As I see it, the important thing with flying is to stay current. That means you can do a lot of the flying with the part of your brain that keeps the bicycle upright, or the part that keeps the car in the lane on the freeway. If you brain is tasked when you are doing those things then if something new happens, like a barrel falling off the truck in front of you, then you don’t have the capacity to continue doing the vital thing (keep the car in the lane) and deciding what to do next (brake? swerve?).

Back when Adam and I read The Killing Zone he talked about how he was pretty sure that the more important factor was not the total number of hours that the pilot has (which is what the book argues, that 60 to 350 hours is the “killing zone”). Instead, it is the number of hours in the last ninety days, particularly time in type.


Kneepad page, drawing by renee french

I only have about twenty hours in the Twinstar. I am working hard to add to that number. (My insurance will also drop once I hit certain hour milestones.) So on Monday morning it was off to the cloud mines.

During pre-flight I crawled under the plane a little. This is a process of getting familiar with a machine. The more familiar I am, the more I will understand when something isn’t normal and what to do about it. The more familiar I am, the less anxious I will be about a particular noise or feeling. So I crawled under the wing on my hands and knees, wiggling the landing gear door, peering at the squat switches and making sure that no small birds had decided this was a good place for a nest. (Squat switches tell the plane that you are on the ground. It shouldn’t let you retract the gear if the squat switch has weight on it. Many, many stories about squat switch failures. Sad stories of planes with bent propellers and scraped bellies.)

I picked up a “tower en route” clearance from Santa Monica to Van Nuys. That’s the first clearance at the bottom of the page. “November five-one-zero-tango-sierra is cleared to the Van Nuys airport. We will fly runway heading and upon reaching the LAX three-one-five radial will turn right to a heading of two-five-zero. Radar vectors, Santa Monica VOR, outbound on the Santa Monica three-one-seven radial, CANOG intersection, direct. Climb to three thousand, expect four thousand in five minutes. Talk to SoCal on one-two-five-dot-two, squawk four six five seven.”

That’s what I read back from the notes I took. No mistakes in the copying, no mistakes in the read back, and the ground controller says, “Read back correct, tell the tower you are IFR.”

Because LAX and Santa Monica are so close the traffic conflicts and in order to be released into the IFR system they need to create a break in the flow of airplanes landing on the north runway at LAX. They don’t like doing it, so sometimes you sit on the ground for twenty minutes. I gave up and took off VFR, talking to SoCal once I got airborne and asking nicely for them to put me “in the system.” They were happy to do it, or at least they said the next controller would be (which he was).


So off I went to Van Nuys even though it was reporting an overcast cloud layer at three thousand feet. I would find my way there via the Global Positioning System and a bunch of radio transmitters.


There isn’t a lot of weather here in Southern California, but what we do get tends to obscure the sky. So these are important skills if you want to travel on the days that the marine layer rolls in and hides the sun during your departure time. The moment you are up through the clouds (or, down through them when you are arriving at your destination), everything is clear. Unlike a place like the Pacific Northwest, where there is a lot of active weather up and down through the altitudes, we tend to have this one, blocking layer.

The tower-en-route system was created because there was so much traffic between airports that could be routed below the center-controller airspace it didn’t make sense to bother the center controllers with a lot of the flights. So I move from Santa Monica to Van Nuys just talking to the tower controllers and one or two approach controllers between the two airports. The moment you get a mountain range in the way, though, you have to climb high enough that you are talking Los Angeles Center.


Foreflight, best thing out there for pilots

I have my iPad mini mounted on a suction cup contraption that puts it right at eye level so that I can see the approach plate for the ILS to 16R at VNY. I have it zoomed in here, but it’s the whole plate so I can see the profile that I am meant to fly and I know that the controller is going to bring me from 5,000 feet down to 4,600 before the final approach fix, or at least that’s the idea. And the GPS on the iPad is working pretty well, so I have the little glowing icon for the plane following the 161 radial off of the Van Nuys VOR (a VHF radio that is broadcasting with a master signal and a additional rotating directional signal, which a radio in the plane can pick apart into an exact degree of the compass). The approach is a precision approach with an ILS (instrument landing system), which means I have another piece of equipment that can pick apart the signal and decode a glide slope to follow to the landing zone. This is very comforting when you are going down through the clouds, knowing that you are exactly on course and descent to a piece of concrete that the wheels will like.

That works perfectly. I descend through a layer of clouds a few hundred feet thick and drop out the bottom staring at one-six-right. My landings are already getting better, and the tires just kiss the runway. In fact, for a moment I am puzzled that the stall warning has stopped, then I realize that it is because we are on the ground.


I keep flying to stay current and I keep filling IFR so that I can make mistakes, get corrected, and be a better pilot. Sometimes it is embarrassing, but I want to be better, so I keep doing it. As much as possible, I keep the embarrassing parts to when I am alone in the plane. I asked for my clearance back to Santa Monica and once I was in the run-up copied it down. Sort of.

I was expecting a different departure. I don’t remember what it was called, but I think it was the BURBANK-6 or the VANNUYS-9, something like that. Right away he was rapid-fire chattering and I had missed the first word. Then I copied down zero-five-nine instead of zero-nine-five. DARTS, the climb, frequency and squawk. (The clearance always follows a template, making it much easier to copy it down, you sort of know what’s coming.) I read it back, saying I needed the name of the departure. And I think I have the climb wrong. “Zero-tango-sierra, it’s climb via the SID, except four thousand, expect five thousand after ten minutes.” Ah, sorry, four thousand, expect five thousand after five minutes. “Zero-tango-sierra, four thousand, expect five thousand after ten minutes.” Ach, four thousand, expect five thousand after ten minutes. Now I was hopeless. I could have just flown home VFR, but then I wouldn’t learn anything. The clouds were clear over my route home. I have stuttered through the read back four times and on the fifth I get it right.


Instrument Departure from VNY

I study my departure procedure, realizing that it feels the same as the one I couldn’t remember the name of (I am sure it is adjusted, they rename them when they change). Runway heading, climbing to 1,700 feet, wait a moment (usually my climb is so slow it’s not much of a wait), then left turn to a one-ten heading. Then I am confused. Usually there is a way to continue your flight without talking to ATC, and that’s what you plan. That way if you lose radio contact, you have a plan.

The tower said I’d be joining up with the zero-nine-five radial off Van Nuys to the DARTS intersection. I see that my 110 heading is going to eventually join me up with the zero-four-five off the LAX VOR, and then to the ELMOO intersection (over the dairy farms of El Monte, El Moo, get it?). But something doesn’t make sense. I check my IFR chart.


Low-altitude IFR route chart

Right. I see the VNY VOR up in the left corner, and I’ll be on victor 186, the 095 radial, but I’m meant to be going to DARTS, which is halfway to ELMOO. It feels like my turn isn’t going to be left enough. But I’ll stay on that heading until I talk to the approach controller, then turn a little more left to intercept victor 186 before DARTS. Right. (If I flew to ELMOO instead, I’d be flying past the limits of my clearance, potentially into conflict with other planes. That’s just what they don’t want you to do when you lose your radios.)

With everything plugged into the fancy computer, I tell the tower I am ready to go and he clears me for take off. The ascent into the sky is getting better and smoother, a little less like a duck getting chased off a lake.

I’m up. Head to seventeen hundred feet. Wait until I am past the VNY 2.2 DME (Distance Measuring Equipment, faked with my GPS). Turn to the heading of one-ten as the tower hands me off to approach control. SoCal talks to me and clears me to climb to five thousand. I continue my climb. I wait a little more and turn more left, about twenty degrees, angling for the victor airway.

“Zero-tango-sierra, where are you going? You should be on a heading of one-one-zero.”

“Zero-tango-sierra, I thought we were meant to join the zero-nine-five radial off Van Nuys.”

“Yes, when I tell you to. If there were planes on approach into Burbank you’d probably have set off their TCAS systems in another few miles. Back on the one-ten heading, I’ll turn you in a few miles.”

Darn darn darn. Nothing catastrophic, no metal bent, composite cracked, or even little beeping alarms. But I like making these practice flights without a mistake. The rest of the flight is textbook. And I ace the landing at Santa Monica even though the controller kept me too high for too long on the approach (landing gear: best speed brakes ever).

Twenty-four point one hours in the Twinstar. I want fifty before we take it across the country to New Hampshire. The summer always brings a bunch of unknowns and I want to know the plane well before I head out on that adventure. (Before flying across the country I had my instrument rating and nearly five hundred hours in my logbook.)

(I emailed my instrument instructor when I got home and confessed to making a mistake in the sky. I asked how she looked at the ADAMM-1 departure and what to do with the clearance I got. “Regarding the ADAMM-1 — it’s always interesting discussing NORDO [losing your radios] and what to do.  Mainly because of so much terrain around here (and dense Bravo airspace), it helps make the answer more concrete. 110 deg heading takes you to weird places, but it also put you on a loose parallel to the VNY 095 R, aka V186… which from the south side of the radial, is safe to join up with assuming a NORDO situation… i.e. left turn heading 110, thence … ‘expect RADAR vectors to VNY -095’  etcetera. In order of events for navigation in NORDO situations: Assigned, Expected, Vectored, Filed.  So at some point it’s implied you’ll join up with that radial.“ Always keep learning.)

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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