Monday, June 13, 2016

Worst. Email. Ever.

My 35th birthday was on April 17th, and I spent it in about the best way I could imagine: Dawn and I cruising up the west coast in our Piper Pacer. The day prior we started in Torrance, CA, where the plane had been kept since our February Baja trip, worked our way north via Big Sur, Napa, and the Siskayou Mountains, then stopped for the night in scenic Ashland, OR. On my birthday we made it to Vancouver, WA in one long leg, then picked up my friend Brad and farted around a bit, landing at a mutual friend's private strip to check out his new Maule M5. Later that week I had a long PDX overnight, and I took advantage by taking my good friend Duncan and his two young boys for a loop of Mt. St. Helens and the Columbia River Gorge. This was the last flight before the annual I had scheduled with Aero Maintenance at Pearson Field (KVUO).


I few days later, I was still on a work trip when I got the email that every aircraft owner having their plane annualed dreads. "Bad News... we found a lot of brass & bronze in your oil." I had just changed the oil 15 hours prior in Southern California and had removed the oil screen for inspection as I always do; it was perfectly clean, and a magnet picked up no shavings. I called the lead mechanic at Aero Maintenance and he confirmed that this was a lot of metal, enough to immediately ground the airplane. If your engine starts making a little metal, standard procedure is to change the oil and fly it for a few hours and see if it makes more, but this wasn't the case here. He sent me a few photos with the oil screen and a ruler for reference, and they were damning: big flakes, likely a good half-teaspoon or more of them. I authorized a little more exploration and it didn't take long for bad to go to worse: in the sump and sump screen they found more flakes plus a large chunk of metal about 3/4" long that appeared to be a piece of main bearing. There was no question about it, the engine had to come off the airplane, and an expensive major overhaul was in the offing.

 

I looked over all my options. A local engine shop quoted a minimum of $23,000 for the overhaul. I could have it shipped out and a high-volume shop could do it for as little as $13,000. Both quotes were potentially on the low end as I had a hollow crankshaft with inner diameter pitting that was virtually condemned by AD, and my O-320-B2A was a narrow deck that requires expensive factory cylinders. If I was really looking to splurge I could buy a remanufactured engine from Lycoming for close to twice what I paid for the airplane. The cheapest option was to find a mid-time used O-320 and hope it lasted longer than this one. The last option was to simply sell her as she sat. I doubted there was much of a market for Pacers with blown-up engines but figured I could at least get $8 or $9k for her. This represented a major loss from the $23k purchase price, but I was likely to lose that much or more by having the overhaul done. Remember, we were already planning to sell the plane later this summer, after flying it to Montana and then up to Alaska.

I finally concluded that it was stupid to stick a ton of money into a plane that I was going to sell anyways, as much as I wanted to take her to Alaska. Our house was in the process of selling, we were getting serious about the boat search, and there was just too much going on to commit to a major resuscitation of our airplane. Better to find someone qualified and local to do it. I listed the plane for $10k on Barnstormers.com and was immediately inundated with response. Turns out there is a market for run-out Pacers. Several people dropped by Pearson Field to look at the plane, and an A&P from near Anacortes WA who works for Boeing ended up buying her. After overhaul, he intends to fly her to Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. That makes me feel better about what was overall a pretty major bummer. That engine had less than 1000 hours since major overhaul and I had babied it during my ownership. That said, it was overhauled in 1988 and there were years prior to my ownership where it was hardly ever run. Thus were sown the seeds of its destruction, I'm guessing.

There's one other thing that kept this from being a major downer for me. At some point in the last 15 hours, that engine had started tearing itself apart from the inside out, and yet it ran perfectly. Many of those 15 hours were spent over extremely inhospitable terrain. There were quite a few cases where my best option after engine failure would have been to find the flattest part of a mountainside and put it between two trees. That last flight in particular, with my buddy and his two young boys in the plane as we circled Mt. St. Helens and traversed miles of rugged tree-covered hills to the Gorge, and then flew low over downtown Portland, could have ended very, very badly. I'm so thankful that the engine kept running and got us all back to an airport safely. I'm also glad I decided to have the annual done in Vancouver; I was originally planning on having it done in Montana.


Shortly after I sold the plane, but before the new owner showed up to take off the wings and trailer her home, I had another PDX overnight. I took the opportunity to go across the river and retrieve my headsets, camping equipment, and personal effects from the airplane. I walked around her one last time, softly drumming the fabric, ducked my head inside the cockpit for a whiff of that familiar old airplane smell, and patted the cowling as I walked away. In eighteen short months of ownership we had 200 flight hours and a lot of great adventures together. Dawn and I will miss our good old Pacer for a long time, I think. That said, I suspect there will be some other great old airplanes in our future too.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Anchors Aweigh

Last post I alluded to some pretty major developments in my and Dawn's lives, and I won't keep you in suspense. Last August we decided we want to do something completely different. Dawn was starting to get burned out on teaching and I'm not growing any fonder of Minnesota winters; there's really nothing keeping us here. My airline has seven different 7ER bases and MSP is one of the most senior and is slowly shrinking. We talked about various places we could move, and then I broached an idea I'd been mulling over for some time: what if we moved onto a 40' sailboat and cruised the Bahamas and Caribbean for a few years? Surprisingly, Dawn loved the idea. Once upon a time she would have rejected it outright but we've since done a number of bareboat charters in California, the Bahamas and the BVI. She's been getting a lot more confident (not to mention competent) with the sailing part, and in fact has really enjoyed the weeklong stints of living on a boat. When I brought up the idea, we had just returned from another BVI charter on a 50-foot Beneteau with six friends, none of whom had sailed much before, and Dawn was a fantastic first mate. I guess that experience was a turning point, because her reaction to my cautious suggestion was to immediately start brainstorming ways to make it happen.


And so over the course of the next few days we crafted an ambitious plan to sell everything, buy a boat, Dawn quit her job, go cruising for 7-8 months of the year for the next three years, drop my schedule to a minimum and commute from the Caribbean during the cruising season, and come back north (and earn most of the year's income) while the boat is stored on land during hurricane season. This "part time pilot" plan is possibly largely because my airline  (my airplane especially) is so seasonal, with summer block hours much higher than winter. In high season it's all hands on deck, but the rest of the year it's pretty easy to take time off. Pretty slick that our high season correlates with the Caribbean hurricane season.

Our original plan was for Dawn to teach the 2016-2017 school year, buy the boat this fall and sell our house next year, moving aboard in June 2017. We started in on the plan with research, budgeting, and prepping our Washington townhouse for sale (it's been rented out since we moved back to MN in 2008). The real estate market out west has really recovered strongly within the last year, including for townhouses which were even more severely depressed than the rest of the market for several years. To our surprise and delight, the townhouse sold on the very first day of listing, for our full (and ambitious, I thought) listing price.


We have since moved our plan up by nearly a year for two reasons. First, Dawn is just completely 100% burned out on teaching. This has been the worst year since she started, it's really taken a toll on her, and she's just flat-out done, for now anyways. At the least she needs to take a break, and perhaps in a few years she'll be ready to go back to it. Secondly, considering how hot the real estate market has been lately and the potential for market volatility and interest rate hikes after the election, we decided to sell our home in Minnesota a year early. This has happened really quickly: we made the decision to sell at the end of March, put in new carpet and paint in early April, and had an (even more ambitious) full-priced offer on April 21st - a full nine days before we were planning to officially list the house! We close on June 7th and have been very busy packing and downsizing and preparing to move to our interim housing, a one-bedroom apartment in a historic building in downtown St. Paul. This has involved selling, donating, giving away, or borrowing out the majority of our possessions, with a few pieces of furniture retained for the five months we'll be in the apartment. We're keeping a few personal items with sentimental value, like gifts from good friends or the artwork in our house (all our own photography from our various travels); these will be stored for the duration. Otherwise, the only stuff we're keeping is that which will be helpful enough on the boat to merit valuable stowage space.


You're probably wondering about the Pacer. I initially concocted a Parrothead fantasy of bringing it to the Caribbean with us and island-hopping around whilst keeping it abreast of the boat, but soon concluded that a tropical marine environment would be murderous on a fabric-covered airplane left outside and also that our new boat would need the full attention of her two crew and our pocketbook. I then considered storing it for the 8 months we're on the boat and using it during the 4 offseason months (when we're supposed to be devoting our attention to earning income), but eventually decided this was a waste of resources and in direct contravention to my resolution to fly any airplane I own at least 10 hours a month. And so we decided to sell the Pacer this summer - but in the meantime, to embark on a grand adventure flying clockwise around the country visiting friends and venturing down Baja and getting in some backcountry flying in Idaho and Montana before making the bucket-list pilgrimage to Alaska, where we would sell her. It was a grand idea and we had a wonderful time for the 75 hours and 3/4 of the way around the country that it lasted. That all came to a screeching halt in Portland, Oregon when I received the news that every plane owner dreads during the annual inspection. This led to me selling the plane earlier this month at a significant loss, but that's a tale of woe best left for another post.


So now we're pretty seriously into the search for our floating home for the next three years. Our perfect sailboat is a medium-displacement cutter or ketch between 40 and 45 feet long, preferably a center-cockpit design with two good-sized staterooms and private heads fore and aft. It will be set up to be easily single-or-double-handed while offering comfortable living quarters for four; we plan to bring friends and family down to sail with us regularly. The onboard equipment will allow for sustainable living "on the hook" in serene anchorages away from marinas for weeks on end. Our midrange budget means that most potential candidates will be 30+ years old, but we can still afford to look at only those that have been well-maintained with most major systems replaced and/or upgraded. We're unlikely to find a boat that's exactly what we want and in bristol condition, and so our budget includes money to upgrade and refit the boat both at the start of our cruise and each off-season.


We've whittled the field to six models that particularly suit our needs: the Tayana 42CC, the Bristol 41.1/43.3/45.5, the Brewer 12.8/44, the Gulfstar 44, the Kelly Peterson 44/46, and the Whitby 42. Of these there are about ten specific boats currently on the market that we're interested in, and we're making our way down that list as time allows given everything else going on. One Tayana that I've already seen, Windbird, is a strong candidate and we may end up making an offer on her, but I'm trying to be logical and not get my heart set on a specific boat yet; being inexperienced boat shoppers, we really do need to see quite a few more in person before deciding. To that end, Dawn and I will be taking a boat-searching roadtrip down North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida this coming Memorial Day Weekend. Windbird is one of the boats on the list as Dawn hasn't seen her yet, but there are a few others that could well end up being stronger candidates. And really, nothing says we have to buy right now, or even this summer, or even this year. I don't want to be rushed into buying a boat simply because we sold the house earlier than planned; it wouldn't hurt us to go back to the original timeline and build our cruising kitty in the meantime.

This is all rather outside the scope of an aviation blog, and Dawn and I have decided that our new adventure merits its own blog, one to which we'll contribute collaboratively. Many cruising blog titles incorporate the boat name, but we don't have one yet so we've decided upon "Weigels on the Water," mostly thanks to the catchy URL wotwater.blogspot.com. You can follow our maritime adventures there, although my posts here will likely include some of the highlights.


Friday, May 06, 2016

Six Months In (Sorta)

Considering my lack of posting you might think that my airline is working me to death, but no, that's not the case. Recently I passed 120 hours on the B757/767...just over six months since I went to class! Keep in mind that I was originally awarded the slot way back in Feb 2015, meaning I'm only nine months away from my seat lock expiring. I'm not planning on going anywhere but it keeps options open.

Basically what happened is that my airline was originally planning on retiring a significant portion of the 7ER fleet, didn't train many new pilots on it for a while, then decided to keep many of the airplanes after all at the same time that a bunch of senior 7ER FOs took captain slots on other fleets. Whoops, big training logjam! It's just now finally clearing.

So here's basically how my training went:

Oct-6Nov15: Home study for 7ER course (we basically teach ourselves the systems on our own time via computer based training, honestly not my favorite way to train).

6Nov15-6Dec15: 7ER Initial training. You may recall from Mad Dog school that we break our initial training into four blocks, numbered 100 to 400, that roughly correspond with systems training, procedures training, maneuvers training, and line-oriented training. These all end in checkrides but the two most important are 34X (Maneuvers Validation) and 44X (Line-Oriented Evaluation). Unlike Mad Dog school, I was paired with an FO rather than a CA, which complicated things a bit in that we each had to learn left-seat duties and got only half the time we otherwise would in the right seat. However, my sim partner (who is only a few numbers senior to me) is an extremely sharp guy, we worked very well together, and we made it through the course without problems. One happy footnote: we weren't stuck in "the schoolhouse" the entire time, our 300-series sims were all down at the Boeing training facility in Miami. We passed our 44X checkrides easily on December 6th and were sent home indefinitely waiting on IOE.

31Jan15-05Feb15: Initial Operating Experience (IOE). I flew with a super-nice Detroit-based Line Check Airman, he was completely understanding that I hadn't been in training for eight weeks and might take a little more time to get spooled up. My very first leg was in a B757-200 and operated from Detroit to Cancun for a 24 hour overnight, a very nice way to kick things off! Our subsequent layovers were in Orlando, Fort Myers, and Atlanta. I ended up flying the B752 for 5 legs, the B753 for 2 legs, and even our GE-powered domestic B767-300 for 2 legs. I liked the legendary power and performance of the B752, but I loved the fingertip-light control feel of the B763 (due to the additional inboard ailerons). You simply think about turning, and she's turning.



29Feb-04Mar: Transoceanic Operating Experience (TOE), 2 crossings of 4 required. There was less time off before this so I didn't have much catchup on the airplane itself, but there's a lot to cover over the course of the first 8-hour crossing (during which I was in the rest seat for 2 hours) and it's all stuff that I'd last covered in mid-December. I crammed to catch up in the days before the TOE, and the LCA was happy with my preparation. We flew one leg from Atlanta to London-Heathrow in the B767-300ER, and after a 18 hour layover flew an ETOPS B757-200 back across to PHL. We even got tagged for a couple domestic legs the next day, the better to increase my landing count. I gotta say, though, I've found all the variants pretty easy to land. It just takes the first few to adjust to the higher sight picture.

06Mar-10Mar: TOE crossings 3 & 4. Only one day off before straight into my 2nd TOE, which was based out of Seattle and consisted of only two legs, SEA-PVG-SEA. This was my first time to China, and I had a really nice 48 hour layover to explore Shanghai. The takeoff out of Seattle, at 407,000 lbs, is my heaviest to date. Like I said the B767 is really light on the controls, so you don't feel that heavy, but acceleration obviously takes longer and you have to be really sharp with your pitch control to avoid overspeeding the flaps while retracting them at the proper speed and keeping the airplane accelerating. On the way over we were in VHF coverage the whole way, flying north via Alaska, the Bering Sea, Russia, and arriving from over Beijing. The Russian and Chinese controllers weren't too hard to understand, but once in China you switch to flying metric altitudes, which is a little different. The weather really stunk in Shanghai when we landed, with a big gusty crosswind, but the rainy runway made for a nice landing. On the way back we flew via Japan and then over the water. Because this is such a long flight, it was a 4-man crew, meaning I spent nearly half of each crossing in the bunk (and these particular B767s actually have bunks - so nice!). Pretty easy work if you can get it.



And that's it, I was released to the line on 10Mar, didn't work again thanks to creative bidding until early April, and have done a few trips since, all domestic. I'm getting pretty comfortable with the airplane - as expected, it's superior to the MadDog in every way possible, but there are also a surprising number of similarities that make for an easy transition. I've been quite busy taking advantage of all the free time for the last six months, and have done the following trips:

mid-October: Interline Regatta, British Virgin Islands.
Christmas/New Years: Dawn and I flew the Pacer from Minnesota to Connecticut and then down to Key West.
early Jan: flew around Florida visiting friends.
mid-Jan: Dawn and I flew the Pacer from Florida to Phoenix.
mid-Feb: Dawn and I flew the Pacer down Baja with our friends Brad and Amber (they rented a 182 out of San Diego). Awesome, epic trip - story is coming out in July issue of Flying.
late-Mar: Went to Thailand to visit my sister and her kids in Chiang Rai, flew down to Phuket, met my parents, chartered a 39' Leopard catamaran for 5 days of sailing the Andaman Sea.
mid-Apr: Dawn and I flew the Pacer up the west coast to Portland, OR.

Besides all that, there are some pretty major developments in my and Dawn's plans, dating back to last August. As a result, we sold our rented-out townhome in Vancouver WA back in February, and just sold our house in Minnesota a few weeks ago. We close on June 7th, and are renting a small apartment in downtown St. Paul for the summer before taking off for "new horizons." Yes, I have some pretty serious catch-up blogging to do.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

ModAero

This is rather last minute, but I wasn't entirely sure I was going to make it until fairly recently. The ModAero NextGen Aviation Festival will be happening in Conroe, TX (just north of Houston) this Weds-Sat March 16th-19th, and I'll be speaking on the main stage at 12:30PM on Friday. I'll also be participating in a few panel discussions throughout the day. ModAero is an interesting concept, a fly-in/aviation symposium/music festival aimed at younger pilots & aviation enthusiasts. This is their first year, and it'll be interesting to see how it goes. So if you're in the area, come check it out.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Southern Sun, Part II

I flew back down to Tampa on January 15th, caught an Uber ride to Peter O Knight Airport, and inspected the Pacer. The local mechanics had completed the required 50-hour muffler inspection, but hadn't been able to hunt down a slight oil leak I had noticed the previous week on the way over from Orlando. Nothing to do but fly and try to figure out where it was coming from on subsequent legs, I figured. I launched to the north, into the teeth of a fierce headwind that spawned moderate turbulence and miserably slow groundspeed. Finally I ducked down low and just offshore alongside the Gulf Coast, where the ride improved considerably and progress improved by a couple knots. I landed at Cross City, FL for cheap gas - as I had on my way north from the Bahamas last spring - which involved a pretty nasty crosswind and a wild ride down final. In the hour and a half since Tampa a fine mist of oil had again coated the right side of the windscreen, and this time I also saw oil on the righthand wing struts. Now I knew the culprit: after the crankshaft inspection AD was accomplished in Bartow the previous week, the crankshaft plug hadn't been sufficiently seated, allowing oil to leak out and be slung outward by the propeller. No mechanics on the field here, though, not on a Friday afternoon. There wasn't any danger of the plug coming out altogether, as it was held in place by the propeller flange. I decided to press on and just clean up the oil after each leg.

It was a slow couple hours to Destin Executive Airport, where I landed and booked a nearby hotel room for the night. While waiting in the FBO lobby, a younger pilot came in looking for the guy with the yellow Pacer. Turned out David has a J-3 Cub and a family T-6 Texan (!) and wanted to tell me he liked my airplane. I told him about my round-the-US trip and noted that I was planning on going to a fly-in at nearby Brewton, AL the next morning; he decided to go too, flying his Cub. We ended up meeting for drinks that night, but didn't stay up too late in the interest of getting an early start to Brewton.

Alas, Saturday morning dawned rather foggy, and by the time it finally burned off it was time for me to get going to Pensacola; I had to miss the fly-in. Dawn was flying in on Delta via Atlanta, and just like in Nassau last year I landed right after her flight. The folks at Pensacola Aviation Center were exceptionally nice, picked Dawn up from the terminal, and declined to charge me a ramp fee even though I had just fueled in Destin and didn't need gas. It was just after noon when we took off to the northwest; we hoped to meet our friends Rob and Lori in Dallas that night.



Our first stop was only 40 miles northwest, in Bay Minette, Alabama. Dawn had three states left to visit to make 50 - Alabama, Mississippi, and New Mexico - and we figured we'd knock out all three over the weekend. We borrowed an awesomely dilapidated 1994 Buick LeSabre - I once owned one of that exact year, which my friends mercilessly dubbed "The GrandpaMobile" - and sought out a decent Mexican restaurant in the little town center. From there it was a two-hour hop west to Natchez, MS, where a quick fuel stop satisfied the visitation requirements of Dawn's second-to-last state. From there we flew west across the broad Mississippi River and the plains of northern Louisiana as the sky grew increasingly grey and the south winds freshened. We were approaching a cold front that was blocking our route to Dallas with widespread rain over the TX-LA border. Initially I thought we could go through it, but as we came nearer I watched the weather steadily deteriorate via my stratux ADS-B receiver, with increasingly strong rain showers and lowering ceilings. That matched what I saw out the window as we approached the frontal boundary - and worse, we were starting to lose daylight. Nope, I wasn't going to scudrun through that. I turned to the southwest and paralleled the leaden wall, looking for a way through.


We went over fifty miles southwest before I found what I was looking for, a southern crease in the front, where the rain was light and the ceiling not so low. We turned westward and plunged into darkness under the soggy clouds. Twice, the ceilings lowered enough that I nearly turned around - but each time, we abruptly broke out into a much clearer area. By the time I worked my way back northwest to Palestine, TX, the ceilings were back up to a good 2500 feet with decent visibility underneath. Oh, but was that airport dark! Landing was the easy part; groping my way to the fuel pumps via a pitch-black spiderweb of taxiways was trickier. Thankfully the pilot lounge had a code lock with instructions, so we could warm up and dry out a bit while pondering our options. Dallas had gone completely IFR and was forecast to stay that way for another couple hours. There was no point going to see our friends if we didn't get up there until almost midnight. Waco was only 70 miles west of us, with much better weather. So that's where we went, arriving at the barren and windswept TSTC Waco Airport (KCNW) well after everyone had locked up and gone home. Fortunately there were rooms available at a brand new and charmless Holiday Inn a few miles away, and an Uber driver came to get us before we froze to death huddled in the lee of the cavernous TSTC hangars. Too cold and tired to explore Waco, we ate dinner at the deserted hotel restaurant and collapsed into bed.

Sunday morning was cold, clear and still; when we showed up at CNW just after 7am, there was a thick deposit of frost on the Pacer's upper surfaces. We spun it to face the rising sun and then rotated it periodically, as on a spit; eventually the frost softened enough to brush it off with a long-handled broom. We finally departed at 9am and had a lovely first flight against light headwinds to our first fuel stop at Coleman. After this the terrain grew rugged and periodically jumped to a higher elevation. At the same time the headwinds piped up, so I flew low among the rocks for a while to keep the groundspeed up. But then the surroundings started looking rather inhospitable in case of a forced landing; that slow oil leak that was forcing us to clean the windscreen at every fuel stop was still nagging at the back of my mind, and I went back up to an altitude that would give us a few options in case the worst happened. From there it was a slow slog to Odessa, where we landed around 12:30. The friendly folks at Wildcatter Aviation borrowed us a beautiful new crew car to scarf down lunch at colorful (and busy!) local establishment "Dumplins Y Amigos."


Just as we were about to start up for our next leg, a truck came roaring up to the Pacer with a middle-aged guy, a kid, and an old guy. Turns out the old guy used to own a Pacer and the middle-aged guy currently owns one, just across the field, and is an active member of the Short Wing Piper Club, a type club to which I belong and follow on Facebook. I mentioned that my bungees needed renewal and I had the replacement bungees along; he remarked that he had the necessary tool in his hangar and we could get the job done in an hour or so. In retrospect it would have been a good time to do the bungees and save some money, maybe while also pulling the prop to reseat the crankshaft plug. At the time I was anxious to continue westbound, especially since the winds aloft forecast was such that I wasn't sure I could make it to El Paso nonstop. I thanked him and declined, and a few minutes later we took off and started climbing to find the most favorable winds.

As it turned out, the winds were much more northerly than forecast at both 6500' and then 8500', altitudes at which the Pacer absolutely sips fuel while still giving a decent turn of speed. Consequently, not only did we make it to El Paso, we overflew it to land in Las Cruces, NM. It was a gorgeous flight along the way, skirting past the iconic sentinel mount of the west, Guadalupe Peak. My original intention was to continue to Silver City, NM for the night, but the winds were blowing stink up there, promising a miserable ride up in the mountains, so we decided to call it a night at Las Cruces. The FBO there originally quoted us $60 for a rental car, but then allowed that we could take their courtesy car overnight if we returned it early the next morning. That suited us just fine. We got a very cool room for quite cheap at the Lundeen Inn of the Arts, a southwestern gallery-cum-B&B. Las Cruces was very quiet on Sunday night, but we enjoyed walking around town and then found an excellent restaurant at which to celebrate Dawn's having visited all 50 states. As an aside, my 50th was Alaska when we rode our motorcycles there five years ago....but that was only because I had boarded the wrong hotel van on a PHL overnight and unintentionally ended up in Delaware.


We started early again the next morning, mindful that we had a mid-afternoon flight to make from PHX to MSP. This time there was no frost in the dry desert air, and we departed Runway 31 as the sun topped the eastern mountains. This was mostly noteworthy because I meant to depart Runway 26...I realized the discrepancy just after liftoff. Look at the airport chart, and you can see how it could happen. It's a similar layout to Lexington at the time of the Comair accident. This is the first time I've ever landed or taken off on a runway other than the one I intended. Las Cruces is a non-controlled airport so there was no clearance violation, and Runway 31 is plenty long, but it was still a huge eye-opener. I felt sick about it for a while.

Fortunately it was an absolutely stunning flight and my goofup was mostly forgotten as we marveled at the gorgeous scenery bathed in slanting morning light. We landed in Safford, AZ to top off on cheap gas - unnecessary given the excellent groundspeed, but it seemed like (and was) a nice friendly airport deep in the shadow of Mount Graham, and it was the sort of blissful morning aloft that you want to stretch out. All too soon we were descending over the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, dodging airspace and then landing at surprisingly busy Chandler, Arizona. I wanted to get the Pacer in for maintenance, and as luck would have it, as we cleared runway 4L I spied Chandler Aviation with its doors wide open and an empty tiedown beckoning. Soon after we shut down, Frank Setzler came over to talk. He's the owner and head mechanic at Chandler Aviation, and it turns out he used to own a Pacer. Funny how many mechanics used to own Pacers! Upon investigation it would turn out that the Pacer actually needed a bit more care than I realized, but after all I had flown it some 60 hours since leaving Minnesota, and in Chandler it was in good hands. That's good, because next we were headed to a place you'd really rather not run into unexpected maintenance problems: Baja California, Mexico.

  

Friday, January 29, 2016

Southern Sun

Growing up in the Great White North, I knew a few snowbirds among my parents' circle of friends and supposed that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line was perpetual glorious summer. I wasn't fully disabused of this notion until my frigid motorcycle trip across the South six years ago, which comprised two legs of a nearly-15,000 mile ride around the Lower 48. I rode shivering in temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s - the warmest it got between San Diego and Florida was 49 degrees, in El Paso - and an enormous winter storm that dumped a foot of snow on Dallas chased me all the way from Texas to Tampa. I'd already been flying airliners to the south and southeast for a few years and should have known better: of course the South has winter. It's merely more moderate than the North, and only really stays nice in a few localized spots: Southern California, the low desert around Phoenix and Tucson, the Gulf Coast, and most of Florida - basically, all the places the snowbirds end up.

When we set out for the East Coast with the Pacer on Christmas Day, it was with the intention of reprising the motorcycle trip, in stages as in 2010, but from the air this time and clockwise around the country with additional forays to Mexico and Alaska. This time I had no illusions as to the weather difficulties associated with making such a trip in the winter, and the first two legs to the Northeast and down to Florida did not disappoint. We made our easting between two major, fast-moving systems, had one nasty cold front pass over while holed up in Connecticut, and snuck down to North Carolina ahead of the next. From there we fought our way down through strong southerly flow funneled between a warm front over the Atlantic and a stationary front stalled over the Appalachians. Basically we made the most of each short weather window, and in fact spent three of the first four nights in different places than originally planned. Once in Florida, however, all signs of winter weather disappeared.

We flew back to Minneapolis on January 1st for a few post-Christmas family events; I returned south the following Tuesday, alone, to fly around Florida visiting friends and procuring routine maintenance for the Pacer. But in the meantime, winter had come to Florida with a vengeance. I drove from the Miami airport to my cousins' place in Key Largo through driving rain courtesy of a strong cold front, and it had scarcely improved when I drove up to the Homestead General Aviation Airport the next day. Finally the rain abated and the ceilings rose just enough for me to sneak north to Sebring. There I visited a friend who is a 777 captain for my airline, toured the Lockwood factory, and flew an AirCam during a brief window between rain showers and low ceilings. What a fun airplane! I'll admit that the first time I shoved the twin throttles forward, I was wholly unprepared to be airborne and climbing at a vertiginous angle within the span of about three seconds.

 

The next morning I was intending to fly up to Orlando early to tour the Flying Magazine offices and give a few staff members plane rides, but the ceilings were low - way low, with fog that persisted well after it was forecast to clear. I postponed the Orlando engagements 'till the following morning, and concentrated on just getting to Bartow for Pacer maintenance. It needed an oil change and I was also within a few hours of two recurring ADs being due. My 160-horsepower Lycoming O-320-B2A has a hollow crankshaft that requires periodic inspections for corrosion and cracking. A few years ago, before I bought it, surface pitting was found in the inner diameter of the crankshaft, which mandates a fluorescent penetrant inspection (FPI) to check for cracks every year or every 100 flight hours, whichever comes first. It's not a big deal to do it during the annual - but if you put on more than 100 hours between annuals, it's kind of a pain.

My friend Dick Karl, who resides in Tampa and also writes for Flying, gets his Cheyenne maintained by Bill Turley at Aircraft Engineering Inc. I had met Turley on a Tampa overnight when Dick and I flew his plane over to have a new ELT installed, and Bill remembered me when I called about having his busy shop do the oil change and FPI inspection. Due to the weather, I wasn't able to land in Bartow until 1:30pm, but the shop got me right in. To do the FPI, you have to remove the spinner and propeller, drill out and remove a thin disk that acts as a plug on the end of the crankshaft, clean out the first 3.5 inches of the inner diameter, apply the penetrant, let it sit, apply developer, and then inspect with a blacklight. The last step is to bang a new crankshaft disk into place and reinstall the propeller and spinner. To make the oil change easier I also removed the upper cowling. Because of my late arrival, the shop didn't have time to take care of my 50-hour muffler AD. I figured I'd get it done at another airport within a few days. Once the Pacer was put back together, I flew up to Orlando Executive Airport, where I had a couch to crash on at a nearby friend's apartment.



The next morning dawned - what else - cold, foggy and overcast, with rain showers. The forecast called for improvement so Flying's art director and his 7-year-old son picked me up and headed to the airport, where the weather already looked much better. We preflighted, started up, and taxied out only to hear an IFR arrival on short final report breaking out at 400 feet. Low ceilings were rapidly moving onto the field, so we taxied back and spent the next two hours in the FBO watching a massive rainstorm lash the airport. Finally there was just enough of a break in the weather to get in a pleasant 30-minute Young Eagles flight. The boy was nervous beforehand but ended up loving it. On our return we were met by Flying's staff photographer. The Pacer and I had been roped into serving as models for a story on marginal VFR flying, and you couldn't have asked for a much better day for the subject material - especially for Florida. I can't say I've ever been a model before, and I felt a bit foolish posing with my iPad or "talking to FSS" on my cell phone - "look more worried!" - but the results, with the atmospheric rain-slicked ramp and a backdrop of ominous-looking clouds, were pretty spectacular. And then the photographer and I went flying and managed to sample pretty much every marginal VFR situation ever invented: scudrunning under low ceilings, reduced visibility in mist, VFR over the top of a thickening broken layer, spiraling through a suckerhole, dodging rain showers. I actually had to pick up a special VFR clearance to get in under a 900-foot broken layer, the first time I've done that since my CFI days. You'll be able to see the photos in Flying's March issue, out in a few weeks.


The weather cleared considerably by the afternoon, when I took off for Tampa's Peter O Knight Airport. Like Sebring, I had stopped here on my way back from the Bahamas last year and found it a great little seaside field tucked between Tampa's downtown and seaport. On my way there, I noticed a fine mist of oil slowly forming on the windscreen. Uh-oh. After landing I went to see the resident mechanics to see if they could take a look and, oh, maybe take care of the muffler AD while they were at it. At 3pm on a Friday afternoon? Not a chance! I assumed the oil was coming from within the cowling, so I opened it up and started looking. There was some residual oil, though it was possible that was from the unavoidable mess that's made when removing the oil screen during an oil change. I checked the oil screen bolts and found one fairly loose. Maybe that was it? Everything else I checked was tight. Concluding I'd have to fly it again and recheck tomorrow, I secured the airplane, ubered to the decent downtown hotel I got cheap on Hotwire, and then headed to Dick Karl's beautiful waterside home for a "guys' night in" dinner party. It was a lovely evening with interesting company, an eclectic mix of doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, and younger Part 135 pilots. It was fairly late by the time my shared uber ride dropped me off downtown.


Dick may have fed me just one too many dirty martinis, as I woke with a splitting headache. No big deal, it was solid IFR anyways and not forecast to improve until noon. Meanwhile my intended destination, the Florida panhandle, was overcast at 200' with 2 miles visibility and no great improvement in the offing. Screw it - I was done fighting the weather, for now at least. I called Peter O Knight and arranged for the mechanics to complete the muffler AD inspection and hunt down the oil leak the following week, then headed out to TPA and caught a Mad Dog to frigid (but clear!) Minnesota. I'd be back less than a week later with a daunting goal: flying 1600 miles west, clear across the continent, against winter headwinds and whatever weather systems came marching across the plains.


https://skyvector.com/?ll=26.7137203536626,-81.50207518919316&chart=301&zoom=7&fpl=%20X51%20KSEF%20KBOW%20KORL%20KTPF%20KTPF

Part II to follow....

Thursday, January 21, 2016

On The Road

 If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: airplanes are meant to fly, they like to fly, and the worst thing for them is to sit unused. This is one of the reasons flying clubs make so much more sense to me than sole ownership, at least for the average owner: the use rate on a large portion of the GA fleet is abysmally low. When we bought the Pacer on December 15, 2014, we set a goal of flying it 10 hours a month. Well wouldn't you know it, as of December 15, 2015, I had exactly 119.7 hours in the airplane. Not bad.

In the five weeks since then, I've put on another 54.5 hours...46 hours since Christmas on a cross-country totaling over 4200 miles. Yeah, you may have guessed that I still haven't been assigned OE on the 757/767, the check airmen are still backed up. It's been a nice holiday season collecting paychecks to stay at home...or rather, not.

On Christmas morning, Dawn and I departed Flying Cloud early and turned the nose eastward. We landed in LaCrosse only an hour later to wait out low ceilings across central Wisconsin, a harbinger of things to come. Four hours later it had improved to marginal VFR, and not wanting to be caught by the large snowstorm nipping at our heels, we scudran an hour east to find clear skies near Lake Michigan. It was a lovely cruise past the Chicago skyline (albeit bittersweet to see the ruins of Meigs Field), and then we landed in La Porte, Indiana for fuel. We were able to go high for a sweet tailwind on our next leg due east; I landed in Port Clinton, Ohio for three solo bounces to reestablish night currency before we continued onto Cleveland, were we were planning to meet up with friends. Unfortunately the new TAF that popped up on my stratux showed low ceilings and rain the next morning; rather than risk getting trapped, I continued on to a very dark Jamestown, New York airport to spend the night. We found a cheap and comfy hotel easily enough, but scrounging a late dinner on Christmas night took some doing; even the Chinese places were closing. We finally located a pizzeria still delivering.


The next morning dawned considerably nicer than forecast, even back in Cleveland. Our extra easting made for an easy day, though, as we climbed high to cover the 307NM to Chester, Connecticut in a single leg. Here we visited my former student Johnny G and his beautiful family. Johnny recently sold his pristine 1981 Piper Warrior which we flew from coast-to-coast a few years back, unfortunately, but it was great seeing them again.


That night low ceilings and rain moved in, and it didn't dissipate as forecast the next day until very late. In the meantime Dawn and I borrowed a car and explored the colonial town of Essex. Chester was the last place to go VFR (it's on a 300 ft MSL hill), around sunset, at which point we were looking at very marginal VFR through the Hudson River VFR corridor after dark. We reluctantly called our Jersey friends Jeremy & Crystal to tell them we wouldn't be coming, then found a cozy B&B in a 1746 house in Old Saybrook, CT.


The weather was much improved the next morning, albeit with a brisk north wind that foretold the approach of the next cold front. We took off around sunrise and enjoyed a fast, pleasant ride along the Connecticut coast and down the Hudson. It was pretty neat seeing the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty from the left seat of the Pacer. We landed in Monmouth, NJ to go to breakfast with Jeremy & Crystal and their four rambunctious young boys, and then continued past Cape May and across Delaware Bay to Georgetown, DE. We didn't really need gas yet, but Delaware was one of only four states that Dawn hadn't been to at the start of this trip. The only reason I'd been there was because I got on the wrong hotel shuttle in PHL some years ago.


The strong tailwinds continued as we scooted southward over the DelMarVa peninsula, albeit under steadily lowering ceilings. It was down to 1500' overcast as we passed Norfolk, and we decided to land in Elizabeth City, NC as the stratux showed a persistent 100-mile-wide band of IFR ceilings with rain showers starting 40nm south of there. We tarried in the extremely accommodating FBO's lounge for a few minutes before I decided it wouldn't be clearing that afternoon; we tied down the plane, rented an old Buick LeSabre beater, and found the steal of the trip: a $65 room in a gorgeous B&B in an old mansion. Downtown Elizabeth City was a bit more abandoned-feeling than I thought it would be, but we enjoyed surveying the cruising sailboats on the intercoastal waterway, hung out in a friendly pub with a fantastic beer selection, and had a superb fresh seafood dinner.


Overnight a warm front passed through, the fresh northeast winds flipped to the southwest and became even gustier, and temperature rose twenty degrees. The low ceiling persisted until 9am; as soon as the skies cleared we took off into 30 knot winds and started bashing our way southwest. Even with clear skies I stayed at 500 feet where we could at least maintain 75-80 knots groundspeed; climbing to 1000 feet slowed us to 60 knots (45 kt headwind). It was a miserable 2.5 hour turbulent slog to cover the 193nm to North Myrtle Beach, SC. Dawn handled it masterfully, as she did the entire trip. I must say she's the only woman I know who would be ecstatic to spend her vacation in a cramped small airplane clawing its way cross-country through unpredictable winter weather -- and I married her! The ride improved for the next leg as we hugged the coastline, though there was a localized patch of unexpectedly low ceilings between Charleston and Hilton Head, and the groundspeed stayed stubbornly stuck at 80 knots all the way to St. Simon's Island, Georgia. From there, though, the winds died down as we continued southward over the north Florida beaches, and it was a thoroughly pleasant, warm afternoon by the time we touched down at Spruce Creek Fly-In Community.


Our friends Mike and Traci from the AirVenture Cup Race welcomed us to Spruce Creek with much-appreciated cocktails, followed by a scrumptious dinner at the Downwind Cafe. Later we popped into Keith Phillips' hangar/bar for Darts Night, and had a great time visiting with Keith and other EAAers we know from the race and Oshkosh. I can't say I'd ever choose to move to Florida - but if I ever do, Spruce Creek would be at the top of my list.

The next morning we got a bit of a late start due to fog and a slow breakfast at the Downwind (they lost our order, oops); once airborne, I was dismayed to see that the southeasterly flow was as strong as ever, promising a slow ride southbound. We stopped fairly early to refuel at the Pacer's old haunt of Sebastian, which is where we began and ended the Bahamas trip. From there we followed the beaches southward; at Stuart I started talking to ATC, and they had me stay below 1000 feet in the West Palm Beach Class C and below 500 (!) passing Fort Lauderdale. It was interesting mixing it up with all the helicopters and banner towers as we flew at eye level with a nearly uninterrupted string of beachfront high-rises for nearly a hundred miles. South Florida is such a zoo.


Civilization abruptly and mercifully ceased at Biscayne Cay, where we left all traffic behind and began a delightful hour-long jaunt down the Keys. I had originally planned to refuel at Pompano Beach, but once there our groundspeed was sufficient to make Marathon Key with an hour reserve. Now, as the Keys turned westward, our groundspeed kept increasing until we were able to make it nonstop to Key West. We landed at 2:30pm on December 30th and found the FBO unsurprisingly chock-a-block. We stayed at the new 24 North Hotel, and while I'm not sure I've ever paid $260 for a hotel room, it was a comparative bargain & we would have paid $450+ had we stayed New Years Eve. Key West has become insanely expensive, at least during peak periods - but hey, we had the good sense to come here, why wouldn't everyone else? Duval Street was busy but not horribly crowded that night; we hung out at Sloppy Joes for a couple hours, but didn't stay out too late.


We headed back up the Keys late the next morning. Dawn flew most of the way, as she had on several previous legs. The wind had shifted to the southwest, and we enjoyed a rare tailwind as we cut across from Islamorada to Homestead GA Airport on the mainland. There we tied the plane down and put on its cover, ending the first leg of our ambitious trip. We rented a car and backtracked to Key Largo where we spent New Years Eve with my cousins Nate and Billie, and nonrevved from Miami to Minneapolis the next day. Over the seven days from December 25-31, we covered 2333nm in 25.2 hours, making 17 landings. The Pacer flew flawlessly but was just about due for some maintenance, for which it didn't have to wait very long at all.