILS and VOR approaches.

There are two basic types of instrument approaches: precision and non-precision. The method of navigation for the approach determines how precise an approach you can fly. Some approaches give you guidance on whether you’re left or right of the runway centerline (lateral guidance), but you have to figure out your own vertical position. Others give you both lateral and vertical guidance. For example, an LNAV approach gives lateral guidance but no vertical guidance, while an ILS approach gives lateral and vertical guidance. A precision approach is one where vertical guidance is provided by a ground reference, e.g. the glideslope signal transmitted by an ILS. A non-precision approach can still include vertical guidance, but it’s either calculated or measured by something aboard the airplane. For example, my onboard GPS can use barometric pressure differences to calculate the current altitude, and it knows where the airplane is along the approach course. The diagram for each approach includes a profile view that shows what your vertical profile should look like on approach, such as this profile from the ILS to runway 17 at the Montpelier, Vermont airport:

The underline beneath those numbers has a simple meaning: don't go lower than that altitude or you might die.

The underline beneath those numbers has a simple meaning: don’t go lower than that altitude at that point in the approach or you might die.

Let’s say that the GPS sees I am between the REGGI and JIPDO waypoints. It knows that I can descend a maximum of 600′ between the two. By using either GPS altitude data (VNAV) or altitude data derived from the current altimeter setting (Baro-VNAV), it can give me a visual indication of how much I should climb or descend to follow a smooth path along the approach course.

After all that, it was time to go flying in the ancient simulator. This particular sim doesn’t have a GPS but that wasn’t a problem given what we were doing. I (mostly) tamed the roll axis sensitivity and flew pretty well; we flew a couple of approaches and then took a break for lunch at a nearby Mexican place, thence to the airport. Our planned route was pretty interesting: Manhattan-Salina-Newton-Emporia-Manhattan. It makes a pretty square, as you can see below:

Kansas is square. So was our route.

Kansas is square. So was our route.

We flew one approach at each airport; I forgot to note exactly which ones, but I’d guess (based on the approach plate history in my iPad)  the ILS 35 at Salina, the VOR/DME-A at Newton, and one of the GPS approaches at Emporia, plus the GPS at Manhattan. 3 in the sim and 2.6 PIC in the airplane made for another fun-filled day!

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