By lex, on April 20th, 2010
I have a confession to make to you, gentle reader. I enjoyed the challenge of hurling 20 tons of titanium ribbed graphite epoxy upon the moving deck of 100,000 tons of cold, pitching steel. I loved me the opportunity to wrestle and wrangle with opposing air forces numbering from one to many through the footless halls of air. I even took a kind of perverse pleasure into going into bad guy country and busting up their gear as they reached and probed to bring me down with surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.
But I never much cared for flying in bad weather.
I learned to do it, of course. That being one of those core competencies of those who would slip the surly bonds of earth in all kinds of conditions. It’s just that I always liked to be able to look outside. And see.
Because the unyielding earth remains ever present even when it is invisible to the unaided eye. Icing can turn your nimble craft into a leaden sled. And hail will turn a finely tuned turbofan engine into a cocked hat before you can say “Bob’s your uncle.”
All of these things are ever so much more difficult to avoid when you cannot see them. And it is truly written that every aircraft that takes wing must eventually return to land. One way or t’other.
So. It came to pass that your humble was required and desired to present himself at a bidness meeting with some subcontractors on a project of no small consequence to his employer, the meeting being held in Los Angeles, at Manhattan Beach. Hawthorne Municipal Airport was a trifling distance from Manhattan Beach. Some 6.3 miles or so, according to Google Maps. We could practically hitch. Though Inglewood.
Two of my co-workers were also required and desired to attend, and I thought: Wouldn’t it be summat of a lark if we flew up there in the club Cardinal, avoiding all of that hellish traffic on the 405? And this being Southern California, where it never rains. According to Albert Hammond, anyway.
Who was a perfidious liar, in the event.
My ordinary flying is for pleasure, and as I have mentioned, I get no pleasure from clagging around in the goo, wondering where it is I’m at, where I’m going, and how I’m going to get there. But the weather forecast wasn’t so very bad: 1500 feet broken, unrestricted visibility. Scattered to broken layers from 7000 feet up. Icing level at 9000. Eminently doable.
It would, however, require an Instrument Flight Rules clearance.
I’ve spent, I would say, a good 60-75% of my military flight experience on IFR clearances. Navy has a decided preference for its aviators to be precise, and an IFR clearance entails a fair amount of precision. You must choose a route, and stick with it. You are assigned an altitude, and are expected to maintain it. Vectors are given with the expectation that they will be conformed with.
Unintentional deviations come with Significant Personal Consequences.
For the most part, it’s only been since I’ve gotten into this whole “general aviation” gas that I’ve found the liberation that comes with flying as and where you will, so long as you don’t bump into anyone, or penetrate some class of restricted airspace. Plus, definitionally, when flying under VFR, you have to be able to see where you are going.
Oh, I was once gifted with a Special Instrument Rating, which offered me the option to say “No” when I was asked to take off from an airfield with zero visibility and ground level ceilings. About 10% of my 4500 hours are in instrument conditions, and I’ve got well over a thousand instrument approaches in my log book. I even completed a recent Biennial Flight Review complete with foggles and instrument approaches, just for the currency that was in it. I fly at least two instrument approaches every month, just to keep my hand in. Just in case.
I just never like it all that much.
Departing IFR out of Montgomery was not much of a thing. We blew through a low scattered to broken deck on the coast in good conditions on our radar vectors to Oceanside, thence Seal Beach and on to the Initial Approach Point at WELLZ (pdf) for the localizer approach to Runway 25 at Hawthorne. The airspace can get tricky in the LA basin, and an IFR clearance has the added benefit of risk sharing with air traffic control. Even in good meteorological conditions I’ve always preferred shooting an instrument approach into an unfamiliar airfield. It’s nice to get dropped off there a half mile on final approach with no doubts as to whether you’re about to land on the correct runway. And being an old pilot, rather than a bold pilot, I’d already flown the route and approach on X-Plane prior to walking out to the machine.
We saw the airfield from several miles out and made an uneventful landing. Taxied up to the “Millionair” FBO for parking and were asked whether we’d consider borrowing their 2010 BMW 535i for a couple of hours to gad about town.
Why yes. Yes we would.
Had our meeting, ate our lunch and headed back to the airport. Which had gone just the teensiest bit pear-shaped, with rain showers and low ceilings. The weather briefer assured me that it was all stuff and nonsense, all the worst of it to the north. We’d be on top and in visual meteorological conditions by 2000 feet or so. Three tops. Never to fret.
Another perfidious liar, in the event.
My non-pilot passengers were quiet and clearly thoughtful as we manned up in the rain, cranked up and took the runway, having been cleared for a route that bore a merely passing resemblance to the one I’d filed for. Having taken the runway and put the spurs to her, I do not believe their confidence in my skills was augmented much – if any – when the pilot’s side door (my door) came ajar at about 40 knots indicated air speed.
These things were so much simpler in fighters, what with their “canopy unlocked” caution lights and audible warning tones, etc.
Your host has become a serious student of general aviation mishaps, and if you yourself have not done so, you’d maybe be surprised to learn how many otherwise perfectly capable machines have been turned into so much gore strewn rubbish by pilots who had failed to adequately secure some class of door or other and attempted to wrestle with the issue during or shortly after take-off. Discretion being ever the greater part of valor, I elected to abort the take-off, secure the door more carefully and try again.
Our second effort was a comparative stroke of aerial genius, but we were in the clag – and I was on the gauges – for the space of a book. My co-workers were gratefully quiet as I focused hard on a complex route in what passes for a complex aircraft. They knew enough to know that I was working hard and needed no distractions. Your primary focus is on the attitude gyro, for all other things depend upon this: Place the machine in the desired attitude with the required combination of throttle, propeller pitch and mixture control and everything else – heading, airspeed, altitude, rate of climb (or descent), ground track – should all work out. So long as you keep cross-checking.
We finally broke out of the weather at 7000 feet and the rest of our flight home was uneventful. Shot the ILS back at Montgomery to Airline Transport Pilot standards, if I must say so myself. In visual conditions, and peeking all the way.
For if you are not cheating, you are not trying, is what they taught us in fighter aviation.
So, work of a kind. But it sure beats working.