Thursday, June 26, 2008

PPCed Again

The flight test is early the next morning. I don't feel ready for the in-air portion. I'm still getting in finger trouble with the autopilot, but I've become used to minimal training.

I prepare all the paperwork for the exam flight: operational flight plan, weight and balance, Nav Canada flight plan, weather briefing, performance calculations, company exams and my licence and medical. I put the last two into the same folder with the paperwork, so they're all ready and I don't have to go through the little ritual of digging them out of the licence wallet when he asks for them.

I haven't met the examiner yet, but I'm told he's easy going, won't kill me for details, just wants to see me in control of the airplane and knowing where to go. I'm there at seven to make sure the airplane is preflighted and ready to go. He arrives early and as we sit down to do the paperwork he asks me "What kind of day are we going to have?" I brief him quickly on forecast and actual ceilings, visibility, winds and precipitation. It's likely to be VMC throughout the flight, except perhaps if they give me a hold at 7000'. He's satisfied with that, and doesn't ask any questions. I wonder for a moment if that was supposed to be an ice-breaking question and not a request for a weather briefing. Ah well, my friends and relatives know better than to ask me what the weather is like, if they don't want to hear that it's 13 degrees and there's a 5000' stratus layer with at least ten miles visibility in light rain. The examiner tells me to go and file the flight plan now so it's ready in the system when we want to go.

When I return, he appears to have already looked through the folder of paperwork and satisfied himself with my preparation. I've found that preparing for a renewal flight test is a matter of showing that you're prepared. Overpreparing guarantees minimal ground questions. Which kind of makes sense because a pilot who already holds the rating obviously knows how to do it, and the mistake they are most likely to make is not preparing. The airplane is fuelled and preflighted so he runs through what he's expecting on the test, and we start up.

I take my time going through all the preflight checks: clearance delivery, ground control, engines, propellers, avionics, autopilot, flight instruments. There's an air museum on the field, I position for the run up so the exhibits are visible from the airplane. I learned on my initial multi-engine flight test the advantage of having a distraction available for the examiner during the run up. It takes the fumble out of your fingers when the examiner is reminiscing.

I call ground "ready" from the run up area, as they requested, and then call tower ready from the hold short area. Tower tells me I'm cleared for takeoff, contact departure airborne. I make my calls on the roll. Take-off power set, airspeed alive, gauges green, rotate. With the correct climb speed established, I reset the flight director, engage heading mode on the autopilot, and call departure. Aviate, navigate, communicate. I do the after take-off checks and turn on course as directed. The holding VOR is already tuned; I identify it and determine the direct course for it so
I'm ready for my clearance, which is a parallel entry. I brief the examiner on the entry. "It will be a left turn to the outbound heading of 200 degrees, a left turn to track--or fly direct--inbound, and then right turns in the hold." I set up NAV2 for the hold and track to the station on NAV1. I use heading mode to track as opposed to NAV mode, because nav mode is pretty sloppy on this autopilot.

Before we reach the VOR he tells me I have a simulated alternator failure. "That's a checklist item" I say, and reach for the emergency checklist.

"What will it say?" he asks before I open it.

"It will tell me to recycle that side of the master switch, and if that doesn't fix it to turn off the CB for the inoperative alternator, and reduce electrical load."

He's happy with that and I continue to the VOR. That's the second time I've had an examiner ask for a common sense recitation of what to do in a case where the standard calls for rigid checklist following. Perhaps it's something in their notes. I continue to the VOR.

The entry goes as planned. At one minute outbound I turn left towards the station but am nowhere near the inbound track, with full scale deflection on the HSI. That's par for the course on a parallel entry, not something I did wrong, which is why I briefed it as I did. I take up an aggressive intercept heading. Now I'm not doing what I said I would. Well I am, but roughly. "Which of those needles are you navigating by?" the examiner asks me. He's caught me. I twirl NAV2 and show that the heading I have taken is pretty much direct the station. I change heading to omit the "pretty much," and turn back outbound at station passage, starting the clock at the flag flip. After I turn inbound, on track this time, he calls the approach controller to ask for "maneuvers in the hold."

I demonstrate a steep turn, not perfect, but trading off airspeed and bank angle deviations to keep it all within limits. Next an approach to stall in landing configuration, which is good, because that means the gear will be down and I won't be distracted by this airplane's gear horn, which sounds like the other airplane's stall horn. He gives me an engine failure as I recover from the stall, then gives me back the engine and asks for the ILS approach.

I tune the nav aids, brief it and slow to approach speed. I'm late on approach flap, getting it in at the same time as the gear, but the airplane follows the profile at the approved speed. I crosscheck the altitude at beacon inbound. At decision height I call "minima no contact I have control." I'm treating the autopilot like a skilled but stupid and distractable co-pilot, so I talk to it as if it were a crew member. Power up, going up, gear up, flaps up, speak up. I tell tower I'm in the missed approach and they have me call departure, who vector me half way into the next province, and then back for the NDB approach to the same runway.

I'm determined not to get caught high and fast on this approach, so before I reintercept the track, I disengage altitude hold and reduce the power, aiming for the procedure turn altitude. The inbound track comes up quickly, and I intercept it. Within five degrees I can continue my descent all the way to beacon crossing height, but ... huh? The airplane has barely descended. I double check that altitude hold is off. What kind of airplane doesn't descend when you reduce the power without changing the trim? I shove the nose down, disconnect the autopilot altogther, chop the power,
(yes, in that inefficient order), add flaps and do a repeat performance of the practice session, plummeting to MDA just in time to give the examiner the requested touch and go. There's another simulated engine failure in the climbout and then a visual return for landing.

At parking, I shut down the left engine, check the hydraulic pump on the right, and then shut the right one down too. "Did you check the other hydraulic pump at start up?" the examiner asks.

"Yes, I push down the gear handle before engine start, and then check its return before starting the second."

He didn't notice me doing that, not surprising as I put it down as part of my prestart flow, not immediately before start, and I had a slightly tricky time getting the left engine rpm to stabilize, so the start was a slow process. He's happy with that, had been going to lecture me on it.

In the debrief I of course do not escape a lecture for my sloppy NDB approach. I am responsible for getting the airplane to descend, regardless of what the autopilot does or doesn't do. Afterwards I asked my trainer and perused the manual looking for what I could have done wrong, but it seems to have been as random as the glideslope deviation during practice.

So an autopilot needs to be treated as a skilled, stupid, distractable and occasionally homicidal copilot. And you can't even make it buy you a beer when it screws up.

Anyway, I got my PPC card signed, my IFR rating renewed and learned some things. I pledge to do better next time.

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