Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sky Ranch - Phoenix / Cessna 152 (N701YL) / VFR

Now that I'm wary of the extreme slowness of a 152, I make short flights, and this flight was very short. I've had a 152 parked at Sky Ranch in Carefree since July, and I finally decided to fly it back into Phoenix. Despite the very short distance involved (42 nautical miles over my actual route, 23 nm as the crow flies), it still took half an hour to fly.

I was surprised when ATC told me to stay at or below 2200 feet in the Class B, since this put me below most of the mountains in the area (I should think it put me below their MVA, too, but that's their problem, I guess). Fortunately, it was daytime and very clear, and I know the area well, and since this is only 1000 feet AGL, I had a great view of the city, such as it is. ATC had me swing way out to the east and southeast, which left quite a hefty safety margin considering that I wasn't doing better than 90 KIAS. Ultimately I was directed to 25L. I touched down just beyond the numbers and had come to a stop before reaching the first taxiway after touchdown, thanks to the anemic speed of the 152.

The most salient feature of this flight was the turbulence. From the time I took off to the time I landed, I was riding a bucking bronco. Gusts of wind banged me to and fro in the cockpit (but of course I was well strapped in) constantly. Vertical movements weren't as frequent but occasionally I found myself swiftly rising or falling for a few seconds. I wasn't really close to any of the mountains in the valley (I came within a few miles of Pinnacle Peak, and I was on the upwind side), but I guess the afternoon heat or something produced a lot of movement. Fortunately it let up as I descended to landing at Sky Harbor.

I parked at Cutter. In the virtual world, it seems that half the planes on their ramp are mine.

Gila Bend - Phoenix / Beechcraft Baron 58 (N744TL) / VFR

I don't know what it is about this Gila Bend - Phoenix route that attracts me. I could never stand driving it in real life. I guess it's just a familiar route that's easy to fly visually.

I had one of my Barons parked at this dusty, searing-hot little airport . (I always seem to have something parked there.) I picked a Baron because it's fast—192 knots in cruise—but not so fast that I'd be scrambling to stay ahead of it for the entire short flight.

I filled the main tanks, but not the auxiliary tanks, which is SOP for me in a Baron. I've yet to have a flight where I needed the tip tanks, since the main tanks give me nearly five hours of autonomy at a minimum. I took off to the west, as usual, and flew into a downwind leg to take me north towards Highway 85. Gila Bend Municipal Airport's airspace runs right into the Class D of the Air Force airport to the southwest, and I prefer to avoid that, although the tower is usually not open.

The flight was uneventful. I was directed into the downwind for runway 26 at Sky Harbor and landed long to save taxi time to the northwest ramp where I intended to park.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

San Fran—er, Half Moon - LAX / Beachcraft Baron 58 (N2735W) / IF—er, VFR

San Francisco International Airport was really, really busy this evening. There was a major event taking place on the West Coast in VATSIM and traffic was similar to real-world levels. I decided to take one of my Barons to LAX from SFO.

Unfortunately, I found myself waiting on the ground for nearly an hour for clearance. First I requested clearance and was apparently forgotten at the bottom of a list of more than a dozen aircraft on the ground awaiting clearance. Then controllers swapped positions and apparently lost track of things entirely. Big iron was regularly cleared before me. I called Clearance Delivery again once to ask what the holdup was, but I still never got my clearance. After waiting interminably for a clearance while everyone else moved around me, I finally cancelled the request.

I had Scotty beam my aircraft over to nearby Half Moon Bay Airport (KHAF), perhaps best known as the starting point of Jessica Dubroff's ill-fated cross-country flight. For me, its advantage was that it is very near to KSFO and is untowered, which meant that I could fly out of there VFR beneath the Bravo without waiting a year and a day for a clearance. And that's what I did. I managed to sneak out beneath the Bravo without any trouble, although NorCal Approach called me up after I was completely clear of the Class B for reasons unknown, and assigned me a squawk, which I dutifully dialed in. Later Approach handed me off to Oakland Center, and the latter controller was a bit bewildered when I called in, since I had not requested FF and I was VFR. But he offered FF and since I was already there, I accepted.

The rest of the trip was less confused. When I reached the limit of Oakland Center's chunk of sky, the controller cancelled flight following, as Los Angeles Center could not pick it up for workload reasons. So I continued on on my own until my planned route took me over the Fillmore VOR at 5500 feet, at which point I rang up SoCal Approach to get a Class B clearance. This was granted with no problem and I made my way into the Class B at 180 KIAS or so, dropping to 3500 and crossing the Los Angeles Coliseum, at which point ATC turned me towards the airport and cleared me well in advance for a landing on 24R. The landing went smoothly and I was given taxi instructions to my favorite FBO on the south side.

For this entire flight my fancy on-board TCAS was awash in traffic, just like real life, for once. It was very hard to see the traffic outside the window most of the time, but the TCAS warned me long before I could make visual contact and I spent a fair amount of time watching other aircraft to make sure I had no pending conflicts. ATC did their job well and nobody ever really came close. It was nice to see as many as two dozen aircraft within 20 miles ahead of me, though. It's very fun and realistic to have traffic that heavy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

San Franciso - LAX - San Francisco / Cessna Citation X (N7446E) / IFR

The two legs of this trip were actually several days apart. The trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles went well. The return trip was a bit harrowing at the end, but otherwise okay.

On the return trip, some changes I made to the route along the way apparently confused the FMS. I've grown used to steep descents in the Citation, so when the aircraft didn't start down quite where I expected, I wasn't worried. After a while, though, I realized that I was much too high, and ATC was offline. I then switched to VS mode and made a stunning 9000-fpm descent to 2000 feet scarcely more than a dozen miles from the threshold. I couldn't do it fast enough and at a low enough speed to still consider landing, so I had to go around. By the time I came back around to 28R, I was all nicely configured to land, and landing was without incident.

In the old days, I might have tried to make it on the first pass. But these days I realize that I'd never do stupid things like that in real life, so I went around. Even the harrowing descent is something that wouldn't happen in real life (even though it would be technically possible). I was still afflicted a bit by get-there-itis, but I'm getting better. Just have to keep asking myself “Would I actually do this in real life?” The vast majority of the time, the answer is yes, as I'm a very safe pilot. But these aberrations still occur and must be curtailed, for the sake of realism.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Agua Dulce - LAX / Cessna 152 (N705YL) / VFR

This was a very short flight that took a long time, thanks to the fact that I was flying a pokey little Cessna 152. One thing I can say about this aircraft is that you have plenty of time to plan ahead. It's really hard to “get behind” an aircraft that is only making 90 knots on a good day. You can see the field for hours—days—before you reach it, like a picture on a wall.

As I'm accustomed to flying something a bit more performant, I often make things worse in the 152. For example, several miles from the field, I'm at full flaps and Vref—the only problem is that this configuration has me flying at about 50 knots, and it takes forever to reach the field at 50 knots. So I'm puttering along and looking at my watch and wondering when I'll actually get close enough to land. I need to remember to keep the gas pedal floored, so to speak, until I'm practically on top of the airport, and then slow down for landing.

Most of the ATC I deal with only sees a 152 once in a blue moon, so they probably are surprised by its slowness, too. VFR is much less common on VATSIM than in real life, and Cessna 152s are perhaps the least common of relatively recent GA aircraft to be seen.

Anyway, I finally got into LAX, drifting downwards onto the runway while big iron roared around me in every direction. The landing was glassy smooth and took place at just over walking speed. I'm sure the overpowered jets around me were grinding their teeth with impatience. At least in the USA tiny planes still have the right to land at big airports. In snooty Europe the controllers would probably just laugh at a Cessna 152 asking to land at CDG or Heathrow (in fact, Heathrow, at least, specifically prohibits it).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Aspen - Phoenix - Sedona - Scottsdale - Montgomery / Cessna Citation X (N725YL) / IFR

Yup, I've been all over the place in my various Citations lately, testing things out, getting used to the aircraft, etc. I find myself mostly flying the Eaglesoft version of the Citation, for various reasons. N725YL is one of the Eaglesoft variants.

The flight from Aspen to Sky Harbor took longer than I anticipated, mainly because of strong headwinds at altitude. I know I should have checked the winds before departure, but I loaded so much fuel (more than twice the amount I thought I might need) that headwinds were nothing more than an extra expense. I had to put up with 70-knot headwinds practically the whole way. They were present from FL190 up to FL420 or so, so it was hard to fly above or below them. Even at the impressive speed of the Citation, it still took two hours to get to Phoenix, which is more than twice what I could expect under ideal conditions in still air.

Later I flew from Sky Harbor up to Sedona. That was quick and easy. Landing went okay. After a short time I flew back to Scottsdale. I was surprised when the controller at SDL had me enter the pattern, since I was IFR, but that's okay, as visual conditions prevailed.

From Scottsdale I finally flew out to Montgomery, not realizing at the time that the Citation exceeds the published weight limits for the airport. I managed to escape any penalties, but I haven't yet moved the aircraft from that field. The runway is a bit on the short side so it may be a challenge to fly out of there.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Latest flights

These past days I've not had as much time as before to log my flights. As you might expect, my first priority is to fly, and then log when time permits. So I've done a lot of flying, but not much logging. I guess it's not too much of a problem, given that nobody reads this blog, anyway. But I'll try to summarize recent activity.

I've been practicing a lot with both the Eaglesoft Citation X and the Wilco Citation X. These are two very excellent add-on models of the legendary Cessna Citation X business jet, which is the fastest civilian aircraft in the world right now. Flying both of the add-ons gives some interesting insight into what's realistic and what isn't. That is, both models follow the real aircraft slavishly, but there are tiny differences in the implementation that reflect development choices and/or specific information sources.

The add-ons have their differences, but overall they are so similar that it's hard to call one better than the other. The Wilco Citation has throttles that are very difficult to set to fuel cutoff, for example, but the Eaglesoft Citation has tiny controls on the pedestal that are hard to manipulate. Both models, though, simulate the behavior of the real aircraft—the differences are often just in the ergonomy of the model. Another example of this is the availability of “pop-up” displays on the Wilco model, whereas they are not available on the Eaglesoft model. There are differences in the details of how the FMS behave on each model, too—but then again, that can be true from one revision to another on the FMS of the real Citation, too!

Anyway, I've been flying these all over the place. Most of my time so far is on the Eaglesoft, but I'm trying to build some up on the Citation. Both are fun to fly, and since they are modeled after the real thing, they both behave in pretty much the same way, except for the sim-specific ergonomics that I mention above. Time will tell which one I prefer. I rationalize the two models by pretending that they are two slightly different revisions of the real aircraft (the differences between them are so small that this is entirely plausible).

I've been doing a lot of flights in the Great American Southwest, as usual. The Citation X fills an important niche, so I've been putting a lot of hours in with this aircraft. I do occasionally fly my Dakota or Baron, too, as well as the Bonanza (although it's been a while for that aircraft—I should take it for a spin), and my three Cessnas, the 152, 172, and 182. Not much big iron lately, though.

Individual flights lately have been too numerous to describe individually here. Overall I'm still improving at hand-flying the larger aircraft; I don't have any trouble at all with the prop aircraft, even without an autopilot. Large aircraft are different beasts and you really have to stay ahead of them, but to some extent they all resemble each other, so skills transfer reasonably well.

My fleet has grown to the point that I can constantly rotate through different types of aircraft, which gives me broad flying experience and lots of interesting variety. And I've become quite an old hand at ATC communications, so that goes pretty smoothly. Simulation gets better every day!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Catching up

I'm very much behind on logging flights, but I'm definitely not behind on flying. Lately I've been flying all over the place, mostly in one of my Piper Dakotas, or in one of my Cessna Citation X bizjets.

I've lost track of the places I've been, I'm afraid. I've been around Wickenburg and Phoenix a lot with one of the Dakotas (N9708W), then up to Sedona, down to Phoenix, up to Payson, and so on. Right now that Dakota is parked in Phoenix, after a flight up to Payson and back. The flight up to Payson was a bit awkward, as I ended up following I-17 at dusk, instead of Highway 87, and got way off track. The trip back down to Phoenix was easier, mainly because I decided to just make a beeline to PXR at 8500 instead of bothering with pilotage in the darkness.

I've been around a bit in another Dakota (N9706W), too, and it's currently parked in Van Nuys after a short trip from Santa Paula.

Most recent activity, though, has been in one of my Citations, N7446A. Eaglesoft came out with its much-awaited FMS update, and now the full FMS works in the aircraft. I've been flying my virtual family to and fro for several days.

For example, I picked up my parents at Montgomery, then flew them up to Van Nuys, where we met up with my aunt and uncle. From there it was off to Sin City—fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada—where we picked up another aunt and uncle. Then I flew them all down to Phoenix. The Citation is so amazingly fast that this was practical in just one day. I then flew the Citation to San Diego, picked up my sister and brother-in-law, and flew them to Phoenix as well. Then, last night, I flew everyone to Las Vegas (the Citation will hold eight passengers). So I've been putting a lot of hours on that airframe. There are still a few bugs in Eaglesoft's model, but for the most part it flies really well, and is a pleasure to pilot.

I tend to reserve the daylight hours for VFR flights, and evenings for IFR. Yesterday afternoon, I took one of my Cessna 152s back to Phoenix from Lake Havasu. Talk about contrast, after flying the Citation! I planned the shortest route I could, essentially east to Highway 93 and then down through Wickenburg and back to Phoenix … and it still took nearly 2 hours, at an exceptionally lame 80 knots. And with no autopilot I had to keep my eyes out the window and/or on the instruments. The few times I looked away to check a chart, by the time I looked back I was well into a slow left turn.

Then in the evening it was back to the Citation, for a trip to Las Vegas. That took only about 40 minutes, and went very smoothly. I sometimes reach 650 mph over the ground in the Citation—about seven times faster than the 152. Amazing that both aircraft were built by Cessna!

I have more trips in the Citation planned for the coming day or so, as I redistribute family members back to their homes. But during the day I plan some VFR and pilotage … I'm getting better at it all the time.