Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Far Reaching Effects of Tropical Storm Fay

Get-there-itis is an affliction normally reserved for the impatient or foolish, but I think I may have had just a touch of it last month when I flew to Tampa for the Jaguars-Bucs game. Tropical storm Fay had just crossed the state bringing huge volumes of rain, wind damage and general inconvenience. But the outer bands of the storm were still hundreds of miles from its center.

The plan was to fly from Jacksonville to Tampa international on Saturday morning, go to the game then fly home the next day. The flight usually takes about 1.5 hours from startup to shutdown. I got a briefing and checked the weather forecast and it looked a little ugly, but not so bad that I couldn't make the trip and I really didn't want to drive the 4 hours. I filed IFR and headed took off about an hour behind schedule because I was waiting for the local weather to clear up a little. The problem was the winds were pretty severe at 18 knots with gusts at 26 knots as I recall. I held the plane on the ground a little longer than normal so I would have plenty of speed for the climbout should the wind suddenly shift on me. I reached my cruising altitude without covering much distance at all.

After leveling off, I activated the auto pilot and set it to NAV and ALT. This would make the plane follow the flightplan that I entered in the GPS and it would maintain a steady altitude. About 30 seconds after activating the auto pilot, I noticed that the altitude had not stabilized and the aircraft was climbing. I checked the breakers, made sure everything was set properly, but the darn thing would not hold altitude. Then I noticed the red "P" on the face of the auto pilot. This meant that the pitch control was inoperable. Great. Flying into crappy weather without an auto pilot - not the best thing to do. But heck, pilots have done that for years.

I trimmed the plane and hand flew it monitoring the HSI, GPS and altimeter to make sure I was always on course and at my assigned altitude. As I got closer to Ocala, ATC advised me that there was a squall line extending from south of Tampa to Ocala and she suggested that I deviate to the south or maybe land at Ocala and wait it out. I opted for the deviation. About 5 minutes later, the controller told me that the deviation wouldn't work and I should deviate to the west. She gave me a westward heading and with her help, I began to navigate around the worst of the storms. The real problem was the wind. The winds aloft in my briefing were expected to be in the low 30knot range at 6000' and less at 9000'. I was cruising at 7000' but the winds varied from 36 to 41 knots according to the G1000. Groundspeed was pretty dismal as a result. I trudged along accepting course changes from ATC to vector me around the storms. I was getting tossed around quite a bit and flew in clouds for about an hour straight. At one point I started climbing rapidly and I had to reduce power and push the nose down. I had gained 500 feet and was pointing 20 degrees nose down with the engine idling...and I was still climbing. That was some serious updraft. ATC kept giving me instructions like 10 degrees left, 20 degrees right as she steered me clear of the worst of the storms. Eventually, I passed through the clouds, but I could see a solid line of towering cumulous off my left wing in the direction that I needed to go. The coast appeared ahead of me. I was near Cross City north of Cedar Key when I crossed the coastline. Finally, ATC turned me to the south.

I was cleared direct to TPA and I loaded the ILS 18L into the computer. I started receiving the localizer about 30 miles out and although ATC hadn't pointed me to it, I adjusted my course a few degrees to the left to intercept. Meanwhile, I tuned the ATIS and got the numbers on the second radio. Jax Center handed me off to TPA who started bringing me down. I entered clouds around 3000 feet and was eventually cleared for the ILS 18L approach. With the strong headwinds, I kept my speed at 120 knots so I wouldn't slow down the commercial traffic any more than was necessary. I popped out of the clouds about 900 feet above the ground and I saw the runway ahead of me. I reduced the throttle to idle and progressively extended the flaps. I landed a little long on purpose so I would be closer to the first taxiway and could clear the runway as quickly as possible.

Ground control cleared me across 9-27 to the ramp. I looked for a "follow-me" cart, but nothing appeared. I taxied to parking and the ground handler appeared. No sooner had he chocked my left wheel then the sky began to fall. Man, that was some strong rain pouring down on me. I had made it just in time. I sat in the plane feeling the wind rocking it while it sat on the ground. Eventually, the FBO drove the rental car up to my wing and I managed to stay dry as I loaded up.

The combination of the weather vectors and the strong headwinds turned a 1.5 hour trip into a 2.5 hour run with over an hour of actual instrument time. Quite an adventure!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Congested Area - Definition

I just published a comment from a reader that suggested that a congested area is any yellow colored portion of a VFR sectional chart. Neither the FAR nor the AIM define congested area and the key on the sectional does not state that yellow areas define congested. There have been recent enforcement actions described on the AOPA website where the FAA has punished pilots for flying too low over congested areas that would not have been identified in yellow on the chart.

I live in a neighborhood that has about 200 homes. There are about 3 to 4 homes per acre plus lots of streets. Adjacent to our neighborhood are several condominium complexes. There are thousands of cars and thousands of people. Any reasonable person flying over the area would think of this as a congested area. The Jacksonville sectional does not identify my area in yellow.

The key point is that the FAA does not clearly define "congested area" and the VFR charts cannot be used to reliably identify congested areas. Furthermore, the FAA's enforcement actions have lacked the consistency necessary to draw any conclusions about their definition of "congested". Consequently, common sense is the order of the day for defining congested areas.

The AOPA's member website has several discussions about minimum safe altitudes, FAR 91.13 and 91.119. "The FAA does not define congested area in the FARs or in the Aeronautical Information Manual. And, FAA interpretations and decisions issued by the National Transportation Safety Board in low-flight enforcement cases are not consistent for purposes of drafting a precise definition. Such a determination is usually decided on a case-by-case basis, and in the cases that we've seen, "congested" has been interpreted rather broadly. For example, a highway with moderate traffic was found to be "congested," as was a seaside area where 200 to 300 persons were sitting on the beach or bathing in the water. "

The bottom line is good judgement should be used in determining minimum safe altitudes and the only sure way to avoid an enforcement action is to err on the side of caution. Whether you think it is a congested area or not, that girl floating in her pool below you probably doesn't want you buzzing her only 500 feet above.