Archive for the ‘Aviation’ Category

Icing Encounter

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Today I had my most serious icing encounter since I started flying in 2000.

Brenda and I are returning from one of our holiday trips out to the East, and today’s legs were planned as McKinney (TKI) to Midland (MAF), and Midland on to El Paso (ELP).  We encountered worse weather than expected, including picking up ice in the descent into our diversion airport. It was a tense experience, to be sure, but I think that I handled it overall pretty reasonably.  I feel like I owe my flight instructor and regular safety pilot a beer or a dinner, though.

No icing airmets were out there though a fairly benign IFR airmet for ceilings was active.  The terminal forecast for our destination and intermediate points looked reasonable.  All points were reporting clear skies when I checked the weather initially as well.  I was aware that there was a frigid airmass coming in from the north, so there was that to keep in mind.

Climbout was unremarkable, though there was some moisture in the clouds, the outside air temperature looked good, and there was no ice.  As we continued on, the cloud tops were getting higher, and looked more substantial than a dispersing layer.  Then there’s a KingAir that misses an approach at a small airport.  Sounds like the conditions are worse than the forecast.

At this point I’m about halfway through the leg, and these don’t look like the improving conditions that were forecast. Let’s talk to Flight Service and see how things look at Midland.

Midland has a fairly low ceiling and high tops.  And while I’m talking to the briefer, a pilot report comes in about icing outside Midland.  OK, that’s definitely not good.  Abilene (ABI) is coming up, which is a sizeable airport with an ILS. The ceiling is low, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing better around.  Let’s get on the ground wishing we were in the air.

I’m talking to Abilene approach and request the diversion.  The controller gives us a vector and starts working us in.  He asks for a reason for the diversion and I tell him that the weather’s getting worse at my destination and that I’d like to find out on the ground.  That’s a standard question, but it sounds like he thinks it’s a good reason.

He gives me pilot’s discretion to descend for the approach, which allows me to decide when and how fast to enter the clouds.  He and I both understand that ice may be a concern, though no one’s reported it here yet.  I actually request higher; I’m in the cloud tops and seeing visible moisture.  He grants it and we talk about the fact that the water is still water both up here and down at the airport.

By now I’ve reviewed the approach plate and set up the GPS and navigation radios so I know where I am relative to the path I’m taking down.  I don’t know that there’s ice in the clouds, but I want to spend as little time in there as possible.  I’ve got the carberetor heat and pitot heat on as well.

When I get close, I let the controller know I’m starting down and drop in fairly fast.  I’m also planning to fly the approach at as high a speed as possible, again to get out of the clouds as quickly as possible.  Also, if there’s ice, I want to have as much power available as I can.

For a while, it’s like all the other approaches I’ve flown: blind gray outside, water moving up the windscreen.  The controller vectors me on to the approach.  Right about when I capture the glideslope, I realize that the water that was moving up the windscreen is not moving up the windscreen anymore.  We’re in ice.

This is scary.  I’m at least as frightened as the time I spun a 150 by mistake, but there I had an instructor to make it all better. I want very badly to dive for the ground as fast as possible to get out of the ice, but I force myself to follow the approach.  Hitting a pole because I panicked is not going to help anything.

It is very nerve wracking. Things I know about ice keep popping into my head, and sure enough all of them are true.  Ground speed slows (though there is a lot of gusty wind in play as well). The other thing I force myself to remember is that though ice is not good, an Archer will not fall out of the air because some ice appears.

Stay on the approach. Stop overcontrolling. We don’t want to try this twice. Keep the speed up – “fun fact: airframe ice raises the stall speed” says my helpful brain.  It also reminds me that the defroster should be on in case this ice stays on the windscreen.  I don’t need the irony of breaking out and not being able to see the ground through the ice.  Put the heater on, too.  Can’t hurt.

Before we break out – I’d guess 1500-1000 feet above the ground – we get into warmer air and the plane sheds ice.  The windscreen clears, and I worry that it’s just the defroster working.  But the plane feels like herself again.

I still keep the airspeed good and healthy in case I’m wrong.  We break out at 500′ or so with the approach lights in sight, and it feels like my plane again.  There’s the business of landing in 20 knots of wind, with gusts, but that’s easy enough after the ice.  The wind is straight down the runway; add enough speed to compensate for a gust and all’s well. The wind is the one part of the forecast that is as advertised.

I’m still jumpy enough to ask for a braking report on the runway, but it’s just wet and not very wet.

I report the icing in the clouds and taxi in. I ask the tower to relay a thank-you to the approach controller.

Before I go inside, I check the airframe.  There’s still a thin layer of ice on the leading edges of the wings and the stabilator.  I’d rather not see that again.

I’m not happy to have encountered unforecast icing conditions, but I do think I picked up on them reasonably quickly and navigated them as safely as possible. I’m very happy that I’ve kept IFR current and proficient – especially at doing things like flying an ILS at high speed.  I’m glad that my brain is crammed with fun facts about ice and that it apparently retrieves them under stress.  Evidently all those hours reading about flying are worthwhile.

I learned some things, too.  I’ll be extra skeptical about weather in general and Texas weather in particular.  But really, I want to remember two big ideas:

I want to remember that I can land under stress so that I have the confidence to take action when I need to. I want to remember that the source of that confidence was doing the work to merit it.

I want to remember how scared I was when I saw that ice start accumulating.  Anticipating and avoiding danger is the game to play and that terrifying jolt is how we know to keep playing.

Mefford Field

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

A few months ago, on a uncontrolled field tour, I landed at Mefford Field (TLR) in Tulare, CA for the first time.  On a tour I like to take a quick picture of something on the field and then pop right back up into the air and on to the next field.  At Mefford I saw an older looking Piper dealership/service center that seemed worth a second look.  I did take a snapshot form the cockpit, but it really didn’t turn out at all.  So yesterday I hopped in the plane to check it out.

I say “hopped,” but it actually took a little doing.  I left my EFB at home and had to go back for it, then I needed to get some air in the tires, and finally get an IFR climb out of Santa Monica to get through the marine layer that’s been hanging around all July.  But, more or less, I hopped in the plane.

Once I hopped successfully, it was an hour and a half of flying to get out to Tulare.  There’s always something to see.  Yesterday I flew over a fellow doing aerobatics near Fillmore, a little bit of cloud cover and convection in the Gorman area, and through the haze and smoke from a wildfire to the north.  It was nowhere nearby, but the Central Valley traps the smoke.  Then into the pattern and onto the ground.

There was a helicopter in pattern the whole time I was there – about a half an hour – but that was it.  The field was basically deserted, but the Golden State Highway (the 99) was packed with people passing the field by.  It made for a wistful atmosphere.

I tied the plane down and poked around.  In addition to the dealership, I found an old hangar, a pair of aircraft on static display as war memorials, and several aviation businesses.  I got the impression that TLR is a working airport, and I was here after hours.

Here are the pictures I took as I walked around:

After spending a half an hour or so walking around and taking pictures, I popped over to Porterville Airport (PTV)  for lunch at the Airway Cafe.  The Airway Cafe is a great airport cafe, and I’m always happy to get a chance to stop by.

After lunch, I popped back up to Santa Monica – enjoying another hour and a half of flying.

In some sense, it’s strange to spend all that time for a few pictures of airport buildings.  I think it’s a great way to spend a Saturday.

Hemet: a small airport gets better!

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

I hate to say it, but usually when  see a small airport has changed, it’s a change for the worse: an FBO has vanished, a cafe has closed (again), or the whole airport is gone. When the opposite occurs I’m practically beside myself with glee.  Today I got to see a small airport that looks like it’s in the middle of coming to life: Hemet-Ryan (HMT) in Hemet, CA.

I’ve been to Hemet-Ryan before and have some great memories of the place.  I shared the pattern there with someone who had built himself a Mad Max-style Gyrocopter (not the one in the film, to my knowledge) on my private pilot long cross country.  I’ve been in and out of there to do a few landings a few times, but hadn’t gotten out of the plane there in years.  I saw that there was a cafe there, so I figured I’d stop by.  My expectations were pretty low.  The last time I’d been there, the cafe hadn’t been much to speak of, pretty much the baloney sandwich type.

I was very pleasantly surprised.  The pattern had several planes in it as I arrived, which is always a good sign.  I joined in behind another Cherokee and pulled in to a large transient parking area.

That was new.

In fact the whole terminal area looked new.  The last few times I’d been here there was really no terminal area to speak of, and the hangars had given me the impression of being dark and unwelcoming.  There was no obvious FBO or other services.  Today there was a renovated terminal building with a flight school and FBO, a clean cheap fuel pit, and a big tanker base.

After I got tied down I asked a passerby – a passerby! – if there was a cafe, and I got directions and a microreview.  I hadn’t ever seen people walking around HMT before, but the new terminal building had instructors and students coming and going as well as other locals.  A Civil Air Patrol flight was just going out, and a fellow was waiting for friends to return.

The cafe itself was a short walk past more welcoming and renovated hangars with a bunch of interesting planes tied down in various states of repair.  None looked like hulks, but some were clearly being worked on.  The cafe itself was hopping.  There were a couple tables outside that looked inviting, but I sat inside at the counter to soak up the sound of a busy airport restaurant.

The food was very good – excellent for the price – and the folks running the place were great.  Despite the fact that the place was probably about as full as they can support, they made sure I was given the full hospitality of the place.  I was a lone stranger, and it says a lot that they took such good care of me when they were so busy.  I had an “Irish melt” sandwich and they had plaques claiming they’d won pie contests.  Clearly a place with their priorities together.

Hemet-Ryan looks like a lively small airport.  Stop by and buy some gas and have a meal if you’re coming through the area.  I’m already planning to drag my buddies down there.

 

 

How You Can Tell You’re In Your Home Airspace

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Today was cloudy in Southern California, which means it’s a great day to fly.  Chances to get real time in real clouds are rare, so I took the time to bop off to Oxnard and Camarillo and play in the clouds on the way there and back.  These were instrument flight plans, so, “play in the clouds” really meant “fly where air traffic control (ATC) tells you to fly and hope there are clouds there,” but I had pretty good luck.  I had some lunch at Camarillo and was flying back to Santa Monica when I got to do a little visualization.

One of the things about instrument flying is that you have to learn to visualize where you are with only a little bit of information.  It can be the angle and distance your aircraft is from known locations, or other fairly arcane bits of info.  When I was learning to fly on instruments I spent a lot of time learning to decide where I was based on those kind of deductions, but these days I have a moving map that’s telling me where I am all the time.  It makes flying much safer, but it’s nice to flex those visualization muscles.

Here’s how I got to do that today.  Take a look at my route here (image from FlightAware):

Flight route

I’m flying from KCMA on the left to KSMO on the right.  The green line is my flight path.  The extra northward (upward)  line at the end of the flight is a data error of some kind – I landed at Santa Monica.  The visualization happened at the little loop halfway along.

I’m in and out of the clouds along that part of the flight – exactly what I was hoping for – and I’m practicing some control under instruments and the distractions of coming in and out of clouds.  I’m listening to the radio, too, because (1) I’m listening for instructions and (2) I want to hear what else is going on.  It’s that second part that was interesting today.  As I’m cruising along I hear the controller issue landing instructions to a Southwest 737 inbound to Burbank.  If you’re playing along on the map, that’s the grey ‘>’ near the right side of the map.  The 737 is west of the field, being told to fly to SILEX intersection at 4000′.

That’s pretty much where I’m going to be shortly.  Of course, I’m also going to be in a cloud shortly.  And I say to myself “Is there something you’d like to share, Mr. Controller?”  Sure enough, I get a message to turn more than 90 degrees to my left.  And, I’m not sure, but it may have been a different controller – meaning that an instructor decided to make sure Southwest and I were far enough apart to be legal.

While I make my circle, the much faster jet goes into Burbank and I’m back on my way about 2 minutes later.  If I didn’t visualize the jet’s route, this would have been a fairly unfathomable circle to make.  But since I know this airspace well, I knew exactly what was going on.

As an aside, we were certainly never close enough to be dangerous.  There are a couple other layers of safety systems that would have activated if we were actually close together.  I should also point out that, strictly speaking, I don’t need to know why I’m making that circle.  But understanding what’s going on gives that extra layer of comfort.

Other Cool Stuff

While I was at Camarillo, I saw a Diamond DA20 two-seat trainer.  I know they’re out there, but this is the first one I’d seen.  When I was covering my plane after the flight, I got to see two what I think were Chinook helicopters overhead.  Even with a cell phone, I think the pics are pretty good.

Wheels Up Again

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

The fine folks at Kim Davidson Aviation have repaired my tire after the sad events last Sunday, and I took some time this afternoon to try it out. It looked like a tire that holds air when I walked around, so, off we go.

I put 5 landings on it in the heat of the day and had no problems, so I feel good about taking passengers again.  I know that Kim’s guys do a great job, but I like to test these things before I put someone else in the plane.

Incidentally, spending an hour in the pattern at SMO is one of my favorite things to do.  It’s my home field so I know the place well, but there’s always something interesting to put a twist on things.  Today it was fairly busy and had SMO’s patented late afternoon gusty winds.  The airport sits on some of the higher land in the area, cut off like a little mesa and gets a strong ocean breeze.  The result is a set of air currents that are surprisingly stong to a newbie and offer something new to the old hands as well.  The field was also busy enough that one self-confessed country boy was very appreciative of the (excellent) controllers’ help getting in, around, and out of the field.

While I was gassing up afterward I saw this puppy parked by the pumps.  It’s a SeaRay – a homebuilt/kitplane flying boat.  Click through to see the bigger pics, the thumbnails don’t do it justice.

Things That Go Bump On The Runway

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I have been very lucky so far with the things that have gone wrong in my flying career.  Most of the things that have gone wrong for me have (knock wood) been small.  I had another small one go wrong this weekend.  I blew a tire rolling out on a landing at Santa Monica.

I was out with Marc Zorn flying approaches for instrument currency.  We were actually delayed departing Santa Monica because the nose wheel tire was low.  American Flyers helped us out and filled that tire.  I always check the tires during my walk around, but because the nose had been low and because I’d recently had the left main tire filled, I double checked the mains when the lineman came over.  No sense asking him to come back.  I was surer than usual that everything was properly inflated.

Marc and I shot approaches into Riverside and Chino that went pretty well.  We scoped out the various interesting planes on the ground at Chino and had lunch at Flo’s Diner.

From there we filed back to Santa Monica and took off.  In retrospect, the roll out was my first clue something was up.  Just as we were lifting off, I felt a sharp jerk to the left that  didn’t feel like a wind gust.  I even joked to Marc that I hoped we still had three wheels down there, but I wasn’t positive it was anything  more than a crosswind gust on takeoff.  If I hadn’t had the confirmation of tire failure on landing, I might have forgotten the incident.  Now I know what a tire blowing feels like.  I think.

Anyway, we landed pretty uneventfully at SMO, until we had cleared the runway (and, I later found out, cleared the runway safety area).  As the plane slowed, it began pulling to the left and felt like a blown tire on a car.  I got as far clear of the runway as possible and told the tower I thought I’d blown a tire.  Sure enough, I had.

The blown left main

The airport police towed us off the apron after removing the fairing that protects the wheel, and made an incident report.  The responding officer also gave us a lift back to our car.  The officer – whose name I unfortunately forgot – was really excellent.  He helped us get the plane safely out of harms way before collecting the information he needed for his report.  He was polite and helpful in every way.

I contacted my mechanics the next day and they towed the plane back to my parking spot and put a new tire on.

I’ve been thinking about whether I should have declared emergency or handled it differently.  I think I did OK knowing what I knew then.  The takeoff at Chino was abnormal, but it was abnormal in a new way and only slightly so.  With only that evidence, I don’t think that I had enough indication of trouble to declare emergency.  I thought my joke to Marc was a joke. And honestly, I don’t know that the tire blew on takeoff.   It may have been fine at Chino.  Beyond getting as far clear of the Santa Monica runway as possible once I had the problem, there wasn’t much else to do.

But, I will take a similar abnormal takeoff more seriously in the future.

Hopefully I won’t have to deal with tire trouble again for another 1600 hours.

Review: Instrument Procedures Handbook

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The FAA’s Instrument Procedures Handbook is a well respected reference for IFR training.  I picked up a copy primarily because it was available inexpensively on the Kindle.  I was hoping for a good refresher for the technical details of the instrument rules.

The Handbook turns out to be something like an IFR-centric Aeronautical Information Manual.  That’s what I expected, but a little less than what I hoped for.  There’s a lot of good information in here, and I would say it is more readable than the AIM, but overall there are much better places to learn this information from.  As a refresher and a reference, it is solid.

Review: Fighting the Flying Circus

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Eddie Rickenbacker‘s Fighting The Flying Circus is another book that I cannot pretend to objectively review.  I first read this in 7th grade in study hall, and then again the following year.  It’s Rickenbacker’s story of being a fighter pilot in World War I, and it’s a very thrilling read for a boy who wants to fly, full of comradeship, derring-do, and courage and decency in the face of danger.  Rickenbacker comes across as a responsible, daring guy who wanted to do his best for his country in a war.

I’m older now, and I can see where he’s filling pages, and how there are places where I wish Rickenbacker had written more of a memoir than a briefing.  It was still a thrill to revisit it again, though.

Then there’s the gung-ho side of the book – which is to say most of it.  Rickenbacker is honestly happy to go out strafing German soldiers, which he calls great sport.  He and his men treat shooting down Germans as a game at which they want to be better than anyone else.  There’s an unapologetic jingoism that’s hard to ignore; and of course one shouldn’t ignore it.

I think Rickenbacker wrote honestly, and so I’m sure that these were exactly what he and his men talked about, and probably believed about the war.  And he honestly describes the enormous relief that the Armistice brought them.  One pilot just keeps repeating “we won’t get shot at anymore.”  These men had been in combat less than a year.

To see the losses that they suffer in that year, and coming off reading about how hard this brief, brutal war affected others, it’s easy to wish Rickenbacker had been more thoughtful about the barbarism of what he experienced.  That’s probably a lot to ask of a young patriot six months after the experience, though.

It’s a good book in a lot of ways, and much more readable than von Richthofen‘s autobiography.

Recommended.

Review: Squawk 7700

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Peter Buffington’s Squawk 7700 is partly the bittersweet memoir of a man who had to give up on his dream of flying for a living and partly an indictment of the state of the airline industry that led him to that point.  I am naturally sympathetic to both of those aspects.  I love flying and dislike the idea that making a living doing it is closed to people with a passion for it.  I also see the dangers and unfairness of the treatment of regional airline pilots.  They have to work incredibly long hours at a technically and physically demanding job for the kind of money we pay house painters.  That is a recipe for trouble and more people should be aware of why their tickets are so cheap.

Buffington writes knowledgably and with heart about the technical topics and the hopes and routine days of an aviation professional.  He also is unflinching about the state of professionalism that he finds at all levels of the aviation world. There are a lot of useful facts and many interesting anecdotes in the work.

All that said, I think Buffington’s editors have let him down. As I say, there are two related but distinct books in here vying for time and focus –  the memoir and the warning.  Walking the line so that they reinforce each other’s message rather than distract from each other is no easy task, and Buffington is not always successful.  The dispassionate tone of a whistleblower creeps into his memoir at times, reducing the reader’s sympathy, and the inflamed tone of storyteller comes through in critiques of policy that may be better served by a cool assessment of facts that need no magnification.  There are some spots where closer copyediting would clarify the technical portions as well.

Overall I agree with his assessment, and respect his passion.  I think another editing pass or two would make those clearer to readers outside the aviation world, who would benefit greatly from hearing what he has to say.

New Feature on my Hold Quiz

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

A couple years ago, I wrote an interactive quiz for aviators to practice determining hold entries – mainly because I sucked at it.  At the suggestion of a user, I added a display mode to it.  You can check out the quiz.