Saturday, July 17, 2010

What's the code?

While I'm building my own airplane, I don't fly that often. Truth is: I didn't fly that often before; only enough to keep 90-day current at Thunderbird Aviation in Eden Prairie. But last evening was the night for some practice.

I took the rusty bucket -- err, N4337V -- out to Glencoe for some landing practice and for reasons I still can't explain, I bounced almost every landing. The sun was setting and I was landing on Runway 31, so visibility wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst either.

My airspeed and approach was perfect. Attitude good. Altitude proper. Airspeed dead on: 64 knots "over the fence." Bounce...bounce.

You can learn a lot even when things aren't going well. You can evaluate and work on your judgment, for example. On one landing, I bounced once....then twice, which was two times more than was acceptable. So I "firewalled" the throttle, dropped a notch of flaps, lowered the nose to pick up airspeed and executed a pretty fine go-around, if I say so myself.

That, actually, is a talent few pilots practice. When people get into trouble, it's often because they don't want to admit they're in a bad spot and take action to set up for another try. They try to "save" the landing. So that's a positive.

On another time or two, I reacted to the bounce with a touch of throttle to ease the plane -- more or less -- onto the runway rather than have it "drop." On every landing, I consider "what would happen now if this were my RV?"

If this were my RV, I'd be able to go back out this morning and get it right. But an hour and a half of rental time is $180 and, well, it'll be cheaper just to think about it while mowing the lawn and folding the laundry today.

As I was coming back into Flying Cloud -- I was just south of Waconia -- another problem developed. "Flying Cloud Tower, Warrior 4337V is 10 miles out, with Bravo, inbound landing." Silence. Ruh roh.

A moment later, another warrior announced his intentions to land and he was two miles behind me. A moment after that, a third Warrior announced he was in the general vicinity. So I reannounced my intentions. Nothing.

"This isn't good," I thought. I've got two planes around me somewhere, a tower that I can't talk to, and a setting sun messing with my visibility.

As you pilots probably know, the mantra here is "fly the plane." And I did, though I admit my altitude decayed from 2500 to 2200 as I circled to avoid getting any closer to Flying Cloud's Class D airspace without being in radio communication. I peeled off to fly south, away from where I figured my two new friends were.

I tried to diagnose the problem, checking cables, frequencies, volumes etc. I could hear the conversations taking place -- none involving me -- but I couldn't participate. As I circled, I'd be blinded when I turned toward the west, a most uncomfortable feeling.

I finally decided I was going to have to go "no radio," which involves changing the transponder code to a discreet setting that tells controllers that my plane is unable to communicate. They then use a red and green "light gun" from the tower to give me instructions (although I'm pretty sure the tower would've radio'd me to see if I could at least hear them, in which case there wouldn't be a problem.)

All I had to do was change the transponder to the appropriate squawk code which was.... ummm... 7700.... 7600.... 7500... oh, shoot, which code is it? I knew it's not 7700, because that's the setting for an emergency (I remember that for some reason by remembering the first two numbers are Ray Bourque's uniform number when he played for the Boston Bruins. Hey, whatever works!).

So it's either 7600 or 7500. One is for loss of radio, the other is to signal a "hijack." Since the horizon has big skyscrapers of a major American city (Minneapolis), I didn't want to get it wrong, because the response was going to be decidedly different.

My kneeboard has a "cheat sheet" on it which tells me the light-gun signal meanings, but it didn't have the proper codes. So as I circled in the blinding sun, my altitude decaying slightly, I went through my flight bag, looking for anything that might have the proper code. Of course, papers were flying everywhere by now.

I finally found it. 7600 (Which I will now remember by associating "76" with the year I graduated from college and didn't call home enough. Get it? Communications failure. Hey, whatever works!)

I switched the transponder and hit IDENT which, presumably, lit up the controller's radar screen, but I didn't hear him saying anything to anyone else flying near me. So I as I turned toward the field, it occured to me that I had changed the PS Engineering 4000 intercom early in the flight to give me "sidetone," the ability to hear myself in my headphones when I transmitted.

Sure enough, I had flipped an extra switch and somehow prevented transmitting. Of course, this also meant that all of my radio calls for the last hour out at Glencoe weren't going out either.

"Flying Cloud Tower, how do you hear 4337V?" I radioed.

"Warrior 4337V, loud and clear, sir. Confirm that was you squawking 7600?"

So I did, and got squared away from the approach and landing. Other than another bounce, I landed uneventfully, taxied back to the FBO and shut down the plane (by the way, nobody parks a plane better than me. Nobody.)

It was a pretty good workout that identified more areas to work on the next time I scrape together $180 to find out I need to be better at flying airplanes.

1 comment:

  1. I flew that aircraft to Litchfield last weekend with my four-year-old co-pilot. Nearly minced a doe who somehow preferred asphalt runways to grassy fields.