Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Lucky Night.

Hmm… there used to be a CN Tower there”. The weather on the morning of my scheduled night cross-country flight did not look promising as low ceilings and some kind of precipitation blanketed downtown Toronto. The aviation forecast however indicated that the low front would pass, skies would clear and the surface winds would die down by the evening. And, amazingly, they did.

Not quite believing my luck, I drove to the airport for my 6pm booking. My luck almost ran out then as the major highway between my house and the airport was closed till 9pm. Luckily, the closure was in the other direction, so by the time I pulled into the airport parking lot, I was hoping I would be flying as there was no way I would be getting home any time soon if flying was cancelled.

Walking to the dispatch desk, I noticed red “No Flying” sign on the information board and asked about it. Apparently, the few inches of snow up north and a few inches of rain downtown came as an inch or two of sheer ice on the field, covering everything, including the rental planes, which are all parked outside. My hopes sinking, I barely caught on to what the person was saying – there was ONE airplane in flyable condition, and my instructor reserved it for MY FLIGHT!

The instructor showed up and we started to look at the weather which was still somewhat unstable. I initially planned a run for Kingston, right along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Seeing that the front was passing West to East, I also planned the route in the other direction – from Buttonville to London, via Newmarket and Orangeville to get me out of Toronto Pearson airspace and allow me to climb higher. Couple of destinations on a way to Kingston reported low ceilings, so that route was out and we shifted focus to London route, which appeared to be in the clear. I checked the upper winds at 6,000 ft (270 at 21 knots), recalculated headings based on wind corrections and the estimated times and filed the flight plan with 7:20pm departure time (giving me 30 mins to do pre-flight and walk around), went out to the field… and almost fell flat on my face.

The apron and field in front of the terminal building were a cross between a skating rink and an Ice Kingdom. I was walking on ice, the taxiways were all ice and ice covered everything in sight, including the airplanes. Walking very carefully, I made way to ‘my’ airplane, the only one on the field not covered in ice… and discovered it was covered by frost instead. Frost on critical surfaces is almost as bad as ice and is a definite no-go in my books. Luckily, the fuel truck stopped by to top up the tanks and I asked if they had a de-ice on a field. They did and he told me where to go. I was starting to worry how long my luck was going to hold.

I finished the pre-flight, we climbed into the airplane and taxied it to de-icing location. Amazingly, the taxiing was not too hard (I guess it would have been much trickier in a tail dragger). Deicing completed, we climbed back in… and then climbed back out and went searching for paper towels to clean the windows. It was 5 mins to 8pm when we finally took off.

Once in the air, following familiar route north to Newmarket, I finally realized that my luck held, relaxed, marked my times and started looking around. It was insanely beautiful night. There were some scattered clouds over Toronto and they were on fire, reflecting the bright lights of the downtown. The visibility along the route was unlimited and all the separate towns shone up brightly surrounded by relative darkness. Flying at 2500 ASL (under 2,000 AGL), I could see Christmas decorations in front of the houses I flew over.

Upon reaching Newmarket, I turned to the closest bright spot in the West – that would have been Orangeville. We also got Flight Following from Toronto Terminal and were allowed to climb to 6,000 – just underneath the arrival path for Pearson airport.

Climbing to 6,000, I marveled how easy it was to navigate by maps at night in the winter. All the towns and settlements were bright spots, all the roads and rail roads were clearly visible against the snow-covered fields. This was my first time ever flying that route and I felt very comfortable, knowing where I was at all times. From Orangeville, I headed straight for London, navigating by Kitchener as my route marker. My instructor had his iPhone on board and he checked conditions at London and reported that it was under an overcast layer. But it was high enough to allow us to come in underneath.

Getting closer to London, we descended underneath the cloud layer and I started looking for the airport. I would have had difficulties finding it, but the ILS approach lighting system and the running blinking lights that it produces, cued me to where the airport was. I got in my clearance from the Tower and landed uneventfully. We parked right in front of the Katana cafĂ© to stamp my logbook. I expected another $100 hamburger place, but this was different. I was very impressed by the settings and the menu – I will definitely want to come back there for lunch or dinner.

Climbing into the airplane for a return trip, I experienced another first – an intersection departure. The Rwy in London was over 8,000 ft long and intersection departure meant 4,000 ft Rwy left – still longer then the Rwy in Buttonville.

Getting out of London zone, we got Flight Following again and asked for a route direct to Buttonville. This would have take us right over Pearson, so we were denied that, but they routed us pretty closely just around Pearson. I did not plant that route, so had to navigate by maps and it worked well. As I was navigating I kept stealing glances towards downtown Toronto and all the towers thinking I’d like to get back there…

Closer to Buttonville, we switched to Tower frequency and got cleared to land almost right away as we were the only plane in that airspace. I came in too close and too high, so had to slip aggressively and discovered that Cessna does not slip as well as Citabria, but got back on a good glide path and had a very nice landing. Back to the Ice Kingdom we went searching for a place to tie the plane down.

And with that flight over, I finally had met all the requirements for the night rating. It was almost exactly two year after I started the night rating with the flight that started this blog

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Night Rating Continued.

Few days following my amazing late season glider flight, Mother Nature took pity, scheduling gods smiled at me and I finally got to fly a Cessna again. At night. After a six months break. It was, to sum it up in one word “interesting”.

In preparation for the flight, I read the POH (pilot operating handbook), reviewed the speeds I was supposed to know by memory and emergency procedures. I then spent some time reading the takeoff, circuit and landing sequences that I wrote down long time ago when I was still learning. From past experiences, I knew that going through the circuit sequence while sitting in the armchair improved my actual “in plane” performance materially, so I do this routine every time I am learning something new. Or remembering something I have not done in a while.

Still, no amount of preparation or armchair flying can compensate for a six-month break, and I expected to be rusty. The length of my absence was further highlighted when my new instructor asked if I had current charts. I was pretty sure mine were not current, but the fact that I was 3 editions behind was a bit of a shock. In fairness, it’s been a long time since I flew cross country as ever since I started flying Citabria, all my flight were local. Luckily, the pilot shop was still opened, so I quickly fixed that issue by acquiring current charts and a CFS, both of which would be required for my night cross country.

I then got the keys to the plane and went out into the elements. I took my time doing the walk-around and pre-flight and then got to my seat and went over every instrument to memorize the location so that I would not be searching for them when I need them. By that time, my instructor climbed in and we were ready to go.

Once I’ve completed the run up and got my ATIS information, I tuned up to the Ground frequency and was surprised to hear how busy it was at that time. It appeared that the Seneca students were doing a training night and there were more planes doing circuits than I have ever seen. Finally there was a break in the rapid-fire clearances and I managed to squeeze in and get our ground clearance. We taxied to the Runway threshold and tuned in to the Tower frequency which was equally busy. Looking at the traffic around us and hearing approaching traffic, it seemed to me that there was a good chance for us to be able to take off and as soon as I reported being at the threshold, we were cleared to line up and almost immediately to take off. Take off was uneventful and soon were we climbing away.

I struggled a bit with the sight picture to get me the 78 knots that I wanted and very rough air did not help. It was a bit frustrating but at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised that I had not forgotten any of the radio work. One advantage of training in the controlled environment from the start – radio work becomes one of the primary skills.

As we turned towards the north and were cleared on route, away from crazy busy circuit, out came the hood and I was on instruments. I was a bit concerned about the bumpiness while on instruments but the GFA indicated that turbulence would stop at 3,000 ft, so as soon as we were clear from Pearson Airport’s inverted wedding cake control zone, we climbed to 3,000 and into the smooth air.

I flew under the hood for a while, doing mostly OK on keeping the wings level and speed and altitude unchanged. We then tried some timed turns which I managed to do fine. Since we still needed to use some time (I was short 0.9 hrs of my instruments requirements), on came the VOR instruments and soon we were navigating towards and away from Simcoe VOR. With the added VOR workload, I dropped a wing a few times, but picked it up before it turned into anything serious. Eventually, we reached the required time and could get rid of the hood and fly us back to the airport with the renewed resolution that I would not want to be in the weather that could turn into Instrument Metrological Conditions under any circumstances.

The winds afloat were fierce and our ground speed was very slow. Which suited me just fine as I was once again looking fully lit downtown Toronto and enjoying every moment of it.

As I tuned into the Tower frequency, I discovered that it got even busier. I inserted my call sign in the small pause and got my clearance into the zone and reporting point. Concentrating on finding the reporting point and then the airport, I did not count the number of the planes on the frequency, but my instructor later said it was 7!

We were coming from the North and landing on Rwy 21, so I expected the right base clearance and got exactly that, in second position behind traffic on left base. I still was not seeing the Rwy, but I saw the traffic and followed his path in the air and finally saw the Rwy lights. I was on a right glide path and speed, but flared too high and too much and landing was ugly. My instructor then suggested that we’d call it a night as trying to do full stop circuits with 6 other airplanes would have been counterproductive and a waste of money. I agreed and we taxied back.

So, at this time, I have all requirements for night rating except x-country. But, because we did not do circuits, I am still non-current. Hopefully, it’ll all come together when the stars align again and the x-country does happen…

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Late Season Surprise.

Through November it looked like the gliding was finished and my sunset flight was the last one of the season. So, I dusted off my power license and decided to re-start the night rating. Three weather related cancellations later, I still had not flown, so when the message popped out on my gliding club’s board that there could be flying on the weekend, I cancelled all plans and decided to drive there.

I spent the morning flying dual circuits in a Citabria. The field was covered in melting snow and there was stiff cross wind, so landings were challenging, but I was finally flying, so nothing else really mattered.

Except, there was something that did matter. Flying the last few circuits in the Citabria, I felt some bumps. Could there be thermals on November 29? Skies soon provided the answer in the form of nicely looking Cumulus. By 1pm, the clouds started forming into the streets and a few gliders that did take off, stayed up for a while.

A friend that I flew the sunset flight with told me he’d be on a field around that time. He showed just as the two seat fiberglass glider landed, so we claimed the glider and were soon up in the air flying trough some definite bumps. I released at 3,000 ft and it did not take us long to find a thermal. And another one, and one more. They were not very well defined or strong, but they were definitely working.

Having gotten closer to the cloud base, we decided to fly under the cloud street. It was working, so we flew straight for a while and were holding altitude. The wind afloat was very strong slowing our progress and breaking up the streets and the thermals, so at some point, the cloud street ended and we turned back towards the field. As I tried to locate the field, I was looking for white runways, but then realized that in the matter of hours the color changed to green as the snow melted. At least I knew where the thermals were coming from.

We got a little low around that time and started looking for more thermals to get back up. Luckily, just as I was getting afraid that we would not find anything good and would have to land, the flock of seagulls decided to show us where the thermal was, so, having done some abrupt course changes, we joined in the thermal underneath them and were soon climbing back to 4,000+ ft. Having gotten under the cloud base, we then decided to follow another street in a different direction.

The other street was working as well and we were making progress flying east, but that also meant that we were flying downwind. My friend eventually decided that we have flown far enough away from club and we turned back and tried to make our way back under the same cloud street. As we flew towards the club, I looked out to the side and for a second felt like I was in a helicopter – our altitude remained unchanged, but so did our position relative to the ground – we were just hovering in space. That was a very neat experience.

Alas, we had to make headway towards the club, so down came the nose to pick up speed and altimeter started unwinding. We were making progress, but it did not seem to be enough and the street became weaker. Just as I started to think I may do my first ever out landing, we flew through the thermal and turned to pick up some height. It took a while, but we eventually got high enough to glide to the field. It was perfect timing as just as we turned towards the field, the clouds started to dissipate.

We arrived at the field with the height to spare and the landing was uneventful. As we rolled to a stop, I stayed in a glider for a while, trying to savor the experience. Eventually, I remembered that my feet were quite cold and we stacked the glider and made our way to clubhouse where I parked myself in front of the fireplace for much needed de-frosting accompanied by couple of beverages and some nice company.

Our flight lasted 2 hours 3 mins