Tag Archives: flying

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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nFlightCam vs Squawk Shoppe cockpit audio adapters

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

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

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

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

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When to declare an in-flight emergency 

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

Should I declare an emergency?

If I’m:

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

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

Clear, simple, and memorable. 

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On currency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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First impressions: flying the Avidyne IFD540

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

Now, the longer version.

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

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

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

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

TABIR-with-traffic

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

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

datablocks set up the way I like them

datablocks set up the way I like them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My first in-flight emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GI106A course deviation indicator

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

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

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

Nada.

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

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

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

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

Here’s a partial map of our flight route.

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

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

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