Category Archives: aviation

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

Flying Friday: smorgasboard

I’d be remiss if I didn’t post on National Aviation Day but I’ve been too busy to fly much lately. With luck I’ll get a few hours in this weekend though. Instead of a “real” article, enjoy this list of sentence fragments:

  • My cousin Steven, an aircraft mechanic, likes to point out that the Wright Brothers would have been grounded without Charlie Taylor. If you don’t know who he is, I strongly recommend reading McCullough’s biography of the brothers, which is superb in every way.
  • I’ve been playing with Seattle AvionicsFlyQ app. It definitely has some good points compared to ForeFlight; it will be hard to tell how it stacks up overall until I’ve used it more.
  • Michael Bauer just released a book on how to fly Avidyne’s IFD series of panel-mount GPS devices. It’s in my queue.
  • Want to fly left seat in heavy turbojet equipment? Maybe you should move to China.
  • The recent crash of a Piper Navajo in Tuscaloosa has fired up the speculation engine around these parts. I am glad that we have the NTSB, whose investigations are the undisputed gold standard for all sorts of transportation mishaps. I look forward to seeing the results of their investigation. Meanwhile, I’ll keep asking “what could I learn from that?”
  • Nflightcam still hasn’t sent the replacement audio adapter they promised me on July 8th.

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Flying Friday: O Canada! (KDCU-CYTZ and back)

Summary: fantastic trip with good weather; I enjoyed my first venture into Canadian airspace (which is operated and managed very similarly to US airspace, with a few procedural and vocabulary differences that perhaps will make for a good post later). Bishop Toronto City is a fantastic airport with lovely scenery; Toronto is worth another, more leisurely visit; and you should always pay careful attention to customs regulations.

When my boss told me that I needed to be at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference this year, I was excited, mostly because we were planning on demoing a cool new product to partners, but also because I hadn’t been to Toronto since a 7th-grade church choir trip. On that trip, we took Amtrak from New Orleans to Buffalo, an adventure in itself; this time I planned to fly.

I started by researching the requirements to fly into Canada. AOPA’s list covers it all. I ordered the required Customs & Border Protection sticker, and I already had the required FCC radio station license and a valid passport. I had a bit of a quandary when it came to navigation charts: the Jeppesen charts required for the IFD540 are quite expensive, but the 540 goes completely stupid north of the border without them. I decided instead to add Canada coverage in Foreflight, which would give me georeferenced charts and approach plates, plus airport and frequency information– but on my iPad, not on the panel. With that done, a week or so before the trip I started watching the forecast, checking fuel prices, etc. Because the convention was at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC), the nearest airport was the extremely cool-looking Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which is on an island in Lake Ontario. (Fun fact: you must either use a submarine tunnel or a ferry to get between the airport and the mainland, where the taxis etc are.)

I’d planned to fly from Decatur to New Philadelphia, Ohio (Clever Field, whose airport ID is PHD.. lol) for fuel, then overfly Erie, PA, then cross the lakes and land just before sunset, with a planned departure about 3p local. I may have failed to mention that I was running an Olympic triathlon that morning, but luckily I hit the airport on time and got en route as planned. Unfortunately, over Kentucky I developed a problem, or, rather, the airplane did: the oil filler door on the engine cowling popped open. It’s  hinged at the front (towards the propeller) so the slipstream was keeping it from opening fully, but it was flapping in the breeze and that made me nervous. I diverted to Somerset (KSME), latched it, and took off– only to have it pop open again.

After landing again, I discovered the problem: the spring that holds the latch button in place no longer generated enough force to keep the door latched. I borrowed some safety wire and pliers from the FBO, wired the door shut, and took off again– but that cost me some time I couldn’t afford to lose.

Once airborne again, I took a close look at the IFD540 to see what my fuel state looked like. The outer green ring represents the maximum range at the current fuel burn, while the inner dashed green circle shows range with the FAA-required reserve. Since my planned fuel stop was comfortably within the reserve ring, I knew I’d have enough fuel to get there or to Erie if needed– very comforting. The range ring is one of my favorite features in the IFD540 because it greatly reduces guesswork: either you have enough fuel, given the current conditions of wind and fuel burn, or you don’t, and this makes it easy to see which.

The fuel range ring is your friend

The fuel range ring is your friend

I landed as planned at KPHD, fueled up, and quickly called Porter, the FBO at Toronto City, to verify what time they closed. “10:30pm” was the answer, so I figured that would leave me enough time to get there just before they closed. This pleasant fantasy remained in my mind, with accompanying scenery…

…until about 9:50pm, when I was overflying the outskirts of Erie with about an hour to go. The city lights were gorgeous, there was a quarter moon, and I could see the dark lake water ahead when I called Porter again to advise my new arrival time of 1115p. (Thanks to the Bluetooth mode of the AMX240 audio panel, I can make in flight calls on my cell phone, provided I have cell service.) Their reply, paraphrased: no thanks, customs won’t allow arrivals after 11pm. I called Erie Approach, got vectors to the airport, landed, and headed for the local Comfort Inn.

After a decent night’s sleep, I fired up the engine and headed north. I’d filed for direct CYTZ, and that’s what I got. Before going to bed, I’d updated both my eAPIS and CANPASS border crossing permissions– the former signaling my departure from the US and the latter requesting permission to cross into Canada. More on that later.

Sunrise + water = awesome

Sun + water = awesome

The first leg of the flight was uneventful, until I wanted to go direct LINNG at ATC’s instructions. The IFD540 didn’t have that waypoint, so I looked it up in Foreflight. That went fine– it was listed with normal degrees/minutes/seconds latitude/longitude, so I plugged it in as a user waypoint, then added the airport’s lat/long and created a route. I did notice one discrepancy: Foreflight defaults to decimal notation, which the IFD540 doesn’t accept. (Since the Nav Canada plate showed the notation I could use, I just went with it, but this will become important later.) The rest of the flight was flawless and beautiful– for example, check out this picture as I overflew the Long Point wildlife area.


Long Point National Wildlife Area

The weather was flawless, so I was expecting the visual approach to CYTZ, and sure enough, that’s what I was assigned. There was a significant volume of traffic going into the airport, as befits its status as Porter’s main hub, so I got vectored around a bit between a series of DHC-8s. This eventually led to a go-around for spacing, as the controller wasn’t able to slow the following DHC-8 down enough to keep me from becoming a hood ornament. The good news is that I was able to get some fantastic pictures of the Toronto skyline:

Beautiful Toronto

Beautiful Toronto

More beautiful Toronto

More beautiful Toronto

I made a great landing, taxied in to Porter, and called the CANPASS number. After a brief wait, they gave me a reference number (which I duly wrote down) and I was free to exit the airplane and go about my business. So I did.

Here’s where I’d describe all the other stuff I did in Toronto at WPC16, but since this is a Flying Friday post, let’s cut to the flight home… well, OK, maybe one picture first, this one looking towards the airport from the observation deck of the CN Tower.

CYTZ and the National Yacht Club

CYTZ and the National Yacht Club

I’d planned for a 1330 departure on Wednesday, and I arrived right on schedule, but hungry. I had filed CYTZ-KCAK, with a plan to continue on to Jamestown, Kentucky (K24) for fuel, then home. Since I didn’t have any Canadian cash, I skipped buying food at the airport, reasoning that I could eat when I stopped for customers in Akron, Ohio. I picked up my clearance and found a bit of an unpleasant surprise: I was given the OAKVL.1 departure, which referenced the OAKVL intersection, whose lat/long I couldn’t put into the IFD because it was only shown in decimal notation. Since I knew its approximate location and the heading to fly to get there, and because I had Foreflight plates showing me obstacles and terrain, this wasn’t a big deal. I looked at the departure plate but it didn’t give any coordinates at all for OAKVL, so I manually created a waypoint and off I went.

(Brief digression: in the US, waypoints that are used as part of a standard instrument departure (SID) procedure are supposed to be listed on the SID chart. In this case, OAKVL was shown, but its coordinates weren’t. I later learned that the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS) manual has a list of all the enroute waypoints and their coordinates, but not waypoints that are only used for departure procedures. I would have needed to look at the “OAKVL ONE DEP (OAKVL1) DEPARTURE ROUTING” chart. Unlike US charts, in Canada the departure routing is a separate page that’s not included as part of the SID chart. I also learned, later, that Foreflight can toggle its display format (look at More > Settings Units > Time)  to match what the IFD can accept, which would have solved my problem.)

What I did while waiting for my IFR clearance

What I did while waiting for my IFR clearance

In any event, I found OAKVL and was cleared to continue on to Akron/Canton, my planned US port of entry. I had filled out an eAPIS manifest, but I didn’t call Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to advise them of my arrival time. As a result, when I landed at CAK, ground instructed me to taxi to the “penalty box” in front of customs, but no one was there, and it took a few minutes to find an agent. When he got there, I had a brief but thorough customs inspection, during which I learned that I’d made a serious error: you must call US CBP at the port of entry you plan to use, in advance, and advise them of your ETA. 

Somehow I missed that in the AOPA checklist. I mistakenly thought that filing an IFR flight plan and filing an eAPIS manifest was sufficient, but no. The agent who cleared me in was firm on that point and cited me. Now I have to wait to see if they assess a fine for the infraction– not my favorite. I had joked with friends that I’d have about 800lbs of usable weight to bring back stuff from Canada– suggestions included Cuban cigars and Timbits. Thankfully I resisted the temptation.

Anyway, after I sweated my way out of CBP, I refueled and bought a soda at the FBO, but their snack machine was out of order. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll eat when I stop at Jamestown.” I waited for this guy to arrive and clear…

Hold short for landing traffic

Hold short for landing traffic

…then took off, found a protein bar in my flight bag to tide me over, and off I went. When I arrived at Jamestown, I was crushed to find only a single empty, dusty vending machine with nothing edible nearby (except maybe some dead bugs). I fueled the plane, took off, and let the reassuring noise of the big IO540 up front drown out my stomach’s complaints. After an uneventful flight, I landed at home base, transferred all my junk to the car, went home, and slayed an entire Domino’s pizza while catching up on Game of Thrones— a good ending to a long but fruitful day.



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nFlightCam vs Squawk Shoppe cockpit audio adapters

First I bought this adapter from nFlightCam. It didn’t work properly— my phone didn’t recognize that it had a mic plugged in so all I got was loud propeller noise. After testing it, I sent three mails to nFlightcam customer support (since they don’t have a phone number) and got no response. 

Then I ordered this adapter from Squawk Shoppe. Immediately after placing an order, they offered to connect me with their Facebook bot for order status, which worked flawlessly. I got the adapter when promised and it worked perfectly.

Then, just before a cross-country plane trip, nFlightCam answered my support email and offered to send me a replacement. That was 13 days ago and, you guessed it, no replacement has arrived.

Executive summary: don’t buy anything from nFlightcam; despite their heavy advertising, their customer support is slow and unresponsive and (at least for me) their build quality suspect. I see from reddit that other users have been happy with their products so YMMV.

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When to declare an in-flight emergency 

From Thomas Turner’s excellent FLYING LESSONS newsletter, here is a simple guideline for knowing when you should contact ATC to declare an emergency. 

Should I declare an emergency?

If I’m:

  • Performing a task or procedure from the Emergency Procedures section of the Pilot’s Operating Handbook or Airplane Flight Manual;
  • Violating or in danger of violating an airplane Limitation;
  • Violating or in danger of violating a Federal Air Regulation (or international equivalent) with no way to rectify the situation; and/or
  • The safe outcome of the flight is in any way in doubt;

then I should declare an emergency. There is no question; it is not a judgment call. Get the help you need right away.

Clear, simple, and memorable. 

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Appareo Stratus and planned obsolescence

Back in September 2013, I bought an Appareo Stratus from Sporty’s Pilot Shop. I thought it was expensive, but getting in-cockpit weather and ADS-B traffic data, displayed conveniently on my iPad, was highly valuable. I have used it on almost every flight I’ve made since and it’s proven its value multiple times— being able to see weather while in flight is a huge safety benefit.

Recently I noticed that it was running out of battery unusually fast. Even if I left it plugged in overnight, it would only run for a few minutes when unplugged. I sent Sporty’s customer service an email asking about repair cost. Here’s what they said:

I am sorry, but we are unable to repair the Stratus 1.

We are able to offer $100 off the purchase of a Stratus 1S or 2S.

This is infuriating. The device is not even 3 years old yet, and the manufacturer won’t even attempt to repair it. Offering to let me pay $449 ($549 for a Stratus 1S minus the $100 credit) to get a device that, when it dies, likely will suffer the same non-support is a complete non-starter. I don’t expect a $50 consumer device to have lifelong support, but an $800 aviation device is a completely different story.

So, no thanks, Sporty’s. I’ll keep my money and build a Stratux instead. If this is the level of support I can expect, I might as well save a few bucks and do it my damn self. And when my Foreflight subscription expires, I’ll have to give serious thought to whether I want to continue to support them given their interlocking relationship with Appareo and Sporty’s. Meanwhile, time to take apart the Stratus and see about replacing its battery pack.

(n.b. the avionics stack in our plane has ADS-B weather and traffic, and it will soon be able to push those to the iPad over wifi. However, when I fly rentals or in other peoples’ planes, having a portable device is still a big winner, as is having the redundancy of a second ADS-B receiver just in case… so although I don’t have a single-point dependency on the Stratus I’ll still replace it).


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On currency

True fact that sometimes shocks people when I share it: a pilot certificate never expires.

Sure, it can be revoked by the FAA if you do something stupid. I suppose you could ask the FAA to cancel it for you, sort of like resigning from a church. But once you obtain the certificate, it’s yours forever, even if you stop using it.

However, in order to legally exercise the privileges granted by that certificate, you need (at least) two things. First, you need a valid medical exam (a worthy topic for a future post). The type of exam you need varies according to the certificate, and the frequency at which you must have it varies both by the type of exam and your age.

Second, you need to be current. This is an interesting word. The FAA doesn’t say you have to be “proficient,” just “current.” What does that even mean? Glad you asked. To be legally current as a private pilot, you must have completed a biennial flight review within the preceding 24 months. That’s it. There’s no set structure for the BFR, other than that it must consist of one hour of ground training and an hour of flight. There’s no set syllabus or standard, as there is with almost every other type of flight training activity. The FAA’s guide to conducting BFRs likens the BFR to a checkup, where each individual doctor is supposed to tailor the specifics of the checkup to a specific patient. Many organizations, such as the Redstone flying activity, specify what they consider the minimum coverage for the BFR to be in order to use their airplanes, but that’s not mandatory.

The currency structure changes a bit if you want to fly under specified circumstances. To carry passengers, you also need 3 landings within the previous 90 days– so you can’t just get a BFR after being inactive, then load up your plane with your friends and head out. To fly with passengers at night, you need 3 landings to a full stop, at night, within the previous 90 days. To fly in instrument conditions, you need 6 instrument approaches (including course tracking and holds) within the preceding six months.

The purpose of these currency requirements is to force recency and proficiency. The idea is that if you fly regularly, you will stay proficient. If you don’t fly regularly, you need to regain currency before you can fly with passengers, thus forcing you to regain proficiency. However, the way the regs are written, you can not fly for 20 years, jump in an airplane and have a de minimus BFR, then do 3 laps around the traffic pattern to get your landings in and then immediately start flying with passengers. That might be legal, but it wouldn’t be either smart or safe.

One approach to keep proficiency is just to fly enough to stay current. If you never let your currency elapse, the theory goes, then you’ll be getting enough air time to stay proficient. This isn’t true for everyone; I know that after I’ve been away from the plane for longer than a few weeks, some skills need sharpening on my next flights. This is especially true for instrument flying, and even more so when you have an unfamiliar airplane, new avionics, and the like.

Last night, I went on a currency flight. I had lost my night currency and needed a couple of instrument approaches to keep my instrument currency. In order to log an instrument approach, you either need to fly in IMC or with view limiting devices, which means you need a safety pilot. Since I am super safety minded, I brought two (hi, Alex! hi, Greg!) Interestingly, when you are not current, you can’t take passengers with you, but you can take safety pilots and/or instructors. Anyway…

After a perfectly normal preflight, runup, and takeoff, we were in the air about 810pm, just over an hour after sunset. According to the FAA, that’s when night starts. The plan was to do an LPV approach at Huntsville Executive, an ILS at Huntsville International, and then another LPV at Decatur, landing at each. That would give me 3 night takeoffs and landings, plus three instrument approaches and a procedure turn (which counts as a hold for purposes of maintaining IFR currency).

Before takeoff, I programmed the IFD540 with the airports, but didn’t load the approaches. Once airborne and talking to Huntsville departure, I asked for the RNAV 36 at MDQ, got the clearance, and programmed the box, then engaged the AP. It flew us to the procedure turn, through the turn, and on course flawlessly. I had the AP in HDG mode, the GPSS in GPS mode, and all was fine. Inbound to the FAF, I armed the GS mode on the PSS, and shortly thereafter found that the AP had turned me about 30° to the right of course. I don’t know if it was the GPS or the AP, but I disconnected the AP and manually flew the missed procedure. This was a great illustration of why currency matters– with new avionics, I’m still learning how to set up and program approaches, and it’s a hell of a lot smarter to get that practice with two other pilots on board, in good weather, than to try to figure it out in the midst of an actual IMC approach.

For the second approach, I got vectors towards HSV for the ILS to runway 36R; the controller  put me between the ENIKY and UJOTY intersections, so all I had to do was turn inbound and intercept the localizer. I manually tuned the localizer frequency on NAV2, used the FREQ button to tune it for NAV1, and verified that I saw “GPS->VLOC” on the display– that’s the signal that the GPS is aware that I want to transition from GPS-derived guidance to guidance signals from the ground-based localizer and glideslope. I armed GS mode on the PSS just after the final approach fix (FAF); the localizer and GS both came in normally and the AP flew a flawlessly coupled approach down to about 1000’, when I disconnected and hand flew the rest. That was full-stop night landing #1. Because Huntsville has such long runways, I was able to land, stop, and take off again on the same runway, which is always nice.

On takeoff, I asked for vectors to the RNAV 36 at DCU and got them. This time, I wanted to check my proficiency at hand-flying the approach. I hand flew the climb, cruise, and approach, using the GPS only for reference, down to about 1300’ AGL and then landed (night landing #2) and a back-taxi, followed by 1 lap of the pattern and a visual landing for #3. Having the advisory glideslope on the approach was nice since DCU doesn’t have VASI or PAPI lights to indicate whether you’re on the right glidepath.

All in all, a good night; I am once again legally night current and have extended my instrument currency.  I still want to fly some fully coupled LPV approaches to make sure I understand the buttonology but my knowledge of the IFD540 is definitely coming along. Thanks to the latest Foreflight app update, Greg, Alex, and I were all getting GPS position and flight plan data from the IFD540 streamed to our iPads, which was cool. We also saw active weather and traffic on the IFD, which I loooooove. Avidyne announced last night that they’re about to start streaming traffic data to Foreflight as well, which will be really nice. Now to get ready to fly to KNEW in two weeks for my race!


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First impressions: flying the Avidyne IFD540

cShort version: The transplant was a success and the patient made it home.

Now, the longer version.

I originally dropped the plane off on 31 December at Sarasota Avionics at Tampa Executive (KVDF). The plan was to have the plane ready by late January. That didn’t happen. When I went to pick the plane up on February 10th, it wasn’t ready as promised: the GPS steering steered the plane in the opposite direction as commanded, the interconnection between the new GPS and our engine monitor didn’t work, and the plane failed its initial FAA ADS-B Out automated compliance report (ACR) check. I was really unhappy, flew back to Huntsville, and started firing off emails to get the problem fixed. Long story short, Kirk Fryar, the co-owner of Sarasota, moved the plane to their Venice location, fixed everything that was wrong, tested the plane thoroughly, and had it ready for me on the 25th. (I note with some irritation that I still haven’t ever had an experience with any aircraft maintenance shop that resulted in the plane being ready when it was promised.)

I met Leonard, Sarasota’s check pilot and flight instructor, at KVDF and we flew the plane down to KVNC, stopping along the way to hand-fly the ILS 32 at KSRQ. It was a windy, bumpy day and ATC was vectoring me all over the place (including nearly to the Gulf ADIZ). I was a little rusty, and it showed. Another thing that showed: the localizer flag on the NAV1 CDI (we’ll call this squawk #1). This little flag is supposed to pop out to indicate that the associated signal is unreliable. It’s definitely not supposed to appear in a brand-new avionics installation, especially not when my secondary nav radio didn’t show the flag. We flew a missed approach and then took the RNAV 5 approach into KVNC. This time I let the autopilot and GPSS fly the approach, which it did flawlessly.

While I barricaded myself in their conference room to get some work done, Kirk investigated the cause of the localizer flag problem. It turned out to be simple, stupid, and Avidyne’s fault. There’s a known compatibility issue between early hardware revisions of the IFD540 and the King KI209A CDI we have. Sarasota sent our original unit back to Avidyne to have the hardware modification installed– we needed mod 14 but, for some unknown reason, we got a unit back that only had mod 11. This means that we have to take the plane back to the shop to swap in the new IFD540 unit when it arrives, which is a hassle… but more on that later.

After a thorough preflight, during which I confirmed that the fuel flow data presented to the IFD540 was intermittent (and that’s squawk #2, but not a huge deal since there’s a workaround: power-cycle both the CGR30P and the IFD540), I took off and picked up my clearance to Grady County. They gave me a route out over the water: direct TABIR, then direct 70J. I plugged it in, climbed out, and engaged GPSS. It flew smoothly to TABIR. There’s a lot going on in the picture below:


  • The magenta line is where I’m going. Note that at the TABIR intersection, the onward path changes to a “candy cane” stripe to indicate the next planned leg. Other legs further on show up as white. This makes it easy to see what the box is planning on doing at all times.
  • The little blue diamonds are other airplanes, with their relative altitude shown and little up or down arrows indicating climbs or descents. The inner dashed ring has a 5nm radius, so I can clearly see where interesting targets are and what they’re doing.
  • The blue flags indicate VMC at those reporting points. this is a bit of a change from Foreflight, which uses little green dots for VMC METARs. However, the FAA specifies the exact symbology and colors that have to be used in certified devices so we’re stuck with those.
  • Just above the “FMS” button you can see a tiny label that says “Rgnl Rdr 9 Min”. That means I have relatively fresh radar data on screen; however, since the sky was completely cloudless when I took the picture, there’s nothing shown.
  • The radio at the bottom of the stack “knows” that 119.275 is the AWOS frequency for Venice. Why? The GNC255 has an onboard frequency database, and now that Sarasota connected it to a GPS position source, it can look up the frequency and aircraft position and use that combination to label who you’re talking to.

There was a stiff (25+kt) headwind and I was burning fuel faster than I liked, so I decided instead to stop at 40J. I landed, took on 62 gallons (meaning I had 20gals left, or a little over an hour’s flying time, in reserve) and set out for home. Along the way, I customized the datablock display– one of the big features of the IFD540 is that you can extensively customize what data is displayed and where it appears, then save that configuration in your own profile. That way Derek and I can each set up things the way we like, then load our own profiles on demand. Here’s what I came up with:

datablocks set up the way I like them

datablocks set up the way I like them

  • The left side top shows me the current communications and navigation frequencies I have tuned. Note that the unit automatically labels the frequency as soon as you tune it. (Not shown is the extremely useful FREQ button, which, when pushed, shows you a list of the frequencies you are most likely to need based on your location and phase of flight).
  • Below the frequency datablocks, I see my destination, distance, and estimated time enroute. I will see fuel remaining on arrival once the fuel flow issue is fixed.
  • The top line shows the current ETA to my destination, my groundspeed, and the current navigation mode. It says “GPS” in this picture, but it could also show other labels depending on whether I have an approach loaded, the type of approach, etc.
  • The right side shows, in order, the destination and distance (which I’ll probably remove), the bearing and distance to the nearest airport, and the track, distance, fuel remaining, and ETE for the next waypoint (that info is shown in magenta, indicating that it’s tied to the current waypoint). Because I am going direct to my destination, this magenta block is the same as the destination data on the left. (You can also see the minimum safe altitude and flight timer, right over the traffic display thumbnail).

On the way home, I decided to do a couple of turns in the hold at the ATHEN intersection. This is normally part of the RNAV 36 approach to Decatur; I didn’t want to fly the whole procedure, but I wanted to see how the IFD540 handled a hold at an arbitrary waypoint. Turns out it’s just about as simple as you can imagine: you pick the waypoint (any one will do: airport, intersection, VOR, whatever), tell the box you want to fly a hold, and then watch it do its stuff. When you want to exit the hold, you sequence the next waypoint as direct and the magic happens. Thanks to GPSS, the plane happily flew the entire hold on its own, including compensating for the winds.

One more squawk: the IFD540 and the other devices are super-bright in their default night modes. I think the dimmer settings are wrong, because the panel light rheostat that controls all the other lighting (including the CGR30p) did nothing to change the brightness of the IFD540, so I had to manually adjust it. All of these squawks will be addressed when we take the plane back to Sarasota’s shop, this time the one in Tullahoma, just a short flight from here. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes or so to swap out the IFD540; fixing the other issues might take a bit longer.

First impressions of using the IFD540 for a cross-country IFR flight:

  • I am very impressed with the display brightness and clarity and the overall build quality of the switches and knobs on all of the hardware.  Being able to switch between items using the left/right rocker switches (labeled “FMS”, “MAP’, and “AUX”) is easy and intuitive. Touch response is fast, and multitouch for panning and zooming worked flawlessly.
  • The UI is responsive and the graphics are clear and readable. The screen seems huge compared to my old KLN94.
  • By default, the combination of land and navigation data presented on the map is cluttered, but it’s easy to declutter.
  • Avidyne brags about their “hybrid touch” interface, in which nearly every action can either be performed directly on the touch screen or by using the knobs and buttons. That  flexibility works very well and was most welcome during my bumpy flight home– aiming precisely at a touchscreen in moderate turbulence can be a challenge.
  • Once you get used to the notion that there are sliding tabs (like the “DATA” tab visible next to the “minimum safe altitude” field in the picture above), it becomes very easy to flip between sets of data, such as the flight plan view when in FMS mode.
  • The location awareness features of the IFD540 are a real time saver. The FREQ button knows what frequencies to present based on where you are, the unit can automatically tune (and ID) the next VOR in your flight path, and so on.
  • Speaking of FMS: flight plan entry, approach management, and so on use a metaphor that’s close to, but still different from, the King/Garmin-style interface that most pilots are used to. It’s like the difference between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese: lots of common vocabulay and idiom, but some very important differences. I’ll have more to say about that once I have more time flying with it and learning the FMS way of doing things. (It’s interesting that Bendix King, whose KSN770 competes with the IFD540, has the same issue in that the KSN77o steals a lot of FMS-style behavior from BK’s jet FMS family.)
  • The top-of-descent (TOD) marker is a really nifty feature; it tells you where to start your descent in order to hit an altitude constraint on the flight path. The audio cue, along with the audio cue for 500′ AGL, are very valuable prompts. I’d love to see Avidyne add an audio prompt indicating when you reached the missed approach point (MAP) for approaches that define them.
  • I think, but have not confirmed, that the IFD540 should be able to drive the STEC PSS so that the autopilot  can follow an LPV-generated glideslope. It will take a little knobology for me to figure out how to set this up, though.
  • There are many things I learned to coax the KLN94 into doing that I don’t yet know how to do on the IFD540, so this learning process will take a little while. On the other hand, there are many, many things that the IFD540 can do that the KLN94 and Garmin GNS-x30 series can’t.

What about the rest of the stack? Well, the transponder just works… not much to say there. It transmits ADS-B Out like it’s supposed to, so I’m delighted. The AMX240 audio panel is a huge improvement in audio quality and functionality over the old KMA20 we had before. I’ll have more to say about those gadgets, and the GDC-31 roll steering converter, in the future. Overall, I’m delighted with the new stack and can’t wait to fly it a bunch more!

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Flying Friday: my airplane’s broken, so here’s a blimp

I went to Tampa yesterday to pick up 706 from the shop. I was expecting to write a triumphant post today about flying behind all the new goodies. However, the GPSS steering system is confused and steers the airplane in the opposite direction, so I had to leave it there for further troubleshooting. Instead of my triumphant post, here’s a short video of the DirecTV blimp, which happened to be at the airport at the same time as me.

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My first in-flight emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GI106A course deviation indicator

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Here’s a partial map of our flight route.

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

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

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Flying Friday: a sample of instrument flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Flying Friday: the avionics brain transplant begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Flying Friday: 2015 flying year in review

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

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

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

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



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Flying Friday: looking stupid now vs stupid later

Remember this Fram commercial?

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

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




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Flying Friday: This ain’t Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WP 20151030 14 35 28 Pro

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

20150816 200809000 iOS

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

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


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Fuel shenanigans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fill ‘er up!


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