Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Alone in the dark

I was driving to the airport from work for my first night solo when rain started to fall. Great. Just what I needed, a wet runway and the likelihood of reduced visibility in the circuit. Or even no night solo at all if Dan estimated it was not safe enough for me to go.

I preflighted the airplane under the rain. It took me a while to understand that the navigation lights on that airplane are activated by the panel lights switch, as opposed to having a dedicated switch like on other airplanes. The landing light had been fixed since the first time I flew the airplane, so I wouldn't have to rely on the wing-mounted light this time. Good. The ground was soaked with water which made it difficult to check the flap hinges or the fuel drains without covering myself in mud.

I went out for three circuits with Dan, the Deputy Chief Flying Instructor, so that he could check that I actually knew what I was doing before signing me out for solo at night. We taxied to 11C, did two normal circuits, one go-around, one normal circuit with no landing light and one full-stop behind a rescue helicopter.

On my first circuit I ended up too high on final so I decided to perform a sideslip to loose altitude without gaining airspeed. "Do you know you're sideslipping?" asked Dan. Yes I answered. I guess I should have verbalised the manoeuvre instead of letting him believe I had developed a habit of unwittingly flying with crossed controls.

Dan explained that sideslips should be avoided at night since judging height is harder than in daytime. Better work on fixing the problem of being high on final rather than on the unsafe solution required to recapture the correct descent profile. 1500 rpm when turning base is the magical number said Dan if I want to be at 500 feet when turning final. Of course this all assumes I fly circuits of correct dimensions, i.e. one minute for each of the last two legs.

Dan said he was happy with me going solo for another hour of circuits. He added that if the airplane started to skid on the wet runway on landing I should apply full power and take-off immediately rather than trying to control the airplane on the ground.

Dan jumped out of the airplane and I taxied back to the run-up bay and then to 11C for ten more circuits. VH-SFA and VH-SFR were the other two aircraft in the circuit, with Dan in one and Ben in the other. So I had two pairs of instructor eyes looking after me. Nice of them to not leave me alone in the dark.

The clouds had cleared a bit by now, and the full moon had risen to the east. On downwind the full moon lit up the entire panel. Having only one person on board allows the 160 hp Warrior to climb and accelerate a lot better. At some point after a touch-and-go I even found myself catching up with a 152 in front so requested and obtained an extended upwind leg for spacing.

The rule when night flying though is to spend the entire upwind leg on instruments and not look outside below 500ft, when ready to turn crosswind. I find that difficult with an aircraft in front of me in the circuit, both because the anti-collision light of the preceding aircraft appear in my peripheral field of vision, right above the dashboard, and also because I want to positively maintain separation, not just rely on ATC spacing aircraft correctly in the circuit. As a matter of fact, in GAAP control zones ATC do not provide separation, the responsibility for avoiding collisions rests entirely with the pilots.

On one circuit I learned a valuable lesson. I had just turned final and the preceding aircraft was on short final. It looked like it was too much to the right so I kept an eye on him to see how he was landing. This distracted me from my scan, and when I next looked at the PAPI lights I saw 4 red lights! I got a bit scared since I didn't how far below the glideslope I was and in addition I remembered there's a line of tall trees in the area. More power, back up to the glideslope.

I landed a few minutes before the tower closed and taxied back to the club house. We spent a bit of time going through all the paperwork required and putting a new stamp in my logbook that says I am competent to fly solo at night in PA28 aircraft at night according to the requirements of CAR 5.01A.

It was starting to get a bit late and I was hungry so I said thank you and good bye to Dan and Ben and walked back to my car. I had not turned round the corner of the airport when rain started to fall again. I made a special mental note that I was lucky with weather this time, so that I won't get too upset next time weather Karma does not go my way.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

First go-around in a commercial airplane

Tuesday morning, about 7:30AM. I am half-awake in a window seat on the left-hand side of a Qantas Boeing 737-400 on approach to Brisbane airport. We just flew past the tip of North Stradbroke Island, and in a minute or two the airplane will touch down on runway 19. The landing gear goes down, soon followed by flaps. We make a left turn onto final. More flaps.

This is a beautiful Queensland winter morning, with high clouds and amazing visibility. I can see Brisbane CBD very clearly, and in the distance the towers of Swanbank power station, some 50km away. The sight brings back memories of screwing up majorly in this very area on a PPL navigation exercise about a year ago. But back to our story.

My seat is a perfect vantage point for observing the trailing edge of the left wing. We're now aligned with the runway. The flaps move down a little more and then stop. They're about half-way down, definitely not extended as they should be for landing. A few seconds pass and then we pitch up for a go-around. Some power is applied, but not full take-off power, or at least it doesn't sound like it. The rate of climb is moderate.

We make a series of left turns back to the Mud Island area. The captain makes an announcement saying that we went around because of a problem with the flight controls, that this is a routine procedure, no need to worry, we will be on the ground shortly, and sorry for the inconvenience. The flaps haven't moved at all since final. We come back for a very uneventful landing on 19.

As we taxi to the gate the flaps are still in the same partially extended position. They only come back up a few minutes after we reach the gate. The flaps actually come up very slowly, possibly because the backup electrical flap retraction mechanism was used, rather than the normal hydraulic one. That's my guess based on those notes, and I'll stop here with the armchair incident investigation.

As I was walking out of the narrowbody airplane I noticed the captain standing at the cockpit door saying goodbye to passengers, which is rather unusual for Qantas. I asked him if this was a flaps failure and he confirmed with a wink.

So that was all for the adventure. Nothing spectacular really. Sorry for indulging in Gonzo journalism, but that's la loi du genre. The fact that this was my first go-around ever on a commercial flight after hundreds of flights on airliners I guess should be taken as a testimony to the reliability of airline flying.

Speaking about journalism, I found this article about a similar incident on the same type of airplane in Alaska. They quote an FAA person as saying that they do not regard the failure of flaps to be a safety hazard. Which makes a lot of sense. Some airplanes do not have flaps at all. Student pilots perform flapless landings routinely. Flaps are a very convenient luxury.

I was momentarily impressed by how a local newspaper actually sought qualified technical advice when reporting about an aviation incident that didn't even involve injured passengers or a bent airplane. That was before I read the final two paragraphs, where they quote a local ham radio operator who describes the radio transmissions as "dramatic and alarming to hear" and offers a piece of definitive advice by saying "I would definitely be watching and questioning. I would be kind of apprehensive". I guess the opinion of the FAA person was too sensible to end an aviation story with.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More night circuits and a bit of daylight

My last session of night circuits was much, much better than the previous one. Ben said he is now ready to send me solo at night, which will happen as soon as my schedule and the weather conditions agree. So all the beating myself up and rehearsing circuit procedures in my head and on paper paid off.

This time I was prepared. I had eaten a triple cheeseburger on the way to Bankstown. For some reason whenever I go flying I feel excused for eating junk food. I was hydrated but not too much. I had my own torchlight and the pre-flight visit didn't reveal any nasty surprise. Earlier in the day the wind was blowing at 15 knots gusting to 25, but as night fell so did the wind, down to a more manageable 8 knots. There was a catch though: the forecast called for moderate to severe turbulence below 5000ft, which combined with the crosswind made for a few challenging final legs.

The aircraft that night was VH-SFK, still a Warrior but much better equipped than IJK which I flew the time before. As you can see on the photo above, the row of switches actually lights up on this aircraft. The Garmin 430 automatically dims the display at night. Ben showed me the settings page where the display brightness can be adjusted. If you look back at the photos taken on my very first night flight, you can tell the GPS display was still on full bright. The lights of the annunciator panel can also be dimmed.

I flashed the landing light three times as a warning sign for anyone around to stay clear of the aircraft and started the engine after a bit of priming. We taxied for left-hand circuits on 29C. As we approached the main apron two Aero Commander crossed in front of us, following a larger Metroliner, like ducklings lined up behind their mother.

For some unknown reason, we were the only training aircraft in the circuit that evening, in contrast with the time before when we had to wait twenty minutes in the run-up bay before someone left the circuit and the controller allowed us to join the merry-go-round. Maybe the forecasted turbulence discouraged other pilots. Maybe we were just lucky. Maybe there was something good on TV for a change.

We started with two normal circuits to get me back in the saddle. Preparation paid off, I didn't forget anything and the shape of the circuits was acceptable this time. Not great, but acceptable. There was a crosswind from the right on final which I managed to handle reasonably well, even though we drifted a bit far from the centreline on a couple of occasions. I should have put more ailerons in after removing the crab. Landings were a lot harder than the previous time, but my excuse is that that's what one wants with crosswind landings: a long float means the possibility of drifting downwind of the centreline, and flying with crossed control in the flare means more drag.

The crosswind was blowing our downwind leg a bit too far away from the runway, and the moving map on the GPS showed us a bit too close to the edge of the control zone for comfort. The control zone at Bankstown is more or less a circle with a radius of 3 nautical miles, so the correct analogy for circuits there would be a goldfish in his bowl. Ben suggested I do not fly a straight crosswind leg, but rather fly a climbing turn from upwind to downwind, which definitely helped bring us closer to the runway.

Then came lighting failures. Ben turned all the interior lights off. I took my torchlight which I had kept handy, turned it on and stuck it to the side of my headset, right above the earcup gel. It works fantastically well, and the red glow from the torchlight illuminated the whole panel. The added bonus of sticking the torchlight under the headset of course is that the light follows where the pilot is looking.

We did four or five circuits like that. The torchlight didn't move. Ben asked the tower controller to shine at us the green light that would indicate we are cleared to land in the event of a radio failure. On the next circuit the controller showed us the red light for a so-called "tower-initiated go-around". I didn't forget to clean up the aircraft this time. We did an uneventful flapless landing, another normal circuit and then it was time to call it a night.

Back at the clubhouse we looked at the syllabus for Night VFR and realised that I cannot go solo before I have practiced unusual attitude recovery under the hood in daytime. I guess CASA does not like the idea of people practicing spiral dives and approaching the stall in a climbing turn at night.

So on the next Sunday we went out to the training area for practicing unusual attitude recovery. There's only two techniques to remember, depending on whether the nose is pointing up or down, so that wasn't too hard. Nose up, full power, push nose down, wings level. Nose down, power to idle, wings level, pull nose up. And in both cases finish by re-establishing straight and level flying at cruise power.

The good thing on that short 0.7 hour flight is that I spent 0.4 hour under the hood. I put the hood on as we passed 500 ft after take-off. Ben handled the radios and gave me vectors to the training area to perform unusual attitude recovery exercises and later back to Bankstown via Prospect and all the way to late downwind where I took the hood off before landing on 29R.

So I'm now officially ready to go solo at night. I'm just waiting for the planets to align between my availability, that of my instructor and that crap weather we've been having for the last three months. Even though it is obviously not the same as a first solo, this is still very exciting.