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Saturday, 06 April 2013 01:47

Left Coast Pilot – A Lot More Flying Than I Expected! Featured

Written by  John D Ruley
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April 2013

I ended my February column by saying that I expected to be flying a lot less, given my wife's cancer diagnosis. In fact, I'm delighted (and more than a little surprised) to report that I've been flying a lot: my logbook includes half a dozen entries so far this year, totaling no less than 5.9 hours in two very different airplanes. And before I go any further, the reason I've been able to fly that much is that Kate is doing very well. By the time you read this, her primary chemo will be over.

Now some random notes over the past two months...

January 21: Before Kate got sick I was actively working to fly more; that changed with her diagnosis. I managed to get in some touch-and-goes on New Year's Eve but that was it until Kate's brother Tom came to town. He drove with us to the University of California, San Francisco for chemo that week, and on the way home we talked about possibly doing a San Francisco Bay air tour. Tom also expressed interest in visiting Yosemite National Park (which we highly recommended).

A day or two later, Tom asked if an air tour of Yosemite was possible. I've done that before, but it's iffy—high terrain, frequently windy and turbulent. But we'd had an unusual weather situation here with a high pressure system and stable air mass. I did some checking and made no promises, but told him it was possible.

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My plan was to fly direct from our home base in Modesto, Calif. (KMOD) to Mariposa-Yosemite (KMPI), then pick up Highway 140, leveling off at 11,500 feet to stay at least 2,000 feet above terrain per National Park Service rules. As we topped the haze layer, I got a visual on what looked like (and turned out to be) Half Dome, so I turned that direction and flew a more direct route, though as we got into higher terrain it dawned on me that following the road might be a good idea—what little flat ground there might be for an emergency landing would be near the road.

Tom's a shutterbug, and like me, uses Nikon digital cameras. He was in the copilot seat, so I tried to maneuver so as to put interesting stuff on his side of the airplane. The catch is that of course I can't see out that side very well so I'm never sure how good a job I'm doing; but Tom's photos took care of that—he got great shots of Half Dome from front and back, and also Yosemite Falls!

January 23: I went out to do hood work in N4696K with one of our partners. By then, the weather had changed, and we flew in light rain, with marginal visibility—bad enough that on climbout I told the tower it was IMC, which brought this response: "N4696K, do you want to turn back and land?"

"Negative . It's clearing out. We will continue and get an actual IFR clearance from NORCAL."

"Roger, maintain VFR..."

NORCAL granted me an instrument clearance, changed our transponder squawk, gave me vectors for 28R ILS, and asked, "Will this be a full stop?"

Visibility had improved and Mike—my safety pilot—said, "Why? As long as I can see, you're OK." So I asked for multiple approaches.

I was behind the airplane on the first approach (ILS) but caught up on the second (GPS). With rough air, I decided that conditions were a bit much for partial panel, but elected to hand-fly the last approach, and asked for a hold at the final approach fix, electing to do a teardrop entry which the GPS didn't like, expecting a parallel entry. I called Approach when established, was cleared for the approach, accepted a sidestep and made a pretty good landing.

With three approaches and a hold under my belt, I felt a lot more ready for the next two flights in a very different airplane.

January 29: N846PW is a 10,000 pound Pilatus PC-12 turboprop, which I've been occasionally copiloting since last fall. At this point I had not been in the airplane for over a month, so I made arrangements with the pilot (and my regular flight instructor) Larry Askew for a couple of hours ground school in the airplane before trying to fly it again (I'd already spent time reviewing the POH).

My earlier flights in N846PW were all between KMOD and Medford, Ore. (KMFR), which is about 1.5 hours each way, enough time to level off in cruise and enjoy the ride after climbing into the flight levels.

This time, things were quite a bit busier. The owner decided to take some friends to lunch at Aviators, a restaurant in the terminal building at Sacramento Executive (KSAC). That's just 59 nm away. Even in N4696K it would take less than an hour, but in the PC-12 the flying time is only about 13 minutes—all but about one of which we spent climbing or descending—with at least four or five frequency changes.

It was very, very busy. When we got home, after the owner and passengers departed, Larry leaned back and said, "I need to decompress for a few minutes!"

Feb 5: My logbook shows 0.4 hours, including a VOR test and two touch-and-goes. In this case, the real story was the VOR test (something that really deserves a column of its own). I had been researching VOR tests and related topics for an article in Avionics News, and figured that a little real-world experience would be useful, so I got permission from Ground Control to taxi to KMOD's VOR checkpoint.

As usual, I taxied directly there and, having spent some time over the preceding couple of days doing a mathematical calculation that showed a positioning error of a few feet should make no difference with the VOR half a mile away, didn't bother to put the tail antenna into the painted circle; I just got it under the cockpit.

According to the sign on the fence adjacent to the circle, I should have been on the 093/273 radial for Modesto VOR (114.6 MHz) at 0.6 NM. NAV1 (a Garmin GNS 530) reported the 105/285 radial. The CDI connected to the -530 reported radial 104, and a separate CDI connected to NAV2 (an old KX-155) reported radial 100... all well out of IFR tolerance!

That startled me, because my partners and I had been logging errors of two to four degrees or less (within tolerance) between the two receivers for several years. After a couple minutes' thought, I pulled forward to put the antenna (on the vertical stabilizer) in the circle. Now NAV1 reported the 097 radial, and after adjusting the OBS knobs, the number-one and number-two CDIs indicated 096 and 100 respectively—within the plus-or-minus four degrees range of each other... though NAV2 was still out of range.

Now I did something I should have done in the first place—called ground control and got permission to taxi out of the checkpoint, come back in and line myself up pointed directly at the VOR (it was off my aft port quarter for the earlier tests) and like magic, the problem cleared up. NAV1 showed 094, the number-one CDI 093 and the number-two CDI 097... all within limits.

Why? Because the NAV antenna on N4696K is a simple set of "rabbit ears," which actually turns out to be a directional antenna with maximum sensitivity directly ahead or behind, much weaker to the sides. There are hangars just north of the VOR checkpoint area, and I'm pretty sure what was happening in my earlier tests was that both receivers picked up side-lobes of the VOR signal, reflected off the buildings –indicating the wrong radial. By maneuvering N4696K to put its nose on the VOR (confirmed by my eyeballs) I put the area of maximum sensitivity in direct line of sight to the VOR, and the errors were reduced to within tolerance on both Nav/Coms.

Feb 13: Kate was feeling well enough to come along with Tom on a 1.6-hour air tour of San Francisco Bay. Despite persistent fog, they got pretty good photos of sights including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and the smooth air made it a very comfortable flight for all of us.

I don't know whether I'll be able to keep this much flying up for the rest of the year—but I sure hope so! –JDR

John D. Ruley is an instrument-rated pilot and freelance writer. He holds a master's degree from the University of North Dakota Space Studies program (space.edu). Until recently he was a volunteer pilot with ligainternational.org and angelflight.org, two charities which operate medical missions in northwest Mexico and provide medical patient transport, respectively. He hopes to fly with both organizations later this year. Send questions or comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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