Archive for the ‘blogbook’ Category

2016 Holiday Trip

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

This holiday season Brenda and I returned to a bi-annual holiday tradition: flying my airplane back east to spend the season with our families.  Looking through my blog and old aviation pages, I see that I haven’t done one of these trips or reports in a while.

Brenda’s family moved to Frisco, TX in the Dallas metro area and mine lives outside Asheville, NC.  In the past, getting to Frisco (we technically  land in McKinney) took 2 days and a second day from Dallas to Asheville.  We usually stop first in Frisco before Christmas and spend a few days there before heading on to Asheville.  We’ve stopped in Frisco on the way back before, but we don’t always do so.

I write the reports from my perspective, and that perspective is the pilot’s perspective.  I talk much more about flying the legs than about the joys of the holiday season.  Of course, those are some of the joys of my holiday season.

This is the first year that I’ve flown Slippy on a flight this long.  Slippy is much faster, more powerful, and better equipped than my previous plane.  This trip let me work a bunch of those features out.

Santa Monica Municipal (SMO) to Phoenix Gateway (IWA)

Off we go, after loading up the luggage and finishing up our last few obligations.  Departure time is close to 8AM and my optimistic plan is to try to reach El Paso in one leg.  I chose it because El Paso is a  favorite stop from earlier trips and Slippy’s specs put it in reach under good conditions.

(Technically, that’s primarily true of a VFR leg, as instrument (IFR) flights have additional fuel and alternative airport requirements.)

I may yet make a one-hop trip to El Paso, but this was not that day.  I have both detailed performance specifications and an engine monitor that tracks fuel usage in real time.  This was one of the first times I’ve tried them out, and one of the points of this trip was to assess how reliable the tech was.

There were prevailing headwinds and by calculation and checking the real-time data, my best estimate was that we could make it to El Paso with about a half hour of fuel in the tanks.  I generally prefer more margin for error, especially when on a long leg.  I decided to divert us to Gateway airport in the Phoenix area and fuel up.  (Tuscon, which we’ll get to later, was my original diversion target, but the forecast there was for higher, gustier winds there than in the Phoenix area.)

The approach and landing were uneventful, though my radio communications were sloppy.  I wound up a little tongue-tied and I always confuse Gateway and the nearby Chandler. Sigh.

One of the key things I was testing out on this leg was how Slippy’s balance changed when I used the center tank.  Slippy has 3 tanks, one of which is a 15 gallon (1 hour) tank in the center of the aircraft, though further back than the wing tanks.  I’d studied how using that tank changed the handling characteristics, but it’s one of those things that it’s best to feel at some point.  This landing was that point, and the handling characteristics were perfectly reasonable.

One of the cool parts about this stop was sharing the pattern with a C-130.  There also seems to be an aerobatics/emergency upset school at gateway, and we saw some of their planes on the ramp.

And so we fuel up and head out.  Real fuel usage was in line with the tech’s prediction, which was also reassuring.

Phoenix Gateway (IWA) to Midland International (MAF)

Midland is another old friend on our trips.  It’s a well appointed airport that’s a short hop from our final destination in McKinney Texas.  Midland’s a great place to fill up and prepare for the transition across Dallas’s complex airspace.

This hop started by avoiding some parachute jumping south of Phoenix.  I’ve transitioned that area a few times before and knew most of the hot spots.  It was the first time Brenda heard an Air Traffic Controller refer to Eloy airport.  She asked if it was named after the alien race in H. G. Wells‘s The Time Machine. “Y” not “I”, but she is totally awesome.

In general, Western Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas are not filled with things to see from the air.  I’ve made the trip enough that I do have some, um, unusual landmarks I like to see.

There is a huge smokestack on a building outside Winkleman AZ that I look for.  Since the last time I’ve been by, they added a huge tailings pond there.  I was surprised to see it, and I’m curious about what additional mining is doing to the area.  I googled the area to figure out what it was, and the first image returned was a picket line, so I don’t think things have been entirely smooth.

The next excellent landmark is a tethered balloon south of Demming, NM.  There’s nothing particular to it (except that you shouldn’t hit the tether).  The purpose of the thing is to take weather observations, and it’s very well marked. We’ve never got a really good picture of it, but I always love to see it.

Then we have El Paso and the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains.  I have a strange affection for these mountains, partially because they look great.  When there’s any wind out here, they can also generate a lot of turbulence, though primarily coming the other way.  That’s them above.

There are a few more things to see between El Paso and Midland, but nothing super exciting.  Even by my standards.  The approach and landing to Midland was direct and cool.  It was done in the dark, though not technically a night landing.

Midland International (MAF) to McKinney National (TKI)

Flying east in the winter features the offsetting effects of good winds and bad clocks.  Prevailing winds are usually strong and on the tail – though they were not on our first leg.  Clocks are against us, meaning that we’re generally flying into encroaching darkness.  Both of these are on display this leg.  We launched IFR on a short leg to McKinney.

The leg itself was clear and simple.  Visual conditions and smooth air all the way.

One of the interesting things about West Texas is the appearance of large wind farms for power.  At night you can’t see the windmills directly, but the farms are easy to spot.  They’re generally topped with slowly flashing red lights to warn planes and all the lights flash synchronously. It’s a striking and easy to identify feature.

The Dallas airspace is big and busy, but we were able to slide in pretty easily under instrument rules.  There was a little handoff glitch and I had some trouble picking the airport out of the city lights.  Overall things went smoothly, and we handed Slippy off to the excellent McKinney Air Center.  Brenda’s mom greeted us with takeout Chinese food and we began a great holiday stay in Frisco.

We enjoyed seeing family and spending time in town for a couple days – the Frisco Public Library is incredible.  Weather was advancing from the west, so we cut our visit back a day and set out for Asheville with the plan to come back and spend a day on the return (spoiler alert: that plan worked).

McKinney National (TKI) to Huntsville International (HSV)

Texas weather is tricky to forecast.  McKinney forecasts have probably burned me more often than any I’ve dealt with regularly, so when I saw a well-defined weather system advancing from the west, I decided we’d get out ahead of it.  There wasn’t anything forecast that would have been unflyable, but given the uncertainly I opted to get out early.

When we did leave, we had beautiful weather and clear skies.

I’d planned the route to avoid some military airspace (MOAs) along the way.  This put a northbound dogleg into our route that seemed to surprise some of the controllers.  At least two that we talked to asked why the dogleg was there.  MOAs are interesting (to pilots) because there are no restrictions on flying through them under visual rules, though you’re potentially sharing the space with some powerful playmates.  I do fly through them, but I’ve also had the experience of being politely ushered out of them in this part of the world.  It was too nice a day to worry about cutting the corner.

Huntsville is a good stop for us when flying GA.  From our perspective there are no frills, but the FBO is friendly and efficient.  We spent a few extra minutes while Brenda took care of some work via their WiFi.

I was also pleased to see another Viking on the ramp.  A search on the Viking Pilots Forum led me to the info that the plane I saw is this one.  As everyone says when they point to it, don’t try that at home.  I don’t, either, but it’ll give you some faith in the airframe.  (Yes, it’s a stock Viking in the video).

Huntsville International (HSV) to Asheville Regional (AVL)

With all that business completed, we were off to Asheville, our farthest point East.

Skies were clear and a strong tailwind shortened an already quick trip.

We zoomed over familiar terrain and aviation landmarks – I always love to know I’m passing the Choo Choo VOR outside Chattanooga.

While the mountains in the East are much lower than the ones out in the West, they’re nothing to sneeze at.  Strong winds in the air over mountainous terrain can mean tricky conditions for landing.  The weather observation in Asheville bore that out and I prepared for a landing in strong gusty winds.

I guess I should always psych myself up for landing; this was easily my best of the trip.

It was strange and wonderful to reach Asheville while it was still light, and we spent a great couple days exchanging gifts, seeing family, and eating way too many cookies.

Asheville Regional (AVL) to Greenwood-LeFlore (GWO)

The weather system that was behind us in Dallas showed no sign of wanting to head out to the Atlantic, and Monday found us getting ready to meet it along the Texas border.  I was motivated to catch it there rather than in the mountains near Asheville because it gives us a few more options and the higher terrain can make storms more intense.

But before we could meet the storms, we were off to Greenwood Airport in Mississippi. It’s another stop we’ve made before and was well placed to put us on a good line to get through the storms and fuel up before meeting them.

While Slippy doesn’t need any particular babying, I’ve been trying to keep her hangared even while traveling. She definitely got to share space with some tony friends in Asheville, which is what the image for this leg captures.

This leg also presented us with our first instrument conditions of the trip.  Asheville had a fairly low overcast – a few hundred feet – with layers of stratus forecast until we got close to GWO.  It was warm in Asheville and there was no forecast threat of icing (though ask me about icing forecasts sometime).  These conditions are my idea of fun.

Climbout was mostly interesting for the sights.  Brenda and I both find flying through clouds to be beautiful, and the layers on this leg did not disappoint.  It’s beautiful and a little eerie to be the filling in a cloud sandwich.  Try though we might, neither of us has ever really captured that experience in an image.

The rest of the hop was straightforward and enjoyable.  Especially once I saw that the outside air temperature was still well above freezing at our cruising altitude.  I distrust forecasts, but thermometers I believe. We tucked in to GWO and got ready for the most interesting leg of the trip.

Greenwood-LeFlore (GW) to McKinney National (TKI)

Greenwood seemed to be having telephone troubles.  We weren’t able to directly charge my credit card, and my cell phone couldn’t get enough coverage to file my flight plan via the Internet.  I made a phone call and both filed a flight plan and got a weather briefing the old fashioned way.

I should say a few things about how pilots – well, this pilot, anyway – prepares to proceed through forecast weather like we were going to pass through. First, the weather was a line of thunderstorms that were connected, but not terribly intense.  They were displaying predominantly moderate RADAR echos and no sign of the kind of convection that would produce a tornado or similar violent phenomenon.  The bands were well defined enough to allow me to believe that we could skirt them without entering any cells.  Slippy is very well equipped, with a feed of NEXRAD weather data.  Optimists call that feed a near-real-time feed.  I don’t, because I want to keep my understanding of its limitations in the front of my mind, but it does provide very useful information.

That’s where I begin, by reviewing what I know and what my resources are.  Then I work through the likely situations and plan actions broadly.  While one has to be ready to accommodate what the weather throws up, I find it helpful to have a menu of plans pre-loaded in my mind.  In this case, I reviewed the broad outlines of the reported storms, planning the outlines of my route through them and reminded myself that if conditions are worse than expected, backing out and landing is the plan.  There are two parts to that plan: being ready to execute it and keeping it available.  The second means keeping that worst case plan feasible – don’t get locked in without a way out.  It’s possible to fail at keeping an “out” open, but keeping it in the front of my mind helps.

I also talk to Brenda about what to expect and remind her that she gets a say.  In the immortal words of Kevin Garrison:

The first rule I have always used from the first day I was a captain, way back in the “brown hair days” is a simple one: Whoever is the most scared wins.

Garrison’s being funny (or pilot-funny), but his point is one I believe.  Brenda’s been on a lot of trips with me, and when she’s nervous, I need to at least take a second look at the world.  Besides which, we travel this way for fun; avoidably scaring any passenger is a sign of a developing accident chain.  Avoidably scaring the love of my life has considerably worse implications.

With the flight plan filed and Slippy fueled we were off.  I’d forgotten how casual departures from small southern airports can be.  In LA, it often seems like each controller needs to tweak the clearance a little and the eventual route can be dotted with small changes.  Even Asheville added a standard departure (SID). Here the clearance was basically “as filed; clear for takeoff.”  I’d forgotten how much I like that about the South.

I’m pretty sure that there are no spoilers when I say we got through the line.

Better than that, we were able to get through without any kind of incident.  There were layers of clouds to negotiate, but while picking our way through the line of storms, I was able to keep them ins sight the whole time.  The NEXRAD data was great to have, but the Mark I Eyeball  remained my primary avoidance mechanism. That’s definitely the way I like it, to the point where I’d probably begin taking an out if I lost that option.

A side effect of remaining in conditions where we could see was that we got to see.  Flying through these clouds afforded spectacular views.  Sleipnir took us near Thor‘s domain with great panache.  I spent most of the time turning the views into piloting cues, but even so the experience was memorable.

As we exited the final line, Brenda pointed out the rainbow in the second image.  As great as I think that image is, the reality of it was much more spectacular.

Trips by small plane give us chances to see the world in unique ways, and this was a great example.

And because I’m a nerd, I also have to point out that the image includes two distinct propeller shadows on the wing, which is an artifact of the digital camera scanning rate.  Cool.

The descent into McKinney was much less eventful, though we did get to spend a little more time in the clouds.  Arriving in daylight was a weird, but pleasant.

Brenda’s mom met us again and this time took us to a fabulous Italian restaurant.  Go see them if you’re in town, but expect a wait; it’s worth it.

We hung out for a day with Brenda’s family, catching up on the day we lost when we left early.  Great fun (and great movies) as always.

McKinney National (TKI) to Midland International (MAF)

This looks like just retracing the steps we took getting to Dallas, but this is technically a diversion.  I filed an IFR flight plan to El Paso, but decided not to fight questionable headwinds in getting there.  El Paso seems determined to keep us out.

Then there’s that IFR thing.  McKinney had a high overcast, and we needed to transition the DFW airspace again anyway, so IFR it was.  Beyond that, the stratus layer extended a fair ways west (at least to Abilene) and my IFR coverage philosophy is always that it’s better to have and not need than need and not have.  So I filed.

No surprises getting out.  No ice in the clouds, clear conditions on top, some rising startus, but it basically cleared as expected going west.

As we left the DFW Class B, the controllers were happy to provide us with direct clearances to our destination.  I got one early enough that I toyed with the idea of making El Paso, but eventually did decide to divert to Midland.  And the controller cleared us directly there, too.

Once the undercast cleared it was good to see all the landmarks I’d missed coming the other way.  There are a lot more windmills than before, but otherwise it remains West Texas all over.

Approach and landing to Midland was in clear skies.

During fueling we did have a small incident.  Slippy’s gas caps have both a stopper that seals the tank, and a cover flush with the wing surface.  In the process of fueling up, the line guys had a spring on one of the catches on the cover snap.  They let me know right away and I was able to bend a spring into place to hold the cap safely shut.  I doubt they did anything in particular to cause it, just time and age.

Midland International (MAF) to Tuscon International (TUS)

With the tanks buttoned up, we were off into clear blue skies.

Once again, we were out over some very empty spaces in the West.  This route took us further south than our trip out, which provided a little variety.  The mountains southwest of the Tuscon area are quite beautiful.  And Simpsons fans might be amused to know that there is a private Rancho Relaxo airport out here.

This was also the leg where I realized just how much Slippy’s weight and power make her more capable than 32169.  On this leg, we passed by the Guadelupes against a strong wind, which has always resulted in some struggle.  I’ve battled some of the strongest up- and downdrafts of my piloting experience here. With the kinds of winds we had on this leg, the drafts have been substantial.  In the Archer this means fighting by increasing the power to resist powerful downdrafts and by reducing power to keep equivalent updrafts from either overtaxing the propeller and engine or accepting a large altitude deviation.  In this area I’ve had drafts so powerful there simply wasn’t enough engine power to successfully resist a draft. It’s a kind of flying I hate, fiddling with configuration while performance becomes uncertain (meaning one assumes it to be bad).

Flying through the same area under conditions that I would have expected to cause trouble only resulted in small altitude changes.  I’d almost missed the effect until I recalled how hard I’d needed to work when I came through the area on earlier trips.  Once I realized what was going on, I was able to reduce the small excursions with small trim changes.

I’d considered Tuscon as a stopping point on the way out, but my initial destination for this leg was a smaller nearby airport, Ryan Field.  As we got closer the ATIS informed us that basically all the services were closed, so Tuscon jumped to the head of the line.

What an amazing airport!  The controllers were friendly and helpful, there were F-16’s in the pattern, a 747 on approach, and a gorgeous old terminal on the ground. I don’t know why I haven’t stopped here before, but I’m happy to have rectified that.

Tuscon International (TUS) to Santa Monica Municipal (SMO)

Our last leg home actually appears as 2 entries in my logbook, because of a misunderstanding I didn’t realize until I was in the air.  Because the gas cap cover was broken in Midland, I didn’t want the line folks at Tuscon to make it worse.  I told them that I’d open and close the covers for that reason.  Then I made 2 mistakes:

  • I didn’t clarify that there were 2 covers (the stopper and the cover)
  • I didn’t confirm that the stoppers were sealed before takeoff.

Because I’ve had leaking gas caps before I do look at the wings on climbout.  I saw the gas, put 2 and 2 together and headed back to TUS.  Everyone at the FBO was extremely apologetic, but honestly it wasn’t their fault at all.  I gave bad instructions and then didn’t do a complete enough walk around.  I don’t intend to let the second happen again.

The upside is that we did get to see some more of the sights at TUS.

With tanks refilled (and properly stoppered) we were off to home.  The flight was joyfully uneventful.  The last leg is always one of my favorites as I wrap myself in my familiar airspace once again.  The sights and sounds of home are easily as comforting in the air as on the ground.

We finished our trip with a night landing in clear skies at Santa Monica.

Another Day, Another ASRS

Friday, March 18th, 2016

I could probably skip this post and just mail Marc Zorn directly, but in case someone else wants to hear an aviation confession, here it is.

I filed a NASA ASRS form today. NASA is responsible for both space flight and for aeronautics – aviation – and one of the best ways that they address that part of their responsibilities is ASRS (pronounced a-sars), the Aviation Safety and Reporting System.  It’s a system for collecting and analyzing data about incidents in which unsafe things happen in aviation with the intent of improving overall safety. The data is largely self-reported by pilots, air traffic controllers, and other aviation professionals.  In order to get people to admit when they screw up, filing an ASRS indemnifies the reporter against FAA punishment when (loosely speaking) the incident was a genuine accident and the infraction did not result in significant damage or danger.  I had one of these today.

I took a long-ish trip this morning to work with some of Sleipnir‘s en-route systems and get some brunch at Fresno’s Chandler Executive Airport.  Slippy has a dazzling array of features to help a poor pilot cope with her complexities, and most of my time to date in her had been working practicing landing, taking off, and other activities that happen at the ends of flights.  So today I went further and spent some time on the middle phases. I practiced using the autopilot, leaning with the engine monitor, flying an IFR flight plan and some other things.

That was all interesting and fun and enlightening.  It was also apparently distracting enough that I took my feet off the rudder pedals.

Actually, now that I think about it, I know exactly when I took them off.  I was looking for a landmark and was adjusting my position relative to the higher cowling position.  Hurm.

In any case, the upshot is that when I landed, I had one foot on a steering pedal and one off.  On the ground, one generally steers an aircraft with one’s feet.  Left pedal turns left, right pedal turns right.  If a pilot has one foot on a the left pedal, and none on the right, it means they can only turn left.  This is the situation I found myself in, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Slippy lands pretty fast – touchdown is in the 80 mph range – and the runway I was landing on was one of the more narrow I’ve attempted.  So, I get her on the ground, and suddenly she jerks hard left.  And doesn’t stop doing that.  It feels like I’m countering it, but I’m not, because I haven’t realized my right foot is pushing on the floor, not the pedal.  Runway edge markings are not happy things to see when you’re not expecting them.  When they’re approaching at 80 mph, discretion is the better part of valor.

My go-around technique is not beautiful yet, but it is good enough to recover from a near-loss-of-control on the runway.  In other news, Slippy’s engine is quite powerful.

Unfortunately, I did pass through Fresno’s Class C airspace before I finished cleaning up.  That’s what I filed the ASRS about, though the controller indicated that I hadn’t caused any problem.

I did think it was bad form to go back to Fresno after basically buzzing the place. The trip to Porterville gave me enough time to work out what I’d done, and I had a great lunch.

Introducing Slippy

Monday, February 15th, 2016

I’ve mentioned my new airplane a couple times on here, though not as often as I probably should have.  I’ve omitted a whole saga with getting a brake leak fixed and a particularly exciting go-around caused because I let some pilot-induced oscillations get the better of me on the ground.

Today’s post is where I come clean about another facet of the aircraft and my relation to it.  I seem to have given her a name.

I haven’t named any of my previous vehicles.  Not even my beloved Archer on which I cut my aviation teeth.  I laways referred to her by her callsign or as “The Archer.”  Fanciful names were not for me.

This plane is different.  It’s quirky nature and charmed life combined in my head to form a name.  This happened without my intention – or really permission.  I slowly started thinking of her as Sleipnir.  If you’re not a comics fan or familiar with Norse mythology, that’s the name of Odin‘s eight-legged flying horse.  Sleipnir is called the best of all horses, and that’s how I think of the Viking.  It stuck in my head and it’s become the name of the plane to me.

I finally sheepishly mentioned that I’d named it to Brenda – who names all her vehicles – and she somehow improved it.  “You mean we could call her Slippy for short?”

That’s perfect.  It’s got the right light-hearted ring to it, and alludes to the slick airframe that helps Slippy go so fast.  So, Sleipnir – Slippy for short – is our new girl.  (Yeah, planes are female. That seems true to me in the same way that GNU software is green.  I don’t understand it, mind you…)

Even the Downsides are Upsides

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” – On Running After Ones Hat, All Things Considered, 1908

I spent most of the day yesterday with my instructor doing more transition training.  I’m still metaphorically clawing my way toward the left seat from the tail as I try to internalize all the complex and high performance operating procedures.  I did perform a feat that qualifies as a landing and not an ugly arrival saved by my instructor.  That made me feel undeniably better.

After we stopped for lunch, we started back around the pattern at Camarillo for a few more landings, and noticed that the alternator was no longer charging the battery.  We shed load landed and tried to debug, to no avail.

The fine folks at Camarillo Air Service sent over an electrical tech to try to get us on our way, but there did not seem to be a quick fix in the offing. We had to leave the Viking with them.  Their fellow – Harvey – was one of those fine, competent, eccentric people that one gets to meet in GA.  He went out of his way to help us at every opportunity, but it was not to be.  While I was working with Harvey to arrange for further debugging (and a probable alternator replacement) my instructor went off to look for car rentals.

And here we lucked out.  Nick, my instructor, somehow discovered that Patrick – a pilot who flies out of SMO – was on his way back in his Comanche.  Patrick more than graciously invited us to hop in the Comanche and fly back with him.  Even more graciously, he let Nick fly her most of the way home.  We exchanged numbers and e-mail addresses and hopefully I’ll get a chance to return the favor someday.

So, training was cut short by an inconvenience, but it turned into more of an adventure.  The Viking continues to be a charmed creature that leads me into interesting places.

Nick’s off at his day job for a few days and then we retrieve the Viking and I get back to clawing.

Transition Time

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

After a few weeks of moving money and airplanes and matching schedules, I started actually flying my new Super Viking today. It’s a big jump from my Archer to a high performance, complex aircraft with a full complement of quirks as well.  I’ve been reading and preparing as much as possible, but shaking hands with 300 horses for the first time is pretty exciting no matter how you slice it.

The first day went as well as I could reasonably have expected.  I wasn’t an instant natural, and my flight instructor kept me from serious trouble more than once.  He and I seem to be developing a reasonable rapport.  We’re both figuring out how the other works best.  I’m getting a lot out of his Viking experience and teaching skills.  We both recognize it’s a big hill to climb and I think we’re up to the challenge.

I’m still feeling the Viking out, but so far it’s been a great plane.  It has plenty of unique characteristics.  The good ones are very good, and the bad ones – so far – are mostly just endearing.  I’m very happy with my choice to join the Bellanca family.

Speaking of the Bellanca family, another member popped up and introduced himself today.  A fellow at SMO saw the unfamiliar Viking on the ramp and came over to talk.  Since I’ve gotten involved with Bellanca owners that’s happened more than in all the years I’ve been flying the Archer.  It’s fun and exciting to join the “cult.”

Tomorrow is another day of trying to claw my way from being far behind the Viking to getting ahead of it.  I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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.