Current Confidence

When confronted with an inoperative autopilot, a pilot is grateful for recurrent training on his instrument rating.

The author flies above the marine layer in Southern California in his Beechcraft Bonanza. [Courtesy: Ben Younger]

I’ve had a great eight months of flying in SoCal since I came to Los Angeles last January. The marine layer that creeps on shore most nights makes for interesting departures. This is a place to keep yourself instrument current. I’ve gotten used to inputting the approach procedure to the opposite runway I am departing from in case things go south during the initial climb. Part 91 flying places few limitations on takeoff minimums, but regardless, I still won’t go when it’s LIFR [low instrument flight rules]. Give me a 500-foot-or-better ceiling, and I’ll take my chances.

One interesting flight back in May involved a quick trip down to Palomar to pick up my friend Martijn, who was visiting from Costa Rica. It was not a great beginning as I hit the starter button on the ramp in Santa Monica (KSMO). Nada. Not enough juice. The battery had drained to 11.3V after having updated all of the electronic charts on my multiple navigators and Garmin glass. High-class problem, but still a problem.

Engine jumped by friend Kit Dawson and run-up complete, I got held for 20 minutes waiting for an IFR [instrument flight rules] clearance. Sometimes you hear something out in the world and it scares you sufficiently as to leave a mark. For me, it’s imagining my cylinder walls glazing after idling for more than five minutes. I was told idling for long periods could do this to my engine, and while I don’t actually know anyone who this has happened to, nor do I remember where I originally heard it, it has taken up permanent residence in my head. Once in the air, I found myself in the clouds within a minute. Head down in the instruments and flying through the smooth grayness, I climbed and waited for the light to shine from above. With the Garmin G500 TXi’s flight director showing me the way, it’s easy to fly by hand, and you really want to be in full control that close to the ground, in case George decides to get weird. And weird he got.

I turned on the autopilot switch and found that it would keep the wings level, but it felt as if I was no longer climbing. This is disconcerting in the clouds. Your training tells you not to listen to your body, hammered home by the fact it will lie to you. However, in this case, the artificial intelligence confirmed what I felt in my ass: the airplane was leveling off, then climbing a bit, then leveling off. I switched off the autopilot and hand flew until I sailed out above the clouds in the late afternoon sunshine. This is why I never turn on the autopilot until I am 800 feet agl.

As I scanned the instruments, I saw a red “X” at the top of the primary flight display (PFD). The ruddervator’s servo clutch had failed. I pulled the breaker, then tried again. The autopilot would make coordinated turns but could not climb or descend with any accuracy. I considered turning back and landing in Burbank (KBUR), which I knew was clear, but I was feeling pretty solid about my instrument flying. I had recently taken lessons with a new-to-me instructor out of Camarillo (KCMA) named Michael Phillips—a wily ol’ dog. On my IPC [instrument proficiency check] flight, he secretly changed the navigation signal on my PFD from GPS to LOC [localiser] without me seeing it. It took me more than a minute to figure it out. Mike just shrugged his shoulders when Iasked him if he’d touched any buttons. Watch out for this guy. Point is, I was current and confident. I was given the ILS [instrument landing system] into Palomar with vectors to final and hand flew the approach with no issue. I came out under 1,500-foot ceilings with plenty of room and time to spare. For anyone considering getting your instrument ticket, all I can say is do it. It is unlike anything you will ever experience as a VFR [visual flight rules] pilot. It’s just a whole other animal. The level of attention and skill required makes your brain happy. Once on the ground, I told a waiting Martijn what was wrong with the autopilot and gave him the option of taking the train or renting a car. He asked if it was safe. I explained I can fly without an autopilot and I train to do just that. He said he was game if I was. Martijn has five children, and while I care greatly about my own life, a different set of criteria are superimposed over my decision-making process when I am carrying other people. When they are parents, it’s that much more so. I felt it was a flight well within my personal limits. Santa Monica ATIS [automatic terminal information service] was reporting calm winds, good visibility, and 1,300-foot ceilings. No problem.

Departure was a breeze. Ceilings were still at 1,500 feet and the layer was fairly thin—maybe 500 feet. But the approach back into Santa Monica turned out to be the real deal. I dropped into the clouds at 2,800 feet. The final approach fix is MOVVE (it’s Hollywood, baby) and you cross it at 3,000 feet. Putting the gear down while still in VMC is nice as the aircraft makes a pretty dramatic pitch when this happens. It’s helpful to be able to see what’s happening, but we were quickly in the clouds on a stabilized approach: 18 inches of manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm descending on the glide path. This is usually where I would let the autopilot do the flying while I monitor the engine and make sure that everything is in its right place. Hand flying requires that much more awareness and concentration.

Those ATIS-reported ceilings turned out to be inaccurate, and not by a little. The tower told me they were actually 600 feet agl—only 160 feet above minimums. When a marine layer is involved, the weather can deteriorate quicker than the ATIS can keep up. I wonder how I would have reacted had the tower not given me that information. What would I have done at 1,300 feet, at 1,000 feet, at 800 feet, when I found myself still buried in the clouds? Would I have gone to minimums or would I have called it off early? Hard to say. These are the things you think about at night, laying in bed.

But back in the clouds, passing through 1,000 feet, I was on speed and on glide path with no mistakes made. I continued to gently turn the throttle out to keep that magic combo of 18 inches/2,500 rpm that gave me my 500-fpm descent rate in the Bonanza. I glanced over at Martijn for just a moment. He was asleep. Must be nice.

We popped out at 600 feet agl just as the tower had reported. I dumped the flaps and came in for a decent landing—enough to wake my friend up. Maybe next time I can grease it enough that he’d need to be shaken gently at engine shutdown—something to aspire to. Recurrent training is really the key here. Had I not gone up with Michael for those sessions, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable completing the flight with an inoperative autopilot. As I’ve said before, know thyself.

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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