Good Morning Seattle Center...

...Navajo triple-1 Echo Foxtrot is with you at 13 thousand.

I got to fly to Seattle Boeing Field and back with my friend Steve Elefant and our mutual CFI friend Al Edwards on Steve's Piper Navajo twin. Steve Elefant is the guy that really hooked me into going for a pilot's license by taking me on a number of other flights in the Navajo and his Cessna 172 commuter (he flies from Concord to Reid Hillview rather than commute in traffic to work).

The fabulous "One-Echo-Fox", she is foxy too, ain't she?

What a learning experience this sort of flight can be!

We flew IFR the whole way and experienced a wide gamut of weather. I was picked up at SJC Jet Center (man, he could hardly get the Navajo in for all the jets that were leaving out of there on Thursday morning). The airport was extremely busy at 8 am on a weekday. While standing in the lobby I heard 1EchoFox directed to cross midfield and fly a 270 degree pattern to land on runway 12 right. Having listened in on my Yaesu transciever, I was standing right outside the door when they opened up, so we got out pretty quick.

They let me do some of the navigation for the trip (and yes, we did actually get to Boeing Field and not LAX!). It was pretty easy after the fine VOR instruction Mr Blackwell (my CFI) provided me. That simulator really helps! We had 2 GPS units aboard--a Garmin 430 in the panel (very cool) and a little Garmin III on my yoke. Except when we had a leg involving a "Direct Clearance" to some airport (happened exactly twice), we used the VOR as the primary navigation system and let the GPS enhance situational awareness and double check that our (my!) VOR work was correct. We also used the GPS to tell us about winds aloft and to double check our altimeter settings. Finally, they had me use the little yoke mount GPS set to our final destination to monitor our fuel situation. I was expected to figure out how much we were consuming, what our range was, etc. to make sure we would get where we were going with adequate reserves in the tanks.

Navigating IFR is interesting, and in many ways seems simpler than VFR. The IFR charts are dramatically simpler than VFR sectionals. There seemed to be relatively few new concepts to learn. I suspect what I interpreted as "simpler" really meant more "structured". There was little left to the discretion of the pilot once the flight plan was improved and the journey began. We were following instructions given to us by the ATC's. The IFR clearance and read back was daunting. It'll take some practice before I can follow that fast talk and read it back confidently!

At one point Steve dialed in a reciprocal course and triggered the autopilot to go to the course. The stinker did this without telling me what was wrong and then got Al involved when the plane appeared to want to veer far off our intended course. After much fake discussion of whether the autopilot had blown a gyro I finally screwed up my courage to suggest that the PIC had dialed in the wrong course. This got me big smiles and a slap on the back. As navigator I was expected to catch this issue and realize our autopilot was working fine.

I was seated to the right coming and going. Oh Momma!

Our clearance had us up pretty high for much of the flight. In fact, we were on oxygen most of the way back at 13-14 thousand feet. I brought my flight bag, so I had my Nonin Pulse Oxymeter to play with. This interesting gadget clips onto your finger and measures the oxygen saturation in your blood. At 13 thousand feet all three of us were down to 79% oxygen. For comparison, at 6000 feet we were at 98%. The documentation with the Nonin indicates that some form of impairment will be felt by everyone at 85%. A couple breaths of oxygen and the reading goes right back to 98%. We had also flown with oxygen for our Las Vegas trip. It looks like this may be a fact of life for long trips in the Western USA, at least if you don't want to thread it through low altitude areas.

Weather was a big factor for this flight. Before leaving, I checked out aeroplanner.com to see what the situation was. I noticed that we had avmets/sigmets for turbulence, icing, and possible thunderstorms along much of our flight. While it actually looked decent at SJC, with a 100 overcast layer, this VFR wanna-be pilot wouldn't have flown this flight at all on his own. Given the possibility of thunderstorms, we lit up the radar and monitored it closely for most of the flight. We also monitored HIWAS, and called the FSS every hour to get an updated weather briefing. On the way back, we actually heard the dreaded "convective sigmet". There were embedded thunderstorms and hail over the Bay Area. There was also a report of a Boeing 757 encountering a 50 knot wind shear at SJC. Imagine what that would do to our little Cessnas on final to have airspeed drop 50 knots instantaneously! We heard this about 2 1/2 hours out and were debating what our plan would be. Fortunately, the storm was moving and had pretty much gone by the time we got handed off to Oakland Center. We would have landed North at Concord and I would've spent a night at Steve's house had this particular ugly lasted. BTW, the HIWAS transmissions were very much out of date (recorded hourly), and it really paid off to contact Flight Watch on 122.0. For example, we didn't get the convective sigmet on the HIWAS, and had we been closer we could've flown into it without warning. Flight Watch was also able to provide us with a sense of which way the weather was moving, which was nonexistant on the HIWAS. All the folks on the ground were courteous and extremely helpful!

We had quite a bit of icing, which the plane is fortunately equipped to deal with. I had seen this before in a flight to Salt Lake City and knew what to expect. Steve had me shut down pitot heat on the RHS so we could see what the instruments do with pitot icing--airspeed dropped all the way to zero. Flipping pitot heat back on got that problem taken care of pretty quickly. It's amazing to see just how fast large quantities of ice will form on the aircraft. For this plane, Steve likes to use an outside air temperature probe that projects from the RHS roof to see how thick the ice is. We built a 1 1/2" layer on this thing in about 1/2 hour. Needless to say, if that kind of layer was on the wing leading edges, control surfaces, or propellers, it would have been a severe problem. The source of the ice was the worst of conditions--freezing rain. In fact, ice on the engine cooling inlets required that we monitor cylinder head temperatures closely and open cowl flaps as needed to let them cool off. This was required once on the flight up.

Speaking of temperatures and such, my "job" in the right seat was to navigate, and to assist in scanning the panel and the outside airspace for other planes. While on IFR the ATC system is supposed to provide traffic and terrain separation, but it never hurts to do it yourself as long as you are not IMC (officially "Instrument Meteorological Conditions", practically "I can't see diddly 'cause I'm in a cloud"). In the patches that were clear, we saw about 3 planes I counted that ATC never mentioned. According to Steve, if they differ in altitude by more than about 1000 feet he didn't think they had to notify us. To make it interesting, Steve made a point of not mentioning aircraft sightings or panel issues that required attention to see how rapidly I would identify the problem. Al, the CFI friend, also assisted my education by adding some practical tasks:

o Make sure my altimeter is set. Every hand-off to a new controller involved a new altimeter setting. At one point, we changed our "altitude" by 250 feet through one of these resettings.

o Keep the heading bug on my HSI/DG lined up with our current course. In the event of an engine out on a twin, you want to "step on the bug" to correct for the adverse yaw imparted by asymmetrical thrust on one engine. Monitor that heading bug and the horizon constantly to immediately notice a change.

o We learned about proper leaning procedures for the big twin. I was happy to see that it works just like the Cessna, though it is far harder to hear the RPM changes and so easier to use EGT on this plane. At 13-14K feet, this bad boy consumes 14 to 16 gallons per hour per engine when properly leaned out. We did get to see what happens when an engine is leaned too far and we start getting a little yaw from thrust difference, and we saw also how to synchronize the two props rpm for less vibration.

o Backstop the PIC on those controller instructions. Make sure the right radio frequency gets dialed in and flip flopped. Make sure we execute the changes called for.

o Monitor guages during take offs, landings, and other times when the PIC has a lot to attend to.

They wanted me to start making the radio calls, but frankly I was too uncomfortable to do it. I'm not sure what it is that causes this performance anxiety, but I just didn't feel like I could deal with it competently. The controllers at the Bay Area end were frantically busy too, which added to the impression of difficulty. I'll try to study up with COMM1 before I go out with Steve again so I can do this job if it comes up.

Much of the return flight was conducted at night, and about half of the time we were IMC (inside a meteorological condition, i.e. a cloud). The most creepy flying is at night between two layers. If you are in a cloud, you can at least see the vapor in the plane's lights. Rain is quite beautiful to see caught motionless in the strobe flashes. Between layers, the clouds are too far to reflect the lights, and they block out any view of ground lights or stars. When this happens, the outside world seems to just "disappear". It can feel like the airplane is just sitting stationary inside a giant dark cave. An aircraft without instruments, or a pilot without proper training, would surely be lost in this situation. I also got to experience Steve Blackwell's adage that a VFR pilot that flies at night will sooner or later fly into a cloud and have to IFR his way back out. You just can't see the clouds coming always. OTOH, if you can stay out of the clouds, and it's a nice night, there is nothing quite so beautiful as seeing the whole Bay Area lit up.

On this particular flight, the friendliest thing I saw was the SJC runway 12 right as we dropped out of clouds at about 1000 feet. It was lit like a Christmas tree, and the PAPI's and so on added color. Besides, I was relieved we'd made it out of the hail, turbulence, and clouds.

 
All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.