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

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