Category Archives: aviation

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

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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