Sunday, August 30, 2009

Weather Patterns

Our local cable TV provider offers an invaluable service that they make available even to their lowest cost customers on basic cable: they have a channel that does nothing but show Nexrad weather radar. The audio channel is used to transmit recorded weather forecast data. Lately it has sounded something like this:

"And now for the weather patterns affecting the Central Ohio Region: crappy, unflyable weekend weather followed by five glorious days that will taunt and frustrate you during the work week."

This week, though, was a little different. We had a torrential downpour during the Friday homeward bound rush hour that slowed the commute significantly, but at least I wasn't in the Miata with the top down this time. Saturday was forecast to be nice, and Sunday was promised to be even better. This weekend was planned to be another attempt at the trip to Niagara Falls with Wingman Ted, but unfortunately the bad weather we had on Friday reached the Niagara Falls region just in time to prompt yet another cancellation of the trip.

With fairly decent weather Saturday but the promise of better on Sunday, I decided to fly on Sunday and fill Saturday with a few hours of driving practice for Co-pilot Egg. Unlike when I was a teenager learning how to drive, the State of Ohio now has a requirement that a new driver log fifty hours of driving before being allowed to take the test and receive a license. We've been knocking out an hour here and there, most notably during our week at Oshkosh.

For her first ten to fifteen hours I've been very selective about the conditions she would be driving in. On our morning commute from West Bend to Oshkosh, I'd have her exit the highway for a driver change just before we reached a road construction area just south of Fond du Lac, for example. Yesterday I decided to up the stakes a little bit and let her try her hand at a more hostile environment: dealing with Saturday afternoon shoppers. But first, I let her try a few laps around the neighborhood in the Miata. I'm a firm believer in the idea that everyone should know how to drive a manual transmission. I've heard from others that weren't taught how to drive a stick that it is very hard (bordering on impossible) to find someone to teach you later in life, so I thought I'd start broaching the subject with Egg.

That went about as well as you'd imagine, assuming you remember your first try at it. Once you learn it and get to the point that it's as automatic (heh!) as using the turn signals, you tend to forget how difficult and confusing it was when you were first learning it. And to be perfectly honest, you probably shouldn't try to teach someone else how to do it in a car that you care about. Having a sentimental attachment to the vehicle might lead to exchanges like this:

"Erika, you have to use the clutch if you're going to stop with it in gear!!"

"I DID use the clutch!"

"Then, pray tell, why is the engine no longer running???"

So, yeah. That might have happened. Twice.

Still... after about the fifth lap of the neighborhood she was starting to get it. I think she'll get a lot better at it with practice, but I don't think we'll try it on the roads quite yet.

Once done with that, we transferred to her preferred car. She seems more comfortable in the Forester than either of the other cars and with the challenges lying ahead I though there'd be great benefit in having her use the car she likes the most. The target of the driving challenge was a busy road full of strip malls and restaurants. And although this confession will likely spark a conflagration of "Why would you do that!" statements from the Co-owner, I told Egg that we could stop at CarMax and look at used cars in her price range. Hey, why should I be the only one harboring secret, unattainable dreams? With me, it's the goal of building a plane; with Egg it's the idea of owning her own car.

Speaking of building a plane, I really did some damage to that dream last week. It was a stupid thing to do, but it had to happen eventually: I measured the cellar door from the basement up to the back yard to see if an assembled wing would fit through. Well, it would fit through the door, but it wouldn't fit the steep climb up the stairs. That pretty much kills the dream of building a plane. The only other way to do it would be to use two of the three bays in the garage. Those bays, inconveniently enough, are currently used to garage automobiles, and the idea of leaving one of the cars outside (the other would just be moved out as needed) for the three to five years it would take to build an airplane is unlikely to sit well. I've heard anecdotally that an arrangement like that causes significant friction. So, that's that.

Although... I'm still tempted to build an RV-12 tail kit. That's small enough to be built in the basement. Even if I never went on to build a full airplane, it would be easy enough to sell at cost. According to the guy for whom the garage situation is anything but anecdotal, all you lose when selling an in-work project is the cost of your time. That seems a good trade to me. I want to spend the time on it.

So, back to the driving with Egg. Having a firm destination in mind helps with the driving in that it provides an opportunity to not only practice driving, but to learn some of the local roads and routes as well. We started out on the highway where Egg capably dealt with a bit more traffic that she's used to. I also pointed out areas along that route that she will want to remember in order to be in the correct lane. Little tidbits of advice like "stay in this lane because that one is going to be 'exit only' in a mile" should help avoid the dangerous situations you see when someone unfamiliar with the roads gets in a panic and tries to make a last second lane change, often with tragic (yet predictable) results.

Picking a destination that's very hard to get to also afforded the opportunity to show her how to find alternate routes when the shortest way is not truly feasible. In the case of CarMax, getting there the shortest way involves coming off of the highway to a continuous lane, then having to get across three lanes of heavy traffic to make the left turn. Because you don't have to stop as you come off the highway, people behind you get a little pissy if you stop to wait for a gap to make the lane changes. It's better to just go down to the next intersection, make a left there, and work your away around the block back to the dealership. And other than some knucklehead pedestrian with a death wish (seriously, this guy just strolled across four lanes of traffic without a glance in either direction, his attitude essentially being "dare you to run me over"), the alternative route worked out very well.

Being a Saturday afternoon, CarMax had all of their sales people prowling around the lot. You don't get very far without being intercepted. "So, what are you looking for?" is a more common pick-up line than "do you come here often?"

"We're just window shopping today, but we have three requirements:

- $10,000 or under tag
- no sports cars
- no large horizontal spaces."

Sales guy: "[LOL] I understand that last one - I have three daughters myself. I suspect at least one grandchild probably came from that."

Oh, and I told him that Egg was just training and we came all the way up there just to practice difficult traffic conditions, and how we'd gone around the block rather than try to make those lane changes right off the highway.

"I do that too!"

He also told Egg that he had taught all three of his daughters how to drive a manual transmission and that although it may seem impossible now, it would get much easier with practice. And, because he's a salesman and therefore required to agree with everything I say, he agreed that a Mazda 3 would be a good choice for her.

We weren't there long, but it was long enough to get caught. I responded to a text message from home requesting that we bring food back with a terse "We're all the way up on Sawmill Rd."

To which I received a very predictable reply: "What are you doing all the way up there?"

And here's where I unintentionally taught Egg a very bad lesson: "Going to Trader Joe's."

Which was the truth since I needed to go buy more coffee beans, but not quite all of the truth. Some day I'll get hoist on that petard. If I'm lucky, at least it won't involve the inappropriate usage of horizontal vehicle space.

We stopped for lunch on the way back which unintentionally put us in place for another valuable lesson: how to get out of the way of a speeding fire engine. Closely followed by the "what do I do to get around this car wreck instead of sitting here all afternoon" lesson. So, good experience for her. Bad experience for the poor folks that inadvertently constructed the learning opportunity.

Three hours of frantically pushing at a non-existent brake pedal on my side of the car was enough; we called it a day.

Sunday dawned with a very nice Weather-out-the-Window&trade forecast:

The remainder of the day was forecast to have a scattered layer of clouds at 3,500'. Being as flat as Ohio is, we'd be OK just staying under them if we didn't want to spend the time climbing over them. The winds were expected to be out of the northwest at 8 knots, which is just fine. Departing on runway 22 put the crosswind on our right side, and eight knots of it was pretty much just enough to completely moot the need for the normally required boot full of right rudder. We had a pleasant, smooth, and scenic flight down/over:

We stopped by Rick Gray's RV shop, although I was pretty sure he wouldn't be there:

He wasn't, but that didn't stop us from peaking through the windows. What a great workshop! Color me jealous. From there it's just a short walk over to the airport terminal where the restaurant is. Now here's something you don't want to arrive to:

Closed!! How could that be??? Fortunately, I walked a little further down the hall and found the 'Coffee Shop' entrance. They apparently open that on the weekends when they think the whole dining room is too much bother to open. That's fine, really, but they ought to put a sign on the other door. I wouldn't have walked down the hall if I hadn't been going to see this:

I asked Co-pilot Rick if he knew why the bear was waving. He didn't. Seems obvious to me: "Because he's gotta split!"

Seriously, I don't know why he flies with me.

We departed out of Parkersburg and headed west along the river:

As we started heading northwest towards Bolton, we found ourselves just under the promised puffy clouds at 3,500'. Puffy clouds mean bumpy air, and bumpy air means it's Rick's turn to fly. I busied myself with diddling around with the Garmin 396 checking weather observations. Bolton was reporting sky clear while Rickenbacker, just a few miles away, was reporting a ceiling at 1,900'. Both were wrong. I guess I have to learn to take the XM METARS with a healthy grain of salt. Here's what it looked like the whole way:

It's neat to fly below the clouds. We have to stay at least 500' below them to comply with the federal regs, but that's still close enough that they lend a real sense of speed that you normally don't get. The RV was cooking along at 140 knots, so that visual indication of just how fast that really is was pretty cool. But yes, it was a little bumpy.

I took over the controls from Rick after I accidentally put a wingtip two feet into the Columbus Class C (a fact that the Garmin dutifully informed me about post haste) and managed a pretty good landing at Bolton, considering the conditions. Sometimes entering on the base leg as we did today will result in me being a little high on final, and today was one of those days. It happened at Parkersburg too, but with the hostile terrain down there and the very-long runway, that's no big deal. It's actually a good thing.

But back at Bolton, the effort to rid myself of inconvenient altitude ended up making me fast on final too. The flaps were able to absorb that excess potential energy, but I allowed them a little too much latitude. By short final I was at 70 mph and dropping like Paris Hilton's pants (ooh, sorry about that one!). Landing a short-winged plane like the RV-6 in an energy state like that is similar to an auto-rotation landing in a helicopter: you have enough energy for one, and only one, attempt at the flare. You'd better get it right the first time!

I did.

Of course, it's not like the engine wasn't running - I could have added a blip of throttle if I didn't get it right. Still, good practice.

As I pulled into my driveway at a little before noon, I couldn't help thinking that I probably would have stayed home if the Weather-out-the-Window&trade had looked like this:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why I'm a slob

Well, not a slob per se. But not exactly fastidious either, particularly when it comes to basements, garages, and hangars. Those three are my own personal domiciles of clutter. Sure, I grab the leaf blower two or three times a year and blow generations of dead insects (and their still living descendants, if they're careless enough to get in the way) out of the garage and hangar, and I'll use the shop-vac to suck up the spider webs that gather in the basement and cellar stairs now and then, but I simply don't maintain those areas to a very high standard of cleanliness or clutterlessness.

Last week, though, when it was 93° and very humid, I decreed that it was "too hot to fly." Oddly enough, I didn't consider it too hot to get the leaf blower out and "sweep" out the garage and hangar. It was miserable work, as I'm sure you can imagine. All of that dust, grass clippings, and dessicated insects carcasses combined with the stickiness of sweaty skin made for a pretty unpleasant experience. Offsetting that discomfort was the welcome sense that I wouldn't need to sweep those floors again until the cooler temperatures of late Fall were upon us.

As I was cleaning out the hangar, I caught sight of an eye sore that I've been hoping to get rid of for five years now: a big cardboard box full of chemicals and containers considered to be hazardous waste by our local solid waste authority and thus not permissible for inclusion in our weekly trash pick up. The waste transfer station just up the road offers a free drop off service once in a blue moon, but I've never had the opportunity to gather up all of my old chemicals and drop them off. The drop-offs are only open for a few hours and have a reputation of drawing a miles-long line of cars and pick-up trucks waiting to rid themselves of inconvenient trash.

They put a big sign out a few days before a drop-off day, and I noticed it a few days ago on my way home from work. I figured I'd get up early and be there just as they opened at 0800. I'd take a magazine to read in case the line was long and/or slow. The Weather-out-the-Window&trade for today was gorgeous, but the forecast for later showed a line of low-ish scattered clouds coming in. The forecast wasn't prohibitive, but the lawn needed mowed and I was really keen on the idea of getting some of the nasty cans and bottles of old chemicals out of my basement and hangar. Flying would have to wait. I also had wanted to drive a mile or two over to Beulah Park, our local thoroughbred horse track, for the annual mass hot air balloon launch. That too would have to wait for Sunday.

I grabbed the box of stuff out of the basement and was over at the hangar by 0745. From there it should have been a simple matter of grabbing the big box of stuff pushed back into a corner, loading it into the car, and making the five minute drive to the transfer station. Of course, had it actually been a simple matter, I wouldn't be writing about it. Nope, it wasn't a simple matter at all.

You see, that box was old when I first brought it to the hangar almost six years ago, and sitting in a humid hangar for all that time had done nothing to improve on its structural integrity. I had made three steps towards the door before the bottom fell out. The good news is that only one container fell through. The bad news was that it was a quart sized plastic bottle of charcoal lighting fluid, and the plastic had become more brittle than Methuselah's tibia over the years. Oh, and it was a nearly full bottle too. It split wide open and gushed pungent smelling, oleaginous lighter fluid all over the concrete floor.

I keep a little tub of kitty litter on hand to absorb the periodic drips of oil that get away from me during oil changes, but not nearly enough to soak up a rapidly expanding quart of lighter fluid. With nothing on hand to contain the spill, the best I could do was move anything out of the way of the ever-expanding puddle that might get soaked. I moved the remaining chemicals to another (stronger) box that I had lying around and headed for the drop-off. I got to the transfer station a few minutes before the official 0800 start time but the folks running the show were already there and didn't stand on formality; I was in and out of there in five minutes.

Still, it was a long five minutes of trepidatious glances in the direction of the airport, hoping against hope that a black cloud of sooty smoke wouldn't be seen growing over my hangar. Once done with the drop-off, it was off to the local grocery store to buy a bag of cat litter. I quickly grabbed the cheapest 20 lb. bag I could find and made my way to the checkout lines. None were open except for those awful self-checkouts that I have so much difficulty with. I usually either avoid them or get Co-pilot Egg to operate them for me, but neither of those options were available to me. Fortunately, a store employee saw my distress and came over to help. Actually, she saw a frantic looking, unkempt guy trying to buy nothing but a bag of cat litter. I swear, if there was some nefarious, felonious scheme that could be accomplished with cat litter, the local Homeland Security cops would have been on the case in minutes. As it was, it was non-clumping cat litter and therefore considered benign. No telling what would have happened if I had decided to buy lawn fertilizer at the same time, though.

I was happy to see that neither my hangar nor my airplane had immolated themselves in my brief absence, but it was a little irritating to see 15 hot air balloons launching into a calm, clear sky just a mile away. Wouldn't it have been nice to be over there taking pretty pictures? Yes. Yes, it would have been. But here I was pouring 19 lbs. (keeping one in reserve) all over my recently cleaned hangar floor. And that is why I'm a slob - I just can't win.

But as it turns out, other folks were having an even worse morning. As is my wont, I had turned on the scanner I keep in the hangar to listen to the control tower. Just as I turned it on, there was a diatribe going on:

"Balloon [number number number number], fifteen balloons just launched into my airspace without any notification at all. This is completely unacceptable. I have no choice but to log this and report it. I don't know what the FAA will want to do, but this is a clear pilot deviation. I need you to call me after you land and provide a list of all fifteen numbers from the balloons."


"You also might be interested in knowing that the cloud bank you're drifting towards has ceilings below 800' and is IFR."

So yeah, I guess my morning could have been worse.

But not by much.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Garmin Lovin'

Today was the first time I really stretched my legs and used my new Garmin 396 as more than just a pointer in the general direction of my destination. The Weather-out-the-Window&trade was not exactly what the Chamber of Commerce would be looking for when looking for examples to include in the brochure, but it wasn't horrible either. The morning was forecast to be warm and muggy with a 9000' overcast, and the after was forecast to be warmer and muggier with a 9000' forecast. Or something like that. Not pretty, periods of light rain, but flyable.

I've noticed that I've become very selective about the weather that I will fly in. To a large degree that has had more to do with concern over the conditions later in the day that the ambient weather at departure time. Once away from my PC and internet connection, it gets exponentially harder to acquire weather data. Forecasts are nothing more than slightly informed rumors, but they're all we have to use in our decision making. The fear has always been that a forecast for light winds and 9000' overcast could end up being horribly wrong and I'd find myself faced with much worse conditions.

The Garmin 396 helps with that with the weather reports that it downloads from the XM radio satellites. More on that later. For now, the plan was to fly to Portsmouth Ohio for a flight in Wingman Ted's RV-9A. I've ridden in it before, of course, but this time I was more interested in getting some stick time. As I pursue my futile pass time of trying to decide what I would like to have should I ever decide to upgrade to a more weather capable airplane, I have developed quite a bit of curiosity regarding the RV-9A. It has some notable benefits over the RV-6:

- Nosewheel and (much!) larger rudder allow for flying in higher wind conditions
- Longer wing provides more stability, which is desirable in an instrument platform
- Nosewheel and longer, more forgiving wing would allow the opportunity for real flying lessons for Co-pilot Egg, should she ever express an interest in that
- Good IFR equipment would already be bought and installed in any example that I would consider buying. It would cost $15,000 - $20,000 to bring Papa Golf up to that technical standard, and even then I don't think I'd do it because of the stability issue

Possible detriments to the RV-9A:

- Longer, more forgiving wing would make it handle like a truck
- Nosewheel would cause the manly men who are capable of flying a tailwheel airplane to deride my abilities and openly question my studliness

It was the former of those points that I hoped to address by flying Ted's plane.

As mentioned, the weather wasn't that great, but it was only going to get worse as the heat index rose throughout the day. Papa and I were climbing out of Bolton by 0830. You can see that we weren't flying through what you would call scintillating weather; it was really kind of ugly:

I made a fairly decent landing, although I wasn't too impressed with my radio work in the way into Portsmouth. I got all muddle-mouthed on my initial call and tripped heavily over the words "straight in approach," probably because I very rarely make such an approach. It's one of those evangelical pilot issues - some people hate them, others don't see the big fuss. I had been monitoring the CTAF frequency for miles and miles, though, and not heard a single other airplane at Portsmouth all morning. That does not guarantee that there's no one there, of course, but it's certainly a strong hint that I might have the place to myself. I decided that if anyone chirped up on the radio, it would be a simple matter to just transition into a right crosswind, downwind, and base to runway 18.

That plan was going swimmingly right up until I made my last radio call on short final. The radio came alive with "Papa Golf, I'm watching."


Who's watching? The FAA? Some guy in a Lear Jet getting ready to takeoff in the opposite direction?

I didn't see anyone, though, so I kept going. It was a relatively good landing, but any time I down completely grease one in such light wind conditions I feel like Tiger Woods getting a bogey on a 480 yd Par 5. In other words, I feel like I missed an opportunity.

Ted met me at the airplane with his belt-holstered aviation transceiver. Ah, mystery solved. After a few morning pleasantries, we jumped into his plane. Me in the left seat. The position of honor! Sweet!

Ted explained his flying techniques for protecting the nosewheel on takeoff and landing. The Van's nosewheels have either a well- or un-deserved reputation for having a weak, crumple-prone design. It's another one of those religious issues to RV pilots and I know enough to stay out of discussions on it. Which is a good thing, actually, since I have absolutely no direct knowledge on the topic. You'd think that a lack of knowledge would keep me from expressing an opinion on any topic, but sadly such is not always the case. In any event, I figure it's Ted's plane and I'll fly it the way he wants me to. Or try, anyway. It turns out to be one of those things you do by feel, and I wasn't feeling it. I imagine that, as with many other things, comes with practice.

What I determined about the flying qualities was pretty much as I would have guessed. When compared to the nimble RV-6, the RV-9A feels ponderous in both pitch and roll. It's not that it requires more stick movement exactly, it's more that it requires more effort to move the stick and the resulting roll or pitch rate is much slower than in the -6. This is by design, of course, and is not to be considered a demerit. Quite the contrary, in fact. These are the qualities that make it a better touring and instrument airplane. Well, that and the wider, more comfortable cockpit.

Ted set all of the fancy computerized gadgetry up for me to fly the GPS approach back into Portsmouth. That seems like a bit of a trade-off. There was quite a flurry of button pushing and knob turning, but once all of that was done it was a simple matter indeed to fly the approach. Just follow the lines on the screen and you will find the airport. It takes awhile to decode exactly what you're looking at, but this too is simply a matter of familiarity. I'm sure I'd get used to it quickly. It's bound to be safer than the attitude indicator, directional gyro, and CDI that I'm used to. Perhaps it's overkill, though. I think I could get by with a good HSI when it comes right down to it. No reason to do so, though, since the glass stuff is becoming more affordable that precision, complex mechanical instruments.

I hamfisted my way through a couple of landings where I attempted to prove those detractors of the ostensibly weak Van's nosewheel wrong by repeatedly slapping Ted's against the runway, but if I'm remembering correctly even my worst landing didn't result in the bouncing that happens so commonly when I botch a landing in the -6. Hopefully Ted had his eyes open and can chime in with his observations on that topic.

After wolfing down a ham and cheese omelet at the airport diner, it was time to head home. The weather hadn't improved, nor had it significantly deteriorated. There was some rain in the area though. Here's an over-the-shoulder shot of Portsmouth as I was climbing out to the north:


I pointed the Garmin at Bolton and zoomed out to take a look at the weather:

(You can click on these pictures to see them larger; that will probably help as I talk about them)

You can see a few interesting things in the picture above. First, that little airplane icon in the bottom center of the screen is me. The purple line running vertically from the little airplane icon up to the top of the map is the direct route to Bolton. It's hard to see, but the 'KTZR' just under the purple arrow at the top is Bolton.

You can also see inverted pale blue pyramids at the airports labeled KILN (Wilmington), KLCK (Rickenbacker AFB), and a collection of others. Light blue means VFR, or in other words, good (enough) weather conditions. Oddly enough, Garmin chose the color Green for marginal conditions. Yellow and Red indicate increasingly crappy conditions that are unsuitable for a VFR pilot/airplane such as me/Papa. The collection of light blue pyramids indicated that the general conditions for a broad area around me were still adequate for my immediate needs.

Off to the east and northeast you can see radar returns. That means rain. Light green rain is reportedly often still flyable if the clouds are high enough, but as none of it was in my direct path there was no reason to test those assertions.

Finally, you can see some hatched purple lines forming irregular boxes. Those lines surround MOAs, or Military Operating Areas. Those are legal to fly through, but it's not well advised to do so without first contacting air traffic control to see if they're being used. The box that I would be flying through has a floor of 5,000' and I would be down at 3,500', so that was moot. I'm familiar with those altitudes from previous experience, but the 396 could have told me the altitude restrictions quite easily had I needed it to.

Even though the blue pyramid at Bolton indicated generally adequate conditions, a more detailed report is most assuredly desirable. For example, while the conditions for visibility and ceiling might be within limits, a 30 knot wind would preclude my landing there, but would not trigger a change to a green pyramid. Therefore, I really appreciate the ability to find a more specific report:

Wind from the south at 4 knots, clear skies, and at least 10 miles visibility.


Let's assume for the sake of argument that the conditions weren't as good as this. Let's pretend that instead of clear and 10, I found a report for a 3,000' ceiling and 3 miles visibility. That's right on the very edge of VFR requirements, but still suitable. The thing is, though, that three miles visibility is not very much, particularly when the clouds force you to stay down an 2,500'. In Ohio, that's only 1,500' above the ground, and the view from that low isn't all that great, especially if flying into thick haze. The GPS could guide me to the airport, but I wouldn't see it until the last second and would face a scramble to get into the proper position for landing.

There's a better way. These days, instrument approach diagrams ('plates' in the vernacular) are available free on the internet. If you look at this approach plate for Bolton, you will see the data that will enable a more accurate approach:

The two red circles mark the same point. That point is a waypoint named BOUTN. BOUTN is simply a defined point in space; there is nothing on the ground that defines BOUTN. It is also way is called an Initial Approach Fix. What that means is that it is a great waypoint to use as the first target when approaching the airport.

The green circle surrounds Bolton. The black line running from BOUTN to the green circle is the approach path. If you stay on that path, you will eventually arrive at the runway. You may not see it, mind you, but you will reach it.

The blue line is the flight path that I would take to reach BOUTN.

How did I figure that out? Well, I told the 396 to load the ILS 4 approach into Bolton. What that caused it to do was display BOUTN on the screen and set it as my next waypoint to fly to:

I didn't want to fly directly to BOUTN, though. What I really wanted to do was fly to a spot about two miles further away from the airport so I would have time to make the turn onto a course that would take me on a straight line through BOUTN to the end of runway four. I did that by telling the 396 that I would be receiving ATC vectors to that line. That was a fib, of course, but oddly enough I feel no compunction about lying to inanimate objects. It's an ethical lapse to be sure, but I've learned to live with it. Anyway, once I could see the extended line from BOUTN and could compare it to my present course, it was a simple matter to eyeball an appropriate heading that would allow me to intercept the inbound course a few miles outside of BOUTN. I told the 396 that a 345° heading was what I wanted, and it courteously provided me with a purple pentagon at the top of the screen to follow.

Here you can see me following the 345° heading bug, and you can see the diagonal yellow line pointing to a northeast heading:

When I am about to intersect that course line, the dark yellow segment of the diagonal line will align with the rest of the indicator line. When that happens, all I have to do is turn to the right to rotate the line to the vertical. It looks like this:

That picture shows that I am just to the right of the intended course. The BOUTN - RW04 tells me that I am between BOUTN and the end of the runway, and that I am 3.7 miles away from the runway. Here's what that looks like out the window:

If that's the view from 3.7 miles away, you can see why only three miles of visibility would make this much harder. Even that close, I would not be able to see the runway. Using this method, though, once I did see the runway, I would be well positioned to land. This would work even if I was going to land in the opposite direction on runway 22. In fact, that's what happened today. I called the tower when I was still outside of BOUTN to let him know that I was eight miles southwest and inbound for landing. He replied by asking if I was better positioned for a left or right pattern since he didn't know that I was in a position that would allow for either. Note that I would have avoided this position entirely if I had heard any traffic departing on 22.

Here's a hint: when the tower asks you if you want left or right, there is only one wrong choice. I hear this all the time and it really irritates the controller. That wrong answer is "whatever is best for you." If the controller had a preference, he would already have assigned it to you.

Just make a decision and tell him.

I chose left.

It was a tad gusty in the flare, but still a reasonably good landing.

Friday, August 07, 2009


'FCF' is an acronym (ok, you probably recognized that part on your own) for Functional Check Flight. It's exactly what it sounds like: you perform some maintenance on the airplane, then you go flying to make sure all of the parts stay attached.

Yesterday's FCF was intended to test two things. First, I replace the broken tach cable. If I was keeping a list of "Things That Are Easier to Remove Than They Are to Replace," tach cables would now be added. It took a few minutes to wrestle it into place, a few more minutes to wrestle it out of place, and yet more minutes to wrestle it into the correct place. There's some routing to be done to correctly wind the cable through some of the other stuff hanging around at the back of the engine. Once the cable is correctly positioned, there's nothing left to do but screw the ferrule caps (Warning: non-technical, just-made-up part description) into place. That would be easy of not for the aforementioned other engine bits being in the way. Seriously, I don't know why I don't just yank out the vacuum pump and gyros - I don't use them.

Once the tach cable was done, I removed the temporary cigarette lighter power cord that I had been using to deliver pure 12 VDC to the Garmin 396 and replaced it with a cord that I could wire directly to ship's power. That was a very simple task. In fact, both of these jobs were very easy and very low risk, but I would not have been able to do either of them myself if I didn't have an Experimental certificate for the plane. Total cost was $26.50 for the tach cable, and an unconscionable $28.95 for the Garmin power cord. Had I required an A&P to do the work, the price of the cables would have had a mark-up and labor costs would have added at least $150.

Just saying. indicated that the lowest price fuel within a reasonable distance was at Urbana. I was able to convince the snooty, high-fallutin' new GPS to point me in that general direction after a few minutes of fumbling around with the slightly different button/menu stuff on the 396. Once we had been in the air for a few minutes, the GPS started displaying METAR and TAF weather information. Without even being asked! And without prolonged messing around with recalcitrant equipment. I am VERY happy with the Garmin 396!

I was also very happy with both of my landings. They were both CAG (made up acronym alert!) landings: Calm Air Greasers. That was a bit of a relief after my last flight where everything just felt wrong. Confidence now restored in both aircraft and pilot, I'm looking forward to some good flying this weekend.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Oshkosh: A few pix that were trapped on my cell phone

Two hints that you're driving to Oshkosh:

Hint 1: You're stuck in Chicago traffic.
Hint 2: You're stuck behind some dude pulling a helicopter.

These are a couple of pics from the rib building workshop:

And completely apropos of nothing, here's the odometer on my Miata crossing a huge generational demarcation. It's officially an old car now:

Still runs great, though.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Oshkosh: Postscript

For those that are forced to deal with the Chicago bottleneck during their trek to Oshkosh I have three words of advice:




To assist those that don't speak military time, allow me to translate:




That's right. 5:00 AM. That is the time when you want to be driving through/around/near/in-the-same-state-as Chicago. At least on a Saturday morning, anyway.

I woke Egg at 0230 local and we were on the road and heading south by 0300. We passed through the horrid construction on I-94 like grass through a goose, but I could tell that the choking down to a single lane near Kenosha would have created a horrible ordeal had we gone later in the day. Downtown Chicago was also eerily easy; as they say in the movies, maybe too easy. Any time something is too easy, I cringe while waiting for the inevitable offsetting pain in the arse.

In the case of Chicago, it came in the form of a ditzy looking blond that found herself in the wrong lane of a toll booth and attempted to force her Jeep Cherokee into a piece of real estate currently inhabited by Yours Truly and his sole offspring. Not in the mood for a fight (and bowing to the inevitable - she made no sign of caring one way or the other what my opinion was on the issue) I theatrically gestured for her to just go on ahead.

She blew me a kiss.

At my age, that kind of thing does not sway me in the least; I just gave her a dismissive wave in return.

In the epitome of no-good-deed-going-unpunished (even if said good deed was done reluctantly) she then proceeded to have a prolonged argument over the necessity of a $3.00 toll with the bored, tired, and completely disinterested booth attendant.

I can only imagine how I would have reacted had this happened after a interminable wait to even get to the toll plaza. As it was, I just shrugged it off. Well, there were words, too. But relatively tame ones.

Remember this: 5:00 AM. It's the secret to many, many things.

We made it back to Columbus in just seven hours. As a point of comparison, it took eight and a half to get there.

"Sure," you're thinking, "just look at the map. It's uphill the whole way! No wonder it's faster coming back." No, that's only one reason. The benefit of being one of the first to arrive to battle the Chicago gauntlet is another.

The remainder of Saturday was spent unloading the car, dumping a week's worth of very smelly laundry into the hamper, resting my aching feet, and napping off the effects of the early start.

Sunday was the day I had been waiting for: the installation of the Garmin 396. Perhaps I should have waited longer. Still tired, I did crazy things like detaching some wires that I ended up just having to re-attach because it turned out that I still needed them. That wouldn't be such a big deal if it wasn't for that fact that any and all wiring work is performed by reaching down (or up, in some cases) behind the panel and working in a very tight and crowded space which is prone to causing inconvenient things like dropping screws.

Still, it was an easier job than I had expected, and the folks at XM were a breeze to work with when I reactivated by Aviator Lite account, even though the only part of my account information I knew was my phone number. I was afraid they were going to want to charge me another $75 activation fee since it had been almost two years since I had suspended my account, and that account had been associated with a different GPS. No problems, though, and within ten minutes I was seeing radar returns over in Pennsylvania. Just a few minutes after that, METARs showed up.

I should have just quit right there, what with me being fully cognizant of the fact that something that went that easily was bound to have consequences, but I threw caution to the wind and suggested to the Co-pilot that we perform a test flight.

The takeoff was horrible! The tail was all over the place. Rick charitably agreed that it must have been due to the odd winds that had Bolton's two windsocks pointing in different directions, but I'm not so sure. As we climbed out and I realized that I was more interested in piddling with the GPS than avoiding traffic, I had Rick take over the reins. I'm here to tell you, the Garmin 396 is awesome! It's amazingly capable when compared to my old Garmin 295, which by the way, is now for sale.

Things came a little unglued when Rick noticed that we had a pretty decent ground speed considering that the tach was reading 0 RPM. Yep, zero is kinda low for anything but being parked in the hangar, so I made a 180 and we headed back to Bolton. A terrible landing ensued. In front of a witness: a Piper Super Cub was sitting in the infield getting ready for a banner tow.

Once we were back at the hangar I started diagnosing the tach problem. I figured it was either the tach cable or the tach itself causing the problem; the engine seemed to be making a little more than zero RPM so I was willing to stipulate that there was unlikely to be a problem from that end. I'm intuitive that way.

I disconnected the cable from the back of the tach (Great. Here I am piddling around behind the panel again!!), ensured that the mags were grounded and the mixture at full cut-off,l and had Rick slowly pull the prop through. The idea was that I'd be able to see the cable rotate if it wasn't broken. I was hoping that it was broken because a tach cable is far less expensive than the tach itself! That step turned out to be moot - I was able to pull the inner cable completely out of the cable conduit. It was broken right where the engine side part of the cable goes into the little port on the back of the engine.

It's $26.50 for a new cable. What a relief! I sure didn't want to have to buy a new tach.