Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hot Dog!

As mentioned a while ago, I've been awarded a slot on the 757/767, but training isn't until late October and that means I get another four months on the Mad Dog. I just had lunch with a couple of guys down in Atlanta yesterday, and though they now all fly the 757/767 one noted that he had spent "five summers on the Mad Dog...because you always measure time on that airplane in summers!" I suggested that if he's ever really bored in cruise, he should attempt to calculate how many gallons of sweat he shed over those five summers. Or not - I guess that's kinda gross.

The basic problem is that as the Mad Dog was stretched from earlier airplanes, the Auxiliary Power Unit and Air Cycle Machines ("packs") were not also upgraded to accommodate the increased cabin volume. In moderate temperatures or with both engines running at high power to put out a lot of bleed air, it's not really a problem. On the ground with a high OAT, though, both the amount of airflow and output temperature are wholly inadequate. The cockpit is a bit worse than the cabin, because you have a lot of windows, the old CRTs, electronics, and incandescent lighting put out a lot of heat, and you're sitting 120 feet forward of the packs with resulting efficiency losses through the ductwork. At times it can get miserably hot in the cockpit, especially when you're busy just before pushback. In the summer you just about have to pack a new uniform shirt & undershirt for every day of the trip.


Out of my duties as a Mad Dog FO is running the AC, largely because most of the controls are on the right side of the overhead panel. There are some tips and tricks to getting the most out of the system, and most FOs get pretty good at it. The primary controls are the packs supply switches with OFF, AUTO, and HP BLEED OFF positions, and two selector knobs, one for CKPT TEMP and one for CABIN TEMP. The indicators are L and R valve position gauges and flow gauges, as well as a larger temperature gauge that indicates either cabin temp or cabin supply duct temperature, depending on the position of a TEMP SEL knob. Most of the time this is left in the CABIN SPLY position, which along with the valve indicators is a good measure of what the system is doing at any given moment; every couple of minutes I'll flip the TEMP SEL knob over to Cabin to see how we're doing overall.

We nearly always leave the Supply switches in the AUTO position except when parked at the gate with APU off and the conditioned air hose attached to the aircraft, at which point we turn them OFF. The HP BLD OFF ("High Pressure Bleed Off") position is rarely used, though there are circumstances when it can slightly increase airflow. The temp selector switches can also usually be left in the AUTO range, which commands the system to try to attain and maintain a specific cockpit and cabin temperature. The problem is that the exact temperature you're commanding is not labeled, and every airplane is different! Most airplanes have little ink marks that previous FOs have added to show a position that works, and this makes a good starting point, but there are often multiple marks as the system changes over time with wear, maintenance and repairs. Sometimes it seems to change over the course of a single flight!

On the ground with OATs warmer than about 60º F, we leave both selector knobs pointing at about the 9 o'clock position, which commands both valves full cold and gives you about as cold of air as you can expect (sometimes adjusting them slightly higher can increase airflow, however). After takeoff, we turn the cockpit selector knob to around the 10:30 position and the cabin selector knob to slightly below whichever ink mark we've decided to use as a reference. The idea is to get the cockpit valve slightly above full cold, and the cabin valve right around the first index mark (as shown in the picture above). You want the cabin supply temperature to come off the bottom peg (lest you freeze the passengers out before decreasing the overall cabin temp to comfortable levels); I've found an initial supply temp of 50-60ºF works well. As the cabin temp comes down to the desired level (I shoot for 68° or so), I adjust the temp knob slightly higher into auto range - usually right around the reference mark - where ideally the system will modulate the supply valve to maintain a comfortable temp on its own (80-90° supply temp works well). Any further adjustments to the temperature knob are best made slowly and in small increments, lest you drive the valve full hot or cold. I've found that in about 75% of the fleet, you'll end up turning the cabin temp selector slightly lower over the course of the flight, and the cockpit temp selector slightly higher.

Sometimes AUTO mode just isn't working no matter what you do, and then we turn the affected temp selector knob to the six-o'clock position, which puts the respective pack in manual mode. At this point you are directly driving the supply valve with momentary selections hotter or colder; however, output temperature can still vary depending on engine power / bleed output, and more than one pilot has left a pack in MANUAL mode, didn't pay attention when the throttles came back on descent, and was surprised to find that the output temperature was driven so high that it tripped the pack offline altogether. The preferred technique if MANUAL mode is needed is to get the supply valve where you want it, let output temp stabilize for a minute or two, and then switch back to AUTO mode and see if it does a better job of maintaining supply valve position.

On descent, depending on destination OAT, you'll typically once again turn both knobs to the 9 o'clock position in an attempt to cold-soak the cabin before arrival - as temps are nearly guaranteed to rise on taxi-in. If it's very warm at all, I start the APU immediately after landing and open the crossbleed valves so it can assist with airflow. We normally shut down the #2 engine three minutes after landing for fuel savings, but with OAT over 85ºF we occasionally keep both engines running to the gate (especially in an airplane that has trouble keeping up on a single idling engine + APU). Once both engines are shut down at the gate, the cabin temperature is almost guaranteed to climb on APU alone; it's basically a question of how quickly you can get the warm bodies to exit the airplane! Nearly all of our gates have large and capable air conditioning machines with supply hoses, and the better rampers get these hooked up and running very quickly. In warm weather they almost always do. The problem is that in 60º-70º weather they often don't realize that this conditioned air is still very necessary on the Mad Dog. The proactive pilot will go outside and make sure they still hook up the air. Once this is complete, you can save fuel by shutting down the APU in all but the hottest temperatures.

This all applies to the normal Mad Dog. On the Big Dog, which makes up about 30% of our fleet, the controls are the same but the actual system components are different and require a different technique. The good news is that the APU is bigger and has more bleed output, and is often able to maintain a comfortable cabin temperature on the ground all on its own or with a single engine running. The bad news is that the system is far more aggressive and volatile in AUTO mode. It will run the supply valves from full cold to full hot with a tiny movement of the temperature selector knob, or sometimes all on its own. The initial after takoff setting of the knobs requires particularly close attention for the first several minutes, meaning that at a fairly busy time I'm looking up at the overhead panel every 30 seconds or so. It's far more common to have to run for a while in manual mode on the Big Dog.

This all sounds fairly labor intensive, and it is when you're new to the system, but once you're acquainted with its quirks it becomes second nature, much like the rest of the Mad Dog. I have a feeling that once I go to the 757/767 I'm going to initially be a little restless, feeling like I ought to be doing far more than I am. I'm sure I'll get used to the reduced workload, though - not to mention skating through summer as cool as a cucumber!

Monday, May 18, 2015

In Search of Sunshine Part IV: Cruising the Abacos

After departing Staniel Cay on the morning of March 31st, the six of us in my Piper Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior headed northeast to the island of Eleuthera, site of the Bahamas' oldest settlement (in 1646, by Pilgrims expelled from Bermuda). Ours was a short visit: we flew low up the island's rocky eastern coast, checked out the impressive reef just offshore, buzzed the quaint colonial houses of Harbour Island, and landed at the nearby North Eleuthera Airport for a closer look. I'll confess that I found Harbour Island's pink sand beach a bit overhyped: it's essentially just a really nice white sand beach with a slight pinkish hue. But we enjoyed lounging on it for a bit, and I liked the island's 18th-century architecture bedecked in bright Bahamian pastels.

 

After lunch, we hightailed it out to the airport and took off for our destination for the afternoon, and the next four days: Abaco. It was another quick bluewater crossing in loose formation at 3500 feet, then we dropped low and tightened up as we approached Little Harbour, an eastern promontory of Great Abaco Island. From there we flew up the chain of cays on the eastern side of the Sea of Abaco; the beautiful, shallow waters and myriad islets made an excellent photographic background that kept Steve busily snapping away from his temporary perch in the Warrior (Jacquie rode in the Pacer for this leg).


After landing in Marsh Harbour and tying down the planes securely, we took a taxi into town to the Conch Inn & Marina, which doubles as the base for The Moorings boat charter company. We checked in and got a thorough cruising area & chart briefing, then boarded our home for the next few days. Tack-A-Cardia is a Moorings 4600 (Leopard 46) sailing catamaran with four double cabins and two singles, plus a large saloon & galley and generous communal areas abovedecks. We'd need all that space, for we were joined by five new friends for this portion of the adventure. Andy and Ivy are fellow airline pilots and dear friends of mine who've been on several Interline Regattas and other sailing trips with me. Jeff, Sarah, and Hailey were Steve's Californian friends who I'd never met before. The first night we stayed on the dock unpacking and provisioning, enjoying a delicious dinner of jerk chicken grilled on the stern barbeque, and talking and laughing around the deck table late into the night.

  

The next morning we got underway at a reasonable hour, and were rewarded with a nice shore breeze as soon as we left Marsh Harbor despite a forecast of calm winds for the next several days. It built steadily as we tacked northward until we were close-reaching at an impressive eight knots. It only took a bit over two hours to reach Treasure Cay, where we winded our way through the narrow, shallow harbor entrance. The reward, after we anchored and ate lunch, was a visit to the most incredibly beautiful beach I've ever seen, a shock to the senses with the purest white sand and electric blue water straight out of a Bombay Sapphire bottle. We lingered long enough that we ended up skipping the reef we were planning to snorkel at and proceeded straight to our anchorage for the night, Fischer's Bay on Great Guana Island. We swam a bit after anchoring, piled into the dinghy (no small feat with 11 people!) to watch the sunset among cruisers at Grabbers Bar, then walked across the island for dinner at the famous/infamous Nipper's Bar.

 

 Thursday morning, the forecast for calm winds proved woefully correct, and we motored out from Fischer's Bay and several miles southward to Fowl Cay Marine Park. This took us slightly outside the Sea of Abaco, between Fowl Cay and a very large barrier reef. We anchored in sand and took the dinghy to a mooring ball closer to the reef, and spent several hours snorkeling. That afternoon, as we steamed further south to Elbow Cay, we were transiting an area about a half-mile east of a cut to the open ocean when I noticed that the water ahead looked shallow. Mind you, it's shallow everywhere in the Sea of Abaco, it's something you just get used to. Anyways, the chartplotter as well as my newly-published cruising guide showed 7-9 feet of depth in the surrounding area. Should have listened to my gut - we plowed into a 3' sandbar doing six knots under power. Apparently, a storm had recently shifted the sand inland from the cut. It wasn't a big deal - we had everyone jump into the waist-high water and I was able to back the boat off the sandbar with no damage to the keels. Had I been only 100 feet west, the water was much deeper.

We spent the afternoon and night at Tahiti Beach on the south end of Elbow Cay. A few of us took the dinghy to explore the nearby Tilloo Cut and adjacent shallow waters, and others in our group went hiking on Elbow Cay. They unknowingly wandered onto private property, but the owner was nice about it and invited us all to a party that night at the marina she and her husband own. It was a long dinghy ride there at sunset - and even longer returning in the dark!


On Friday we got underway shortly after 8am to transit the very shallow Lubbers Quarters Channel just before high tide, and the early start plus lovely 20-knot winds meant we were able to sail further south than originally planned, all the way down to Little Harbour. This rocky outpost on the Abaco mainland was originally settled by Canadian artist Randolph Johnson and his family, who initially lived in a cave; it grew into something of an artists' commune, and today the centerpiece of the little settlement is Pete's Pub, also a metalworks foundry and gallery owned by Randolph's son. Unfortunately a falling tide and a very shallow harbor entrance meant we couldn't stay for too long.


It was a long sail northward that afternoon, with an enroute stop at Sandy Cay, so it was after 5pm when we entered Hope Town Harbour. Hope Town is a beautiful, quaint colonial village founded by loyalists from the southern United States after the Revolutionary War. We climbed its iconic candy-striped lighthouse to watch the sunset, then dinghied across the harbour to explore the town and have dinner and drinks at the waterside Captain Jack's.

 

April 4th was our last day in the Bahamas. We woke early, made breakfast, and cleaned the boat while steaming back to Marsh Harbour. After returning the boat, we said goodbye to our old and new friends who were flying out via airlines the next day; the rest of us headed back to the airport's GA terminal. It took a while to file our flight plans, notify U.S. customs, clear Bahamian customs, and pay for our fuel and parking, but we were taxiing out by 11:15am. The Marsh Harbour airport was notably busy on this Saturday morning, but we were able to sneak out between arrivals and formed up for our flight up the Abaco chain all the way out to Walker Cay. Initially this took us over the northern Sea of Abaco where we'd sailed on Wednesday, including Treasure Cay; the beach didn't look quite as amazing from the air. The rest of the Abacos were quite nice, and I noticed a few airstrips on isolated cays. Over Walker Cay we called Miami Radio and got our transponder codes for transiting the ADIZ, and a bit later got VFR flight following with Miami Center. Two hours after takeoff we landed in Fort Pierce, cleared customs, returned our life rafts at the FBO, and hopped over to Sebastian to return the Warrior. Kevin and Jeannie were driving back to Atlanta from Sebastian, and they gave Jacquie and Dawn a ride to the Orlando airport.

Steve and I continued on with the Pacer, stopping in Sebring to visit an airline friend and then at Tampa for the night. On Sunday we flew to Clarksville TN, where we spent the night with my good friends Sylv & Hugh, and on Monday we landed at Flying Cloud Airport in the early afternoon. Incredibly, we had a tailwind the entire way home - it only took 10.3 hours from Tampa to Minneapolis. All told, I'd put 33 hours on the Pacer since leaving FCM the month prior, and she performed splendidly without missing a beat. It was a fantastic first adventure with my airplane, and all the better that I shared it with Dawn, Steve, and a literal boatload of friends. I'll be taking the plane to Oshkosh in July and Montana/Idaho in September; next spring break I'm thinking Baja, and then Alaska awaits! It's not exactly cheap owning an airplane - but it sure is fun!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part III: Flying the Bahamas

Never having flown a small plane to a foreign country or across a long stretch of open water, I expected the flying portion of our flying/sailing trip to be a challenge. I'm not sure what I expected - paperwork hassles, mostly, and ATC communications difficulties, maybe some substandard airports, perhaps even unscheduled maintenance in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the flying turned out to be a breeze. Bahamian officials were welcoming and helpful, flying procedures were easy, communication was straightforward once we left U.S. airspace (!), and the airports were all lovely, if a bit busy at times. My Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior didn't so much as hiccup for the nine hours. Everyone in our group - me, Dawn, my brother Steve, his friend Jacquie, my friend & erstwhile sim partner Kevin, and his wife Jeannie - really enjoyed our time flying through the islands.


In fact the hardest part turned out to be getting Dawn down to Florida in the first place. Kevin and Jeannie drove from Atlanta, Steve and Jacquie used buddy passes several days in advance, and I was able to jumpseat - but Dawn found herself trying to non-rev out of Minneapolis on the first day of spring break for many Minnesotan kids. We came within one seat of getting out several times on Friday, were left at the gate that night with 32 seats open to Grand Rapids due to a gate agent's incompetence, and the next day found ourselves far down several standby lists of over 100 nonrevs. I finally took the jumpseat through Atlanta, arriving in Melbourne in the early afternoon. Dawn went home and instead flew directly to Nassau the next day. Thus, she missed the first day of our adventure - but was rewarded with a fairly memorable arrival.

We took off from Sebastian only two hours after I landed at Melbourne; my non-rev hassles meant a fairly hasty departure, which added considerably to my stress level. I refiled my eAPIS manifest with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol to reflect Dawn's absence from the Pacer, got a weather briefing from FSS, and filed international flight plans for both the Pacer and Warrior. There was a TFR out for President Obama's visit/golfing vacation to Fort Pierce; Sebastian was just outside the 30 mile ring, and by flying due east for 20 miles before turning towards Freeport we would remain clear. When ready to launch, I called FSS to open our flight plans, only to be told Sebastian was within the TFR boundaries (it actually wasn't active until the President's departure the next day; there was a steady stream of airplanes clearly not "squawking and talking") and put on an apparently indefinite hold for a squawk code. After 15 minutes I lost patience, decided we'd open in the air, and hung up. After takeoff, though, neither I in the Pacer nor Kevin in Warrior 27K could raise Miami Radio on any of the published frequencies! An active flight plan is an absolute must for crossing an active ADIZ, but because of the TFR, we couldn't turn south to delay crossing the ADIZ. I slowed down and called Miami Center, who said they couldn't open the flight plan but gave me an alternate frequency to contact Miami Radio. Thankfully this one worked, and just in time to enter the ADIZ.

By the time I had it all sorted out, we were nearly halfway to Freeport, pushed along by a 25 knot tailwind on the tail end of a cold front. We landed at 5:05PM, officially five minutes after customs closes. They cheerfully waited for us, but charged us a $50/airplane late fee in addition to the usual $50 cruising permit free. We spent the night at the cheap-but-cheerful Bell Channel Inn, walking to the Port Lucaya Marketplace for dinner and sneaking onto the Grand Lucayan's palatial grounds to access the beach. The next morning we departed Freeport early for the 60 mile crossing to the Berry Islands, where we overflew several cruise ships at Great and Little Stirrup Cays before cruising down miles of beautiful deserted beach at Great Harbour Cay. We landed here and took a short cab ride to Carriearl Boutique Hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch.




After brunch, we took off again for some low altitude air-to-air photography down the Berries before climbing for the 40-mile crossing to New Providence Island - better known by the name of its bustling city, Nassau. Here we had decided to split up; Steve and I would stop at the busy Lynden Pindling International Airport to pick up Dawn while the other three continued on in the Warrior to Norman's Cay, at the north end of the Exumas, for some beach time. This worked well as Nassau was extremely busy on this Sunday afternoon; it would have been much more stressful if I hadn't been here several times with the Mad Dog. We landed right after the Airbus from Minneapolis on which Dawn was sitting in First Class, sipping mimosas; upon exiting customs, she was met by her personal pilot and whisked off to her private airplane!

 

Thirty minutes later we were climbing southeastbound for the 44nm crossing to Norman's Cay, once the private lair of an infamous international drug kingpin. I was relieved to see Warrior 27K sitting safely on the ramp; I buzzed the beach to alert our friends to our arrival, circled over the visible wreckage of a DC-3 in the shallow lagoon, and landed for a few minutes to bask in the warm sunshine. Then we took off together and flew formation for 32 stunning miles of the Exuma Islands chain: the turquoise of the Grand Bahama Bank to the west, bleached cays and scrub-covered islets, shallow lagoons, narrow cuts, pristine reefs, empty sugar-sand beaches, and the deep dark blue of the Atlantic to the east. Staniel Cay came into view, and we entered the right downwind for Runway 35. The wind was blowing stink out of the northeast (as it had been all day), making for a rough ride down final and a last-minute sinker that resulted in a bad bounce and go-around. The second attempt was more successful and we shut down at the southernmost point of our adventure - over 1500nm from my Pacer's home base of Flying Cloud Airport.

  

We stayed two nights on Staniel Cay, renting a brand-new 3BR villa at the still-unfinished Embrace Resort steps away from the airport. The island is very small and remote, though it is the most developed settlement between Georgetown and Nassau. There are a few stores with limited hours and stock and quite expensive prices, making us wish we'd done more provisioning in Freeport (you can bring some provisions in from the U.S., and we did, but fresh fruits & veggies must be acquired locally). The famous Staniel Cay Yacht Club, with its large coterie of resident nurse sharks and stingrays, is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the villa. Overall, though, there's not a ton to do on Staniel Cay; like most of the Bahamas, the main action is on the water, making a boat a near-necessity. To this end we rented a 17' Boston Whaler to explore the beautiful, shallow surrounding waters on our "lay day." The nearly-mandatory first stop was Big Major's Spot, home to the infamous swimming pigs. Legend has it that passing sailors deposited a couple of porkers on the uninhabited islet about 40 years ago, intending to return for a feast that never materialized. Instead the pigs went feral, multiplied, learned to swim, and rooted out a lucrative niche hamming it up for tourists and cruisers in exchange for food scraps. Indeed, we weren't even to the beach when several large sows and boars boldly swam up, hoisting their torsos onto the gunwhales as they noisily begged for leftovers! They turned out to be very friendly pigs, and we spent a pleasant hour on their beach.


After that we explored a few small sandy cays with gorgeous beaches, and then powered on over to Thunderball Grotto, made famous by the James Bond movie of the same name. This is an island with a large sea-cave hidden inside; you access it by swimming through a low entrance, hidden at high tide, or jumping through a hole in the roof into water 25 feet below. It's a nice spot for snorkeling with a plethora of small fish at the entrances, and we had a lot of fun filming our jumps into the dark cave. By now it was 1pm so we had lunch in the boat, stopped at SCYC to stock up on (expensive!) cold Kalik beers, and motored a few miles south to Bitter Guana Cay to spend the afternoon exploring and checking out the endangered Exuma Island Iguanas. As the shadows got longer we returned the Boston Whaler and walked down to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club for conch fritters and sundowners. I wouldn't have minded another night or two at Staniel Cay to better explore the Exumas, but the next day we'd be flying north to start the next phase of our adventures aloft and afloat.

 
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