Category Archives: Aviation

Writings about aviation, including chronics of my flight lessons, product reviews, and so on.

My first in-flight emergency

Yesterday, I had my first in-flight emergency. That sounds more dramatic than it actually was but I thought writing up my experience might be helpful. This is to the best of my recollection; a lot happened in a short time, so I might have muffed some details.

With my plane in the shop, I wanted to get in a few instrument approaches, as well as work on my proficiency on the Cessna 182RG at Redstone. The 182RG is about 20kts faster than my plane, and it’s a great cross-country machine to have as a backup. It’s nicely equipped, with a Garmin GNS530 GPS (WAAS-capable, of course), an MX20 multifunction display, and two glideslope indicators. I called my pal John Blevins, an experienced instrument instructor, and we arranged to meet and go fly.

We briefed a simple instrument proficiency check (IPC) route– we’d fly from Redstone to Muscle Shoals, fly the ILS 29 approach, then turn around and fly the WAAS GPS 36 approach into Decatur, then the non-WAAS GPS 17 back into Redstone. The weather was just right– overcast at about 1900′, with a light wind.

The preflight and runup were normal; I contacted Huntsville departure and we were cleared to take off and head towards Muscle Shoals. I got the airplane to our assigned altitude, cleaned it up for cruise flight, engaged the autopilot, and briefed the approach with John. During that time, we were cleared to the HUPOK intersection and told to expect a straight-in approach to the ILS 29. Our instructions were to cross HUPOK at or above 2500′, so after I had the radios set up to my satisfaction, I started our descent.

A brief explanatory note: on an ILS approach, you tune your navigation radio to the frequency specified for the localizer so that you get lateral and vertical guidance for the approach on the course deviation indicator (CDI). If you tune the wrong frequency (or forget to tune it, which amounts to the same thing), you won’t get that guidance. For that reason, I make a habit of tuning the localizer on both my primary and backup navigation radios. I did that this time, too.

As we started our descent, I noticed that the GPS flickered, then went blank, then said “INITIALIZING SYSTEM” in the upper left corner. Simultaneously, the two guidance needles on the CDI started to bounce. The CDI in this plane looks like the picture below: the needles move independently, so as the GPS went online, it was driving the needles towards the center (where they belonged), but when it dropped offline again, the needles drifted towards the upper left corner. Distracting, but not critical. I immediately disconnected the autopilot and continued hand-flying the descent.

The GI106A course deviation indicator

This first failure was annoying but not critical– an ILS approach doesn’t depend on the GPS, and because I already had the localizer tuned on the other radio, it was a simple matter of looking at the other CDI. We broke out below the clouds, at which point the MFD went blank, along with the GPS. The transponder was flashing “FAIL” instead of the 4-digit code we had been assigned. Then it, and the backup nav radio, all quit. We still had electrical power, but all of our radio navigation instruments had crapped out.

I broke off the approach and turned away from the airport, reasoning that we needed to try troubleshooting the failure. First step: we determined that nothing was on fire and that we had plenty of fuel so there was no huge rush to take action. (There’s a saying, which I will explain another time, that the first thing you do in an emergency is wind the clock– rushing to DO SOMETHING can often be worse than taking no action at all.)

John wisely suggested that we shed some electrical load, so we turned off all the stuff that wasn’t working anyway, verified that the ammeter indicated normally and that no breakers were tripped, turned off the avionics master to do a bus reset, and then started turning things back on.

Nada.

While we were doing all that, I was heading the plane due east, back whence we came, staying at least 500′ below the overcast layer so we could maintain VFR. We spotted the Courtland airport (9A4) off to our south, and I decided to head towards it in case we wanted to make a precautionary landing. John was working through the verrrrry skimpy emergency checklists. I flew us for a straight-in approach to runway 31 at Courtland, but when I extended the gear we didn’t get the “gear down” light and couldn’t verify that the gear were locked– so I initiated a go-around and we started some more troubleshooting, this time with the “emergency gear extension” checklist. We decided it would be better to raise the gear to release any residual pressure in the accumulator, so we did. About this time COM2 started working again, so we called Huntsville to tell them we were heading back to Redstone.

Shortly after I turned us for home, the LOW VOLTAGE panel annunciator lit. I discovered that the alternator circuit  breaker had popped, so I reset it. I have a one-and-done rule for circuit breakers in flight– for a critical system I’ll reset the breaker once, but if it pops again, it’s time to land. The light went out, and the breaker didn’t pop again.

Because we were below the clouds and knew where we were, it was easy to navigate visually to get us pointed in the right direction. On the way home, for no good reason that I could see, the GPS began working normally. We left the transponder off, since we were in radio contact with Huntsville and they could see our aircraft on radar.

The approach and landing were uneventful too, except that I didn’t use any flaps. The Cessna 182 flaps are electrically actuated and we agreed that there was no reason to crank them down, putting extra load on the electrical system.

Here’s a partial map of our flight route.

After we landed, John and I discussed what happened, how we reacted, and what we learned from it. On the positive side, we displayed excellent crew coordination, and I was glad to have an experienced pilot in the other seat. The multiple failures were annoying but not critical; the weather was tolerable, we were in a familiar area, and John and I both had iPads with GPS for backup. On the negative side, I wasn’t as familiar with the emergency procedures for this airplane as I should have been (although part of the flight’s purpose was for me to practice emergency procedures).

This morning, I filed an ASRS report; ASRS is a unique success story, and I plan to write about it for my next Flying Friday. Then I wrote this post. I’ll look forward to seeing what Redstone’s mechanic finds. I don’t think there were any telltale signs that I could have caught during the preflight or runup, but I will continue to keep my eyes very sharply peeled.

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Flying Friday: a sample of instrument flight

Bonus! Two Flying Friday posts in one day (here’s the other one.)

There’s a difference between flying under instrument flight rules (IFR) and flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

When you fly IFR, that means you’re flying on an instrument flight plan, along a defined route, in communication with and under positive control of ground-based air traffic control.

When you fly in IMC, that means you are flying “primarily by reference to instruments,” as the FAA puts it. That basically means that you can’t see a discernible horizon. You can fly IFR in good weather or bad. If you’re flying in IMC, you must do so under IFR. If you’re flying in visual meteorological conditions (VMC, what normal people call “good weather”), you can fly under visual or instrument flight rules.

Actually, I should clarify just a bit– VMC isn’t necessarily good, it’s just that IMC is defined as “weather worse than the standard VMC minimum visibility and/or ceiling.”

This whole post is basically just an excuse to post a short video showing one example of flight in IMC. I took it while en route from Decatur to Tampa Executive; on that 3h40min flight I was in the clouds for just under an hour.

You can’t see a visible horizon, although the sun was semi-visible through the clouds. (If you take a look at the iPad screen, you’ll see why it was so cloudy.)  Surprisingly, on a sunny day, the inside of the cloud can be very bright with diffuse light, leading to the somewhat odd behavior of wearing sunglasses while flying inside a cloud that blocks the sun from the ground.

 

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Flying Friday: the avionics brain transplant begins

I fly a 41-year-old airplane. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As I’ve said before, there’s something to be said for mature technologies, and the economics of general aviation are such that there’s no chance I’ll be buying a new airplane any time soon when even an entry-level Cessna 172 costs north of $400K. Because new aircraft are so expensive, there’s a lively market in refitting and upgrading existing airframes. The engines, paint, interior, and avionics on an airplane can all be replaced or upgraded at pretty much any time, and the longevity of the basic airframe means that I can comfortably expect to get another 20-40 years out of my existing plane if I take good care of it.

With that said, newer airplanes have some major advantages, many of which (built-in cupholders, leather seats, ballistic recovery parachutes) aren’t available for my plane. After flying 706 for about a year, getting my instrument rating, and taking more and longer cross-country trips there were a few things that I wanted to add to make instrument flight easier and safer. My co-owner Derek and I spent a lot of time hashing out what we wanted vs what we could afford vs what we could live with. Here’s what we decided.

First off, we knew we’d have to meet Yet Another Unfunded Mandate. Starting in 2020, all airplanes that operate in controlled airspace (meaning the “Class B” and “Class C” airspace surrounding major airports and most cities) have to use a system called ADS-B. The FAA has delusions that ADS-B, which requires every aircraft to continuously transmit its GPS-derived position and velocity, will replace radar. It probably won’t, but that’s a topic for another post. Equipping a plane for ADS-B  requires two pieces:

  • a GPS system that uses the FAA’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) to provide high accuracy position and location data. The WAAS system combines satellite GPS data with position data from precisely surveyed ground stations to provide sub-meter accuracy.
  • an ADS-B Out transmitter that sends ADS-B data, including the WAAS GPS data

There are lots of ways to get these two parts, ranging in cost and complexity from “absurd” to “merely unpleasant.” The two most popular ways are to install a new transponder that includes a built-in position source or install a separate WAAS GPS and a little box that transmits ADS-B Out without touching your existing transponder. You can also get weather and traffic data using ADS-B In; that requires an ADS-B receiver and something to display the received data on. Right now, I use a Stratus receiver (the original, not the fancy 2S) and ForeFlight on an iPad for ADS-B In… but, as with many other government programs, there’s a huge catch. You get weather data for free, but you only see ADS-B In traffic if there’s an ADS-B Out-equipped airplane near you. This was supposed to be an incentive to get people to add ADS-B Out, but as a practical matter it means that ADS-B In is currently only useful for passive receivers like my Stratus in areas where there are already lots of ADS-B Out airplanes.

Next, we wanted the ability to use WAAS instrument approaches. I love the precision of ILS approaches, and use them whenever I can, but most airports don’t have an ILS, and those that do won’t typically have more than one. However, a growing number of airports have approaches that offer precision vertical and lateral guidance if you have a WAAS GPS. To be more precise (see what I did there?), we wanted to be able to fly LPV approaches so that we’d get precision vertical guidance for approaches where ILS equipment isn’t available. With WAAS equipment, you can also get an advisory glideslope, which gives you non-precision vertical guidance to help keep you from smashing into things.

Finally, we (well, mostly I) wanted to improve the autopilot’s ability to track instrument approaches. The approach phase of single-pilot IFR is a demanding and busy time, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Our existing autopilot can fly a heading, keep the wings level, and hold an altitude, but when you get to a complex approach, being able to let the autopilot turn the airplane based on GPS steering is very helpful because it frees up time and attention for vertical navigation, approach prep, and other critical tasks.

After a lot of back-and-forth, an immense amount of comparison shopping, and lots of head-scratching, Derek and I decided to send 706 to Sarasota Avionics to have the following installed:

  • An Avidyne IFD540 WAAS GPS. I preordered one of these back in 2012, well before I even had my pilot’s license, on the theory that I could always sell it later. The IFD540 is much more capable than the Garmin GNS530 and, to me, is easier to use than the Garmin GTN750. It’s also less expensive to buy, requires less expensive data subscriptions, and provides some much-needed market competition for Big G.
  • An Avidyne AXP340 transponder. The AXP340 transmits ADS-B Out, but it requires a separate WAAS GPS. In our case, that’d be the IFD540. There’s a whole complex mess of rules for which transponders can be legally used with which GPS position sources– basically, only combinations that have been certified by the manufacturer and registered with the FAA can be installed and used, even though other combinations may work just fine. Avidyne’s products are obviously certified to work with each other.
  • An Avidyne MLB100 ADS-B In receiver. Derek talked the Avidyne guys into giving us one of these for free if we bought the preceding two items. With this, the IFD540 can receive and display traffic and weather information. It is extremely useful to see this data overlaid on your primary map, especially because you can “rubber-band” your flight route to deviate around weather and traffic as needed.
  • A DAC GDC31 roll steering converter (which most people just call a GPS steering, or GPSS, adapter). Our autopilot, bless its heart, is the most analog device I think I currently own. It works by sensing voltage output from the directional gyro and course deviation indicator (CDI). To fly a particular course, you twist a knob on the DG to set the heading indicator, or bug, to the desired course; you can also have the autopilot track a VOR or even an ILS localizer, which it does by looking at the voltage used to drive the deflection on the CDI. One thing it can’t do, though, is track an actual GPS course. If the GPS route calls for you to fly a heading of 175 degrees, and the heading bug is set to 95 degrees, guess where you’re going? The GDC31 fixes that by adapting the digital steering commands output by the IFD540 into voltages that the autopilot can understand. I’ve used GPSS in other airplanes before and it’s a great experience– smooth, solid tracking with no “hunting” and accurate turn anticipation.
  • An Avidyne AMX240 audio panel. We’d been talking about replacing our ancient mono audio panel with a nicer unit that would give us better audio quality, and the marginal cost of adding the panel at the same time as the other equipment was considerably lower than doing it later.

The IFD540 + AXP340 combination gives us ADS-B Out, so we’ll be legal. The IFD540 + MLB100 gives us ADS-B In (with the added bonus that the IFD540 has wifi, so it will be able to feed all sorts of useful data to portable devices in the cockpit). Finally, the IFD540 + GDC31 gives us full two-axis autopilot coupling. I think, but haven’t verified, that it will also give us the ability for the autopilot to track altitude changes as expressed by the glideslope. The existing autopilot can track an ILS glideslope, and the IFD540 can provide a glideslope for LPV approaches (and an advisory glideslope for LNAV+V) so I think it should “just work.”

This seems like a huge list of expensive stuff (and it is)– one question that immediately comes to mind is “why bother with all this stuff when you could just use an iPad?” The problem is spelled F-A-A. First, there are no portable ADS-B solutions that are approved to meet the 2020 mandate in Part 23 aircraft. That’s a fancy way of saying that an experimental or homebuilt airplane can use equipment that’s not approved for factory-built airplanes. That also wouldn’t give us WAAS approach capability; even though there are portable WAAS receivers (including this watch!) you can’t use them to fly approaches. While there’s been lots of flailing in the aviation press about the need for cheaper, better-integrated ADS-B solutions, it’s also true that we’re getting a lot of other capability out of the upgrade that we’d miss if we went with a simpler ADS-B-only installation.

Along with the avionics themselves, of course, there are lots of little things– antennae, cables, and so on– that have to be installed and tested. That’s why we expect the upgrade to take an eye-popping four weeks– and that’s assuming everything goes well. Stay tuned!

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Flying Friday: 2015 flying year in review

It’s fitting that as I write this, I’m sitting on a Delta 717 coming back from Tampa, where I just dropped the plane off for a month or so in the avionics shop (more on that in the near future). I closed out my flying year today with 3.7 hours of cross-country time from Decatur to Tampa Executive, during which I got 0.8 actual instrument time, found some rain, and battled a misbehaving engine monitor. (And yes, I know it’s not Friday.)

For the year, I flew a total of 89 hours, considerably down from my 2014 total. Of that, a respectable 8.5 hours was actual instrument time, and I logged 20 instrument approaches. This reflects my typical mission of moderate-distance cross-country trips. Those trips gave me some great experiences– I flew to Chattanooga, New Orleans, and Austin to compete in races, visited family in friends in Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, and went on a number of business trips that would have been boring and/or unpleasant if I’d had to drive.

During the year, I am happy to report that a) I didn’t do anything egregiously stupid in the air and b) none of the squawks I encountered in the air were serious. Despite that, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons that I plan to apply in 2016.

In 2016, I plan to pursue my commercial license, build my understanding of weather patterns and forecasting, and improve my airmanship skills. Ideally I’d like to fly at least an average of 10 hours/month, including some long cross-country flights to the west coast and some trips to see my sons at their various colleges. I’m looking forward to another great year in the air.

 

 

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Flying Friday: looking stupid now vs stupid later

Remember this Fram commercial?

The concept it highlights is a fundamental part of many different aspects of life. Technical debt, TiVo guilt, and my own growing backlog of Kindle books are just three of the many manifestations of the now-versus-later principle. Here’s another great one: “It’s better to look a little stupid now, than a lot stupid later.” 

I don’t really have anything to add to this article; it very neatly captures the principle and provides an excellent cautionary tale for all of us, but especially pilots and most especially those who are entrusted with the role of pilot in command.

 

 

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Flying Friday: This ain’t Delta

Every pilot has different reasons for flying. For me, a big part of my love of flying is the ability to travel, relatively quickly, where and when I want. The values of “quickly,” “where,” and “when” are all subject to a variety of constraints, though. Some are self-imposed and some are limitations imposed by the FAA, the laws of physics and aerodynamics, or my desire to live to be a grumpy old man.

Let’s take one simple example: time. It would certainly be possible for me to fly from Alabama to southern California for a business trip, but I wouldn’t do it for a short trip— in my particular airplane, that would take me about 11 hours of flight time, which translates into something like 14 hours of total time when you factor in fuel stops… and that really means it would take two days, since flying for that length of time in a single day would make it difficult for me to maintain the focus and energy required for a safe journey. Likewise, I could easily fly from here to Birmingham for dinner, but when you factor in the time required to preflight and prepare the plane, conduct the flight, get to and from the restaurant, and return home, it would be quicker to drive over the short distance. For me personally, with the airplane I have now, the sweet spot is trips of about 150 miles up to about 1000 miles. Shorter or longer trips are possible, but when time is important, taking another means of transport is usually more sensible.

We can lump all the other constraints together into the general heading of “dispatch reliability.” That is, for a planned trip, how often are you actually able to complete it without bumping up against those constraints? It’s critical to keep in mind the difference between a commercial airline (which flies under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations) and my airplane, which flies under Part 91 of the FAR. There are 3 major factors that influence dispatch reliability in both of those worlds: weather, equipment, and regulation.

The ability to deal with weather, of course, is a huge part of dispatch reliability. I once was stuck away from home for 3 days because the weather was poor and I didn’t have an instrument rating, so I couldn’t leave when I wanted to. Sometimes the weather, or the forecast, is just too crummy to safely complete the planned flight. This happens more often in some places than others, of course; east of the Mississippi, we have lots more thunderstorms than in, say, California or Washington.

Equipment influences dispatch reliability in two different ways. First is redundancy. Unless it were truly urgent, I wouldn’t make an extended night flight in IFR over rough terrain in my airplane— not because it’s inherently unsafe but because, with only one engine and one vacuum system, there are several single points of failure that could make such a flight more exciting than I’d like. Waiting for daylight or better weather would be a smart play. On the other hand, commercial planes flying under Part 135 have doubly- or triply-redundant systems, ranging from engines to hydraulics to avionics. As you spend more money on an airplane, the number of redundant systems (and the reliability of the systems you have) tends to increase. The capability of your equipment also influences reliability. If you have onboard weather radar or in-cockpit radar data through XM Radio or ADS-B, for example, you may be able to complete flights that you wouldn’t without that data. More sophisticated aircraft that have jet engines and pressurized cabins can fly above many regions of bad weather; aircraft with icing protection can fly through moist clouds without picking up a killing load of ice. Most piston-engine singles (mine included) aren’t pressurized, don’t have anti-icing equipment, and don’t have onboard radar— meaning that there are conditions that are no problem for Delta or United but render general aviation flight impossible or unsafe. Both airliners and general aviation aircraft have lists of requirement equipment. Although the contents of the lists are very different, the concept is the same: if something on that list isn’t working, you can’t legally fly. (Keep that in mind the next time you’re on a commercial flight and the pilot tells you that some seemingly unimportant gadget isn’t working so they have to wait for a mechanic— if they’re waiting to fix it, it’s probably because it’s on that minimum list.)

Regulation is the third category. Without going into all the differences between different parts of the FARs, I can still say that there are some conditions that are legal for me but not an airline, or vice versa. For example, thanks to my instrument rating, it is literally legal for me to take off with such poor visibility that I can’t see the propeller while sitting in the pilot’s seat, while Part 135 flights have specific runway visual range (RVR) requirements that must be met before they can depart. On the other hand, a suitably equipped and crewed Part 135 flight can use Category III autoland to land in zero visibility, whereas I have to honor a higher minimum ceiling and visibility limits. There’s sometimes a huge difference between what’s legal and what’s safe, and the FARs that I fly under give a great deal of latitude to the pilot in command in most cases. That can be good or catastrophically bad, depending on your judgement.

In general, the rule I use is simple: if it is critical that I be somewhere, and I’m planning on flying, I’ll always have a backup. Last week, the boys and I were going down to the Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans. We’d planned to fly, but when I preflighted the airplane, this is what I found: a broken alternator belt. 

WP 20151030 14 35 28 Pro

I didn’t have a spare, the shop didn’t have a spare, and even if we had, on my plane, you have to remove the propeller to replace the belt. We drove instead, but we still got to see the headline act because we’d built enough slack into the schedule. Likewise for weddings, funerals, or critical business meetings— if it’s really important, I’ll have a backup airline ticket in my pocket (or enough time to drive). If it’s not critical, I’ve learned to accept that sometimes the weather or the airplane may conspire against going. A couple of months ago, Dana and I had planned to fly down to Gulfport for the day to see Mom, Charlie, and Grandma. Here’s what the weather looked like:

20150816 200809000 iOS

Score that one in the “nope!” column. It would have been perfectly legal to pick my way around those storms, since I didn’t have the equipment to fly over them, but it would have been uncomfortable at best and criminally dangerous at worst. Driving would have taken too long, so we reluctantly cancelled; it wasn’t a critical trip.

Having a backup plan or the willingness to say “we’ll do this another time” is critical because it eliminates the pressure to attempt a flight when weather, equipment, or regulation might dictate otherwise. The hoary old saying “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than flying and wishing you were on the ground” applies in spades. Even when it’s difficult to tell your boss, your family, or your customer that you won’t be somewhere at the appointed time, it’s a hell of a lot easier than explaining yourself to the FAA, the NTSB, or St. Peter.

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Fuel shenanigans

The saying goes that “you can never have too much fuel unless it’s on fire.” I have always been a believer in that truism, so I always fill the tanks before I go anywhere… except on a recent trip, which just confirmed the wisdom of whomever came up with the old chestnut.

I was flying DCU-IGX, which I flight planned as 394nm, just under 3:00 of flying time, and about 48 gallons of fuel. Sure enough, when I arrived, I’d drained one main tank, one tip tank, and about half of the other tip tank. The CGR-30p engine monitor, my analog gauges, and my eyeball inspection all agreed.

Fuel at IGX was $5.28/gallon. Fuel at my home airport is $4.80/gallon. “Hey,” I thought. “I have enough fuel to get home if I just fill the tip— that will give me 59gal on board, which still gives me a VFR reserve.” Visions of dollar signs dancing in my head, I filled out the fuel ticket and went into town to lift all the weights with Alex. When I returned, I verified the fill, sumped the tanks, and headed to the departure end of the runway with 59 gal on board.

Once airborne, the problems started. ATC wanted to vector me well north of where I wanted to go because of weather, and to keep me out of the RDU arrival corridor. They also gave me a higher altitude, so I burned more fuel in the climb than I’d expected. Once I got past the first waypoint, I had to divert around more weather… see where this is going? About 40 minutes into the flight it became clear that I didn’t have enough fuel to get home without a stop.

I’m not talking “had enough fuel if I ate into my reserve,” I’m talking “engine monitor shows negative fuel remaining on landing.” Noooope.

A little head scratching ensued, and I determined that I had plenty of fuel to make Winchester, where fuel is only $4.09/gallon. When I landed, I took on 71 gallons out of the 82-gallon usable capacity— within my 45-min reserve requirement, but just barely.

Lesson learned: by not filling that tank in Chapel Hill, I saved (25 gal * $0.48/gal)… a whopping $12. Then I cost myself another 30-40 minutes of diverting to Winchester, landing, fueling, and returning home. In this specific case, I was lucky because Winchester is open 24/7 and is easy to get into and out of, and their fuel is cheap. I probably netted a few dollars of savings filling up there as opposed to filling all 4 tanks in Decatur— but that unpleasant feeling of not having enough fuel aboard is one I don’t care to repeat.

Fill ‘er up!

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