Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Angel Flight of the year

With year end fast approaching, I have been wondering if there was time to squeeze in one last Angel Flight in this year...

Then late last week, while scouring the AFSE website, I "found" one that was just right. (Shorter than my usual Angel Flight, but very convenient from a schedule perspective.)

The mission was to transport a teenager, named Sean, who just finished his latest round of treatment at Shriner's Children's Hospital in Tampa, back home to the East Coast of FL.  Like every Angel Flight passenger I have taken, Sean had a great attitude despite having to overcome some pretty major physical challenges.  He leads a totally normal high school freshman life and seems to take things in stride.
For me, this mission was a simple trip from my home base Tampa Executive airport to Lantana airport in West Palm Beach, FL.  This was a very short trip of ~ 150 miles, which is usually under an hour, as long as traffic, ATC and weather cooperate.

Today the weather was somewhat strange.  Visibility was great... There was no precip between Tampa and West Palm Beach.  However, there was a solid cloud deck between 5k-6k FT.  So, I filed IFR under the Angel Flight call sign for 7000 FT.  I didn't realize at the time what a perfect altitude 7K was.  After climbing to 7000, we literally skimmed the cloud tops the whole way along our relatively direct route.  See for yourself:

It was quite scenic.  Around Lake Okeechobee, ATC cleared us down to 3000.  After breaking through the cloud deck we canceled IFR ~ 20 miles out.  Winds were favoring runway 15 and the traffic pattern was surprisingly busy with 3 other planes practicing in the pattern.  You can see how we squeezed into this pattern in the video below:

As you may notice, I am still experimenting with good spots in the plane to mount the camera... Much like flying, I am noticing that taking good aerial photos/videos also takes practice.

Hope everyone has a Happy New Year!

== T.J.==

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Night Currency

The FAA has a bunch of currency requirements for all US pilots. 
The basics are as follows:
  • For VFR Private Pilots: 3 takeoffs/landings every 90 days
  • For Instrument rating: 6 instrument approaches (+ intercepting/tracking/holding) every 6 months

There are more detailed nuances... But, I won't bore you with the details.

Since I am a very active pilot, I usually don't even think about the currency requirements listed above.

However,"night currency" is a different story.  While I have plenty of daytime hours, I have rather little night experience.  To stay night legal/current to carry passengers, the FAA requires 3 takeoffs and full stop landings at night, which is defined as sunset + 1 hour within the prior 90 days.  I go out of my way to ensure that I stay current @ night. Candidly, it is the only currency requirement that I need to actively go out of my way to maintain.

Tonight was a beautiful, clear night with sunset being @ 5:43 PM.  This made for perfect timing for a night currency flight.

Here I am preparing for takeoff (all by myself  ~5:30 PM waiting for the "right" time to takeoff):
Notice the landing light and my flashlight R both working!!

While I was waiting for the "right" time to take off,  I went to check out the Met Life Blimp, which is probably in town for the Outback Bowl on Saturday.
With so many blimps coming to Tampa lately, I feel like a connoisseur.  This one was MUCH smaller than last week's DirecTV blimp and (even seemed to have half the support staff). One of these days, I am going to find a way to get a ride on one!

Finally, it was time for departure (6:43PM that is).  The plan was simple... First fly to Lakeland, which is the home of Sun N Fun, and a perfect place for routine training/practice.  They have a control tower, a giant 9000 FT runway and a variety of instrument approaches that would keep any instructor entertained.  Best of all, other than the 2 weeks around Sun N Fun, this a sleepy, little airport the rest of the year.  The tower controllers are usually bored and seem downright excited when there is traffic in the area.  While I didn't need to do any approaches tonight, I decided to shoot the GPS 27 anyway on the first landing.  You can never fly enough approaches.  I find that it hones your piloting skills to have the little triangles on the screen act as almost a scorecard.  First landing was decent ... You can see for yourself here:

After a full stop and taxi back, I planned to head VFR northbound ; Do the second landing @ Zephyr Hills, then the final landing back home @ Tampa Exec.)
Unfortunately, the camera was running low on battery after the first landing... So I wasn't able to capture the rest of the filight.  Overall, with my new Mac, I am learning how to edit video better... But obviously I have not learned how to keep the camera charged! ;-)

== T.J.==

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cruising in a Cardinal

I recently got a chance to fly right seat in my friend Anupam's Cardinal RG (N29LK).   His home base is the Plant City Airport, which I had not been to in a long time.  In fact, the last time was years ago as a student pilot to practice landings.Here is a picture of the plane:

I immediately noticed a couple of cool things about the plane...
1. A spiffy, new paint job, which made it look sharp
2. On this model, there are NO wing struts, which made for some great views.
3. It has retractable gear! 
and finally 4. The cockpit, which started out life as a standard 6-pack had been upgraded to include a Garmin 530, and a GTX 330 transponder.  In addition, Anupam's standard procedures also included his Garmin 496 handheld attached to the yoke for weather and the iPad strapped to his knee-board for most everything else!

Here we are right before takeoff.  The picture was taken by Goga, who is a friend visiting from Ohio that is also a student pilot.  Today he was sitting in the back seat scrutinizing every detail (and probably taking mental notes of the 2 crazy pilots in the front seats). 

This was  a beautiful day to fly in FL (not a cloud in the sky anywhere.)  The plan was to do some airwork, fly over to Venice Airport for breakfast and then a leisurely trip back to Plant City.
Being in the right seat gave me a chance to experiment with some photo and video equipment techniques. 

During takeoff, I used an app called Flyvie on my iPhone4.  This product sounds promising... According to their website, the app captures video from the iPhone4 as well as corresponding GPS data at the time of recording.  This data can then be viewed or shared with their viewer.  In theory it sounds great.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get their software to work.  I will keep tinkering with it and post an update if I get it figured out.  To be fair, it might be user error ;-)
On to Venice,  where Anupam, who just passed his instrument check-ride, did a nice job in shooting the RNAV GPS 31 approach.  See for yourself:

After a quick bite at the Suncoast Cafe, we took a leisurely route back to Plant City.

We all had a great time and discussed the next adventure, which might be "formation flying".  Not really sure how to do it yet.  But stay tuned... When I figure it out, I will explain it to you.

== T.J.==

Monday, December 20, 2010

Instrument Approach during training

After flight training with Jason Schappert of this past Saturday, I just saw the video of our last approach that he edited and put on his site ... Check it out... (That's my finger! ... I feel downright famous!!):

This video was actually the 2nd attempt to land @ Winter Haven airport after a wild, weather day!  (You can read more about that training day in this post).

== T.J.==

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Skywriting Results

The weather was slightly better today.  But still not good enough for regular VFR flying.  The ATIS showed Winds 310 @ 8, Overcast layer @ 300 FT.  The only good news was that the fog and low clouds were expected to burn off later in the day.  We reviewed the plan and waited for some weather improvement. Our improvised flight plan was as follows:

We had every turn mapped out and by the time we were ready to go, the weather had improved to 500 Overcast.  Since that was still not that great, I filed IFR and we took off northbound.  After breaking out on top of the clouds between 5000 and 6000FT we canceled IFR and began to get in position, which was ~ 10 miles west of Crystal River @ 6500 FT on a heading of 090.
My copilot Joe did a great job of calling out headings and distances.  I was trying to focus on making steep coordinated turns with the R9 Vector mode.  My R9/STEC 's configuration tends to make roughly standard rate turns.  However, for this exercise, we needed much sharper turns.  So I made the turns by hand at ~ 45 degrees of bank and then used the R9 vector mode to hold my heading in order to get straight lines.  This was particular challenging due to the 23 knot winds from the west.

Soooo.... Here is the resulting GPS track:

View GPS Skywriting (First Attempt) in a larger map

As you can see, we made a couple of mistakes (the top of the "T" and the bottom of the "J").  In hindsight, we realized that these were errors in planning rather than errors in flying.  In addition, I am still learning how to import/embed Google Maps, which is is why the last period is shown in a different format on the map.  But overall, we were satisfied and it was time to head home. 

Unfortunately, mother nature would not give us a break.  The cloud deck below us was absolutely solid.  We had to get an IFR clearance and fly the GPS 23 Approach @ Tampa Executive Airport down to within 100 FT of minimums!  This was the first time Joe got to experience a real approach in IMC and he seemed quite relieved when we landed. 

So while it was not exactly as intended, we still declared "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED"!

== T.J.==

PS- Now I am on the lookout for the next cool flight exercise/experience.  Send me any suggestions you have.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ugly Weather (Perfect Day to Fly!!)

Today was expected to be a dreary weather day in the whole state of Florida due to a large "cold front" that was passing through.  Today was definitely NOT a skywriting day.  But what a great day for some recurrent flight training in actual IMC!

I had planned a training day with Jason Schappert of MzeroA and was seriously considering cancelling it yesterday and also this morning ~ 730 AM.  While there was absolutely NO sun to be found in the sunshine state, the ceilings weren't that low and winds were tame.  I felt confident I could make the IFR journey to Dunellon, FL to meet Jason.  Then with comfort and security of a CFII in the right seat, I thought I could get some real IMC experience/training.
So off I went to the airport.  As I watched the pouring rain from the car (and looming clouds in the distance), I was getting cold feet.  Here is what I saw out the car window:

I was trying to recall the dozen or so takeoffs/landings I have had in the rain and tried hard to convince myself of the merit's of getting more actual IMC time.  While I was on the ground @ Tampa Executive airport, the weather looked as ugly on the screen as it did out the window:
I checked the weather (again) and verified that I had the legal takeoff minimums.  Then I finally made the decision to GO.
As expected, the first leg of the journey was filled with clouds/rain and a whole lot of staring at screens.  But surprisingly, it was rather smooth.  There was hardly any turbulence!  After landing in Dunellon to pickup Jason, I checked my actual route on Flightaware and this is what it showed:
Jason and I did a bit of ground prep and planned to do the following:
1. Go IFR to Daytona Beach (doing instrument work and practice approaches on the way)
2. Continue IFR to Orlando-Sanford (some more approach work)
3. Continue IFR to Winter Haven (for a lunch stop and debrief)
4. Work our way back to Dunellon while doing a bunch of stick and rudder/commercial maneuvers.

Shortly after we launched, not only did we encounter lots of rain/clouds, but we also experienced some rather weak ATC performance.  This was very surprising to me.  I have the utmost respect for the ATC controllers in FL.  But today, they seemed "off their game".  In fact, the Daytona approach controllers, called us by the wrong tail # on 4 separate occasions.  In addition, we had multiple approach clearance changes along the way (with no apparent reason).  Eventually, they seemed bored with us and even broke off our approach before the final approach fix to GPS 16 @KDAB.  We managed to take it in stride and just moved on to Orlando.  Here too, the ATC controller wasn't very cooperative.  After several attempts, we eventually managed to "negotiate" a clearance to the RNAV/GPS 9L.  We did a "squeaky clean" touch and go and were off to Winter Haven.
The arrival into Winter Haven was quite cool!  The weather was near minimums and on the first attempt, we got down to 500 FT MSL with NO runway in sight.  This was the first time I truly "needed" to abort a landing!  Sooo.... It was flaps up, full power, heading 210, climb to 2000 FT and back to Tampa Approach.  We asked to try the same approach again and had better results the second time.  According to FlightAware, this was our actual track on this journey:
 After a quick lunch at Cafe 92, we are off again.  The weather had improved slightly.  We were able to take off VFR and begun all the stick and rudder work.  No more "luxury, laptop flying"... Now it was ALL by hand!  Jason did a great job teaching me some commercial maneuvers like chandelles, lazy 8s, 8s on Pylons, etc.  After dropping off Jason to his home base in Dunellon, I was able to fly home VFR in the improved weather conditions.  As I got close to home, I had one last encounter with weather as you can see below:

Luckily, I managed to land and put the plane in the hanger with ~ 15 mins to spare before that giant red cell arrived at the airport with a huge downpour!

Now with today's new found skill/confidence (and a total of ~ 5 hours on the hobbs), I think I am ready for skywriting tomorrow morning.  Stay Tuned...

== T.J.==

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Planing for a First Attempt at Skywriting

After reading several of Steve Dilullo's posts, I feel inspired to try something a bit different this weekend.  His post about ribbon cutting has quite cool.  But I fly a Cirrus and I can't "just open the window" to try ribbon cutting.  However, his post about skywriting really got me thinking.  I wanted to give skywriting a try and see just how hard it really was.

First, I had to figure out the equipment needed to log the GPS track.  This part should be EZ.  But there were several ways I could think of to do it:

Plan A was to use the basic features of the Avidyne R9 that allow you to download flight details (including GPS data) to a USB stick.  This data (in KML format) can then be pulled into Google Earth.
Plan B was to use the free "GPS Tracker" app on the iPhone.  I have never tried this before.  But it sounds promising.  Allegedly, this app monitors your GPS track, including altitude, at user defined intervals (10 seconds, 20 seconds, etc) and creates a regular interactive Google map of the track.
Plan C was to have my buddy Joe bring along an external hand held GPS tracker.  This would also result in a KML file that can be pulled into Google Earth.
I will probably try all three plans and check out the results.  However, Plan B seems the most appealing to me.  With an interactive Google map, you can easily embed that anywhere.  Unfortunately, Google Earth doesn't let you do that...  Or at least I don't know how ;-)

Next, on to planning the route itself.  Unlike the Merry Christmas track in Steve's post, for my first attempt, I wanted to try a much simpler version.  Instead of big words in cursive, I was planning to try just a couple of letters in capital, bubble letters.  The planning was harder than I thought.  I needed to find an airspace that was not crowded, had no Class B,C,Ds, or MOAs, of which there are many in FL.  I decided to go just north of the Tampa Class B, around Crystal River, FL. Since I didn't know how well the iPhone GPS would work at higher altitudes, I decided to stay relatively low 3500 FT, where the reception should be pretty good.
Here is what I came up with:
The picture shows straight lines and edges instead of bubble letters... Obviously, the real thing will be rounded edges on the actual GPS track and the result should be real bubble letters.   

As far as "how" to fly the route, I needed to get creative.  If I simply flew it by hand, I suspect the finished product would be a bit sloppy.  My Excel planning file, shows me just how precise I need to fly this to have a successful finished product.  So I decided to use the "Vector" Mode of the R9 combined with my STEC autopilot to help me out. 

As some of you know, Avidyne's new digital autopilot the DFC100 is now available and I am planning to have it installed next month (Can't wait).  The DFC100 would be even better for this exercise.  For kicks, I may try to repeat this exact exercise next month with the new autopilot and post a side by side comparison. 

But for this weekend, I will try it with the STEC first.  "Vector" Mode is the key (I think)... If you haven't seen vector mode in action, Avidyne has a gr8  YouTube video that explains it well.

So that's the plan ... This weekend, I will try it for real and see how close I come to the plans.  Regardless of how it turns out (good, bad or ugly), I plan to post the resulting GPS track on Sunday night!

Stay tuned...
== T.J.==

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Surprises on the way home

The trip home was slightly different than my usual IFR trip.  An instructor I had long ago told me to avoid flying "the same hour" repeatedly.  Since then, I have tried to take that advice to heart.  I had flown the majority of this route before.  So this time I planned to do it a little differently (entirely VFR).  The plan was to go from TX to Gulfport, which I have heard is a "scenic" fuel stop then directly to Tampa.  The planned route was quite simple:

What I wasn't planning for, was the drama along the way.  The first leg was uneventful.  The skies were clear and the airspace was "empty" compared to the east coast congestion that I am accustomed to.  As I crossed the Mississippi River, I witnessed some great sights.  The Mississippi River looks like a fairly straight line on a map.  But in reality from 11500 FT, you can truly appreciate all of the twists and turns along the way.  The picture below is around Natchez, MS

As I got closer to Gulfport, the winds seemed to be favoring runway 32 or 36.  But the GPS approach to runway 36 seemed to call my name!  The majority of the approach path was over water, which I thought would make it very scenic.  In addition, I was really enjoying the ATC service in Louisiana.  The controllers were very accommodating in their southern drawl and approved every request I made.  (Even when I asked to fly some "funny routes" just to get some pix.)
When I eventually got onto the final approach course, the winds were very gusty and I was forced to make MANY power adjustments just to maintain a suitable airspeed.  Luckily, the airport was not busy at all.  In fact, I was the ONLY plane in the pattern and it felt like the tower controller was happy to have something to do.  When I landed, I realized that the main FBO was operating out of a temporary trailer because some hurricane had damaged the main hanger/terminal building.  Even though the facilities were spartan, the staff was wonderful!  They were putting up Xmas decorations and everyone just seemed so cheerful... After some food/fuel, it was time to move on.  The VFR theme continued on the next leg.

My original plan was to climb to 17.5k.  But then the surprises kicked in.  When I reached ~ 9500 FT, I noticed a strange anomaly on the engine page of the R9. Normally, when in cruise, the Manifold Pressure (MAP) should be ~ 26" and % Power should be ~ 75%.  On this flight, I got very concerned when I saw the following:

At first, I thought OMG!!  I was getting ready to pull up emergency checklists on the screen ... But then I told myself "Calm Down... Breathe... Time to figure this out!"  I stared at the gauges some more and realized that while MAP was fluctuating wildly, RPM, Fuel Flow and the general sound/feel of the engine all seemed normal.

The % Power was also fluctuating.  But that is one of those contrived glass panel indicators that is calculated from the manifold pressure and RPM and perhaps other things.  So I was NOT worried about % power at all.  I told myself that manifold pressure was the MAIN area of concern and monitored that VERY closely. 

Given the engine anomalies, I also decided I should fly along the coast instead of over the gulf.  I think I checked the "Nearest Airport" screen every few minutes to keep my options fresh in my mind.  I flew over Panama City, then the usual HEVVN intersection and then direct destination.

Other than disrupting my normally peaceful, music filled journey, everything turned out to be fine.  When I landed, I parked the plane directly in front of the maintenance hanger and talked to my buddies @ Leading Edge.  It turned out to be nothing serious... Just a sensor.  (I was very relieved!)

So in the end, I did NOT really have an emergency or incident ; But I did get to a bit of a scare and an excuse to contemplate how I would handle a real emergency.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The next state (OK) - State # 33

The states are now getting further (and harder) .... But that's OK ... Today was a beautiful day to fly... My intended destination was Dallas.  But I was compelled to make a slight detour to land in a new state(Oklahoma).  The route is shown below:

The weather forecast showed a little bit of IFR along my route ... But nothing scary.

When I got to the airport, I found the DirecTV blimp was in town for the Bucs game today. When blimps visit, they park right next to my hanger.  Check it out:

Since I needed to do a bunch of Chart/GPS updates anyway, I set the updates running and went to chat with the blimp crew.  Unfortunately, I didn't plug the plane into external power and apparently I spent too much time gabbing.  By the time I returned, the battery had discharged enough that I couldn't start the plane normally!  I called the line crew for help and luckily Jose was able to give me a jump start.
After everything was sorted out, I was finally ready to go (total delay ~ 55 minutes).  The delay was not concerning ;  But the fast approaching showers were.  By the time I did my run-up and was really ready to depart, it was raining and the ceilings were dropping fast.  So I picked up my IFR clearance from the ground and took off in the rain.  Here is what the screen looked like right after takeoff:

After bumping along in the rain for a few minutes, I broke out on top of the clouds and it was smooth sailing from that point on direct to HEVVN (pronounced "Heaven")@ 16k feet. 

The HEVVN intersection is a common nav aid that I use over the Gulf of Mexico.  By using this fix, I can stay clear of the international warning areas over the gulf and at the same time stay close enough to land for safety reasons.  Besides it just sounds cool when ATC instructs you to "go direct Heaven"!

As I got closer to my fuel stop in Meridian, I heard a bunch of military traffic on the radio.  There is a lot of military training done around Meridian.  So you usually get to see some cool airplanes in this area.  In particular, today there were 2 T-38s flying formation very close to the traffic pattern.  After I got cleared to land on runway 1, the T-38s asked for permission to do a low pass alongside runway 1.  I was shocked to hear the controller say "approved as requested"!  Seconds after I touched down, the 2 T38s zoomed overhead @ ~ 30 feet AGL and ~100 feet left of centerline.  After passing the runway, they did a near vertical climb and circled around for a full stop on the same runway.

They parked right next to me and I even got to meet them!  I couldn't get a picture during their low pass, but here they are parked on the tarmac (the 2 gray ones):
They even let me climb up to the cockpit!  See for yourself:
Doesn't look to hard... Does it??

Believe it or not, on the other side of where I parked was an F-18!

After a quick lunch, it was time to move on ... I still needed to land in Durant, OK and then get to Dallas.
Rest of the trip was rather uneventful, except for the 60-70 knot headwinds, which seemed like Mother Nature's way of tormenting me on both legs today!  See for yourself:

Despite true airspeeds in excess of 190 knots, I was frequently traveling at ground speeds a slow as  ~ 120-130 knots. 

The stop in Durant, OK was really quite interesting... The airport is right next door to the Choctaw Casino and the FBO is quite memorable... (But it is getting late now and I will have to save that story for another time.)

For now, I am HOPING to ride some huge tailwinds on the home!

== T.J.==
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