Monday, February 1, 2016

With Elegance

Six Six Four One Mike, my 1979 Beechcraft Bonanza A36, is a fantastic airplane. It's fast, roomy, has long range, great avionics - there's not many aircraft in the general aviation fleet that can match Four One Mike's capabilities or value.

But like many complex systems, Four One Mike has some issues that just never seem to work out - in this case the plane's autopilot.

Since my ownership, Four One Mike's autopilot has presented reliability issues: roll servo, pitch servo, flight computer ... all of these things were constructed nearly 40 years ago. These aren't electronics. They're electrical, with transistors, resistors, diodes, and other ancient artifacts of pre-silicone technology.

Because of Four One Mike's proclivity to repudiate autopilot operations (usually at the most inopportune time), I have, as the airship's owner and only pilot in command in over 800 hours of operation, become very adept at hand flying the machine in the most challenging conditions.

But nothing as challenging as Saturday's Mom-visitation flight to KOKB and back to home base KOXR.
There's a runway down there somewhere!

The one thing about flying: it’s routine, until it’s not routine, and then it’s MAJOR skill test time. Phew! Suffice to say, I got about 6 months worth of flight instruction in about 1 hour. All that you train for and think you’ll never have to do or deal with got thrown at me all at once!

The morning started out with interesting weather. Nothing dramatic or out of the ordinary, but, as I said, "interesting." The clouds at KOXR were reported in the regularly scheduled weather broadcast as "broken, 1300 feet." But when I got to the field, there were big, open holes of blue. If I hustled I could exit KOXR under visual flight rules!

If I hustled ... famous last words! My next door hangar neighbor decided to show up to do a little clean out. Kevin is a former naval aviator and F-14 pilot. His plane has been in Mojave the past 3 months getting a new paint job and Kevin expected to bring it home in a couple of days, so he was prepping the hangar.

There really aren't a lot of pilots and aircraft owners in the general population, so when a couple of them get together conversation just occurs, regardless of topic, because aviation is a unique experience, and of course, everything has something to do with flying (like this column), even if it doesn't. Needless to say, I missed that VFR departure window, and when I called up KOXR ground control I asked for an instrument clearance to visual rules on top of the clouds, then radar services VFR to KOKB.

Oceanside (KOKB) was, at my time of departure, reporting clear skies, though skies were variously broken to overcast along my route. I've seen this before, and besides, going VFR is a lot faster to KOKB than IFR because of the routing.

And I had a heck of a tailwind southbound, recording ground speeds nipping at 200 knots (about 240 mph). Whoohoo!

Alas, when I got near KOKB the automated weather observation station (AWOS) was reporting various layers of clouds, including overcast and broken layers. I asked SoCal for an IFR clearance into the field, specifically the VOR-Alpha approach, which is a non-precision approach and pretty straight forward. The approach includes a procedure turn which also serves as the hold.

In instrument training there is a lot of focus on holds because the three dimensional character of flying really challenges spatial orientation, particularly when there are no visual cues, such as in the clouds. But holds are rarely issued by ATC. It's kind of like learning calculus in high school - it's nice, interesting, certainly challenging for a mathematical luddite like me, but when will I ever use it?

Holds are so rarely issued, particularly in general aviation operations, that usually pilots have to intentionally practice them with or without ATC help to meet the minimum regulatory requirement of one every six months.

I got my VOR-A approach clearance into KOKB, but with a hold (surprise!), as published on the approach chart, and at 3,000 feet, which put me in the clouds, flying by hand - which meant relying solely on my instruments, and my IFR training, to navigate safely without the assistance of an autopilot to keep things straight and level.

That may not sound like a big deal, but when visual sensory clues are removed and one is traveling at 140 mph in volatile atmospheric conditions the inner ear plays tricks with your brain, and disorientation and even a bit of vertigo set in. It's a challenge to ignore those symptoms, particularly when the machine isn't flying itself.

To a non-pilot, or worse a VFR only pilot, these conditions are very alarming and dangerous. But to an IFR pilot, such conditions represent perfect practice conditions, except it's real! The Oceanside hold in the clouds at 3,000 feet was, frankly, a special treat.

The rest of the VOR Alpha approach into Oceanside was routine. It's a circle to land approach and the minimum descent altitude is about 1140 feet above ground - the AWOS was advertising an overcast layer at 1200; just high enough to see what's going on. In fact, the AWOS was pessimistic and I broke out at about 1350 feet with plenty of runway visible for a landing.

On the ground the skydive plane pilot, Annie, latched on to me, of course, because she wasn't flying due to the clouds and I was already behind schedule to see Mom... After a few minutes discussing flight conditions I was cleared to the memory care facility, and another good day of Mom! At age 91 with advanced dementia, each day is broadly categorized as good or bad...

The skies didn't clear for the return trip, and in fact the cloud cover at KOKB was even more dense, so I filed for and retrieved the SANN31 clearance back to Oxnard. This is a great route. It's fast because it's pretty direct. There's a couple of altitude changes, unusual for such a short route, it goes right over Los Angeles International at 4,000 feet (which is really cool if you're not in the clouds) and ATC 99% of the time routes you direct to the Oxnard localizer for the ILS 25 approach.

Not this time! There were a lot of planes in the Los Angeles Basin and San Fernando Valley airspace trying to get to one place or the other but for the low clouds.

Four One Mike is a pretty fast airplane. Airplanes are a compromise. When a plane flies well fast, it usually is a handful flying slow (and visa versa) and a Bonanza is no different. Slow flight is not the Bonanza's strength.

So when SoCal asked me to slow down to "zero eight zero knots" I had to ask again just to make sure I heard right. 80 knots is the final approach speed "over the numbers" when landing a Bonanza. It is just on the outside of the stall envelope; Four One Mike doesn't like going that slow. It can, but vigilance is in order!

Yep, SoCal confirmed, eighty knots, in the clouds, and with vectors (direction changes) all over the San Fernando Valley to "sequence" me in along with all of the other traffic. I changed directions, sometimes radically, about a half dozen times before getting instruction to intercept the localizer.

So here I am, in the clouds, no autopilot to help with the chore of safely managing an aircraft, nose high by about 5 degrees from level flight, controls mushy with lack of airflow over surfaces, trying to maintain altitude because there's planes just 1,000 feet directly below and above me doing the same thing, and changing directions, talking to ATC (and listening intently) ... THIS is what we practice and train so hard for!

Finally switched over to Point Mugu approach, still loping around at 80 knots indicated airspeed, I get cleared for the ILS 25 into Oxnard, but now Mugu wants me to speed it up to 120 knots or better because of aircraft behind me. Sheesh! Here I was, all stable, on the glideslope, hand flying a perfectly coordinated stable approach, and another zinger.

Changing configurations mid-instrument approach is not an insignificant event. There are many variables that need to be accounted for: pitch trim, engine speed, airspeed, flaps, landing gear, propeller speed, roll and yaw, etc. What a challenge! What valuable practice (except it's real)!

Obviously I made it on the ground, safely, and frankly, proud of my aviation skills. That was an expert's day of flying, not routine at all, and testament to really good training.

Which of course brings me to workers' compensation. Work comp tries to be as routine as possible. We have rules, regulations, laws, procedures - all sorts of instructions on what to do with the variables that comprise the complex system of comp. Most of the time all of this is routine and rote.

Some of the time there are challenges because, metaphorically, the weather changes and we get instructions to do something outside the routine.

Perhaps that's why there was a record in penalties issued by the California Division of Workers' Compensation for 2014: seven claims shops were assessed a total of $1.795 million in penalties in the Profile Audit Review process according to a report released Jan. 26.

Though auditors identified more violations in 2014 than any other year since 2003, the increase in violations compared to previous years was not as dramatic as the increase in total assessed penalties, which should mean that the violations were much worse.

It's a shame that there are any penalties, or need for audits in the first place. Workers' compensation is supposed to be self-executing. It's complex, and there are lots of rules to follow and holes to fall into, but if carefully executed claims should land safely.

Some argue that the audit and penalty process is inadequate. Others argue that the system is just fine, or even more punitive than necessary. Claims personnel complain of understaffing, their supervisors complain of inadequate performance.

Likely there's a bit of truth to everyone's position. The reality is, though, that everyone must train constantly, everyone must remain vigilant at all times, and be ready for that errant ATC request putting you into an uncomfortable situation that challenges skill and system's flight envelope.

What I like about flying is not the convenience, or speed, or thrill or any of that - what turns me on is dealing with a hugely complex machine in a hugely complex system dealing with hugely complex problems, and doing it elegantly.

That's the attraction of workers' compensation too. The California audit process is designed to get more stringent every single year, raising the bar based on past performance and forcing the claims industry into higher and higher levels of achievement and execution, and to do so with elegance.

Only other pilots will truly understand the exploits I described here. And only other claims professionals will truly understand the challenges faced working in the system.

But execute against the challenges professionally, proficiently, expertly, and seek elegance in doing so - the rest of the world may not notice, but your colleagues will, and the people we serve will even more so.

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