Category Archives: aviation

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

2016 in review: flying

Summary: this year I only flew 84 hours (4 actual IMC, and 12.4 night), which is not nearly as much as I’d like, but there was some quality flying included. A few highlights:

  • I continue to be thrilled with the functionality and situational awareness we get from the avionics upgrade, even though it cost a ton and kept the plane in the shop for three months (with a couple of return visits). When Dana and I flew to Tampa in the RAFA 182, I really missed having ADS-B In and the FMS planning features of the IFD540.
  • Being able to fly from home to Wilmington to run a race, then fly the next morning to Atlanta to see one of my oldest friends for a quick cup of coffee, then be home before lunchtime.
  • Flying to Ohio to see Matt and Anita and their family, then spending a day watching the Blue Angels and then flying home through a clear and spectacular night sky (with a freshly made key).
  • Making my first international flight as PIC, from Decatur to Toronto and back.
  • Taking Matt to the fly-in at Columbus AFB, where we got to fly the T-1 and T-38 simulators and hang out with a bunch of instructor pilots.
  • Trips for races and to visit family and friends to New Orleans, Tampa, and various other parts of the southeast

In 2017, my plans are to get my commercial rating (which I’ve been studying for) and fly more. I’ve already got a medium-long trip planned for January and another for April. Over the summer I’d like to fly from home to Orange County, thence Seattle, thence home, making an extended business/pleasure trip out of it. Lots to look forward to!

 

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Race report: 2016 IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina

Summary: At the end of my season in 2015, I decided that I wanted to try a 70.3 in 2016. I’d heard about how great the Beach2Battleship 70.3 in Wilmington, North Carolina was… in large part because they give pajama pants to all finishers. I signed up in December, right after WTC bought the race and renamed it to IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina, and then mostly forgot about it because my friend Ingrid was “encouraging” me to sign up for IM 70.3 New Orleans (which I did). I didn’t have a great race at New Orleans and wanted to do better this time. I did, by 46 minutes.

Sunday: new wheels, part 1

My friend Tony finished his season at AtomicMan by smashing the course, and he was kind enough to offer to loan me his race wheels, a Zipp 404/808 pair. I put them on the bike and took off for a ride the day before I was supposed to leave for California. PROTIP: when you change wheels, you have to adjust the derailleur limit screws. If you don’t do this, here’s what happens: you break the derailleur hanger, ruin your chain, put a big dent in your friend’s borrowed wheel, and break several spokes. On Sunday, when no bike shops are open. And while you’re 10 miles from home. A quick Uber ride home and I was left to sort out my plan: Dana would drop my bike off at the shop, they’d fix it, and I’d pick it up Thursday when I got back.

A broken derailleur is a terrible thing

A broken derailleur is a terrible thing

Thursday: new wheels, part 2

Hosanna to the crew at Bicycle Cove. Chris, Parker, and Nick got the parts in and got the bike fixed. When I went to pick it up, though, I was surprised; instead of Tony’s Zipps, it was wearing a pair of Bontrager Aeolus 5s. They wanted Chris to look at Tony’s wheel again before clearing it for riding, you see, so they loaned me a set of their shop wheels to make sure I wouldn’t miss the race. “We’ll settle up later,” they said. “Now go have a great race.” Because we were having thunderstorms at the time, I didn’t get a chance to ride the new wheels; I had to load up and go.

Friday: flying and being pathetic

On Friday, I packed up 706 and filed direct HSV-ILM. A cold front had just passed through Huntsville, and I knew I’d be going through it again en route, but I was looking forward to a nice tailwind. That’s just what I got, with 15-25 knots of wind speeding me along. I landed at ILM after a beautiful flight with only a few bumps. Air Wilmington has a strict 1-hour limit on their courtesy cars, so I grabbed an Uber and headed to the downtown convention center for race check-in. Unfortunately, I failed to note the line in the athlete guide that said check-in closed at 1pm, and I got there about 1:45p. After some nervous waiting in line, Caroline from IRONMAN was kind enough to check me in anyway. She gave me 3 bags: one for T1, one for T2, and one for “morning clothes.” I found a niche to spread out my stuff and started the process of filling the bags. See, this race is a point-to-point-to-point race: you swim from point A to point B, get on the bike and bike to point C, and then run to point D. At each point, you have to change into the appropriate clothes, so before the race you have to stage all your stuff in the right bags. If you forget something, or put it in the wrong bag… well, too bad.

I got my bags packed and found that points B, C, and D were farther apart than I expected. While wandering around, I ran into Nancy and Paula, two fellow members of the Pathetic Triathletes group on Facebook. Nancy recognized me when I mentioned taking an Uber– I’d previously asked her whether Uber was in Wilmington. Thank goodness they found me; they were invaluable in showing me the ropes of this particular race. They were also kind enough to drive me and my bike over to T1 so I could stage my stuff. Then we had a lovely Pathetic meetup at Poe’s Tavern on the beach, where I met several other Pathetics and had a delicious burger. We went to check out the swim exit, where we met a volunteer who explained the swim course to me in great detail. The course was well marked with buoys, which I appreciated since my open water sighting technique still needs some work.

Seems placid, doesn't it?

Seems placid, doesn’t it?

The sunset was pretty impressive, too.

Yay for bonus sunsets

Yay for bonus sunsets

Nancy and Paula dropped me off at my Airbnb (summary: nice and quiet, no New Orleans-style murder) and I was in for the night, modulo a quick run to CVS for some Advil. I checked the weather forecast a few dozen times to get some idea of what the winds would be like. As I tried to drift off to sleep, I mulled over what reasonable goal times for the day would be. All I really wanted was to beat my NOLA 70.3 time, but I

Saturday pre-race: patheticness everywhere

Stan, Karen, Paula, and Nancy were kind enough to let me carpool with them, then stop so I could grab some breakfast, then to loan me $5 because I had pathetically forgotten my wallet. I had a gas station protein bar and a 20oz Coke… breakfast of champions, right? We got to T1 in plenty of time for me to fill my bike bottles with Mercury, pump up my tires, and check once more to make sure I had everything in my “morning clothes” bag that I wanted. See, at the swim start, you leave that bag there, and you don’t get it again until after the race. It’s a good place for things like eyeglasses and cell phones. T1 was crowded, as you’d expect for a race with nearly 3000 athletes. I was way in the far left back corner, which turned out to not be so bad because it was easy to find.

Transition 1 on race morning

Transition 1 on race morning

Last-minute preparation accomplished, I caught a shuttle to the swim start and met up with my pathetic pals there.  Stan had loaned me a cap, which I was glad to have because it was chilly; I put on my wetsuit earlier than I normally would have, and it helped quite a bit while we waited. I got to the swim start about 8:10, and my wave wasn’t due to start until 9:06, so I had some time to mill around. I found that I still had my chapstick with me, even though I should’ve left it in my run bag. Solution: put it in the top of my swim cap. It survived, luckily, and didn’t get too much extra ocean flavor. Almost before I knew it, they were herding our swim wave across the street and into the waist-high water behind the start line. The water was warmer than the air, and it felt great after I’d been standing outside being cold for an hour.

The swim

39:53, a new PR for me at this distance and roughly 20 minutes faster than my New Orleans performance. This course was linear so my poor sighting didn’t put me at much of a disadvantage, and there was a fast current to boot. I swallowed a good bit of salt water so I was worried about having to vomit– usually an automatic cause for the support staff to pull you– but I ended up OK. At swim exit I was wobbly from all the time spent swimming through chop; the second half of the swim was mostly into the surface chop so I was a little, if not seasick, then seasickish. When I exited the water, I noticed that my watch said “Resume?” and had recorded only about 1030 yards of the swim. I guess I accidentally hit a button with my wetsuit cuff or something. So much for an accurate swim distance.

T1

14:28? Jeez. The run from the swim exit to the bike corral was long, and I did stop in the changing tent to put on sunscreen, a dry shirt, and lots of chamois butter… but I had no idea I was in T1 for this long. I felt really stupid when I saw my race results, because this should’ve been no more than a 5-minute stop. Once I got all my stuff together, I got to the mount line and headed out on the bike.

The bike

Before the race, there was a great uproar because of IRONMAN’s decision to shorten the full-distance bike course. During race week, they announced a couple of route changes (and more were rumored), but by race day they’d settled on one 56-mile route for both half and full-distance races. It was windy, with forecast winds of 13-15 mph from the west. We got all that and more– the wind history at ILM was 12.1mph for 24 hours, with a highest sustained wind of 22mph and peak gusts of 27mph. The bike course itself was a big part of the problem– its structure meant that we went out, did a loop, and then came back, starting from the green dot. The loop was south on 421, then north to the turnaround (where a gas station was selling fried chicken that smelled indecently delicious), then south again. Since the wind was coming from the west, we had very significant wind exposure– more miles than I think we got in the out-and-back New Orleans course.

the bike course

the bike course

If you look at my lap times you can absolutely see the last 8 miles of tailwinds… and the other 48 or so of cross/head winds. I averaged 14.5mph on the first 39 miles and 17.6mph on the way back. Despite that gap in speeds, I felt really good on the bike. I passed nearly 100 people, which was an absolute first for me– I usually start at a deficit when coming out the water that I can’t make up on the road. I held the power target that I wanted, I didn’t wreck in the strong crosswinds, and with the winds, I came in just over my target time of 3:30. (obtw, those Aeolus race wheels were excellent.)

bike data… too many cadence spikes

bike data… too many cadence spikes

There was a fair bit of (justified) complaining online because the aid stations weren’t were the athletes’ guide promised, and each one only had 2 porta-potties.

EDITED TO ADD: here’s a video of the bike route provided by relive.cc.

T2

Back through the changing tent and out again; this time it only took me 9:21… still ridiculously slow. That time comprised walking my bike down a long string of rubber mats overlaid on top of the gravel/dirt construction mix on the street where the bike finished, getting into the corral and getting my run bag, hitting the changing tent, and actually changing, then leaving again. I’m still not really sure where the timing mat was.

The run

2:28. That’s really all I have to say about that. Faster than NO, but still ~ 30min slower than my standalone 13.1 pace. Lots of room for improvement here. The run course was semi-scenic; the first leg went through downtown, where there was a moderate crowd, then along an ugly industrial section of Front Street, then over to Greenfield Lake, which is ringed with city-provided signs that say “YES, there are alligators in this lake. Do not feed, harass, or tease them.” It’s a delightfully scenic lake, though, and (unlike the bike) there were plentiful, well-stocked aid stations. The full-distance racers had to do two loops of the course, whereas I only had one, for which I was grateful. I tried Red Bull for the first time on the course; while it didn’t give me superpowers, it also didn’t make my stomach convulse, so I’ll score that as a draw. I saw Pathetic Nancy on the run (I spotted the “#P” marked on her calf as I passed her), and I met Robert Moore, one of the “PPD Heroes” featured by the race sponsor. Then I ran the last mile or so with a lady who was finishing the full-distance race and we chatted a bit– that was a pleasant way to get to the finish line. Oddly, there were fewer spectators out when I came back through downtown on the return, which surprised me a bit.

YES, there are alligators in this lake

YES, there are alligators in this lake

 

Post-race

The finish line experience was great– I crossed, got my medal and pajama pants, and wandered around for a bit catching my breath. Unfortunately, soon I had to go pick up 3 bags of stuff: my run, bike, and morning clothes bags were all in different places. It took me close to 30 minutes of schlepping around to collect the bags and my bike, which was far longer than I wanted to spend. I grabbed an Uber back to the house, took a badly needed hot shower, and headed over to Hops Supply for dinner. I wasn’t up late.

The trip home

This morning, I woke up at 5 with a goal of being wheels-up by 6. Plot twist: there aren’t any Uber drivers awake that early, apparently. I eventually got a car and got to the airport to find that my plane was parked out on the back 40 and had to be towed to where I could access it. 45min after my desired time, I was airborne for Peachtree-DeKalb to meet my best friend from high school, the illustrious Brian Albro. We had a fantastic but short visit (thank you, Flying Biscuit, for breakfast), then I headed back. My flight was smooth and beautiful. I got to see some Harriers parked on the ramp at ILM, some great river fog, and a lot of greenery.

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The fog follows the river path exactly

The fog follows the river path exactly

Summary
A great race and a worthy effort. There were a lot of logistical hiccups; for example, the 70.3 athlete tracking on the IM website never worked, and the bike course caused a ton of traffic problems for locals that mean this will be an unpopular race next year. I got 7.5 flying hours and 7.2 hours on the triathlon route, so it was a good trip.

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Flying Friday: the great Gulfstream migration

Y’all may have heard of a little thing called Hurricane Matthew (or, as the Weather Channel continually called it, to the great amusement of my son Matthew, “DEADLY HURRICANE MATTHEW.”) And you may have heard of Gulfstream, the wildly successful purveyor of extremely expensive and capable business jets. But did you know that, for a while, our own Huntsville International Airport hosted nearly a billion dollars worth of Gulfstream hardware?

See, Gulfstream is based in Savannah, Georgia. They have a large factory there, with a satellite facility at Brunswick where they do paint and interior work. With a category 4 hurricane headed their way, Gulfstream made the very wise decision to find another place to park their airplanes until the storm passed, and Huntsville won the toss. On October 6th, I was listening to LiveATC and noticed a few airplanes checking in to Huntsville Approach with callsigns of “Gulftest XXX.” Neat, I thought. These must be test or acceptance flights. Then I heard a few more. Then one of the controllers asked a pilot how many more flights to expect– the pilot nonchalantly replied “oh, 30 or so.” That led me to check FlightRadar24 and, sure enough, the migration was well underway. (Sadly I didn’t think to capture any screen shots).

Last Sunday I drove out to the airport to take a few pictures of the shiny goodness on the ramp. These are links to my Flickr stream, which has lots of other airplane pictures if you’re into that sort of thing:

I was out of town this past week, so I missed the return flight, but sadly they’re gone now. It was fun to see them here, as that’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to such expensive hardware.

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Vertical constraints and the Avidyne IFD540

When you file and fly an IFR flight plan, you’ll have an assigned altitude for every segment of the flight. You’re not permitted to deviate from this altitude without permission (except in emergencies); the altitude obviously has to be high enough so that you don’t hit anything on the ground, and it may be capped on top to keep you away from other aircraft, clear of military training airspace, and so on.  (There are several different varieties of minimum altitude that you might be assigned on a route, but that’s a distinction for another day.)

These altitude assignments can often be expressed as constraints. ATC might, for instance, say “N32706, descend pilot’s discretion 4000”, which means I’m cleared to go from whatever altitude I’m at down to 4000′ at whatever rate of descent I want. I’m still not cleared to descend below 4000′ though. And of course, there are lots of constraints on instrument approaches, where we’re commonly told to maintain an altitude between an upper and lower limit at different segments of approach.

It’s common for air traffic control to give pilots crossing restrictions, too. For example, airplanes flying into Norcal Approach’s airspace will often be told to cross KLIDE “at or above 12000”. If they’re flying the ILS 30L (an excerpt of which is shown below), they’ll be told to “cross KLIDE at or above 4000, reduce speed to 230 knots”. You can tell that there’s a restriction there because of the horizontal line under the altitude– an underline means “at or above”, an overline means “at or below,” and both together mean “at”.

Those horizontal lines are important

Those horizontal lines are important

An example I’m personally familiar with is that, when you fly into McCollum Field in north Atlanta from the west, the Atlanta Center controller will typically tell you to cross 35mi west of the airport at a specific altitude. In days of old, I’d just do this manually, which required a bit of math– “a standard 500 foot/minute descent at X airspeed means I need to start descending at Y minutes.” The IFD540 makes crossing restrictions really simple to track, but the interface for doing so is a little weird.

To specify a vertical constraint, you use the FMS page. The problem is that, by default, the FMS page shows the flight plan as a strip along the right edge of the screen, and you can’t see the fields necessary to enter the constraint. The example below (taken from Avidyne’s excellent Windows simulator) shows what I mean– you can see the flight plan in FMS view but, unless you know this One Simple Trick, you can’t put in crossing restrictions.

vc-sim.png

Tapping the “FPL” tab on the left edge of the flight plan data strip changes your view, though. In the expanded view, it’s easy to specify the distance and altitude you want, as you can see in this picture from the actual IFD540. ATC told me “cross CARAN at 5000” and so it was a trivial matter to specify a crossing distance of 0nm and an altitude of 5000 feet. I could just as easily have handled an instruction like “descend to 5000 5nm west of CARAN.”

vc-airplane.jpg

As soon as I put the restriction in place and switched back to the map view, I could see a new “TOD” (top of descent) circle showing me where to start my descent. In addition, notice that CARAN is now bracketed by lines above and below its name– that’s because I specified I wanted to cross at 5000. If I had said “at or above” or “at or below,” the symbology would reflect that.

vc-tod.jpg

There’s also an audio alert which sounds just like a doorbell– so If you start a 500fpm descent when you hear the chime at the indicated TOD, you’ll arrive at the specified crossing point at the right altitude. This is a very handy feature, especially since you can set any combination of distance and altitude. Want to make sure you arrive right at pattern altitude when coming into an unfamiliar airport? Set a restriction for, say, 2nm on the approach side of the airport for pattern altitude and voila!

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Flying Friday: the time I lost the keys

Recently Matt and I went on a jaunt back to Ohio. We flew from KDCU to 1G0, with a quick bathroom stop en route, and that went really well. Our visit with friends in Perrysburg was splendid, and I got to run the Boy Scout Half Marathon as a bonus. The plan was then to fly from 1G0 to Cleveland for the Cleveland National Air Show, departing Sunday morning for a noon show start, then to fly home. That all went really well, and we flew to and landed at Cuyahoga County Airport (KCGF), where the line crew at Cleveland Jet Center promptly and courteously got us parked and fueled. We went to the air show and had a great time watching the Blue Angels. (I got some great pictures that I’ll post on Flickr, eventually.) Thanks to the Cleveland Police Department, we had a long, hot walk to the nearest area where an Uber driver could pick us up, but soon enough we were back at the airport, whereupon I discovered that I had lost the key. It was on a keyfob, which I would have thought would render it unlosable, but no.

A quick visit with the mechanics at the FBO revealed that they had a box full of keys for other people’s airplanes. Little-known true aviation fact: there are relatively few different key patterns for light aircraft, so one airplane’s key can often be used to open the door or start the ignition of another airplane from the same manufacturer. With a little trial and error, we found a Piper key that would turn the ignition switch.. but I still needed to get a replacement made. On Sunday afternoon.

The FBO folks equipped me with a Cadillac SRX and Matt and I went in search of a hardware store. We found a nearby Ace Hardware, screeched into the parking lot 2 minutes before closing time, and walked out 3 minutes later with two replacement keys. Once back at the airport, I was delighted to find that they also turned the ignition switch, so we packed up, started up, and took off, only about an hour behind schedule. That was actually a good thing, as we got to enjoy a gloriously starry and clear night on our way home (with a stop at LEX for cookies and diet Coke).

Thanks to Cleveland Jet Center for helping us not be stranded!

(and yes, I now have a couple of spare keys stashed in strategic places… just in case.)

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Flying Friday: bird forecasts? Yep, it’s a thing

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about wildlife collisions at airports. (Spoiler: they happen and are just as hard on airplanes as they are on cars.)

While reviewing the mishap investigation report covering the crash of CAPT Jeff Kuss, I learned something I didn’t know: the USAF maintains a forecasting system to predict the hazards caused by birds. (The report makes for interesting reading because it’s so thorough. I will have more to say about it in another post.)

Read that first sentence again: you can get a bird forecast. Is this a great country, or what?

All joking aside, you have to look no further than Cactus 1549 (or, as you may know it, “The Miracle on the Hudson”) for proof of why birds and airplanes don’t mix. AHAS gives aviators a simple tool to check an airfield or flight route to see how likely it is to contain bird hazards. For example, if you go there, pick “Huntsville International” as the airport, and click the “AHAS Risk” button, you’ll get a nifty report showing what bird-attracting features are nearby (landfills, golf courses, bodies of water, and so on), as well as a historical list of bird strikes.

I’m not sure that I will be regularly checking AHAS before my routine flights but I suspect I will be checking it before I fly into unfamiliar areas. Those damn birds are sneaky, y’know. A fellow can’t be too careful.

 

 

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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.

DSC_3505

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:

TABIR-with-traffic

  • 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.

Nada.

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

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

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

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

Here’s a partial map of our flight route.

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

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

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