Wednesday, November 2, 2011

To Plane or Not to Plane?

EDIT: Thanks, Blogger, for making all the things invisible. I fix now.

So today's story is about flying (as usual), but first I'd like to open with a story about not flying.

I have a friend from way back in middle school who just started college at the University of Oregon, which is in Eugene. I hadn't seen her since New Year's Eve, and now having both a license to fly and access to a plane, I decided an adventure was in order. I asked about taking the plane overnight and tentatively scheduled it for last Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening. I checked the weather at least five times a day. The forecast was lame, then improved, then went lame again. The morning I was supposed to leave, I checked again. It was supposed to be beautiful most of the day, but Sunday was supposed to be cold, cloudy, and crappy (see also: Washington in November).

So, even though it made me sad, I couldn't comfortably say the flight would go off without a hitch, and I canceled it and drove instead. Road trips are always an adventure in themselves because I hate driving and especially by myself. I made it, though, and we had fun (and ate some of the most amazing hamburgers and garlic fries that have ever graced my presence), and then I went home the next day. While I was driving home, all through Eugene, Albany, Portland, and Kelso I could see that the weather was as craptastic as forecasted. There were many times that I thought to myself, "I am really glad I am not in a plane right now, because this is the part where I would be begging Portland Approach to give me an ILS clearance so I wouldn't die. Then there would be paperwork."

Skip to today: Ross and I were scheduled to fly to Hoquiam, commonly referred to by me as the milkshake airport because they have the best milkshakes in the known airport universe. We deliberately didn't eat beforehand because we were going to get food there. It was nice when we left.

The forecast called for winds of about 30 knots at altitude. It was supposed to be nice until we got to Hoquiam, but we should have already landed before it got bad, and then since we were going IFR we could still depart in the 4 miles visibility and 2,000-foot ceiling. The thing I didn't pay as much attention to was the wind. Hoquiam, being a coastal airport, is prone to the same winds day after day: 24 is favored during the day, 06 at night (or either if it's calm). Today, it was a fantastic crosswind of 150 at 21 gusting 29. Ross pointed out that that was far outside our plane's crosswind component of 17, and I kind of knew it, but I didn't want to believe it. I don't know why. This story is about me learning things, not knowing them beforehand.

So we kept going. The turbulence started out pretty mild. I used to be terrified of turbulence, but one day I got over it. I thought I would be over it permanently until we were climbing at 79 indicated and 44 groundspeed. During the approach, the wind decided it would be fun to play with us. We were tossed around so badly that I started getting scared. We would sink fifty feet, then I would put the plane in a climbing attitude and we would sink even more or the nose would be pushed up so far that I had to force it down and shove in the power to keep the thing from stalling. It was like unusual attitudes practice except I was watching it happen.

Sometimes it didn't seem to make much sense. I watched the instruments indicate a climb, but the engine suddenly sped up and I pulled the power back, scared that we were going to be caught in a completely unreasonable updraft and overstress the plane. I don't like when the engine makes noises I'm not expecting. I know when it's supposed to get louder and quieter, speed up and slow down. I may not be an expert yet, but these changes were drastic enough to worry me. It started getting so bad that I could barely make any turns. Forget standard rate. I think we were turning at about a degree per three seconds.

Then there was some disagreement between the GPS and the VORs about our location, so Ross flipped it over to the nice moving map page so I could stop worrying about the specifics of the approach and make sure I didn't run us into the conveniently placed hills that the arc is supposed to help us avoid. I glanced outside briefly and saw them even though seconds earlier it had been raining so hard that the visibility turned everything into IFR even though the ceiling wasn't that low. This was one of those days that I was legitimately afraid.

When we went home, it took me absolutely ages to climb us up to 5,000 feet. My hand actually hurt from hauling on the yoke to keep it in place and not let the nose go too high and stall or too low and stop climbing. I thought we weren't going to make it through 4,900 for a minute. When I finally leveled us off, Ross asked if I wanted him to take the plane for a bit so I could collect myself. It took a few minutes and a few glances outside to see how fast we were outrunning the approaching front (at 144 knots groundspeed, I'd say we were making some pretty good progress), but I did get myself back together. I took over most of the radio calls (which I kindly delegated to Ross by freezing up once the approach started turning to crap) and set us up to go home.

The GPS did something weird when we went back to Auburn. The procedure turn it gives us is supposed to be five miles, but we decided it would take too long (groundspeed 74 on the outbound leg) and shortened it to three. When we crossed the fix, it acted like we hadn't done the turn and wanted us to repeat it. Ross did some stuff to fix it, but then it said "invalid FPL modification" and "approach not active," yet it was giving us the same guidance it always did. Ross had had the airport in sight for a while, so we weren't in any real danger, but still. It was weird. Like arguing with a PC ("Are you sure you want to discontinue the current approach?" = "Are you sure you want to close the program?")

At least my landing was okay. Any landing after Auburn's approach is a good one because you have to pretending you're doing a short field configuration the whole way down since the minima are so high. I still owe him two non-sucky landings from our Friday Harbor adventure.

Lessons learned today include: weather is not to be trifled with; turbulence sucks; and Ross is a wonderful flight instructor.

I finally had to tell him and another instructor that I'm planning on leaving in December. I'm moving to Prescott, Arizona to go to Embry-Riddle and learn to be an air traffic controller. He was kind of sad. I was really sad. I will have to bring cookies again at least one more time and remember to give him his present. I make presents for all my instructors because I love them and I love giving presents to people.

I'm going to miss them all so much. :(


Karlene Petitt said...

Wow... that was quite the adventure. So, my question is this what if anything would you do differently next time? Sounds like your little plane got beat up a bit. I'm so glad you're safe! And... had a great road trip too.

You know, those experiences we can walk away from are experiences worth having. Thanks for sharing.

Christine H. said...

I would pay more attention to the weather for sure. I heard some airliners giving reports of sudden moderate icing buildup, which was also scary because I didn't know what altitudes they were at. In a way I'm glad the turbulence was bad because it showed me that there's getting over a fear of light turbulence and dealing with it, and then there's recognizing the point where it's a problem or borderline dangerous and getting out of it.