Tag Archives: Flying Friday

Flying Friday: Aircraft multi-engine land: done

It’s trite, but true, that your pilot’s certificate is a license to learn. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard, or said, that, I’d be writing this from a warm beach somewhere instead of while looking out at the frost in my back yard. There’s always something more to learn about aerodynamics, weather, regulations, flight planning, the systems of the aircraft you fly, and so on. One way to get some applied learning is to pursue additional ratings or certifications, since every FAA-issued rating or certificate requires at least some degree of additional education or learning.

(brief digression: a “certificate” is a class of what normal people would call a license. The FAA issues private, sport, commercial, and airline transport pilot certificates. A “rating” adds on to your certificates. Ratings may be issued for the category (airplane, helicopter, balloon, etc), class (single- or multi-engine), and/or type (land, sea, etc). For example, the FAA-approved way to list my current qualifications is that I hold a private pilot certificate with the airplane multi-engine land (AMEL), airplane single-engine land (ASEL), and instrument rating airplane (IRA) ratings.)

For some ratings, it’s hard to say whether they’re practical. I’ll probably never own a seaplane or an airplane with a tail wheel, but there’s still valuable learning to be gotten from pursuing those ratings. Thomas Haines wrote a great column about this in the December 2021 AOPA Magazine. Depending on what you want to fly, though, those ratings may be practical– thus my interest in getting my multi-engine rating.

My original plan was to go do my commercial single-engine training at GATTS, then add my multi rating locally. For a variety of reasons that didn’t work out well, so my backup plan was to get my multi rating over the summer here in Huntsville and then finish my commercial training with the famous and internationally known John A Blevins. My goal was to start the multi training July 15… and that’s where the fun started.

The first factor is that most flight schools don’t have any twin-engine airplanes. There’s a grand total of one rental twin here in Huntsville. Fortunately it’s at Revolution Flight, which is about a six-minute drive from my house. The second factor is that, at least around here, there aren’t that many multi-engine instructors. It wasn’t until the beginning of August that my schedule, the airplane schedule, and the instructor’s schedule all meshed for me to start flying. I flew with John Kilcrease, who was an excellent and patient instructor (and a retired Army helicopter pilot).

The multi-engine rating requires a practical test but there’s no written test. However, there’s a ton to learn about aerodynamics and aircraft performance before you can safely operate a twin. That’s because, for most light twins, 80% of the excess thrust comes from the second engine– so when you lose an engine the flying characteristics change pretty drastically. This is especially true at high density altitudes, i.e. when the air is hot. Flying a twin when it’s 90° outside is very different than when it’s 50°. Since I live in Alabama, hot weather is the norm.

I started with the Sporty’s multi-engine video course, which is what Revolution uses. It’s beautifully filmed and animated, and it’s a good introduction to the basics but it didn’t go into enough depth on the systems of my particular airplane, or on the aerodynamics of single-engine operation. The YouTube videos by PrettyFlyForACFI were super helpful as supplemental material, and I read everything I could find about the 1967 Beech Travel Air that I was going to be flying.

Finally it was the appointed day for my first flight. I met John at the airport, preflighted the airplane, and started the engine. I mean the first engine. Man, it was weird not having a propellor spinning in front of me. Then I started the other engine and we taxiied out for takeoff.

One of the maneuvers you have to demonstrate for the checkride is an aborted takeoff. We got to do that on my very first takeoff, because John’s door popped open. (In case you’re wondering, the procedure is simple: call out “ABORT ABORT ABORT,” close both throttles, and stay on the runway centerline. I did it flawlessly, yay me). We fixed the door, taxiied back, and simulated an engine failure on takeoff, then taxiied back again to take off for real… at which point the door popped open again so we called it a day. Not the greatest introduction.

Later flights went much better. John led me through normal and short-field takeoffs and landings, in-flight engine shutdowns and restarts, single-engine landings, single-engine instrument approaches, and all sorts of failure scenarios. Thanks to smoke from western wildfires, I got a good deal of actual instrument time, and the sweaty Alabama weather made a great laboratory for seeing how the performance data in the pilot’s handbook translated to real-world airplane performance. As an example, the Travel Air can climb at just about 50 feet per minute with one engine on a hot day with two people aboard– 50fpm is a lot if you’re climbing stairs but it’s a recipe for meeting trees if it happens to you on takeoff and you’re not exceptionally quick.

During training we had a few assorted maintenance issues, as is common for rental trainers. The biggest was a 4-week wait for a new set of left engine control cables, which started about a week before my original checkride appointment. Factor in my work and personal travel, and John’s travel, and I wasn’t able to rebook my checkride until the beginning of November.

DPE Max Gurgew has a really good reputation in our local area, although I’d never met him. My first positive impression, from booking the checkride, was that he has a good web site that clearly lays out the required items and lets you request a time slot online.

I’d reserved the plane from 7a-noon on a Taco Tuesday, with the plan being that I’d pick it up at KHSV and fly over to KMDQ to meet Max. I got to the school at 0705 and…. no airplane. Despite calling the day before to confirm that it’d be on the line at 0700, and despite wearing my lucky shirt (“it’s a great day” on the front, “for tacos” on the back) someone had parked it in a far-away hangar, so I had to wait for the Signature line guys to go get it. By the time I was done getting the logs, having the plane fueled (which also was supposed to be done the day before), and preflighting, it was 815. I got a clearance, taxied out to 36R, started my takeoff roll and, oops, the door popped open.

ABORT ABORT ABORT, throttles to idle, stay on the centerline.

At least that was a familiar scenario. I taxied clear and wrestled the door back into position, called tower again, and took off uneventfully for 0.2 of flight time over to KMDQ. Easy normal landing.

Then the door wouldn’t open to let me out. That was fun. Eventually I got it unstuck and walked in to meet Max.

As his reputation foretold, Max was pleasant and engaging in person. We chatted for a few minutes, then started the review of my certificate application. (brief digression: any time you add a rating, you’re really reapplying for a newly issued certificate, which means there’s more paperwork than you might expect. The FAA uses a system called IACRA for certificate applications and, although no one likes it, we’ve all learned to work around its many quirks and misfeatures.)

This took a bit of time because I’d made a mistake on my application: for category/class upgrades, you have to fill in total flight time and pilot-in-command (PIC) time in the category/class. In my case, I’d gotten the PIC time field wrong, since you can’t log PIC time in a category or class where you aren’t rated unless you’re the sole occupant and have the correct endorsement. This took a few minutes to fix, then Max went over what we’d be doing on the checkride. He also asked me to sign a liability waiver, which I haven’t had to do on other checkrides (but it’s been a while since my last one so maybe this is more common now).

The oral exam was very straightforward. We started with a discussion of Vmc, the minimum controllable airspeed. Vmc is super important because if you drop below that speed, there won’t be enough air flowing over the rudder for you to maintain directional control. We discussed how manufacturers certify Vmc for an airplane (requiring me to walk through a discussion of SMACFUM), and the balance between controllability and performance. I used a whiteboard to discuss how the critical engine is determined (PAST), and we discussed the Vmc controllability-versus-performance table but he didn’t ask me to draw or recite it from memory. He quizzed me about various single- and twin-engine speeds and limitations, which was a weak area for me (e.g. I knew Vmc and Vyse but didn’t remember Vsse offhand).

We covered some basic performance: what service ceilings are, what accelerate/stop and accelerate/go distances were for this plane (trick question: there’s no published accel/go for this plane, so I calculated that as the sum of accel/stop and normal takeoff distance over a 50’ obstacle under the given conditions). He then gave me a scenario: “you’re flying IFR cross-country from Huntsville to DC at 9000’ and you have an engine failure. What do you do?” In this case, the single-engine service ceiling for this airplane is 4400′, which means that’s the maximum altitude you can expect to climb to on one engine. Since there’s terrain between here and DC that’s higher than that, the correct answer was “get away from terrain and land ASAP”.

The systems discussion covered fuel (how many tanks, capacity, how does crossfeed work), landing gear (power system, emergency extension, sensors/switches, actuation), and propellers (how feathering works, how the prop governor in a twin differs from a single). Having flown the plane for a dozen hours or so meant that I had some practical understanding to go along with my book learning, which is exactly what the oral exam is meant to determine.

After a short break, we walked out to preflight. Wind was 12G20 but nearly right down the runway centerline, and sky conditions were 4500’ scattered. Max had prebriefed me on the sequence to expect. After a normal and successful preflight, I did a short safety brief (I’m the PIC, we will use positive exchange of controls when needed, alert me if you see/hear/smell anything funny/odd/dangerous, eyes outside), started up, and did a standard takeoff brief covering what I’d do in case of a failure before or after liftoff. I did a short-field takeoff to the north, followed by a long climbing turn to get around some patches of clouds, called KHSV approach for flight following, and climbed to 5500’ for maneuvers. We never got further than maybe 7nm from the airport throughout the maneuvers.

We started with slow flight, then power-off and power-on stalls, steep turns, and the Vmc demo. Even though I’d beat it into my head already, Max did me the favor of asking for clearing turns for each maneuver—so we’d fly a maneuver to the north, do a clearing turn to the south, then do the next thing, then back north, etc. After the Vmc demo, he had me demonstrate an in-flight shutdown of the failed engine, followed by a restart. I was following the checklist procedure, which requires use of the boost pumps, but he had me turn them off to avoid flooding the engine.

After the restart, we flew back towards the south to let the engine warm back up, then I demonstrated an emergency descent. In this airplane, you extend the gear below 130kts and pitch down for 130kts. That worked fine, until I recovered and retracted the gear. At that point, we both heard a Satanic grinding coming from the gearbox. (In this plane, the gear is driven by an electric motor, which drives a reduction gearbox, which drives a star gear linked to all the actuating rods– this video shows it in detail). I looked at him, he looked at me, we both made faces, and he said “Let’s see if we can put the gear back down.” We did, and we got a green light (this airplane only has 1 gear light, not 3, but there’s a nosewheel mirror), but we also got more grinding. My heart plummeted because I knew I was about to get the Big Disco.

See, when you’re doing a checkride, there are 3 possible outcomes. You can pass, you can fail, or you can get a “discontinuance,” which just means that you couldn’t finish the ride for some reason that wasn’t your fault… like demons possessing your landing gear. Think of it like pressing “pause”. You still get credit for anything you did successfully before the discontinuance… but the examiner can ask you to redo anything she wants to at any time, meaning that you could essentially have to repeat the entire test.

Anyway, with the gear down, he took the controls so I could brief the RNAV 36 approach back into KMDQ; about 5nm from the IAF he failed my right engine and I flew a fairly sloppy approach to a full stop. I think he gave me a few charity points here because although I was stable, I was just a hair under ¾ deflection above the glideslope until inside the FAF. In the debrief he pointed this out, and said that in a real-world situation it would be better to stay above glidepath if possible, but to keep in mind that doing so might make it impossible to get all the way down on a short or confined runway. Fair point.

After landing, I secured the plane and we debriefed. Once my MEI arrived, he ferried the plane back to KHSV; the school requires all maintenance ferry flying be done by their staff. Maintenance jumped all over the plane (I was climbing out the door when they hooked up the tug and started towing). They couldn’t identify anything wrong with the gearbox after an inspection and swinging the gear two dozen times, so they serviced it, put on two new main tires for good measure, and gave me the plane back.

I spent the rest of the day and the next morning fidgeting while waiting to see if I’d be able to fly again this week. A combination of weather, the DPE’s travel, my travel, and the airplane availability meant that I could either finish the ride in the next 5 days or wait until Thanksgiving week. Another instructor graciously gave up his reservation so I could grab a time slot late Thursday afternoon, with the caveat that weather might require me to take an MEI with me to fly over IFR, then work the pattern. Unfortunately, we had crap weather so I couldn’t fly that day, or for the rest of the week.

Cue annoying hold music. (In reality during that time, I had an amazing trip with Erica to Romania, which made the waiting significantly easier!)

On Monday, I flew with John again just to make sure I wasn’t rusty. The weather was beautiful and I flew well. The cool weather granted me the novel experience of actually being able to climb well on one engine. More importantly, Satan had left the area and the gear functioned flawlessly. I verified with the Revolution staff that the plane would be ready at 0630 the next morning and arranged to meet John there.

On checkride day, I rolled up to Signature at 0635; the plane was waiting, so I flew to MDQ and met with Max. After a few minutes of chit-chat, he quizzed me from memory on V speeds, asked a few scenario-based questions about performance based on the current weather, and then it was time to fly. We stepped out and did the remaining maneuvers: engine failure on takeoff, normal takeoff, normal landing, normal takeoff to an engine failure in the pattern and a one-engine landing, and a normal takeoff to a short-field landing. I flew really well. The debrief was short and to the point, he handed me my temporary cert, and it was time to fly home again.

A few specific items of gouge about Max as a DPE. Like every DPE there are specific things he wants to see.

  1. Don’t change airplane configuration until you’re clear of the runway and stopped. When you do, ask the PM to confirm that your hand is on the flaps (not gear) before you bring up the flaps.
  2. Do a takeoff briefing for each takeoff covering normal and engine failure scenarios.
  3. Do a runup on every flight, even if you just flew in from an airport 10nm away.
  4. During one-engine approaches, keep your hand on the good throttle as much as possible. This prevents you from accidentally moving the wrong throttle.
  5. Know power settings, not just speeds, for various phases of flight. I was embarrassed about this, since I use memorized power settings in my plane and never even thought to wonder about them while training in the BE95.
  6. Fly good and don’t suck. (OK, I might have added this one on my own.)

On to my CMEL next!

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Flying Friday: country mouse goes to the big city

I sometimes describe my airplane as a time machine: in some cases, it lets me get things done in less time, and in others makes possible things I couldn’t do at all without it. One of my recent flights was a great example.

Last year, I learned that the Delta Flight Museum exists. Even better, they have monthly surplus sales, where they sell off all manner of airline-related stuff-n-junk. These range from the desirable (airplane seats! monogrammed coffee mugs!) to the maybe-not (those paper-thin blankets they used to give coach passengers) to who-would-want-that (wooden coffee sticks with the Delta logo). Each month has a more-or-less random assortment of stuff, announced only a few days in advance. The sales are always on the second Friday of each month, but despite knowing well in advance when the sales would be held I hadn’t been able to squeeze in a visit. I decided that the May auction was going to be my first visit and booked the plane for that Friday.

In completely unrelated news, my employer has banned almost all work-related travel. I’ve met exactly three of my coworkers, not including my boss, since the acquisition. My boss happens to live in Atlanta and had to go to Hartsfield to pick up a family member the same day as the auction.

Did I mention that the Delta museum is across the street from the Signature FBO at Hartsfield?

So my trip plan was semi-complete: fly to ATL, visit the museum, have lunch with my boss, fly home.

Then a wrinkle intruded: Matt wanted to come back home for the weekend to attend a graduation party but didn’t want to drive. No problem— Auburn is a 45-minute flight from Hartsfield, so I’ll swing by and pick him up, then return him Sunday.

Plan complete, I filed a flight plan from Decatur to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Intergalactic Airport. One thing people sometimes don’t realize about aviation in the US is that everyone has (or is supposed to have!) equal access to the National Airspace System. It is perfectly legal for me to fly my little single-engine Cherokee Six into the World’s Busiest Airport. In fact, I did so in the midst of the pandemic-induced drop-off in air traffic last year. However, that ability comes with the responsibility not to a) screw up and do something stupid and b) not to impede the flow of all those big ol’ jet airliners. Because of the way Delta groups flights into blocks, some times of day are less busy than others, so I picked one of the less-busy times and filed for arrival during that time. Atlanta’s airport layout is fairly complicated, with five parallel runways and a maze of interconnecting taxiways. However, they happened to be using runway 8R for arrivals, and that’s the one closest to where I was going.

FAA airport diagram for KATL

The airport diagram for Atlanta— if you zoom in you get a sense of how much stuff is going on there

The flight over was completely uneventful— I filed for a direct flight from point A to point B, and flew exactly that until I was about 30 nautical miles outside Atlanta. Then ATC sent me to an intermediate intersection for a few miles, then told me “706 is cleared direct KATL, max forward speed.” What does that mean? Well, in my plane, normal cruising speed is 135 knots, or 155 mph. The absolute minimum airspeed for an Airbus A320 is about 115 knots— so if I’m going as fast as I possibly can, it’s only a little faster than the speed at which an airliner will drop from the sky. So “max forward speed” is definitely a relative concept. 

Foreflight

See those little blue arrowheads in front of me? They all have “DELTA” painted on the side

Perfect approach, normal landing, and an easy taxi to Signature. Like most other large airports, there are landing fees at ATL, but it’s only $11 for a single-engine piston airplane— compared to hundreds of dollars at Boston or SFO. Signature normally charges a $39 handling fee, but they waive it if you buy 15 or more gallons of fuel. The downside is that their fuel is ~$2/gallon more expensive than elsewhere, so there’s a little calculus required to figure out what’s cheaper. In this case, it worked out best to buy the fuel, so I did. Signature graciously used their crew van to run me over to the Delta museum area (it’s only about a half-mile walk) and dropped me off right in front of the surplus sale.

The sale? Well, what can I say. It was exactly what I expected. There was an A320 ADF antenna, a bunch of Delta-logo T-shirts, some cocktail napkins, coffee mugs from the Sky Club, and other assorted stuff. I bought a wall-mounted automatic soap dispenser ($5), a 747 farewell tour shirt ($5), a Delta-logo knit cap ($2), a backpack ($10), and a 4-pack of those little cocktail napkins you get in flight ($1). They had retired MD90 aircraft seats, but I reluctantly passed them by because I’m not sure where in our house I’d even put them.

Shopping done, I was able to wander around the museum grounds. Although it’s closed, you can walk right up to the static displays, so I did.

Delta static 747 display

This is a retired 747 that’s been outfitted as an event space— you can rent it for meetings, wedding receptions, parties, and so on. Sadly it’s closed for now.

IMG 5542

For some reason I found this hilarious. Why a Mini Cooper? I wish they would showcase the BBQ grill built from a PW2000 jet engine.

IMG 5544

I walked back to Signature and stashed my stuff in the plane. I noticed a bunch of black Suburbans and some cop-looking people wandering around, but then my boss showed up and we went to Malone’s to grab a burger. (Excellent choice btw— very solid bar food.) We had a very pleasant lunch, then he dropped me off at Signature to fly my next leg to Auburn. 

Side note for some pilot jargon. Normally when you’re getting ready to depart an airport that’s in controlled airspace you need a departure clearance. The traditional way to get this is to call someone on the radio (or, worst case, the phone), have them read your clearance to you, copy it down, and read it back to them. The FAA has slowly been rolling out a program called PDC, where your clearance is automatically generated and sent to you via an app or an SMS message. Not every airport has it, but Atlanta does, so instead of calling them on the radio, I just waited for the clearance message to arrive… except it didn’t, because I was leaving about an hour before my original planned departure time. I called the clearance delivery frequency, told them my call sign, and in about 2 minutes had a poppin’ fresh PDC. I programmed it into my panel-mount GPS and then noticed a flurry of activity off to my right on the ramp— the Secret Service gang was milling around. The reason was the arrival of “Coast Guard 101,” which you can see below. I never did find out who was on it but I assume it was a civilian DoD or USCG official, as military officers don’t usually get Secret Service protection.

IMG 5547

In any event, I got my taxi clearance, which was for the second of the five parallel runways. This required me to taxi to the end of one runway, watch a couple of airplanes to land on it, wait to be cleared to cross that runway, and then hold short of the runway I wanted to be on before I could leave. That made for some excellent views.

IMG 5548

yet another big jet

My departure clearance was pretty straightforward: radar vectors from ATC took me out near the Atlanta Motor Speedway (and its attached airport), then turned me on course to Auburn. I had a completely uneventful flight there, landed to pick up Matt, and flew home again. Within the space of about six hours, I was able to go from home to Atlanta to Auburn to home again, which would take me at least 8 hours of time on the road alone, plus I was able to visit the surplus store, meet my boss, and pick up my kid.

It’s a time machine, I tell you.

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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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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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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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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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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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Fuel shenanigans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fill ‘er up!

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