Help improve flight safety

The FAA publishes NOTAMs (NOTices to AirMen… and women…) to alert pilots to conditions like closed runways or unlighted cranes that haven’t yet been added to navigational charts.  It’s a standard part of pre-flight planning to check the NOTAMs for your origin and destination airports.  For example, this paid off for me last summer when I learned that the Palm Springs airport had recently changed their ATIS (weather) radio frequency.  I didn’t have to flail around in the air wondering why I couldn’t pick up the transmission, which would be stressful right when you’re approaching your destination and preparing to land.

However, it can be challenging to sift through 50+ NOTAMs to find the ones that matter for your flight.  Some only matter if you’re flying IFR (under Instrument Flight Rules), which isn’t something I do (yet).  In addition, they are written in a cryptic format that can be an obstacle to figuring out whether or not a given NOTAM is relevant.  I recommend this great discussion about the challenges and frustrations of using NOTAMs.  There have been numerous requests to improve this system, but to date we are still using the format developed in 1924.

So I was thrilled to learn of an effort to get pilot feedback on real NOTAMs to assess whether they are (1) comprehensible and (2) critical to include in a pre-flight briefing.  You can participate too!

The very first NOTAM I got to review was:

!TJSJ 11/155 ABO OBST TOWER LGT (ASR 1203643)
182618.90N0663624.20W (4.0NM E ABO) 569.2FT   
(240.2FT AGL) OUT OF SERVICE 1711121110-1711271109

In human language, this a warning that the light on a tower near the Antonio/Nery/Juarbe Pol Airport in Puerto Rico (I had to look it up) will not be lit between Nov. 12, 2017 at 1110Z (i.e., time in UTC) and Nov. 27, 2017 at 1109Z.  Now, a tower without a light can be a problem because people have flown into such towers, with lethal results, which is why we put lights on them.  However, this tower is 240′ above the ground, 4 nautical miles away from the airport.  No airplane in its right mind would be anywhere near that tower unless it were doing an emergency landing.  Arguably, you would want to know about it if you were doing an emergency landing, but it’s not feasible to know about (and recall) every 200′-high tower along your entire route of flight just in case you suddenly try to land on one.  So I would judge this NOTAM to be not useful and yet another of the extras that clutter up the list.

One weakness of the survey is that it doesn’t give you any context for the flight, and context matters.  In the default FlightService briefing, you get NOTAMs not just for your origin and destination airports, but also for every airport within 25 nm of your flight path (this generates a nightmarish amount of spam when flying in the L.A. Basin).  In this case, is ABO my destination or just something within 25 nm?  Also, if it were a night flight, or if I were in a helicopter, I might care more about this NOTAM. 

The second one I got was more useful:

!TBN 12/017 TBN SVC ATIS NOT AVBL 1812282123-1812312200

This warns that the ATIS (weather service) will not be available from Dec. 28, 2018 at 2123Z to Dec. 31, 2018 at 2200Z.  Again, context matters; if this is the destination airport and my flight plan has me heading there between those dates/times, then I will want to look for other nearby sources of weather information and have those frequencies ready to go, or plan to query the tower directly (KTBN is an airport in Missouri, it turns out, that has a tower). 

I hope that the people behind the NOTAM survey are able to collect useful data and use it to help improve future notifications to pilots!

Crosswinds and poppies!

Last month, I flew to the Antelope Valley for an exhilarating combination of sightseeing, crosswind practice, and simulated engine-out operations.

We took off from El Monte (KEMT) and flew north straight at the San Gabriel Mountains, climbing all the way. It so happened that the plane’s GPS was not working, so I got to exercise my piloting skills :) (“Aha, there’s Highway 2 and there’s the California Aqueduct and…”)

We crossed the mountains and descended down towards General Fox Field (KWJF). The winds were very strong and crosswind-y. I was heading for runway 24 with winds from 260 at 18 gusting to 27 knots. That’s a 6-9 kt crosswind, landing into a 17-25 kt headwind, and don’t forget that 9-kt gust factor! I was coming in for a left base entry, and boy, I could see how the wind from my left kept pushing away from the airport. I had to use a significant crab. On final, it felt like we were just crawling. The groundspeed was so slow that I kept wanting to add more power just to ensure we got there that century. But eventually, we landed and practiced good aileron positioning while taxiing back for takeoff.

The wind kicked up stronger for the takeoff: from 270 at 22 gusting to 30 kts. That put us at a 15-kt crosswind, 26-kt headwind, and indeed, taking off was a weird experience since we were immediately in an intense crab to stay over the runway. We climbed up and away to the west… to circle over the poppy fields!

My instructor, David Werntz, took some gorgeous pictures of the poppies, which were truly stunning:

After some sight-seeing, we did simulated engine-out practice. Back in the L.A. Basin, we can’t get very close to the ground in our simulated “landings”, so they always feel very hypothetical. Out in the Antelope Valley, we could pick a deserted area and get much lower (500′). This feels a LOT more realistic! Also: power lines have a bad habit of appearing out of nowhere when you get closer to that spot you’d LIKE to land on :)

We then flew back to KEMT, crossing the mountains again, this time at 7500′. While still above the mountains, my instructor suggested we try gliding all the way down to KEMT, deliberately not using the engine. A good test, given that it was around 10 miles away and 7000′ below us. So we glided and glided and eventually we still had extra altitude, so we ended up in a slip AND with flaps AND with S-turns (with tower permission). We had another crosswind (from 230 gusting to 14 kts for runway 19), but that felt tame after the wind at Fox Field. When we were about 10 feet off the runway, the wind shifted to come from the left (unexpected) and I had to work to combat the drift, but I got it all lined up and executed a smooth, gentle landing. Delightful!

Crosswind extravaganza

In April, I got to fly my mom out to Camarillo for lunch. It had been a blustery few days with rather high winds. In fact, the winds were strong enough that on the day before, the previous pilot in N54678 (the plane that I had booked) couldn’t land at our home airport (EMT). I watched his track on Flightaware and saw that after two attempts, he decided to divert to Brackett (POC). (Good call!)

Good call for him, but awkward for me; would I need to drive to POC to get the plane? Nope! He kindly offered to go early to POC the next morning to pick up the plane and return it to EMT for me. He tried to get a ride there with another pilot, but then *her* plane ended up having a failed seat rail! So then she DROVE him to POC and he flew 678 back! I really appreciated the extra effort!

Winds were calm at EMT, but I could see that they were forecast to be stronger at Camarillo (CMA). We took off and did some sightseeing along the way. Our plan was to attempt to land at CMA, but with the understanding that if it wasn’t possible, we would just turn around and cruise back to EMT.

Indeed, the winds did pick up as we headed west. As we got closer, I noticed that my heading and course were deviating by more and more. The wind was coming from the northeast, and the amount of turn required to stay on a westerly course was large enough that there was a distinctly unfamiliar “sideways” element to our motion (visually, with respect to the ground). It was even more noticeable on downwind, when we were closer to the ground. I’d never crabbed on downwind!

From 10 miles out, CMA was reporting winds from 070 (northeast) at 21 knots, gusting to 30 knots. That was the strongest and gustiest wind I’d ever attempted to land in, plus being a mild <= 5-kt crosswind (for runway 8). But I decided to give it a try. As I got closer, the wind was shifting more northerly, which was increasing the crosswind component. On downwind, it was coming from 040 but had died down in strength a bit to 16 knots (gusting to 29). That's a 10-18 knot crosswind, which is hefty for a Cessna 172. But no reason not to try; if I couldn’t maintain runway heading due to too much crosswind, I would go around (or simply depart). In fact, the plane before me did go around (eep?).

The tower cleared me to land and provided a final wind check: winds from 050 at 19 gusting to 29 knots. My heart was beating fast. I figured there was a good chance this would not be a landing, so I was mentally prepared to go around. I turned final and had on my extra 5 knots of airspeed as protection against the gusts, and I was managing to track the runway centerline. I was banked left, into the wind, with full right rudder to keep the nose aligned – a very strong slip! It seemed to take forever for us to get past the threshold and creep down over the runway – not surprising since it was a 16-25 knot headwind, which reduced our groundspeed on final approach from 65 knots to only 40-50 knots. I noticed that my right hand, gripping the throttle and carb heat (ready for go-around) was shaking a little. I think it was adrenaline :) because I didn’t feel scared, just extremely focused. The touchdown was fine. And then I felt a bit of wobbling drift, probably because I relaxed the ailerons (a good lesson on why it is so useful to envision the wind direction even when you’re on the ground!), but I regained directional control quickly. We exited the runway in triumph and taxied to the restaurant.

There was LONG wait for lunch, as is often the case at Camarillo. We passed the time enjoying the cute miniature version of the airport and ogling the windsocks (notice the flags, windsock, and palm trees at right). The forecast was for the winds to die down into the afternoon, so I expected that conditions would be better for our return flight.

After lunch, I got a weather briefing for our flight back to the east. There was a sigmet for moderate turbulence, and the northeast winds were predicted to swing around to the southwest at some point. It’s not often that you get tailwinds both directions! :) Ontario was reporting blowing dust (ick). Winds at EMT, however, were mild. Unfortunately, the winds at CMA had not improved as much as predicted; they were now from 080 (straight down the runway at least) at 18 gusting to 25 knots. Curiously, the winds at Oxnard (just 6 miles away) had changed to 290 at 12 knots, indicating that the front was indeed moving in from the west and we could expect a wind change at any minute.

I taxied out to the departure end of runway 8 and held short. As we sat waiting for a takeoff clearance, the windsock caught my eye. It was indicating wind from the west, NOT from the east – which would be a tailwind if I took off on runway 8. The front was upon us. Just then, the tower cleared us for takeoff. I reported the contradictory windsock to the tower, who responded that the wind sensor and windsock at midfield was still indicating wind from the east. Eerie! Well, I figured that I might as well try to beat the front and, by the time I was rotating for takeoff, I’d probably be into the easterly wind. And if things didn’t look good, I could always abort the takeoff. I had 6000 feet of runway at my disposal.

I took off and immediately encountered a flock of birds about 100 feet off the ground and reported it to the tower. I nosed down to fly under the birds, which made me pick up airspeed, which made my whole takeoff feel non-standard. I noted that the tower was now giving wind reports to other pilots coming in that included “low-level wind shear” as would be expected given the disagreeing windsocks. That’s definitely something to be wary of when coming in to land. But luckily, I was off the ground and climbing away.

Right about then the tower asked me to “report gain or loss midfield?” which I couldn’t process into a coherent question. Me: “Gain or loss of what?” Tower: “Report gain or loss midfield.” Me: “Say again?” Tower: “Frequency change approved, have a safe flight.” (Translation: “We’re done trying to communicate with you.” :) ) As I continued my climb (and switched frequencies), I decided that they were probably asking me if I’d noticed a sudden gain or loss of airspeed/altitude (which could occur if I passed through the front). Due to my evasive maneuvers, I couldn’t say whether the wind alone had affected the plane at that point. It’s probably still good that they warned other pilots of potential wind shear!

The rest of the flight back was uneventful and scenic. When it was time to land at El Monte, the local winds were very light – from 180 at 4 knots. I was very glad that it was so much better than the previous day and that we were not forced to divert. And I got some great crosswind practice and successfully passed that real-world test! (And took away notes for future improvements. There is truly a world of difference between theoretical crosswind compensation and actually doing and feeling it!)

When thunderstorms get in your way

On July 6, I flew myself to Palm Springs. This is a short hour-long flight that takes you just outside of the L.A. basin. It turned out to be a record-breaking hot day across SoCal, so the primary things on my mind were keeping the engine cool enough to function and assessing the impact on airplane performance. Palm Springs is only 476 feet above sea level, but given the forecast high of 118 F (!), the density altitude would be above 4000′! (Here’s a handy density altitude calculator.) That means that the airplane would perform as if it were trying to land/take off from an airport at 4000′ elevation. Definitely something to factor in (faster ground speed on landing, longer landing roll, longer takeoff roll, reduced climb performance, etc.).

During preflight, I discovered that the plane’s landing light wasn’t working. I wouldn’t need it for my outbound flight, which was in the morning, but it would potentially constrain my options for a return flight. I decided to proceed and marked it INOP.

I got flight following to Palm Springs at 5500′. I was keeping a close eye on the engine cylinder head temperatures (CHTs), because it was so hot. To keep these values low enough, I had to throttle back and lower the nose, and I was only able to climb at about 150 fpm. In retrospect, I’m thinking that it might have been wiser to not take the plane out on such a hot day!

Along the way, I saw a fire burning at the Cajon Pass. SoCal ATC was busy calling traffic alerts with lots of mentions of firefighting aircraft, which were taking off from San Bernardino. They were all well north of my path.

When checking NOTAMs before my flight, I learned that PSP had changed their ATIS frequency from 118.25 to 124.65 as of May 31. Curiously, the official airport diagram (updated June 21) still had the old frequency. As I got closer, I checked both frequencies until I came through the Banning Pass and could finally pick it up – and sure enough, it was the new frequency. I was glad I’d gotten the NOTAM! Especially when I tuned in and heard that it was 46 C at PSP. I’ve never before heard an ATIS temp in the 40s!


Final approach to runway 13R at Palm Springs

Palm Springs airport was dazzlingly bright and empty. The tower gave me my choice of runways, so I took the big one, 13R (10,000′ long! Why not?). It has a 3000′ displaced threshold, so it feels like it takes a looooong time to get there on final. :) In my flight planning I’d learned that it’s a common mistake to think that the second dark strip to the left is runway 13L. It’s not! It’s a taxiway. I’m glad to learn from others’ tips this way.

I had a nice landing and then was told to “roll out” to taxiway B at the other end, which also took a long time. In this case, landing long (to end up closer to the exit) seemed like a bad idea since if I needed a go-around, I would want all the runway I could get. I parked and got to enjoy a very nice FBO experience. I even got to cool off with a post-flight swim! First time I’ve visited an FBO with a pool!

For my return flight, things got a little more interesting. I had planned to fly back on the afternoon of July 7. Waiting until the evening would be better, when it would be cooler, but since the landing light was INOP, I had to get back before sunset. On the morning of July 7, I found that thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon. There was also a big TFR over San Gorgonio, where another fire had started burning. This was also (just) north of my intended route, but it could mean worse visibility due to smoke.

By midafternoon, the METARs were getting hairy, with TS (thunderstorms), LTG (lightning), CB (cumulonimbus), and TCU (towering cumulonimbus). From what I could deduce, a thunderstorm with lightning was raining on Ontario (just north of my path) and cumulonimbus clouds were squatting over March (just south of my path), likely with associated turbulence and up/down drafts that can extend 20-30 miles out, exactly where I would be flying.

These conditions were a clear “do not fly” signal. So I decided to stay an extra night and fly home in the morning, when it would not only be cooler but also be before any afternoon atmospheric drama would develop. Even when rationally you can clearly see that the right decision is to cancel, it still takes (maybe always will take) an effort! But as a bonus, I got to spend more time visiting family, seeing The Incredibles 2, and having a lovely dinner.

The next morning, it was “only” 99 F when I took off. I was assigned runway 13L this time (the short one), which I determined was still long enough (4952′) for my needs. I expected to depart left traffic, but curiously I was told to make right traffic. It felt weird to turn and keep climbing over the departure end of 13R, but I assume there must have been some traffic east of the airport they wanted me to avoid. As I climbed, another plane called in complaining that they couldn’t get the ATIS, and the tower told them about the month-old frequency change. Now I’m wondering if this is a test to see who is actually reading NOTAMs?

The tower asked me to follow highway 111, which leads northwest away from PSP, at or below 3000′. He seemed happy that I knew where this highway was and could comply. Eventually he handed me over to SoCal and thanked me for my “help” (I still don’t know what he was having me avoid, but happy that he seemed happy). I came back through the Banning Pass, slowly climbing to 4500′, and then SoCal asked me to divert north around Ontario’s airspace. I had planned to go south via PDZ, but okay, I obligingly turned north and spent some time fiddling with the GPS to change my flight plan. In retrospect, I think I could have just communicated that I was heading to PDZ and that might have been fine – they probably just wanted to keep me out of the busy part of ONT’s space. But this way I got to fly over the San Bernardino airport (see left).

The rest of the flight was uneventful and I was home in time to quickly pack for a work trip to Sweden the next day!

Preparing for alternates pays off!

In June, I flew up the coast with my friend Sarah Elizabeth to visit the tiny Oceano (L52) airport, which is close to the ocean and also has good lunch options nearby. At that time, we were getting a lot of morning marine layer clouds over the coast, and after assessing the weather, I decided to fly an inland route to avoid the clouds (KEMT -> KIMMO -> GMN -> FLW -> L52). You can see my planned route, and the magenta polygon surrounding the coastal “airmet sierra” (cloudy) area, at right. Conditions were looking good after 11 a.m. for San Luis Obispo (KSBP) and Santa Maria (KSMX), which are directly to the north and south of L52 (which doesn’t have its own weather station). We took our time getting the plane ready to allow more time for the clouds to burn off and departed around 11:30 a.m.


[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

The inland route went very well. The airplane’s climb was lethargic because I was trying to keep cylinder head temperatures below 400F. It took 20 minutes to reach cruise altitude (8500′). However, it was smooth sunny sailing after that. In fact, it was clear the whole way until the very end.

As we got close to L52 at about 1 p.m., I could see a layer of clouds. That was vexing, since neighboring SBP and SMX were still reporting clear skies! A little bit of cloud was hanging RIGHT OVER the runway I wanted. Still, there was some hope. If the clouds were at least 2000′ above the ground, I could come in and land safely under them. So I kept descending in the clear area to the north of the cloud. Lower and lower… I got down to 1500′ and the clouds were STILL well below (and to the south of) us, so no go. I couldn’t believe it! We were just over a mile north of the runway, with clear skies, but the runway couldn’t be reached!


Clear to the right and beneath us, clouds to the left (where the runway is).
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

I powered up and climbed over the ocean to about 2000′, circling. I was very glad that I had alternate plans all ready to go. I had the runway diagrams for both SBP and SMX at hand. I decided to divert to SBP (San Luis Obispo), and Sarah Elizabeth and I smoothly and calmly handled the diversion (she was handling comms the whole flight). Diversions can be stressful because you quickly have to change your plans, navigation, radio frequencies, etc., all while maintaining good control of the airplane, watching for traffic, etc. But this one felt like a piece of cake because we had everything we needed ready to go. Having a co-pilot is a huge help, too!


Beautiful coastline!
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

After we landed at SBP, we found a very friendly FBO (Nice bathroom! Free ice cream! No landing fees!) and had a very tasty lunch at the Spirit of San Luis (ha!) restaurant. This flight also tipped me over 200 hours of flying experience! :)

Here is my path, starting at EMT in the southeast and heading up to SBP in the northwest. You can see the kink where we tried to land at L52 but then had to divert to SBP.

But look how close we got! L52 is the little white line just south of our track:

After lunch, we headed back with Sarah Elizabeth piloting and me handling comms. She did a nice loop around the KSBP pattern, and then we headed south. By this time, the clouds had cleared away from L52, so she got to land there! It’s a tiny little runway (2325′ long) and quite narrow (see picture at right).

As we taxied back to take off again, a huge heron flapped its way across in front of us. Wow! We flew south along the coast (since the clouds were more favorable) and got to see Santa Barbara, and then as we approached L.A., we saw a lot of cloud over the ocean that almost duplicated the coastline, which was cool. Then clear skies all the way inland to our home base at KEMT.

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