Sunday, July 23, 2006

Typical Florida Summer Weather

The weather forecast called for isolated thunderstorms throughout the state with tops exceeding 45,000 feet. Welcome to Florida in July.

I gave the plane a very thorough checkout and I called North County unicom to see what runway was in use. 26 Left came the reply...the same runway I landed on yesterday. I began to taxi towards the runway and saw another Skyhawk coming towards me looking a little lost. I could see that there were planes on both sides of the oncoming plane, so I stopped and turned off my landing lights as a signal to the other aircraft that I was stopping. He made a slight turn to his right and we passed each other without incident. He made some comment on the radio like "That'll work" and I thanked him.

I went through the runup as we taxied to the runway. Reaching the runup area, I called clearance delivery and received my clearance. I was given an amended clearance - to VRB via radar vectors, then as filed. Climb 2000, expect 7000 in 10. Squawks and freqs. Upon entering controlled airspace, fly heading 360. She then asked me to say what runway I would be using and when I would be ready. I readback the clearance and told her I was ready to depart 26 Left. She cleared me and I switch to the CTAF and off we went.

After contacting ATC, I was told to fly a heading of 330, no 340...then 330 and then was told to join V3. After turning to 330, I looked at the GPS display to see where V3 was. I also tuned the VOR to the VRB vortac. It was clear that the airway was to my right, but a course of 330 was not going to intercept it at all. I cheated and turned to 350 which would have me intercept the airway about 20 miles south of Vero.

ATC was busy calling traffic for everyone except me. I was in touch with Miami center when I saw a twin engine pass directly beneath me about 500 feet below. I just caught a glimpse of him to my left when he zipped under me. This traffic should have been called. We were way too close.

I could see some towering cumulous and cumulonimbus clouds ahead and to my left. These would later become the scattered thunderstorms that were forecast. I heard several aircraft request deviations to go around these clouds. ATC actually told one pilot that most planes were flying right through without any problem. I was really hoping that we would get down before these clouds reached the airport.

The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful although we got a fair amount of weather flying. Nearing Ormond Beach, ATC instructed me to descend to 5000 feet. That would put me directly in the clouds and I should have asked the controller if he could keep me at 7000 a while longer. The clouds weren't too bumpy and Maureen didn't seem to bothered by the ride. South of St. Augustine, I was told to fly 360. This vectored me over the ocean. Daytona approach then handed me off to JAX. We got further and further off shore. I had tuned the ILS and the VOR and I could tell we were getting close to intercepting the localizer, so I called ATC. "Standby" was the reply. Shortly, she called back and asked for my request. I said, "I would like the ILS 32 circle 23 to Craig and I was wondering how long you wanted me to fly 360?"

She replied, "continue flying 360, you are number 3 for the approach". I was flying at 3000 feet now and was probably barely within glide distance of the beach if something went wrong. I then noticed that we had flown past the localizer. Eventually, she turned me to 230 which would be perpindicular to the approach course. I'd be making a steep right turn. She also advised me to maintain 2000 until established on the ILS, "Cleared for the ILS 32 approach to Craig". I turned the plane and descended using the autopilot. As I got closer to the approach course, I canceled the autopilot and began to handfly the plane. I was flying the needles very well and intercepted the localizer, then the glideslope. About 10 miles out, I was told to contact Craig tower.

I called the tower and was asked to report ADERR which is 5.4 miles out from the airport. Reaching ADERR which is also the point at which I started my timer, I called the tower and received clearance to land. I flew the needles to about 300 feet, then looked up and there was the runway straight ahead. Crossing the airport property, I got quite an updraft. I managed to land fairly smoothly and was immediately cleared to taxi to parking.

About 20 minutes after we got home, the skies unleashed a tremendous thunderstorm. If we had left only 30 minutes later, we would have caught this mess. Timing is everything.

Another 2.3 of cross-country and 0.5 of actual instrument plus one instrument approach. Good day.

Craig to North Palm Beach

We flew from Jacksonville Craig Municipal (KCRG) to North Palm Beach County (F45) for the weekend. As seems to be the norm these days, the plane was not fueled and had more squawks than I prefer when we arrived Saturday morning. The log suggested that about 3 hours of fuel had been burned since it was last refueled and that would not have allowed me the required 45 minutes reserve for an IFR flight. I started the engine and motored over to the fuel depot. I was very happy to see that one of the line crew had shown up for work early. The fuel is not self-service and I have no idea how to turn the pumps on.

I was rushed and went through my preflight a little faster than usual. I found that the taxi light did not work. No big deal. Everything else seemed to work fine. When I checked the ATIS, I clicked the push-to-talk and nothing happened. I had to really push hard on the button to get the mic to transmit. Not good.

Because I had rushed throught the preflight, we were able to depart within a few minutes of our scheduled departure of 9:15. I went through the runup checklist and the engine checked out fine. I taxied to the split between taxiway C and F in case the tower wanted me to hold for release, that way I could get out of the way of waiting aircraft if needed. I heard the tower clear another aircraft for landing and then I called for take-off clearance. The tower cleared me, but didn't give me a departure heading. As I taxied onto the runway, I asked the controller if he had a departure heading for me. He responded as though I had asked the dumbest question ever. He said, "Do you mean a departure frequency?" with lots of attitude in his voice. I calmly replied, "I'm departing IFR, an usually the tower assigned a departure heading". Now he understood and replied, "Position and hold".

He then asked the flight in the pattern to extend his downwind by a half mile.

Momentarily, he re-cleared me to takeoff and fly heading 160, climb 2000. An odd way to do it, but it worked.

Throughout the conversation, I was having fits with the PTT. Half of my calls were broken up because the mic cut in and out. Getting frustrated with the unreliable button, I pulled the cord from my headset and swapped it to the other side of the plane. The PTT on the co-pilot's yoke worked fine, but it meant that I would have to reach across the plane every time I wanted to talk.

As I approached Daytona, the Daytona Approach Controller gave me several traffic alerts. The first one was at 5500', five hundred below me headed in the opposite direction. I saw this aircraft about 15 seconds before he passed beneath me. Next the tower called for another plane behind me that was overtaking me. He was also at 5,500' flying on the V-3 airway, same direction. I looked behind me, but couldn't see the airplane. As he passed beneath just below the right wing, Maureen pointed it out. I couldn't see him until he got way in front of me. He was not in contact with ATC and was flying VFR only about 1000' above the clouds below him. I was just about to call ATC to announce "Tally-ho", but the controller called me first and said the plane was no longer a factor and had begun descending. I watched as this VFR flight descended into the clouds along the airway.

This kind of crap really pisses me off. The regulations are very clear and anyone flying a twin engine plane should have plenty of flying time to be extremely familiar with the regulations. We were on the airway which is Class E airspace. He was not on an instrument flight plan or ATC would have been in contact. Nevertheless he flew into the clouds. This is so friggin' dangerous. So what if you are instrument rated. If you aren't in the system, chances are you will not receive any traffic calls...heck it's just illegal and dangerous.

The rest of the fight was fairly uneventful and we arrived on schedule. I canceled IFR about 8 miles out because ATC was going to have me hold for a student flying the ILS 8R. Winds were favoring 26L and I didn't want to hold. At 2000 feet, we were below the cloud layer at 3000'. I could see the plane flying the ILS as well as one aircraft in the pattern. I opted to overfly the airport at 1500' then make a descending teardrop entry into the midfield downwind for 26L. I was a bit impatient and didn't fly past the airport far enough, so my pattern was very close to the runway. This meant that my descent would be steep and hot. As I turned final, I pulled power to idle, dropped full flaps and executed a forward slip until I was about 40 feet AGL. I kicked out the slip and lined up the runway. I was still a bit hot, but made a smooth touchdown.

I really love flying and days like this give just enough challenges to be interesting without being too dangerous. 2.3 hours of x-country with 0.3 of actual instrument.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Broke Brakes & GetThere-itis

On June 17th, Maureen and I had planned to fly to the Tampa North Aeropark to help celebrate my neice's 3rd birthday. The weather was forecast to be typical Florida summertime weather, but not too many thunderstorms. Unfortunately, someone had the Skyhawk reserved for a short flight in the morning, so I had to opt for the Piper Warrior II that I had done all of my instrument training in.

This particular Warrior is deteriorating and it aggravates me because it could be a very nice aircraft. Part of the problem is that the students don't seem to treat it like it was theirs and Sterling's mechanics seem to focus their attention on their charter aircraft and the newer Archer IIIs. This is the only aircraft that has ever failed me. While flying my final stage check for my instrument rating, the alternator died. The plane seems to have some electrical issues. Several years ago, the tail position light was very dim - there was a short somewhere in the system that was draining some of the power from the light. The radios are full of noise from the alternator. When the strobes are on, one of the radios is extremely noisy with squawks that keep time to the blinking of the lights.

There was once a nice, but old GPS in the plane. Unfortunately, someone broke it. I have no idea how one would break a GPS physically, but they did. The faceplate was busted and hanging and for about a year, the plane was flown with an "INOP" affixed to the GPS. There was no hope that the equipment would be fixed, yet it was never removed from the plane. There's also an INOP lightning detector. Why not take it out??? Save an extra 10 pounds!

Anyway, Maureen and I had are plans made and I wanted to get down to Tampa. Somehow we left the house late (AS USUAL) and I had to wait for Maureen to talk on the phone before we loaded up. Preflight indicated that the plane was airworthy. I managed to get her started and checked out the electronics. Everything was fine.

I called for my IFR clearance and then for taxi instructions. The winds favored runway 5, which was good as it would give me a tailwind once I was headed to Tampa. I eased the throttle forward and made my left turn down the ramp. It seemed that the right brake pedal was a bit mushy, so I tried to press it. It went straight to the floor. I had to use full right rudder to keep the plane straight when I used the pedal brakes. Not good. Not good at all. This should have been enough for me to turn around and go back, but I thought I would try the hand brake. Fortunately for me, the hand brake applies both brakes evenly and the plane stopped nice and straight. I made the executive decision to continue the flight, but kept the brake problem in the back of my mind. I didn't mention any of this to Maureen.

The flight was a bit bumpy as we passed in and out of growing cumulous clouds. That didn't bother me, but it definitely had a negative effect on Maureen. I noticed that she wasn't looking too well, so I dumped the newspaper from its bag and handed her the bag just in case she became ill.

There is no instrument approach for Tampa North. Because it is such a narrow runway and because it is surrounded by development, it is a bit tricky to pick it out from the ground clutter. My handheld GPS had me pointed in the right direction, but I just couldn't pick it out. About 8 miles out, approach control told me to switch to advisory and since I had clear enough skies, I canceled IFR. I didn't spot the runway until I passed the southwest end of it off my left wing. Fortunately there was no one in the pattern. There was no way I could dump the altitude and make as slow and soft a landing as I wanted, so I flew the pattern. At 1000' AGL, the temperature in the airplane increased quite a bit. The heat combined with the bumps really gave Maureen fits. Nevertheless, I was completely focused on landing the plane, not on my passenger.

On final, I slowed the approach to 65 knots and I touched down nice, straight and soft. I knew better than to try the foot brakes, so I tested the handbrake three times. The plane was slowing nicely. It would have been able to coast to a stop by the time I reached the end of the runway, so we were in very good shape. Using the handbrake and the rudder without differential braking, I managed to park the plane. Since I knew I had a left brake, I taxiied to the end of the runway and made a left turn to the parking area. Mom was waiting there next to her car. I told Maureen, "Look at how good Mom looks!" As I looked over at Maureen, I could see that she was in tears. She was so close to being sick and the lack of control that she had over her body turned into a severe emotional event. I felt so bad for her....but I had done everything I could to make the flight as smooth as possible. Next time, I'll bring a cooler with some ice and washcloths so she can cool down if needed. We're going to Palm Beach this weekend, so I'll be able to test that then...but only if the brakes work. I'll have the Skyhawk this time, so this will be a much better trip.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Home from Leesburg

Dinner was very nice at the Lakeside Inn. Mom had a wonderful time and it was nice to be together with my sisters and Kathy's new hubby, Kevin. Mom opened her presents and we hung around the hotel until it got rather late.

I asked Kathy if she could take me to the airport before it got too late. On the way to the airport I called for a weather briefing. The conditions were about the same as the flight down although the winds had diminished a bit. I had expected to get pretty strong headwinds, but they weren't too bad. I filed IFR and we arrived at the airport.

The plane had plenty of fuel - about 3 hours worth and the preflight turned up nothing unusual.

The airport was pitch black and abandoned. I listened to the ASOS and to the CTAF. No traffic, good weather. I clicked the mic three times to turn on the runway lights and I taxied to the end of 31. I completed my runup, announced my intentions and started the takeoff roll. As I passed through pattern altitude, I announced my departure and called Orlando Approach Control. I advised that I was at 2000', had just departed Leesburg and requested my IFR clearance to CRG. The controller said, "Standby, I'll see if I can find a clearance for you." That sounded odd to me...should be in the system. After about 30 seconds, the controller called back and cleared me as filed and told me to climb to 4000'. I had filed KLEE direct to OCF direct CRG. Procedures requre that you file for a navaid as the first point and OCF was the closest aid that was somewhat on my route. Just a few minutes later, ATC handed me off to the next controller who immediately cleared me direct to CRG. This put me through the Palatka MOA and the restricted areas within it...since they were all cold, there was no problem. That clearance saved me about 10 minutes of flying time.

South of Platka I encountered some dense clouds for about five or 10 minutes. That's spooky flying - night and in IMC. It's like driving with a blanket over your head. I managed.

As I neared CRG, ATC asked me what approach I wanted. Since there were lots of clouds in the area and I was approaching from the south west, the best approach would be the ILS32. Even though that would take me out over the beach, it would be the best way to find the airport through the clouds. ATC gave me vectors towards the approach. I was cleared for the approach and handed off to advisory. The CRG tower closed at 10 and it was around midnight.

I flew the needles very well and came out of the clouds around 1000' AGL. The wind favored circling to 5, so I did that and announced my intentions on the CTAF. Like Leesburg, I had the airport all to my self.

The other day I was reviewing the approach plates for CRG and noticed that there are nonstandard arrival procedures - the ILS and Localizer 32 are not available if the tower is closed. Hmmmm....ATC cleared me for the approach, but I requested it. I've got to look in to this.

Single pilot night IFR is an absolute blast.

Leesburg and Mt. Dora

I flew to Leesburg Municipal Airport for the first time on the 24th of June. KLEE is on the outskirts of the class bravo airspace around Orlando. My mother was celebrating her 67th birthday with a dinner at the Lakeside Inn in Mt. Dora. This would have been an awful drive from Jacksonville. Only about 2 hours or so, but it would be through lots of small speedtrap towns and I just hate to drive when I can fly. Sure, flying is more expensive, but for pure enjoyment, you can't beat it. Besides, there are no SUVs in the sky.

I departed around 3:30 to ensure that I would be able to arrive by 5pm. My sister, Kathy, was going to pick me up at the airport. As is typical in Florida this time of year, thunderstorms were forecast for the area. I had been watching the radar earlier in the day and it didn't look too bad to me.

When I called for a weather briefing, the briefer in Gainesville immediately asked if I had looked at the radar. She was seeing lots of echoes and warned me to be very careful and to use weather avoidance via ATC. I was concerned about the conditions, but not so much that I was going to cancel the flight.

I called for my instrument clearance once I got the plane started and was given everything I asked for except the initial part. I was cleared via radar vectors to OMN, then as filed. I had filed a route that would take me directly to the IAF for the GPS 31 approach. The weather would be favoring that approach.

Once airborne, I encountered a fair number of clouds. ATC cleared me to the victor airway that I had filed and once established on the airway, it looked like I was in a valley about 50 miles wide. To either side of me running almost parallel to my path were ridges of clouds. Although they were tall, none were thunderstorms. I could see them growing and occasionally flew through them. I encountered rain on takeoff and again about 15 minutes into the flight.

South of St. Augustine, I encountered a large jet overhead. Looked like a Southwest 737 descending into JAX. ATC warned me about the plane and I never noticed any buffeting. He was about 3000 feet above me when we passed. About 10 minutes later, I saw very bright lights directly ahead of me. I was at 5000' and these lights were not far below that. The lights grew brighter and wider apart, when finally ATC announced that I had an MD-80 at 4000' in the opposite direction. I replied, "Tally Ho! Skyhawk 313". It was a beautiful sight to look down as this great jet flew beneath me.

Nearing Leesburg, I could see some thunderstorms to the southwest of the airport. The ASOS at the airport said lightning was "distant". I knew I had to keep an eye on the clouds.

Just a few miles before I would have penetrated the class bravo airspace, ATC advised me to turn right to 230. There was a very strong tailwind - about 20 knots or more, so I thought that wasn't enough. I watched the GPS as the Class-B grew closer and closer. Finally, ATC told me to descend to 2000', and I expedited my descent at about 2000 fpm. If I hadn't I would have gone right into the class B and ATC had not explicitly cleared me. While I descended, ATC turned me about 20 degrees more to the right and told me to expect the NDB 31 approach. He also advised that I could cancel IFR in the air or by calling the FSS on the ground. Since it looked like there were still some rainstorms between me and Leesburg, I advised that I would call on the ground.

I got out the NDB procedure and pulled up the approach on the GPS. I intercepted the course to the airport and was advised by ATC to switch to the advisory freq. Tuning the CTAF, I heard on plane departing from 31, but never saw him as I was still about 6 miles out. The approach took me directly across a large lake. I announced my straight-in intentions, but I was alone in the pattern. I touched down nicely and Kathy and Kevin were waiting for me.

Dinner at the Inn was very nice, but it would have been nice to have a glass of wine. Since I was flying home that night, I didn't dare. I've always maintained at least 12 hours bottle to throttle even though the FARs allow 8 hours...why risk losing a pilot certificate that took me significant amounts of time and money to acquire? Or worse...why risk my life for a glass of wine?

More on the return later...