Monday, February 19, 2007

Which slows a flight more? ATC or Headwinds???

...or what happens when you experience both?!

This weekend I flew to F45 (North Palm Beach County, aka North County) from Craig (CRG). With a cruise speed of 120 knots TAS, the no-wind time for such a flight should be 1.75 hours. The forecast for Saturday called for a slight tailwind component that should add 5 knots to our cruise speed. But, as anyone who has ever flown can tell you, the winds never obey predictions. Once I climbed to my crusing altitude of 6000 feet for the flight down, the GPS was clearly showing some strong winds off of the right wing with about a 3 or 4 knot reduction in ground speed.

Nevertheless, the sky was clear and the flight was smooth. I had a great view of the Cape as we flew past the shuttle landing area, the assembly building and all of the rocket launchers.

I was a bit disappointed in ATC because they did not clear me as filed, instead, once I reached MLB I was to depart the V3 airway and join the V492 airway which would take me a few miles off shore before turning back towards PBI - which was farther south than I needed to go.

Before passing MLB, I had plugged in the ANGEE intersection which would define the V492 route. As we passed the VOR, the plane made its turn towards the southeast and we continued merrily along for about 10 miles when ATC called, "November 6-3-Foxtrot, cleared to Pahokee, then direct Foxtrot 45". That provided marginal relief as Pahokee was not farther south than our destination - just quite a bit farther west. I quickly punched in the modification and the plane headed in the right direction. About 25 miles from PHK, I was cleared direct to F45, so that shaved a little time off of the clock.

The end result for this trip was a total time of 2.1 hours. Figure .2 for ground work and the net result of the wind and routing was about a .4 hour increase in flying time.

The trip home was much worse.

First, the winds a 3000, 6000, and 9000 were not conducive to a northerly flight path. At 9000, the forecast called for winds in the 45 to 50 knot range. At 6000, they were in the 28 knot range, but at 3000, they were in the 35 knot range and would be dead in my face. I opted to file for 5000 feet and planned the flight based on interpolated winds at that altitude. This would cause our planned time to require 2h30m wheels up to wheels down at 120 knots. Not good.

The winds at PBI were reported at 300 at 20 with gusts to 30. Challenging conditions - to say the least. I flew in some tough winds a few weeks ago when I went to X39, so I was somewhat comfortable. Still, I spent some time reviewing crosswind procedures, high wind landing procedures, etc. before heading out to the airport. The local, unofficial, weather radio was reporting diminishing winds - first call had them at 300 at 18 and they dropped to 13 by the time I stopped listening. As we walked to the plane, I watched as another 172 climbed and it didn't appear to be tossed around at all, so that made me a bit more relieved.

I had filed IFR, but figured that it would be better to take off VFR and pick up my clearance once airborne. This would prevent the ATC from having to keep the airspace over F45 clear while they waited for me to take off. It would also avoid my having to sit on the ground waiting for release.

So, I departed on Runway 31 and made left turns in the pattern as I climbed steadily. I had plugged in the MORGA intersection as my first waypoint as this would keep me out of the Gwinn airspace. I flew over the airport and headed for MORGA as I leveled off at 2,500 feet. I contacted Palm Beach Approach and requested my clearance. The controller gave me a squawk and handed me to a different controller for the clearance. I was cleared via vectors to VRB, then as filed - That's a surprise! ATC advised me to climb to 5000 feet and procede direct VRB, which I did.

Leveling off at 5000 feet, the GPS clearly showed that the wind was greater than forecast - about 34 knots and directly in our face. As I passed Ft. Pierce, I called Miami Flightwatch on 122.0 and filed a pirep noting the clear skies, higher than forecast wind and smoother than forecast conditions.

Shortly after passing Vero, Orlando approach advised me that due to the procedures in effect for the Daytona 500, I could expect to be routed over Orlando International, then Ocala, then Gainesville. That should add some time to the trip, but I replied to the controller that this sounded like fun.

I plugged MCO, OCF and GNV into the flightplan in place of MLB and OMN. This would add about 15 minutes to the flying time if we flew the entire route.

As expected, ATC advised me to descend to 4000 feet and turn to a heading of 290. I made the necessary adjustments by switching the autopilot from Nav to Heading mode and dialed the heading on the HSI. I made a 1000 FPM descent to 4000 and was pleased to note a 5 knot increase in our groundspeed once I leveled off - we were no longer flying directly into the wind.

As we neared the Orlando Class B airspace, the controller gave me more and more heading changes. Usually no more than 10 degrees right or left, but I made sure that I flew these headings precisely. I was surprised by how many different course changes he gave me. Ultimately, I flew just past the Orlando International Airport over the southern end of the multiple runways. Of course, I took some photos.

On the west side of Orlando, ATC vectored me to OCF and cleared me direct to OCF. He then asked if I was landing at OCF, which worried me - OCF was not even on my flight plan, so landing there was not my intention at all. I responded, "Negative, Our destination is Craig - Charlie-Romeo-Golf, 6-3-Foxtrot."

Passing out of the Class B, we flew directly over Leesburg. I double checked my map and saw that a direct line from Leesburg to Craig would put us well outside of the Daytona airspace. Orlando Approach handed me off to Jacksonville Approach. I called, "Jax Approach, Skyhawk 1463Foxtrot level at 4000, with request." The controller asked me for my request and I asked for Direct Craig. He told me that once I was clear of the Orlando airspace, he would give me direct. (I was already outside of the technical Class B airspace.) A few minutes later, I was cleared direct and I headed home.

I got a great view of the sunset from the air and took quite a few photos. As I neared Jacksonville, another plane joined me 500 feet above - a VFR flight in an Aztec a Piper twin engine plane. I was surprised that he was not catching up to me very quickly, but I may have been pushing it a bit, too. I was told to descend to 3000, then was handed off to Jax Approach on 118.0. Unfortunately, at 3000 southwest of the river and 30 miles from CRG, I could not hear the controller, but I could hear other pilots calling him. I waited five or six miles and called in again and asked how he heard me. All was OK, we could hear each other now. The Aztec was only about 2 miles behind me and was still at 4500 feet. He radioed that he had Craig in sight and ATC advised that he had another aircraft in front. (that was me!) He said he no longer had me in sight, but had me on his TCAS. I seriously doubt that he has a TCAS - probably just a TIS, big difference as a TCAS will actually issue instructions for avoiding other aircraft and a TIS is just traffic information based on radar downlink data. Nevertheless, he had me on his scope and I had him on mine.

I announced that I also had Craig in sight and that I had the Aztec on my display as well.

ATC cleared me for the visual 32 and then shortly handed me off to the tower. The Aztec joined the tower shortly afterwards and was immediately told to turn 10 degrees to the right as he was getting too close to me. The piper pilot had a choice to make. He could slow up and land behind me - which was the smart thing to do, or he could fly fast and try to get around me - a bit more dangerous and obnoxious, but if I was in a faster twin-engine plane, I probably would have done the same.

I was told to follow a Citation jet in the pattern and the Aztec was told to follow me by the tower controller. I advised the controller, that I would be happy to slow down and let the Aztec pass since he was a faster aircraft. The controller thanked me and vectored me to 090 as I slowed down. He then asked if I saw the other aircraft and of course I did. I followed behind the Aztec and made an awful landing. The approach lights were out and I bounced the plane as I tried to land. There was a fair amount of wind, but a bad landing is still the pilot's fault. It wasn't a bad bounce, but it wasn't my usual smooth flare.

Anyway all of this flying around did not add appreciably to the calculated time of 2.5 hours. All told this flight required 2.8 hours and none of the time was spent in cloud.

I've recalculated the no-wind times for the original flight plan, the expected modification and the actual course and found that my original plan would have been 1h52 minutes without wind. The rerouting over Orlando to OCF to GNV to CRG would have increased the flying time to 2:17 - an increase of 25 minutes. The actual route flown (an approximation due to the numerous heading changes) is estimated at 2:04. It still took us 2:30 wheels up to wheels down - so the combination of wind and ATC resulted in an additional 38 minutes of flying time. ATC only accounted for 12 minutes of that, so the severe headwinds produced a whopping 26 minutes of delay.

David West

Thursday, February 01, 2007

To Go Around or Not Go Around

Christmas was over a month ago and I still had presents for my sister's family and my mother sitting at home in Jacksonville. Since I had a free Sunday, I made plans to fly over to Tampa to play Santa.

The forecast called for a front to push through bringing gusty conditions during the mid-day period. The worst part would be during the afternoon after I had already landed in Tampa, so I wasn't too worried. The winds aloft were forecast from the west-northwest at anywhere from 35 to 49 knots. This would give me a bit of a headwind for the first part of my flight with a slight tailwind after I passed Ocala.

During preflight, I discovered that some yahoo had removed the checklist from the aircraft, so I had to go back to the hanger to get another. I think this is the third time in just a few months that the checklist has gone missing. It's a bit aggravating, but I know I made the mistake once when I was a student.

During the preflight, the plane was shaking quite a bit in the wind. I made a mental note to pay close attention to the wind direction and yoke position lest the wind flip the plane. When taxiing to the controlled ground area, the plane kept trying to weathervane into the wind. There was a very steady 15 knot wind from my right rear quarter.

I called for my IFR clearance and went through the runup without incident. The wind was from 280 at 14 knots according to the ATIS and I would be departing runway 32. This would give me a fair amount of crosswind to contend with. The weather was chilly, too, so the engine performance should be good.

On climbout, I saw around 1100 fpm climb rate, which is much better than the POH calls for at STP at sea level. With only me in the plane, I was well below max weight. This fact combined with the favorable temperature and pressure accounted for the excellent performance.

The flight to X39 was fairly uneventful. I flew over at 5000' as instructed by ATC - even though I was flying southwest and the AIM calls for even altitudes. ATC does things differently in Florida since most traffic runs north and south rather than east-west. There was a cloud layer at 4000' that I flew through, but the air was surprisingly smooth. For much of the flight, the GPS showed a 45 knot wind blowing from my right. Fortunately, it was such that my ground speed matched my TAS, so the wind wasn't really slowing me down. I was showing 128 knots TAS.

About 20 miles out, ATC called, "November 6-3-Foxtrot, traffic 11 o'clock 7 miles, two-thousand-three-hundred-feet, maneuvering, type unknown."

I replied, "6-3-Foxtrot, negative contact, and I don't see it on my display yet either. I'm looking".

ATC then descended me to 1600 feet. This struck me as kind of odd since the MEA for the airway I was on was 2000 feet. It was a relatively clear day, so 1600 did not pose any problems.

A few minutes later, ATC announced, "November 6-3-foxtrot, traffic now at your 10 o'clock, seven miles".

I answered, "Approach, 6-3-foxtrot, I do not have the traffic in sight, but I have three bogeys on my scope. I'll keep my eyes out."

The traffic display showed that the traffic was now only two aircraft and it was now heading straight for me 500 feet higher and only a few miles away. ATC called the traffic again at 1 mile and I told the controller that I had the traffic in sight. Meanwhile, I was monitoring the frequency for X39 and heard no one announcing any positions. We were close enought to that airport that I had expected to hear this other pilot on the air, but I had no such luck.

I kept my eye on the other aircraft as he flew directly over head - I never knew if he actually saw me or not.

As I got closer to the airport, I listened to the weather at Vandenberg and Brooksville and a few other airports along the way. My destination airport does not have an ATIS or AWOS. The wind was generally from the Northwest at around 10 or 12 knots and I expected this airport to show the same. With the airport in sight, I canceled my IFR clearance and thanked the controller.

I announced my intentions and flew directly over the field noting that the windsock next to the runway was fully extended and pointing roughly straight down runway 32. The sock on top of the hanger, though was pointing about 30 degrees off indicating that the wind may either be swirling or I would be getting some cross wind from the left as I landed on 32. Crossing over the runway, I descended to 1000' and made a right teardrop turn to enter the left downwind for 32. There was no traffic around at all.

Since the wind was so stiff - the GPS was now showing 23 knots at pattern altitude, I expected some shear and possibly gusts, so I decided that I would only use 2 notches of flaps and would keep my speed up a bit to compensate for any sudden changes in the wind. What happened next was not what I had expected.

I lined up on final and as I reached the runway, I pulled the power and let the plane settle before flaring. The mains touched down and I traveled about 100 feet down the center of the runway when a gust of wind lifted the plane about 10 or 15 feet into the air. I immediately gave the plane a little bit of throttle and let it stabilize. The plane started to drift right, so I banked slightly to the left and realigned with the center of the narrow runway. Back in the center, I reduced power and let the plane settle to the runway and immediately retracted the flaps. I stopped and announced my intention to taxi back on the runway. I carefully taxied with full nose down elevators and found a parking spot.

I've never had a plane lifted into the air in the past, but maybe I've never had such gusts. I once had a Cessna 152 fall out of the sky due to a sudden windshift when I was still a student, but even that didn't just caused my instructor to say something about charging me for her chiropractor bills.

Maybe next time, I would use only one notch of flaps in such gusty conditions, but the problem is that I just didn't know there were gusts - the two closest airports were not reporting gusts. I could have opted to give the plane full power and execute a go-around, but I didn't feel like I had let the situation deteriorate to the point that I couldn't land the plane safely. I still had the plane under control, I had 15 feet of altitude and enough speed to maintain the altitude - and several thousand feet of runway remaining. All in all, I think I made a good decision. I'm just glad I didn't have any passengers or witnesses on the ground to comment on the poor first attempt.

Anyway, I got 1.6 hours of cross-country with about 0.2 of actual instrument time. Another fun flight. I returned that night - that flight will be the subject of my next post.

David West