Thursday, August 26, 2010

On the Art of Crashing

"If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible."
-- R.A. "Bob" Hoover

As recently discussed in this post, my friend Steve Cavallo had occasion in late June to deposit his Cessna 210D behind the boardwalk in Robert Moses State Park on Long Island after a total engine failure. Here is a news photograph of the result:

N3973Y - Photo (c) and courtesy of Fred Miller

To me, that picture speaks volumes about airmanship of the highest order. The airplane is resting in a confined space, at the very end of the available run, gear wisely left up and with a minimum of bent metal. In one of the press reports of the incident, the helicopter-borne reporter takes breathless note of how close the airplane came to the boardwalk and parking lot. This amused me as I was thinking, "Ol' Steve put that bird just exactly where he wanted it."

The quote below is from Steve's contribution to NASA's Oral History Project:

"[NACA Langley] also had [circa 1943] a rocket testing facility at Wallops Island, Virginia that required transportation service. To get to Wallops, we needed to fly a Grumman Goose Amphibian into a creek. The creek was a body of water about 50 meters wide and 2500 meters long which ran parallel to the ocean and was about 150 meters from it. The sand strip between was where the testing facility was located.

I was checked out to fly into the creek and it became pretty much my specialty. I got very proficient at landing and taking off into that small area, in all kinds of wind and current conditions."

The whole interview makes for compelling reading. But for now, I think it's fascinating to note that while Steve was slipping that Grumman amphib into confined waters over 65 years ago, and putting it just exactly where he wanted it, he was building up the experience and airmanship that allowed him to survive a close call and walk away just two months ago.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Autopilot Antics (cont'd)

Here's the culprit! In a post on Monday I described how N631S's S-TEC System 50 autopilot failed en route from DC, giving me the opportunity of scrape the rust off of my technique for hand-flying an ILS approach in IMC.

Yesterday, Dave the Avionics Wizard at Three Wing Flying Service, had the chance to investigate the problem.

Dave discovered that if he perturbed the wires at the pictured connector it would cause the autopilot to go off line. Everything else checked out fine, so he removed the connector and hard-wired the installation. No more connector to act as a potential point of failure. The system is now operating "ops normal."

I've developed a great deal of respect over the years for Dave's capabilities and his approach to his profession. One of his pet peeves is the use of connectors whose only purpose is to make the installation technician's job easier. For the sake of saving ten minutes under the panel, you accept a small degradation in system reliability. The possible consequence...is what happened to me on Monday.

Once again, the service from Three Wing has been exceptional. These guys are very good at what they do. N631S and I are 'good to go' for the trip south on Friday...and the weather is looking promising.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On the Ethics of Crashing

Just yesterday, it came to my attention that my friend Steve Cavallo had an engine failure and a forced landing late in June. He had departed Easton, MD (KESN) and was headed toward Gabreski Field (KFOK) in Westhampton, NY when the engine in his Cessna 210D quit over the waters off the south shore of Long Island.

Steve nursed the crippled Centurion to the shoreline and, in a remarkable display of airmanship, bellied it into a sandy lot behind the boardwalk at Robert Moses State Park. He was a little banged up but basically fine and no one on the ground had so much as a scratch.

Press articles describing the event can be found here, and here, and here. (The first story linked is the best.)

Steve Cavallo in a P-51 Mustang
I've written about Steve before. He is, in my view, a giant of aviation still flying with us. He flew as a test pilot for NACA during World War II and made incredibly valuable contributions to the war effort and to aviation progress. But today, I want to emphasize one quote from Steve, taken from one of the news accounts. He said this to a reporter:
“The main thing I was trying to do was not hurt anybody,” he said. “I would have opted to land on the beach—that would have been a cinch—but the beaches were full. The only thing that was open was this strip. If I didn’t go there, I think I would have been in a lot of trouble.”

That, I submit, is in the first place unsurprising given the experience and character of the man, and, in the second place, a humbling and vital lesson for the rest of us. As that silent powerless Cessna approached zero feet AGL Steve Cavallo was not preoccupied with his own safety and survival. He was determined to get the thing down without hurting people on the ground. Those folks never signed up to be Cessna-catchers!

I hope if any of us find ourselves in a similar situation we can work through the event with Steve's words in the back of our mind.

And...Steve, if you read this: Thanks for the lesson, you Great and Ancient Pelican. I'm happy that you're safe.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Autopilot Antics

As anticipated in last evening's post, the northern end of this morning's flight from the DC area to Bridgeport included some weather.

There wasn't a whole lot of precipitation (see image, left) but the New York area was pretty well clouded over, with layers from 1,500 feet to about 6,000. The METAR at KBDR at about the time of the screen shot was:

KBDR 231252Z 06012KT 10SM OVC014 21/18 A2988...
ten miles visibility, wind from the northeast at 12 knots, and an overcast ceiling at 1,400 feet. Not too bad.

That was about when the autopilot decided to stop cooperating.

N631S is equipped with an STEC System 50 autopilot with GPSS (GPS Steering) capability. These units have been extremely reliable as long as N631S has been with us. But not today. This morning, very shortly after I snapped that picture, the autopilot simply turned itself off.

It seemed perfectly content to have itself turned back on again, but it was clearly not to be relied upon. So I planned to hand-fly the ILS 6 approach.

The STEC 50 shut down twice more over Long Island, so as I started across Long Island Sound I shut the thing off and went back to basics. I have to confess that it was a slightly humbling experience, as I'd let myself get a bit rusty in the art of hand-flying ILS approaches in actual IMC. I was quite happy that the ceiling was relatively high. In the end the approach was a bit ragged but acceptable. Below, courtesy of the nice folks at FlightAware.com, is an indelible record of my choppy effort to get established on the localizer.

Dave the Avionics Wizard will be troubleshooting the autopilot tomorrow.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Pattern Continues

The pattern of which I took note in the previous post continues - uneventful Friday evenings and rather more interesting Monday mornings. Friday was utterly uneventful; as for tomorrow, well here's the 12Z forecast map:

The terminal area forecast (TAF) for Bridgeport (KBDR) for the expected time of arrival - about 1345Z tomorrow morning - looks like this:

KBDR 222218Z 2222/2318 13012G20KT 6SM -RA SCT015 OVC035
TEMPO 2222/2224 4SM RA BR BKN015 OVC030
FM230400 09012KT 3SM RA BR OVC010
FM230800 07012KT 5SM -RA BR OVC010
FM231100 07014KT 6SM -SHRA BR OVC015
FM231400 07015G22KT 6SM -SHRA BR BKN015 OVC020

Six statute miles visibility in light rain showers under a 1500 foot overcast, trending to 2000. Wind of 15 knots or so from the northeast, becoming gusty but closely aligned with Runway 6. I suspect that the ILS 6 approach will be on offer.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fair Weather Trends

For some time it has seemed to me that the weather that N631S and I have been dealing with during this summer season has consistently been less...um...entertaining than what we dealt with last year. (It appears that another uneventful Friday trip is in the offing for tomorrow evening.)

To calibrate the feeling, I did some digging in the logbook last night. For Friday trips to the DC area since the beginning of May, here's what I found:

BDR - VKX 2009 2010
Trips Hours Apchs Trips Hours Apchs
May 5 13.7 2 4 10.7 0
June 4 10.7 3 4 9.9 0
July 4 10.3 2 4 9.7 0
Aug* 3 7.3 0 2 4.8 0
Total 16 42.0 6 14 35.1 0
*August data through the 18th of the month.

Last year over the course of 16 weekends it took an average of 2.63 hours to fly from KBDR to KVKX. Five of those trips ended in instrument approaches (one trip ended in two - a miss and an approach at my alternate).

This year over the same period (two fewer flights) the trip has averaged 2.51 hours and I haven't needed to fly a single instrument approach. It appears that the Friday evening weather really has been quite a lot better this year.

So, what about the Monday morning trips from DC back to Connecticut? Here's the data:

VKX - BDR 2009 2010
Trips Hours Apchs Trips Hours Apchs
May 4 8.7 1 4 8.6 2
June 5 10.6 1 5 10.2 2
July 4 9.1 2 3 6.5 1
Aug* 2 4.3 0 3 6.2 1
Total 15 32.7 4 15 31.5 6
*August data through the 18th of the month.

In 2009 the northbound flight averaged 2.16 hours and 4 out of 15 flights ended in an instrument approach. This year I've averaged 2.10 hours with 6 out of 15 flights requiring me to dig out the approach plate.

It appears that my Monday morning experiences this year have been much the same as last year but the Friday night flights have been significantly better.

I hope that the weather genie doesn't now feel compelled to prove me wrong!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: "Slide Rule" by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is, of course, best known as the author of such highly regarded mid-20th Century novels as On the Beach, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. But that literary figure is not the central character of this autobiography. This is the story of an engineer and the story of an air-man.

The author was born Nevil Shute Norway, second son of a British postal official. (He dropped his surname from the attribution of his novels, lest his engineering colleagues think of him as "not a serious person.") He was smitten by the "aeroplane" at a very early age and determined to make aviation his life's work.

"Kenneth Grahame once wrote that 'there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.' With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world's history I think that aeroplanes ran boats very close for shear enjoyment. ... I count myself lucky that that fleeting period coincided with my youth and my young manhood, and that I had a part in it."

In that time (the book occupies the era between the World Wars) a life in aviation required daring, and it becomes clear that Nevil Shute Norway was possessed of daring sufficient to the need. At various times in his life he pursued aviation, the sailing of small boats off-soundings, and motor racing. But his daring was tempered with technical acumen and combined with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"...it is very good for the character to engage in sports which put your life in danger from time to time. It breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities which probably cannot be got in any other way, and a habit of quick decisions."

He took an engineering degree from Oxford in 1922 and went to work as a stress analyst for the De Havilland organization. Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, already famous as a designer of aircraft, was only the first of several aviation notables to cross paths with the author, and he provides measured portraits of each in turn.

In 1924 he moved on to Vickers, to work on the design and construction of the airship R-100 under the leadership of Barnes Wallis. Wallis, the prototypical English "boffin", was the guiding genius behind the innovative structure of the airship. When the design was complete Wallis went on to other projects (among them the wondrously rugged geodesic structure of the Vickers Wellington bomber's fuselage, and the "bouncing bomb" of Dambusters-fame). Nevil Shute Norway then became head of structural engineering for the project.

The R-100 was built as a competitive prototype in parallel with an Air Ministry design, the R-101. The author describes in detail his view of the relationship between the two programs and (somewhat uncharitably) of the shortcomings of R-101's design and its designers. In the end, the R-101 was famously disastrous, crashing on 5th October 1930 with great loss of life, on its first long-distance proving flight. The loss of R-101 effectively wrote finis to airship development in Britain.
"Aircraft do not crash of themselves. They come to grief because men are foolish, or vain, or lazy, or irresolute or reckless. One crash in a thousand may be unavoidable because God wills it so - not more than that."

The R-100, despite its apparently successful design, was grounded after the accident and subsequently broken up, the scrap being sold for a few hundred pounds. Nevil Shute Norway and his colleagues became, as they say, "redundant".

With this newfound freedom, the author's entrepreneurial side came to the fore. In 1931 he joined forces with the designer Hessell Tiltman to found a new aircraft manufacturing company, Airspeed Ltd. Given the economic conditions of the day, this was adventure of a high order, and the last 40% of the book is the tale of this adventure.

While Nevil Shute Norway was a highly competent engineer, Hessell Tiltman was a remarkably talented designer. So as the nascent company went forward the division of labor was that Tiltman designed the airplanes and Norway did about everything else – hiring staff, finding investors, dealing with suppliers, locating quarters, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

The firm struggled at the edge of disaster until they produced the Courier, a single engined "airliner" that outperformed all competition by virtue of its retractable undercarriage (not a first for Britain, but unique in that era). In fact, the author says that their design was reviewed by the designer of either the Spitfire or the Hurricane (Reg Mitchell and Sydney Camm, respectively - and he coyly refuses to say which) who advised that they omit the retractable gear. Some fast talking was needed to get the investors to ignore this advice, which would have left them as a no-name company with a me-too product. Right there, Nevil Shute Norway saved the company.

The Courier was enough of a success to lead to development of a twin-engined variant, the Envoy.

The Envoy was "militarized" to produce the Airspeed Oxford (at left), a multi-engine trainer that produced most of the bomber and transport crews who fought for the British Commonwealth in World War II. It was ordered and built in the thousands.

And there, perhaps, is the reason for Nevil Shute Norway's departure from the firm he had founded and nurtured. It had all become too big and too routine. He was jaded; as he put it, he was a "starter", not a "runner." In addition, he had begun to achieve some fairly notable success as a novelist. His books of fiction, written "on the back of the clock," were selling well and the motion picture studios were taking an interest. So in early 1938 he resigned as Managing Director of Airspeed, Ltd. His company would go on to considerable success without him and he would have his own success along a new pathway.

"An uneventful journey is a good journey for the technician."

Here, this autobiography ends. It does not describe the author's service as a Royal Naval Reserve officer in World War II, nor his emigration to Australia, nor his subsequent successful literary career. The original subtitle of this volume (1954 edition) was "The Autobiography of an Engineer", and as the book closes, that chapter of his life was ended.

Nevil Shute Norway died in January 1960 at the age of 60. He's left us with a remarkable memoir of a golden time in aviation history.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Somewhere, Mr. Sikorsky is Smiling

Back in January, in this post, I described an interesting visit to the Sikorsky Aircraft plant in Stratford, CT - including a discussion of the X-2 Technology demonstrator.

This experimental aircraft, equipped with coaxial rotors, a pusher prop and fly-by-wire controls, is designed to achieve 250 knots. As with most technology demonstrators, it's cobbled together with bits from old programs but it seems to be performing to expectations.

Last week (as recounted here) the aircraft surpassed the standing record speed for helicopters by achieving 225 knots in level flight. The new record is, for the time being unofficial, as all of the FAI protocols were not applied.

I suspect that Sikorsky will do a formal record run once the speed envelope is opened up to 250 knots.

So somewhere, Mr. Sikorsky is smiling. And, meanwhile, could someone explain to me again the rationale for the V-22 Osprey?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

IFR Advantage

One advantage of having an instrument rating is that you get to fly on days when you can enjoy a closer relationship with the layers. This is over eastern Maryland at 7,000 feet MSL, about a half hour out yesterday morning: