Better to be Down Here

Better to be down here wishing you were up there,
than up there wishing you were down here.
– Old saw in aviation about the weather

Rudy’s fall break was approaching and it was getting colder. So I wanted to go up, get the condo in Friday Harbor ready for guests, and enjoy a week with Rudy. On Wednesday I hopped the plane to Long Beach where my mechanics did the hundred hour oil change, checked a few things and replaced a hose clamp on a cooling line.

Whenever they have the cowlings off and I am around I go over, trying hard to stay out of the way, and poke my nose into things and ask questions. “Why so many wire ties in here?” “Is the dripping onto this surface ever a problem?” “What does an adell clamp look like?” “If there is the sign of the coolant spray in here, from that earlier leak, should we check the coolant level?” I am sure I am a tremendous pain in the ass and they should probably have a separate hourly rate for teaching me about my plane.

Long Beach is one of the homes of Cheap Fuel in the Los Angeles Basin, so I topped off down there, flew home, and got the plane set up for the long trip on Friday.

Nell departed on a redeye Thursday night and at 7am on Friday I headed to the airport, grabbing my donuts, and had the engines turning a little before 8am. It was a crisp, gorgeous morning to climb into the air over Santa Monica, turning over the empty beach and talking to SoCal departures as I hummed over the Santa Monica Mountains toward the Gorman VOR. Continue reading

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Mistakes Were Made

Always record your mistakes.There are a few good reasons, but the primary one for me is that it might keep me from making the same one again. If I only make each mistake once, then I think I can make it to the end of my flying career without hurting anyone or getting hurt. (There’s also the chance someone else can learn from one of my mistakes which one be awesome. If I can save them from making one, we’ll all be flying a little safer. I think there’s an old saw about, “Learn from other people’s mistakes, you don’t have time to make them all yourself.”) Mistakes are also when I make new rules for my piloting habits, like the Three New Rules for Landing at Night.

I now have over four hundred hours in N972RD. I am just starting to get comfortable enough to do a short approach or short field takeoff. If The Killing Zone applies to each aircraft type separately, or even to each aircraft separately, I have now escaped it flying the DA42.

Arriving at an airport, new to me or one I’ve landed at hundreds of times, I brief the approach. Even if it is a visual approach into the pattern. When I have passengers this briefing happens in my head, but it follows the same pattern. I listen to the ATIS for the airport and they tell me runway that is active. “Caldwell Automated Terminal Information Bravo…. (weather information) … landing and departing runway four and runway two eight.”

When I am switched over to the tower or the CTAF frequency I listen to confirm what will be happening. So I may hear an airplane ahead of me: “Caldwell tower, Angel Flight one nine seven six I inbound with bravo, nine miles north descending through two thousand nine hundred.” And the tower responds, “Angel Flight seven six, make right traffic runway four.” I am still ten miles behind that Cessna that called in, so I look at the runway diagram for the airport. 

Runways are label with compass headings, rounded to the nearest ten degrees. When I brief a landing, I set the heading bug (a little blue notch that I can set to a heading on my Horizontal Situation Indicator, HSI).  Now I know that when I am lined up to land, the airplane should be pointed toward that heading bug. If it isn’t, then I am not lined up for the correct runway. (This habit would have saved a few lives, particularly in this accident.) It also means that to fly downwind parallel to the runway I just put the heading bug at the bottom of the HSI, I don’t need to worry about working out my reciprocal heading. (The reciprocal heading is when the plane is flying away from the heading. So add 180 degrees. Unless you are more than 180 degrees, in which case you should subtract one hundred eighty degrees. Of course, that’s a little difficult in your head, so add 200 and take away 20. Anyway, you don’t need to do that. If you did, you could look at the runway number for the other end of the runway, which is also 180 degrees opposite, since runways are straight lines. But I don’t bother with any of that, I just plop the heading bug on the HSI, turn the airplane until it is at the bottom of the HSI, and I’m flying a nice downwind. (Yes, there are corrections for crosswinds that mess this up a little, but the wind was calm. I figured the calm wind was why they were landing both runway 4 and the two-something runway.)

So I call in to the tower, tell them who I am, where I am, that I have the latest weather information for the airport and I’d like to land. The tower tells me to enter a right downwind for runway four, which I am already lined up to do. The airport is busy, which always keeps me on my toes a little more. Coming in to land is when I am paying sharp attention anyway, but it means I’m sort of spring-loaded to act. Sure enough, when I am still two miles from the upwind end of runway four I hear the departing turbine plane say there’s a drone at 700 feet a little south of the upwind. So I start looking as well, since my downwind path will take me on the other side of that drone.

Just as I am entering the upper right corner of that diagram, the tower says, “Two Romeo Delta, can you accept runway two eight for landing?” I don’t think about the number, I just say, “Affirmative” as I put the plane into a tight right bank, dropping the nose, adding more flaps to slow us down so that I can land on the opposite end of runway 4. I scoot by an airborne object that looks a lot more like a group of party balloons than a drone. Nell asked, “Why did he want you to change runways all of a sudden?” I said I wasn’t sure, but that I am always happy to help. “Well, at least you got to do that cool turn.” I agree and tell the tower that the drone looks like balloons to me. I pull the nose up, I’ve chopped the power, and we cross the fence just at the right speed, wheels down and we’re off the runway. As we taxi along papa, I see a Pilatus PC-12 land on runway 4 and pull off onto a taxiway to feed in behind me. Ground says the tower would like to talk about the drone object if I could give the tower a call.

I did all of the unpacking of the plane, dealing with the line crew and FBO’s front desk, got the plane all buttoned up and then called the tower. “Two Romeo Delta, we’re not writing anything down, but we cleared you to land two eight and you landed two two. Nothing bad happened, but the reason we switched you was that we had a plane landing runway 4. They didn’t have to go around, so there was no problem, but you accepted two eight and then landed two two.”

They might not be writing anything down, but I sure am. I filed my NASA form just in case ATC changes their mind and submits a report. A number of factors affected my landing on the wrong runway. If the controller had directed me to “turn left to enter a left downwind for runway 28” then I would have know what he was trying to do. In fact, the moment I dropped my right wing for the big s-turn I am not sure why he didn’t say, “Two Romeo Delta, where are you going?”

But I have now added to my briefing as I approach the airport. I know which runway I am landing on, but I will actually look at and say the name of all of the runways. That way I would have said, “I’m landing runway 4, the other end of it is two two. There is also runway two eight and runway one zero.” That would have made it much harder to make the mistake.

Fewer mistakes. The constant goal.

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Returning from the North

Dexter spent eight weeks at the Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories, studying the mechanical properties of fish skin. At the end of the program he had a huge sleep debt and I flew him back home. We were meant to depart at 7am, but there was unforecast fog blanketing the island when I woke up.

“How’s the weather?”
“Birds are walking.” Continue reading

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Instrument Approaches

There is the old saw about getting your Private Pilot certificate, that it “is a ticket to learn,” meaning that you’ve just gotten the little slip of paper that lets you learn to be a better pilot. I totally buy that. I didn’t count on forgetting some of the things I learned, though.

To get my ticket to fly in the clouds I needed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the types of instrument approaches to bring the plane out of the clouds and onto the runway. In practice, in real life flying, there only seemed to be two that mattered: ILS and VOR approaches. There’s a VOR approach into Santa Monica and a lot of the larger airports I land at have an ILS. Let’s just look at these two types. Well, let’s just mention the least precise sort of approach, so that we have them all here. Continue reading

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The Clearance Test

It was the middle of May, which means the end of the school year. So it was time to pick Dexter up from Cambridge and ferry him home. The forecast for Saturday was rainy, which was killing my mood a little. While Dexter had his last 3hr final (Life Science) I was going to triage his room so that we knew what we were bringing home, what we would store and what we would toss. Walking around Cambridge in the rain did not feel like a good time. The day dawned and it was going to hold off until 5pm. Phew.

By 3:00pm we were merrily rolling along in our Lyft to the Bedford airport. My only real concern was that we might want to climb above weather and I wasn’t sure what the oxygen cylinder had left in it. Nell and I had just crossed the country and used it the whole time (for me, part of the time for her). Fortunately, there was more than half left. I got us all packed up, everything strapped in carefully in case there was turbulence (it makes it so much harder to fly IFR when you are being pounded on the head by your own luggage). Continue reading

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The Three Scariest Flights

The Fleet Awaiting the Next Adventure

Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) is the process defined by pilot training and the FAA that pilots apply to choices when flying. Or, most importantly, when deciding whether to go flying. It involves situational awareness, understanding of your aircraft’s performance, frank assessment of the priorities and requirements of the flight, and a rational decision in a timely manner.

I found myself doing some ADM as I hurtled down runway two-one and Santa Monica a couple weeks ago. I was at just about eighty miles an hour, but short of the eighty knots I use as a rotation speed. The wind was entirely calm, but the plane pulled a little left for a moment, enough to yank me off the centerline by about five feet or so. Continue reading

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The Small Mistake Heard ‘Round the World

hyper

“White markings, it’s a runway, Chewie.”

A few people have asked me about Harrison Ford landing down at John Wayne airport. They said from the news it was hard to tell what had happened. Among pilot friends I have mostly said, “I sure am glad that none of my tiny mistakes are broadcast around the globe. It would make me so nervous every time I got in the plane.”

And, in general, nervous pilots make more mistakes. Continue reading

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