Saturday, July 31, 2010

When The Twin Breaks Down...Send A Skyhawk To The Rescue!

The weather was not looking too great - low clouds, rain showers, and grey skies were the first things I saw when I woke up. After checking the weather a little more closely, I called and cancelled my only student for the day. Our planned flight time of 3pm would put us squarely in low visual conditions and scattered thunderstorms. In anticipation of a relaxing day off, I ran over to the airport to pick up my paycheck.

When I walked in the door about 11:30am, the chief mechanic called me over as he was hanging up the phone. "Hey, one of the other pilots is out in the (Cessna) 414 and when he tried to start the left engine, it had some oil pressure problems. He is stuck in London, KY. Want to go pick him up?" In pilot-speak, he had pretty much just said "Hey, take an airplane and have fun all day doing what you want, the company will pay for it." Of course I accepted.

The first thing I did was to go over the weather in a lot more detail. Most of the crap was pretty far south and moving due east. Nothing was going to build too soon, and cloud bases were reasonably high above the ground for the entire route with good visibility underneath. I decided that as long as I didn't waste time, I could get down there and pick the other pilot up without worrying about the weather too much. He had the Garmin 396 handheld GPS with him, so we could use it's XM weather feature for strategic storm avoidance on the way home. I immediately started to preflight an airplane and file a flight plan. The plane I decided to take has a cruise prop on it, so it goes a hair faster and uses less gas than the others. It also has a Garmin GNS430 in the radio panel - an IFR-certified GPS. This tool makes IFR work a lot easier. As I was doing the pre-flight, my first private pilot student, Francis, came to the airport. He had just stopped by to drop off a check, but after I told him what I was doing he asked if he could go. I told him to check the weight and balance, and he could go if it was OK. It was OK, but just barely, and he decided to stay on the ground.

Only after I fueled up and started the engine did I remember that this plane has been having problems with the navigation radios - it wasn't legal to fly IFR. I ended up having to call Flight Service back and cancel the first flight plan and file another one, with a more complex routing. Then I had to put the first airplane away and do the entire preflight-fuel-setup the cockpit-game on a second plane. I finally got my clearance and off the ground, but I was about 35 minutes behind schedule.

This is a picture shortly after takeoff. You can see the wings are level, airspeed good, positive rate of climb, and right on course. You can also notice that the only thing to see out the window but a big grey nothing.

This picture is looking out the rear side window during the climb. You can see three states, Ohio north of the Ohio River (the bigger one), Kentucky to the left, and West Virginia to the right. KY and WV are separated by the Big Sandy River, which is smaller than the Ohio River.

At my cruising altitude of 6,000 feet, I was between layers of cloud and had about 15 or 20 miles of in-flight visibility. I could see scattered columns of cloud rising out of the floor below me and into the ceiling above, it was a very cool, and somewhat spooky, sight. I flew about 80 miles when I saw my in-between area of clear end, about 20 miles ahead. I was about 15 miles from London. I continued to get closer to London, but the wall of weather stayed where it was. The Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC, or center from now on) advised that they were showing an area of heavy to extreme precipitation ahead of my position, about 5 miles west of my destination. This was the crap I had seen on radar before takeoff and wanted to avoid. I would have made it with time to spare had the first plane been servicable. Not having on-board weather of any sort, I decided to take Indianapolis Center's advice and go back the way I had come. Being IFR with embedded storms and extreme precip is not where I want to take myself.

I set course for the Hazard, KY airport, about 30 miles east of my destination, London. When I got in the area I noticed the weather was a bit worse than it had been as I passed through earlier. The space between layers was still there, but the undercast was now solid rather than broken and a light rain was falling from above. From directly over the airport I turned west, outbound on the VOR approach, and began to lose altitude. Several miles later, when I turned inbound and crossed the final approach fix, I started trying to spot the airport. As the distance measuring equipment (DME) counted down the remaining miles to the airport, I began to think I might miss the approach - there was a large cloud ahead of me. I entered the cloud about 1 mile from the missed approach point. Just as I reached the MAP, I broke out of the other side of the cloud, spotted the airport, and landed at Hazard.

Here is another picture of some unnamed and unknown locale along the way. Notice the upper and lower cloud layers I mentioned earlier. When IFR, real-world locations don't really mean anything. The only reason you know you are moving is because the needles and numbers of the navigation equipment move. That and, well, airplanes can't exactly stop in mid-air.

After shutting down, and a quick dash through the rain, I found myself in a mostly-deserted and very typical small-airport FBO. My cell was dead, which made things difficult, but I got it to turn on long enough to get some phone numbers out of it. I called back home and let Megan know I was on the ground. Then I called home base to make sure I still needed to complete the trip - the pilot who was stranded with the 414 is also an A&P (airframe and powerplant mechanic). I was told that he was working on it, but still stranded, and the problem looked fairly serious, so I could continue if able. A quick glance at the radar confirmed that I was unable to continue for now. Every place between Hazard and home was clear of storms, but just north of London, there were scattered storms coming one after the other. I decided to take a crew car, drive into town, and get a bite to eat.

Town turned out to be a bit more than the advertised 10 minutes away from the airport. As I drove, I started to wonder if this sort of stuck-in-BFE-all-day-by-myself is fairly common for pilots. I suppose it is, which is OK, but sometimes I'd rather be home - especially when its supposed to be my day off. The valleys the road is built in were full of cloud and mist, and a light drizzle really made the entire day seem melancholy - especially because of the dilapidated-dirty-poor-coal-mining-area scenery. Not a cheerful place to live, thats for sure. After a quick bite to eat, I headed back to the airport. I was only gone for an hour. When I got back, I looked at the radar, decided it was time to go south, and called back home just one more time to be sure I should go. As it turned out, they had gotten the 414 repaired just before I called, and had departed London headed home just 10 minutes earlier. Aw hell.

I called Flight Service, filed the 12th flight plan that day, jumped in the plane, picked up my clearance, and headed for home. By this time, the weather south was flyable and the weather along my return route north was getting much better. The day's heat, which drives such storm patterns, was waning - it was almost 6pm!

Here is some cloud on the way home. Notice the layer dead ahead and same altitude - I punched right through that, but for the first time all day you can also see blue sky.

Local Approach was really friendly, as always, and offered me a localizer approach to get in. I accepted, and as I was starting to get radar vectors, they told me the ceiling was high enough that I could probably just get in by descending to the minimum IFR altitude and getting under the cloud deck, which was rising anyway. I told them that would be fine, and it would save about 15 minutes. The plan worked well, and I arrived home just as the last of the rain was clearing out. After cancelling my IFR clearance, I tuned to the UNICOM frequency for the home field and was surprised to hear someone answer me from the office. She had waited around for me to get back, and I was truly grateful. It was a fun day, but long, and I really got to exercise my decision-making and IFR flying abilities.

I took this picture right after I arrived. You can see the edge of the cloud layer - the last little bits of scud - moving away from the airport.

In retrospect, I did many things well, and a few things not so well. My first mistake was in getting delayed by about an hour. I missed my window for an approach to London by about 5 minutes. The second mistake was circling to land at Hazard. I should have started to slow the plane a bit earlier and landed more normally. Or I should have just headed for home. Neither one a big mistake, but things to think about next time I'm up in the soup. I made a lot of decisions that I was proud of, however. The decision I liked best was the decision to divert once I knew the flight could not be completed, and not before. I diverted to a relatively close location with known facilities and known flyable weather, rather than just turning tail and going home.

It was a fun, challenging day, and I got time in actual (which is very valuable experience-wise). My biggest complaint is that Francis didn't go with me, since I never did actually pick anyone up.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Matter Of Perspective...

In a typical day at work, I have between 3 and 5 flights. Of these, over 90% are with primary flight students. Some of the clients have been assigned to me, for others I am just pinch-hitting for their regular CFI. There are so many of them, but only one of me. Lately, I've been thinking about the way I experience a typical day at the airport vs. the way a flight student is likely to experience the airport. I am not much of a writer in the artistic sense, but I'm going to try a journal-like style for this post. I hope it works.

For the record, all of the people, events, and opinions described herein are entirely fictional. This is just a literary experiment. I hope it doesn't sound too pessimistic.

Tuesday, 7:22am
I glide my car into the usual spot in the shade by the FBO building. Just finished eating a peach and drinking a cup of coffee. I grab the flight bag, stack of papers, phone, sunglasses, and water bottle that make up my usual equipment for a long day. The morning fog is mostly gone, which is good. I have a student, a doctor learning to fly before clinicals each day, scheduled eight minutes from now, and I need to unlock the building, gas pumps, and get a flight briefing for the day before he arrives. We are both on a tight schedule this morning.

Tuesday, 8:07am
The doctor is here, and we just arrived in the practice area at 3,500'. He has had about 4 flight lessons so far, and today we are starting power-on stalls and recovery from them. After a steep turn and some basic maneuvers as a warm-up, I coach him through the first power-on stall. "Bring carburetor heat on, then bring power to 1500 RPM and add back pressure to maintain altitude, just like the slow flight we did two days ago. When you get an airspeed around 55 knots, bring your power to 2000 RPM, hold the back pressure on the yolk, and let the nose pitch up. Then, continue to bring the stick back until the stall occurs, the nose gently falls to the horizon, where you will relax the back pressure and pitch for a 70 knot climb." Sounds basic, tame, even monotonous to me. I know how the plane will react and am comfortable with it. I am also confidant in my ability to recover from anything could do to us. When we try the first stall, however, I can't convince him to bring the nose up enough to stall the plane. "Keep adding back pressure" I say. Finally, I add a gentle tug to finish the maneuver. The good part was that his instinctual reaction was to relax pressure on the stick. The bad is that he was a bit overzealous, and we are now in an accelerating dive. After returning to straight and level flight, it occurs to me how intimidating, even scary, this could be for a new pilot. Who am I to coax him into making the plane fall on purpose, what foolishness is this? Whats more, he is probably wondering if this kid next to him who is young enough to be his son can save the plane if something goes wrong.

Tuesday, 11:43am
Just finished a short cross-country flight with a college student learning to fly this summer. During the de-brief, I am thinking about how nice the AC feels, and feeling a bit hungry. Just another flight, to that same airport, 54 nautical miles away. My client, however, is really excited, remembering all the sights along the way, and asking a ton of questions. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do - teaching and flying, but sometimes it is easy to forget how blasted lucky we professional pilots are to see the things we see and do the things we do. Sometimes, it takes a fresh perspective to make us remember that. Sometimes, this is what I think about after that student has gone home, and I'm on my way across the street to grab lunch.

Tuesday, 2:18pm
Many afternoons around the airport are hot and boring. A lot of people who can afford to learn to fly are at work. The rest often don't want to fly during the hottest, stickiest, bumpiest part of the day. This is usually when I wander down to the maintenance hangar to relax in the air conditioned office, chat with the airport regulars, or volunteer some work time in the shop (refurbishing spark plugs, putting oil in motors, reassembling basic parts, etc.). This is also the time when I sometimes wish I was flying any of the planes in sight other than the Cessna Skyhawks. After over 400 hours in the front seat of a particular plane type, anything else (bigger or smaller, faster or slower) looks like paradise. Then again, I'll bet the small business owner won't look at the trainer plane in quite the same light when he arrives at 4:00. He walks in and sees an actual airplane. It is a Cessna, the brand that everybody has heard of but probably never touched. It is one of those beautiful "little" planes that his co-workers and family see as either dangerous or pointless. To him, it is the most fun he has had in years, a challenge, a tool, and a path to the dream of learning to fly.

Tuesday, 5:37pm
The chief pilot just called and asked if I have time to sub for one of the other CFIs who can't fly with his regularly scheduled student. I have a break in the schedule, and was planning on heading home for a couple hours before my night cross-country trip this evening, but I can stay. I'm looking forward to meeting someone new, seeing if I can help them hammer out the landing flare, and maybe looking forward to the extra hour on my paycheck, just a little.

Tuesday, 8:58pm
Now I'm flying with a middle-aged professional. He is almost done with flight training, and we are finishing the last of his night-flying requirements. I've now been at the airport or in an airplane for thirteen and one-half hours. I have made about 7.5 billable hours. We are almost home from a short cross-country destination. I'm drilling him on flight by reference to instruments, night-time optical illusions, emergency procedures, navigational chores, and nagging about using that checklist again. In the back of my mind I'm thinking about getting home to my girl, how tired I am, and the disparity between the hours I work and the hours I get paid for. Again, I love my job, but we can all imagine something a little better, can't we? During takeoff on our way home, I noticed that the landing light burnt out, but I don't think the student did. Oh well, he will figure it out soon. I hope it doesn't cause him too much concern when he does, I was going to have him land with the light off anyway, the landing lights burn out so often on these old planes that landing lights out is just another maneuver, just a training exercise. Still, as we plow on over small towns along the interstate home, radio chatter at a minimum, the air still, the world seeming to slow down and almost stop; things are peaceful, and beautiful. Without a word spoken, I realize that we are both admiring the beauty of the earth at night as only aviators can. For the first time all day, I think we are seeing things the same way.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Beautiful Picture on a Foggy Evening

Snapped some pics as my student-who-would-have-soloed-if-he-would-finish-his-paperwork took us around the patch. This one really stood out. All the mist/fog came from the really high humidity from the torrential rain of the past 30 hours or so. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Quick Update (and another solo!)

I am still working on a post about my developing perspective on flying every day, but until I can complete that train of thought I'll share some pictures I took today.

First, here is Dustin, who flew solo today for the first time in his life!

We started the day by practiceing various takeoff and landing techniques. It has been several weeks since we have done nothing but landings, and I wanted to be sure he was in the zone. Last week we flew a cross-country trip together, and I wanted to brush up a few skills I had seen on that flight. The flight before that one, I had decided he was ready to solo, but then a two week break set us back a little. Today, however, he was at the top of his game. I didn't bother telling him that there was a variable crosswind to 8 knots - words that would make a lot of pilots nervous. He flew the pattern perfectly each and every time, and was compensating without even thinking about it, so why bring it up?

I wanted to surprise him with the solo, because I didn't want him to overthink things, so when we taxied in to get some gas, I nonchalantly asked if he had gotten his medical yet, and if I could have it to make a copy for our files. One of the other CFIs asked if it was going to be a solo, and I said "no" so as not to ruin the surprise - we had just come in to get gas and use the head.

After getting back in the plane, and one final circuit around the pattern, I asked Dustin for his medical while we were taxing back to takeoff. He gave it to me, I signed it and his logbook, and then said "give me three normal landings" and jumped out.

He made three beautiful patterns, and the touchdowns were the best of the day. I really felt better about soloing my second student, and was a lot less nervous this time as I watched him climb away from the runway. I didn't have him fly with one of the other CFIs, this was entirely my own judgement call, and I knew it was the correct decision, even with the wind. Now, all we need is some better weather. Shortly after Dustin went home (to celebrate, I presume), the day turned into this and we aren't expecting anything better for about 48 hours.

Notice the red and white plane, N1868V, which comes into view tied-down near the the grass when the camera pans left. It is a new plane for the flight school, a 1975 Skyhawk. She flys true, climbs well, and is quite fast with the wheel pants on.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Flying a Cessna Original

Flew in an interesting plane today. Dubbed the "Rainmaker II" by its owner, N8574B is an original Cessna 172. As always, click the pictures for a larger, higher quality version. The older, 1970s models I teach in are, roughly, the 15th versions (L, N, and P models), and the ones produced today are S models. 74B isn't any model, its an original, manufactured in 1958, and it isn't what we would consider in "mint" condition, with a few stickers and a rattle-can paint job. The owner lives in Alaska, but his nephew lives here, and wants to finish his pilot training that he started about 7 years ago. Of course, he wants to fly the uncle's plane, which will be much cheaper (has to buy about 5 gallons of $4.50/gal gas per hour vs. a $90/hour rental).

There are many differences between the Skyhawks I usually fly and this early-model bird. First of all, the engine is a 6-cylinder, but rated at the same horsepower. Second, the plane is a lot lighter than the later models. Since the engine is flatter, the cowling (nose) is flatter, and so is the instrument panel. The windshield is bigger, and there is better visibility out the front, it is really cool. The tail is more square, which doesn't affect flight characteristics, but is very noticeable in this picture, which has a newer Skyhawk tail in the background for reference. Also, the plane sits much higher off the ground, so the sight picture is a little different and thus the landing also. Flaps in the school planes are electric, and when you select the flap lever, it takes several seconds for them to deploy or retract. In 74B, there is a big manual lever on the floor, much like the emergency brake handle in a car. Its really cool because you can go from zero to full flap much more quickly, and take them out quickly also. The final difference about the old plane is the way a vacuum is generated to power some of the gyroscopic instruments. In newer planes, there is an engine-driven vacuum pump to provide a vacuum source, but many older planes have these:
Each of these two tubes is called a venturi. As air passes through the narrower part, it speeds up, and as the speed of a fluid increases, the pressure decreases (this is Bernoulli's principle, one of the same effects that create lift in a wing). This vacuum is connected to the gyros. This is awesome. Cessna 172s are certified for spins, but normally can't be spun because there is no way to legally disconnect the gyros. If you spin the plane with the gyros powered, the bearings wear prematurely, which is especially bad for planes certified for instrument flight - where the 3 gyros are the only way of controlling the plane. Since this 'hawk has venturi-power (they aren't very good, especially at low speed) and is not certified for IFR, and the gyros are ancient, nobody cares if the plane is spun.

Spins have the reputation of being dangerous, but it would be more accurate to say that unintentional spins are dangerous, and spins when it is unclear who is flying the plane are dangerous, and spins in planes not certified for them are dangerous. Otherwise, it is a relatively low-stress maneuver for the airframe, and if loaded and certified, the planes are capable of entry and exit completely reliably. All pilots practice making the wing stall, which just means it hits the air at too high of an angle. Spins are simply when one wing is in this "stalled" condition and the other is creating lift, so that the plane rotates. It is a lot of fun to glide with the engine at idle, slowly pull the yolk back to the stop, wait for the nose to begin to break, hold it, and shove one rudder pedal to the floor. The nose drops off to one side, falls about 70 degrees below the horizon, and begins to rotate about one revolution per second or two. To recover, you just push the other pedal, let the yolk come forward, and bring the nose to the horizon. Lots of fun.

Well, because of all these differences, I was told to take the plane out by myself and get used to the way it flies before I try to teach in it. I went through the papers, read the checklist, examined the instrument panel to find the switch and lever locations, and fired 'er up. Despite the differences, it is just a Skyhawk, and the first circuit around the pattern went very normally and culminated in a near-perfect landing. OK, checkout complete, the plane flies almost exactly the same, so I headed out to the practice area, got radar services, and climbed to about 5,000' above ground level. Spins in the 172 are something I've wanted to do since I got spin instruction last November in preparation for my instructor rating, and I have come to the conclusion that (as long as safety is carefully considered) spins are pretty much the most fun maneuver that is legal in a non-aerobatic plane. After a couple each left and right, I headed in for some more landings. That was when I discovered the joy that is manual flaps. Had fun getting to know the plane, and did some grass operations and engine-out practice (the plane glides much worse than the later models).

After an hour of the most fun I've had in a plane for a long time, I headed over to the fuel pumps. Before the flight, the left tank had 13 gallons and the right tank had 10 gallons, 23 total. After the flight of 1.7 hours, the plane had 16 gallons in it. 7 gallons cost me $33.50. When is the last time anyone got almost 2 hours of free, fun, solo flight for less than $40? I don't know, but it sure is cool when it comes around. I'm excited to start teaching the nephew in his uncle's aerial classic, sans the spins of course.

The entry in my logbook for this flight was the last one on the page. While adding the columns, I realized I just hit 900 landings and 400 flight hours. I have flown about 100 hours in the past 8 weeks, when I started this job. Up to this point in my life, I have managed to average about 100 hours per year. Now that is something to write home about.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days Of Summer (flight school style)

When it is freezing cold and snow is on the ground, or when there are storms every day, a stable high pressure system sounds like heaven. Well, our weather has been dominated by a strong, slow-moving high for over a week now. The result is that our region is almost swimming in thick, stagnant, stale air. Humidity continues to climb every day, and life is generally miserable. There isn't (and hasn't been) any wind to speak of, and between atmospheric stability, heat, and lots of water content in the air, visibility is very poor. Today I think its up to 5 or perhaps 6 miles, which isn't anything in the air. I'd fly in it, obviously (visual flight requires a minimum of 3 miles), but it isn't good for students wanting to fly solo cross-country trips (they either aren't allowed to go, or they might get lost), and it isn't even good for teaching basic flying, because there is no horizon to see, most of the sky is a big white blur, especially when headed into the sun.

One of our students found this out the hard way this past Saturday. I was asked by his primary instructor to fly with him to Hazard, KY and back. If the guy's performance was up to par, I agreed to sign him off to fly there and back solo - it was to be his first cross-country flight by himself. We got up early, reviewed the flight plan, and were wheels-up by 8:30am or so. At that point, the high had just moved in, and the weather wasn't as bad as it is now, but it was starting to haze up all along the route. I snapped a few pictures on my way to Hazard. Here you can see the haze forming, along with some cloud at our cruising altitude of 6,500 feet. We eventually decided to go down to 4,500. There is a lot of mountain-and-hill-top removal coal mining in eastern KY and southern West Virginia. This is what it looks like when they are restoring a site, it looks much worse while they are mining, but the tops seem to recover fairly well. Modern mining seems much better than older methods. Flying in this area, I have seen shear rock walls and odd-looking holes in the sides of hills that are obviously older, pre-regulation mines. These are the ones that leech crazy chemicals and such. Much of the landscape of Kentucky is beautiful, despite the mining. Here is a pretty typical scene, just a country abode nestled in the hills. These pictures look blue-ish or blurry, partly because of the plexiglass window and partly because of the haze that was starting to build even then (almost a week ago).

Unfortunately for him, I didn't give Greg a chance to enjoy the scenery - that comes after the coveted pilot's certificate is earned. I had him busy keeping track of our course, using several navigational techniques (but not GPS), talking to ATC and Flight Service, updating his flight plan and getting weather updates while enroute, and recalculating groundspeed, time of arrival, and fuel usage at each checkpoint. We got off-course once, and I was happy to see that he had the situational awareness to figure out his location with landmarks out the window, correlate them to what is on the chart, and get back on course and determine the new fuel requirements. Overall, it was a top-notch performance, and we soon found ourselves on arrival to Runway 14 at Hazard, KY. The visibility looks OK here, but it has gotten worse and worse all week.

I got out of the plane while Greg went around the traffic pattern a couple times by himself. I mentioned that I was hungry, and the guy in the FBO told be to go in the kitchen and make a ham and cheese sandwich. They had ham, turkey, roast beef, and all the condiments and bread, plus mac and cheese, soup, ramen, and lots of other things that amounted to the most well-stocked kitchen I have ever seen at an airport. I took my sandwich outside and watched the plane go around the pattern.

We turned around and came home, arriving back at the flight school around noon. The weather had been stable, and with the high pressure system, we knew it would stay the same throughout the day (at least). I signed his book and turned him loose, then headed home. Little did I know that visibility would continue to degrade throughout the week. At this point, flights have pretty much stopped, since there isn't enough of a horizon to really fly by. That isn't a problem for a more experienced pilot, but for the newbies it is often a deal breaker. Even if they aren't nervous about the visibility, I can tell that they have some trouble flying in 5 miles of visibility in haze. Other than showing them what marginal visibility looks like, and telling them to think how bad the legal minimum of 3 miles would be, there is not a lot we can get done with the primary students.

Oh well, it is supposed to storm this weekend. That means unstable air, (temporarily) cooler temperatures, and good visibility for a few days. If we have to dodge a storm or two, it will be a nice change at least.