Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wreck Vacation, Not Airplane

Flight test day dawns. I drive out to the airport early, preflight the airplane, and use their computers to get the weather and NOTAM for the flight. I use their printer, because on an exam you need to show the examiner where you have obtained your data, and be able to explain the bases for your decisions.

Abbotsford is riddled with NOTAMs, the ILS is out of service, most of the taxiways are closed, all the TODA/TORA/ASDA/LDA runway distances are amended, the PAPI is out, the fire response service is downgraded, and there's probably an unlighted tower somewhere, there always is. I also look at the NOTAM for the airport where I'll be doing my ILS approach and at my alternate. They both have some closures considerably more significant than unlighted towers. In fact one is so significant that I lead the flight test with it.

I meet the examiner, and introductions out of the way, I present him my problem and proposed solution. The radar is out at Victoria. The NOTAM warns that FLT WITHIN 80 NM RADIUS MAY BE DENIED ROUTING AND/OR ALT REQUESTS. A flight test has a reasonable amount of priority, so we can go there, but all the arrivals require either RNAV or radar vectors, and I haven't spent any time learning or using the installed GPS. I suggest to the examiner that we file RNAV so that we can legally do the approach, but that I use conventional nav aids and he give me the minimum help required to close the STAR (that is get through the portion of the flight that requires either radar or RNAV), so we don't have to cancel. examiners rarely want to cancel tests, especially once they are already there and it's not Friday afternoon, so he agrees.

We start with the oral portion of the exam. It appears that I have somewhat forgotten how to play the game of taking an exam. I'm answering the questions the way I would to another pilot who was just asking me about the decisions I made, as opposed to demonstrating that I know the rules and the full reasons for each stage. For example I have planned one leg at 4000'. The examiner asks why. I grin sheepishly and say, "Because I'm a bush pilot." It's the lowest legal altitude for that leg, and when you're constantly doing short legs it's not efficient to climb to altitudes that make sense on longer legs. This isn't a very long leg, but perhaps it would have been more elegant to do it at 6000', the next legal altitude up.

The examiner says, "Wrong answer," and suddenly I realize that the question isn't asked with the assumption that I know that my choices are four, six or eight. I re-answer the question explaining that the minimum enroute altitude to guarantee obstacle clearance and nav aid reception is 3500' and that for the westward direction of flight an even thousand is required, and that I have chosen four thousand, because it is a relatively short leg and not worth the time to climb higher. That's the right answer.

He asks me the expected question about the weather requirements for my alternate, Vancouver International, and I lead with an interesting situation presented by the NOTAM there. Vancouver has three runways with five ILSes among them. But three ILSes are NOTAMed unserviceable and one is NOTAMed unauthorized, leaving only one operational ILS approach. The rules allow for different alternate minima depending on whether the airport in question has one or more than one usable ILS approaches. I say I am going to use the minima applicable to two usable approaches, and here is my reasoning. The purpose of the rule is to hedge against something going wrong with the one usable instrument approach in bad weather. The reason the runway 12 approach is not authorized is that it converges with the approved approach in use, and presumably some issue of equipment, personal or regulations doesn't permit them to have airplanes on approach to converging runways at the same time. But if the 26L approach went belly up, the runway 12 approach would no longer be converging. It presumably works fine, just isn't approved, but they could approve it and assuming the winds are as light as forecast, it would be perfectly usable. The examiner follows and agrees with my logic so then I demonstrate the arithmetic required to determine the minimum weather to file this as an alternate.

He asks me what other alternates I could choose and I point out that if the weather permitted, a better alternate might be Victoria, because being a company destination there would be facilities there for our passengers and airplane, and we wouldn't be hit with exorbitant landing and ramp fees. He says Vancouver isn't too bad that way, but where else could we land? There's Bellingham. I tell him I was just there last week, and they have an ILS. There would be a lot of customs and homeland security hassles, but provided you keep your hands visible and don't make any sudden movements, that's not going to kill you the way running out of usable airports will. "And where else could you land?" I'm scouring the chart now. The airplane carries quite a bit of fuel, so I start looking at airports in a wider and wider radius, trying to find ILS approaches. If everything here on the coast were fogged in we could go inland. I put aside the terminal chart and look for something to the east. I'm not sure what he's getting at here. He asks about Nanaimo. It's a long enough runway, served by an NDB approach that has a bend in it. He wants to know the minima for filing that as an alternate.

I look at the plate. It has one non- precision approach with a straight in minimum of 880 feet asl (798 agl) and an advisory visibility of 2 1/2 miles. To file it as an alternate aerodrome, assuming the weather allows a straight in approach, the forecast weather needs to be "600 and 2 or 300 and 1" above the MDA and advisory visibility, whichever is greater. That is a forecast ceiling of 798 + 300 = 1098 at least 1100' and a forecast visibility of at least three miles. (Two and a half plus one is three and a half, but the rules max out at a three mile visibility requirement). He accepts my answer and asks, "what else is that called?" I get the frowny face of concentration. It's not standard alternate minima. He supplies the answer, "It's called VFR." He's just underscoring the fact that Nanaimo is a pretty horrible alternate. Heck, I knew that. He was the one who suggested it.

The ground work is actually very fair and pretty easy. Thanks, Oak. Thanks, years of experience. Thanks, remembering to study.

We talk about the actual flight and what I will be required to do. He says that any options or questions put forward by ATC are mine to choose or answer. As long as I demonstrate what has to be demonstrated I can choose full procedure or vectors and any approaches I want. As this is a renewal I do not need to demonstrate a circling approach, so I can fly straight in if I like. I like.

I go to file the flight plan and the radar is back on line, so I can fly into Victoria without cheating. It's time to go to make the filed departure time.

I ask the examiner what he wants me to do about the fact that the VORs are impossible to identify on the ground. He asks me if they worked last time I flew. "That was a week ago, but you did a flight test yesterday, did they work then?" They did and that turns out to be good enough for both of us.

I start up and successfully do all the required checks and get my clearance. Take off, climb, remember to advance throttles to maintain manifold pressure on no-turbocharged airplane, accept vectors, intercept airway, get ATIS, accept assigned arrival, switch VORs at the noted point on the airway, fly outbound on the published radial, accept vectors to the localizer, reduce power for the 110 kt ILS approach speed, intercept localizer, intercept glideslope, gear down, adjust power, enrich mixtures, make tiny changes to maintain glideslope. This is going well.

We're about seven miles back on the glideslope (yes, they vector you into next week here) and the examiner asks me when I expect to be switched from terminal to tower. Any time now, I guess. He tells me to ask and I do. They tell me to switch now. Later he tells me that they asked me to switch earlier but that it was a poor call on their part, faint and badly worded. He only heard it because he expected it there, and they didn't ensure I received it. It may also have something to do with the fact that the brand new batteries for my noise cancelling headset are in my purse in the back seat of the airplane and not in my headset. The noise cancelling cut out all together on the approach. I can change them in flight, but now is not a good time. I pass the beacon but don't switch over to the missed approach frequency. Oak recommended against it here, as a distraction. There are enough distractions. Tower gives me a bunch of verbiage on short final, about where the traffic is, and not to descend below minima because there is a B737 positioning on the runway, something like that. I respond, as I am required to, distracting me just enough that I deviate from the ideal flight path. I get it back on before decision height but it's enough to makes the ILS approach score a 3 instead of a perfect 4. The examiner later says that the tower always does that, making it a slight rant to the effect that they have no idea how busy we are right then. He's one of the examiners who is on the candidate's side, cheering for them to pass.

I've already been briefed that I won't see the runway at decision height, so I call "minima no contact" and shove everything up without looking out at the runway, presumably right in front of me and adorned with a shiny Boeing. This is a nice easy missed approach, straight ahead with five miles in which to clean up the airplane and switch to and identify the NDB to which I have to turn next. Only I can't identify it. It's a steady barrage of static. I really cannot honestly say I hear any Morse code in there. I stab at the certified GPS receiver in the airplane and find the beacon only a few entries down the nearest column and turn direct using that. Then I second guess myself and wonder if that's cheating, seeing as I am claiming to be doing this without RNAV. Here is the one thing I know I have learned about IFR in the last ten years: ATC is your friend. I tell them them I am "unable to identify" the NDB and ask for a vector. They give me one right to where I'm going, making life easier. I can't quite reach the bag on the back seat. Maybe it fell on the floor. In real life, either the bag with batteries etcetera would be on the right seat where I could reach it, or I could ask the person in the right seat to "find me the batteries in that bag on the back." But it's a flight test, so he is not allowed to help me.

I get the ATIS for Abbotsford, five knots on the tail for 07, sounds like a straight in for me. I copy a hold clearance for the Whatcom beacon. It's an easy direct entry to the published hold, and I double check the radial so I don't screw up like last time. except I do. I manage to track inbound on my expect further clearance time. It's only about fifteen degrees off the assigned one, but seriously! It takes a special talent to screw up like Aviatrix. I think the appropriate three letter abbreviation here is FML. And that's not on the aviation abbreviations list linked at right. It's probably on Urban Dictionary though. The examiner has me check the track again and after I fix it allows me to get through with a barely passing two for my idiocy.

I accept ATC's offer of vectors for the straight in NDB 07 approach, and chop and drop for the beacon crossing. Of course that's where I get the engine failure: control, power drag identify, verify, feather and secure, while plummeting out of the sky to make the MDA before the timer tells me I should see the runway. I start to advance my one remaining throttle two hundred feet above MDA, because you can always go down more, but you can't go up more after a bust. He tells me I have runway in sight before I have completed the level off, so I reduce the throttle again and put down gear and approach flap. I can't remember if I used the final stage of flaps, but that's optional on a single engine landing, anyway. It's on the runway, it's straight, and the only thing I really screwed up was the hold, which he has already implied did not flunk me.

I exit on D, one of the two available taxiways on the whole airport, and call for taxi clearance. It's granted, and as I pull forward something catches my eye. The artificial horizon, hub of my pathetic little instrument scan has just rolled over and died. These things happen. This one could have happened in a turn while I was intercepting the inbound track on the NDB approach, or as the engine failed. I don't know that I would have caught it, disregarded it and re-established a scan in time to stay inside all the lines. It could have happened in hard IMC with a real engine failure and no one beside me, too. When the instrument that has at least sixty percent of a pilot's attention, and which the pilot follows almost without conscious thought, rolls over and dies, you can guess what a lot of pilots do. It's remarkable that after all these years my bag of luck still has some left. I'm not confident I would have passed that flight test partial panel.

The examiner leaves the plane telling me "no suspense, you passed," and I secure it then go inside for the debrief. He criticises my descent rate and choice of a straight in landing, saying that if I had looked at the windsock I would have seen more like ten knots than the five that was on the ATIS, but he admits that with the long runway I had leeway and that I landed it safely. "You would have done better to circle," he says. I don't admit to him that I doubt that. But I should have considered that five knots on the tail is a bigger chunk for the training aircraft than the one I work in.

My other score of two was a full on boneheaded move, again not playing the game of the flight test and completely not getting into the role. When asked what I would do in the event of an alternator failure I discussed landing ASAP and reducing electrical load. IN this airplane you do not cycle the alternator, and I knew that, but instead of pulling out or even mentioning the freaking emergency checklist, I spent a couple of minutes musing over the relative power draw of the old time analog radios and the big screen and sleek modern electronics of the GPS navcom. If he had said "simulated: you have an alternator failure" or I witnessed the alternator fail, I would have gone through the checklist item by item. But I treated it like a conversation and ignored the obvious stuff, just skipping to the interesting question of what had the greatest electrical draw. I was just out to lunch. I promise that in real emergencies I DO use my freaking checklist, memory items first then the piece of laminated paper, right to the end. Moron.

The rest was threes and fours, any minor error loses you the four: a little altitude loss here, a few degrees of track there. If anyone can hand fly perfectly for two hours at a time, then feel free to feel superior to me. You are. All fours on the ground, though. I know things. I just have to do them.

Finish the paperwork, get the licence signed (there's a space in the new booklet for him to sign, and he says Transport will send me a sticker), and back to the lake. Now I can relax and vacation. If you were ever wondering, being on vacation at a fabulous place does make an instrument renewal better, but not nearly to the same degree as renewing your instrument rating takes the sweetness out of being on vacation. I do not recommend it. But it's done. Until the company gets its act in gear and we have to do real PPC renewals, or RNAV rides or who knows we get a new type and I have to PPC on that. Probably in November right before I go to Cambodia, or something else crazy just to distract you from thinking, "Damn, this chick can't fly at all!"

Meanwhile, on the topic of wrecking airplanes, I'm unfamiliar with the landing gear extension system in the Piper Saratoga. Does anyone have information or theories as to why this one was landed with the gear retracted after an engine failure? Is gear extension totally dependent on engine-driven hydraulics, with no manual back up? Is the gear susceptible to not locking down properly if electrical power is removed before the squat switch registers weight on wheels? My first guess was that in the excitement of the forced approach the pilot neglected to extend the gear, but there's a brief interview with the pilot in which he expresses satisfaction with the landing as an outcome of his training. He also doesn't act the way I expect someone would if he executed a beautiful forced approach and then emergency responders collapsed the landing gear by pushing in the wrong place. The fire chief is quoted saying, "He did a good job landing that plane," and most of the headlines call it a smooth landing.


david said...

You have to do a circling approach on first exam? I thought it was an ILS. I've never been given a circling approach on any of my IFR flight tests, including the initial one.

I did a circling approach this summer right at minima (vis and ceiling) in actual IMC, though, and did not enjoy the experience at all.

John said...

Although I know that your posts are somewhat delayed in reference to the present, and that I always feel I need to use what Doug Adams referred to as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional tense when writing a comment, congratulations on passing and I hope you're enjoying the rest of your well earned vacation.

Sarah said...

David: You didn't have to do a circling approach on your initial instrument ride? You do in the US, or maybe it's just a convention... not sure it's spelled out in the test standards.

What an interesting, long post!

The whole thing sounds like way more than what I had to do for my initial license. I'd be interested to hear what US part 135 proficiency checks are like - are they described in per-operator agreements?

For instance, an enroute phase? How enlightened. The US concentrates on approaches, for currency and exam requirements. There is a whole lot more to using the system enroute.

Not that I'm not challenged by busy approaches, and by rarely practiced holds. Good for you for not using the GPS. We're told we must be prepared to use, and should use, anything on the panel. But the GPS makes situational awareness so much easier. It did lead to a stern talking to on my checkride, when I foolishly flew the depicted magenta racetrack rather than the proper timed hold, with wind correction bearings outbound and so on.

As to the Saratoga gear-up on the highway... I wondered that too. I suspect he just forgot in all the excitement. He still had electrical power, so the lever should have worked. If not, I believe Saratogas are similar to the Arrows - for emergency gear extension, just pull a lever to release the hydraulic pressure and they fall down faster than a normal extension.

david said...


In Canada the initial IFR flight test requires a precision approach, but subsequent 2-year renewal flight tests do not (some airports in Canada are very far from the nearest ILS). There is no requirement for a circling approach, as far as I've found:


As far as enroute goes, Canada requires 6 hours real or simulated IMC in addition to 6 approaches in the last 6 months for recency. We have no requirement for holds, though (except during the flight test itself).

Sarah said...

Hm. The US "PTS" was revised in January. Now, if there is a certified GPS in the plane, you *must* demonstrate an approach using it. It is also permitted to use a GPS/LPV approach as the "precision" approach, as long as the DH is 300' or less.

Oh, and this tidbit, interesting for someone who gets along with NDB approaches with difficulty:

NOTE: If any avionics/navigation unit, including GPS, in the aircraft
used for the practical test is placarded inoperative, the examiner will
review the maintenance log to verify that the discrepancy has been
properly documented.

Not that I'd do that. :)

Aviatrix said...

I know someone who had his mechanic physically remove his ADF before each renewal. For the GPS, if it has an expired card in it, do they still require you to use it? People think using a GPS on a flight test is great. It is a great situational awareness tool, when you don't have a flight test, but there are always moments when you have to say "screw it" and use conventional nav aids. Choose GPS and a sharp examiner could ask you to do something which your GPS that your GPS is capable of, but that you can't figure out how to do before blowing your altitude, heading or clearance limit. Choose ADF and there's only one thing that baby can do. It points to the station. That's it.

Sarah said...

The test standard book says your GPS must have a current database. I'm not sure if the examiner has leeway to consider it inop. or if you'd have to come back another day.

About the AI failing after the single engine landing... Doesn't the "little training plane" you flew have dual vacuum pumps, being a twin? Or was the vacuum fine, if low now being at idle, and the AI just busted? If so, yes, that would add some spice to a flight test!

I've had one vacuum pump fail in my brief power flying experience. On a nice bright sunshiny way, thank goodness. I should practice some partial panel...

Aviatrix said...

Suction gauge was indicating fine. I think the AI just chose that moment to die. I had a vacuum pump fail on me, in a single, right after coming out of a turn in IMC once.

Airplanes specialize in pointing out that they could have killed me if they wanted to.

Anonymous said...

Not to be pedantic but YVR actually has four runways if you include 26A...

Aviatrix said...

Anonymous, I think you mean "Just to be pedantic." That's okay, pedantry is welcome here, just don't lie about it.

metal said...

Long one, but I love reading flight test posts. :D Congrats as well! Oddly enough, my initial was last week on the 28th, and my routing was the reverse of yours: YYJ - YXX - YYJ with the hold at HUH.