Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nav6: Errol Flynn in command

Relating what happened to me on Nav6 is going to take more than one post. It’s not that this flight was any longer than the previous ones. It's simply that the first leg was a comedy of errors so farcical it will take a full post just to list all the mistakes I managed to cram into not even one hour. Hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes, or at least have a good laugh.

This training flight was a dual navigation exercise for the purpose of assessing whether I was ready to go solo into controlled airspace. The first leg of the flight took us from Redcliffe to Gold Coast at 1500ft. This was the same route as on Nav5, but the lower altitude meant I had to exit Class C controlled airspace after transiting Brisbane International and re-enter it approaching Gold Coast.

The night before, I had made sure that everything that could be prepared before the flight was prepared. I had a cheat sheet with all the frequencies I would need for the whole flight, in the order in which they would most likely be needed. I even had an enlarged printout of the Gold Coast airport diagram with enough space to write down clearances and ATIS. All NOTAMs were printed out, read and relevant ones highlighted. Pencils sharpened, maps folded, ruler, ERSA and protractor within reach in the cockpit. I was more prepared for the flight than I had ever been.

After start-up I dialled the first frequencies I would need to talk on as well as that of the navaids. I requested a code while taxying, took off on 25 and switched to Brisbane Radar for my clearance. They identified us and handed me over to Brisbane Approach who issued the expected clearance for transiting Brisbane International: Hornibrook Viaduct, Brisbane Control Tower, Manly Boat Harbor and then direct to the Jacobs Well VOR.

Our traffic was a Bell helicopter coming in the opposite direction, which we only spotted when it flew by us, despite having all 4 eyes looking outside. We switched to tower who asked us to go behind a single-engine light aircraft which was landing on runway 19. After that we tracked for Manly Boat Harbor, which for a moment I confused with the Cleveland boat harbor, right behind it. Lee was kind enough to give me a nudge on this one, and I turned to intercept radial 146 of JCW.

Once the radial intercepted, we tracked for the Jacobs Well VOR. Or what I thought was JCW. Because, you see, I had forgotten to properly Tune-Identify-Test it. And it very rightfully came back to bite me. I found out later that I had tuned in Gold Coast VOR (CG) instead. The error was not obvious at first because radial 146 of JCW and radial 146 of CG are only one mile apart. I realised my mistake when the station passage didn’t happen on time, and I knew from looking outside that the station was behind me.

What happened was that I had tuned the wrong navaid frequency on the ground, as part of my let’s-get-as-much-as-possible-done-on-the-ground plan. But because VORs require line-of-sight radio communication, I couldn’t identify and test on the ground, so I left it for later. And when the moment came to use the navaid, I had forgotten about the missing identify and test. This definitely qualifies as a learning experience.

We then tracked for Gold Coast. I wrote down the ATIS for YBCG, and I was about to contact Brisbane Approach for requesting a clearance to enter Gold Coast Classs C airspace when Lee stopped me. Where are we? Approaching Q1 at 1500ft. And what does the ERSA say? That we may request our clearance directly from Gold Coast tower. Which is also the scenario we had discussed in the briefing before the flight. Which I had forgotten. Bad. On to Gold Coast tower, who clear us to track for Gold Coast airport with a clearance limit of Burleigh Heads. The frequency is very busy with the usual mix of jet and GA traffic.

At Burleigh Heads they clear us for joining final for runway 14. We haven’t been in the air for 30 minutes at that stage and I already can’t believe I made so many mistakes. Did I mention I also completely forgot to make a call on the CTAF frequency for Southport, even though we came within a few miles of the field at 1500ft?

I decide to finish this leg on a good note and apply myself to making a very nice landing. We cross the threshold. There’s plenty of runway in front of us. I remove power. I let the plane go down, and when the ground gets closer I bring the nose slightly over the horizon. The stall indicator goes off. All good so far. We haven’t touched the ground yet and we’re near stall speed, this should make for a nice landing, letting the plane touch the ground only when it decides to.

Suddenly the plane really stalls. Usually this is followed very soon by the nice and reassuring chirping sound of the main wheels touching the ground. Except that in our case nothing but a deafening silence happened for the next two seconds, and then we hit the ground. I could feel the struts absorb the energy of our plane falling down onto the runway from a height of about 2 meters. Lee is laughing. I fell victim to a textbook optical illusion: because the runway here is a lot larger and darker than at Redcliffe, I underestimated our height, and flared too high. For estimating our height, I should have looked at the horizon ahead of me rather then look to the side and down at the runway surface.

We exit the runway, hold short for a Jetstar A320, taxi to the GA parking, shut down and stretch our legs a little. I prepare the cockpit for the next leg. We won’t be able to fly at 6500ft to Kyogle as planned because of clouds over the ranges. We decide to go for 2500ft instead.

Startup again, ask for an amended clearance at 2500ft which we obtain. Take-off on 14, right turn to intercept radial 215 of Gold Coast and we climb to 2500ft and level off there. Just a couple of minutes later Brisbane Approach tells us we’re leaving controlled airspace, which I read back dutifully.

I do my CLEAR-OFF checks and start computing an estimate for Kyogle. Lee points at the altimeter which is now reading 2700ft. I use the trim to make the plane slowly loose altitude and get back to 2500ft. Lee says I need to be more aggressive than that and push the nose down now to get back to 2500ft as soon as possible because we’re currently busting controlled airspace. Busting controlled airspace? That doesn’t sound good.

What happened was that our amended clearance made us leave controlled airspace at 2500ft and fly right below the next Class C step, whose base is precisely at 2500ft. Class C airspace around airports is pretty much like an inverted wedding cake. Flying a bit lower than 2500ft would not have been a big drama, but flying one foot higher is a big no no. Especially when it’s not one foot but 200 feet and the objective of the day is to assess my ability to fly solo in controlled airspace. Needless to say I didn't get a tick on that one.

Mal has an expression for that, he calls it an Errol Flynn day, in reference to the Australian-born actor who apparently had a reputation for breaking anything he touched. My Errol Flynn day lasted less than one hour, but I still have trouble understanding how I could get so many things wrong, even though a similar exercise a few weeks earlier went without problem.

As a consequence, I’ll have to redo the controlled airspace part of Nav6. The plan will be to go from Redcliffe to Gold Coast, then to Toowoomba via the Laravale VOR and back to Redcliffe. This will give us plenty of Class C airspace to get in and out of and hopefully a chance for me to demonstrate that I can do better than on my Errol Flynn day.

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