Category Archives: aviation

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

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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Watch out for bird nests

I recently had a really interesting cross-country trip. It featured virgins, dirt, avian invaders, and tractors.

Some local friends talked me into running the American Odyssey relay race: just under 200 miles from Gettysburg to Washington, DC, over two days. (Look for a race report in the near future.) Some of my teammates were flying commercial, and some were driving, but I found three hardy souls who volunteered to go with me. Jim’s a Navy officer who’s used to airplanes of all sizes, but neither Rese nor Melissa had flown in a small airplane before… so they’re the virgins in this story.

I’d planned to fly from Decatur to New River (PSK), fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then fly into College Park, MD (CGS). This would allow me to use my fancy secret code to fly into the Washington DC ring of restricted airspace. However, because we were staying in Harpers Ferry, it didn’t make sense to fly 60+ miles to the east just so we could have extra drive time going back to Harpers Ferry. I decided to go into Martinsburg (MRB) instead to avoid the extra driving.

We departed on schedule, with about 1500′ ceilings leaving Decatur. A front was on its way so my goal was to get us to our destination before the weather got bad. We benefited from an epic tailwind– my normal cruise speed is about 135kts but I was seeing over 200kts for a good part of the first leg.

208!

Unfortunately, with wind comes bumps.. so one of our crew (I’m not saying who) needed to use a barf bag. No major damage, thankfully, either to the victim or the airplane. Apart from that, the rest of the flight was uneventful– a quick stop at PSK for fuel and diet Coke and we were on our way. Potomac Approach made me fly the RNAV 26 approach even though the weather was VFR. Martinsburg is home to the 167th Airlift Wing, so there were a bunch of big gray C-17s on the ramp. Always a fun sight.

Aero-Smith, the local FBO, had prearranged a rental van. It was waiting, so we loaded up and off we went. The next couple days were a blur– I had a fantastic time at the race. All too soon, though, it was time to head back home, so I planned our flight to follow roughly the same route. While the big front had passed through, we were still forecast to have 20+ knots of headwind, so I tried to choose a more southerly route to reduce the wind penalty (spoiler: that didn’t work). I’d planned the first leg from Martinsburg to Ashe County, NC, then home.

We got to Martinsburg safely and turned in the van. The FBO lineman offered me a box of rubber gloves. “We saw a lot of birds on your airplane,” he said. “There’s probably some poop on it.” I’ll take “things you don’t want to hear at the airport” for $200, Alex!

I walked out to the plane, which they’d parked on the far edge of the (empty) parking area. I saw a few poop spots and used a gloved hand to remove them. Now, this next part is relevant: I usually start my walkaround by turning on the master switch, existing the forward passenger door, and walking back down the right side of the plane, around the tail, and up the left side– finishing at the engine. That’s what I did… except that when I got to the engine, I noticed what looked like a few pieces of grass sticking out. That certainly wasn’t there when I parked the plane, so I poked a flashlight into the front of the cowling and was surprised to see some more grass.

That led me to remove the upper cowling, whereupon I found this (click it to see the detail).

Bird attack!

Yep. In two and a half days, the forces of evil invaded my cowling and built two large, flammable nests. I started pulling out handfuls of grass and twigs, and the other three came to help. All this action attracted the attention of the FBO staff, and they brought us a handheld leaf blower.

Now, a brief note. Air-cooled piston airplane engines work on a principle called pressure cooling. Baffles inside the cowling drive airflow from top to bottom, not back to front, to cool the cylinders. When you look at the picture above, what you can’t see is that there are only a few small openings under the top deck for air to flow down– making it very difficult to get all the bird debris out with a leaf blower. We ended up having to spend 30 minutes or so picking little sticks and blades of grass out of the engine compartment. Here are Rese and Jim doing just that:

cleaning the bird damage

Once that was finally done, I wanted to run the engine with the cowling off, whereupon I discovered a failed cell in the battery.. so the plane wouldn’t start. This was not popular with my passengers. Or with me, for that matter.

The FBO staff was very reluctant to help start the plane. They claimed not to have a ground power unit, but I eventually talked them into bringing their tow tractor out so I could use my jumper cable. The problem with this cable is that after the plane starts, you have to unplug it, and the FBO guys didn’t want to do it “for liability reasons.” Thankfully Jim wasn’t a big baby like they were, and he volunteered to pull the cable after engine start. We deployed the tractor, got everything hooked up, and the engine immediately started up.

Getting ready to tractor-start

Once we got up to altitude, we got a 1-2 punch from the headwinds: it was bumpy, and we were only making about 105kts over the ground– so less than half of our groundspeed on the way out. After a little fiddling, I got permission to climb from 8000′ to 10000′; as we slowly climbed, we got bounced around quite a bit. To make things worse, the wind was even stronger at 10000′, so we went back down to 8000. It was a steady parade of mountain waves, something I hadn’t spent any time dealing with before. Frankly I didn’t much care for them.

As we got closer to GEV, the wind diminished a bit, although not enough to give us any appreciable speed increase. The Ashe County airport sits at about 3000′ above sea level, and the airport description helpfully notes “RISING TERRAIN ALL QUADRANTS,” so flying in means dealing with shifting winds funneled in various directions by the surrounding terrain. Despite the wind, I stuck the landing, and we were well and cheerfully served by the airport manager, who coaxed the balky full-service pump into working long enough to fill the tanks. I’d happily stop there again. (Note that KGEV has no AT&T cell service and no diet Coke in the soda machine, so plan accordingly.)

There was a good-sized line of storms stretching from south to north moving through Mississippi when we left. Our original plan was to get home before it arrived, but due to our de-birding time, there was no way we were going to make that. As we flew, it became clear that the headwinds were going to prevent us from making our alternate at Winchester, so I decided to stop in Chattanooga, which has rental cars, nearby hotels, and food.. just in case. We landed and found the ramp crowded with more expensive airplanes that had obviously stopped for the weather as well. Luckily the FBO had one crew car remaining, so we headed out to look for dinner and wait for the storm to pass. The city got roughly 1/4″ of rain in the hour we were at dinner, but it had tapered off to a light drizzle by the time we got ready to depart. I pored over the radar and it looked decent if we flew a little to the northwest, more towards Winchester, and then turned south, so that is what I planned for.

Once airborne, I quickly saw that the radar depictions didn’t give the full picture– they showed rain, all right, but the clouds were well above our altitude, so for most of the flight we flew through falling rain but still had decent visibility. The picture below shows what the radar depicted (they’re different, but that’s a topic for another post). After an uneventful trip, with mostly smooth air, we landed at Decatur, packed up, and headed home.

Which one’s right?

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