Category Archives: Aviation

Writings about aviation, including chronics of my flight lessons, product reviews, and so on.

Flying Friday: “When Penguins Flew and Water Burned” (review)

I don’t bother to review very many books, in part because I read a lot and in part because writing reviews takes time away from reading. However, I recently received the Kindle version of When Penguins Flew and Water Burned and wanted to quickly recommend it. The book is a recap of the career of Jim Clonts, a B-52 navigator (and, later, radar navigator) during the tail end of the Cold War. Clonts writes in an engaging style, and his tales of life on a bomber crew are absolutely fascinating if you’re at all interested in military aviation. Although his crew position is navigator, he’s also a pilot and so there’s a fair bit of inside-baseball talk. The book is moderately heavy on jargon, as you might expect, but it’s still pretty approachable even if you don’t know anything about bombers or the USAF in general. Well worth a read if you’re flight-minded.

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Flying Friday: of shops and annuals

I haven’t been flying much lately, sad to say. This is mostly because of weather, but partly because I have been busy with other things. However, as spring approaches, I’ve been eager to get back in the air. A couple of weeks ago, I went flying with John, my CFII, and shot some practice instrument approaches. While I was a bit rusty, I was still able to fly a good ILS, even in the winds, but I had a little bit of trouble making the KLN94 do what I wanted to get set up for the GPS approach into Huntsville… its time is coming, though, and I hope to finally get the Avidyne IFD540 installed in early summer. That’s still some time away, though. There are two hurdles to cross first: getting our engine monitor installed and getting the plane through its required annual inspection.

First, the engine monitor. Like almost all other airplanes of this vintage, 706 has a battery of analog gauges that report on the engine health. There’s nothing wrong with this, as these instruments tend to be very reliable. The tachometer, manifold pressure gauge, and fuel flow gauge are all very important. However, the standard engine instruments have several shortcomings. First, our plane had a conventional single gauge for reporting exhaust gas temperature (EGT), and the aftermarket cylinder head temperature (CHT) gauge wasn’t working. The problem with single-channel EGT and CHT instruments is that they only tell you what one cylinder is doing, so there’s no way to see what’s going on with the other five cylinders. Second is that the gauges are scattered all around the panel; besides the EGT and CHT indicators, there’s a suction gauge (which tells you whether the engine-driven vacuum pump that drives the gyros is working), the fuel gauges, and so on. Third is that these gauges only show instantaneous data, not trends, and they don’t alert you to unusual conditions.

The solution: get an engine monitor. After much shopping and head-scratching, we settled on the CGR-30P from Electronics International. The video below will give you an idea of what this magic box does:

From my perspective, the CGR-30P does two critical things: it alerts you when an engine parameter goes out of limits (say, if the oil pressure decreases unexpectedly), and it logs data that can be used for later analysis. As a nice side benefit, it monitors CHT and EGT for all six cylinders, which has the dual benefit of giving early indication of potential misbehavior and providing the data we need to operate the engine as efficiently as possible.

(Brief digression: there is a lot of religious argument over the “correct” way to adjust the fuel/air mixture in piston engines. This article by noted mechanic Mike Busch explains the topic, and the debate, very well, along with recommending the approach that I will be using once I have accurate CHT and EGT data).

Getting the CGR-30P installed, though, requires an avionics shop. Derek and I have struggled with finding a good local shop. There’s no avionics shop at our home field, and C-Cubed, which used to be at Huntsville,  closed a few months ago. Their spot was taken over by a company called Advanced Technical Avionics (ATA). After a brief period of confusion occasioned by a management change (translation: someone got fired), we got the plane into the shop on Tuesday to start the installation. With any luck, in a week or so, the plane will be back in the air– which is good, as I have a trip planned to New Orleans next month for the New Orleans Sprint triathlon, my first of the year.

Right after I get back from New Orleans, the plane needs to go in for its annual inspection. Every general aviation aircraft is required to undergo a comprehensive airworthiness inspection each year. There are specific things that the shop will check based on the engine and airframe manufacturer’s recommendations, and there can be other things that need checking or adjustment based on how much the plane has been flown. For example, some components need to be checked every 100 or 500 hours. (This example inspection checklist gives you an idea of some of the things that must be inspected.) Then, because this is a 40-year-old airplane, there will inevitably be some things that need to be repaired or replaced because they’re worn out or broken. For example, our air conditioner doesn’t work any longer, so we’ll have the shop take a look at it as long as they’re crawling around inside the plane.

On the advice of Savvy, our maintenance management company, we’re using a Piper service center for the annual– DLK Aviation in Kennesaw, Georgia. That means that we’ll have to ferry the plane there and back again; I’ll probably rent a plane from Redstone and pick Derek up after he drops the plane off, but driving isn’t out of the question. Once the plane arrives, after one to two weeks (and some unknown amount of money, depending on whether there are any expensive surprises), we’ll have the plane back and be good for another year.

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Developing apps for the Garmin ConnectIQ SDK

Early on this triathlon season, I bought a Suunto Ambit 2s. I loved the idea of having accurate workout data for my training, plus more accurate time/distance data for my races, and the Suunto has delivered. But it’s missing a few things: its support for interval workouts is poor, and the Movescount website is less reliable than I’d like. Luckily Suunto added export to Strava, but you still have to use their computer-based app to transfer workouts from the watch to the computer to the Movescount site, so when the site’s down you can’t see your workout data. (There are also various website bugs, including one in computing swim distance that means that the results on the website don’t match the results on the watch, but I digress). Having said all that, I was planning on sticking with the Suunto because I like the industrial design; it’s comfortable to wear, looks good, and has all the basic functionality I need.

Then I read this: Garmin announces ability to develop apps on wearables, with Connect IQ.

Coupled with my native lust for all shiny gadget things, the availability of the SDK opened a whole range of possibilities, not only for apps I could get for the watch but for apps I could write. I immediately started pondering what kinds of useful apps I could build and came up with one that I thought would be very useful: a flight timer. There are at least two different flight times that I need to log for every flight: how long the propeller was turning (because that drives how much money I put into our engine reserve fund) and how long I was actually in the air (which is what I actually log as flight time).

The GPS in 706 can automatically calculate flight time from takeoff to touchdown… provided you remember to look at it after landing and before turning off the avionics master switch. We also have a Hobbs meter that measures the time when the propeller’s actually turning. However, an app that automatically records time in flight, along with the origin and destination airports, would be useful. CloudAhoy does something similar, based on ForeFlight track data (and for all I know, ForeFlight can do this already). However, a timer that’s not tied to the aircraft would have the advantage of not losing its data when you turn off the airplane, and not being tied to a phone, external GPS, or iPad greatly reduces the risk of losing data due to battery or device failures.

So, I ordered a Garmin 920XT and downloaded the Garmin SDK. On first inspection, it looks like the SDK and development model are both pretty tractable for what I want to do. I’ll be blogging about my development efforts as they progress. For now, if I can get basic logging to work in the device simulator, I’ll be happy. There are a few features I’d like to have in the app to make it useful: it should automatically log flight time from takeoff to touchdown, geocode the origin and destination points so that the log file reflects airports and not just GPS points, and provide a timer function for things such as switching fuel tanks in flight. If I can extend that to include automatically logging flights into Safelog, that’d be even better but that might be some time away.

The 920XT itself will be a nice upgrade from the Suunto, which I am going to loan to my pal Jay for use in his training, but it won’t ship until sometime in November, so I’ll be running on the simulator for a while yet (and using the Suunto to log workouts, too!)

The SDK includes a comprehensive set of API docs, the device simulator, an Eclipse plugin that runs the command-line compiler, and assorted sample apps. I’ll have ore to say about it once I get my environment set up and running and start playing with the samples. Garmin’s clearly thinking about this the right way, though; in addition to their own developer forum, they are actively encouraging the use of StackOverflow.

Stay tuned for updates!

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Disney and Universal 2014 wrapup

A few more-or-less random thoughts about our recent trip to Disney World and Universal Studios Florida:

  • Universal is a see-it-once park, I think. We enjoyed it but there was nothing so compelling that I think we’d want to go back again in five years. On the other hand, all four of us had specific things at Disney that we looked forward to doing (among them: turkey legs, the Winnie the Pooh ride, Tower of Terror, and Space Mountain).
  • Having said that, the Harry Potter attractions are superbly done: decoration, character acting, costuming, and all the little touches come together to provide a very immersive experience. Just don’t expect to be able to drink a whole mug of butterbeer. (And don’t be surprised if the Forbidden Adventure ride leaves you nauseated for a couple of hours afterwards.) Getting early access by virtue of staying in a Universal property was well worth it.
  • We didn’t buy, nor did we miss, the front-of-the-line ride access benefit that Universal sells for $60+ per person, per day.
  • Disney’s MagicBands system works extremely well and made paying for things much easier– which, I suppose, is the point.
  • The FastPass+ system takes a little getting used to because you can get multiple passes at once, but there are limits on which rides you can stack passes for. Read up on it before you go.
  • We stayed at two “value” hotels: Universal’s Cabana Bay and Disney’s All-Star Music Resort. Both had nicely equipped, clean “family suite” rooms. Both claimed to sleep six: Universal provided two double beds and a twin pull-out sofa, while Disney provided a queen, a twin sofabed, and two single fold-out sleep chairs: not ideal for six-foot teenagers, but workable.
  • Disney’s on-property wifi was great at the parks, as was Universal’s. However, the Disney in-room wifi was unusuable– worse even than the worst of the Microsoft conference hotels I’ve had to use in the past.
  • EPCOT’s International Food and Wine Festival was going on, so we got some primo foods when we ate dinner there. I’d like to do the festival again, but with more time to savor the food.
  • Tom, Matt, and I all ran into friends at the parks. It’s a small world indeed.
  • We didn’t rent a car, so we used Uber for the move from the Kissimmee airport to Universal, then a cab from Universal to Disney, then Uber again. Orlando’s taxis are about a million percent cleaner than in most other cities, but Uber was cheaper and faster.

Overall, a successful trip (good flight, too!) but boy, am I glad to be home!

 

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My first real IFR trip: Decatur-Manassas and back

My trip to DC to compete in the Nation’s Triathlon was my first “real” IFR flight. I say “real” because it combined flight in actual instrument conditions with busy airspace and a long cross-country—conditions I expect to encounter often as I fly around.

Earlier in the summer, I had signed up for the tri.The timing was such that I would come home from GATTS, have a couple of days to pack, and then fly up to DC, hopefully with my instrument rating. That turns out to be what happened.

Flight planning was straightforward. The DC metro area has a number of general aviation airports scattered around, but it also has significant restrictions on its airspace. Without going into all of the gory details, it’s enough to point out that the airports that are closest to central DC are heavily restricted. In order to fly to the so-called “Maryland 3”, you have to go to either Dulles or BWI, get fingerprinted, have security interviews with the FAA and TSA, and then get a PIN that you use when filing flight plans. I didn’t have time to do that, so I settled on Manassas, which is further out but would provide a reverse commute into and out of the city—it also helped that the route from Manassas to the hotel passed right by the bike shop where I’d made arrangements to rent a road bike.

I planned an early departure Saturday morning. Because I’d been out of the office for most of the week, I couldn’t leave earlier than about 5pm, and I didn’t want to fly night IFR in unfamiliar, complex airspace after a full, and tiring, day at work—that’s how accidents happen. My original plan was to fly from Decatur to KGEV, fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then continue on to Manassas. The weather at Decatur at departure time was OK, with an overcast layer about 2000’, and Huntsville Approach quickly cleared me to my target altitude. The first hour or so of the flight was smooth on top, then things got a bit bouncy because there were clouds at my filed altitude—with some light rain and a fair bit of chop. Once past that, though, things were looking good until I looked at the weather at my destination airport and alternate . Both were below minimums, so instead I flew a bit further east and landed at Winston-Salem, which was nicely VFR. It turns out that the airport there has self-service or full-service fuel, with a whopping $1.69/gal price difference—but getting to the self-service pump from the FBO is an adventure that involves runway crossings and, in my case, aggravating the pilot of a Malibu who had to hold short while I taxied. Such is life.

The flight into Manassas was perfectly uneventful, just the way I like. I had filed direct from Winston-Salem to Manassas, but I didn’t expect to get that routing, and sure enough, I didn’t; Potomac Approach sent me direct to the Casanova VOR, then direct Manassas. It was fun watching the Foreflight traffic display en route, since I could see a ton of traffic into Reagan.

Watch out for the big iron!

Watch out for the big iron!

Going to CSN first wasn’t much of a diversion, so it was no big deal. Manassas was VFR, but storms were expected later, so after I landed, the fine folks at Dulles Aviation hangared the plane. (I also want to point out that they provided stellar service: the rental car was ready when I got there, saving me a commute to the nearest Avis office some 12 miles away, and they treated me like I had just flown in on a Gulfstream.)

The return trip looked simple enough too. I filed direct Manassas to Greenbriar, WV. The race was on Sunday, and I needed to be at work Monday morning, so I had to leave late in the afternoon, meaning that several of the airports I would normally have considered as fuel stops were either closed, or would be. Greenbriar was reporting 900’ overcast, which was fine with me, so I filed, preflighted, and started up, then called Manassas Ground to get my clearance.

Here’s what I was naively expecting: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared as filed to LWB, climb and maintain 9000’, departure frequency…”

Here’s what I got instead: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared to LWB via the ARSENAL FOUR departure, thence the Montebello transition, then direct NATTS, then direct LWB; departure frequency…” Thus we see how ATC deals with the expectations of a novice IFR pilot. This set off a frantic burst of knob-twiddling as I tried to set up the KLN94 for that departure (which it didn’t have, since its onboard database was too old). I eventually got it set up, was cleared for takeoff, and then got a series of ridiculous vectors from Potomac Approach that sent me well north of where I wanted to be. However, the flight to Greenbriar was nice and smooth between layers, and, as advertised, the weather on arrival necessitated shooting the ILS, which I did smoothly. After taking on fuel, it was off to Decatur; the rest of the flight was unremarkably smooth except for a great sunset and some tasty snacks (yay vanilla wafers!) I considered it a very successful trip!

A great sunset to cap off a great trip

A great sunset to cap off a great trip. Not shown: vanilla wafers.

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GATTS days 8 & 9: judgment day(s)

The title of this post gives it away: I didn’t pass my check ride on the first try. Read on to find out why…

On day 8, I woke up early, loaded the car, and drove to the airport to meet Peter. We’d arranged with Ken to meet early because the weather from Manhattan to Topeka (and the surrounding area) was poor: 1200’ or less ceilings, with lots of wind and a good bit of rain. Peter and I agreed to head east and see what the weather looked like when we got there. Short answer: it was terrible. The entire flight was in clouds, with plenty of bumps, then on arrival, ATC gave us about 20 minutes of holding on the localizer, which was, um, invigorating, not to mention bouncy. We finally landed and this is what we saw:

Paul robichaux net 20140903 001

Ken was there waiting for us, so we went inside and went through the standard check ride prep; he and I both signed into IACRA to complete my check ride paperwork, he briefed me on the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, and so on. Then we spent about an hour on the oral exam, which was perfectly straightforward. I wasn’t surprised by any of his questions, largely thanks to the combination of Peter’s coaching and my own study. The weather wasn’t good enough for us to conduct the practice approaches on the check ride under VFR conditions, so we adjourned to the airport restaurant for a snack (which was interrupted by a business phone call for me, alas). After about an hour and a half, the weather had lifted enough for us to fly. We took off, and Ken had me intercept V4 to give us some distance from the airport. We flew west a bit, then he had me recover from unusual attitudes, which went well… except.

See, I was having a hell of a time keeping to my assigned altitude. I’d like to blame it on the wind, but it wasn’t just that; my scan was deteriorating faster than ever before. I’m still not sure if I was nervous, rattled from the weather, or what, but after a few gentle reminders from Ken (example: “Do you know what the PTS requirements for holding altitude are?”, just in case my poor performance was due to ignorance vice lack of skill), he had me head in to the ILS for runway 13. I flew fairly well despite the wind gusts, intercepting and tracking the localizer without a problem.. but, again, my altitude control was poor, and I let the glideslope needle hit full deflection down. I was too high, and that was that: he had me land, gave me the dreaded letter of discontinuance, and held a short debrief with Peter and me. Then I flew us home, in a funk the whole way; we did some remedial training en route, which I obviously needed but didn’t want. After landing I went back to the apartment, sulked for a while, worked a bit, and then mentally steeled myself to repeat the process the next day… and that’s exactly what happened. The next morning, we went back to the airport, flew to Topeka, met Ken, did the same IACRA stuff, and went out to the airplane.

When you retake a failed (or interrupted) checkride, the examiner doesn’t have to retest you on the portions you passed, although she can. In my case, Ken just wanted me to fly the approaches and holds, which I did, starting with the ILS for 13. It was still breezy, but nowhere near as windy as the preceding day, and/or maybe I was less nervous. In any event, I flew a textbook ILS approach, did a decent job on the hold (despite a stiff and inconvenient crosswind), and followed with the VOR and localizer back course approaches. I landed, taxied in, and Ken shook my hand to congratulate me. Here’s what the airport looked like when we taxied up:

Paul robichaux net 20140901 003After another debrief, in which the often-heard and completely true phrase “license to learn” was tossed around several times, we bade Ken goodbye and headed back to the ramp. After a short and uneventful flight back to Manhattan, I shook hands with Peter for the last time, got a fresh diet Coke, and headed home. The flight home was smooth and clear, so I didn’t actually get to perform any approaches, more’s the pity. After such a long time away, I was delighted to get home, sleep in my own bed, play with the cat, and generally settle in a bit.

Once a little more time has passed, I’ll write up my overall impressions of GATTS. It is safe to say that I’m pleased with what I learned and their teaching methods, but I feel like I need a bit more experience before I form a complete opinion. Meanwhile, I’ll be flying!

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GATTS day 7: checkride prep, plus a race

Day 7 of my GATTS experience happened to be Labor Day. That didn’t really make any difference to the flight schedule, but I did talk Peer into a later start time so that I’d have time to go run the Summer Send-Off 5K race in nearby Chapman, Kansas. The race was a lot of fun; I ran well despite getting lost on the way there and arriving literally 30 seconds before the starting gun. (Irony of the day: just as I was passing the high school demolished by a 2008 tornado, my iPod served up Flux Pavilion’s “Blow the Roof”).

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

Race in Kansas? Sure, why not? One more state on my list that I can cross off.

After the race and a quick shower, I met Peter at the airport for a mock checkride. Checkrides are normally administered by people who hold the role of DPE, or designated pilot examiner. They’re not FAA employees; many of them are very high-time instructors, often retired. Every instructor knows, or should, the local DPEs: what they think is important, what they emphasize in the oral and practical exams, what their habits and idiosyncracies are. Although Peter didn’t attempt to imitate the DPE’s mannerisms or anything, he did tell me that I should expect to take off, intercept the V4 airway westbound, return to do the ILS 31 approach at Topeka, execute the published missed approach, transition to the VOR 22 approach, and then come back to do the localizer backcourse for 13. This last was necessary because of FedEx’s failure to deliver my updated GPS card on time, the dirty rats– I couldn’t legally fly a GPS approach without the updated data card, so I was stuck with the backcourse.

The first part of any FAA checkride, of course, is the oral exam, so Peter quizzed me for an hour or so on weather, procedures, approaches, lost communications procedures, and pretty much everything else we had discussed at any time during the preceding week. That went well, I thought; I felt well prepared by the combination of my study and his teaching. Then we went out to the ramp, fired up the airplane, and flew to Topeka to simulate the flight check portion. The flight went very well, although it was windy and bumpy, so I had trouble maintaining the nice oval shape we all associate with a well-flown holding pattern. Part of the goal of the simulated checkride is to put the applicant at ease with the flow of the ride, and it definitely helped; despite the blustery winds, I flew within the PTS and felt good once we got back on the ground and put the plane away. I had an easy night, packing and making one last visit to Hibachi Hut for bread pudding and a sandwich, then went to bed, eager to face the DPE on the morrow…

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