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.,-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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

ADS-B For Cheapskates

Never say I never give you anything, dear readers. I'm about to show you how to make a homebuilt 978MHz ADS-B receiver in 30 minutes and for under $100. I built this a month and a half ago in preparation for a major trip with the Pacer that I'll be writing about shortly, and it has worked flawlessly and been an invaluable addition to the flight bag. I used it with an iPad 2 running WingX Pro7, but it purportedly works just as well with ForeFlight and various other EFB apps on a wide variety of platforms. The commercial versions of this box (Stratus, Garmin GDL39, etc) retail for $500-800. The original parts list, assembly instructions, and code were put together by a pilot whiz named Christopher Young, who posted it to Reddit. I've just expanded, simplified and illustrated his instructions using my own recent stratux build.

Stratux is based on the Raspberry Pi, an ultra-cheap miniturized Linux computer designed for student experimentation. Don't let that scare you; you won't be dealing with the Linux OS at all. A number of Raspberry Pi kits are now offered online, such as this $70 one from Amazon; it comes with everything needed for the stratux build except for a DC power source (AC power cord is included). We'll cover that at the end. The other piece of the puzzle is a USB Software Defined Radio (SDR) dongle with antenna; stratux uses the $22 NooElec NESDR Mini2. Here's everything as it came from Amazon:

Here's everything unwrapped. You can set aside the HDMI cord and the SDR remote control, you won't be using them. 

Making sure you've grounded yourself first, remove the motherboard and the two small metal heat sinks from their packages. Remove the adhesive backing from the heat sinks and apply them to the appropriate chips on the motherboard (see below). Separate the two halves of the clear plastic case, insert the motherboard, and mate the case halves again until you hear a definite click.

Take the tiny Edimax wifi dongle out of its package and plug it into one of the four USB ports. Plug the NooElec SDR dongle into another USB port, and connect the antenna. The assembled computer should look like this:

Next, take the microSD card, use the full-size SD adapter if necessary, and put it into a computer with a SD card reader (if you don't have one, USB readers can be had for $6). Next, download the most recent release of the stratux software from this page (I used v0.4r4) and decompress the ZIP file. The resultant image file includes both the Raspbian (neƩ Linux) operating system as well as the stratux code. You'll need a way to flash the IMG onto the SD card, such as Win32DiskImager for Windows or PiFiller for Mac. Once complete, eject the microSD card and insert it into the microSD slot on the Raspberry Pi.

That's it. Plug the Raspberry Pi in using the wall adapter and fire up the tablet computer that houses our EFB app. Go to Wifi settings and select the Wifi network "stratux," which will appear as soon as the Pi has finished its short bootup sequence. From here the procedure will vary by EFB app; WingX automatically connects and you'll see "stratux" in a green field on the lower right of the screen when in Moving Map mode. Note that you won't actually be receiving ADS-B data unless you live right next to one of the FAA's transmitters.

Time to go flying. Here's where you have to figure out a 12V power source. If your plane has a cigarette lighter and you don't mind a little power cord spaghetti, use a 12V USB adapter and a 5v/1.2A USB-to-microUSB cord like the one that comes with practically every non-Apple phone these days. If you don't have a cigarette lighter or want a cleaner out-of-the-way setup, a lithium ion battery pack like this one is a cheap option. I normally use the cigarette lighter and keep two battery packs handy as backups (for both the iPad and stratux). You can experiment with mounting options using velcro or zipties; so far I've just left mine sitting on the glareshield (on the right side, below pic was while testing).

So far I've found that the antenna works best in its retracted position; orientation doesn't seem to make a difference. I start receiving ADS-B data somewhere between 500 and 3000 feet depending on how close I am to a transmitter. The text weather is very quick; it only takes a second or two to update every airport within a 250 mile radius of the transmitter. The radar takes a little longer, sometimes doesn't load at all if ADS-B signal strength is weak, and of course there are the well-known latency issues, but its still a valuable resource for making strategic decisions.

I expected to mostly use the stratux for weather updates but I've found the traffic feature unexpectedly useful. True, it doesn't show all targets and sometimes it doesn't work at all (since I don't have ADS-B Out, another airplane that does has to be within 25nm of me) but is nevertheless a welcome aid to the Mark I eyeball. Several times already I've been alerted to potential threats before ATC called them out, and on one occasion I declined an erroneous instruction by an overwhelmed tower controller based on traffic I didn't see but ADS-B showed was there. I'm still a bit miffed at the way the FAA is handling the ADS-B Out mandate, but I can certainly see the practical upside to the system once everyone is participating. I just wish there was a VFR ADS-B Out solution as cheap and elegant as the stratux.