Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer Adentures in a "New" Arrow

In late July, the family and I took another pilgrimage to Pennsylvania in our club's "new" Arrow-III.  What an adventure...

Will this Damn Thing Ever Be Ready?

Our Arrow has been plagued with problems since we got it.  After having an Aspen panel installed, the plane suffered an engine out/fuel starvation emergency at 400' AGL that resulted in a collapsed nose gear.  It seemed like it took forever to completely rebuild the engine and otherwise repair the damage, only to have new problems creep up.  Electrical gremlins turn out to be quite stubborn.  

This caused me no shortage of consternation.  For months, I had been scheduled to take this aircraft to Pennsylvania July 18-25.  I spent about two weeks before looking into alternatives that would accommodate my needs.  Of course, the first option (a 182RG) also suffered a gear-up landing and remains unavailable for flight at this time.  It was not until July 15th that I was checked out in the aircraft and flew off the last 3 tach hours of engine break-in.  This in and of itself deserves its own diversion.  

The Checkout and Break-in

Brad, one of our trusted CFIs met me at KDPA where we carefully preflighted the plane.  Unlike our previous Arrow, this plane had the auto-extend feature that required a bit of ground time before heading off for the flight.  Although this was placarded as inoperative, it was still important to understand how this system works, under what circumstances it should deploy and when I should use the override feature.  I will be glad I knew this later.
There were scattered rain showers in the area, and we avoided them religiously as it seemed imprudent to take a plane going through an engine break-in into the soup if one could reasonably avoid it.  We went from KDPA to Morris (C09) for a quick flight to demonstrate how the auto-extend should work and to show I'd remember to put the gear down.  

After returning to DuPage, I dropped Brad off and took off for a VFR flight down to Decatur (KDEC) to burn off the remaining break-in time.  I confess to appreciating free flight time.  I worked my way between rain showers to stay comfortably VFR the entire way.  As I was on my descent to enter the pattern, I noticed some very odd lights... and a very high tower... and then another one!  What the &^%$?  I leveled off and gained a bit of altitude while I reviewed the chart on ForeFlight.  Sure enough...  there are towers ranging from 1015 feet AGL to 1351 AGL.  Good to know.  Not exactly the best placement, if you ask me.  Landing on runway 36 was uneventful and smooth . I quickly turned around and headed back to KDPA.  

The sun had set and I was technically accruing night flight at this point, and I was thinking about those rain showers I avoided just southwest of the Chicagoland area.  But first, a sold turn to the right to avoid those aforementioned towers.  As blackness settled in around me I kept a sharp eye out the window and on the radar.  I was also on flight following as I gave up the "big sky" theory a long time ago.  As I passed Pontiac, I noticed an extra dark area that was devoid of ground lights.  Sure enough, there was rain ahead and no obvious way around it.  Observations in the area suggested that there was plenty of safe passage to be had at a lower altitude, and thus I advised Chicago Center of my descent.  I was informed that they were seeing showers ahead but thought I would pass between them.  

Pitch black... that how I'd describe entering a rain cloud well after sunset.  My first thought was to be sure I was controlling the aircraft, and my second was to request a pop-up IFR clearance.  I was cleared to climb and maintain 5000 MSL, direct PLANO when able then direct KDPA.  No problem.  After getting the GPS all happy and pointing me in the right direction, I considered what this experience would have been like had I not been instrument rated.  I got a real glimpse of just how quickly one could kill one's self on such a night.  

And that's not all... oh, no.  As I turned at PLANO inbound toward DuPage, I lost the ability to transmit.  Whizza-Whazza?  It worked fine a second ago!  I can hear them just fine!  I quickly moved my headset to the right seat, but continued to have the same problem.  7600 on the box, and the use of IDENT to verify I had heard the instruction I was given.  Another pilot informed center that I was transmitting VERY weakly.  

In all the commotion to identify and fix the problem, I flew right over the airport with no safe recovery to land on 20R as cleared.  I asked to land on 28, but of course no one heard me.  The controller informed me that I was still cleared to land 20R, and I maneuvered for a very smooth landing.  Did I mention I checked the gear down about 4 times more than I usually do?  

On the ground, I recalled the microphone in the plane.  That worked beautifully.  Turns out that it was a problem with my sexy and relatively new Clarity Aloft headset, a replacement for which arrived at my home sometime today.  Sporty's is a class act in my book.

One Shot Wonder?

Since making this trip last year, I've learned a few important things.  One is that the instrument rated pilot can expect to spend a lot of time flying far out of his or her way.  A typical IFR clearance from DuPage toward areas east of Chicago are going to be routed over the Peotone (EON) VOR, which often works out just fine.  However, when you have a family that thinks that stuff about the journey is tripe it is best to find a more direct routing.  I have also learned that a stop along the way adds far more time to the trip.  Finally, I have learned that one need not begin one's IFR route at one's airport of departure.  I put all of this to good use by departing DPA and skimming under O'Hare's Bravo and outside Midway's Charlie and along the lake, and picked up my clearance at INKEN just south of South Bend.  Time saved: at least 20 minutes.  

We departed DuPage at max gross weight with what I [correctly] believed to be plenty of fuel to arrive at DuBois-Jefferson County (KDUJ).  It turns out that Piper Arrows are not big fans of climbing out on hot days at max gross weight.  Who knew? 

The Banana served as a very cute co-pilot who did a good job of calling out B737s and RJs heading into MDW. Approaching INKEN near South Bend, I picked up my very favorable IFR clearance [VWV then Direct, climb and maintain 7000] and scooted along at 135 KTAS.  A slight headwind would keep us from making completely awesome time, and we got some time above and in the clouds until we got to the other side of Youngstown.  Approach and landing ant KDUJ was a visual to 7 with a landing that was a bit harder than I would have liked.  Flared too high as I've been spending a lot of time in Skyhawks [but that's another post].

Somewhere over Fort Wayne

Somewhere over Fort Wayne, Indiana

N31401 on the ramp at KDUJ. 

In this case, it seemed that my scheme worked out.  Start up to shut down was 3.9 hours, and we still have 15 gallons in the tank.  I spent a lot of time thinking about fuel as I knew that I "should" have plenty.  I really wish fuel gauges were more reliable.  Figuring an 11 gallon per hour fuel burn and 4.25 hours of flight time, I should have needed 46.75 gallons.  I took off with 60 gallons, so figured I'd have plenty of reserve.  Turns out that those fuel burn charts and basic math work out well.  In terms of time, it's hard to know exactly what we saved without the fuel stop half way since we spent a lot of time in Clarion to avoid thunderstorms on our last trip

To Queen City

After having our fill of Shrink's Mama's french toast and fresh fruit, Mrs. Dr. Flying Shrink and I headed back to DUJ and off to Queen City (KXLL) to spend several days with friends.  The kids were very excited to have a week of "Camp Grandparent;" an excitement that grew as they heard the schedule.  

The morning of our flight, KDUJ was reporting winds calm and overcast at 400-600.  Nice.  401 was well rested after her long voyage the day before, and after paying the bill for the top off we loaded up and set out for Allentown. 

Our clearance was as filed [SEG, ETX, DIRECT at 7000], and we blasted off into the clouds.  As I was 400 feet off the ground, I became a bit miffed that the gear was not extending as expected.  "Fly the plane.. it will fly just fine with the gear down and you're too high to hit anything."  I accelerated to 90 kias and the gear happily retracted.  Hmmm... 

After about 8-10 minutes in the soup, we emerged into quite a beautiful site...

Between layers near Clearfield, PA (KFIG) at 7000. 

 
Between layers near Clearfield, PA (KFIG) at 7000
...yes, this is a major reason why I fly.  We had a few trips into the clouds and of course a descent through them.  All was well and I had been cleared for a visual approach to Queen City.  I was listening to the weather at this point, and apparently I didn't hear them trying to call me so that I could be turned for traffic (I still had a few clouds through which to descend).  Oops.

Our landing on 15 was very reasonable.  As I looked straight ahead of me, I can see why IFR departures are not authorized off of 15.  There is one large mountain that is a bit hard to get over, and to the left of the extended center line there are very high and nasty looking towers.  I remembered them from my last trip, but this was a different perspective.

A First Flight

Fortunately for me, 401 was not going to get all of those days off.  My friend Phil was again bugging me to take him flying.  Since I was feeling good, we found a night that worked, borrowed a friend's car (whose father is a pilot, so she totally understood! - Thanks, Angela), and headed out to the airport.  Phil was full of 1000 questions, which was fine.  Satisfied that our plane was ready, we hopped in and carried out the pre-takeoff rituals on our way over to 15.  

Remember that mountain?  It was still there.  I elected to do a short-field take off even though I did not really need to (or so I thought).  Following the checklist, I engaged the gear auto-extend override so that the gear would retract when I asked it to.  And it would have, too had I remembered to retract the gear once we got a bit off the ground.  While I am confessing, I might as well say that short field take offs work better when you fully brief the procedure.  Everything was fine, except that rotation and initial climb speeds are 10 knots less than a normal take off.  Oh, and of course gear retraction should happen earlier as well.  I'm glad I practiced this, though... I would need it later in the week.  

Once we leveled off, I let Phil fly the plane under very close supervision and coaching.  The grin was ear to ear, and he commented on how gently I make control inputs.  We flew down to Lancaster (KLNS - a new airport for me) where I had a beautiful flare over the numbers and down within commercial PTS [that's been on my mind a lot lately].  We turned back, and after leveling off Phil wanted me to demonstrate some maneuvers. A flow and airspeed check, and then I rolled into a 50 degree bank steep turn.  It was progressing quite nicely and well within PTS, but Phil was quite uncomfortable with the "6-7 G's" he was convinced we were pulling. 

"Well it was more like 1.6 or so."

"No way, I thought the wings were going to come off."  

Next, I took him through a lazy 8.  He then asked to see a stall.  I chose a power-off clean configuration because it is a bit less intimidating and clean would have us stalling faster.  Just as things were starting to get interesting and we crossed about 75 knots, the *^&% gear dropped.  "What the hell is it doing?"  Not a welcome exclamation, but as I recovered and accelerated the gear again retracted.  Now, I thought that gear auto-extend was broken?!?!  That's what the placard says.  This lesson was excellently timed - better here at safe altitude then when I REALLY need the darn thing to go up.  This might also explain why the gear did not want to retract a few days earlier when I left KDUJ. 

Phil and I returned back to Queen City for a rather steep approach to 15.  Not my finest approach, but a nice landing still.  We parked and tied down, and then I answered more questions.  Phil was stoked. 

 Cherry Ridge


Since Mrs. Dr. Flying Shrink and I were approaching our 15-year anniversary in a few weeks, we decided that we were going to take a few days to relax and play.  After much deliberation and exploration, we elected to spend some time in the Pocono Mountains.  Our hotel was in Hawley, PA, which made the closest airport Cherry Ridge (N30).  This particular airport provided a number of challenges for me.  The runway is just under 3000 feet long, which would normally be fine out here in the Midwest.  However, hills and very tall trees that seem much higher than the mythical 50-foot obstacle surrounded this airport.  Further, the runway is only 50 feet wide.  Although I can do that (at Galt field 10C, the runway is only 36 feet wide!), it is not my favorite situation.  I feel like I'm coming in very hot, so an airspeed check always happens within 100 feet of the runway.  My confession is that I always do that, but with runways between 75-150 feet wide I am much more familiar with the site picture. 

The morning of our departure would also present us with the additional challenge of an IFR flight and the need to fly an instrument approach.  There are only two at Cherry Ridge, and both are circling approaches.  Although the GPS approach was somewhat closely aligned with 36, our clearance made the VOR/DME-A the best choice.  The ceilings were relatively high and would have us breaking out of the clouds 1400 feet AGL or so, and thus this was the plan. 

Turns out that approaching from the west at near pattern altitude makes the field hard to find until you're practically on top of it.  There was an Arrow doing pattern work for which we were watching quite carefully.  I was just about to climb up when I found the airport and could safety enter the left downwind for 36.  That Arrow was on the ground as we approached, so he was no factor.  

I  need more practice with these types of approaches to airports like this.  Not because I did anything wrong.  I turned final a bit high but was able to recover from that fairly quickly.  It felt like I was going 40 knots fast, but that check of the airspeed indicator confirmed that I was at the very appropriate 75 knots.  There was no headwind component - all crosswind and some shifting between slight headwind and slight tailwind, but even that was negligible.  A flare just before the displaced threshold marker, the stripe between the mains and a soft touchdown confirmed that I've landed a plane before.  But, my anxiety was way too high - not so high that I was unable to  contemplate a go around as I checked airspeed, but high enough to get my passenger's attention.  

We had a great time in the Poconos.  We spent the day we got to the area exploring Hawley and walking about a few areas.  The next day we drove to Milford, where it was "death by chachke shop" and a nice walk out to the Grey Towers.  I did come across one of those white oval car stickers with MILF written in it.  I laughed and said to my wife this does not mean what they think it means (I work with porn addicts, what can I say?).  We stayed at the Settler's Inn, which was a very nice place.  We enjoyed the grounds very much, and the breakfasts and one dinner we ate there were fantastic.  Top notch place.

The Voyage Home

I was very curious to see how our flight time would be different from last year given that we again planned not to stop between DuBois and DuPage.  I expected a very reasonable comparison as our initial departure points were about the same distance from DUJ.  We got everything packed up, I added a quart of oil, and PULLED (yes, pulled) the airplane over the the self-serve pump.  No truck at N30, and I could not justify starting the plane for all the longer it would take me to taxi over.  I topped off the tanks and pushed the plane back around the corner so that we could start up.  

Preparing for takeoff, I set up for a short field take off (and set that gear auto-extend override!).  We accelerated down the runway - again with no real headwind - and rotated at 60 knots.  Lift off, gear up, climb out at 65 knots.  We cleared those very tall trees with a few hundred feet to spare, and I said that this is why we have short-field take off procedures.  What I didn't say out loud but wore into my experience bank account is that this is why we brief the checklist procedure.  

I turned toward the Wilkes-Barre VOR and contacted approach for flight following and to pick up my IFR clearance.  As expected based on the response from Foreflight, I received a direct routing.  A nice flight to KDUJ and smooth landing on 25 ended our "Kinder-Free" time as they ran out onto the ramp when the engine shut down. Of course, they were pretty happy to see us.  I guess I missed them, too. 

After a bit of lunch at Pilot Pete's and getting all of their stuff in the plane, we took off for home.  I had spent considerable time during lunch reviewing the weather as we were expecting some nasty thunderstorms to enter the Chicago area at some point that day, and when they did we could expect things to be shut down for several hours.  It might make passage impossible.  I explained this to my family, and laid out the options where we could comfortably divert for the night.  My kids were cheering for a diversion so that we could stay in a hotel with a pool.  I guess that this is a great reframe.  Considering PAVE, this did eliminate the external pressures of the family but not the pressure of the guy who wanted the plane the next day for his own cross country flight. 

Above when I was noting lessons regarding IFR flight, I forgot to mention that one can spend a lot of time burning fuel waiting on a release.  While this is often no a big deal at rural airports, KDUJ has service to Cleveland.  Last year, I waited 15 minutes before I could finally take off.  Another very good reason to depart VFR and pick up a clearance in flight if able.  

As we were in our climb, I called Cleveland center and received my clearance as filed.  I should have known better.  I dealt with what I expected from the Chicago area, but Cleveland gave me a re-route (but made Youngstown the barer of bad news).  It's not that the routing itself was terrible, but had I known about it sooner I could have saved a few minutes.  My instrument DPE stated that he burned a lot of unnecessary fuel in IFR flying, and I think I have a more full understanding of this now.  

We had another pretty minor reroute, but nothing all that unusual.  I had hoped to cancel IFR and again skirt along Midway's airspace, but this was not an option as the ceilings and visibility were marginal.  As we motored along at 8000, we popped out of a cloud only to see a very ominous looking rain cloud ahead.  It was dark, puffy with some "nice" vertical development and looked pretty bumpy.  I requested a descent to 6000, but was denied for traffic.  I was informed that I could have 7000, and I agreed to this.  Knowing what I was in for, I slowed to maneuvering speed and I called out for the family to hold on as I expected bumps.  

And it was bumpy.  I was in a 400-foot-per-minute descent from 8 to 7000 , and immediately was shot back up to 8000.  And then a drop.  After about 10 minutes of this enjoyment, we came out the other side of this cloud and all was calm again.  At the same time, I was thinking about fuel management.  I was not sure if I was going to have to fly an approach, but if I did that would add a solid 30 minutes because we were coming from the southeast ,and a strong wind was coming from the southwest.  Fortunately, that was not required as I broke out to about 6 miles visibility but below the ceiling.  I entered the pattern and had a nice touchdown on 20L.  

Total time N30-KDUJ-KDPA: 5.8 hours
Last year time KXLL-KDUJ-1G0-KDPA - 7.4 hours.  

Thus, it seems I probably saved some time by avoiding the stop.  However, some of the time difference must be attributed to rather unfavorable headwinds on our trip last year.   As for fuel management, all was well.  I landed with about 1.75 hours of fuel remaining.

Summary of Lessons Learned or Reinforced

As with any flight or series of flights, there are always lessons to be learned or that are reinforced.  
1.  It is often better to depart VFR when able and pick up a clearance in flight (if at all).  Time can often be reduced, whether by avoiding unfavorable routing or not waiting for an aircraft that's been on the ground for 10 or 15 minutes from cancelling.  

2.  When something that can affect the flight characteristics of your aircraft is placarded inoperative (e.g., gear auto-extend), fly the plane as if it works so as to avoid unpleasant surprises.  
3.  Make sure to brief procedures that either you do not use that often or when you fly multiple aircraft.  We have checklists and Flight Information Manuals for a reason.  

4.  Seek out those anxiety-provoking but otherwise perfectly safe situations to develop comfort.  It will not only keep you thinking about the flight, but it will make it easier to detect a real problem.  

5.  Fly the plane.  It flies just fine with the flaps in take-off or the gear down or a dead headset or whatever.   

6.  Anticipate problems with weather or whatever and account for them in one's planning.  

7.  When flying to an unfamiliar airport, do your research.  I did this with N30 and to a lesser extent with KLNR.  However, my decision to fly to KDEC was pretty spontaneous as I was not sure how much time I'd need to fly off before parking.  I wish I had known to be on the look out for those towers rather than being surprised by them.  "Oh, there they are" verses "what the hell are those doing there" really lends itself to more enjoyable flying.   

Sunday, June 1, 2014

AOPA Fly-In at Indianapolis

So, Where Have You Been?

Sad... it's been about three months since I've rolled through these parts, with my last post being a brief one regarding pilot mental health.  Really, one should go to the article to which I linked and review some of the comments that were left.  As a clinical psychologist with specialized interest in working with men in therapy, I have heard just about all of that before.  It still bothers me, though. 

I have not had much to write about recently.  We will not soon forget the horrific winter we had that seemed to never want to end, which resulted in quite a few scrubbed missions.  I even had to cancel a flight for practice approaches and other fun at the beginning of May because of an icing threat at 2000 feet MSL.  Really?  In May?  As of this writing I have a whopping 26.9 hours for the year, with 4.3 of that coming within the last few days.  Most of what I have been able to do has been fun, but not really qualifying as adventure or anything like that.  

Off to Hoosier-land

I have been looking forward to the AOPA Fly-In in Indianapolis since these were announced months ago.  I have had a plane reserved for months to make sure that I had a seat for some stick time for this event.  I have wanted to partake in the fly-in experience for some time, and this provided a great opportunity.  I was one of the major instigators for a club fly-out to the event, though our fleet was rather small this time as illness, unexpected commitments, and the "NOTAM-W" (W for "wife" - a dreadful combination of AIRMETs Tango and Zulu coupled with communication malfunctions) for at least one member left us with just one club plane going and another member flying down in his own plane. 

Based on experience and comfort, it was decided that I would fly from DuPage (KDPA) to Indianapolis Regional (KMQJ).  I was jazzed, and preparations commenced.  

Flight Planning, Preparation, and Getting Night Current

AOPA released a NOTAM and other instructions, and both my flying partner and I put the waypoints in ForeFlight to ease our transition through the airspace.  We both had studied the published procedures so that we were not caught off guard by any instructions we were given.  It unsurprisingly amazing just how much easier the whole thing is when you know what to expect.  Despite these preparations, I still filed an IFR flight plan.  As we will see later, this was rather moot.  

As part of the preparations, I needed to get night current.  My flying partner for the Fly-In is not instrument rated, and though we expected very nice weather and his flying the route back, one just never can be too prepared.  I had several flights where my currency would have been updated get canceled due to weather, and thus my currency lapsed.  Even Tuesday before the flight out we got Thunderstorm threats and IFR conditions.  The man I was to fly with is instrument rated... in helicopters.  But the weather was poor and neither of us likes to fly in thunderstorms, we scrubbed.  That left flying Friday night before leaving Saturday morning.

Val and I hopped in our club's Archer N41598 and he flew us over to Rochelle (KRPJ), where we enjoyed a nice dinner and conversation about life, the club, flying and whatever.  We had never flown together before or had much time to talk, so it was nice.  I was particularly interested in his experiences flying helicopters in the military.  After sunset, Val headed out to the plane and took three laps around the patch to reinstate his own night currency.

After he shut down, we switched places (him the bench outside the FBO, and me the left seat).  I then took my own three laps.  As I turned final for runway 7, I noticed one of the things I really hate about landing at night at small airports... the dreaded black hole illusion.  I really dislike that feeling and the inability to judge distance from the ground.  There is no visual glide slope at RPJ, which of course exacerbates the problem.  There is an LPV RNAV procedure, but I don't think I was going out far enough to pick up its glideslope either.  That means I have a tendency to come in high, which of course is better than the alternative.  Lesson #1 from my first attempt: how about a flare?  I rounded out but landed flat and with a lot more feeling than I would have preferred (hard enough to wonder how many bolts I shook loose).  

I thought that over as I back-taxied on 7 (there are no taxiways at Rochelle), and reconfigured the plane for my next attempt.  Lap number 2 went much more smoothly as I flared over the numbers and on the mains just like the plane prefers.  Lap number 3 was similarly pretty good.  After taxiing over to pick up Val, we headed back for DuPage.  Landing number 4 for the evening was a bit long, but still passable and no bolts were shaken loose.  

The time was now 10:30 pm, and I had to be back at the airport at 6:30 am to leave for Indianapolis.  With an hour-plus drive each way, I had already rented a hotel room so that I was better rested for the day.  

Off to Indianapolis...

The next morning, Stan and I met and prepared our Archer for departure (see what I did there... I promise I did it without planning).  He was wondering why someone left their Halos in the plane.  "Because I knew I was going to be flying it again this morning" was my answer.  A good chuckle.  As with the previous evening, this was the first time I have ever flown with Stan.  It was another good chance to expand my relationships with members of the club and add to my list of flying buddies. 

I had filed EON then direct, but I got a mostly reasonable clearance of EARND ELANR EMMLY JAKKS VHP then direct.  I say mostly because the Brickyard VOR (VHP) is on the west side of Indianapolis near.. you guessed it, the Speedway.  We were cleared for takeoff and on a 180 heading for quite a while, then we were cleared direct JAKKS.  I was hearing a lot of that intersection, and it became clear that this was just how Indy Approach was routing everyone in.  

As we flew south of Lafayette (KLAF), Grissom Approach informed us that they were no longer accepting traffic at MQJ because it was full.  We advised Grissom that we wanted to go to our planned alternate Indianapolis Metropolitan (KUMP).  We were then advised that no IFR traffic was being accepted into this airport unless it had been previously filed.  Rather than arguing that it was my planned alternate, we canceled IFR and asked for flight following in.  Stan and I got to work on devising an alternate alternate since it seemed from what the controller was saying that we could have a hard time getting to UMP.   There were a few other machinations here, but the short version is that it was not that the field was full but that something apparently happened and that the holding patterns got stacked up.  By the time we arrived at Morse Reservoir, things had cleared up and we could still get to Indy Regional.  

Traffic was NUTS.  There were a lot of planes, one had to be very quick on the radio to get a word in, but the controllers at Indianapolis Approach all deserve a big raise.  They handled some craziness like champs.  The VFR procedure was well planned, worked pretty well in my view, and touchdown on runway 7 was pretty smooth.  With the guidance of the volunteers, we got ourselves to a parking spot along the taxiway parallel to 16/34.  

A Brief Public Service Announcement

My fellow aviators, can we please talk about radio discipline for just a minute?  Seriously, some of the things I heard yesterday really bothered me.  Of course we hear these things all the time, but I think for me hearing them all repeatedly and in such a compressed time it really got my goat.  

First, where specifically in the Pilot/Controller Glossary do we find such entries as "Tally ho" and "Here we go?"  While I am not the radio master and I surely could be more "correct," these phrases are confusing and honestly make you sound like a cowboy.  I don't want to share airspace with cowboys.  I realize that this is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to earn the label of cowboy, but I have found it to be a pretty reliable indicator.  

Second, read the damn NOTAM.  There was at least one person who clearly did not know what he was doing.  He was insisting to go direct MQJ, but the controller sternly informed him that this was not going to happen.  When asked if he had read the NOTAM and procedures, he insisted that he had.  Based on the questions this pilot was asking, the controller clearly did not believe him.  I didn't either.  

Third, if you are going around for the third time and you've decided that you've had enough, by all means state your intention to depart and how you're going to do that.  But do not give us a commentary on the CTAF about how dangerous it is.  Based on what I was hearing on the radio, part of the problem might have been poor separation at times (which might not be that particular pilot's fault).  There was also a disabled aircraft off the south side of the runway, which was plenty clear but may have made some people nervous. 

Speaking of poor separation, do not push pilots to depart sooner than they are comfortable given the traffic situation.  More on that in a minute.  

I hope that some of these pilots went to the radio communications safety seminar that was given by some folks from the Air Safety Institute.  

A Few Words About the Fly-In

I'm bad.  I partook of very little of the offerings.  I did walk around the exhibits where I ran into an instructor who flew with me a few times during my private training.  He is now a jet jockey and is preparing to go to "Phenom school" in a week or so (jealous a bit).  It was nice to catch up with him and get a glimpse of the Eclipse he was showing off .  He told me that they have a hard time keeping pilots, and that anyone with ATP minimums would get strong consideration for a position. 

I also had a chat with a friend from college that is involved in maintaining a Harpoon.  It was nice to see him and talk about how things have been for us since college.  We know about each other's doing from social media, but in person is always better.  

Our club president and I attended a seminar given by Mark Epner, who is president and one of the founders of Leading Edge Flying Club at KPWK.  He gave a very nice presentation on how LEFC does things, and they have a very strong membership at an airport where AvGas is very expensive.  Yet they make it work and have aircraft that have a lot of the gizmos that I appreciate as a pilot.  I seriously considered joining them when I was shopping for a club.  Both of us got some very good ideas to help us think about things regarding our flying club and how we can work to make it stronger. 

The airshow was interesting if brief.  Plus EAA had their B-17 there and people were getting flights.  I showed a picture to my daughter, and she smiled big as she remembered our visit to the bomber as well.

We did not get there in time for the breakfast I paid for, but we did get lunch with a HUGE pork tenderloin.  I've never had one of these outside of the Hoosier state, but I'm sure they exist other places.  

Departing

It was time to depart, and Stan and I headed over to the plane to make our way out of there.  It was his turn to fly and I would help out as he asked.  We had already decided that I would request flight following at the appropriate time.  Of course, there was a line to depart.  One of the most frustrating things about this was the pressure that pilots were exerting on each other to hurry up and take off.  Someone claiming to be a CFI stated that this was pilot controlled, that there was no hold-short line and that multiple aircraft could be on the runway at the same time.  So, as one plane began the takeoff roll, another would taxi into position and follow.  At times, the separation was well under 1000 feet.  Feeling this pressure but not flying, I said to Stan that he should start his takeoff roll when he felt it to be safe and appropriate and not a minute before - no matter what others are saying.  I don't know if what that CFI was saying was accurate, but legal is not always the same as safe.  

I confess to really watching that all checklist items were done because it was a higher pressure situation, and having two people checking things out couldn't hurt.  I know that Stan appreciated this, and had I been flying I would have as well.  As one might imagine, the traffic advisory was going crazy.  We had a plane pass underneath us; I can only assume he departed right behind us and passed underneath to get by us.  Really?  

As we crossed pattern altitude and got a little ways from the airport, I called Indy Approach to request flight following.  Unfortunately, we got dropped with the handoff to Grissom.  Then Grissom dropped us instead of handing us off to Chicago Center.  Approach never accepts VFR flight following hand offs, so that was expected.  I don't know what was going on, except that apparently workload did not allow for coordination between sectors.  

The flight back was a bit more bumpy, but all in all things went well.  We made it back to DuPage and Stan got us on the ground safety even in the face of some interesting winds.  

Final Thoughts and Milestone

This was a great time.  We had a lot of good flying that was full of challenges that were handled competently, saw some interesting things and otherwise just had a good time.  The three of us from the club who were there spent a lot time discussing flying,  the club and life in general.  I also enjoyed getting to know members with whom I have had very little interaction.  
I also hit an aviation milestone.  When I shut the engine down at MQJ, I hit the 300 hour mark... literally.  I have exactly 300.0 hours, with 239.9 PIC.  Once I cross 250 hours PIC, I hope to get connected with Lifeline Pilots down in Peoria to do some charity flying for those needing non-emergency medical transport.   That will be another great excuse to fly.

The Flying Shrink and N41598 pose for a picture at KMQJ before we departed

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pilot Mental Health

Today I saw a posting by Jamie Beckett over at General Aviation News regarding the difficulties many pilots have in recognizing, admitting and ultimately addressing mental health distress. Instead, he believes that we are likely to suffer without treatment and perhaps will turn to various substances for self-medication.

It is really hard to dispute this. 

As we are all aware, the majority of the pilot population is male and it therefore might not shock us to learn that aviation culture is dominated by hegemonic masculine gender norms.  On average, men are less likely to admit any type of distress because we view it as weakness.  We instead tend to be driven by norms identified by Joseph Pleck - Be a Sturdy Oak.  No Sissy Stuff.  Give 'em Hell.  We can see that these injunctions set the stage not only to avoid getting help, but also may have something to do with those hazardous attitudes that the FAA keeps trying to get us to recognize. 

By the way, research on organizational culture shows that even women operating within a culture dominated by such destructive norms tend to adopt them as well.  For example, female police officers tend to operate as if driven by these same hegemonic masculinity norms. 

I think that Mr. Beckett makes an important call for us to not only look internally, but also at the culture of aviation in order to help our brothers and sisters to take better care of themselves and to make themselves better pilots in the process. 

** I am aware that some may be dismayed about the broad generalizations that I am making here. Fair, but do see that I used words such as "on average" and "tend" because of course individual results may vary. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

2013: Year in Review

Wow!  What a year. It has been full of flying, a few new-to-me airplanes, and a couple of big accomplishments.  At the beginning of 2013, I set out several goals.  

  • Fly at least 100 hours (do all GA pilots say this?)
Did I ever.  I actually flew 142.1 hours (well, to be honest 2.9 of that was in a simulator).  I spent far more time in the air then I ever thought I would... which probably explains why I have less money than I think I should.  Funny how that works.  
  • Fly at least 15 hours at night
I came pretty close with 12.9.  I had a few night flights scrubbed for various reasons, and honestly I'm still a bit nervous about night flight.  Almost all of those hours are with another pilot on board as either a safety pilot as I practiced approaches or we were going somewhere together.  I did complete my first [partially] night cross country through on my way back from Lunken (KLUK) in Cincinnati.  I have very little time with any non-pilot at night, which is where the "Holy &%$^ Approaches" tag comes from.  
  • Fly at least 70 cross-country hours
I actually racked up 94.8 cross country hours this year, with a decent chunk of that came when I took my family on vacation in July.  It was on this return trip that I logged my longest cross-country to date from Queen City (KXLL) to DuPage (KDPA) with stops at DuBois (KDUJ) and Wood County (1G0), which took 7.4 hours by itself.  More on these adventures later . 
  • Complete my instrument rating.  
I successfully passed my instrument check ride on July 19, 2013.  That was a very challenging day as the winds were anything but calm.  I wrote about the test in detail here, so I won't rehash it.  
  • Complete Complex Endorsement and required transition training in our club's Arrow. 
Done and done.  The complex endorsement was completed May 18, and I managed to log a total of 68.6 hours in the aircraft before it suffered a gear-up landing and was totaled in October.  Fortunately, our club has just procured a new-to-us Piper Arrow but it is not yet on the line as there are some things that need to be addressed before it's ready for prime time.  

My other times for the year look like this:
  • Time for 2013: 142.1 hours
  • Total Instrument Time: 69.2 hours
    • Simulated instrument time: 39.3 hours.  
    • Actual Instrument Time: 26.9 hours
    • Simulator Time: 2.9 hours
  • 100 total Approaches
    • 67 Simulated Approaches
    • 26 in Actual IMC
    • 7 in the simulators
  • Total time as of 12/31/13: 273.1 hours

Other Major Accomplishments and Notable Events

    • Completed three WINGS phases
    • Added a total of three airplanes to my "fleet:" A Piper Archer III, A Piper Arrow IV (although the club's newly acquired Arrow is an Arrow III), and a Diamond Star DA-40.  Each of these planes has something to commend it, but I will say that I am most comfortable in the Arrow.  It's the most stable of these planes in my view, and I may be biased since I had far more time in it than the other two combined.  
    • Gave three first flights - Flying Shrink's Mama, The Old Marine, and Killer.  
    • Landed at many new airports: KVYS (Illinois Valley/Peru); KUNU (Dodge County, WI); KCMI (Champaign, IL); 1G0 (Wood County, OH); KFDY (Findley, OH); KOVS (Boscobel, WI); I68 (Warren County, OH); KAXQ (Clarion, PA); KFIG (Clearfield, PA); KXLL (Queen City/Allentown, PA); C09 (Morris, IL); 39N (Princeton, NJ); KALO (Waterloo, IA); KLUK (Lunken/Cincinnati, OH); and KSQI (Whiteside County, IL).  The most important to me though was KDUJ (DuBois, PA).  As I mentioned before, this airport was built on my great-grandparents' farm.  
    • Added four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Iowa.  
    • I made a number of longer cross country flights that offered plenty of learning.  I wrote about a few of them previously (flying to PA for my grandmother's funeral, family vacation).  A few others of note:
      • I had a very difficult IMC flight from KDPA to KLUK in October.  I went to Cincinnati for three days of continuing education sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, which is of course the best excuse ever to fly.  I spent a solid 1.5 hours without seeing anything except the instrument panel.  I also had the pleasure of 50 knots straight on the nose for a whopping 80 knot ground speed on a TAS of 130.  That flight was no joke.  It was taking a lot longer than advertised, and because the plane was only fueled to tabs I was beginning to think I was going to have a fuel problem.  I had plenty of landing options, and was very carefully considering my fuel burn.  
      • I put the family in a Skyhawk to fly from KDPA to I68 so that we could visit friends in Cincinnati.  I had calculated the weight and balance, and again when I got back on the ground.  Despite being properly trimmed the plane jumped off the runway at about 45 knots with the stall  horn blaring.  That's not cool.  I quickly put the nose in a less aggressive climb attitude and rough trimmed.  It turns out yelling "oh, s***" is a very unwelcome utterance with non-pilot passengers.  We also had to leave earlier as we had to beat in some thunderstorms.  
      • I took a flight out to Waterloo, IA just because.  

    Goals for 2014

    It feels like it would be pretty hard to top this year.  However, I do have a few things to shoot for:

    • Fly at least 110 hours (this feels like a downgrade from last year...)
    • Fly at least 70 hours of cross country time
    • 20 hours of night flying
    • Begin training for the Commercial SEL.  
    • Taking after Steve, I want to lose an hour's worth of fuel from my waist.  I've been griping about planes and their weight and balance limitations, and honestly I am the biggest culprit over which I have any control.  Hard stuff, but I have a few "incentives" for myself.  At unspoken intervals:
      • Transition training for something speedy and better useful load.  I am considering an SR-22 for this, but I'm a bit perplexed by some of the things I'm reading about safety, ease of overcontrol particularly in the pattern, and the like.  I have also found a place that rents a V-tail Bonanza, but it fits me like a sardine can.  
      • Take some upset recovery training.
      • THIS.  'Nuff said.... other than we are talking a lesson.  
    • A few other goals that are harder to quantify:
      • Improving stick and rudder skills - seems they degrade some when you focus on instrument training.  Mine are not bad, but I want them sharper.  
      • Continuing to stay even further ahead of the airplane
      • Spend time in the simulator drilling things that just do not make sense in the airplane.  During my last session, I had a near total loss of engine power in IMC.  We'd have lived, and Fort Wayne would have needed a new fence. 
    • Complete at least two charity benefit flights.  There is always Pilots and Paws, but after crossing the 250 hours PIC time I can get involved in Lifeline Pilots.  I should cross that threshold soon.  

    Happy flying!  

    Saturday, November 30, 2013

    L'Dor V'Dor (From Generation to Generation)

    On November 26, I had a very interesting and unique opportunity: to take both my father and maternal grandfather for their first flights in a small airplane.  Unfortunately, this had to be done in two separate flights because we all take up more of a share of the weight limitations of the planes I can fly than any of us would like.  On the bright side, I got to fly more... ok, I guess that makes up for it.  Since the plan was to fly along the Chicago shoreline, the clouds just had to be "high enough."  Despite a 3500 foot overcast, the ride was quite smooth. 

    "Killer"

    Ever since I was a young child, I have called my grandfather "Killer."  The story goes that when I first met him (they lived a long way away), I kept asking him what his name was.  Apparently, I was smart enough to question his answer of "Killer."  However, the playful name has always stuck.  Tuesday morning, Killer and I got in the car and headed for Waukegan (KUGN) to load up in one of Skill Aviation's Skyhawks.  On the drive up, we talked about a number of things - possibly more than he and I have ever sat and discussed.  We talked about his transition to being a widower (I talked about my flight home to bury my grandmother here), his move into a smaller apartment in an assisted living facility, and his experience with small aircraft.  Turns out his last trips in small aircraft included helicopters, large munitions, and Korea.  I explained that I did not expect any anti-aircraft fire on today's flight.  

    We arrived at Skill, and after the pre-flight we loaded up 97VA, a G1000-equipped model that would serve as our trusty steed for the day.

    "Killer" and the Flying Shrink preparing to depart Waukegan (KUGN)
    Getting Killer into this plane was a challenge, but it would have been impossible for him to crawl into the Diamond Star.  Although Killer is pretty stoic overall, even he was having a hard time containing his excitement.  The pre-flight briefing was delivered, and we lit the fires and prepared for departure.
    We lifted off of Runway 23 and headed south toward Gary, Indiana (KGYY).  Normally, I would hand fly this trip, but today I used the auto-pilot more than I might have otherwise because I really wanted to show Killer the sites (I'd say it was a 65/35 split).  He had not seen it before, and honestly may not get a chance to see it again.  He is 82 and not in the best of health.  As I would glance over at him, he was still having a hard time containing his smile. 

    As we approached Gary, I explained the normal traffic pattern as I expected this to feel quite unusual to him.  After initially being cleared to land on 20 (essentially a right base to final turn coming from the north), the clearance was changed to enter right traffic for 30 for conflicting traffic.  Now, that was a mighty large jet that touched down ahead of me for not receiving a warning about wake turbulence.  However, I made my own correction and all was well.

    We taxied back to 30 and I sent a text message to my mother that they should leave "now."  I thought that was pretty unambiguous, but as we shall see it caused confusion.  Lifting off again we were enroute to Chicago Executive (KPWK) as this airfield is the closest to my home.  The plan was that we would land there, have lunch, and then I'd give my second first flight of the day.  As we worked our way in from the shoreline, I continued pointing out landmarks such as my house and things near my home.  "Man, we are awful close to the ground."  Indeed, we were at 1700' MSL, which is just around 1000' AGL.  I explained that the jet traffic into O'Hare does not appreciate us in their way, and that getting too much higher would result in an uncomfortable conversation with the FAA.

    Touchdown on 34 at PWK was not exactly a greeser, but it was good enough and got the approval of the passenger.  Perhaps I'm too hard on myself.   As I got into Signature, I sent another message to my mother wondering where they were.  Just leaving?!?!?!?!  Sigh.  I guess we will have a cup of coffee and wait for them.  Killer said several times that he really enjoyed our flight, which of course made me smile. 

    Snow what?

     As we waited for my parents to arrive, I of course took the opportunity to check the weather.  I noticed in flight that things to the northwest did not appear as advertised, and some time with Foreflight confirmed this.  The overcast layer was getting lower, some visibility challenges were occuring that direction, and the snow and associated IFR conditions were expected around 3 pm.  It was going to be after 1 when they got to the airport, and a 2 pm departure was very optimistic.  No lunch for me... a granola bar would have to hold me until returning the plane to KUGN.  By the time my parents arrived, I had determined that my father and I could fly down the shoreline as planned and turn around abeam Soldier Field.  This should get us in well before the expected snow, though I was mentally prepared to fly the ILS 23 approach if things got crazy.  Of course, it was COLD complete with an Icing AIRMET so the clouds were about the last place I wanted to be.  If I had to fly an approach, visibility was going to be my problem.  

    The Old Marine

    Truth is, I come from a line of Marines.  My father, both my grandfathers and other family members were all Marines.  My uncle went to the Air Force, and we're still not sure how that happened.  You also have to understand that in my family the Navy is part of the Marine Corps and not the other way around.  We just have to let the Navy feel better about itself.  My father, a Vietnam vet who worked on F-4 Phantoms and talks about his "low power" license for run-ups and maintenance checks, really was not excited when I agreed to meet with the Marine recruiter before my senior year of high school.  My ASVAB scores were apparently really high, and the recruiter said that normally he has to look at the different types of jobs available in the Marines and cross out what is not available based on those scores.  But there was only one thing he had to scratch off for me... pilot.  Apparently, one must have perfect vision to fly in the Corps.  He never said so, but I don't think the Old Marine wanted me to go into the military.  He would have supported me, but he never encouraged me in this direction.  Perhaps he knows my penchant for not liking orders. 

    The Old Marine had never actually flown in a small aircraft before, but some of his accommodations between the States and Vietnam make the Skyhawk seem luxurious.  

    The Old Marine and the Flying Shrink prepare to depart KPWK
     
    I explained the weather situation to the Old Marine, and we agreed that it was best to get on with it.  After liftoff, we headed quite directly to the shoreline.  I contacted approach control so that I was already on frequency and set up with a squawk code in case that pop-up IFR clearance was required.  The Old Marine also had questions and we talked about the sites, about flying and other matters.

    As we reached Soldier Field, things to my east did not look friendly.  I turned slightly east and then warned the Old Marine that we were going to have a pretty tight turn to avoid overflying buildings and such.  Personally, 30 degrees of bank is not all that much but it seemed prudent to warn him so he didn't worry that we'd go for a swim.

    Turned out that the ugly weather never materialized, and we made a nice stable straight-in for 32.  The winds had certainly picked up and were gusty but right down the runway.  As we are about 800' AGL, my father points out that he would not mind having a tree stand about where we were to aid his deer hunting efforts.  I forgot to mention that sterile cockpit thing to him, but said something after I chuckled.  Smooth touchdown and roll out along with a taxi back to Skill rounded out our flying. The Old Marine had a good time as well - a pretty big smile.  I got some grief from the fine folks as Skill for bringing back a different person than the one I left with.

    The Old Marine and I were hungry, so we headed to an Irish pub for a late lunch.  Since the flying was over, the Guinness was flowing.  See how that worked? 

    Friday, October 11, 2013

    There But for the Grace of God...

    Recently, one of our club planes was involved in an incident/accident.  This occurred at night, and I learned about it from a Chicago-area aviators Facebook page the next day.  My exclamation of "oh my Lord!" got my wife's attention, and that was less than ideal given that I would like her to fly with me once in awhile.  But honestly I could not contain my concern for the pilot. 

    Throughout the morning after the incident, I was able to gather the most important information - that the pilot was unhurt except for his pride, and I have a reasonable picture of the basic facts.  It would be imprudent to share them at this time, but suffice it to say that it has led me to think about how we as pilots deal with incidents and accidents.

    In the last 12 months, we have seen a few major accidents from major carriers that have garnered national news and what seems like too many GA accidents in my area.  We've had a surgeon and his wife killed in a Cirrus near Clow (1C5), a fuel-exhaustion accident on approach to Chicago Executive (KPWK), and an emergency landing of an experimental aircraft on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago.  In the last two, no one was seriously injured. 

    In each of these incidents, I sought as much information as I could about what occurred so that I could learn from these incidents.  I confess that I sometimes have to fight back some judgment and righteous indignation about what happens.  If the comments of some pilots on discussion boards and Facebook groups are any indication, not only am I not alone but some of us are completely unconcerned about it.  I pray I never lose sight of pride going before the fall.   

    But I really have a hard time understanding how one can run out of fuel... until I put myself in the situation of having plenty of fuel for my trip but due to storms making such broad deviations that all my reserves are burned up.  I can relate to this.

    And I can't understand how a father with two of his three kids and the friend of one of them on board can continue flying in IMC despite not being instrument rated and ATC trying to help him land.  The Air Safety Institute put a program together from this fatal accident, and it was hard not to well up as I listened to the pilot's communications with ATC.  Honestly, I can hear the fear in his voice.  Yet, his decision making was very poor as his not wanting to be weathered in overrode getting him and his passengers on the group.  But suppose you really have to be somewhere and you are already in the air.  I can relate to this optimism that things will just work out ok.  

    And I can't really understand how one can let one's airspeed decay to such a level that there is a stall/spin accident.  That is, I can't until I put myself there with my kids yelling despite the fact that I've explained to them the need for a sterile cockpit 100 times.  Or I remember that time I went around from a botched landing, and while watching other traffic in the pattern my own airspeed dropped below the green arc.  This is one reason I am frequently cross-checking my airspeed since I do not trust my butt to tell me I'm in trouble. 

    Not so clever now, are you?

    This incident the other night was different.  No, I do not feel judgment about what happened.  I can place myself in that cockpit; in that aircraft and approaching that very same runway.  I've probably done just that within the last 90 days.  I know this pilot.  Not well, but he has been a member of the club for a long time and I do not know a single person who would have said that they would not fly with him.  I would have flown with him that night had that worked out. [And let me be clear - I am not in this forum attempting to say that this was pilot error or any other cause at this point in time]. 

    We can all make mistakes.

    I HAVE made mistakes, and even caused some minor damage to an airplane (this does not need rehashed here... but it is the original reason for the "CURSES" tag).   

    And I have made mistakes that did not result in an incident.  During the flight I wrote about last week, I did not run the pre-landing checklist.  Yes, I did a "GUMPS" check as I crossed the final approach fix (even with a fixed gear since I now fly a retractable).  But I never turned on the taxi and landing lights.  Minor... and I was distracted by flying the approach.  I have forgotten to put the mixture full rich before takeoff TWICE... once with my kids in the plane.  It was this moment that I decided that I was not too good for checklists, and disabused myself of the false belief that I was smart enough to remember everything I needed to do in each phase of flight.      

    I think that we as pilots can look at incidents and accidents with a bit of smugness thinking that we would never do the things that lead to them.  But this is a mistake.   It is in this reflection that the true meaning of "it can happen to me" in the face of invincibility comes to life.


    Saturday, October 5, 2013

    Out to Pasture - The Chanute Air Museum

    I have been looking forward to the chance to take a flight down to Rantoul, Illinois (KTIP) in order to visit the Chanute Air Museum.  This airport was the site of Chanute Air Force Base from 1917 to 1993, and the museum memorializes the history of the base and the city.  Most interesting to me, it has a number of military aircraft (and even a few nuclear missile silos!) on display.  While it was fascinating to learn about all that the museum has to offer, it was also disheartening to see all the aircraft that had clearly seen better days.  Faded paint, corrosion, flattened tires, bird deterrents, and painted glass to protect the cockpits corrupted planes that were far from their prime.  To the staff's credit, there are active efforts to restore these planes so that they can be seen in their former glory.


    However, this P-51 Mustang was absolutely awesome!  There was no one to ask if this aircraft was airworthy, but she sure is beautiful.

    This F-4 Phantom II peaked my interest as my father was a mechanic on these while serving in the Marines in Vietnam (although this is the Air Force version).  He does not tell many stories about the war itself (common amongst veterans, as it turns out), but he does talk about the thrill of running one of these bad boys up to make sure that everything was operating properly after maintenance.  He also mentioned a few shenanigans about "re-assigning" parts from Navy planes.  


    This F-15 is in need of some restoration, but I remember dreaming about flying one of these or an F-14 Tom Cat (thanks, Top Gun) when I was about 12.  Honestly, I still do.

    The museum also has a T-6 Texan and a B-25 Mitchell Bomber that are in the midst of restoration, a Skymaster, a number of other fighters,  a C-130, many other vintage aircraft, and even a room full of old Frasca simulators.  The entire list can be viewed here, thought honestly I don't recall seeing all of these aircraft.  Makes me wonder if I missed part of of the museum.  Eh, guess I'll just have to go back. 


    Over the City and Above the Woods

    I was accompanied on this flight by my mother, who flew with me several months ago along the Chicago shoreline.  This day we would be flying in that Diamond Star DA-40 that I wrote about a few weeks ago.   I initially planned to take the school's G1000-equipped Skyhawk since I knew that she could get in and out with little problem (and I have around 70 hours in type), but because of bad weather Thursday morning it did not fly and thus had too much fuel on board.  I really need to work on my contribution to weight and balance.

    I picked up my IFR clearance: cleared from Waukegan (KUGN) to Rantoul (KTIP) via vectors JORJO - BACEN - BLOKR - RBS - DIRECT.  Some of these are points on the JORJO1.RBS departure procedure.  This took us over the metropolitan Chicago area just west of O'Hare (KORD).  We saw plenty of aircraft coming and going from KORD and KMDW.  

    Departing runway 5, I was turned on headings that essentially took me along the shore line of Lake Michigan until I was turned southwest.  Before long, we had broken through the clouds and were skimming along at 7000.  This was the first time my mother had the experience of going through clouds and being essentially VFR on top (except that there were more clouds and the overcast layer hardly made for a good horizon).  

    As we began our descent into Rantoul, we had to fly an approach in order to come down through the scattered to broken layer.  Smooth sailing and a very gentle touchdown on runway 18 earned some accolades from the very satisfied passenger.  

    Great Hosts

    The folks at KTIP were great.  They set us up in a courtesy car, and suggested a nice little home-cookin' Mexican place called Sol Azteca.  The food was very good; seemed very authentic, tasty, fast and very reasonably priced.  I'd highly recommend checking this place out if you are out that way.  

    After lunch and visiting the museum, we needed to spend a little time at the FBO while we waited out some storms that were passing through the Chicago area.  Soon, we were off and on our way back to UGN... maybe.  

    The Pink Dot

    Picking up my IFR clearance, we were cleared to KUGN via PNT - PLANO - OBK - DIRECT.  We had more time above and through the clouds as we motored along at 8000 MSL.  Based on my weather check at the FBO, I knew that I was going to need to fly an approach into Waukegan, and that I'd expect Runway 5.  I was all set up for that and briefing the approach by the time I crossed PLANO, and as I checked the ForeFlight weather from the Stratus I see the... dreaded... pink... dot.  UGN had gone LIFR due to fog with 200 foot overcast  However, I was flying a non-WAAS aircraft and there is only an RNAV approach into runway 5.  There was no point in flying this approach as the non-precision minimums were far higher than the weather.

    I began considering my options when ATC advised me that two jets had just gone missed from KUGN.  Having checked the weather at other reporting stations, I decided to fly the ILS 16 approach into Chicago Executive (KPWK).  Although I had only flown this particular approach in a simulator, I am very familiar with this airport since I did my private training primarily from this location.  My approach and landing were quite solid, and we taxied to Signature and shut down to enjoy their very comfortable accommodations while I sorted out what I was going to do next.    

    Deliberation

    Sitting on the ground at PWK, I started to review options.  The organization from which I had rented this plane recently stopped operations at PWK, so this removed one option.  It was a 45 minute cab ride home, and I could have taken my wife's car and my mother to retrieve my car from UGN.  I finally got a hold of the owner of the school, who said that he had just come in not long ago on the ILS 23 approach with a slight tailwind but no problems, except that it was right down to minimums.  "Do you think you can do it?"  

    I thought this over for 20 minutes, and decided that the two-axis autopilot that I had been using all day because of my low time in the plane could fly the approach - it didn't know it was dark and down to minimums, after all.  Though I had hand-flown the other two approaches, this seemed to be the time to allow the computer to earn its keep. 

    Earning a Manhattan

    We loaded up in the Diamond Star and were cleared vectors to UGN.  I briefed the approach on the ground because it is a VERY short flight (it was all of 16 minutes according to my track at Flight Aware), and I just wanted to hit the highlights for review in the air.  I had everything loaded up and ready to go when I was cleared for takeoff.  

    I was a bit worried because PWK had been marginal VFR and then went IFR with a 600 foot overcast as I was preparing to leave.  There was a guy who really wanted to depart VFR to the east out over the lake, and the controllers were really trying to talk him out of it.  I hope they did because that would have been pretty high risk.  But I hoped that these changes did not reflect further deterioration at my hoped-for destination.  

    Here was the METAR from my weather briefing: 

    KUGN 042252Z 02004KT 4SM BR OVC002 18/18 A2996 RMK AO2 SLP138 P0001 T01780178

    Now doesn't that look like fun?  I know some of you are jealous.  

    As I am passed off to the departure controller, it occurs to me that I am flying in pretty solid IMC in the dark and flying my first night approach in actual IMC (although I have flown quite a few approaches to minimums in simulated conditions during night flight).  I saw myself as focused, but my mother informs me that she knew I was a bit nervous.  She was thrilled by the whole thing and really enjoyed the entire day of flying, but I had to tell her that I was pretty focused and needed a sterile cockpit until we were on the ground.  She understood and was quiet.  

    "419AM, turn left heading 260 to intercept the localizer.  Cleared ILS 23 approach, maintain 2500 until established."  It's on, and I'm in the soup past my eyeballs.  Two miles from the final approach fix, I am passed off to tower and am cleared to land.  I peak up and see only clouds through the windscreen, but I am on path and glideslope, but a bit fast.  

    Descending through 1600 for 930, I am able to see the ground.  At 1100, I am very happy break out and see the runway.  The controller then states that "things are clearing here if you'd like to circle to land on runway 5, that's approved."  Was this guy crazy?  It was pitch black out, I just broke out and he thinks I might like to circle to land.  Umm... no.  I'll take that five knot tailwind when I have a plane that can be stopped in well under 1500 feet and I have 6000 feet of runway.  "9-Alpha-Mike will stay with 23."  

    Although I floated a bit because I was a bit fast, I had my third gentle and on-centerline touchdown of the day.  "Oh, yeah!" I failed to mention to my mother that this was the first time I had flown an approach at night in actual instrument conditions.  I did offer to send her home in a cab and I'd go by myself, but she insisted on going with me.  However, she claims to have not been worried the whole time.

    Reflections

    I have to say that I would have been far less anxious had I been flying my club's Arrow or Archer because I am so much more familiar and comfortable in them. The only part of the flight I've really spent time reflecting on was my decision to fly the short flight and approach into Waukegan.  It worked out well, and the flight was never in any risk beyond the typical risks of flying in these conditions.  But was we know, night IFR is the riskiest flight in which most GA pilots will ever engage.  Add to this that I was flying a pretty new-to-me aircraft and I had a passenger, and it seems that it was "pretty interesting" to say the least.  

    However, I had been using the auto pilot all day because I was not yet totally confident in my ability to hold altitude solid in this plane.  I always use it while briefing an approach or doing some other task with high cognitive demands.  So although I prefer to hand fly most of the time, this last flight was not the time to decide to give it a go (although as I mentioned above I hand-flew the other two approaches).  It obviously worked out just fine, and fortunately I was overall pretty well practiced in approaches and night current.