Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This woulda been a great inning

VFR Chart
I have tried to come up with words that would describe for either a non-pilot or a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) only pilot what the big deal is for an experienced IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) pilot to fly under the different rules. I think part of it is that IFR pilots often are provided their flight plan and releases from a computer and they additionally do the same routes day in and day out. One can tend to get a bit complacent. That doesn’t mean that this is easy, you still have weather and a multitude of other issues to worry about. But usually, and I’m totally generalizing, VFR pilots have either a lot more planning to do (since they don’t have a dispatch department) and/or they are flying “under the radar,” often literally.

IFR Chart
So IFR pilots, for example, airline pilots, can follow the little black lines on their charts while they talk to Air Traffic Controllers throughout the flight. They are in fact “handed off” to the next controller. Not so as a VFR pilot. YOU have to figure out who to talk to, and there is airspace you can’t enter if you’re not talking to ATC. Some airspace is prohibited for VFR flights (Class A, above 18,000 feet MSL) or you have to get permission to fly into (Class B, around “Busy” airports). I’ve alluded to the different calls to ATC you have to make before. You also ultimately have to worry about “busting airspace,” for which you can potentially have your pilot’s certificate suspended. HUGE implications.

In a way, I explained to someone, it’s not like just driving a different car (going from a Citation X to a Cessna 182), it’s like additionally driving in a foreign country. The car will operate basically the same, and most of the principals of traffic laws may be obvious, but there are signs in a different language. It would be just enough to put you on high alert for your entire trip.

Houston's Class B
Alright, now for the real topic of this story. Having just returned from my trip to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon, I needed to get back in that C182 to do some training. I emailed the flight instructor to see when it would be available and at which airport (both KPKV and KVCT flight schools share it). I woke up the next morning about the plane being needed to pick up the owner of the flight school, Dianna, in Houston, but no other information. That’s one of the awesome things about training here, I get to intersperse traffic patterns and practice maneuvers with real world missions! Plus, having never flown into Class B airspace (that Busy airspace mentioned above where you need permission), I knew I had to do it, especially if I am eventually going to be instructing in Cleveland, also a Class B airport.

So logistically this was a headache. The 182 was up at Victoria Airport and I’m at Port Lavaca. I could have driven there, but then my car would be stuck there (and frankly, my car is starting to really make some loud noises. I’m praying it makes it back to Cleveland next week and my friend can fix it up for my trips to WI and MN coming up). We decided the best thing would be for me to fly up in the 172 and swap. This was great in that I was paying more attention to the differences in the two airplanes, which makes my knowledge of both better.

At this point I still didn’t know when the flight to Houston was going to have to leave. Already that morning I had used AOPA’s flight planner to figure out direction, distance and time needed (ok, maybe VFR pilots don’t have to work as hard as they used to do, either). I tore the VFR sectional apart looking for gotchas (tall towers, other restricted airspace, dimensions of the Class B, etc). I double checked my VFR weather minimums (required cloud clearance and visibility) but the day was devoid of any clouds. I looked at the Federal Aviation Regulations again about Class B, but one thing I was painfully aware of is that to enter Class B airspace, the controller must actually say your call sign and the words, “Cleared into Class B airspace.” NO exceptions.  [Only now, editing this blog post, do I find a webpage specifically for pilots on Houston's Class B.]

I could have spent all day researching more of these gotchas except that time was starting to run short. Once I got to Victoria, we decided on a plan that I would bring David, one of the employees of the flight school, back to pick up the van to get supplies for Kid’s Day at the Airport (May 6th). I dropped him off at Port Lavaca (with a little instructing along the way) and got myself some lunch. Then back to the airport where I grabbed Steve, the airport manager, to practice grass strip landings with me because the culmination of this flight would be to drop Dianna off at the ranch on a grass strip. The strip at Port Lavaca is about 2400 feet long. The one at the ranch, 1/3 shorter. So Steve was pushing me to get the airplane on the ground and stopped well before the end for my eventual landing at the ranch.

By the time David returned for his flight back to Victoria, we were running late. I was going to have to leave Victoria and go straight to Houston, no time for any more planning. But Steve had briefed me on what to expect – and it happened pretty much as he said. BTW, I have to stop with the self deprecating humor about how much I scare myself. I think Steve is starting to doubt my ability/knowledge/confidence. At one point he asked, “what did you do all those years flying around for the airlines?” Again, we didn’t fly the same way (sometimes for the airlines we did have to cancel IFR and land VFR, but not often, and always at the same place – I had learned what to do at these airports as a First Officer so I did the same as a Captain – not a lot of variation) and I had also been an FO with the fractionals so long (since 2002) that I had become quite, uh, lazy. This is one of my reasons for becoming a flight instructor. Back to the basics!

My first challenge was pretty basic. I was given clearance to take off, and cleared “on course” which I had trouble, now that I'm back on the ground, finding exactly what that meant. I had always assumed it meant to turn direct to the destination. However, in this instance my direction of flight was going to take me over the departure end of the parallel runway and the tower had just cleared an aircraft for a low approach. My thought was, if the traffic pattern for this runway was on the right, should I go the long away around before I turned to go to Houston? Arg? So, safety being more important than shame, I confirmed with tower that he did indeed intend for me to fly over the runway (he actually did so in the tone of “duh”). Leaving Victoria's airspace, I asked tower to confirm the frequency to get “flight following” or radar traffic information service with Houston Approach. A great primer on this topic.

I contacted Houston: “Houston Center, Skylane 397ME, request.” This way, I know, you don’t clog up the radio right off. Let the controller call you back when he has the time to talk to you, and then be ready to answer when he says, “Skylane 7ME, Houston Center, go ahead.” “Skylane 7ME, 10 miles east of KVCT, 2500 feet, VFR enroute to Houston Hobby, request flight following.” Then Houston calls me back with a transponder code so they can identify me on their radar screen so that they can advise me of any traffic which might result in paint swapping. Interestingly enough, I again tried to look up flight following, which is actually called “traffic advisories,” but again, though it is defined in the Aeronautical Information Manual, no help on how to request. This is tough! Trying not to further embarrass myself, I was hesitant to ask/announce/? a change in altitude despite 2500 feet bouncing me around a bit. If I asked, the controller might say, “altitude your discretion” again with a twinge of duh (I’ve heard THAT before). So, I stuck it out.

My flight path took me farther north when expected because I took off from KVCT instead of KPKV, so I flew right over Wharton Airport, which is uncontrolled. In the interest of safety, I make a call on their Unicom to let anyone know I was transitioning over the airport at 2500 feet. Turns out that did no good whatsoever, especially to the pilot in the airplane I saw right below me. They didn’t say anything on the Unicom, but I heard them on center announcing that they were now ABOVE me. Somehow in their climb we managed not to meet. Whew. And so much for "traffic advisories" from center.

Approaching Houston
Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out the autopilot. I got it programmed, but it seemed to be diving and weaving quite a bit, so I turn it off and hand fly. Occasionally I’ll check the chart to get my orientation, but before I know it, I’m switched off to another Houston controller that asks me to confirm that I have “Information Xray” – the current ATIS. Argh! I don’t have it. Tune it up on the other radio, and of course, it’s super long. Meanwhile the controller is calling me back asking for my altitude. Used to listening for “ExecJet” first, I miss the first time, but tune in to his voice when I hear his request said in a “hey, moron” tone. Strike 2.

Next, as Steve had prepared me for, ATC asked if I knew where the Superdome was. I had to reply no – no time to find it on the chart, either. He came back in a minute and asked me if I was familiar with the antenna farm, so I said yes. [It can be found on the map to the left, a bit west of Hobby and a little south.] My directions were to fly west of the antenna farm and then head northeast. Immediately I regretted this. I mean, Steve had showed me on the map, but… I looked down and saw a lake, clearly also on the map, so I was good to go. Within seconds, a huge array of antennas became within view. Then, the next wrinkle. I knew if I reached the antenna farm I was within Class B. Remember I said you needed a specific clearance into the airspace? Well, I had gotten directions beyond the Class B, so it could be argued that I was cleared, but I didn’t want to argue with the FAA. So after a few minutes of debate with myself, I asked the controller, “Confirm cleared into Class B airspace?” The controller, with no “duh” tone at all, confirmed. Whew.

As I approached HOU from the west, my next instructions were to cross midfield of the airport at 1600feet. Now that I think about it, the controller never asked if I had the airport in sight. Anyway, and then I was to enter a left downwind for 12L (left). The funny thing about downwinds is that a left downwind means that you will fly to the right of the runway. You have to remember that the runway will be to your left. I'd have been following that line from 4 toward the 22, then turning left, and another left and then one more left to land on that strip with the 12L on the end of it.  Except that before I arrived over the airport, about where that Million Air dot is, the tower told me to start my turn to the left. I spent a frantic moment figuring out how to enter a left downwind if I turned to the left before the runway. Clearly, I still had to get to the other side of the runway, so I understood this to “scootch left,”  i.e., stay to the left of Runway 4.

Tower asked me if I saw the beechjet on final for 12R, which I did, so my clearance became, “Skylane 7ME, maintain visual separation with the beechjet, cleared to land 12L.” I made a big 270 degree loop (no more 90' left turns) and was thankful when I identified 12L written on the asphalt. Strike 3 was not landing on the wrong runway.

Well, I should have landed long, because I had to roll all the way out to the other end of the runway (past Signature even), where I then taxied to the wrong FBO. After a bit of confusion, I started the engine (ha-ha, I typed engines first! Force of habit.) and then taxied over to the maintenance hangar where Dianna was dropping off the Husky to get it ready for the AirRace Classic.

She jumped in and went to work, just like a great crew should. I could have spent a long time debating over what to say to clearance delivery for a VFR departure, but she had already filed. Turns out they didn’t have the flight plan, but he worked it out quickly and it sounded almost like an IFR clearance. With everything scrambled in my head, it was sure nice to have someone looking at the airport diagram with our taxi instructions! Holding short of runway 22, we watched a 737 take off. Great. Just what I want to do. Experience wake turbulence in a 182.

One of the things I learned in my training (but only because I asked), is what heading to maintain after takeoff when VFR. For IFR pilots, you maintain runway heading even if the wind blows you off course - the controller expects you to be on a heading. VFR pilots, because they can see the runway, are expected to pick a heading that will maintain alignment with the runway – fly all the way down right over it. Momentary relapse, I was sloppy. Let the wind push me to the right and then turned to the assigned heading (only ten degrees to the right) too early. Sloppy. Tsk. Tsk.

As we left the airport, it was just like IFR again, except the calls to change frequencies came much slower due to our decreased speed. Although we had told them to expect us to climb to 8500 feet, once we had reached 4500 it was nice and smooth so we told them that we wanted to cancel with them. ATC said, “7ME, cancellation received, squawk VFR, frequency change approved.” This meant that we would no longer receive traffic advisories, our transponder code should now be 1200, like every other VFR airplane, and we could now switch to the advisory frequency for Palacios airport, the closest to the ranch.

GMaps doesn't yet show strip diagonally between 2 Roads
Enroute to the ranch, Dianna coached me on some more of the features of the GPS and the autopilot, which, once engaged at a smoother altitude seemed to be a lot more stable. Once we got to the ranch, we did a couple of passes of the airport just to get familiar. The ranch is on the water, so the wind is variable, so we chose what we thought was the best direction to land. When I lined up the first time, we decided that we’d do a go-around, just for practice, but after I started the climbout we both looked at each other and said, “we could have made that.” So we came around again, and it was great to have a co-pilot calling out my airspeeds and altitude so I could focus on my closure with what is basically a level part of a field surrounded by fences, trees, and at least temporarily, an oil drill. We got lower, closer, slower, and before I knew it, time to pull the power and flare! Bam! Apply crosswind correction, hold the nose off the ground to prevent wheelbarrowing, zero the flaps to get the weight of the airplane on the wheels to slow us down, gently apply the brakes… and it was done. High fives between the crewmembers.

I dropped off my passenger, who supplied this video of my departure:

What was Strike 3? I realized right after takeoff that I forgot to open the cowl flaps, which provides increased airflow over the engine at low airspeeds. [Steve said I could say it was because I didn’t want to suck debris in from the ground. That’s my story.] PKV was just a short flight, and I was high on my successes of the day already. In fact, when I called in range on the Unicom, Steve said, “I heard you nailed it over at the ranch.” News apparently travels faster than a C182.

P.S. the photo in the background of my blog now is me taxiing back to the departure end of the grass strip.

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