Category Archives: aviation

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

Flying Friday: Carmen goes to the doctor

A couple of weeks ago I dropped Carmen off at the airplane doctor for an annual inspection. “What’s that?” said no one. Well, I’ll tell you what it is, since you didn’t ask…

The FAA requires regular inspections of most airplanes. That sounds vague, but the truth is that the requirement varies according to what the airplane is used for, whether it’s an experimental or amateur-built (E/AB) airplane, and so on. For my purposes the FAA regulation that applies is FAR 91.409:

…no person may operate an aircraft unless, within the preceding 12 calendar months, it has had (1) An annual inspection in accordance with part 43 of this chapter and has been approved for return to service by a person authorized by § 43.7 of this chapter

That seems straightforward enough. Back in February, I hired a mechanic in California to perform what’s commonly called a “pre-purchase inspection”, and then I had the excellent experience of taking Carmen to one of the service clinics sponsored by the American Bonanza Society, where master mechanic Wayne Whittington did a very thorough checkout using the ABS clinc checklist. However, neither of these are considered to be an “inspection in accordance with part 43,” as the FAA says above.

FAR part 43 annual inspections are required every 12 calendar months; the last one on this plane was done 4 November 2021, so a new one is required before 30 November 2022– you get until the end of the month when the last annual was signed off. It’s bad to let a plane go “out of annual,” because legally it is considered unairworthy and can’t be flown without a special permit at that point. It’s easier and cheaper just to make sure that doesn’t happen.

One part of the annual ritual of inspection prep is to make a comprehensive list of all the things you might want to have the mechanic inspect, fix, or change. This is just a starting point, because more often than not a thorough inspection by a trained professional will find things that the pilot’s missed. Here’s the list I gave to Jon, with my notes to you in italics:

  1. Annual inspection per the Beech maintenance manual (this manual is what FAR part 43 says you have to use to make the annual legal)
  2. 3 common items that seem to have been done each preceding annual. (I didn’t check to see if these were in the manual or not)
    • Check and service unfeathering accumulators (these accumulators are small tanks of nitrogen that apply pressure on demand to push the propeller out of its “feathered” position)
    • Check and service shimmy dampener (think of this dampener like a horizontal shock absorber mounted on the nose gear to keep it from wobbling)
    • Borescope inspection of all cylinders
    • Compression test of all cylinders. (If any are low, we’ll talk about whether to replace the cylinder or try another way to fix the underlying problem, depending on whether it’s the rings, the intake valve, or the exhaust valve)
  3. Fix a small crack in the skin of left aileron. (Although this sounds scary, it’s not; the crack is in a little piece of cosmetic metal that sits over a bracket to hide it, not part of the structure of the aileron)
  4. Replace the instrument air filter (this filter keeps crap from the carbon vanes of the vacuum pump from getting into the vacuum-driven flight instruments)
  5. Verify compliance with AD 2007-08-08 and AD 91-17-01 (more on this below)
  6. Oil change both engines 
  7. Replace main tires 
  8. Service brakes, using new pads; replace discs if necessary 
  9. Replace fuel cap O-rings (each fuel cap has two O-rings to help seal it, and these wear out over time)
  10. Install fluorosilicone washers on 2 main tank fuel caps
  11. Check front seat inertial reels; fix if needed (the pilot side seems awfully slack)
  12. Fix socket/bulb/wiring of leftmost glareshield panel light
  13. Fix “hitch” in electric trim in “Down” mode—it is binding or hanging. “Up” mode works OK, manual trim in both directions works ok.

A good mechanic will help you identify things that are legitimate airworthiness or safety issues and prioritize those. In the above list, probably the most safety-critical item is the seat belt reels– the accumulators, dampener, oil change, air filter, and so on all need to be done eventually. I’m thankful that the prior owners maintained Carmen to such a high standard so there aren’t any known lurking horrors– but Jon may find some, which is the whole point of doing annual inspections.

One key part of the annual is that the mechanic will verify compliance with airworthiness directives, or ADs. These are important maintenance actions that must be complied with– for example, AD 2007-08-08 requires periodic inspection of a part that locks the landing gear in the “up” position to ensure that it will work properly when needed. This inspection must be done every 100 hours; there are other ADs that must be performed periodically, so Jon will check all of the ADs that apply to this plane (and its engines, and propellers) and make sure that they’re complied with.

I also decided to have the propellers overhauled. The manufacturer recommends that these particular props be overhauled every 6 years or 2400 hours. These props were installed in 2008 and have close to 2400 hours on them, so it’s time– but, as with engines, the “time between overhaul” (TBO) is a recommendation– for ordinary general aviation operations under part 91, owners aren’t required to observe that TBO. It’s legal for me to keep flying engines and propellers as far past TBO as I want to. With engines, you can do compression checks, borescope inspections, and oil analysis to get a good idea of the engine’s health– but with propellers, you can only see the visible parts of the prop, and that’s it. There’s no good way to non-destructively inspect the propeller’s components, other than the blades. That’s because the propeller hub isn’t visible when the propeller’s mounted, not to mention that it contains a bunch of seals, springs, and other parts. That’s because this plane uses constant-speed propellers, where the propeller governor changes the blade pitch so that the propeller maintains the commanded RPM even as the engine power changes. (For more on how constant-speed propellers work, this explainer is pretty good). With all that in mind, I decided to go ahead and have the props overhauled since the plane would be down The overhaul process can take a while– the shop I chose, First Flight Propellers in Mississippi, is currently estimating about 4 weeks. This seems like a long time, but the overhaul process is quite involved, plus once the overhaul’s done I’m good for another 6+ years.

Once the propellers have been overhauled, Jon will reinstall them, run the engines for a leak check and general test, Then I’ll pick the plane up when the weather is good and do a test flight of at least 30 minutes, staying in the vicinity of the airport just in case something is amiss. Assuming that goes well, I’ll fly Carmen back to the hangar and enjoy another year of being in compliance with 91.409. I’m looking forward to it!

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So I got a new engine cylinder

As I was working on another post, it dawned on me that I hadn’t finished the story of why I didn’t fly to the Bahamas. As you might recall, in that post I talked about how the ABS service clinic found an anomaly in the cylinder, one that my local mechanic thought was no big deal. To be cautious, I sent the cylinder back to Superior for them to look at it. Then I promptly forgot about it, because I was busy flying to Asheville, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Auburn, Memphis, and Augusta before I bothered to ask Superior for an update. Turns out the cylinder lining was in fact cracked, but on the inside where the crack wasn’t visible. My precautionary cylinder change turned out to be a necessity, one which saved me the potential for an unpleasant in-flight event and a bunch of additional costs driven by one bad cylinder trying to turn the whole engine into junk.

I noticed that after the cylinder repair, the right engine was leaking small amounts of oil. North Alabama Aviation couldn’t be bothered to try to fix it, so I had Revolution Flight take a look and they identified it as an upside-down gasket installed on the rocker arm cover. This is exactly the kind of small but infuriating maintenance error that every pilot has to learn to deal with. While I could have flown the plane over to Decatur and stormed into the shop to demand that they fix it, I decided instead to write this short note to memorialize their poor performance (along with the ridiculously long time it took them to do the repair in the first place) in hope that future generations will see it when they’re shopping for a maintenance shop.

Back to cylinders. For many engine types, having a cylinder replaced is super common. For example, the large turbocharged TIO-540 used in many models of the Piper Malibu is notorious for requiring frequent cylinder changes because of the operating conditions: the engine’s crammed into a small space with marginal cooling, then operated at high altitudes where turbocharging is used, which increases the heat and pressure regime that the cylinders run under. It’s less common to have to replace them on the normally-aspirated IO-470 engines that my Baron uses, but it’s not uncommon. So far, since the two engines were installed, there have been 3 cylinder changes (out of 12 cylinders total): this cracked one in 2022 and two others back in 2013 or so due to low engine compression. That’s not too bad.

Maybe that’s a good topic for a future post: why cylinders get low compression in the first place, and what you can do about it. Hold that thought…

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Flying Friday: the one with thunderstorms

I lived in the Bay Area for about five years. Among the many weird things I experienced there, one that particularly sticks with me is the way people acted when we got a thunderstorm. They’re quite rare in that part of the country and the arrival of even faint thunder was considered quite an event.

Of course, here in the southeastern US, thunderstorms are as common as pickup trucks, especially in the spring and summer. As I write this, here’s what the airspace near me looks like. When I look out my window, there are plenty of building cumulus clouds, but the real action is off towards Chattanooga.

It’s not necessarily intrinsically harmful to fly into, through, or under falling rain or snow. (Hail isn’t great, though!) However, when rain falls, it displaces air, and the result is that you get updrafts and downdrafts. Those can be harmful. In fact, the common rule of thumb is to avoid flying within 20 nautical miles of the boundary of a thunderstorm (like the one just northeast of the PRONE intersection above). That’s because, in the FAA’s words, “All thunderstorms have conditions that are a hazard to aviation. These hazards occur in numerous combinations. While not every thunderstorm contains all hazards, it is not possible to visually determine which hazards a thunderstorm contains.”

Notice that I was careful to use the word “thunderstorm” and not “rainstorm” or “rain cloud” in the preceding paragraph. That’s the crux of the problem: your eyeball alone can’t tell the difference. Thankfully, we have radar, which is where the image above comes from. There’s lots to say about modern weather radar, and all the modes and capabilities it has, but the best way to think about it from an aviation perspective is that it can show you two important things: is there precipitation in the area you’re going towards, and what are the winds doing?

If you shoot a beam of radar energy into a cloud, some will be absorbed, some will scatter off in various directions, and some will be reflected back to the receiving antenna. By magic, it’s possible to figure out quite a few things about a storm cell based on this reflection and a few other parameters, like the tilt of the antenna. For example, if you look at the Doppler shift of the returned reflections, that tells you something about the relative movement of air and water masses in the beam, which you can use to figure out which way the storm’s moving and, oh yeah, if it is showing signs consistent with the formation of tornadoes.

Anyway, enough about that. What I wanted to talk about today is something radar can’t tell you.

Before I get into that, though, I should spill a dirty little secret. Most of us don’t even have radar in our planes. The FAA broadcasts radar images through a ground-to-air datalink system known as FIS-B. This is worlds better than not having any radar imagery in the cockpit, but it’s super important to know that it’s not a real-time picture. FIS-B datalink images can be up to 15 minutes delayed, which means that they show you where the weather was. That means that what you see out the window is king, not what your FIS-B receiver shows. This is extra true because what the FIS-B radar shows you is a composite picture that tells you there’s precipitation (and if so, roughly how much). It doesn’t tell you at what altitude the cloud based or tops are, how much precipitation is reaching the ground, or much else of use.

With these limitations in mind, you can’t depend on ground-based weather data to distinguish between a rain shower and a giant thunderstorm, the more so because that ground-based data won’t show you where there’s lightning.

In the image above, you can see little blue lightning icons. Each one indicates a lightning strike picked up by what is basically a bare-bones radio receiver– lightning strikes make a hell of a lot of radio-frequency noise (as any AM radio listener can tell you). This noise is in the form of radio waves called sferics. With the right receiver you can pick those sferics up and triangulate their source– even better, you can do that in flight and get accurate, instantaneous real-time lightning data.

Why do you need to know where the lightning is? Because that’s where the thunderstorms are. Thunderstorms can have lightning (duh), extreme turbulence, hail, wind shear, and/or icing– and the only one of these that is easily detected from a distance is lightning. So it’s a pretty good proxy: you won’t ever see lightning if there’s no thunderstorm.

The picture above shows a live display from a recent flight I took from Decatur to Auburn. Each one of those little crosses is a lightning strike. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the more little crosses there are in an area, the less you want to be there. This screen is from a BFGoodrich (yes, them) Stormscope, which is basically this small LCD screen, a small box with a primitive computer in it, and a small array of antennas inside a flat enclosure on the outside of the airplane. The antennas pick up sferics, the computer estimates distance and bearing, and the screen shows you a +. There are newer, fancier models than this– mine was made in 1991– but they all work essentially the same way. In this case, I get a real-time, 360° view of lightning activity at up to a 100-nautical-mile radius, which is pretty great.

Compare what you see on the Stormscope view above with what the FIS-B picture looked like, below. On the bottom display (which is set to “track up”– so that the airplane’s southerly track is towards the top of the display) you can see a bunch of awful-looking red and yellow. I took these pictures a few minutes apart, so they don’t line up precisely, but they’re close enough to get the point across.

Of course, the best solution would be to have real-time in-flight radar and lightning data and ground-based FIS-B. Why?

  • Radar shows you what’s in front of you now, with good resolution and detail
  • A Stormscope shows you whether is lightning (and therefore, thunderstorms) embedded in the clouds you see via eyeball or radar
  • FIS-B feeds can show you radar imagery from the area where you are (including beyond immediate radar range), or over all of the continental US, which is really handy when you want to look ahead towards your destination.

Remember that earlier I said lightning is a good proxy for the presence of thunderstorms. The absence of lightning doesn’t mean you’re good to go, though. You can still have a thunderstorm with no lightning. That’s why a Stormscope alone isn’t enough to keep you out of trouble.

I don’t yet have radar, although this airplane did at one time and still has a good-condition nose radome. Until I equip a radar (which, let’s be honest, probably won’t ever happen), having the Stormscope along makes it much easier to decipher what’s happening in those clouds so I can give them an appropriate berth.

Thunderstorms are a hell of a lot more fun to watch from the ground than to fly through.

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Flying Friday: the one where I didn’t fly to the Bahamas

Some of you may remember two previous articles here: one about dispatch reliability and one about piston engines. If you like, you can consider this one to be titled “on aircraft piston engines, part 3”

One of the best reasons to buy an airplane is to use it to go places. In my case, a big part of the reason for buying a twin was so I could comfortably fly over water, mountains, and other places where a single-engine plane might leave me as an involuntary glider pilot. Not long after I bought Carmen, I started roughing out plans to fly to the Bahamas with Erica, since neither of us had been and there are many out-islands with small airports to visit. Unfortunately, then I made a critical mistake.

See, what had happened was…

The American Bonanza Society is the largest national club for owners of Beech aircraft, including Barons. I could go on for pages about how valuable their magazine and tech support forums have been, but I’ll ask that you take it as stipulated. One of the services they offer is the ABS service clinic, a comprehensive review of an airplane hosted by a master mechanic with long Beech experience. For another post, I’ll talk about the details, but for now, let me just say I was blown away by how much Wayne Whittington taught me in a 90-minute exploration of the guts of my airplane. One of the bonus services included in the clinic is a borescope inspection, performed by a technician from Continental Motors, the company that makes the engines.. This inspection is conceptually simple: you pull out a spark plug, stick a borescope inside, take some pictures, and then examine them looking for signs of badness. These signs might indicate damaged, sticking, or fouled intake and/or exhaust valves, corrosion, space aliens, rude graffiti, and so on. There’s lots of lore concerning how to interpret these pictures and signs. In my case, the examination found this:

This is a thing you do not want to see in your engine

“What is that?” you ask. Well, to the inspector, it looked like a crack in the plating of the cylinder barrel. That brown discoloration is a little unusual but not in itself a bad sign, but a crack in the plating is bad because it might allow part of the plating to break loose and go ricocheting around the engine. Armed with that picture, I ordered a replacement cylinder and made plans to take the plane up to Winchester to let Jon Foote work on it.

A quick digression. Continental makes engines, including the IO-470-L engines on this plane. But these particular engines were built by a gentleman named Bill Cunningham at PowerMasters. He used stock Continental parts to start with but added some other, better parts along the way, including Millenium cylinders from Superior Air Parts. See, one design feature of most piston aircraft engines is that the cylinders aren’t cast into a single block– they bolt on individually and can thus be repaired or replaced individually.

Anyway, I emailed Bill, who said that he hadn’t seen a similar defect and that he would definitely replace the cylinder. For fun, I decided to ask Superior, the cylinder manufacturer, if they wanted to have a look at the cylinder once it was pulled. The gentleman I spoke to there, who owns their QA team and has been manufacturing parts for aircraft engines for nearly 40 years, said he definitely would like to see it and that he definitely wouldn’t fly the cylinder in that condition.

Instead of going to Winchester, I had the cylinder diverted from Winchester to Decatur and dropped the plane off at the local shop. This caused a double-barreled delay: first UPS took a solid week to change the delivery address on the cylinder, then the shop, which is shorthanded just like every other aviation shop on this blessed blue planet, had to fit me into their complicated schedule. I begrudgingly booked tickets on Delta to Nassau. (More on that later.)

The truth is revealed

Finally, the day before we were supposed to leave, the mechanic called. “I pulled that cylinder,” he said. “That’s not a crack or a scratch; it’s just a tooling mark.”

Silence.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean that there’s nothing wrong with it?”

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Want me to put it back on?”

Reader, I did want that very much. But in the interest of aviation safety, I decided to put the new cylinder on instead. These engines have been around a while, and I didn’t see the value in putting the old one back on when I already had a new one handy. There’s a degree of risk any time you remove a cylinder, but that ship had already sailed, so overall it was less risky to put the new one on instead, especially because I did want the manufacturer to check out that beauty mark.

Then we went to the Bahamas. Amazing trip, about which more another day. I was a little sad each time I saw the empty apron at Staniel Cay, where my Baron would have fit perfectly, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the trip. What most certainly did diminish it was when Delta cancelled our return flight, then booked us onto another flight that got us home about 1am on Monday morning, 6 hours later than scheduled.

Anyway. later that same Monday morning I texted the mechanic. One of the bushings on the rocker arm for that cylinder was worn and needed to be replaced, so they were waiting on a part which was hopefully going to arrive “early this week.” By the time I got to the airport about 1130 to drop off some oil filters so they could change the oil, the new part had arrived and was installed. By Tuesday afternoon, they’d done a thorough ground run and leak check, and it was time for me to go fly it.

Breaking it in

A brand-new cylinder has to be broken in. The piston rings and the cylinder lining will of course rub against each other; at a microscopic level, you want there to be a nice cross-hatched pattern that allows some oil to lubricate the cylinder-ring interface. so the goal of the break-in procedure is to accelerate this process so that the rings form a tight seal against the cylinder wall. It’s important to keep the cylinder temperature high, but not too high. Superior has a detailed procedure for this, which I followed religiously.

(You might wonder why you don’t have to break in car engines. Fair question– which this article about cylinder finishes helps answer. tl;dr the car engine already has the right finish machined in from the start.)

I flew a break-in flight, following Superior’s recommendation to the letter, in the form of a big triangle: Decatur to Monroe County (KY) to Clarksville (TN), ending up at Thom Duncan Avionics in Fayetteville. They put in a new Avidyne IFD440, which was an adventure in itself, and then I flew home again.

What I learned

I still would much rather have flown myself to the Bahamas, and I hate having spent money replacing a part that, by all appearances, was still serviceable. However, when the guy who built the engine and the engine manufacturer and the cylinder manufacturer all say “I wouldn’t fly that” I am certainly not going to argue with them. I’d make the same decision again today if faced with the same facts. Insh’allah, this cylinder will last for many more years.

The old cylinder has gone back to the factory for inspection. When they’re done with it, I plan to have them overhaul it so I can keep it as a spare; lead times on new factory cylinders can be 4+ months so it’ll be good to have an extra on hand. No word on them quite yet what’s wrong with it.

In the meantime

A postscript: as I mentioned, I finally did make it to Thom Duncan Avionics for a bit of an upgrade. We replaced one of the two ancient Garmin GNS430Ws with a shiny Avidyne IFD440, the smaller sibling of the IFD540 that did so well for me in 706. We had a weird problem where the display and bezel lights of. the IFD would blink off and back on, but the unit worked fine on the bench. After a bunch of trial and error, we determined that was because the cross-fill setting that allows automatic sync of flight planning data between the two GPS units wasn’t working. If you have two Garmin units, or two Avidyne units, great. If you have one of each, you can’t do the sync (which isn’t unexpected) but you’ll get the blinking (which was unexpected, and is also undocumented in the Avidyne install manual).

The combined stack: IFD on the top, then the GNS430, then the GTX345 transponder

One of the drawbacks of the 440 is that its screen is smaller, but Avidyne has a very clever solution for this: the IFD100 iPad app, which you can think of like a remote desktop session for your IFD. I found that putting ForeFlight and the IFD100 app side-by-side on my iPad mini worked wonderfully well. As you can see below, there’s a lot of information available. I can use the IFD100 app to have a completely independent view of the data that the in-panel GPS has while still looking at charts, airport info, and so on in ForeFlight.

Because the iPad mini is mounted on a RAM mount on the yoke arm, I can easily flip it 90º. If I want to use both apps together, I put it in landscape mode; if I’m just using ForeFlight (as when I’m briefing and preparing an approach and want to see all the plates), then portrait mode.

I put the new configuration to the test by flying down to Auburn to pick Matt up for his birthday, then flying to Atlanta to go have a bison burger at Ted’s, and then back. It works better than I expected, and it’s making me rethink my original plan to put the larger IFD540 in the panel– I can save quite a bit by keeping the 440 and using the iPad display instead.

In our next episode: what’s a Stormscope, and why would you want one? Stay tuned!

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Flying Friday: the one where I bought another airplane

Meet Carmen!

2022 has been pretty damn exciting so far; I started a new job in January, got married in March, and bought an airplane today. Carmen is a 1968 Beech Baron 55. She got the name after I told my family I was going to San Diego to look at a plane. My sister asked what I was going to name it. I said I didn’t know, and she suggested Carmen… from San Diego… because where in the world… and thus it was done.

The previous owners took great care of the plane, and were willing to let me lease the plane while we got all the loan paperwork squared away, so I’ve already accumulated just over 25 hours, including trips to Texas, Florida, Auburn, and Washington DC. She’s a joy to fly, burning about 45% more fuel to go about 40% faster but with the additional safety of a second engine. My plan is to make minimal upgrades or changes for the next several months while I get more familiar with the equipment that’s already installed, then decide what (if anything) I want to change. As with any 50-plus-year-old airplane, I expect that there will be minor squawks and tweaks required but, because David and Charles stayed on top of major items, I don’t expect anything too heinous.

If you need me for the next few months, I’ll probably be at the airport.

It’s still a little disconcerting to see the propellers on the wings and not right in front of my face

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2021 year in review: flying

In a year when a lot of things weren’t all that great, it turned out to be a pretty good year in the air for me.

First, the top-line totals: 138 hours flown, 21 of which were in multi-engine airplanes. By comparison, in 2020 I flew 78 hours. And, of course, the biggest top-line item: Erica proposed to me, in flight, on our way down to Florida. (If you’re keeping track, that marks the second proposal to take place in my plane while I was flying it, the other being my friend Eric popping the question to his then-girlfriend).

It would have been a gross understatement to say I was surprised
ATC amended my route to include the HEVVN intersection and, upon hearing “heaven,” Erica just went for it.

Second-biggest flying milestone: I got my multi-engine rating. Interestingly, I guess #becauseCOVID, the FAA’s database doesn’t show the new rating yet; thankfully I have a piece of paper signed by my DPE that makes it official, though.

There were some other neat milestones this year as well, including several trips to New Orleans for wedding planning, a half-dozen Angel Flight missions, a midmorning flight into Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson for a visit to the Delta Museum and lunch with my boss, visits to my mom for Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, an unplanned stop in Mississippi for the worst thunderstorms I’ve ever driven through, and a few trips down to Auburn to visit Matt.

This year’s map is pretty heavy on the southeastern US…

Operationally, the airplane did well this year– no major maintenance problems, no cancelled trips due to maintenance, and no unreasonable expenses. We replaced the old Avidyne MLB100 with a shiny new SkyTrax 200, which means we now have dual-band ADS-B In for traffic, and we took advantage of Aspen’s very generous upgrade offer to replace our EFD 1000 with a new Pro MAX unit that all 3 of us love. We also put in a new set of LED strobes and lights courtesy of Gallagher Aviation and they’re a huge improvement over the old incandescent ones.

Any honest review of this nature has to include a few things that didn’t get done, too. I made two attempts to go back to GATTS to complete my commercial single-engine rating. On the first, the weather was uncooperative; on the second, I just wasn’t prepared to take the checkride and elected to go home instead of blowing up my schedule to extend my visit. There were a couple of trips (including to DC for the Marine Corps Marathon) cancelled #becauseCOVID, and two where we went commercial (Maine and Miami) due to weather-vs-schedule. Those kinds of cancellations are part of flying general aviation, though– it’s not Delta.

2022 goals? Easy. Fly as much as I can; average at least 1 public-service flight (whether that’s for Angel Flight, Pilots and Paws, or whatever) a month; get more multi-engine time, and get either my single or multi commercial rating.

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Flying Friday: Aircraft multi-engine land: done

It’s trite, but true, that your pilot’s certificate is a license to learn. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard, or said, that, I’d be writing this from a warm beach somewhere instead of while looking out at the frost in my back yard. There’s always something more to learn about aerodynamics, weather, regulations, flight planning, the systems of the aircraft you fly, and so on. One way to get some applied learning is to pursue additional ratings or certifications, since every FAA-issued rating or certificate requires at least some degree of additional education or learning.

(brief digression: a “certificate” is a class of what normal people would call a license. The FAA issues private, sport, commercial, and airline transport pilot certificates. A “rating” adds on to your certificates. Ratings may be issued for the category (airplane, helicopter, balloon, etc), class (single- or multi-engine), and/or type (land, sea, etc). For example, the FAA-approved way to list my current qualifications is that I hold a private pilot certificate with the airplane multi-engine land (AMEL), airplane single-engine land (ASEL), and instrument rating airplane (IRA) ratings.)

For some ratings, it’s hard to say whether they’re practical. I’ll probably never own a seaplane or an airplane with a tail wheel, but there’s still valuable learning to be gotten from pursuing those ratings. Thomas Haines wrote a great column about this in the December 2021 AOPA Magazine. Depending on what you want to fly, though, those ratings may be practical– thus my interest in getting my multi-engine rating.

My original plan was to go do my commercial single-engine training at GATTS, then add my multi rating locally. For a variety of reasons that didn’t work out well, so my backup plan was to get my multi rating over the summer here in Huntsville and then finish my commercial training with the famous and internationally known John A Blevins. My goal was to start the multi training July 15… and that’s where the fun started.

The first factor is that most flight schools don’t have any twin-engine airplanes. There’s a grand total of one rental twin here in Huntsville. Fortunately it’s at Revolution Flight, which is about a six-minute drive from my house. The second factor is that, at least around here, there aren’t that many multi-engine instructors. It wasn’t until the beginning of August that my schedule, the airplane schedule, and the instructor’s schedule all meshed for me to start flying. I flew with John Kilcrease, who was an excellent and patient instructor (and a retired Army helicopter pilot).

The multi-engine rating requires a practical test but there’s no written test. However, there’s a ton to learn about aerodynamics and aircraft performance before you can safely operate a twin. That’s because, for most light twins, 80% of the excess thrust comes from the second engine– so when you lose an engine the flying characteristics change pretty drastically. This is especially true at high density altitudes, i.e. when the air is hot. Flying a twin when it’s 90° outside is very different than when it’s 50°. Since I live in Alabama, hot weather is the norm.

I started with the Sporty’s multi-engine video course, which is what Revolution uses. It’s beautifully filmed and animated, and it’s a good introduction to the basics but it didn’t go into enough depth on the systems of my particular airplane, or on the aerodynamics of single-engine operation. The YouTube videos by PrettyFlyForACFI were super helpful as supplemental material, and I read everything I could find about the 1967 Beech Travel Air that I was going to be flying.

Finally it was the appointed day for my first flight. I met John at the airport, preflighted the airplane, and started the engine. I mean the first engine. Man, it was weird not having a propellor spinning in front of me. Then I started the other engine and we taxiied out for takeoff.

One of the maneuvers you have to demonstrate for the checkride is an aborted takeoff. We got to do that on my very first takeoff, because John’s door popped open. (In case you’re wondering, the procedure is simple: call out “ABORT ABORT ABORT,” close both throttles, and stay on the runway centerline. I did it flawlessly, yay me). We fixed the door, taxiied back, and simulated an engine failure on takeoff, then taxiied back again to take off for real… at which point the door popped open again so we called it a day. Not the greatest introduction.

Later flights went much better. John led me through normal and short-field takeoffs and landings, in-flight engine shutdowns and restarts, single-engine landings, single-engine instrument approaches, and all sorts of failure scenarios. Thanks to smoke from western wildfires, I got a good deal of actual instrument time, and the sweaty Alabama weather made a great laboratory for seeing how the performance data in the pilot’s handbook translated to real-world airplane performance. As an example, the Travel Air can climb at just about 50 feet per minute with one engine on a hot day with two people aboard– 50fpm is a lot if you’re climbing stairs but it’s a recipe for meeting trees if it happens to you on takeoff and you’re not exceptionally quick.

During training we had a few assorted maintenance issues, as is common for rental trainers. The biggest was a 4-week wait for a new set of left engine control cables, which started about a week before my original checkride appointment. Factor in my work and personal travel, and John’s travel, and I wasn’t able to rebook my checkride until the beginning of November.

DPE Max Gurgew has a really good reputation in our local area, although I’d never met him. My first positive impression, from booking the checkride, was that he has a good web site that clearly lays out the required items and lets you request a time slot online.

I’d reserved the plane from 7a-noon on a Taco Tuesday, with the plan being that I’d pick it up at KHSV and fly over to KMDQ to meet Max. I got to the school at 0705 and…. no airplane. Despite calling the day before to confirm that it’d be on the line at 0700, and despite wearing my lucky shirt (“it’s a great day” on the front, “for tacos” on the back) someone had parked it in a far-away hangar, so I had to wait for the Signature line guys to go get it. By the time I was done getting the logs, having the plane fueled (which also was supposed to be done the day before), and preflighting, it was 815. I got a clearance, taxied out to 36R, started my takeoff roll and, oops, the door popped open.

ABORT ABORT ABORT, throttles to idle, stay on the centerline.

At least that was a familiar scenario. I taxied clear and wrestled the door back into position, called tower again, and took off uneventfully for 0.2 of flight time over to KMDQ. Easy normal landing.

Then the door wouldn’t open to let me out. That was fun. Eventually I got it unstuck and walked in to meet Max.

As his reputation foretold, Max was pleasant and engaging in person. We chatted for a few minutes, then started the review of my certificate application. (brief digression: any time you add a rating, you’re really reapplying for a newly issued certificate, which means there’s more paperwork than you might expect. The FAA uses a system called IACRA for certificate applications and, although no one likes it, we’ve all learned to work around its many quirks and misfeatures.)

This took a bit of time because I’d made a mistake on my application: for category/class upgrades, you have to fill in total flight time and pilot-in-command (PIC) time in the category/class. In my case, I’d gotten the PIC time field wrong, since you can’t log PIC time in a category or class where you aren’t rated unless you’re the sole occupant and have the correct endorsement. This took a few minutes to fix, then Max went over what we’d be doing on the checkride. He also asked me to sign a liability waiver, which I haven’t had to do on other checkrides (but it’s been a while since my last one so maybe this is more common now).

The oral exam was very straightforward. We started with a discussion of Vmc, the minimum controllable airspeed. Vmc is super important because if you drop below that speed, there won’t be enough air flowing over the rudder for you to maintain directional control. We discussed how manufacturers certify Vmc for an airplane (requiring me to walk through a discussion of SMACFUM), and the balance between controllability and performance. I used a whiteboard to discuss how the critical engine is determined (PAST), and we discussed the Vmc controllability-versus-performance table but he didn’t ask me to draw or recite it from memory. He quizzed me about various single- and twin-engine speeds and limitations, which was a weak area for me (e.g. I knew Vmc and Vyse but didn’t remember Vsse offhand).

We covered some basic performance: what service ceilings are, what accelerate/stop and accelerate/go distances were for this plane (trick question: there’s no published accel/go for this plane, so I calculated that as the sum of accel/stop and normal takeoff distance over a 50’ obstacle under the given conditions). He then gave me a scenario: “you’re flying IFR cross-country from Huntsville to DC at 9000’ and you have an engine failure. What do you do?” In this case, the single-engine service ceiling for this airplane is 4400′, which means that’s the maximum altitude you can expect to climb to on one engine. Since there’s terrain between here and DC that’s higher than that, the correct answer was “get away from terrain and land ASAP”.

The systems discussion covered fuel (how many tanks, capacity, how does crossfeed work), landing gear (power system, emergency extension, sensors/switches, actuation), and propellers (how feathering works, how the prop governor in a twin differs from a single). Having flown the plane for a dozen hours or so meant that I had some practical understanding to go along with my book learning, which is exactly what the oral exam is meant to determine.

After a short break, we walked out to preflight. Wind was 12G20 but nearly right down the runway centerline, and sky conditions were 4500’ scattered. Max had prebriefed me on the sequence to expect. After a normal and successful preflight, I did a short safety brief (I’m the PIC, we will use positive exchange of controls when needed, alert me if you see/hear/smell anything funny/odd/dangerous, eyes outside), started up, and did a standard takeoff brief covering what I’d do in case of a failure before or after liftoff. I did a short-field takeoff to the north, followed by a long climbing turn to get around some patches of clouds, called KHSV approach for flight following, and climbed to 5500’ for maneuvers. We never got further than maybe 7nm from the airport throughout the maneuvers.

We started with slow flight, then power-off and power-on stalls, steep turns, and the Vmc demo. Even though I’d beat it into my head already, Max did me the favor of asking for clearing turns for each maneuver—so we’d fly a maneuver to the north, do a clearing turn to the south, then do the next thing, then back north, etc. After the Vmc demo, he had me demonstrate an in-flight shutdown of the failed engine, followed by a restart. I was following the checklist procedure, which requires use of the boost pumps, but he had me turn them off to avoid flooding the engine.

After the restart, we flew back towards the south to let the engine warm back up, then I demonstrated an emergency descent. In this airplane, you extend the gear below 130kts and pitch down for 130kts. That worked fine, until I recovered and retracted the gear. At that point, we both heard a Satanic grinding coming from the gearbox. (In this plane, the gear is driven by an electric motor, which drives a reduction gearbox, which drives a star gear linked to all the actuating rods– this video shows it in detail). I looked at him, he looked at me, we both made faces, and he said “Let’s see if we can put the gear back down.” We did, and we got a green light (this airplane only has 1 gear light, not 3, but there’s a nosewheel mirror), but we also got more grinding. My heart plummeted because I knew I was about to get the Big Disco.

See, when you’re doing a checkride, there are 3 possible outcomes. You can pass, you can fail, or you can get a “discontinuance,” which just means that you couldn’t finish the ride for some reason that wasn’t your fault… like demons possessing your landing gear. Think of it like pressing “pause”. You still get credit for anything you did successfully before the discontinuance… but the examiner can ask you to redo anything she wants to at any time, meaning that you could essentially have to repeat the entire test.

Anyway, with the gear down, he took the controls so I could brief the RNAV 36 approach back into KMDQ; about 5nm from the IAF he failed my right engine and I flew a fairly sloppy approach to a full stop. I think he gave me a few charity points here because although I was stable, I was just a hair under ¾ deflection above the glideslope until inside the FAF. In the debrief he pointed this out, and said that in a real-world situation it would be better to stay above glidepath if possible, but to keep in mind that doing so might make it impossible to get all the way down on a short or confined runway. Fair point.

After landing, I secured the plane and we debriefed. Once my MEI arrived, he ferried the plane back to KHSV; the school requires all maintenance ferry flying be done by their staff. Maintenance jumped all over the plane (I was climbing out the door when they hooked up the tug and started towing). They couldn’t identify anything wrong with the gearbox after an inspection and swinging the gear two dozen times, so they serviced it, put on two new main tires for good measure, and gave me the plane back.

I spent the rest of the day and the next morning fidgeting while waiting to see if I’d be able to fly again this week. A combination of weather, the DPE’s travel, my travel, and the airplane availability meant that I could either finish the ride in the next 5 days or wait until Thanksgiving week. Another instructor graciously gave up his reservation so I could grab a time slot late Thursday afternoon, with the caveat that weather might require me to take an MEI with me to fly over IFR, then work the pattern. Unfortunately, we had crap weather so I couldn’t fly that day, or for the rest of the week.

Cue annoying hold music. (In reality during that time, I had an amazing trip with Erica to Romania, which made the waiting significantly easier!)

On Monday, I flew with John again just to make sure I wasn’t rusty. The weather was beautiful and I flew well. The cool weather granted me the novel experience of actually being able to climb well on one engine. More importantly, Satan had left the area and the gear functioned flawlessly. I verified with the Revolution staff that the plane would be ready at 0630 the next morning and arranged to meet John there.

On checkride day, I rolled up to Signature at 0635; the plane was waiting, so I flew to MDQ and met with Max. After a few minutes of chit-chat, he quizzed me from memory on V speeds, asked a few scenario-based questions about performance based on the current weather, and then it was time to fly. We stepped out and did the remaining maneuvers: engine failure on takeoff, normal takeoff, normal landing, normal takeoff to an engine failure in the pattern and a one-engine landing, and a normal takeoff to a short-field landing. I flew really well. The debrief was short and to the point, he handed me my temporary cert, and it was time to fly home again.

A few specific items of gouge about Max as a DPE. Like every DPE there are specific things he wants to see.

  1. Don’t change airplane configuration until you’re clear of the runway and stopped. When you do, ask the PM to confirm that your hand is on the flaps (not gear) before you bring up the flaps.
  2. Do a takeoff briefing for each takeoff covering normal and engine failure scenarios.
  3. Do a runup on every flight, even if you just flew in from an airport 10nm away.
  4. During one-engine approaches, keep your hand on the good throttle as much as possible. This prevents you from accidentally moving the wrong throttle.
  5. Know power settings, not just speeds, for various phases of flight. I was embarrassed about this, since I use memorized power settings in my plane and never even thought to wonder about them while training in the BE95.
  6. Fly good and don’t suck. (OK, I might have added this one on my own.)

On to my CMEL next!

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Flying Friday: country mouse goes to the big city

I sometimes describe my airplane as a time machine: in some cases, it lets me get things done in less time, and in others makes possible things I couldn’t do at all without it. One of my recent flights was a great example.

Last year, I learned that the Delta Flight Museum exists. Even better, they have monthly surplus sales, where they sell off all manner of airline-related stuff-n-junk. These range from the desirable (airplane seats! monogrammed coffee mugs!) to the maybe-not (those paper-thin blankets they used to give coach passengers) to who-would-want-that (wooden coffee sticks with the Delta logo). Each month has a more-or-less random assortment of stuff, announced only a few days in advance. The sales are always on the second Friday of each month, but despite knowing well in advance when the sales would be held I hadn’t been able to squeeze in a visit. I decided that the May auction was going to be my first visit and booked the plane for that Friday.

In completely unrelated news, my employer has banned almost all work-related travel. I’ve met exactly three of my coworkers, not including my boss, since the acquisition. My boss happens to live in Atlanta and had to go to Hartsfield to pick up a family member the same day as the auction.

Did I mention that the Delta museum is across the street from the Signature FBO at Hartsfield?

So my trip plan was semi-complete: fly to ATL, visit the museum, have lunch with my boss, fly home.

Then a wrinkle intruded: Matt wanted to come back home for the weekend to attend a graduation party but didn’t want to drive. No problem— Auburn is a 45-minute flight from Hartsfield, so I’ll swing by and pick him up, then return him Sunday.

Plan complete, I filed a flight plan from Decatur to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Intergalactic Airport. One thing people sometimes don’t realize about aviation in the US is that everyone has (or is supposed to have!) equal access to the National Airspace System. It is perfectly legal for me to fly my little single-engine Cherokee Six into the World’s Busiest Airport. In fact, I did so in the midst of the pandemic-induced drop-off in air traffic last year. However, that ability comes with the responsibility not to a) screw up and do something stupid and b) not to impede the flow of all those big ol’ jet airliners. Because of the way Delta groups flights into blocks, some times of day are less busy than others, so I picked one of the less-busy times and filed for arrival during that time. Atlanta’s airport layout is fairly complicated, with five parallel runways and a maze of interconnecting taxiways. However, they happened to be using runway 8R for arrivals, and that’s the one closest to where I was going.

FAA airport diagram for KATL

The airport diagram for Atlanta— if you zoom in you get a sense of how much stuff is going on there

The flight over was completely uneventful— I filed for a direct flight from point A to point B, and flew exactly that until I was about 30 nautical miles outside Atlanta. Then ATC sent me to an intermediate intersection for a few miles, then told me “706 is cleared direct KATL, max forward speed.” What does that mean? Well, in my plane, normal cruising speed is 135 knots, or 155 mph. The absolute minimum airspeed for an Airbus A320 is about 115 knots— so if I’m going as fast as I possibly can, it’s only a little faster than the speed at which an airliner will drop from the sky. So “max forward speed” is definitely a relative concept. 

Foreflight

See those little blue arrowheads in front of me? They all have “DELTA” painted on the side

Perfect approach, normal landing, and an easy taxi to Signature. Like most other large airports, there are landing fees at ATL, but it’s only $11 for a single-engine piston airplane— compared to hundreds of dollars at Boston or SFO. Signature normally charges a $39 handling fee, but they waive it if you buy 15 or more gallons of fuel. The downside is that their fuel is ~$2/gallon more expensive than elsewhere, so there’s a little calculus required to figure out what’s cheaper. In this case, it worked out best to buy the fuel, so I did. Signature graciously used their crew van to run me over to the Delta museum area (it’s only about a half-mile walk) and dropped me off right in front of the surplus sale.

The sale? Well, what can I say. It was exactly what I expected. There was an A320 ADF antenna, a bunch of Delta-logo T-shirts, some cocktail napkins, coffee mugs from the Sky Club, and other assorted stuff. I bought a wall-mounted automatic soap dispenser ($5), a 747 farewell tour shirt ($5), a Delta-logo knit cap ($2), a backpack ($10), and a 4-pack of those little cocktail napkins you get in flight ($1). They had retired MD90 aircraft seats, but I reluctantly passed them by because I’m not sure where in our house I’d even put them.

Shopping done, I was able to wander around the museum grounds. Although it’s closed, you can walk right up to the static displays, so I did.

Delta static 747 display

This is a retired 747 that’s been outfitted as an event space— you can rent it for meetings, wedding receptions, parties, and so on. Sadly it’s closed for now.

IMG 5542

For some reason I found this hilarious. Why a Mini Cooper? I wish they would showcase the BBQ grill built from a PW2000 jet engine.

IMG 5544

I walked back to Signature and stashed my stuff in the plane. I noticed a bunch of black Suburbans and some cop-looking people wandering around, but then my boss showed up and we went to Malone’s to grab a burger. (Excellent choice btw— very solid bar food.) We had a very pleasant lunch, then he dropped me off at Signature to fly my next leg to Auburn. 

Side note for some pilot jargon. Normally when you’re getting ready to depart an airport that’s in controlled airspace you need a departure clearance. The traditional way to get this is to call someone on the radio (or, worst case, the phone), have them read your clearance to you, copy it down, and read it back to them. The FAA has slowly been rolling out a program called PDC, where your clearance is automatically generated and sent to you via an app or an SMS message. Not every airport has it, but Atlanta does, so instead of calling them on the radio, I just waited for the clearance message to arrive… except it didn’t, because I was leaving about an hour before my original planned departure time. I called the clearance delivery frequency, told them my call sign, and in about 2 minutes had a poppin’ fresh PDC. I programmed it into my panel-mount GPS and then noticed a flurry of activity off to my right on the ramp— the Secret Service gang was milling around. The reason was the arrival of “Coast Guard 101,” which you can see below. I never did find out who was on it but I assume it was a civilian DoD or USCG official, as military officers don’t usually get Secret Service protection.

IMG 5547

In any event, I got my taxi clearance, which was for the second of the five parallel runways. This required me to taxi to the end of one runway, watch a couple of airplanes to land on it, wait to be cleared to cross that runway, and then hold short of the runway I wanted to be on before I could leave. That made for some excellent views.

IMG 5548

yet another big jet

My departure clearance was pretty straightforward: radar vectors from ATC took me out near the Atlanta Motor Speedway (and its attached airport), then turned me on course to Auburn. I had a completely uneventful flight there, landed to pick up Matt, and flew home again. Within the space of about six hours, I was able to go from home to Atlanta to Auburn to home again, which would take me at least 8 hours of time on the road alone, plus I was able to visit the surplus store, meet my boss, and pick up my kid.

It’s a time machine, I tell you.

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Flying Friday: Avidyne IFD540 10.2.3.1 upgrade notes

For a while now, I’ve been waiting for a new update to the GPS software in my airplane. The last major update was about two years ago, so it was about that time. Avidyne had originally planned to release this set of features as version 10.3, but it turns out that, for some mysterious reason, the FAA update process for a “major” update applies to a version update. So releasing the software as 10.3 would have required a longer certification cycle than releasing the same thing as 10.2.3.1, which makes very little sense to me given that this update touched literally every part of the IFD’s firmware and software.

After the software was finally done, Avidyne had just submitted the software for certification and… government shutdown.

Then they decided to do a separate release just for the GPS week-number rollover bug. That update could be released nearly immediately, but it didn’t include any new features. However, like all software updates for avionics in certificated airplanes, you can’t just plug in a USB stick and go; updating the software is considered to be an alteration and so requires a logbook entry signed by a certificated airframe & powerplant (A&P) mechanic. Rather than make a separate trip just for the GPS fix, I elected to wait until the full release was ready, and so when it dropped last week I immediately emailed the shop to make an appointment.

As with every other software product, this update was a combination of bug fixes and some new features. The new features that I was most interested in were the ability to stream ADS-B data from the IFD to Foreflight and the ability to load instrument arrival and departure procedures without a transition. Here’s how my first flight with it went.

First, I preflighted and flew the short hop from Decatur to Tullahoma, Tennessee, where XP Services is located. XP is a great shop: they are quick, efficient, and they do good work. When I pulled up to the hangar, the tech already had the installation instructions printed and a GPU cart waiting, which is mighty fine service for a Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend. I went into their conference room to work while the mechanics worked through the long install procedure. It requires continuous power to the GPS, along with a bunch of separate reboots and firmware updates. The instructions have a lot of dire warnings in bold red type. I’d certainly have been capable of doing the update myself but I liked the security of having the shop do it so that I wouldn’t make a stupid mistake that bricked the unit.

The update went fine; they billed me for 1.61 hours (oddly specific, but OK, whatever) All of my settings were properly preserved, and immediately after the update I was able to load the 23 May navdata cycle without incident. I happily flew home $156 poorer but eager to see what the update brought.

Last year, the FAA announced that they would start sending additional weather data over the FIS-B data link protocol. I have a box (the SkyTrax 100) that is essentially a modem; it receives ADS-B data (which includes FIS-B weather), demodulates it, and passes it as a stream to the IFD. That box didn’t require any updates to display the new weather data (which includes lightning strike, icing, and cloud-height data) but the IFD couldn’t interpret it until this update. I really wanted the lightning data for the summer and the icing data for the winter— both of these are important cross-checks that help clarify what’s really happening inside the clouds. Once I was airborne and established, I was able to see lightning data in some storm cells off to my west, so that part of the update clearly works. The weather was sunny and clear for probably 200nm around me, so there wasn’t much else to see.

The other major feature I wanted was integration with Foreflight. Since early in its life, the IFD series has been able to wirelessly connect to external devices to upload and download flight plans, send GPS position data, and send ADS-B streams. The idea is that if you’re using a tablet app like Foreflight or FlyQ, you can use your panel-mounted GPS and ADS-B receiver to feed position, weather, and traffic data to the tablet app. For a variety of boring technical reasons that I won’t go into here, ADS-B streaming hasn’t worked properly with Foreflight until this release (although GPS position streaming and flight plan up/download did work). Now it does— those little blue arrows are other aircraft, and the radar display is live FIS-B data (including lightning data). I was also able to look at the icing level forecast, which is going to be invaluable in the wintertime for tactical weather avoidance.

IMG 0011

There’s one thing that Avidyne took away in this update, though. They previously had an aural “traffic!” announcement that was triggered when the IFD detected traffic within a certain radius. The unit still gives you a visual indication, but no more audio prompt— having it violated some FAA standard or other. However, I was happy to see that Foreflight provides audible traffic callouts based on data from the IFD– so now I probably need to decide whether it’s more valuable to have my phone or iPad connected to the AMX240 during flight.

The second thing I wanted was the ability to load arrival or departure procedures that don’t have a transition. This requires a bit of explanation. These procedures (SIDs for departures and STARs for arrival) specify a route for how you arrive at or depart from the airspace near an airport— they provide a way to transition between the terminal environment and the en route environment. For example, see this plate for the SWTEE.1 arrival procedure, which is used in Atlanta airspace to handle aircraft arriving from the west and slotting them into the correct flow for whatever airport they’re going to. ATC will usually assign the arrival while you’re still en route, and they may or may not assign a transition. For example, they could give me BIZKT.SWTEE1 (pronounced “biscuit transition for the sweet tea 1 arrival”) or LPTON.SWTEE1. So the IFD expects you to specify a transition point when you load a SID or STAR. The problem is, sometimes you don’t get one assigned from ATC (and you can’t just make up your own). When I fly in from north Alabama, my direct route will normally take me north of those routes, so typically when I’m somewhere just northwest of RMG, ATC will call me and amend my route to give me something like “direct OKRAA, thence the SWTEE1 arrival”. It’s simple enough to load the STAR and then sequence the leg I want, but keep in mind that the flight management system (FMS) in the IFD is always expecting that you’re telling it what waypoint to fly to next— so any time you have to change waypoints or insert a gap in your route, you need to be extra careful. The 10.2.3.1 update solves this problem by allowing you to load a SID or STAR with no transition, so you can just go direct to whatever waypoint ATC gives you. Simpler, with fewer opportunities to make a mistake.

Even though this update took a little longer than I would have liked, I was delighted to see how well it worked and I look forward to racking up a bunch more hours flying behind it this summer.

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My first Angel Flight mission

You may have heard of “Angel Flight” before– it’s a network of organizations that provide no-cost transport for critically ill patients using airplanes. There are lots of variants of this basic idea; for example, the Corporate Angel Network provides transport using corporate jets to cancer patients, while Angel Flight Soars covers patients with all sorts of needs but mostly in the southeastern US. These organizations are matchmakers– they accept requests from patients and then match them to pilots who have volunteered. They coordinate transport but that’s it; the actual legwork of getting the patient from point A to point B is handled by the volunteers.

Even before getting my pilot’s license, I knew that these organizations existed, and as soon as I got my license I wanted to start flying these missions. They typically require 250 hours of pilot-in-command time and an instrument rating, so it wasn’t until late 2014 that I met the requirements, so I registered with Angel Flight Soars and then… well, I just never got around to it somehow. I signed up for one mission that had to be aborted due to weather, but that was as close as I came.

Angel Flight Soars maintains a list of missions that you can look at at any time, but their coordinator (hi, Bernadette!) will sometimes send out email looking for volunteers. This usually happens when they have confirmed pilots for some, but not, all of the legs of a multi-leg trip. Last Wednesday, I got an email saying that a volunteer was needed to ferry a two-year-old boy named Dawson from Enterprise, Alabama to Aiken, South Carolina. Angel Flight had already booked three additional legs to get Dawson from Aiken to Boston, where he was scheduled to have life-saving heart surgery… but if they couldn’t find a pilot for the Saturday Enterprise-Aiken leg, his family would face the exhausting 21-hour drive from south Alabama to Boston. The timing looked good; the airplane was up, I had a free day, and Matt was going to be at work, so I signed up and started planning my flights. I’d planned an 0730 departure, with roughly a 90-minute flight to Enterprise, a two-hour leg to Aiken, and then home.Angel Flight Soars had sent me a roster with all the information about the passengers and the ongoing flight legs. Dawson would be traveling with bottled oxygen, an oxygen concentrator, and a car seat, plus his two parents– around 500lbs of people and gear all told, well within the capability of my airplane. I called Dawson’s dad and the pilot I was meeting in Aiken to coordinate and give them my estimated arrival and flight times, then called North Alabama Aviation to ask them to fuel the plane and get it on the flight line. The weather was forecast to be clear and sunny, with an AIRMET Tango for moderate low-level turbulence.

This last is worth a bit more explanation– AIRMETs define a polygon (usually really weirdly shaped) within which the forecast conditions may occur. Think of a tornado or hurricane watch– an AIRMET Tango means that there may be moderate turbulence within the area, not that there will be. Most of the time, this turbulence is at lower levels and is stronger closer to ridges, mountains, and so on; I didn’t think it would be an obstacle for this flight.

Saturday morning, all ready to go, I got to the airport and sad reality intruded: the FBO hadn’t pulled out the plane, and they didn’t open until 8a on Saturdays, so I was late leaving. Once I was up, this is what it looked like.

it’s triangle time!

The flight to Enterprise was perfectly smooth with about a 30kt tailwind– always welcome. That cut my time to Enterprise down by a good margin and helped make up somewhat for my late departure.

yay tailwind!

The Enterprise airport had the lowest fuel price of any of my stops, so I wanted to fill the plane there– that would minimize the overall cost. I filled the plane and met Dawson and his family inside, had them fill out the required waiver, and then started moving the show outdoors to load the plane. It was disconcerting to see such a small child with a nasal cannula and an oxygen supply– it really drove home his need for safe and efficient transport to his surgery. Honestly it was a bit daunting; normally I’m traveling somewhere for fun, and a delay or interruption is much less critical.

The biggest bag went in the nose baggage compartment; two small oxygen cylinders and two smaller duffel bags behind the rear seat, then Dawson (in his car seat) and his mom in the back row and his dad up front with me. Dawson was surprisingly cheerful throughout the whole process.

Takeoff was normal; it was a little bumpy until we got above about 4000′, then smoothed out nicely. Dawson fell asleep probably 30 minutes into the flight, and the rest of us enjoyed a quiet and sunny trip and an easy approach into Aiken.

Napping makes the trip go faster

The airport there is quite nice, and obviously targeted at corporate customers who come into town for the Masters Tournament at Augusta. I didn’t take a picture, but one area of the FBO is all done in what I imagine the designer thought of as an English dinner club, with tons of dark wood, a 12′ tall fireplace, and so on. Like most other FBOs, the one in Aiken offers a fuel discount for Angel Flight missions, which I happily took advantage of– but even though there wasn’t a discount at Enterprise, fuel there was still cheaper than at Aiken with the discount. That 12′ fireplace wasn’t free, you know.

At Aiken, we met Mr. Dale, the gentleman who was going to take Dawson on the next leg of his trip. We visited briefly, paused for a group prayer, and loaded up Dale’s Cessna 182 with all the gear. While I paid my fuel bill, they strapped in and taxied off, northbound on the next part of the trip; I then loaded up and flew home, enjoying the sunshine and pondering my good fortune.

It was a moving experience all around– I received a very nice thank-you note from the family, but more than that I was able to contribute in some small way to helping a gravely ill child, while at the same time indulging in an activity I love.

Summary: I’ve already signed up for two on-call missions to fly transplant patients (one from Pensacola to Birmingham, one from Decatur to Atlanta), and I’ll keep the plane gassed up and my flight bag packed… just in case.

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2018 in review: the flying

Another quality year of flying: 88.2 total hours, all in familiar aircraft (and almost all in good ol’ 706) and mostly to familiar places. Highlights included:

    • Two alternator belt failures, including one on Shawna’s first-ever airplane flight
    • Another trip to Ohio to see the Blue Angels at the Cleveland National Air Show
    • My first trip inside the DC SFRA
    • A leisurely sightseeing loop around metro Nashville with David Dellanave
  • Another leisurely sightseeing loop around Orlando with a plane full of my Quadrotech coworkers
  • My first real encounter with airborne icing and my first real “I-can’t-see-the-runway” missed approach, both on the same (excellent) trip to the Marine Corps Marathon
  • Taking a good friend to see her dad on his deathbed– it was a long, quiet flight back home

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2017 in review: flying

2017 was a moderately busy flying year: I got to 670 TT, with 100.5 PIC hours this year. 8.9 hours of night time and 12.6 actual instrument.

My flights in 2017

Highlights for the year included flying to Charleston to see my family just before the eclipse; discovering how birds build nests while flying my team to American Odyssey; taking my friends Tony and Alan on sightseeing flights over Orlando at sunset, having two in-flight alternator belt failures, taking my mom for her first flight in the plane, and sneaking over for a quick day trip to Atlanta to see one of my oldest friends for lunch– all things that would have been impossible without an airplane.

At the end of 2016 one of my 2017 goals was to get my commercial license. That’s still on my list for this year, along with getting to the big Oshkosh airshow, a long cross-country trip to Vegas, and logging as much time going interesting places as I can. Here’s to a flying year!

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Flying Friday: briefs

Recently I was on a work trip to the West Coast. While there, I had a customer meeting at the headquarters of a large utility company. I was a little surprised when the meeting began to see it open with our hostess saying “For this meeting, I’ll be the safety leader. In case of an earthquake, we’ll all duck under the table, cover, and hold. In case of fire…” She then went on to enumerate what we were all supposed to do in each of a variety of different emergencies: fire, active shooter, medical emergency, and so on. This was accompanied by her updating the small, permanently mounted whiteboard on the wall that listed who was responsible for handling each of these emergencies.

While it seemed really odd at the time, it fit in well with the many other safety posters we saw on the walls of this company’s HQ. They were clearly invested in improving their safety culture. Even though it might have seemed silly to brief what we were going to do in case of an earthquake (I’d already be under the table, crying like a toddler) or whatever, I could easily imagine these briefings taking place in every meeting in that building. Despite the inevitable eye-rolling, I believe that would help normalize safety, and safety planning, as an ordinary part of every activity at the company– which is exactly what they’re trying to do.

This same idea applies to general aviation. There are four times when briefings are a routine and normal part of our activities.

First, there’s getting a weather briefing, whether from a human or through a website or app. There’s a standardized flow and format for these briefings to make sure that all the needed information is communicated efficiently and concisely. FAR 91.103 requires pilots to obtain “all available information” concerning flights and that absolutely, positively includes weather information. Even if it weren’t legally required, as a simple matter of self-preservation, you’d be stupid not to get a thorough briefing and take the time to think through what you’ve been briefed on. The rate of change of the weather may be a surprise, but the fact of its change never should be.

Second, there’s the passenger briefing. The FAA private and commercial pilot practical test standards require the applicant to show how to give a passenger safety briefing. This can be elaborate, or it can be simple. For first-time fliers in my plane, I always thoroughly brief them on a few key points: how to open and latch the doors, how the seatbelts work, where the fire extinguisher is, and when I need them to be quiet. I also encourage them to ask questions about things they see, hear, feel, or smell, and to look outside and tell me if they see anything interesting (especially other airplanes). This is a low-key way to have them acting as extra eyes and ears.

Third, there’s the IFR approach procedure. The advent of fancy GPS systems (and coupled autopilots, may their names be blessed) means that some pilots are tempted to let the box do the work. Complacency is how you get AA 965, which killed 159 people and spawned the semi-famous talk “Children of Magenta.” I always read the approach procedure out loud, whether I’m flying by myself or not. Verbalizing each of the waypoints, crossing altitudes, and course changes is a great way both to prime myself for the approach but also to cross-check what I see on the approach plate with what’s loaded into the GPS. For example, for the RNAV 17 into Montpelier, Vermont (shown below), I’d read it back as “Cross REGGI at 6000, turn 168, cross JIPDO at 5000, cross ZAXOL at 4200, above 2980 cross WANUX”.

RNAV 17 into KMPV

The little inset in the upper-right corner of the diagram above is the missed approach procedure. It has a separate textual description elsewhere on the approach plate, and I always read it out too. This is what I’d do if I got down to minimums on the approach above and found that I couldn’t see the runway– I’d fly the missed approach (a straight-ahead climb, followed by a climbing turn to the Montpelier VOR and a course hold there).

Going missed? Here’s how

There are other types of briefings that are common in other parts of the aviation world. For example, military preflight briefings include information about tactical stuff that doesn’t apply to me, and airlines often have maintenance handover briefings when a flight crew picks up a jet for their leg. For me, though, the four types above cover everything needed for a safe and efficient flight… except what to do in case of an earthquake, and I’ll try to figure out how to work that in later.

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Flying Friday: how’d that dead bird get there?

Today I was listening to LiveATC, as is my habit, when I heard a Delta flight call in that they’d hit a bird. This isn’t uncommon. The FAA spends a lot of time and effort trying to keep airplanes from hitting birds. However, birds being birds, they don’t cooperate very well.

While it might seem ridiculous that a small bird can damage a large turbojet aircraft. not every collision is so mismatched. If you get a goose in your #1 engine, or a duck through your windshield, you’re going to have a bad day. The Delta flight didn’t have any damage so they went on their way, and the airport dispatched a truck to remove the carcass. Meanwhile, they warned other incoming aircraft. Why? Because any foreign object (including a dead bird) on the runway poses a hazard. Foreign object damage (or FOD) is what caused the 2000 crash of a departing Concorde in Paris, killing 113 people. More commonly, small pieces of FOD can be sucked into air intakes, pop tires, or cause other sorts of mischief.

Happily, the airport truck removed the bird carcass (it was a small hawk) and along the way, rescued a turtle who had blundered onto a taxiway. Score! The Delta flight landed safely, normal traffic was restored, and all was once again well at Huntsville International.

One thing I learned: the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) specifies that pilots should file an FAA Form 5200-7 to report any wildlife strike. They gather this data in a database, which offers hours of fun if you want to e.g. see how many times airplanes have hit alligators in Florida or raccoons in Missouri. I knew about the database, but not the reporting recommendation. The more you know…

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Flying Friday: happy birthday, N32706!

Three years ago this week, John Blevins and I flew Delta to Salt Lake City to pick up N32706 and fly her home. I was perusing my logbook earlier in the week and realized that more than half of my total flying time (318 hours of my total 611) has been sitting in the left seat of this particular airplane. I’ve traveled for races/events (DC, Vermont, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia), family visits (Louisiana, Florida), business (Toronto, Missouri, Kentucky), and fun with the kids (Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee), and flight training (Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska).

where I’ve been in years 1-3

There are times when I think it’s silly to own an airplane instead of renting– like a horse or a boat, you’re always paying the maintenance and fixed costs even on days when the weather is bad, you’re busy, and so on. But the freedom and flexibility of being able to travel where and when I want to, and the comfort of knowing that I’m flying a well-maintained, well-equipped airplane that hasn’t been neglected or operated improperly, more than make up for it.

My next trip is later today, from Decatur to Orlando (well, Kissimmee) for a weightlifting meet. Later in the year, I’ve got Tuscaloosa, Biloxi, New Orleans, and a few other places on my to-go list. I can’t wait!

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