Monday, March 23, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part II: Atlanta to Sebastian

When the Bahamas plan first came together, my sailor/pilot friend Andy was planning on flying the rental Piper Warrior. As a fairly junior captain at NewCo, though, he ended up getting a trip that conflicted with our schedule, and couldn't get out of it because the company put his annual line check on that trip. Andy is still joining us in Marsh Harbour for the sailing portion of our adventure, but I needed to find a second pilot to come with us, and on fairly short notice. All the friends I contacted were enthusiastic about the trip, but had schedule conflicts or were tight on money at the time. "You should have told me last week!" or "I'll do it next year!" were common responses. I was just about at the end of my rope when I thought to give Kevin a call. Kevin and I were training partners on the Mad Dog last year, and we rode motorcycles and hung out during that month quite a bit. He and his wife are really cool, adventurous people, ideal for the trip - except I knew Kevin hadn't flown a small plane in a long time. After some hesitation due to that fact, he said they were in, and he'd just do whatever was necessary to get current. Within a week, the plan came together, and it ended up working really well.

The night that I landed the Pacer at Falcon Field, I stayed at Kevin and Jeannie's house in Peachtree City, GA. The next morning, Kevin and I were back out to the airport at 9am, with a preliminary stop at the nearby Aircraft Spruce and Specialty East. A steady drizzle was falling, but it only extended a few miles south and wasn't forecast to get heavy until later in the day; ceilings and visibilities remained high. We took off just after 9am for the short, bumpy hop to Upson County to top off with cheap gas. There was a strong crosswind out of the south, though, and my landing left a bit to be desired. From there we set course for St. Augustine, Florida, 234nm to the southeast. The winds aloft clocked around more to the west at higher altitudes, so we climbed to 7500 feet and were rewarded with a 90 knot groundspeed - not great, but better than the 80 knots I was showing at 2000 feet on the way to Upson County, and with a much smoother ride. Shortly after takeoff, I turned the controls over to Kevin, and he flew most of the rest of the day except for takeoffs and landings. He quickly adapted to the lighter control forces and flew smoothly, but I had to continually remind him to stay coordinated. "I haven't touched rudder pedals except for takeoff and landing in 20 years!" he protested.

Passing Macon we left the cloudy skies behind, and I regretted not packing a cap to keep the bright southern sun out of my eyes. We got VFR flight following from Atlanta and Jacksonville Centers, whose low sectors were rather quiet on this Tuesday morning. We veered a bit east while crossing the Okefenokee Swamp to remain within gliding distance of civilization, and then dropped down to 5500 feet. Jacksonville Approach was fairly busy, and we waited until we were past the extended centerline for Runway 7 at JAX to descend further to 3500. Approach cancelled our flight following when we were 10 miles north of St. Augustine, and as soon as I contacted the tower it was clear we had walked into a bee's nest. There were six or seven planes in the pattern, mostly student pilots speaking poor english, and the controller was just losing it. He instructed us to enter a left downwind for 13, then told another aircraft to disregard and make a seven mile straight-in for 13. I set up for the midfield downwind, and then got yelled at for not making a seven mile straight-in - the controller had mixed up our callsigns. He still made me go seven miles east, pirouette around a smoke column (controlled burn), and then drag it in on an excruciatingly long final approach - with nobody ahead of us for miles. The student pilot behind us had to greatly extend his own downwind, the controller called us out to him (misidentifying us as a Cherokee), and the poor kid's "looking!" responses sounded increasingly frantic. After all that, my high flare and plunker of a landing on the 150' x 8000' runway wasn't very surprising. Hey, at least I didn't groundloop - it was an even bigger crosswind than at Upson County. To top it off, ground control informed us that the municipal fuel pumps - the ones with the 2nd cheapest AvGas in the entire United States - were out of gas. He instead directed us to Atlantic Aviation, a beautiful facility with excellent service and $6.65 AvGas. C'est la vie.

Kevin and I had a very good lunch at the Fly-By Cafe, paid for our gas (hey, thanks, a 25¢/gal "local's discount"), and took off on our last leg down the coast. A new controller was on tower frequency, and sounded even more overwhelmed than the last guy (I later found out it's a non-FAA contract tower). I was happy to switch over to Jax Approach, who readily granted our request for VFR flight following. We cruised at 5500 feet for most of the way, the better to stay in smooth, cool air above most of the swarming GA traffic, until thickening afternoon cumulus forced us down into the bumps at 3500 feet. Most of the restricted areas for Cape Canaveral were cold, and we got a nice view of the shuttle assembly building and landing strip. Passing Titusville, I glanced down and was shocked to see a Space Shuttle sitting on the ground directly underneath us; I wheeled over for a circle. I later found out it's a full-scale mock-up on the grounds of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Like everywhere else, Sebastian was quite windy - a 30 degree southeasterly crosswind gusting well above 20 knots. I finally made a good landing considering the conditions, and taxied over to Skydive Sebastian. We are renting the Warrior for the trip from Xena Aviation, whose owners Stacey and Jerry also work for the dropzone. I got Kevin familiarized with the Warrior while Jerry flew a couple loads of skydivers in a Cessna Caravan, and when he was done for the day we went flying - Kevin in the left seat, Jerry in the right, and me observing from the backseat. The wind was still pretty gusty so it was less than ideal conditions to get a rusty light plane pilot current again. Kevin did some airwork in the practice area - rediscovering those rudder pedals again - and then came back to the airport for pattern work. It was pretty neat watching Kevin steadily remembering things that were obviously still somewhere in a long-disused part of his brain. His landings weren't great by the end of the lesson, but the rest of his flying had improved by leaps and bounds. The sun was setting as we tied the Warrior down next to my Pacer, and after checking into the hotel we enjoyed a good dinner and some much-deserved cold beers. That night I also got some really exciting news on the job front; I'll share that in the next post.

Early the next morning we flew again, departing shortly after sunrise to enjoy some mercifully calm air, and Kevin's landings got steadily better. By the end of the hour, he was clearly comfortable with the plane, and Jerry gave him his blessing. In all the checkout took only 2.2 hours - not bad for someone who hadn't touched a small plane in 27 years! We took a couple of celebratory laps in the Pacer and Kevin made his first taildragger landing, and then we gassed up the plane, tied her down, put on her canopy cover, and caught a cab to Melbourne Airport. I have one more two-day trip for work tomorrow, and then we'll all be heading south next Friday for my first big adventure with my little yellow Pacer. We'll be back in the U.S. on April 4th, and I should have some really nice photos & video to share.,-91.52929686951346&chart=301&zoom=14&plan=A.K3.KFCM:A.K5.C09:A.K5.KSER:A.K5.K24:A.K7.KFFC:A.K7.KOPN:A.K7.KSGJ:A.K7.X26

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part I: Minneapolis to Atlanta

When Dawn and I bought the Pacer, a major motivation was being able to take it on long adventures, and turning some of those adventures into published stories. Even before I bought it, though, my brother Steve and I were planning a flying/sailing trip to the Bahamas with several friends over Dawn's Spring Break this year. The original plan was to take two rental planes, but once we bought the Pacer, it seemed silly not to use it for the exact purpose we bought it for. Sure, it's a long ways from Minnesota, and a rental plane would probably be more economical, but I bought the plane with the express intent of putting 120 hours a year on it. So the plan evolved: bring the Pacer south, rent a Piper Warrior as the second airplane, fly to Great Harbour Cay, Staniel Cay, and Eleuthera, and have several more friends airline it into Marsh Harbour to join us for 4 days of cruising the Abaco Sea on a 46' catamaran. The longer the winter dragged on, the better the plan sounded. There was just the small matter of getting the Pacer 1200 NM south before the trip.

Surprisingly, given that I'm in the bottom 10% of Minneapolis Mad Dog FOs, I didn't have too much trouble getting time off for the trip. I did, however, have a lot of flying in the middle of March, leaving last week as my best window for repositioning the plane. I had a four-day trip that was scheduled to finish at 8am on March 9th, so I tentatively set that as the departure date. Initially the long-term forecast looked good, then soured significantly in the days prior. A major system was pumping a ton of moisture from the Gulf into the southern states, and Atlanta was predicted to have a soggy week. Besides rain, low ceilings, and restricted visibilities, the southerly flow could potentially set up rather unfavorable winds aloft, making for a very long 1200 miles. It was looking pretty dicey over the weekend.

On Monday morning, I woke early in Pittsburgh and looked over the weather very carefully. My initial plan had been a nearly direct path to Atlanta, with two stops for fuel at convenient airports offering cheap gas. Atlanta's forecast had actually improved significantly, with rain not forecast to begin until after my evening arrival and possibly breaking in the morning for an escape to Florida. However, low ceilings and rain showers in southern Indiana, western Kentucky, and central Tennessee required a deviation from the direct routing. Strong northwesterly winds made a non-stop flight to Morris, IL a good choice for the first leg, and from there I could choose to fly to Glasgow, KY (the more direct route) or if weather dictated, Danville, KY. Even the latter option involved only about 40nm extra over the great circle route. I decided it was doable, suited up, and flew my one leg from PIT to MSP. After landing the Mad Dog at a breathtakingly clear and surprisingly warm Minneapolis, I scooted over to Flying Cloud airport, changed out of the monkey suit, gassed up the Pacer, and launched to the southeast.

I climbed to 9500 feet on the first leg to take advantage of a 35 knot tailwind. I enjoyed it while it lasted; as expected, it faded after the first 90 minutes, and I descended to 7500 feet for a slightly better true airspeed. I got VFR flight following with Minneapolis and Chicago Center, and then Rockford Approach. I landed at a beautifully sunny (but surprisingly still snowy) Morris Municipal Airport at 12:35PM after 2:30 enroute for an average groundspeed of 120 kts. I filled up with $4.50 100LL, updated my weather database, and took off, initially climbing to 7500 feet. I knew lower ceilings would force me down at some point but wasn't sure when, or just how marginal they would be along my route. The METARs were all worse than previously forecast and several TAFs had been amended, but the airports directly along my route were still all reporting 1500' ceilings or better when I took off from Morris.

The scattered layer began along a very well-defined line around Lafayette (Indiana) and I descended to 3500' in preparation for ducking under. It grew progressively more broken, and I finally descended through one of the last big holes around Crawfordsville, IN. Initially I was able to maintain VFR at 1500' AGL, but the ceilings dropped and I ended up descending to 1200', then 1000'. The ceilings ahead appeared even lower. I dialed up an AWOS further south and it was reporting an 800' ceiling; another to the west, 300'. Indianapolis, however, was still reporting 1900' broken. My intended route was no longer tenable, I had to make a change, and east was clearly the way to go. I turned 45 degrees left, changed the route on WingX to reflect my new destination of Danville (KDVK), and scanned the chart for obstructions ahead. There were many short towers atop a ridge extending southwest from Indianapolis, but the ceilings had already started to rise by the time I got there, and I was enjoying a good 2000' ceiling by the time the ground dropped away again near Martinsville.

There was a new problem, however; by descending my slight tailwind had turned into a slight headwind, which along with the zig-zagging was going to put me at Danville with about 55 minutes of fuel remaining. That's legal, and I've grown pretty adept at estimating fuel used in the Pacer down to about a half-gallon, but I've always maintained a personal one-hour minimum reserve. It was tempting to fudge it this time, because Danville had cheap $3.95 gas and I could make it to Atlanta non-stop from there. Stopping short would mean an additional fuel stop with the associated delay. If you do it this time, you'll do it again, I told myself. Next time it'll be 50 minutes, or 45. No, I'd do the right thing. If I didn't make it to Atlanta tonight, so be it. Chattanooga would be a fine place to bed the Pacer down, and it has airline service if I subsequently got weathered in. Seymour, Indiana was right along my route, and WingX showed that it had perfectly reasonable $4.45 self-serve AvGas. I landed at Seymour, topped off, and tried to check the weather. The pilot lounge weather terminal wasn't working, and there was no wifi. Oh well - the weather appeared to be excellent south and east, so I took off and called Flight Watch once airborne.

Flight Watch reported that the ceilings and visibilities were excellent east of a line extending southward from Louisville, so there was no longer a reason to go as far east as Danville. I adjusted my course more southward, skirting the eastern edge of Louisville's Class C and then proceeding directly to Russell County Airport in Jamestown, KY. Besides offering cheap 24-hour AvGas (I would be arriving around 5:30pm EDT), it appeared to be a nice quiet little airport that would make for a quick pitstop. I was surprised to find it a virtual beehive of activity compared to my last two stops, with a Citation landing immediately after me and a Twin Commanche departing ahead of me! The FBO was closed but I was able to check the radar on my phone; there were a few scattered returns around Atlanta but so far the heavy stuff was holding off and the enroute METARs looked good.

My last leg of the day contained the most interesting scenery, crossing Lake Cumberland shortly after takeoff and then meandering through a wooded, hilly landscape criss-crossed by verdant river valleys and lonesome-looking byways and pockmarked by little dales with wisps of smoke rising from homesteads in the clearings. My very first article for Flying opened with a description of this exact area from 35,000 feet, but this was my first time seeing it at low altitude. The terrain changed dramatically once I crossed Walden Ridge just east of Hinch Mountain; the Cumberland Plateau fell away, replaced by the lowlands of the Tennessee River Valley. I've ridden motorcycle in this area quite a bit, and recognized the familiar form of the Great Smoky Mountains rising to my left through a light drizzle that began near Dayton, TN and continued all the way to Atlanta. Ceilings remained high, though, and visibility was generally excellent except for a few localized areas of around 6-7 miles vis.

I crossed into Georgia near Dalton, paralleled a low ridge for about 40 miles, and climbed slightly to clear the last bit of terrain near Pine Log. By now the last light was fading, but the terrain was flat the rest of the way to my destination of Falcon Field in Peachtree City, and the weather was good. I talked to tower controllers at Cobb County, Dobbins AFB, and Fulton County before ducking under the Atlanta Class B, passing about 8 miles west of Hartsfield and getting buzzed by a Mad Dog on final for 8L in the process. Pretty cool, though I suspect their TCAS had a thing or two to say about it. It was finally pitch dark when I crossed over Falcon Field and entered the left downwind for Runway 31. My sim partner from initial training, Kevin, was still a few hours from landing at ATL, but his wife Jeannie picked me up from KFFC, as their house is only a few miles away. The next day Kevin and I planned to fly the Pacer south to Sebastian, FL, but that would entirely depend on the weather. In the meantime, I was just happy to have safely made it 840 nm around a fairly active weather system in 9 hours time (7.9 hrs in flight).

Living the Dream!

I can't take credit for this one, but it's pretty freakin' brilliant. The cop/porter thing is hilarious, as I have indeed been mistaken for both, among other things.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Greater Leap Forward

After my last post about the Surface 2 EFB I use for work, I intended to write soon after about the iPad-based system I'm using in the Pacer, using a real-life cross-country flight as an example. However, the weather has been so crummy that what little Pacer flying I've been able to do on my days off has been entirely local - until this week, when I went cross country in a big way. On Sunday and Monday I flew from Flying Cloud to Peachtree City, GA, and then on to Sebastian, FL - a trip of 1230nm, 12 flying hours, and 7 landings. I'll write about that in the next post. It was an eventful trip weather-wise, and did a good job of showcasing where the modern GA EFB systems really shine, but the photos turned out useless due to glare off of the iPad's screen (I'm new to the iPad and didn't know how to take screenshots at the time). So, the below screenshots are from the last leg of the trip running in simulation mode, with weather from several days after I actually flew it.

There are a number of excellent EFB platforms available for the iPad, and a lesser number available for Android systems. The Surface 2's orphaned operating system, Windows RT, predictably has absolutely zero aviation apps available (indeed, few apps of any sort), other than the ported version of Jeppesen Flight Deck Pro that my company uses. Because GPS synchronicity, VFR charts, and weather overlays are all disabled on my airline's installation, it makes it fairly useless for general aviation purposes. I have Avare, a freeware charting and GPS program with limited flight planning capabilities, on my Android-based phone, and it's fine as a backup but I wanted more capability, so I bought a used iPad 2 off of eBay. Though a few years old, a fairly basic 16GB iPad 2 makes a fine EFB platform so long as you have the 3G model for internal GPS, or an external GPS receiver. The addition of a rugged Otterbox case and/or a RAM mount, space permitting, completes the hardware package.

The most popular EFB applications for the iPad are (in rough order of popularity among GA pilots): Foreflight, WingX Pro7, Garmin Pilot, and Jeppesen FlightDeck. I have experience with the first two, and use a version of FlightDeck for work, but am most familiar with and comfortable with WingX. It helps that they're giving away free subscriptions to CFIs (normally a subscription is $75/yr for VFR and $150/yr for full capability). A good friend and former student of mine whose Warrior I fly occasionally has been using WingX for years, and has always been very impressed with Hilton Software's frequent improvements and responsiveness to customer suggestions. I will say that I do think Foreflight seems a little more intuitive and better integrated, but WingX has a few neat features that Foreflight does not, and supports a greater range of external hardware options.

Here's what WingX, and all the other EFB programs, are at their very basic core: a way to display VFR sectional charts while superimposing your flight planned route and current position. For this, they're honestly not really any better than paper charts. I love paper charts, I still use them for local flights and Cub flying. They're easier to read than electronic charts, which need to be zoomed up to be readable, at which point it's easy to miss important information downrange. It's much easier to rotate a paper chart so that it is aligned with your course, while still being able to read labels upside down or sideways; with electronic charts you pretty much always have to switch back to "North Up" mode to read them (I just leave it there, myself). That said, sectionals are a pain to fold in a manner that's usable in the confines of a small cockpit, and planning a flight that goes between panels or between sectionals is a pain in the ass. Most of all, long flights end up requiring a lot of charts, which are expensive and take up space, and then they expire within six months (or if you're IFR, every 28 days). If you're going to do much cross country flying, a program like WingX will save you money over old-school charts.

Modern EFBs are, of course, much more than simple chart readers. They're fairly sophisticated flight planners and GPS navigators. On the above screenshot, notice that the top of the moving map prominently displays groundspeed, track, and GPS altitude (generally accurate within 100 feet, even using the iPad's internal GPS). Below that is cross-track error, next waypoint, distance, bearing, ETA, and ETE. In the map you can see several gray dots that show where I'll be in 5 and 15 minutes if I maintain my present track. Several overlays are available; I currently have 100LL prices displayed (you can see where my cheapskate priorities lie!) but at various points in the trip I chose to display flight rules (as in the last screenshot), ceilings, vis, or wind speed. More about weather overlays in a second. On the left-hand side I have both route and the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) displayed, but I usually only toggle that on when I need it.

You can plan flights from WingX's moving map route editor, or go over to the dedicated route planner. Here's one of the things I found really useful during my trip: if you've updated the weather database recently, you can use the altitude optimizer to find the best altitude considering winds aloft. It's still a little primitive (you can't store aircraft performance profiles, and it assumes a constant entered true airspeed regardless of pressure altitude and temperature) but it's a heck of a lot simpler than eyeballing winds aloft forecasts and interpolating between altitudes and forecast stations. I saved a significant amount of time and money on this trip by frequently going higher or lower than normal due to winds aloft, a major consideration in a 105-knot airplane.

Here's another great feature that is worth its weight in gold. As long as you've downloaded the NOTAMs recently, WingX displays temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) for the next few days and makes them painfully obvious by outlining them in red. Simply tapping on the TFR brings up all the pertinent info. Instead of UTC dates and times, it simply tells you whether the TFR is currently active, and if not, how long from now it will go active. In this case, there's a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral in 8 hours, 27 minutes. Incidentally, there's also a lot of restricted airspace around that area. WingX makes it super easy to look up special use airspace (just tap it!) but unfortunately doesn't tell you whether it is currently active. I was on VFR flight following and just asked ATC; otherwise I could have called a FSS (I assume I could have found it somewhere on my DUATS briefing but didn't look hard enough, I guess).

WingX's best feature, in my opinion, is how easy it makes it for the pilot to obtain weather information. Tap on any airport, tap display wx, and this panel pops up, showing the METARs, TAFs, etc for the airport and surrounding area. Here's the fairly obvious problem: you need a way to update the weather for it to be useful on a longer flight. ADS-B is fantastic for this and is free once you buy the receiver, but reception is spotty below 3000 feet. On the ground and at low altitudes, a 3G-enabled iPad will often have connectivity, allowing you to regularly download weather. I don't yet have an ADS-B box and 3G isn't enabled on my iPad, so I was reduced to running into the FBO at each fuel stop and trying to download updated weather; they didn't always have WiFi. The weather was significantly worse than forecast for a portion of my trip, and better than forecast for another portion, and I ended up getting updates the good old fashion way: listening to AWOSes and ATISes downrange and calling Flight Watch.

If you do have an ADS-B-In source, WingX does a really nice job of integrating datalink weather with the moving map display. Here's a NEXRAD radar overlay. Pilots have gotten themselves into trouble trying to use datalink radar in a tactical fashion, but it's great for making long-range strategic decisions as long as you recognize that you're looking at what the weather was doing somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes ago.

I haven't really even begun to scratch the surface of WingX's features, like the GPWS display (top left), or how it displays which runway you're taking off on and counts down feet remaining, or the terrain profile view (bottom center button), or ability to split screens with multiple displays, or how it automatically brings up the airport diagram (and shows your position on it) when you're below 45 knots on landing. There's just a lot of really neat capability built into the program and I'm still constantly discovering new things. I've heard the same said of Foreflight and the other EFB programs. My point is, there's a heck of a lot of capability available to the VFR pilot for $75 a year - that's essentially all one need spend on flight information, once you have the hardware. It's a rare good deal in GA. Also worth mentioning is that, as usual, the general aviation community is enjoying the benefits of modern technology well, well before it trickles down to the airline guys. We're finally getting EFBs several years after they came into widespread usage within GA, and the capability in our expensive, custom, FAA blessed EFB software is a small portion of that contained in off-the-shelf consumer software one can download and be using in 5 minutes.

One final note...the iPad is a very reliable piece of hardware, but it's not infallible. You need to have a backup. For flights within 200 miles of my home base, I have paper charts available. I also, as mentioned, have the free Avare program on my Android phone. I'll be switching over to an iPhone 6 soon (I have a MacBook and iPad already, so why not complete the transition to total Apple fanboy!), and I'll be able to use my existing WingX subscription on that for no additional cost.