Tag Archives: aviation

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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Getting geared up for GATTS

So far, since Derek and I bought 706, I’ve logged just over 45 hours flying it. Solo, I’ve gone to Louisiana and Vermont; the boys and I have gone to Pigeon Forge, Demopolis, Atlanta, Anniston, and Tuscaloosa. Now it’s time to step my game up a notch: on Monday, I’m flying to Manhattan, Kansas, for a week of accelerated instrument training with GATTS. A few of the folks I’ve talked to (including family members and coworkers) have asked lots of good questions about this plan, so I thought a quick Q&A might be in order.

Q: What’s an instrument rating?
A: With an instrument rating, you can fly under what the FAA calls “instrument flight rules.” Basically, you can fly in and around clouds, fog, and rain, or in conditions of poor visibility– all by using only the instruments in your cockpit, without being able to see any landmarks or the horizon.

Q: So you can fly in bad weather!
A: Nope. An instrument rating allows you to take off, fly, and land under certain conditions. For example, to legally land at Huntsville’s airport, you must have at least a 200′ ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility. That doesn’t mean it would be safe to do so, just that if the weather is worse than that, you can’t land there. It’s not a license to fly in thunderstorms, blizzards, high winds, and the like, although each year a few people die from confusing “legal” and “safe” and taking off or flying through visible or embedded thunderstorms.

Q: Then why bother?
A: Think of a typical summer day in the South: partly cloudy in the morning, building thunderstorms in the mid-afternoon, then partly cloudy again in the evening. With an instrument rating, you can (legally and safely) penetrate the clouds, fly on top of them, then descend and land lately. You also get guaranteed routing and safety services from air traffic control, whereas when you fly visually those services are available on a best-effort basis.

Q: Kansas? Couldn’t you find a local instructor?
A: I love my instructors here in Huntsville. (Hi, John! Hi, Caroline!) But the big advantage of the GATTS program is that you spend the entire time flying. When I got my private license, my training dragged out because I had to line up 4 factors: my schedule, my instructor’s schedule, the airplane’s schedule, and the weather. By blocking out the time as one chunk, I should be able to build my skills much faster. Kansas is different enough from here that I will have to master the skills of navigation and approach management (in other words, I can’t depend on my knowledge of the local Huntsville area), but it doesn’t have a lot of demanding terrain or complex airspace.

Q: Is it like boot camp, then?
A: Wow, I hope not. There was a lot of yelling when I was in boot camp, for one thing. GATTS says their typical day is from about 830a to 6p. During that time, I’ll be in the classroom with my instructor, flying in the simulator, or flying my airplane. Oh, and eating lunch. The schedule varies from day to day, depending on what we’re working on. We’ll do this every day– weekends and Labor Day included– so that I get the most out of the time. I’ve already been able to carve out time for a few scheduled webcasts and conference calls that I couldn’t move.

Q: Is it expensive?
A: The answer to this question is always “yes” when it comes to aviation.

Q: No, really.
A: Yes, really. If you factor in just the instructor’s time alone, GATTS is more expensive. However, there’s no way on earth that I could get a local instructor to fly with me day in, day out long enough to learn what I need to know. Then I’d end up having to repeat lessons to knock the rust off. The GATTS program also includes lodging in Manhattan and a car to use. Plus, I’ve never been to Kansas.

Q: Why an accelerated program?
A: The best way to get proficient at flying is to fly. The best way to get, and keep, instrument proficiency is to compress your training, then use your instrument privileges regularly. I’ve already had to delay or change travel plans many times to account for vagaries of weather; being instrument-qualified doesn’t eliminate that (hello, thunderstorms!) but it gives me many more options. Ultimately, the airplane is a time machine: it lets me travel to places, and in time windows, where I otherwise couldn’t, so having the ability to fly in weather is really important to me. I want to do it as safely and proficiently as possible.

I’m planning, time and energy level permitting, to keep a daily journal of my experience at GATTS. Stay tuned…

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In which I become a repeat offender

Yesterday marked a milestone: my second triathlon, the Tarpon Tri in Houma, Louisiana. I was fooling around one day on TriFind and noticed that there was a race there, so I signed up– I thought it would be a fun trip to see family and visit my hometown again. But you know what they say: one triathlon and you can explain it away as harmless experimentation, or perhaps a temporary indiscretion… run TWO, though, and you’re a repeat offender, well on your way to “serial triathlete” status.

I’d planned to make the 359nm flight from Decatur to Houma on Friday afternoon, so after a great conference call with a potential new customer (more on that next week, I hope), I loaded up the plane. With the two rear seats removed, it was easy to fit my giant road bike, my tri bag, and backpack in; I parked the car and off I went. I’d like to say a lot of neat stuff about how interesting the flight was, but the fact is that it went flawlessly: no major weather, a smooth ride, and some really interesting scenery, including a beautiful crossing of Lake Ponchartrain right alongside the Causeway. After an easy landing, I headed to my hotel to drop off my stuff, plug in all my gadgets, and make plans to see family.

(Side note: I cannot possibly say enough good things about how well the folks at Butler Aviation took care of me. When I arrived, they had a rental vehicle ready because I’d emailed ahead– no mean feat since the nearest rental agency is 10 mi or so away.  When I got ready to come home, the plane was fueled and ready to go, and everyone there was super friendly. Highly recommended.)

Dinner Friday night was excellent: my Aunt Norma, my cousin Ricky, and his wife Tonya went to Dave’s Cajun Kitchen. The name gives it away, of course: it’s Cajun food, but the kind that people actually eat. Gumbo, fried catfish, white and red beans, jambalaya, and so on. I have never had a meal there that was less than excellent. This one was so good that I ate more than I should have, for which I would pay later.

After a visit back to Ricky’s, I headed to the hotel, got my gear ready for the morning, and went to sleep… then spent all night having reflux-y burps of white beans and catfish. Key learning #1: don’t eat so damn much before the next race.

Saturday morning I got up, hit Walgreen’s for some Tums, and headed to the race site for packet pickup. The place was packed! I should’ve gone to get my packet Friday night; after 20 minutes or so in line, I got my packet and chip, got body marked, and headed to set up in transition. Thanks to all the practice with the TRI101 coaches, I had no trouble getting my gear laid out, so I headed to the pool to get in a quick warmup.

This race had staggered pool starts: the fastest swim time was #1, the second-fastest was #2, and so on. If you didn’t put down a swim time, as I didn’t, you went to the back… so I ended up being #180, meaning that I had about a 35-minute wait to get in the water. Key learning #2: put down the right swim time. I had a very pleasant time visiting with the triathletes in line near me, including a multiple half-Ironman finisher and a guy who was running his first race to celebrate his birthday weekend (he didn’t say what birthday but he was no spring chicken!)

The swim went well– 150 yd in the pool in 3:57. Oddly, Movescount showed me with 125 yds (how? it gets its data from my watch, which showed 150 yds!), and the official time for the swim was 4:36:37. The info packet said:

The timing chips are all pre-set as to when they begin your time according to the seeding chart that we give to the timing guy. Please pay attention & listen to the volunteers who are starting you. They have a list of what time each participant is to start his/her swim.

That makes me wonder if for some reason the swim times were off based on the expected time at which I was supposed to get in the water. In any event, the swim felt good. I got through T1 in a leisurely 3 minutes, partly due to my decision to try my new USMC cycling jersey as racewear. Turns out putting on a clingy bike jersey when wet is really hard– and it reminds me of key learning #3: nothing new on race day. (For reference, the fastest T1 time in my age group was 19.9 seconds!) I also forgot to grab my race belt, which turned out to be OK because we were issued number stickers for our helmet, though at first I had paranoid visions of being DQ’d for not having a visible number.

The bike course was great: flat, hot, and sweaty, just like my first girlfriend. We got a steady light rain for about the first 25 minutes I was on the bike, so the pavement was a little damp but not unmanageable. The course runs right along the bayou, so there was lotsto see: egrets, various other birds, cypress trees, and the whole nine yards. There were plenty of volunteers along the course, great course markings on the pavement, and very little traffic. I averaged 15.6mph on the bike course, for a time of 38:28, which was a little frustrating because I thought I’d be faster. I didn’t take the time to mount my Suunto on the handlebars during transition, though, so I couldn’t easily see my cadence or pace. Next race I think I’ll mount the watch during setup and just go without in the pool.

Coming back in from the bike, I got through T2 in 1:02, then headed out for the run, which was also flat. The sun was powering through the clouds by this time, giving runners the sensation of being tucked snugly in Satan’s armpit. Luckily, the organizers had planned for this: there was a water station at the half-mile mark, then again at the turnaround. I spotted a roadside portatunity (that’s a porta-potty for those of you who don’t speak the lingo) and made an emergency diversion, then got back to it. I spent a few stretch breaks walking– more than I wanted to– but still finished the run in 31:51. During the run I noticed some pain on my chest; afterwards I found about a 1/4″ cut on my nipple! I have no idea how it got there, but I bet it was because of the new jersey and/or not using BodyGlide under my HRM strap. Ouch. Key learning #4: you can never have too much BodyGlide.

Overall, I came in 13th in my age group and 96th overall, with a total time of 1:19:00.2. I would have needed to pick up about 2min to move up to the next place. My goals were to finish and to be in the top half, so I was pretty pleased. Swag-wise, I got a nifty tech shirt, a coffee mug, and a can coozie, all of which I can add to my collection.

After the race, I took Ricky and his son Seth for a sightseeing flight. The ceilings at HUM were only about 3500′ and it was drizzling, but we did a couple laps around the pattern and overflew Gulf Island Fabrication, where Ricky works. This might have been the high point of the trip, because the two of them were so clearly enjoying it. I wanted to beat the weather heading north, so after I dropped them off I immediately took off to the north. There was heavy weather directly over the New Orleans airport, which I would have overflown, so I ended up diverting well to the west to get around it. As I worked my way further north, the ADS-B weather from my Stratus showed that there were storms all along my route from about Tuscaloosa north, so I landed at Demopolis to refuel and take a short break. After that, it was a simple matter to dodge a bit (as you can see below) by flying from Demopolis towards Courtland, then turning east once past the storms. Note that the magenta line shows the GPS track, not where I actually was; I had flown well to the west to clear the tail of the storm (the red blocks near the “6nm” label).

20140802_232620000_iOSKey learning #5: datalink weather is strategic, not tactical. It isn’t updated in real-time, so you can’t use it to thread through closely spaced storm cells. The weather was gorgeous when I got to Decatur, so I landed easily, put the plane away, and headed home– with another triathlon and another 7 or so flight hours under my belt. All in all, a great trip, even if I am on my way to a life of crime triathlons.

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Instructor-induced stupidity

First, a quick recap: this past weekend I had two flights planned. One of them went off OK, the other didn’t. My original plan was to fly 706 down to Louisiana with the boys to see my mom, grandmother, and family in Houma, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria. However, David and Tom were both working each day of the long weekend, so that wasn’t going to work. Instead, I planned to take Matt for a $100 hamburger, then take all 3 boys to Atlanta to eat at Ted’s on Monday after Cotton Row.

Matt and I flew to Anniston and had a fantastic meal at Mata’s (thanks to Bo for the recommendation!)  That gave me the opportunity to practice hot starts, which are a little tricky with fuel-injected Lycoming engines, at least until you get used to them. Sadly, the weather on Monday worsened before we were able to go anywhere, and this weekend is looking pretty crappy too.

Anyway, enough about that. This week’s FLYING LESSONS newsletter was typically excellent– it put a name to a phenomenon I’ve both seen and demonstrated: instructor-induced stupidity.

That the pilot raised the landing gear even while continuing to flare and touch down suggests what may really have been going on was a condition I call Instructor-Induced Stupidity. I credit a student of mine with coining the phrase “instructor-induced stupidity” to describe the tendency of a flight student to defer decision-making or responding to aircraft indications when there’s an instructor on board.

As a student pilot, it’s natural to defer to the instructor; after all, that’s why you’re there. If you read the entire article (which isn’t very long), you’ll see that the possible outcomes of IIS include gear-up landings, unsafe maneuvers, and general tomfoolery. It is fairly easy to unlearn this habit during initial training, but I can see how it might persist when flying with a new instructor, or in a different type of airplane, even with a well-experienced pilot. I did it once on my private-pilot checkride; the examiner called for a power-on stall, and I gave her one, all right, of such degree that we got to see the chevrons (see this video at about 0:22, except that I was pitching up, not down). The hell of it was, I knew better: a classic case of induced stupidity.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to flight instruction, either; I’ve seen it many times when teaching otherwise intelligent and capable people about Exchange, Windows, and other related topics, and I’ve seen it in consulting engagements too: sometimes people seem to just lose their decision-making ability and judgment when placed in a situation where there is someone who (at least on paper) is more knowledgable or experienced. Maybe a better phrase for it would be “authority-induced stupidity”.

To counteract it, you have to remember to own what you own: when you’re pilot-in-command, or in charge of an Exchange deployment, or responsible for planning an event, don’t turn off your brain just because an authority is present or involved. Like so many aspects of human behavior, this is easy to say but harder to do!

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Weiner’s Laws

Aviation Week recently ran an article listing 15 laws developed by Earl Weiner, an aviation safety pioneer I had not previously heard of. Some of them will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s worked with computers for any length of time, while some are aviation-specific. All of them are worth pondering, though. I have long experience with computers that do exactly what you tell them to, but coupling such computers to the controls of an airplane mean that if you are ignorant or careless about how you interact with the computer, you may end up with a bent airplane.. or dead. (For example: AA 965, AF 447). Worth considering every time I sit down to prepare for a flight, and especially worth thinking about as we wait for the NTSB to release more details on the Asiana 214 crash. In the meantime, a partial solution: know your autopilot.

(and no, I don’t know why numbers 1-16 are blank either!)


(Note: Nos. 1-16 intentionally left blank)

  1. Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
  2. Exotic devices create exotic problems.
  3. Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
  4. Complacency? Don’t worry about it.
  5. In aviation, there is no problem so great or so complex that it cannot be blamed on the pilot.
  6. There is no simple solution out there waiting to be discovered, so don’t waste your time searching for it.
  7. Invention is the mother of necessity.
  8. If at first you don’t succeed… try a new system or a different approach.
  9. Some problems have no solution. If you encounter one of these, you can always convene a committee to revise some checklist.
  10. In God we trust. Everything else must be brought into your scan.
  11. It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  12. Any pilot who can be replaced by a computer should be.
  13. Whenever you solve a problem you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
  14. You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful what you put into a digital flight guidance system (Wiener).
  15. Today’s nifty, voluntary system is tomorrow’s F.A.R.


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Heading to see Fifi!

Short entry today– I’m packing my bags and my charts to go see Fifi again. When the ATOP folks contacted me and said that they were offering a two-day advanced course, consisting of an instrument proficiency check for IFR-rated pilots or a line-oriented flight check (LOFT) for VFR pilots, I jumped at the chance. It’ll take me all night to get to Orlando, then a short nap before ground school, but it’ll be worth it to spend two glorious hours in the A320 sim on Sunday. More news when I return.

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Air traffic control call signs

I am a huge fan of LiveATC.net. I often listen to the San Jose airport control tower and/or NORCAL Approach as background noise at home, in the office, or while driving; it is always interesting and often educational. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard is the variety of callsigns for different aircraft and operators. Some of these are pretty prosaic– if you hear “UPS 9336 Heavy” or “Southwest 229” that tells you everything you need to know. There are some others that are more colorful, though:

  • “Traffic Watch” is a popular call during rush hour.
  • Stanford (“Stanford One”) and several other medical helicopter operators are unpredictably active; you never know when they’ll pop up.
  • There’s at least one Boeing Business Jet operating out of SJC with the call sign “Boeing 1 Tango Sierra”; I haven’t taken the time to figure out whose it is, but I’m betting Google.
  • “Redstripe” is the call sign for JetSuite, a private fractional-ownership jet company.
  • I’m not sure who owns the “Starbase” call sign but it sounds cool on the radio. The only references I could find to it were here and here, and they’re inconclusive. (Looks like the FAA thinks the second one is dispositive.)
  • “Dotcom” is an umbrella call sign offered by FltPlan.com; you can sign up for their service and then use one of their calls (e.g. “Dotcom 521”) instead of your aircraft registration number. This is useful to keep your competitors (or other interested parties) from performing physical traffic analysis on your airplanes.

There’s a pretty good list of airline callsigns that covers many international airlines, and it looks like the FAA’s official list is here (for some reason it doesn’t seem to be well indexed in Google). Other fun callsigns on the FAA list: Sputter,  Jigsaw, Flapjack,  Raptor, and Argonaut. Maybe I should print out a copy and start checking off the ones that I hear!


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Long solo cross-country, 4 July

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to exercise my Constitutional right of free travel? That’s right: “free” as in “not encumbered by TSA or any of their baloney.”

The FAA requires that private pilots know how to plan and safely execute what they call “cross-country” flights. I’d already flown one with Andy from Palo Alto to Columbia, but the FAA requires that private pilots plan and carry out a cross-country flight of at least 150nm total distance, with one leg being at least 50nm and landings at 3 separate airports.

Andy had originally asked me to plan a flight from Palo Alto (KPAO) to Paso Robles (KPRB) to Salinas (KSNS) and back to KPAO. The first leg to Paso Robles is 129nm, so the total trip distance would meet all the FAA’s requirements. In my earlier post I gave a quick summary of what it means to construct a VFR flight plan; here’s a slightly more detailed list:

  • Puled out a bunch of paper charts: my San Francisco and Los Angeles sectional charts and my San Franciscoterminal chart. Sectional charts are large-scale charts that show terrain features, airports, roads, navigation aids, and other useful items at 1:500,000 scale. Terminal charts show a smaller area at double the scale, so they’re great for navigation planning in urban areas.
  • Used the paper charts to plot a direct route of flight, using a straightedge and a Sharpie marker to lay out my course. Paper charts cost about $9 each, so you might wonder why I’d be willing to deface them with a Sharpie. The truth is, they expire after about 5 months, so you may as well mark on them.
  • Used the route of flight to identify checkpoints– visual features on the ground that I can look at to tell where I am and what my progress along the course is. There are some well-known visual checkpoints already marked on the sectionals. For example, VPSUN is the golf course at Sunol, while VPMOR is the LDS temple in Oakland. You can use these as reporting points; for example, I can call the Palo Alto tower and say “Palo Alto, Cessna One Niner One Tango Golf, overhead Leslie Salt, landing Palo Alto with Juliet.” That doesn’t mean Juliet’s in the airplane; rather, it means that I’m reporting being overhead the Leslie Salt Company’s salt refinery with ATIS information— a radio broadcast telling me what the current airport weather and runway conditions are– Juliet. 
  • Measured the distance between checkpoints and put that into my navigation log.
  • Got a weather forecast showing the projected winds aloft and used those to calculate the amount of wind correction necessary for each leg.
  • Used the wind and airspeed data to figure out how long each leg would take to fly, or, in other words, the ETA to go between each pair of checkpoints
  • Used the ETA data to estimate fuel consumption for each leg
  • Reviewed the airport data, including which runways exist, whether they were open or closed, any restrictions on their use, what the standard traffic patterns and altitudes were, and so on.

After doing all that, I reviewed the weather forecast and saw that Salinas and Monterey were both fogged in. That didn’t bode well for my planned route, but I went to the airport anyway to meet with Andy and discuss my flight plan. Student pilots have to have an instructor’s logbook endorsement to legally do the long cross-country, you see, so meeting with him was a precondition to taking off. I reviewed the route of flight with him and pointed out some alternate options given that I couldn’t overfly the fog areas. He suggested a completely different route: over the hills to Tracy (KTCY), then down to Los Baños (KLSN), then to KPRB, and then back either direct (if the fog was gone) or by reversing that route. I replanned the route, got his endorsement, and went to check out the airplane I’d reserved… except that it was gone.

OK, OK, I exaggerate… a bit. The automated scheduling system that Advantage uses expects that you’ll sign out the airplane at the scheduled time. If you don’t do so within 30 minutes of your scheduled time, the system puts the airplane back in the available pool. I had an 0800 reservation, but at 0830 I was still meeting with Andy, so the plane became available and someone else grabbed it. Luckily there was another G1000-equipped 172 available at noon, so I took it instead.

Before I took off, I asked Palo Alto ground control for VFR flight following. This is essentially radar surveillance; air traffic control assigns you a unique transponder code that identifies your aircraft on radar. ATC will issue traffic and safety advisories, notifying you of other aircraft in your vicinity and so on. As you leave each bubble of radar surveillance, ATC hands you off to the next one. For my flight, I started out with Palo Alto and was handed off to NORCAL Approach, the TRACON (or terminal radar approach control center) that owns the airspace over most of northern California. I stayed with NORCAL until I got to an area outside their control, at which point they handed me over to Oakland Center, the air route traffic control center (ARTCC) that provides radar services outside of TRACON-controlled areas.

Anyway, one of the benefits of flight following is that you get traffic advisory calls. I got several on my route towards Tracy; that airspace is heavily traveled as people fly into and out of Palo Alto, Hayward, San Carlos, and the other airports in the area. My favorite call? That’s easy: “Cessna Two Hotel Golf, traffic your 1 o’clock, 2 miles, 5000 feet northbound, flight of two F-18. Hobo 51, traffic your 11-o’clock, 2 miles, 3000 feet eastbound, Cessna 172.” Sure enough, there went two F-18s zipping past, too fast for me to unlimber the camera and get a picture.

The flight itself was great! Good visibility on the outbound leg; I took off from Palo Alto, made a right Dunbarton, overflew Sunol, overflew the Livermore area, and headed to Tracy. AsHere’s what the Tracy airport looks like from 5500′ up; it looks small from the ground, but those two runways are 4000′ each.

Overhead KTCY


My route of flight from metropolitan Tracy (!) down to Los Baños took me roughly along Interstate 5. To the west there are all kinds of interesting hills; to the east there are a string of smallish towns, plus lots and lots of cultivated land. From the air, the patchwork of different shades of green is absolutely gorgeous.

Somewhere in the Central Valley

that salad you’re eating? it probably came from the Central Valley

My approach and landing at Los Baños were uneventful, with a good landing on their runway. The Los Baños airport is uncontrolled, meaning there’s no control tower or radar service. Each aircraft is required to vigorously “see and avoid,” of course, but there’s also a radio frequency on which aircraft in the vicinity announce their location and intentions. So you call to tell anyone listening that you’re approaching the airport, where you’re going, and where you are… i.e. “Los Baños traffic, Cessna Two Hotel Golf, 5 miles north of the field, two thousand five hundred, entering the pattern for landing runway 32”, or whatever. Then you call again when you get closer; meanwhile, other aircraft, if any, are making their own calls. I landed well, taxied back on the parallel taxiway, waited a minute for another aircraft to take off and clear the pattern, and took off to the south.

The route of flight that Andy and I had planned called for me to go from KLSN to New Coalingua airport, then turn southwest for Paso Robles.. so that’s what I did, being careful to stay out of the Lemoore military operating areas (MOAs). Andy warned me that I’d know when I was getting close to New Coalingua because I’d be able to smell Harris Ranch. I thought he was pulling my leg, but, sure enough, I could smell the stockyards from more than a mile up and several miles lateral distance. I made the turn before C80 and found Paso Robles right where it was supposed to be. I landed, taxied in to a parking spot, and went inside to find out if they had any food, having neglected to pack anything. They didn’t, but the kind folks at Paso Robles Jet Center loaned me a crew car so I could drive into town and eat at Margie’s Diner. As advertised, the diner had extremely large portions, which suited me just fine. I had a delicious grilled ham-and-cheese and two large diet Pepsis; meanwhile, the line crew refueled my plane so that when I got there (after a brief encounter with the airport’s resident cat) I was ready to go. I took off and headed to the northwest, towards Salinas, but there was a huge layer of haze that looked like it covered pretty much my entire route of flight. 

Haze, of course, diminishes visibility rather than eliminating it. It wouldn’t have been legal for me to overfly an area of fog that obscured the ground completely, whereas I could have legally flown over the haze. However, “legal” and “prudent” don’t always mean the same thing, so I elected to go back the way that I came, mostly. Instead of going back to C80, I cut the corner by flying to the Priest VOR, then to the Panoche VOR, then telling the G1000 to take me back towards Tracy and thence to Palo Alto. On the way back, I practiced using the GFC700 autopilot in the airplane a bit. This might seem contradictory– why use the autopilot at all as a student? There are several good reasons. First, I want to know how every piece of equipment in the airplane works so that I can get the most utility from it. Second, for instrument flying the autopilot is a tremendous aid because it can keep the aircraft pointed in the right direction at the right altitude while the pilot aviates, navigates, and communicates. Third, one of the things you’re required to demonstrate on the FAA check ride is what the FAA calls “lost procedures”– in other words, what do you do if you get lost? I want the option to be able to tell the autopilot to keep the wings level and altitude steady while I’m rooting around looking for charts or whatever. Fourth, it’s cool. Anyway, I spent some time refreshing my knowledge of how to set up the autopilot to track a heading and maintain an altitude. There are many more sophisticated things it can do that I haven’t started exploring yet, like fly a profile such that you end up at a specific altitude over a specific point on the ground. That will come with time.

Coming back I had a great view of the San Luis reservoir, near Los Baños; see below. 

San Luis Reservoir

There was a bit of haze, but off to the west I could still see heavy haze on my original planned route, and I was perfectly happy to see it over there instead of underneath me. My approach through the hills and the east side of the Bay went well, and I nailed the landing back at Palo Alto. 4.0 hours of pilot-in-command and solo cross-country time for the books!


Filed under aviation, California

Pictures from my B-17 ride

I still have to write a more detailed post about my adventure flying in Nine O Nine, the Collings Foundation‘s immaculately restored B-17. I took 3 cameras: my iPhone, a Nikon D5100, and a ContourHD helmet cam (only without the helmet). It was my first outing with the D5100 and the ContourHD both, and I’m really pleased with the results. Check out my Flickr stream for airplane pics; as soon as I get the video edited (which will probably be a while), I’ll post it too.


Filed under aviation, California, General Stuff

My comments to the FCC on LightSquared

There’s been quite a debate raging recently between two powerful interest groups. No, I’m not talking about the budget; I’m talking about GPS. A company called LightSquared is about to roll out a nationwide wireless Internet system, apparently in partnership with Sprint. This sounds great… except that the frequency band LightSquared is planning on using overlaps part of the spectrum allocated for GPS use. In practice, that means that LightSquared transmitters work as fairly effective GPS jammers.

There’s no question about whether LightSpeed’s equipment interferes with GPS– it does, as their own tests prove. Their attitude is that the interference is partly due to the GPS industry’s failure to provide adequate filtering, although they don’t explain how the cost of this filtering would be borne, nor how it would work with the highly sensitive GPS receivers used in commercial and general aviation aircraft.

GPS is so widely used that any interference with it would have a huge impact on the people and companies that depend on it. Check out the member list of the “Coalition to Save Our GPS” and you’ll see what I mean: the aviation industry, farmers, surveyors, and city and county governments are all well-represented.

Here are my comments to the FCC. You can file your own if you’re so inclined:

When GPS was originally introduced, only visionaries thought it would be used beyond defense applications. Now it’s a critical part of our country’s economic fabric. It’s used to deliver precision timing, location, and navigation services to a huge range of users, including farmers, pilots, ambulance drivers, and telecommunications systems. Every day, GPS helps enable life-saving emergency services, efficient transport of goods and people, economical production of food, and hundreds of other vital activities.

Personally, my family and I depend on GPS signals to safely navigate the National Airspace System, both as passengers aboard commercial aircraft and while flying general aviation aircraft. We use it for navigation and location services when traveling. We depend on it in case of emergencies that require police, fire, or EMS response. In all of these cases, unavailability or degradation of GPS signals could potentially be quite dangerous, and even fatal.

LightSquared’s proposed frequency plan puts GPS at risk. For that reason I urge the FCC to deny their request to use the current proposed frequency range. GPS and LightSpeed’s current design are fundamentally incompatible. Although making high-speed wireless Internet service available over broad geographic areas is highly desirable, enabling the current GPS system to continue to work safely and reliably is even more reliable given how many industries and activities depend on it.

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Filed under General Tech Stuff