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 here:

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)... 

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.==

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.==