Tag Archives: aviation

Flying Friday: Avidyne IFD540 10.2.3.1 upgrade notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 0011

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

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

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

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Flying Friday: briefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

RNAV 17 into KMPV

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

Going missed? Here’s how

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flying Friday: happy birthday, N32706!

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

where I’ve been in years 1-3

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

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

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Flying with Avidyne’s version 10.2 software

If you think updating the software on your phone is hard, try it with avionics.

Avidyne has been promising a new release of the software for their IFD line of WAAS GPS units for a while now. Originally announced on April Fool’s Day last year, version 10.2 packs a pretty impressive list of features, including synthetic vision, support for a bunch of new devices (including digital radar and FLIR cameras), display of more ADS-B weather and traffic data, and a new “IFD100” iPad app that essentially acts as a second screen for your IFD. They generously made the update available for free, but with a catch: it has to be installed by an avionics shop. The FAA lets aircraft owners make “minor repairs and alterations” (a phrase which has a very specific set of parameters around it), and avionics software updates aren’t considered “minor.” When they finally announced that 10.2 was available, the first order of business was to find a shop to install it. None of the local shops are Avidyne dealers, so we decided to head back to XP Services in Tullahoma. A quick phone call to schedule an appointment was all it took.

The flight to Tullahoma was pleasant, and the XP team had the upgrade done in about 2 hours– right about the amount of time Avidyne says it should take. The update procedure is very detailed and specific, with lots of dire warnings about what happens if you do it wrong, so I’m glad they didn’t. They also upgraded the software in our SkyTrax 100 ADS-B receiver, which will become important a little later in the story. I can’t say enough good things about XP’s staff: they did good work, quickly, at a fair price, and were very friendly. Be forewarned if you go there though: there are no vending machines nearby so bring your own snacks.

On the way home I got to start playing with the new features, but it wasn’t until last week’s Easter trip from Decatur to New Smyrna Beach that they really came into their own. Here’s a partial list of the new goodness in this release.

Let’s start with synthetic vision. The IFD540 doesn’t have a way to sense the attitude of the airplane, so its syn vis feature is limited to showing a “plane in trail” (Avidyne calls it exocentric) view of you, your route, and the surrounding terrain. In this case, I’ve programmed the ILS 18 Y approach into my home airport. You can see the magenta line indicating that I’m on the final approach segment. The white line-and-loop to the upper right is the missed approach procedure that I’d fly if I couldn’t land. There’s another airplane in the area, at 1900 feet and descending. The synthetic vision display makes very clear what the surrounding terrain and obstacles look like, and how my planned flight path would interact with them. This is not a huge deal in the flat riverine terrain near Decatur but in someplace like Montpelier, with more significant terrain, it could literally be a lifesaver.

heading for the approach

Another nifty new feature: temporary flight restrictions (like the one shown below, for firefighting in southern Georgia near Waycross) and winds aloft data (the little white flag-looking things in the second picture) can now be shown along with all the other flight data. You can see that we have about a 20kt headwind. It’s important to remember that, like all other ADS-B weather data, the wind data comes from the ground and may not reflect what’s truly happening in the air at that moment.

Don’t fly in TFRs unless you want to meet the FAA in person

The direction of the wind barb shows which way it’s blowing; the number of little flags shows how strong it is

Traffic display is greatly improved in two ways. First, you can now see trend lines showing you where a traffic target is going (along with its N number, if it’s transmitting one). This is really helpful in crowded airspace, like the area around the Daytona Beach airport. You can see that both airplanes on the display are headed in the same direction as we are, one at roughly our same altitude and the other descending.

In 10.2, you can see where traffic targets are going

I also now get traffic alerts when there’s a potential conflict, i.e. someone else is flying towards me. An aural alert (“bong! TRAFFIC”) comes first, then the screen changes to show the conflicting traffic. This is an extremely valuable feature.

When you hear “TRAFFIC,” you’d better start looking around

The IFD100 app does what it promises: it lets you control the physical IFD, but it also lets you configure its display completely independently of the one on the panel. It does about 80% of what the “real” IFD hardware does. For example, you can load a flight plan into the iPad app while the panel is showing you the map/weather/traffic page, then push a button and activate that flight plan from the iPad. You can see and tune frequencies (but not activate them), zoom in and out on maps, and in general act like you have a second IFD540. It’s pretty neat, although there are some quirks to it that I’m still figuring out.

Not quite a replacement for Foreflight

The IFD100 app isn’t a replacement for FlyQ or Foreflight though; it doesn’t let you anything that the physical IFD can’t do, so no looking up fuel prices or FBO reviews, no satellite imagery display, and so on. ForeFlight has all sorts of useful planning features like terrain mapping, wind estimation, and flight plan filing that the IFD100 doesn’t, and won’t. I don’t think Avidyne intends the app to replace a true electronic flight bag (EFB) app, but rather to give you more options and flexibility with using the in-panel hardware.

I haven’t been able to test one of the signature features of 10.2 yet, though: its ability to do two-way sync over Wi-Fi between the panel device and a tablet. I can already stream a flight plan, and GPS position data, from the IFD to ForeFlight or FlyQ. 10.2 adds the ability for the IFD to send traffic, weather, and TFR data (which means I won’t need my Stratus receiver to see that stuff in ForeFlight), but also the ability to load a flight plan from the iPad to the panel. That means I can plan a complex route at my leisure in my armchair, file it, brief it, get my expected route, and push the route to the airplane when I get to the airport with a single button press. That’s going to be glorious when it finally arrives.

It speaks well of Avidyne that they made this major feature release available for free, and I’m excited to see how they continue to build on the wireless connectivity built into the IFD line.

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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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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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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: of shops and annuals

I haven’t been flying much lately, sad to say. This is mostly because of weather, but partly because I have been busy with other things. However, as spring approaches, I’ve been eager to get back in the air. A couple of weeks ago, I went flying with John, my CFII, and shot some practice instrument approaches. While I was a bit rusty, I was still able to fly a good ILS, even in the winds, but I had a little bit of trouble making the KLN94 do what I wanted to get set up for the GPS approach into Huntsville… its time is coming, though, and I hope to finally get the Avidyne IFD540 installed in early summer. That’s still some time away, though. There are two hurdles to cross first: getting our engine monitor installed and getting the plane through its required annual inspection.

First, the engine monitor. Like almost all other airplanes of this vintage, 706 has a battery of analog gauges that report on the engine health. There’s nothing wrong with this, as these instruments tend to be very reliable. The tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, and fuel flow gauge are all very important. However, the standard engine instruments have several shortcomings. First, our plane had a conventional single gauge for reporting exhaust gas temperature (EGT), and the aftermarket cylinder head temperature (CHT) gauge wasn’t working. The problem with single-channel EGT and CHT instruments is that they only tell you what one cylinder is doing, so there’s no way to see what’s going on with the other five cylinders. Second is that the gauges are scattered all around the panel; besides the EGT and CHT indicators, there’s a suction gauge (which tells you whether the engine-driven vacuum pump that drives the gyros is working), the fuel gauges, and so on. Third is that these gauges only show instantaneous data, not trends, and they don’t alert you to unusual conditions.

The solution: get an engine monitor. After much shopping and head-scratching, we settled on the CGR-30P from Electronics International. The video below will give you an idea of what this magic box does:

From my perspective, the CGR-30P does two critical things: it alerts you when an engine parameter goes out of limits (say, if the oil pressure decreases unexpectedly), and it logs data that can be used for later analysis. As a nice side benefit, it monitors CHT and EGT for all six cylinders, which has the dual benefit of giving early indication of potential misbehavior and providing the data we need to operate the engine as efficiently as possible.

(Brief digression: there is a lot of religious argument over the “correct” way to adjust the fuel/air mixture in piston engines. This article by noted mechanic Mike Busch explains the topic, and the debate, very well, along with recommending the approach that I will be using once I have accurate CHT and EGT data).

Getting the CGR-30P installed, though, requires an avionics shop. Derek and I have struggled with finding a good local shop. There’s no avionics shop at our home field, and C-Cubed, which used to be at Huntsville,  closed a few months ago. Their spot was taken over by a company called Advanced Technical Avionics (ATA). After a brief period of confusion occasioned by a management change (translation: someone got fired), we got the plane into the shop on Tuesday to start the installation. With any luck, in a week or so, the plane will be back in the air– which is good, as I have a trip planned to New Orleans next month for the New Orleans Sprint triathlon, my first of the year.

Right after I get back from New Orleans, the plane needs to go in for its annual inspection. Every general aviation aircraft is required to undergo a comprehensive airworthiness inspection each year. There are specific things that the shop will check based on the engine and airframe manufacturer’s recommendations, and there can be other things that need checking or adjustment based on how much the plane has been flown. For example, some components need to be checked every 100 or 500 hours. (This example inspection checklist gives you an idea of some of the things that must be inspected.) Then, because this is a 40-year-old airplane, there will inevitably be some things that need to be repaired or replaced because they’re worn out or broken. For example, our air conditioner doesn’t work any longer, so we’ll have the shop take a look at it as long as they’re crawling around inside the plane.

On the advice of Savvy, our maintenance management company, we’re using a Piper service center for the annual– DLK Aviation in Kennesaw, Georgia. That means that we’ll have to ferry the plane there and back again; I’ll probably rent a plane from Redstone and pick Derek up after he drops the plane off, but driving isn’t out of the question. Once the plane arrives, after one to two weeks (and some unknown amount of money, depending on whether there are any expensive surprises), we’ll have the plane back and be good for another year.

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GATTS days 8 & 9: judgment day(s)

The title of this post gives it away: I didn’t pass my check ride on the first try. Read on to find out why…

On day 8, I woke up early, loaded the car, and drove to the airport to meet Peter. We’d arranged with Ken to meet early because the weather from Manhattan to Topeka (and the surrounding area) was poor: 1200’ or less ceilings, with lots of wind and a good bit of rain. Peter and I agreed to head east and see what the weather looked like when we got there. Short answer: it was terrible. The entire flight was in clouds, with plenty of bumps, then on arrival, ATC gave us about 20 minutes of holding on the localizer, which was, um, invigorating, not to mention bouncy. We finally landed and this is what we saw:

Paul robichaux net 20140903 001

Ken was there waiting for us, so we went inside and went through the standard check ride prep; he and I both signed into IACRA to complete my check ride paperwork, he briefed me on the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, and so on. Then we spent about an hour on the oral exam, which was perfectly straightforward. I wasn’t surprised by any of his questions, largely thanks to the combination of Peter’s coaching and my own study. The weather wasn’t good enough for us to conduct the practice approaches on the check ride under VFR conditions, so we adjourned to the airport restaurant for a snack (which was interrupted by a business phone call for me, alas). After about an hour and a half, the weather had lifted enough for us to fly. We took off, and Ken had me intercept V4 to give us some distance from the airport. We flew west a bit, then he had me recover from unusual attitudes, which went well… except.

See, I was having a hell of a time keeping to my assigned altitude. I’d like to blame it on the wind, but it wasn’t just that; my scan was deteriorating faster than ever before. I’m still not sure if I was nervous, rattled from the weather, or what, but after a few gentle reminders from Ken (example: “Do you know what the PTS requirements for holding altitude are?”, just in case my poor performance was due to ignorance vice lack of skill), he had me head in to the ILS for runway 13. I flew fairly well despite the wind gusts, intercepting and tracking the localizer without a problem.. but, again, my altitude control was poor, and I let the glideslope needle hit full deflection down. I was too high, and that was that: he had me land, gave me the dreaded letter of discontinuance, and held a short debrief with Peter and me. Then I flew us home, in a funk the whole way; we did some remedial training en route, which I obviously needed but didn’t want. After landing I went back to the apartment, sulked for a while, worked a bit, and then mentally steeled myself to repeat the process the next day… and that’s exactly what happened. The next morning, we went back to the airport, flew to Topeka, met Ken, did the same IACRA stuff, and went out to the airplane.

When you retake a failed (or interrupted) checkride, the examiner doesn’t have to retest you on the portions you passed, although she can. In my case, Ken just wanted me to fly the approaches and holds, which I did, starting with the ILS for 13. It was still breezy, but nowhere near as windy as the preceding day, and/or maybe I was less nervous. In any event, I flew a textbook ILS approach, did a decent job on the hold (despite a stiff and inconvenient crosswind), and followed with the VOR and localizer back course approaches. I landed, taxied in, and Ken shook my hand to congratulate me. Here’s what the airport looked like when we taxied up:

Paul robichaux net 20140901 003After another debrief, in which the often-heard and completely true phrase “license to learn” was tossed around several times, we bade Ken goodbye and headed back to the ramp. After a short and uneventful flight back to Manhattan, I shook hands with Peter for the last time, got a fresh diet Coke, and headed home. The flight home was smooth and clear, so I didn’t actually get to perform any approaches, more’s the pity. After such a long time away, I was delighted to get home, sleep in my own bed, play with the cat, and generally settle in a bit.

Once a little more time has passed, I’ll write up my overall impressions of GATTS. It is safe to say that I’m pleased with what I learned and their teaching methods, but I feel like I need a bit more experience before I form a complete opinion. Meanwhile, I’ll be flying!

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GATTS day 7: checkride prep, plus a race

Day 7 of my GATTS experience happened to be Labor Day. That didn’t really make any difference to the flight schedule, but I did talk Peer into a later start time so that I’d have time to go run the Summer Send-Off 5K race in nearby Chapman, Kansas. The race was a lot of fun; I ran well despite getting lost on the way there and arriving literally 30 seconds before the starting gun. (Irony of the day: just as I was passing the high school demolished by a 2008 tornado, my iPod served up Flux Pavilion’s “Blow the Roof”).

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

After the race and a quick shower, I met Peter at the airport for a mock checkride. Checkrides are normally administered by people who hold the role of DPE, or designated pilot examiner. They’re not FAA employees; many of them are very high-time instructors, often retired. Every instructor knows, or should, the local DPEs: what they think is important, what they emphasize in the oral and practical exams, what their habits and idiosyncracies are. Although Peter didn’t attempt to imitate the DPE’s mannerisms or anything, he did tell me that I should expect to take off, intercept the V4 airway westbound, return to do the ILS 31 approach at Topeka, execute the published missed approach, transition to the VOR 22 approach, and then come back to do the localizer backcourse for 13. This last was necessary because of FedEx’s failure to deliver my updated GPS card on time, the dirty rats– I couldn’t legally fly a GPS approach without the updated data card, so I was stuck with the backcourse.

The first part of any FAA checkride, of course, is the oral exam, so Peter quizzed me for an hour or so on weather, procedures, approaches, lost communications procedures, and pretty much everything else we had discussed at any time during the preceding week. That went well, I thought; I felt well prepared by the combination of my study and his teaching. Then we went out to the ramp, fired up the airplane, and flew to Topeka to simulate the flight check portion. The flight went very well, although it was windy and bumpy, so I had trouble maintaining the nice oval shape we all associate with a well-flown holding pattern. Part of the goal of the simulated checkride is to put the applicant at ease with the flow of the ride, and it definitely helped; despite the blustery winds, I flew within the PTS and felt good once we got back on the ground and put the plane away. I had an easy night, packing and making one last visit to Hibachi Hut for bread pudding and a sandwich, then went to bed, eager to face the DPE on the morrow…

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GATTS day 6: building comfort

[ sorry about the gap in posting the rest of my GATTS writeup; I’ve been kinda busy. ]

Day 5 of my GATTS experience was all about refinement. We started in the classroom, where we covered the rules for filing alternate airports and spent a good bit of time on decoding IFR charts (which, luckily, was one of the areas where I worked extra hard when studying for my written). Then we got in the airplane and flew to Topeka to shoot the ILS runway 32 approach, something that Peter told me would almost certainly be featured in my checkride. The GPS in 706 is not equipped with a WAAS-capable GPS, which means that I can’t fly precision GPS approaches. That means that, if I want a precision approach (and who wouldn’t?), it’s the ILS for me, at least until we can upgrade to a newer GP

Of course, one of the most important parts of flying an approach is the missed approach procedure– the sequence of steps you take when, after flying the approach, you’re unable to land because of poor visibility, runway misalignment, and so on. When you’re practicing an approach, it’s common to tell ATC what you’re going to do after the approach– land, execute the published missed approach procedure, or do something else. In our case, we flew the published miss for the ILS 32 approach, which involves flying to the Topeka VOR and then flying a racetrack holding pattern. For a real missed approach, ATC might send you to the normal missed approach holding point, or they might vector you around for another try, depending on the reasons why you went missed.

After the missed, we flew on to Miami County. No, I’d never heard of it either. It turns out that there is a superb BBQ restaurant at the airport, We B Smokin, so after shooting a good GPS approach, we had lunch. I accidentally ordered enough food to feed two normal humans, so by the time we were done eating I was a slow-moving hazard to navigation. We fueled up and departed for Forbes, flew the VOR/DME, and then went back to Manhattan. This was fortuitous timing, because there was a line of thunderstorms poised to attack from the west, so we called it a day and I went to Manhattan’s only movie theater for November Man (pretty decent; worth the $6) and a large bucket of popcorn, followed by watching the storms roll in from the safety of my balcony.

By this point in the training, I was feeling very comfortable operating “in the system”: my radio calls were concise, I was getting better at visualizing what the approach I’d selected would require me to do, and I was much more comfortable with the workload required to brief and set up the approach, then fly it to either a landing or a missed approach. The steady diet of daily flying, in whatever weather we happened to have, was a key part in building my comfort level. Although the flying weather to this point had been pretty good, the stiff, variable winds we had all week were more than enough to challenge me– just what I was looking for.

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GATTS day 3: DME arcs and Nebraska

First, I forgot to mention a couple of other things that Peter and I discussed in the day 2 classroom sessions. We talked about IFR currency rules (remember, kids, 6 6 HIT), as well as the procedures to be used if you lose radio contact with ATC. The most interesting topic to me was the discussion of DME arcs on approaches, like the one shown below:

See that arc? It's called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

See that arc? It’s called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

This is the VOR/DME-A approach to Emporia, Kansas.  Depending on where you are when you join the approach, several different things can happen. If you’re approaching from the southeast, you’ll probably get cleared straight to LUYIY, and you can just fly the approach inbound. If you’re coming from the west side of the airport, you might get sent to the triangle labeled ANUGE (those triangles mark intersections, imaginary points in space that you use for navigation); from the northeast or east, you’d probably go to KICRE. In those latter two cases, you’d fly a constant-distance arc from the intersection to the final approach course. They’re called DME arcs because originally they required you to have a special navigation receiver known as distance measuring equipment. Now you can use GPS instead, unless you happen to have a DME receiver. To fly these approaches, you basically fly to the intersection, fly a distance, turn 10 degrees towards the center of the arc, and fly another distance. Think of it like making a circle out of straight lines. (There’s a decent explanatory video here if you’re interested in more detail).

Anyway, on to day 3’s work. Since we’d finished day 2 in the classroom, day 3’s morning was spent in the airplane. We took off from Manhattan and flew to Marysville (where we shot the GPS 16  approach) and then on to Plattsmouth, Nebraska: my first time to visit the Cornhusker State. I flew the GPS 34 approach, but not until Omaha Approach vectored me all over the place to accommodate some KC-135s working the traffic pattern at Offutt AFB. After landing, we borrowed a crew car and went to– no joke– Mom’s Cafe, where I had a chicken-fried steak about the size of my laptop screen. In fact, it was so big that I couldn’t eat the whole thing and declined the offered dessert.

After fueling the plane, it was off to Beatrice (pronounced “BEE-at-riss”), where I flew an approach– can’t for the life of me remember which one though; then we flew back to Manhattan, shot another GPS approach, and spent some time in the sim practicing ILS and VOR approaches into Topeka. Why Topeka? Tune in tomorrow to find out…

 

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