Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's a Blustery Year

Yep, it's that time of year again. Late fall is when the bluster is at its worst, although there are some years that are certainly worse than others. 2008 was horrible and 2012 will likely be far worse, but the campaign season of 2008 has been plenty bad enough. Oh, you thought I meant blustery weather? Well, we've had that too. I had hoped to give a ride to a co-worker last week but the 23G30 winds were clearly too much; we had to postpone. That's the kind of wind that I only land in if I'm returning from a trip and I'm met with conditions far worse than forecast. I can do it if I have to, but if I have a choice? Nope, I stay home.

Today was better, but not entirely perfect. We had a reported steady 9 knots from the northwest, but one look at the sky was enough to tell that there was probably more than that going on at altitude. It was clearly blowing pretty hard up in the flight levels where the jets ply their trade; you can always tell it's windy when the clouds look like they've been applied to the sky with a brush.  There's nothing wrong with a local hop with 9 knot winds, though. No reason to postpone this time, but I did suggest dressing warmly. It can be pretty chilly between the hangars when the wind forces its way between them and I knew we'd have to spend some time talking before getting into the plane.

The passenger, a future winner of the Caldecott Medal for her as-yet-unwritten children's book Everyone Knows a Dog Named Molly, asked if she could bring her family along with her in order to take some pictures of her daughter in the airplane. I could hardly refuse, what with some of my absolutely favorite pictures of Co-pilot Egg being those taken in one airplane or another. Egg, herself always eager to befriend younger kids, volunteered to brave the chill and go to the airport with us to help with the logistics of the photo taking.

She was quite happy in the plane until Egg tried putting headsets on her. That wasn't very popular at all!

To be fair, those ear cups are mighty cold when there's a chill in the air. I don't much like putting them on either!

While Egg was entertaining her guest, I did the preflight and explained a few of the things that I've learned to point out to passengers. Chief amongst those are things like:

1) The engine vibrates a lot more than what you're used to in a car and is quite loud. It also sometimes burbles when I throttle back to land.

2) I'm going to be pretty active on the rudder pedals during takeoff and landing. It's best if they're not being used as foot rests. This is especially important when it's windy.

3) And most importantly when flying with females: I will be reaching for the trim knob now and then, and any contact with your leg is purely incidental. In fact, I was thinking that one nice thing about the RV-12 will be that the trim is electric and actuated by a switch on the control panel, thus alleviating me of the concern that something might be misconstrued. My relief was short-lived, however, as I soon remembered that I'm going to have to brief the use of the crotch strap in the RV-12, something I don't have to do in the -6. That's going to require a level of delicacy that, simply put, I'm not exactly known for.

Not that it was an issue with Molly, but one of the benefits of explaining these kinds of things as we go through the process is to alleviate some of the nervousness someone might have when flying in a small plane for the first time. Confidence and competence, even if feigned, go along way towards calming jangled nerves. I remember one of my earliest flights in a small plane when I grew increasingly trepid as the pilot struggled to get the engine started. That's no problem with Papa, of course, since he always starts after pulling just one or two blades through. Such was the case today, although I just couldn't seem to keep the engine running after its normally easy start. I think it was the third or fourth time I had tried before I realized that I still had the mixture in idle cut-off. Oops! But, as I've always said, there are two people you never want to hear say "Oops!": pilots and brain surgeons. I put on my best meant-to-do-that voice and said, "Ah, I had it set a little lean."

Technically true, that, albeit in a somewhat Clintonian sense. It all depends on what the meaning of "a little lean" is.

Being early yet, we woke up the tower controller with our request to taxi but eventually managed to wrangle a clearance to runway 4 out of him. On the way out I explained that we'd have a left crosswind on takeoff which, combined with the normal right turning tendency from the torque of the engine, would ensure that there would be at least a few swerves as we accelerated down the runway. I also briefed my normal runway 4 takeoff method of accelerating to 120 knots over the runway before making a climbing turn-out towards the wide open farm fields just west of the airport. Doing it that way results in us being at 500' above the ground with best glide speed already showing on the airspeed indicator should anything happen that would require an un-powered, off-airport landing, but it's not the type of takeoff one would expect after hundreds of hours flying in airliners.

All went as planned and we were soon climbing towards the west. I had debated on the question of making my normal takeoff or foregoing that and climbing out straight ahead, the two choices pretty much differing mostly by how they would affect the passenger, but in the event my final decision to go with the more abrupt and potentially scary method was proven satisfactory by the gleeful laughing bubbling out from the right seat. That was a relief! If she enjoyed the takeoff, chances were that I wouldn't have to be ultra careful about banks and turns.

Once we got up to a safe altitude, I let her take the controls. My early impression proved correct. After just a few mild exploratory turns, she loosened up and rolled us into 30- to 40 degree banks quite readily. We were lucky to have a few scattered target clouds to play around with too. It's somewhat rare to have those bite-sized clouds lounging around at a convenient altitude, and when I do find them I like to play around with them a bit. As there was one just below and to the left of us and Molly was obviously getting more comfortable with controlling the plane, I had her put us in a descending left turn straight towards it. We brushed across the top of it at a good 175 mph. That's a great way for someone new to flying to see just how fast it is that we're going. It's hard to tell when you're a few thousand feet above the ground, but the close-up reference to a stationary cloud shows it very well.

She then flew us over another little cloud just behind the first and I took over as we zoomed on past it. I pulled us up into a left wing-over and dove back down towards the cloud we had just brushed over. After three or four of those, we had both had enough fun to last us the day. Which is to say, well, there was a little queasiness afoot. Pulling G's like that is an acquired taste and something you have to do pretty routinely to stay acclimated to it. She'd never done it, and I hadn't done it for a long time. It was time to move on to something more sedate.

I headed us back towards the east, the plan being to fly over The Ohio $tate University campus and downtown Columbus. Unfortunately we were over a pretty thick haze layer. While the sky was beautiful at 5,500', the view of campus and the downtown waterfront wasn't that great. I turned us back to the west and we descended back down towards Bolton. I called the tower as we crossed over Darby Dan and got the expected "report mid-field left downwind runway 4" in response.

As we crossed over my neighborhood, I made a continuous curving approach from downwind to final. We still had quite a bit of altitude, but with the throttle to idle and a good headwind component we had no problem losing the excess height by the time we reached the runway. I had covered my bases in preparation for a bad landing during the briefing, but it proved unnecessary. The touch down was smooth, and had it not been for a gust of wind that caused a little swerving and bouncing on the roll-out, it would have been a very good landing for a blustery 9 knot day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

There's no such thing as a routine flight

I'm not the first to say that there is no such thing as a routine flight, nor is it an idea that I've but recently pondered. It's just that it was proven to me again yesterday as I made a trip that I have made more often than any other, if I exclude shorter hops like MadCo and Urbana. I'll modify the criteria by defining "trip" as a flight upon which I spend more than an hour on the ground and actually leave the airport itself. I make plenty of those, but none as often as I make the trip to The Farm. If anything in my aerial repertoire could be counted as a routine flight, that would be it.

The last couple of times I've gone, though, I've dealt with events that are slightly out of the norm. The last time I went, I ended up using the Garmin 396 and its XM-based weather radar display feature to circumnavigate an inconveniently placed storm cloud. This trip too involved dealing with a little bit of weather, but it was much more widespread. We had 11,000' ceilings for most of the day, which were easy enough to stay underneath with adequate visibility, but they unfortunately also produced some light to moderate precipitation. There was nothing all that difficult about it, but it is a stark departure from the days when even a hint of green on the radar was enough to me to just decide to stay home.

This is what it looked like on the way home. Note the ground speed displayed on the GPS - that's with the engine throttled back to an economical 2,200 rpm. The trip from Bolton to The Farm was also at a 2,200 rpm setting, but resulted in only 115 knots across the ground. So yeah, it was a bit windy at altitude.

The more interesting event was on the trip out when I saved a minimum of two lives, one (and if I'm honest, the more important) being my own. As I was flying along at 3,500', my normal scan outside the cockpit detected another airplane that was headed on an almost parallel heading, but about 500' higher than me. I say almost parallel because he was slowly converging on me. I watched as he crossed almost directly over me from right to left. Given his obvious fixation on his course, no demonstrable effort to avoid me, and the fact that he was 500' above me, I assumed that he was on an IFR flight plan. This notion was reinforced by the fact that we were just northeast of Dayton International's Class C airspace and he was headed right at it.

I decided to keep an eye on him. As we continued to the west, I could see him a mile or two off to the south. I kept expecting him to start a descent into Dayton, but his altitude remained constant. He made a couple of steeply banked course corrections, something that would be abnormal in true IFR conditions, but we were still in good visual conditions so there would really be nothing precluding him from an aggressive correction. I kept glancing over every couple of minutes or so until about five minutes later when it appeared that he might be getting closer to me again. I increased the rate of my glances to every 30 seconds; it soon became abundantly apparent that he was, in fact, closing the gap between us. Eventually he got close enough that I had to take evasive action. I descended a few hundred feet to allow him to cross directly over me. He never knew I was there! Had I not kept watching for him, there is a very real chance that he would have flown right into me. How close was he? I could have easily read a one-inch high tail number if it had been painted on the bottom of the fuselage.

This is why we look out the window!!

While I was at The Farm, I stopped by my brother's place to see what he's working on. This time around, it was his new race car for next season. The Schmetterling sponsored ride has been stripped of its goodies and relegated to jack stands. Reportedly, the Schmetterling logo will be even larger on next year's car!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Simplifying the equation

Here's the equation that's been bothering me:

X + Y = ???,

      where X = Will This Airplane Fly and Y = Can I Fly This Airplane?

Granted, it's a year away at least, but it will have to happen eventually. There will inevitably come a day when I have to fly this thing, and it's apparently never to early to start worrying about it. I wouldn't call it butterflies in the stomach at this distant point, but pupae in the belly wouldn't be too far off the mark.

I simplified the equation today. There will still be worries over the fundamental airworthiness of the completed airplane, but at least I will know for a fact that I can fly it. Today I flew a little more than an hour in the left seat of an RV-12 and made a total of three takeoffs and landings. As a bonus, I also made a fourth landing approach and a go-around. For practice, like. Or so I would have you believe.

In what has to me one of the most masterfully created win-win deals of the young century, I offered to assist a sort-of local RV-12 owner with an introduction to the operation of his Garmin 496 GPS in exchange for a little more time riding around and getting familiar with the flying qualities of the -12. He flew up from Lancaster to pick me up at Bolton and while we were chatting on the ramp in front of the tower, he shifted over to the right side and offered me the Captain's position. Yowza!

Before we started the engine, he gave me a quick tour of the Dynon D-180 so I'd know where to look for interesting tidbits of trivia such as our altitude above the ground and our velocity through the cool fall air. Good stuff to know, those things. The increased level of complexity and sophistication over the more pedestrian mechanical equipment in my RV-6 was in stark contrast to the amazing simplicity of engine management. Time to start the engine? Fine, show me the mixture knob. What do you mean, "there isn't one?" How can that be? Okay, fine. Turn the key? Piece of cake. Whoa! I was expecting to click through left mag, right mag, both mags, and then into 'start'. The last thing I expected was to turn the key straight into 'start'. And wow, it sure does start easy, doesn't it?

Taxiing was a little odd too. Rather than the steerable tailwheel I'm used to, there's just a castering wheel out front. Pressing the rudder pedals has no effect whatsoever on steering. No problem, though. I adjusted right quickly to getting turns started with a little jab at the brakes and stopped with a little jab at the other brake. At the end of the runway, I received a briefing on how to perform the takeoff with the least amount of stress on the nose wheel. The idea was to hold the stick back as I fed power in, and not be surprised when the nose lifted almost right away. Once it did, I was to lessen the nose-up stick and let the nose kind of find its own level. The plane would fly away on its own when it was ready. It sounded a little complicated, but in the event it was quite simple. It was a good thing that I had been forewarned that it would feel like I was going to bounce the tail on the runway with the extreme feeling nose up attitude or I would have panicked and plopped the wheel right back down onto the runway.

I fed the throttle in slowly, but even still it was only a matter of a few hundred feet before we were climbing away from the runway. I have no numbers regarding climb performance to share, unfortunately. I sure that data was available on the display somewhere, but as with the rest of the performance data I found it much more difficult to deduce values from a simply glance like I can with my old clock face gauges. I can tell you this: it was slower than in the RV-6. I knew that would be the case going in, though. It was not a surprise.

I was ready for the light aileron forces, having experienced them in my previous ride, but this time around I realized that the -12 is actually lighter in aileron than the -6. It's actually what I would describe as nimble. As we were climbing away from Bolton, I spent a few minutes explaining how to enter a destination into the GPS. With MadCo firmly locked in, I also took the liberty of reconfiguring the GPS screen to what I consider to be a more useful page setup. I like to split the screen between the moving map and the HSI direction indicator. I think it's a more natural way to look at it for old school pilots.

As we approached MadCo, I became increasingly aware of one thing about the RV-12 that I don't like. More specifically, it's something about the Rotax engine. For some reason that I'm sure would make perfect sense to somebody like a trial lawyer, there is a very strong spring on the throttle that is perpetually trying to pull the throttle knob to the full throttle position. That's all well and good for those times when you want to blast around at full bore, but for the rest of the time it's a right bugger. You see, to keep the throttle from working its way forward, you have to lock the friction control on the throttle down as tight as it will go. That makes power changes somewhat of a struggle. Not knowing any better, I loosened the friction and pulled back the throttle for our descent into the landing pattern. Imagine my surprise when I noticed a couple of minutes later that we not only weren't descending, but weren't slowing down either. The throttle had returned to the higher power position of its own volition. I was to be mildly irked by this behavior for the rest of the flight.

We entered a left downwind to runway 27 and were confronted by the challenge of my first landing with a wind that was blowing directly from.... the west. Right down the runway. What could be easier! As I dropped the flaps (accomplished quite quickly in the -12 by virtue of a flap lever rather than the glacially slow electric flaps of my -6) I hardly noticed any nose down movement at all. Lowering the flaps in the -6 has a far more pronounced influence on the trim. In subsequent landings I would notice that there is a pitch trim change required when lowering the flaps in the -12, but it's minimal. What's far more noticeable is how much heavier the ailerons get when the flaps are down. I don't know if that's by design or just a lucky fluke, but it adds a nice feeling of stability in the landing pattern.

I came down final at 65 - 70 knots and entered the flare at 65 knots. I deliberately flew a much shallower glide path than I do in the -6, correctly thinking that the -12 probably wouldn't be able to lose altitude as quick and easily as I can in the -6. I found out later that while it doesn't come down quite as rapidly as the -6, it is still pretty capable of coming down when you need it to. As I flared over the runway, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more feel I had than in the -6. With the -12, I could move the stick quite a bit in pitch with minimal yet predictable changes in the landing attitude of the plane. The -6 is, in comparison, very twitchy in the flare. The least little movement has a tremendous affect on the attitude of the plane, and in consequence can cause all kinds of embarrassing bounces and oscillations. At the end of the day, it came down to this: I greased all three of my landings, at least on the Richter scale that I use for grading landings in the -6.

I mentioned a go-around earlier. After MadCo we headed over to Circleville to try a crosswind landing. Without the wind coming right down the runway to abate our ground speed, I ended up high and fast on short final. I punched in a bootful of right rudder and held the wings level with left aileron and we dropped down like a brick, but I still felt that an awful lot of runway was sliding behind us and the plane wasn't perceptibly slowing. Discretion being the better part of valor (and me not wanting to abuse the generosity of my host), I poured on the coal and took us around for another try. Better attuned to the weather conditions and the performance of the plane, I squeaked on the second attempt. Two for two, if you don't count the go-around. Call that one a mulligan.

By the time we got back to Bolton, I was completely comfortable in the airplane. While it will take time to adjust to a 110 knot cruise speed, I will quickly learn to love the 5 gallon per hour fuel flow. The benign flight qualities will please, but the bouncing around that comes with the light wing loading will take some adjustment. I was again surprised at how quiet and smooth the engine is and how comfortable the seats are. And the improvement over the already exemplary visibility of the RV-6 is amazing.

All in all, I can say in all honesty that the RV grin that I wore for the rest of the afternoon was well earned by that wonderful little airplane.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Biennial Flight Review - FAIL!

Well, no, I didn't actually fail a BFR. I don't think you actually can technically fail. That said, I found a way.

It all started a few weeks ago when I ran into a CFI at Bolton that was getting ready to do a BFR with the guy two hangars down from me. We had met before and he has actually flown with me in the RV. As we were chatting he asked when my BFR was due. I didn't think it was due until next year some time, but as I was unable to remember the precise date I decided to check my log book.

Expires: Oct, 2010.

Well then. I figured I ought to get it done asap. I'm hoping to take the RV down to Parkersburg later this month to have some more repair work done on the cowls (they're definitely showing their age, and it's not work I'm comfortable doing myself) so I needed to get the BFR out of the way.  I tried to get it done this past weekend, but the weather was uncooperative. Today was the first day that met the conditions: decent weather, availability of the CFI, and my back is feeling back to normal.  What happened to my back? That story is here.

We met at the airport a little before 5:30. As I was preflighting the plane, Tony looked through my log book. As I was pouring in a quart of oil, Tony hollered out at me that my BFR isn't due this month, it's due in May, 2011. I had mistaken the expiration date of the last CFI's certificate for the expiration date of my BFR.


We decided to go flying anyway. I had been saving the gas for this for close to a week and I was feeling that I needed to get up and practice some landings. I was sure right about that! After working through same practice stalls, we headed over to MadCo. I entered a left downwind for runway 9 and struggled to figure out where the wind was blowing from (while wondering why wind socks are so darn small) with the idea that I could just cross over to the other side if the wind was favoring 27. After studying the itty-bitty windsock for a few moments, I decided that it looked like a direct crosswind and that runway 9 would work just fine.

I was wrong. I ended up high and close on final, but that's no problem in an RV-6. If there's one thing that wing knows how to do, it's to shed altitude in a hurry. Even after getting down to a landable altitude just over the numbers, it seemed like we were moving awfully fast. I often get that feeling when I haven't flown for awhile so I just shrugged it off as normal rustiness and landed. Well, while "landing" is the correct technical term for what happened, a more accurate description would be "bounced and swerved down the runway like an epileptic kangaroo."  Once I finally got the plane slowed down and under control, I took a closer look at the windsock. While it may have been indicating a direct crosswind while we were on downwind, it was quite plainly showing a quartering tailwind from where we were sitting on the runway.

Good thing it wasn't an official BFR landing!

We went around again and landed on 27. That one went a lot better. In fact, it would have been a greaser if I hadn't pulled just a bit too much in the final flare. I ended up with a few more little bounces, but nothing near as bad as the first try.

Then it was back to Bolton where I actually made a good landing. Just in a nick of time, too. I think I was this close to having to find a different CFI to do my BFR in May!