Saturday, November 24, 2007

Maintaining Currency

Yesterday was the first good day we've had in Chicago for about a month. The weather has been horrendous around here. Low ceilings, 3/4 mile viability and ICE! Between my work and the weather, I've had keep 36G parked for the last 45 days or so.

Time sails by quickly and before I know it my currency gets close to lapsing. It is very easy to mis a key date. Most pilots would argue that it doesn't happen to them; however, I'd bet that most pilots have flown at some point without being current with something and didn't realize it. Of course, currency isn't a wall. You don't forget how to fly because a medial expired, but it is the law. If you get ramp checked and you or the airplane is not current with something, you can pretty much say goodbye to your pilot certificate for awhile -- and you'll pay higher insurance rates when you get it back!

I am very conscious of the fact that I am human and it is likely that I will not remember every date for everything that has to be current (GPS updates, VOT checks, Annuals, Static/Transponder checks, medical, etc.) To help me remember these critical dates, I use Logbook Pro in addition to my paper logbook.

NOTE: Logbook Pro is one of the best aviation software packages out there. Many professional pilots use it. The software lets you build rules and notifications for key events. I use the notifications to warn me of IFR, VFR, Airplane Annuals and other key currencies. Logbook Pro makes it simple to keep track of everything. In fact, it will automatically compute the number of approaches, landings, etc. you have done to let you know if you are current or not. It will also create just about any ad-hoc report you can think of. It is a big pain to put all of the data into a program, but after it is there you can do anything with it.

Based on my Logbook Pro currency report, I have about 30-days before my 90-day takeoff and landing during the Day expires and my IFR currency has about 30-days before it runs out as well. I've been keeping a close eye on the weather, so I can get up and get current. We finally caught a break yesterday.

I spent much of the day Friday prepping 36G. I tested all systems on the ground and made sure she was ready for winter. I took 36G up for a 30-minute flight to validate that all systems were a.o.k. And I did my required 3 takeoffs and landings to get my day VFR currency as well. We both checked out fine.

IFR Currency Requirements
An instrument rated pilot must fly a minimum of 6 approaches, 1 hold and perform enroute navigation every 6 months. This means that you have to do at least one approach every month, navigate somewhere and do a hold. I was within 30-days of having 6 total approaches. My currency report showed I needed 2 approaches and a hold to maintain currency. My dilemma is that in the winter I don't fly often enough to do an approach every month, so I called a friend of mine that is also a flight instructor and he flew safety pilot with me so I could fly under the hood (simulate not seeing out of the windows). In other words, I want to do everything at once so my 6-month clock would restart.

6 approaches doesn't sound like a lot, but it actually is. Most GA flights do not terminate with an IFR approach, which makes getting 6 approaches via a typical flight quite difficult. I file IFR on every cross-country flight, so I try to work an approach into every trip. Much of the time, however, the controllers don't want to set you up for an approach in VFR conditions.

NOTE: Setting up an IFR flight for a controller is a lot of work for them and requires that they adhere to strict separation minimums. This is quite difficult when there are a ton of VFR planes are flying around or lots of planes heading toward the same runway.

Approaches are certainly difficult to keep current, but I find that holding currency is even more difficult to maintain. In fact, I can't think of any non-training IFR flight I've been on in 20+ years of flying where I had to fly a hold. It is quite rare. Even when flying below minimums and doing a mis you rarely get a hold. ATC typically routes you back or to another destination well before you do a published hold.

IFR Currency -- the Flying
Doing everything at once is a daunting task -- especially when you are based inside of busy airspace. It took me 2.4 hours to do it. To get 6 different approaches in, I had to fly into 4 different airports that were all adjacent to or inside of the Chicago Class B airspace. This kept the controllers and me very busy ;-)

A picture is worth more than 1000 words, so here's a portion of my track log from Flight Explorer that says it better than I can:
This is the log captured by
Funny that these logs looks like I was drinking and flying, but it was a legit IFR flight nonetheless. I even got a bit of actual!

The currency trip started off at KGYY and we headed toward Aurora (KARR) airport. I did the ILS 33 approach. This is a brand new ILS system and it was the first time I've flown it. I did the missed, then the RNAV GPS 9 approach. The GPS 9 approach into Aurora is an LPV approach, which means I can fly down to ILS minimums solely by using the GPS. Very cool!

NOTE: Prior to WAAS GPS's, one could only use them for lateral (left/right) navigation. Vertical navigation wasn't accurate enough to safely get you close to the ground. WAAS capable GPS's are as accurate, if not more accurate, than ground based equipment. Many airports are installing vertical navigation GPS approaches, which is opening remote airports to all weather flying more than ever. In my opinion, the single best technology ever created for Aviation is the GPS. And every day it is getting better and better.

I departed Aurora and headed over to to DuPage (KDPA) airport and did the ILS 2 L (Two Left) approach. This one was crazy. It was right under the approach path of O'hare and the controllers were very busy. They turned me directly onto the approach over the Final Approach Fix. The FAF is where you start the decent, so this was certainly not a typical approach. Controllers generally set you up 3-5 miles prior to the FAF to give you time to setup before heading toward the ground. Normally I would not accept an approach like this, but they were busy and I was intentionally stressing myself out. Go figure...I nailed it! The controllers were even impressed with my flying skills on this one.

I departed DuPage and went to Lake in the Hills (3CK) airport. This is a very small airport just west of Chicago. First off I did the RNAV GPS RW 8 approach. This one has an initial hold at the beginning of the course, so I flew a couple of laps to complete my hold requirements. After the GPS approach, I departed toward the DPA VOR and did the VOR-A (alpha) back to 3CK. I nailed this one as well, but would rarely do an approach like this for real now days. Most airports with VOR approaches that are off of the field have, or are getting, GPS approaches. The FAA is rolling out GPS approaches in record numbers. In fact, the FAA is trying to phase out VOR's all together. They are very costly to maintain.

NOTE: The VOR-A is one of those odd-ball approaches where the VOR radial intersects the middle, not the end, of the runway. All approaches qualify as a circle to land, so the minimums are very high since the airspace will be protected for 10 miles form the airport. Most airports, including 3CK, that have these types of approaches are rapidly replacing them with RNAV GPS approaches.

Heading Home
It was time to fly back home to Gary/Chicago airport. The winds were strong and favoring RW 20, so we picked the RNAV GPS 20 approach back into the airport. I have never done this approach because it puts you low and slow over the lake; however, it was clear, the winds favored this approach and 36G was running well. RNAV GPS 20 also gets you very close to the power plants that are between the airport and the lake. It is unsettling if you are not use to it. In fact, my safety pilot was freaking out a bit as we passed over the smoke stacks. We were close, but were right on track. The next obstacles are a major highway, tall fence and then the runway that has an upward slope in it. This is a fun one!

The KGYY RNAV GPS 20 approach is a good one to fly in VFR conditions. It is remarkable to see how close you actually are to everything. If we were in the soup we would have never seen any of this stuff; however, if we were low and a bit off of course we'd be dead meat. This approach truly underscores the importance of not deviating even the slightest when flying an IFR approach. You never know what is around you.

I was quite pleased with my flying today, but this wasn't because I'm a super pilot. I practice regularly using Elite Flight Simulator at home in order to keep my skills sharp when I don't have time to fly. I, like everyone, need to practice and a sim allows me to do much more in less time. No question that today was proof of the value I get from the flight sim. I was a bit rusty, but I stayed well within IFR rules and would have easily passed a FAA check ride. I can also do things in the sim that I'd never do on purpose in a real plane. However, outside of a full motion simulator, nothing simulates getting into a real plane and flying real approaches. The wind, busy controllers, airplane noise, other aircraft, etc. greatly add to the experience. And unless you have a certified PCATD and a flight instructor with cannot log flight sim time for currency. Bottom often, but when you can't fly a simulator and stay current!

1 comment:

bparker said...

Hi Jim:

I have to say that I am very impressed with all of the detail you have posted to the Mooniac site. It is very informative and educational. I would like to ask you about your EFB that was mentioned. Please let me know your thoughts about this system. I fly an Ovation2.

Thank you.