Monday, December 20, 2004

No Day is a Perfect Day for Flying

Saturday night, Jerry Wilkey told me "If you have time to spare, go by air!" I'm sure glad Maureen didn't hear that. She would have cited that as further proof that my expensive hobby is useless.

With a front pushing through Florida, and the memory of the last time I got stuck in Ormond Beach fresh in my mind, I made my plans for the return from North Palm Beach (F45). The winds at all levels were forecast to be unfavorable for my direction of flight, although it appeared the higher I went, the worse they would be. I chose 4,500 feet as my desired altitude and the only challenge would be the forecast clouds at 4000 feet at various places along the way. I sure will be glad to get my instrument rating!

I paid my bill and checked the plane - full tanks, this time. The fuel pump was behaving oddly. Normally, it clicks rapidly when it is turned on and pressure climbs rapidly to 5 to 7 pounds. Now, it was clicking slowly and the pressure came up slowly--although it did come up. I made a mental note to keep an eye on the fuel pressure.

The engine started after eight or ten blades and I set the radios. COM 2 seemed to be working now and that was a relief. I taxied behind a nice Cherokee Six to runway 31 and following a quick run-up that showed no problems, I took the active. I departed ahead of a plane that had just turned base and I could hear him calling his turn to final as I made my takeoff roll. No problem--this was perfect timing. I climbed out and announced my intentions to leave the pattern to the north. Reaching 1000 feet, I contacted Palm Beach Approach and asked for flight following. They quickly gave me a squawk code and told me the altimeter was 29.86.

I could feel quite a bit of wind on the climb out and I knew this would be a challenging flight. Reaching 4,500 feet and lining up on the Victor 3 airway, I ran through the cruise checklist. I was turning about 14 degrees to the left of my course to account for the wind. However, the wind was not constant. I encountered frequent updrafts and down drafts and had to constantly alter my course to maintain my desired track. Even after fine tuning the course, I still drifted when the force of the wind changed. My airspeed indicator fluctuated between 115 and 95. Engine RPMs which I had set at 2400, increased and decreased due to the wind and the up/down drafts. I was really getting a workout. Maureen would have been tossing her cookies!

The clouds were almost non-existent. That was quite a relief from the forecast that had called for scattered to broken followed by overcast at some points along the route. They never reached the broken stage. I can imagine that someone on the ground looking up would have thought this was a perfect day for flying, but the way I was being bounced around, it wasn't.

As I passed the space center, I took the opportunity to snap a couple of pictures of the vehicle assembly building where they were working on the space shuttle. I couldn't resist. The sun was illuminating the site perfectly.

Passing, the airspace near the space coast, Daytona Approach announced traffic at my altitude, 8 miles, opposite direction, 12 o'clock. I looked and looked and could not see it. It was a Lake--an really cool sea plane, but I couldn't find it. Knowing that I was turned to the left to compensate for the wind, I looked in the 1 to 2 o'clock direction and just could not spot him. When ATC told us the traffic was now 4 miles, I began to get nervous. ATC then suggested that I descend to 4000 to clear the traffic, and I eagerly complied. I was releived when the other aircraft said he had me in sight. Just as I reached 4000', I saw him. Coming straight at me, 500 feet above directly through the spot I would have been in. Thank God for ATC.

A short while later, ATC announced additional traffic and once again, I could not spot him. This time, however, he was not in contact with ATC. He also should not have been at this altitude going the opposite direction, either. ATC told me to turn 30 degrees to the left and I banked the plane quickly. I never did see the other plane and within 30 seconds, the controller told me to resume navigation, the other aircraft was no longer a factor.

The skies over Craig were clear as I approached from the south. Once I spotted Craig, I called Jacksonville Approach to cancel flight following and thanked them for their assistance. I pulled out the approach plate for the ILS 32 approach to practice descended to 1900 feet and adjusted NAV2 to intercept the 139 radial of the CRG VOR. I tuned the ILS on 32 on NAV1 and turned to the north to intercept the approach. I quickly grabbed the ATIS, adjusted my altimeter, checked the heading indicator against the compass and contacted Craig Tower. The handoff from ATC to Craig must have been quite smooth, because, the controller immediately said "Make straight in for 32 and report 2 mile final. Winds 290 at 14 gusts to 20".

The winds had kept most folks grounded, so there were no other planes in the pattern. I devoted my attention to the ILS and noted that the glideslope was still out of service. At 5.3 miles, I started my descent adjusting the airspeed to account for the wind in my face while maintaining a 500 fpm rate. This put the airspeed about 100 knots. I planned to use only 2 notches of flaps because the gusts might make the plane float quite a bit.

As I neared the airport, the controller advised me that the wind was shifting back and forth and he could switch me to runway 23 if I wanted. I was a little suprised at this. I could see the wind sock and it appeared to be favoring 32. It was pointing straight out, but at an angle to the runway. I responded, "Thanks, I'll just stick to 32. I may have to go around, but this will do for now. 2-Mike-Alpha". Great, attack my confidence just before I land!

I divided my attention between the runway ahead and the CDI as practice and found that I was doing a pretty good job of maintaining the localizer heading by using a compass heading of 305 degrees. I had read an article recently that suggested it is better to choose specific headings when trying to maintain localizer and VOR headings, and that has proven to be useful advice.

The plane bounced and tilted in the wind as I drew closer to the runway. This was going to be a challenge. I progressively introduced two notches of flaps and adjusted the trim to compensate for the increased nose high attitude this tried to give me. As I neared the threshold, I shifted from a crab to a slip by dipping the left wing into the wind and using the rudder to maintain my line. Crossing the threshold, I pulled the power to idle and the plane settled down. I touched down on the left main followed by the right, then finally the nose wheel...probably in about as much time as took me to write this. Slowly, softly--I could hardly feel the touchdown. Better, yet, I was right on the centerline. This was one of my best landings ever and under stiff, variable crosswinds. I cheered for myself as the plane rolled down the runway.

Thinking about this flight, I cannot think of anything that I did wrong - usually, there's some gotcha that I forgot about or did incorrectly. Ok, so maybe I touched the transponder before I crossed the hold-short line. An maybe my altitude deviated a bit too much in the updrafts initially, but once I started to pay more attention to the VSI and the altimeter and less to the seat of my pants, that problem went away.

This was a challenging, but extremely fun flight! 2.6 hours thanks to the wind!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

December Skies in Florida

I've only been stuck due to weather twice in the past year and one of those times was last December when a front started to push through Florida and then decided to stall. I was stuck for two days and had to spend a night in the Hampton Inn in Ormond Beach.

Today, I flew from Craig (CRG) to North Palm Beach (F45) to visit my in-laws and to celebrate my nephew's 15th birthday. As it was this time last year, there is a cold front pushing through--fortunately, it does not have the force of last year's front, although it will bring freezing temperatures to the northern half of Florida.

I had planned my flight with a 105 knot airspeed and the cool air in north Florida sure helped the engine of the Piper Warrior deliver. I was showing as high as 125 knots groundspeed on my GPS and airspeed was indicating 115. Not bad for 75% power.

I climbed out of CRG at 8:45 with 3 1/2 hours fuel since the FBO failed to refuel the plane last night. That wasn't a problem since my schedule called for only 2.2 hours of flight time. And since I'm pointing out problems, ONCE AGAIN, the previous pilot recorded an innacurate Hobbs time. This has been a problem lately with the rental Warriors at Sterling. The procedure is that when any part of the next tenth of an hour indicator is showing, that next hour is the recorded time. A tenth of an hour is $8.80 plus tax, so this is not a minor deal. In this situation, at least half of the next number was showing. This has happened quite a few times in the past few months and I really am getting tired of it. I recorded the correct time in my starting entry and since the prior pilot had not been invoiced, I corrected his time, too. This guy also failed to tie down the aircraft properly using some sort of slip knot rather than the standard tie-down knot - I know there's a name for the knot, but I cannot remember it right now.

Anyway, back to the flight. I had used AOPA's flight planner to build my plan and get my briefing the night before. It called for a magnetic course of 168 on the V3 airway, but the Jacksonville Sectional Chart shows a course of 164. For some reason the AOPA planner is always off a little on the course headings. Using the VORs at CRG and St. Augustine (SGJ), I adjusted my course to intercept the 164 radial just west of St. A. With flight following from ATC and fairly clear skies, my journey was off to a quick start.

The weather called for a slight tailwind, cold air, and clouds of increasing density the further south I went. I passed the Ormond Beach VOR about 5 minutes ahead of schedule and was making 115 knots groundspeed on the average. Passing Daytona Beach, I saw a line of clouds covering my altitude and extending upwards about 1000 feet or so. I asked ATC for 2500' for 5 minutes and the controller approved. After about 10 miles, I had clear skies for another 15 or 20 miles until I encountered clouds from about 2000' up to about 3500. I asked ATC for 5500 and he said he could give me 4500 or hand me off to Orlando approach for 5500. In central Florida, the usual rules for altitudes are adjusted a bit--because there is a narrow corridor outside of the Class B airspace at ORL, we are often assigned non-conventional altitudes.

So I climbed to 4500 and proceded on course. I only had to adjust the course slightly to dodge the occasional cumulous cloud peeking above the layer. I started to get a bit nervous, though, because as I passed Melbourne, it appeared to be a solid layer of holes to duck through for my landing. I told myself not to worry--I still had 80 miles to go and clouds were forecast to be scattered at F45. So relying completely on my VOR and my GPS, I stayed the course. Things cleared a bit as I passed Fort Pierce. I tried to tune the ATIS at PBI, but couldn't get it. I could hear the HIWAS at Pahokee, though. I had tried to listen to both radios simultaneously, but that didn't work as well as it does in the new Cessnas. For a while, the radio was strangely silent, although I could hear the ident for one of the NAV radios--weird since I had neither selected on the console and I did not have the ident knob pulled on either....maybe that was the DME, I don't know. Since I hadn't heard anything from Miami Center, I called and asked, "how do you read". Very faintly and just above the background noise, I heard a reply. So he could hear me, and I couldn't hear him. Lovely. I then switched radios and the controller advised me to contact Palm Beach Approach ... I heard that loud and clear.

The pattern was full at F45 as I approached from the North. I passed over the airport at 1500, descended to pattern altitude and entered the left downwind for 31. I then proceeded to make a very soft, but crappy landing. Instead of touching down on the rears first, I did a 3 point landing, and then porpoised a little. Maintaining backpressure on the yoke, the plane settled down and I was safe. My excuse is that I've been flying the high-wing Cessna 172 lately and the touchdown attitude is different from the low-wing Warrior. The Warriors also have ground effect due to the low wing--I've got my excuses lined up!

The total trip took 2.1 hours for an average speed of 111 knots versus a calculated speed of 105 knots...Not bad at all.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

More Thanksgiving - The Time to Fly

We took off at 10:45 and got flight following at 4,500 feet. There were strong headwinds - 30 to 40 knots from 50 to 60 degrees off the right wing. The air around CRG was free of clouds, but as I reached my target altitude, I could see clouds in the distance at my altitude.

Using my handheld GPS, I activated my flight plan and at the same time, I programmed the plane's GPS for a direct to OCF. The flight was very smooth after we leveled off, but I had to maintain about 20 to 25 degrees of right deflection to maintain the desired track.

As we got closer to Ocala, I decided to program a direct to X39 - Tampa North. This would cut a little time from the flight which I had calculated at 1h30m due to the headwind and it was late enough to avoid the Palatka MOA and restricted areas. I also decided to climb to avoid the cloud layer while advising ATC of my intentions.

As the flight progressed, I started to second guess myself as the cloud layer below me appeared to get denser and denser. Finally, about 30 miles from my destination, I saw a gap in the clouds and began a comfortable descent. ATC decided that they were too busy to handle flight following, so they terminated radar coverage and I was on my own. They told me I could contact Tampa approach in a few miles and they could pick me up. As we passed beneath the cloud layer with bottoms at 2000 feet, the flight became a bit rougher. Fortunately, we were only 20 miles from our destination. I took one last look at my chart to ensure that there weren't any 2000 foot tall towers in my path. Finding none, I focused on getting weather information from the Vandenberg ASOS which was the closest to Tampa North. Afterwards, I tuned the frequency for Tampa App that Jax gave me and was told to use a different frequency. Technically, I didn't need to call them since I wouldn't be crossing within their Class B airspace, but I'd be within the Mode C veil and I always think it is better to let folks know where you are.

The rest of the flight was a bit bumpy. Passing over the airport, I saw the windsock showing stiff (15kt +) winds straight down the runway. That was a good thing. I made a midfield crosswind entry into the left downwind for 32 and planned to keep my speed about 7 to 10 kts above the standard approach speed to compensate for the winds. I also decided to use only 20 degrees of flaps. Crossing the threshold, I found swirling winds and had to work to keep the plane lined up on the 50' wide runway. Touchdown was smooth and I taxied back down the runway to the FBO.

Nobody was there, and there were no easily identified parking spots. I decided to taxi over in the grass next to an old Piper Cub. There were no storms in the forecast, so I wasn't too worried about the lack of tiedowns.

There was Mom waiting for us as we parked the plane 1 hour and 30 minutes after takeoff - just as I had calculated.

Another great flying day in a beautiful aircraft! 2.6 hours with 1.6 cross-country!