Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Down for a "Good Type of Maintenance"

It is rare for a pilot to refer to any plane down-time as "Good".  But today my plane is down for a very good type of maintenance.  In fact, it is really not true maintenance.  I had the annual done last month and luckily there are no outstanding squawks.  Instead, it was time to upgrade the autopilot!

As some of you may know, Avidyne recently received all FAA approvals on their new autopilot, the DFC100.  I have been eagerly awaiting this product for some time.

The standard autopilot from Cirrus, which is the STEC55X, is a totally capable product that I have grown rather proficient with in the last couple of years.  But the DFC100,which is shown below, is a digital, attitude-based, autopilot that is far superior to the rate based APs like the STEC 55X:
From everything I have read and seen in the demo flight, this autopilot will make the plane feel like it is "riding on rails" plus it has other cool features like the "straight & level" button and envelope protection.  Given the amount of IFR flying I do, these goodies will surely come in very handy on upcoming adventures.

Bill @ Sarasota Avionics started the "upgrade" today.  Assuming no surprises, I should have the plane back by Thursday just in time for Sun N Fun.

I can't wait to make some videos of this new "gadget" in action.

As you can imagine, my fingers are crossed!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bahamas Practice Flight

My international radio license arrived yesterday in the mail. Earlier in the week, I saw online that it had been approved. But didn't get the official paper in the mail till yesterday.

That meant that today was the day for the long overdue Bahamas flight!!

It was really perfect timing because the plane is going down for a "good type of maintenance" tomorrow. (Will tell you more about that in a separate post later this week.)

Back to today's plans...

Before doing this flight with family or friends, I wanted to try it solo first.  So the plan was simply to fly there, maybe grab a bite, and fly back.  Not a terribly interesting trip... I just wanted to practice the legal/aviation parts without alarming or inconveniencing any passengers.  Once I felt comfortable doing this type of flight (without getting arrested, fined or meeting F-16s enroute), then I would be ready to do it again with passengers.

While I could have easily flown direct from Tampa Executive (KVDF) to Grand Bahama (MYGF), I chose not to.  Instead, I decided to stop @ Fort Peirce (KFPR) to make sure I had everything in order (paperwork, fuel, lifejacket,etc). On the return trip, I would have had to stop somewhere for customs clearance anyway, and I have heard through the grapevine that the FBO and customs office in KFPR is excellent.  So I thought it would be a good idea to stop there and check out whatever local procedures they may have.

In hindsight, it was totally not needed!  After I landed in Ft Peirce, the staff at the FBO confirmed that I indeed had everything in order.  After a top off and a rather easy "hot start", I took off and pointed the nose straight to the water.  After climbing to 7000 FT, the next ~ 100 miles was directly over water and the view was consistently like this:

This was the first time I was over water for this long.  As you can see, I had my lifejacket handy (just in case)

Happily, I didn't even need to open the packaging.

After about 80 miles over the water, I finally caught my first glimpse of land and it was spectacular:

As I got closer to Freeport, Bahamas, the Bahamas ATC controllers cleared me for the VOR DME 24 procedure!  This took me quite by surprise.  Other than initial instrument training, I had NOT flown a real DME arc in a VERY long time.
I keyed it into the R9, which happily complied, and I saw the following screen:

The screen looked odd to me and I felt like I was operating slightly out of my comfort zone.  I flew halfway through the 12 DME Arc at 4000 FT.  Then the ATC controller broke off my approach and cleared me to land with an "expedited" descent.  I am not sure why... But suddenly, he seemed to be in a hurry.  I did my best to comply and did a 1000 FT/min descent and fought a 15 KT crosswind on final.  When I was finally on the ground, I breathed a sigh of relief and really felt like I "earned" that landing!

I wasn't sure what kind of ground operations to expect.  At this point, I must admit, I was a little nervous.  But it turned out to be quick and painless.  One of the line crew marshaled me into a parking spot and I was immediately greeted at the plane. They escorted me to a small building where they checked my passport and my paperwork.  The whole process took no more than 5 minutes!!  I was so impressed at how professional and efficient they were.

With similar ease, I filed my flight plan for the return trip and waited an hour to depart as required.  I landed back at Ft Peirce and cleared customs, which was totally painless and also took less than 5 minutes!

Overall, it was so easy, I really didn't need a practice run.  But now I am even more excited to go back there with passengers and stay for awhile!!


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Low Altitude Photo Shoot

I had a whole day free today and was determined to do something new and cool.  Last night I was making plans to the fly to the Bahamas.  I thought my first international flight would certainly qualify as "new and cool".  Unfortunately, I didn't have all my government required paperwork in order...

Last night, I figured out that I had my Homeland Security/Customs sticker for the plane, my eAPIS registration, and a radio license for the plane.  Unfortunately, I didn't have MY international radio license, which apparently is required for my to legally talk on the radio in international waters.  At ~10:30 PM last night, I filed my application online only to get a confirmation # and a notice saying it would take 5-7 business days to process!!

As a result, this morning I was on the hunt for a new destination.  I remembered reading Lane Wallace's book about memorable flights, and decided to do a low altitude photo shoot in the Florida Keys and maybe "swing by" Miami or Palm Beach for lunch before heading back home.  Then the fun began!

When I arrived at Tampa Executive Airport, Snoopy1 (the Met Life) blimp was about to takeoff.  I chatted with the ground crew and got to see an amazing takeoff!  Then I took off myself and flew the following route:

Along the way, I did get a number of amazing pix as you can see in the slide show below:

As I was following US 1 from Key West to Miami, I flew at 800 FT above the water just south of the road.  (This was as low as I felt comfortable flying.)  When I reached ~ 20 miles south of Miami, I climbed to 3500 and called Miami Approach to get a clearance through their class B airspace.  Much to my surprise, I got the most unusual clearance!

"Descend to 500 FT just offshore and follow the coast northbound".  I happily complied and got some of the most amazing pix and video!  See for yourself:

After I passed Boca Raton, I turned westbound and headed to Okeechobee for a quick lunch and then back to Tampa with minimum fuel.

Overall, a great day flying, but even better photo opp day!!


Friday, March 18, 2011

Sun N Fun Dilemna

As most every pilot knows, the Sun N Fun airshow is fast approaching.

For those whose don't know, Sun N Fun is the 2nd largest airshow in the country (2nd only to Osh Kosh).

As luck would have it, this airshow is in Lakeland, FL, which is VERY close to my home base. In fact, flying direct from Tampa Exec Airport it is only 17.4 NM.

Each year, Sun N Fun is held at the Lakeland Linder Regional airport, and is dubbed "Spring Break for Pilots".

I am particularly looking forward to ths year because I missed last year! Usually each year, I try to attend at least one day (sometimes more).  But last year I didn't pay attention to the calendar and scheduled a vacation on a cruise ship the same week as Sun N Fun!

I learned my lesson! This year as I was making vacation plans, I made sure it didn't conflict with Sun N Fun.
In addition, I also made a concious effort to minimize my regular work travel that week.

So here is my dilemna...

Part of the fun and experience of an air show is the process of flying in. Two years ago, I was not comfortable enough in my flying skills to even attempt it.

But that was ~ 400 hours ago and nowadays I am feeling much more confident in my flying skills.

So I went to the Sun N Fun website to read the pilot briefing.

Most airshows have a 1 or 2 page pilot briefing and a very short NOTAM (Notice to Airmen). In short, it is usually a couple of basic procedures designed to maintain an orderly flow of aircraft.

But this airshow is in a different league! The NOTAM was a 43 page PDF file!! After reading through the WHOLE thing, I was starting to wonder if it was worth the time/effort/inconvience.

Part of me thinks the "journey" is the key element of the experience and I should definitely fly there. But then there is the nagging pragmatist in me that says it's only a 35 minute drive and faster to drive overall!

So I could really use some input.

Should I fly there or drive there??


Saturday, March 12, 2011

WFIF Event Today

Today was the day... The WFIF event was @ Frederick airport today and it was spectacular!  In total, there were 181 first time flyers that took to the skies!  I personally took either 9 or 12 ... I am not really sure... I think I lost count ;-)

But the part I do remember was how cool the whole experience was.  When the day started, it did not look promising due to the winds, which were 18 kts and gusting.  A couple of pilots even dropped out due to concern for the winds or mechanical issues.  As you might expect, Victoria looked quite concerned at the beginning of the day.

But in the end, everything worked out just fine!  The couple dozen pilots who were ready to go, rose to the occasion and were able to take all 181 passengers up for what I am sure was a memorable experience!  

(Hopefully, at least one of them will have been inspired to begin flight training of their own!)

Here are a couple of pix from the day and a video clip on one of the landings:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Back to Normal IFR (Sort of)

The past 2 weeks have been quite an unusual flight pattern for me.  No X-Countries, No IFR or VFR flight plans, not even enough altitude to require oxygen!

No the plane was NOT grounded...  In fact, I had numerous flights.  But they were all short "flight-seeing" journeys that gave me the chance to share the experience of flight with several of my friends and colleagues visiting Tampa from around the world.  In a way, it felt like a "warm-up" for the WFIF event next Saturday.  I realized that sharing the experience of flight was as cool for me as it was for the passenger, who got to "see the runway" for the first time.

But yesterday (Sunday's) journey was supposed to be a bit more "normal" for me.  I was planning an IFR trip from Tampa, FL to Frederick, MD, which is just outside of DC.

When I checked the weather Saturday night, it didn't look very friendly:
I checked again on Sunday morning and even called Lockheed FSS to get a thorough briefing.  After listening to the 'laundry list" of AIRMETs, SIGMETs, and PIREPs, my conclusion was that it was a go!  However, I was prepared for a lot of heavy IMC flying with as many diversions as needed along the way.

While this trip is "barely possible" non-stop in my plane... It is a bit too close for my comfort.  So I planned a quick fuel stop in Duplin County, NC.

The first leg was the easier of the two.  Going from Tampa Executive Airport to Duplin County Airport, is almost a comfort flight for me.  I have flown this route a dozen times and even know when to expect ATC quirks along the way.

What I wasn't really expecting was the impact of the winds aloft.  My route was fairly straightforward, as shown below:

When I was ~ 20 miles south of Gainseville, I was level at 17K FT and first noticed the winds.  As you can see from the picture below, it was a direct 90 degree crosswind @ 62 knots!

While I have flown in strong winds before, this was the first time I flew in that strong a direct cross wind.  Even with a healthy crab angle, I could feel the auto-pilot straining to maintain the ground track.

Luckily, I was following V441 which soon turned to the right and made this X-wind turn into a VERY helpful tailwind that allowed me to reach a ground speed of 241 KTs, which is the highest I have recorded in this plane!

After riding that tailwind as long as I could, I made the quick fuel stop @ Duplin County and then filed to Frederick direct.

Shortly after takeoff, the radar images looked even uglier!

As I approached Frederick, the weather was simply NOT cooperating and no amount of deviation seemed to help.  The rain was getting heavier and the ATIS declared conditions barely above the minimums for the GPS23 Z approach.

Luckily, this airport has a nice long 5000+ FT runway and a low LPV approach that still made it possible to land.  I have landed in light rain and mist before.  But never anything like this!  In addition, to the heavy rain, there was a strong gusty wind about 20-40 degrees off from runway heading.  After reaching the FAF (final approach fix), I disengaged the autopilot and "fought" the winds all the way down to the runway.  You can see the soggy landing in the YouTube clip below:

While this was supposed to be a normal IFR flight, the weather (as often happens) made it anything but normal!

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