Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heading Home VFR

Today the weather in Houston was not bad... But the weather forecast along my route home and in FL was downright ugly.

Fortunately, PIREPS showed a lot of the weather did not have very high tops along my route.  So my plan was to depart VFR, climb up to 17.5k and if needed get an IFR clearance for the descent or along the way.  In addition, I knew the route quite well, including several possible fuel stops if things didn't look good.  Shortly after takeoff, I climbed to 17.5k as planned.  Then benefited from a very strong tailwind that was even better than forecast.  Thanks to some miserly fuel consumption, I made it all the way to Ocala!  Since there was a solid cloud deck below me, there was not many photo opportunities.  However, the descent was rather interesting. 

I wanted to try to maintain VFR, which involved doing a rapid descent (full forward slip) right through a good sized "hole in the clouds".  After descending to 3500 FT, Jax Center cleared me for the GPS 18 approach.  The ATIS claimed winds "170@11Gusting18".  I thought to myself "that was pretty good... Should be an EZ landing".  When I was on final approach, the tower controller called out a wind check of "170@18Gusting24".  I thought "hmmm... little worse... But no need to abort"... Then I checked my R9 screen when I was on 1 mile final and it read "175 @ 30"!  Clearly this was the strongest headwind I had ever faced on a landing.  I considered aborting the landing...  But I was on minimum fuel and the plane "felt" stable and under control.  So I proceeded in what felt like slow motion.  Even with 19" inches of manifold pressure, my ground speed was hovering ~ 70 kts.  I landed right on the numbers and felt like I barely used half of the runway.  In fact, I had to add power on the ground just to get up to the E6 taxiway.

I had purposely picked Ocala as a stopping point because it was a good excuse to catch up with Jason Schappert of MZeroA.  I was hoping to grab a quick meal and squeeze in a "brainstorming session", as often happens when Jason and I start talking.  But I got a pleasant surprise today... I got to meet his charming, new bride Ashley! (Now I have even more reason to stop in Ocala!!)

Onto the final leg home.  The weather was deteriorating and luckily I was able to get out of Ocala ahead of the cold front.
The winds had not provided any mercy... I had 30kt headwind from 170.  This meant that I should land on the "short" 3200' runway 18 at Tampa Executive.  This was entirely unusual for me.  I am much more accustomed to landing at big airports with 5,6 or even 10000 FT runways. Tampa Executive airport has 2 runways.  Runway 5-23 is a 5000 FT runway, which I use 95% of the time and runway 18-36 is a 3200 FT runway.  Given the choice of a massive X-wind on the long runway or a strong headwind on the short runway, I chose the "short" 3200 FT runway 18.

The landing was uneventful... But I am glad I arrived when I did... Because after landing, putting the plane in the hanger, and returning some calls, this is what I saw on the drive home:
Just goes to show, timing and weather are way more important than any flight planning!


Cheers,
== T.J.==

Monday, January 24, 2011

Trip to TX

The trip to Houston this past Sunday happened "almost" as planned.  On the one hand, it reaffirmed my flight planning/route selection process.  But on the other hand, it reinforced the need for flexible plans enroute.   when I was getting ready to depart, I thought the weather was "perfect".  Shortly after takeoff the visibility (and views) were great:
While there was not a cloud in the sky, something just didn't feel right...  After reaching a cruising altitude of 16k, I noticed what it was.  There was a nasty 50+ knot headwind.  See what I mean:

Despite a true airspeed of 186 @ 75% power, my groundspeed was hovering ~ 140 knots!  At this rate, the 2hr planned leg would surely be much longer.  But what can you do?  "Nothing!" I concluded other than "Plan B", which is just find some good music and relax...  Unfortunately, the satellite radio had its own plans.  After about 10 mins of flipping channels and not finding anything, I resorted to Plan C: Iphone4 plugged into Aux input of the Zulu headset:
It was at this point, I discovered a really cool feature of the Zulus... When ATC speaks on the frequency, the Zulus do NOT mute the music.  Instead, it reduces the volume by 80%.  This may not sound all that significant.  But I found it to be such much more pleasant than the typical hard mute!  After a much longer than planned flight, I landed in Bay Minette, AL for lunch and a break and then went on to Houston.  Thankfully, the headwinds were  quite tame for the 2nd leg!  But since I was running, I ended up skipping Galveston.  Maybe I will stop there on the way home...  (Even better maybe I can ride a massive tailwind home!)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Route Selection for X-Country Trips

One of the great things about general aviation is the freedom and flexibility to pick the "best" time and "best" route. 

Tomorrow I need to go to Houston.  While I know all too well that Continental flies there direct.  That would definitely not be as satisfying as going in the Cirrus.  So the flight planning begun a few days ago.

The route I settled on is as follows:

I showed this routing to a friend and he asked "Why such an odd looking route?" 

I thought it was a great question and worthy of a blog post.  So I have tried to describe my thought process below:

1. General Aviation certainly enables you to fly DIRECT TO almost anywhere.  So I always start there.  Direct Tampa Executive Airport > Houston Hobby Airport is 687 nautical miles, which is well within the range of my Cirrus.  However, the route is entirely over water, which does not leave a lot of options in case of emergency.  While the plane is certainly capable of doing this, I also tend to get hungry and ready for a break in the 450-500 mile range.  Lastly, several hours over water with absolutely no "photo opps", might also be a bit boring.


2. So with Direct ruled out for safety/boredom reasons, I needed to find a good fuel/food stop.  I have some real favorites for food/fuel when heading northbound.  However, when heading westbound, I am still searching for the "perfect" fuel stop.  I have stopped at Destin airport many times, and that was my first thought.  The FBO staff there is wonderful... But I wanted to try something new... So I checked on 100LL for some options in that area with good fuel prices.  I came up with Bay Minette Airport in Alabama.  According to 100LL the fuel prices are good. More importantly, according to Airnav, which is my trusted source of airport/FBO quality, the FBO has absolutely rave reviews!  Now the trip is coming together.  Fuel stop found!

3. From Alabama to Houston is a short direct flight.  However, Houston is rather close to Galveston, which I have heard is a VERY scenic destination.  Since I have a penchant for island airports, I couldn't resist a tiny detour and decided to land in Galveston airport before continuing on to Houston.

So in the end, the planned route is Home Base > Bay Minette, AL > Galveston > Houston. 

While this route may not look all that "intuitive", I am confident the experience of the journey will be worthwhile.

Stay tuned... Hopefully, I will be able to post some cool pix tomorrow night!

Cheers,
== T.J.==