Lesson objectives: Diversion to Nut Tree/Vacaville, VOR to Skaggs Island, Steep turns and Stalls , Emergency Landing (or not) in Napa, Turns on a point, Short field take off, soft field landing and short field landing at Skypark.
I was a little nervous about my stage 2 mock check ride with Travis today. I haven't been up flying with Travis in awhile and while he is an excellent CFI, he has a bit more demanding approach which can be a little intimidating at times, and today, for sure, he wasn't going to be cutting me any slack, after all, this was supposed to be a mock check ride, so no instruction, just requests and performance.
While I'm reasonably confident in my skills in the air, I also know what my limitations are and there are for sure a couple of areas where I need practice, several of which I knew he would be testing me on today, VOR tracking, diversions and configuring the GPS for starters.
Since this was supposed to mimic the check ride, there wasn't any of the usual casual conversation and no sooner was I climbing to altitude after departure when the first request came through, "Divert to Vacaville". Ok, great, I've studied the sectional map for our area over and over, every airport, every possible VOR within distance, memorizing frequencies and practicing on the fly changes on the GPS, but until right now, every flight and diversion has been in the opposite direction, out west towards the coast, or up north towards Santa Rosa and Ukiah. Right out of the gate he asks me to divert to an airport I've never even looked at on the map. Thanks Travis, does he know it's my birthday?
Vacaville, ok, well, think fast. I've got a cheat sheet with information with the 20 closest airports on it...except one, Vacaville. Alright, well, I know in which general direction Vacaville is, so I'll point the plane in the general direction and then pull the map out, locate the airport, the airport code and the local radio frequencies, then I'll use the airport code to set up the Direct-To on the GPS and then do my time, speed, distance and fuel calculations, piece of cake.
No, of course not. I'm on the right heading, that's one point in my favor, but now I have the sectional in my lap and guess what? Vacaville is right in the fold of the map, the map that I have been using for several weeks now on my cross countries and I can only make out 2 of the 3 letters in the airport code. Really? Really? I thought I'd at least be able to wow him with my maneuvering skills, slow flight and stalls before I made a fool of myself with a diversion but no such luck. Of course, at this point we're already well on our way to Vacaville and I'm staring at the map thinking, do I guess? No, bad idea...ok, so I know you can plug Vacaville into this GPS, but of course, that's the specific thing I was having trouble with...not knowing the code meant I had to figure out how to enter the entire name, right, ok, turn some knobs, act like you know what you're doing...ok, I'm in luck, right screen, now, which knob do you use again to enter letters? Magically I got enough of the name entered that up pops Vacaville on the GPS, ok, set the direct-to, program in the frequency, now what? Right, uh, distance, time, ground speed, ok, grab the E6B and calculate the fuel, done, excellent, I've saved face. I don't think I fooled anyone, but I did get the job done, got us on course with reasonably accurate calculations and kept flying the plane. Ironically, had I been able to see the code on the map, or had I known the code, or had I had the code on the cheat sheet, I would have made it though all of this very smoothly, but then, this is flying, and it's full of surprises.
I had been practicing diversions with JP for the past couple of weeks, but with JP, once I plotted a new course, set out on my heading and made all of my calculations, he cross checked everything and instructed me to do something else, maybe another diversion, maybe a maneuver, but never did we actually fly all the way to the diversion destination airport, but this time, Travis wasn't saying anything. Since I've never been on a check ride, I have no idea what the rules are. He's not talking, does that mean I'm not supposed to be talking? Can I ask questions? Am I just supposed to know what to do? Is he going to tell me what to do?
Clearly Vacaville is a ways away and I have no idea if he wants me to fly all the way there or not, but without further instruction, I kept flying. Because I'm flying a magnetic course of 90 degrees or so, I'm flying at 3500 feet, odd + 500, also the altitude he asked me to climb and level off at just prior to the diversion, but he hasn't asked me to change that altitude and now I'm heading straight towards mountains which are clearly just under our current altitude.
So what do I do? He hasn't asked me to change altitudes but clearly, neither of us wants to fly into the side of a mountain, so I begin to climb, but to what altitude? To keep with the odd + 500 rule I would need to climb 2000 feet to 5500 feet, but I really only need 1000 feet between us and the top of the mountain, so do I climb to 4500 feet? Vacaville is just on the other side of the mountain, so climbing to 5500 feet means ascending and descending from higher than necessary altitudes if the intention is to land, but he didn't ask me to land, he just asked me to divert there, so are we going to land? Do I ask?
Since I still haven't been instructed on what to do next, and recalling that the odd + 500 rule isn't mandatory under 2500 feet, I make the decision to climb to 4500 feet. At this point I'm looking at Vacaville on the GPS , within a few minutes I can see it in front of me, a few minutes later, I'm flying directly over the runway at 4500 feet. Travis still hasn't said anything so I'm thinking this would be a good time to ask. "So, uh, what would you like me to do?" says me, "Do you have the airport in sight?" he asked, "well, uh, ya, I'm flying right over the runway", "Oh, you should have told me when you had the runway in sight".
Ok, no fault on anyone's part but here's where it would have been good to know what the communication rules were. Had he instructed me to divert and land, I would have diverted and landed, if I had asked what he wanted me to do, he probably would have given me more detailed instructions, but neither of those things happened, so here we were flying along right over the airport and I'm starting to get a little nervous at this point, not having anything to do with flying, but because I am unclear of the expectations. "Do you want me to land?" "No, head back towards Sonoma". Ok, so I turn to a heading towards Sonoma and bring it up on the GPS, but again I am unclear, is this another diversion? Does he want me to calculate the diversion, or are we just heading back to more familiar territory? I'm getting more nervous.
And then comes the next request, "Fly to the Scaggs Island VOR". Oh man, you've got to be kidding, he's going to hit me with everything I have trouble with right off the bat. Ok, no problem, I've got my handy note pad with the Scaggs Island frequency, so I'll just plug that in, find the radial we're on and fly it in. 1 more point in my favor...almost. He could have asked me to fly to a particular radial and fly in on that course, that I was prepared for, but that's not what comes next, instead, he asks "What heading would you turn to to fly out on the 260 degree radial". I'm nervous, I'm flustered...I could probably "do" this, but I can't articualte it in the moment, I'm stumped. I say something that has a very slim chance of being right and get a somewhat disappointed and un-approving stare..."ya, that wasn't right was it?".
"Ok, forget the VOR and fly towards Lake Barryessa and climb to 4500 feet". Now that I can do. I know what's coming, maneuvers, and I have these down. I wish we'd have started off with them as it would have built up my confidence, but with the diversion behind me, and the failed attempt at VOR tracking behind me, I was ready to show him how well I could fly this thing. "Pick a heading and give me 2, 360 degree steep bank turns". Excellent, I practice these all the time and am amazed at how well I perform them, so after making a couple of 90 degree clearing turns, I choose a heading and start my first 360 degree steep bank turn to the left, and it's going swimmingly, staying within a margin of less than 50 feet I hold a nice even bank and sweep around, except for the first time ever, I'm looking at the magnetic compass. I have no idea why, I've never looked at it before when practicing steep bank turns, but here I am fully focused on this particular instrument. Now, if you've done steep bank turns you already know why this is a really bad idea, and if you haven't, well, don't. You see, the magnetic compass doesn't work so well in a steep bank, in fact, it barely works at all and it sort of gets stuck on a heading, and then spins around and goes too far the other way, and then back and forth and so on. Before long I had blown right through the heading where I was supposed to pull out of the left turn and start the right turn, in fact, I had blown so far out of it that the only thing I could do was come around another full 360 degrees. Nicely done Blaine, I think he's adequately impressed.
I didn't have to ask, and he didn't have to say anything. Fortunately Travis has seen me do these before and he knows I know how to perform them, but still, if this were an actual check ride, I wouldn't be flying with Travis, I would be flying with an FAA CFI who would think I didn't have a clue, and in a sense, in this particular moment, he would be right. I asked Travis if I could do it again and of course he obliged, and on the second attempt I watched the appropriate things, the turn indicator, the heading indicator and the horizon and made 2 quite nice 360 degree steep bank turns. The next few maneuvers all went as expected. He had me configure for slow flight, do some basic maneuvers, climbs, descents, turning climbs, turning descents etc., after which I configured for a power off and power on stall, all of which chalked up a few more points in my favor.
Feeling pretty good about all that we headed back, but along the way, and over the mountains, he pulled the throttle back. "Uh oh, Engine failure". No problem, this is also one of my favorite maneuvers, except that this time I was over unknown territory. I set up for best airspeed and glide, picked my field from the bevy of poor choices below me, at least the ones I could see, and started running through the check list. Everything was going pretty well as I descended down towards my intended field, although my intended field was a fairly poor choice as I picked a vineyard when there was a golf course right under the plane, and then I proceeded to blow right through the altitude where he had asked me to pull up and go around. What was going on? I honestly couldn't believe, after all of the flying i have been doing, how poorly I was performing. Now normally, I don't want to return to the airport unless I have to, and would be happy to fly all day long, but today, thankfully, we were almost done and Travis asked me to head back to Skypark.
But it wasn't over. Flying through the pattern he asked me to do a soft field landing, and coming around through the pattern I dropped the plane in reasonably well. Next he had me do a short field takeoff which also went well, and then come around for a short field landing. Again, no problem, Skypark is a tiny runway so almost every landing is a short field landing and I am actually pretty good at these, only this time, of course, there was a twist. He didn't want me to land at the landing end of the runway and do a short filed landing which is what I had been practicing, he wanted me to land half way down the runway and do a short field landing. I couldn't help but think, you're really enjoying this aren't you? I did my best to put the plane down on the displaced threshold he picked out and managed to stop the plane in a remarkably short distance, but it could have been better, it could have been a lot better.
After parking the plane we went up to the office and debriefed. Travis is thorough and has an excellent memory so he had no problem going over each item in detail and like he always does, he followed it up with some very good suggestions. All in all, while not very satisfying to me, everything was pretty much as expected and the whole experience really helped to identify my weaknesses which is really the point of the exercise. The idea is not to go up and show him everything I can do well, it's to highlight the areas that need work in the next phase, so as disappointing as it was, it was incredibly helpful, albeit not the best birthday present.
So besides the obvious areas that I need work on, what did I take away from today?
If you don't know what someone expects of you, ask, don't guess. If you're flying into unknown or potentially dangerous conditions, do what you know is right. Communicate with your instructor and tell them everything you are doing so they know what is going on in your head. If you're going to climb to avoid a mountain, tell them you're going to climb to avoid the mountain. If you're going to hold at a particular altitude for a maneuver for some reason, tell them you're going to hold at that altitude, and if you're going to pick a field for an emergency landing and you have a choice, pick a golf course over a vineyard.
Next time I'll have a much better idea of what to expect, what to do, and what's expected of me, and I'll make sure my instructor knows what all of my intentions are as well. As with all of my lessons I'm really looking forward to doing this again.