Thursday, February 24, 2005


Just did a really great airplane flight today. Basically a "take off in dreary overcast conditions", "get above a horizon-to-horizon undercast with a beautiful blue sky overhead", and a "shoot some approaches from over the ocean" kind of thing (it was a lesson with my instructor to start getting my IFR currency back; we were flying the Trinidad). After this it was "fly home", "descend from the angelic realm and into the clouds", and "pop out over Silicon Valley on a dreary day". In many ways the funnest kind of flying. The bottom of the clouds were at 2000 feet, and the tops at 3000 feet. More of a summer pattern than a winter one. The only land visible above the clouds was Mt Hamilton, and the mountains of Big Sur. At several points we were being vectored around at 3000 feet, and it was something else to be performing 150 mph banked turns barely 50 feet above the cloud deck. Two words: Kick ass!

In January 2004, I did a flight that was similar in many ways. I don't have time to wax poetic about today's flight, but I include below the write-up I did of the 2004 flight (the writeup was addressed to fellow pilots, I'll annotate it here and there to define some of the terms):



A couple of days ago (Tuesday, January 20), I had a most excellent solo IFR flight in a 172SP (first time I’ve done solo IMC [Instrument Meteorological Conditions, i.e. in the clouds] in that plane). I’d scheduled a flight that day in an SP about a week in advance, because I needed to go up in one again after almost three months in order to keep my currency in that model (the SP is also the plane I did most of my primary training in back in 2001). A few months ago, I’d finished all the intensive training I’d been doing for more than two years (primary, IFR, complex/high performance in the Trinidad, Mooney, and V-tail Bonanza), so rather than flying a couple of times a week, I’ve throttled back to once every week or two. This definitely results in more vivid and memorable experiences on a flight-by-flight basis, as well as a thicker wallet!

I haven’t gotten up much to be PIC [Pilot In Command] under IFR this winter (the only IMC was one flight in the Bonanza plus riding right seat on a very fun flight to Santa Rosa with Rob in his Saratoga), so this, combined with the less frequent flying, had me starting to get leery about the whole idea of going into the clouds. I really wanted to get up there again in not too severe conditions, just to prove to myself that I still knew how!

As it turned out the weather gave me a perfect opportunity on the day of my SP flight. For days we’d been sitting in a very stagnant weather pattern. A strong high pressure ridge, not much wind, a strong low level inversion resulting in a Central Valley perpetually full of fog, with fog on the ocean also, yielded days and days of dreary, gloomy overcast, and even non-stop drizzle on Monday. On Monday, my schedule would not let me get up in the sky, and I looked longingly at those dark clouds. I knew that they were not very thick, and above was nothing but blue sky and sun. I badly wanted to be up there, on top, with nothing but clouds below me from horizon to horizon.

On Tuesday morning I did a pretty thorough check of the weather using the National Weather Service pages. The forecast was for the low clouds to finally mix out by the afternoon due to a dry cyclonic flow being set up over the area, a little cooling in the higher air, and a moderate north wind starting up (for any weather buffs out there, what this means is that all the moist air would finally be allowed to lift away from the surface because the cooler air aloft would weaken the inversion, plus the cyclonic pattern would add lift to the overall air mass. The lifted air would encounter the stronger winds at the higher altitude and would be swept away and mixed with the drier air above. Finally the sun would come out and all would be happy again). It looked like I’d have a decent chance to get above the clouds before they all disappeared, at least on the outbound leg. I decided to go to Monterey and back, but I held off on filing IFR until I could look at the skies for myself on the drive to the airport.

The drive out showed the clouds to look a bit more persistent than the NWS was predicting. There were a few very small breaks to be seen, and the clouds didn’t look all that thick, but they weren’t going to suddenly disappear anytime soon. I filed IFR, got the tanks topped off, and preflighted. I got a nostalgic feeling getting the SP ready. I haven’t flown this model much in the last year, it’s not a super exciting ride like a Bonanza, but I’ve got a real affection for it. It’s like a trusty friend. And I could be a little more relaxed knowing there was no way that I could end up in a 250 mph spiral or doing a perfect approach only to land gear up!

At 1100, I took off. The departure clearance was the standard “right turn 060, vectors Salinas direct, climb and maintain 3000, expect 7000 5 minutes after departure” affair. After checking in with departure, they vectored me to 150, which basically puts you on a very wide, very high right downwind for Palo Alto, with the Moffett runways dead ahead and SJC [San Jose International Airport] also ahead. I leveled off at 3000, which was a couple of hundred feet below the clouds. I took a look at the gloomy dreary scene and anticipated soon seeing bright blue skies. Cleared to 5000, I pushed the throttle forward, pointed the nose up, and as the ground started to disappear behind wet, gray wisps, I got on the instruments [started using the attitude indicator gyro and other instruments to keep me upside up, going the right way, etc].

I was stoked to be IMC again! It was no problem doing the scan [using the instruments], and it was a real blast keeping the plane stable amidst the various drafts in the clouds. The tops were right around 4600 or 4700. A couple of hundred feet below the tops, I hit the wettest part, and the windscreen was covered with water. Then it got very glary. Suddenly, there was pure blue sky above, and I came sledding out of the layer. Just as I reached 5000 I was cleared to 7000 and direct Salinas. As I climbed, I could see that the air was hyper clear (all the smog and haze was trapped below the inversion). Moments ago, I was over San Jose on a dreary day. Now I was in another world. A bright, golden sun hung in the sky to the south. The sky was a bowl of heavenly blue, without a single cloud above me to be seen. An airliner far above was laying down a short contrail as the plane gleamed in the sun. There was not a single other plane to be seen. There was not a single landmark to be seen. Except for nav equipment and ATC, there was no way to know where you were.

This was truly Someplace Else. Man, I was stoked! This was where I was longing to be! Does it get any better than this?

Compared to the Bonanza, Trinidad, and Mooney, I was moving in slow motion, so there would be plenty of time to enjoy this. I was being shoved southward by a pretty good tailwind and was doing about 143 knots groundspeed. The OAT [Outside Air Temperature] was about 35 degrees. As I’ve seen happen before, the lifting of the stratus layer due to the cyclonic flow was turning it into something a little more than a mere benign flat fog. Above the mountains between Salinas and Monterey, and between Salinas and the Central Valley, the clouds had taken on more of a cumuliform shape, with tops up to about 6000 feet. There was an occasional small break below, and I could see farm fields.

I listened to the Monterey ATIS. Rather than landing on 10 and using the ILS (which they’d been doing when I’d listened to the ATIS over the phone before leaving home), they were now using 28 and the LOC/DME approach. No matter. I had the plates [charts which show you how to fly the approach] ready and would request the GPS 28L approach. When I was switched to 133.0 (the last approach controller), he told me to steer 140 after crossing Salinas. This would aim me just a little outside the CHRLE initial approach fix. The plane I was in was 751SP. As it turned out there was a 951SP also on frequency both now and when I left Monterey again. This caused a bit of confusion. The controller advised each of us that the other was on frequency. After I replied with “One Sierra Papa” a couple of times, the other guy asked the controller to tell me to use my full callsign. The funny thing is that after this, the other guy started abbreviating his sign! The controller then got lackadaisical, and there was a lot of “Was that NINER five one sierra papa turn right 260?”, etc.

It had been three months since I’d been able to see my wheels while flying [the 172SP, or Cessna Skyhawk has a highwing, fixed gear configuration, so you can look straight down out the side window and see the landing gear, and below it, the void] and as I looked straight down at the undercast, it occurred to me: “Well, you’re up here alone, and the only guy that’s going to get you down alive through all this is you!” I wasn’t worried, but it just sort of struck me at that moment that such was the case.

I got a good look at a Brasilia [United Express turboprop commuter airliner] starting his approach, and I didn’t need to be vectored around much. I was finally given an intercept inside of CHRLE and cleared for the approach, and told to maintain 6000 until established. The 28 approaches into Monterey start right at a mountain ridge and run along something of a canyon, with just 300 feet of separation above the granite at some points. Because of the ridge, this also tends to have the highest cloud tops, and the canyon tends to give lower bases than exist right over the airport. Because I was given an intercept inside of the IAF, I knew I’d have to be thinking ahead of the KLN 94 GPS. So I cursored in a Direct-To for RODNE, the second fix on the approach, hit the OBS button and dialed in the final approach course on the OBS. At 6000 I plunged into the clouds in a state of hyper alertness.

Now the Garmin 430 is simply a better GPS for flying approaches. The 94 threw me a couple of curve balls on this approach. For one thing, I forgot to hit OBS again to put the GPS back into leg mode. Thus, when I hit RODNE, it didn’t sequence me to the next point. Also, there are two step down fixes which are not actual GPS waypoints but merely GPS distances. I believe the Garmin treats these as separate items in the flight plan, but the 94 doesn’t. At any rate, I had a couple of “what the hell is going on?” moments while in the clouds. Because I’ve had to “bob” while the KLN 94 “weaved” before, I quickly remembered to hit the OBS button again to get the thing to sequence (at one point I actually lost the OBS needle for guidance; I still don’t know what caused that; and everything happened so fast I don’t remember exactly what I did to get it back). Also, I was surprised to see the unit was not recognizing the step down waypoints, but as it was showing me the runway MAP [Missed Approach Point. If you get to here without seeing the runway, you have to fly a procedure which safely gets you back up to altitude. If you foolishly try to go below the minimum altitude for the approach in the hopes of seeing the runway you risk conversion to a spectacular fireball. It's amazing how many people do this. It's violating rule number one of instrument flying] as the next waypoint and was showing me distances, I could identify the fixes.

Somewhere around 2500 feet the ground wisped into view. I could see houses well below, and knew I was in the broad lower part of the valley. I knew I wouldn’t be hitting any ridges on this approach! Ahead I had a fine view of the runways. I was offset a bit to the right and got lined up with 28L. My first landing in a 172 in three months was just fine. There was a stiff right crosswind, and after all the Bonanza, Mooney, and Trinidad landings I felt like I was in slow motion. Quite fun.

I taxied to Del Monte and had lunch in the terminal. Looking back to the east, I could see the towering clouds and gloom I’d come through. By the time I headed home, there’d been some clearing over the ocean, but not enough to get back VFR in any pleasant way. I was given the Monterey 8 departure, vectors MOVER, DOCAL direct. This was also a pleasant flight, but this time with a strong headwind. I was only managing about 100 knots over the ground. 12 miles from DOCAL I was cleared to descend to 4500 and cleared for the approach. In the Bonanza, I was used to being at DOCAL [DOCAL and the other fixes I've mentioned are just named GPS coordinates, basically navigation points in the sky] and starting the approach just about instantly once cleared (you have to be far enough ahead of the plane in terms of stage cooling, and the thing goes so fast while descending that the approach really starts well before the IAF). In the Cessna, I was surprised that 8 minutes later it was still not time to begin the approach! But it was fun to skim just a few hundred feet above the clouds at 4500 for this period.

At 3200 feet, I popped back under, with the gloomy day, Moffett, Amphitheatre, and PAO in full view. I did another nice slow motion landing. It was about 1400 [2:00 PM] when I touched down, and the clouds didn’t really clear out for another hour after that, finally giving us some sunny but hazy weather again.

I was happy to have hand flown the whole flight [i.e. I didn't use the autopilot at all], used my wits while in the clouds with the GPS throwing me curveballs, and to have seen such ethereal beauty.

My mood has been “above the clouds” for a couple of days after this flight!


Other aviation-related posts I have made on this blog are indexed here.

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