Thursday, February 17, 2011

Under the Weather

Both of us; me and N631S, actually. For me it's been a couple of days of "flu-like symptoms" (much better now, thanks for asking). For the airplane, it's been a bit of an electrical problem.

Last Friday the nice folks at Three Wing Flying Services at KBDR hooked up the pre-heater in a timely manner and when I got to the airplane everything was warm and set to start. On reflection, perhaps the rate at which the starter turned the prop was a bit anemic but the TCM O-470U engine always wants to run so we were soon on our way toward home in the DC area.

The flight was long (2.8 hours) but uneventful. The very strong headwinds from the west-southwest caused a ground-speed penalty but no other problems. ATC did its usual sterling job and the landing at KVKX was routine. I taxied to the gas pumps and shut down.

After topping off the tanks, I hopped back in to taxi around to the hangar and was quite surprised when the engine would not start. After two attempts during which the starter couldn't get the engine over top dead-center I checked the voltmeter. It said 9.7. That isn't enough. Fortunately there was another pilot on the field (often on Friday evening I'm the only one there) and he helped me to pull N631S clear of the gas pumps and back onto the adjacent grass.

Sunday morning I returned to KVKX and in about 15 minutes found someone with a jumper cable having the appropriate Cessna-style connector; he was also happy to help me get the airplane started. After fully briefing what we were about to do (propellers are DANGEROUS!), we hooked up the airplane via the external power connector to the car and got the engine started. My friend disconnected the cable and I taxied to the hangar and shut down. First problem solved.

Then I drove the short distance to Hyde Field (W32), to see if Dan Fragassi of Clinton Aero Maintenance was in his shop - he seems to nearly always be there. (Regular visitors here may recall having been introduced (in this post) to Dan back in July of last year when he fixed a brake problem on N631S. I recommend him highly.)

He was there, I described for him the symptoms, and he said he'd get over to KVKX by Tuesday to have a look. So I went home and came down with the flu.

Tuesday Dan called to tell me that it appeared to be time for a new alternator. He had tightened the alternator belt, bypassed the voltage regulator and still got just 13 volts from unit - not the 14.3 to 14.5 that would be normal. The output was sufficient to operate the equipment but not enough to push electrons back into the battery, especially given the losses due to the rather long cable run from the engine compartment back to the battery box aft of the luggage compartment.

I told Dan to go ahead and get N631S a rebuilt alternator (he says about $315.00 plus labor). He expects to have it installed by Saturday, so if weather allows, a Monday morning flight to Connecticut can be in the cards.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: "In My Sights: The Memoir of a P-40 Ace" by James B. Morehead

A while ago I read the memoir of another WWII aviator, a man widely regarded as one of the great heroic pilots of that war. He is indisputably a superb pilot, a ferocious warrior and a hero. I'm glad to have read his story, but I came away from his book unsettled.

My problem with that book was that the prose is too good. Too polished, too artful, too cool. The stories are true without any doubt but the voice in which they're told seems too much that of the skilled co-author (who the cover says the book was written "with") and not enough the voice of the man who put his life on the line in those war-torn skies.

Out of immense respect, I refrained from writing a review that would have been less than positive. I have no such problem with Col. Jim Morehead's "In My Sights."

The author grew up the hard way on a depression-era Oklahoma farm and escaped to the Army Air Corps' Air Cadet program. He was commissioned in 1940 and assigned to fly fighters - specifically the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Because he was recovering from injuries sustained in an accident, he missed his unit's transfer to the Philippines - and hence probable capture and likely death. Instead, he wound up flying his P-40 with the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) on Java in the Dutch East Indies.

In the darkest days of the Pacific war, early 1942, the ragtag 17th fought with unbelievable bravery to slow the Japanese juggernaut. They bought time needed to organize the defense of Australia, and for many of Jim's buddies the price was their lives.

"Whereas youth is normally optimistic about fate, forever feeling that if bad things happen, they will never happen to me, now there was a reversal. Unlike any combat circumstance I was ever exposed to, it switched. The attitude changed to: "I am a goner, the next one lost will be me, I know it will be me." Many times I heard "We're just flying tow targets. We are all on suicide missions!" Such conclusions were only logical. Anyone's arithmetic can figure out how many missions you are likely to last if ten go out and only five come back. Where an alert shack normally is boisterous with laughter and wisecracks, silent anxiety was the mood in those days."

But while Jim Morehead did not love or trust the P-40's that took him in harm's way, he did have a sense the airplane's merits:

"Bad as the P-40 ... and the P-39 were, through God's deliverence they were planes a greenhorn could survive in if he was extremely alert and made the proper moves in time."
Through luck and native talent and a desperate understanding of how to exploit the obsolescent Curtiss fighter's few virtues, Jim Morehead survived long enough to build skill and experience.

The war in the Pacific was crueler than the war in Europe, with quarter neither asked nor given. It does not require too close a reading to discern that Jim Morehead's hatred for the Japanese enemy burned with a white-hot fury, and that more than a half-century later the embers of that fury still emit an angry glow:

"I had seen the movie The Rape of China just before Pearl Harbor. I had seen, read of, and heard of the details of Pearl Harbor. We heard the firsthand accounts of the murderous Japanese forces from our personal friends who had been exposed to them.

I was eager to employ my own skills against the brutal forces who conducted themselves like animals."

The young P-40 pilots did their best to survive and learn. Their efforts were not enough to keep the Japanese from taking Java, and the survivors retreated to Australia. But that was their last retreat. The "end of the beginning" may have come on 25 April 1942 when the author, leading a flight of four veteran P-40 pilots, participated in a pivotal air action against a force of Japanese fighters and bombers. His description of the battle is gripping and his summary of the result is satisfying:

"It seems we shot down eight bombers and three fighters. ... This seems to have been the first smashing victory over the Japanese air forces and the Zero, and over the Japanese armed forces. It demonstrated that the awe was not so awesome - that they could be defeated even by a bunch of gringo greenhorns.

For my action I received a Distinguished Service Cross, the second such medal awarded (to me)."

This action, widely reported in the press back home, was soon followed by the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. The Japanese Empire had reached its high-water mark. Its focus shifted away from Australia to the Solomon Islands and after Guadalcanal, the long bloody retrenchment began.

After a time spent training newly arrived pilots to survive in combat in the Pacific, Jim Morehead was sent back home for a well-earned respite:

"I was placed on thirty days leave after returning from the Southwest Pacific theater. I returned home the local hero as a result of earning two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the personal commendation of General Marshall, and the attention of the national networks and newspapers. What was more interesting was that I seemed to be a hero among the female population."

After his leave was up, Morehead (now a Major) became a squadron commander in a state-side replacement training group. And he met a new love - the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. As skeptical as he was of the Curtiss P-40, he was equally enthusiastic about the big Lockheed twin.

"Other pilots who flew P-51's felt the P-51 was superior. ... I have several hundred hours in a P-51, and I would choose to fly a P-38 in a dogfight between the two, any day."

After a year on the home front, he went to Europe to command a P-38 squadron in Foggia, Italy. Later, he became Group Operations Officer. He and his compatriots flew in intensive combat against the Luftwaffe and he recounts many stories of valor and of tragedy. The part of the book covering the author's time in the European Theater is a tale well told, yet may feel anti-climactic when compared with the time in Java.

After the war, the author made the transition to jet fighters. He tells of flying P-80's and F-86's and of combat missions in Korea in F-84's.

Col. Jim Morehead retired from the U.S. Air Force in the 1960's and embarked on a successful career in real estate development. Today, at 94 years of age, he resides in Petaluma, CA. The city recently proclaimed February 2nd, 2011 as "Col. James B. Morehead Day."

Update: Col. James B. Morehead has Gone West, on 11 March 2012 at age 95.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It's Always Something

The weather was promising for a flight this morning from Potomac Airfield (KVKX) back to Bridgeport (KBDR). Cold, but promising. So, having filed my IFR flight plan last evening, I got up fairly early and headed over to the airport.

When I arrived (about 0645 local time) the air temperature was 29F. The field was quiet; I had the place to myself. I drove around the hangar row to N631S's home and dug out the keys. Then I discovered that the key wouldn't go into the lock. The lock, it seemed, was frozen.

The hangar door is secured with a long-hasp Master padlock and during the damp weekend some moisture had gotten into the body of the lock. An awkward situation! I needed a way to apply heat to the lock. (As I'm a non-smoker, I didn't have either matches or a lighter. Where's Dad's Zippo when you need it?)

I walked down to the FBO office to seek inspiration and wandered over to the storage closet where the cleaning supplies are kept. Hmm...vacuum cleaner. Flexible hose. Hose can convey heat but where to get heat? Aha! Car exhaust! So I carried the vacuum cleaner hose back to the hangar, put one end over the outlet of the car's exhaust pipe and started the engine. A few minutes of holding the open end of the hose directly under the frozen lock did the deed. A bit of water dripped out and the key slid into place and turned. N631S was free!

The subsequent flight was uneventful and quick, with a tailwind of about 15 knots. I followed the old rule, "Fly fast in a headwind, slow in a tailwind." At 7,000 feet the wide-open throttle gave me 21 inches of manifold pressure and I pulled the RPM down to 2,150 and leaned the fuel flow to 9.6 GPH. I had about 145 knots ground speed yielding more than 15 nautical miles per gallon (17.3 statute MPG).

At left, a Cathay Boeing 777, just off KJFK Runway 31L and crossing ahead of me and 1,000 feet below. Traffic of that size is easy to spot!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Recommended Reading

May I beg your indulgence as I suggest a couple of recent essays that I've found thought provoking?

First, appearing at the Slate on-line magazine web site, is an article by the novelist Neal Stephenson, noted for such works as Cryptonomicon (marvelous!) and Anathem (merely quite good).

The piece, Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation, explores the phenomena of path dependence and lock-in as they affect technological progress.

Path dependence refers to the way in which certain environmental factors, each in itself perhaps improbable, are nonetheless essential for a technology to have evolved to its present state. The phenomenon of lock-in is related. It refers to historical factors acting to impose rigid constraints on current implementations of a technology. One familiar illustration is the thesis that purports to show how the modern standard railroad gage is derived from the track width of Roman chariot wheels.

Stephenson's essay will give you a new way to think about space transportation issues, and a new perspective on the evolutionary potential of any incumbent technology. (For example, how have path dependence and lock-in affected transport-category aircraft?) I commend it to you. And after you've read it, you probably ought to read The Fountains of Paradise by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke for a counterpoint.

The second essay I'd like to recommend appears as a guest post at Jim Fallows' blog. It's called Three Dimensional Visionaries and is written by Dr. Bruce J. Holmes, a retired NASA strategist (focused on the first "A", aeronautics) and current advocate for advancing aeronautical technologies.

In the piece, Dr. Holmes looks as far back as the time of Thomas Jefferson to discern the role of our national administrations in formulating strategic visions for what he calls the "mobility mandate" in our country. He notes that some administrations have been visionary while others have been caretakers - and he makes a passionate case for the need to return to visionary thinking. A part of his argument refers to the need to break out of the present state of technical path dependence and lock-in by empowering industry to exploit paradigm-shifting technologies.

Bruce Holmes' essay is a fine complement to Neal Stephenson's. Together they help to define an aspect of our problem and to illuminate a possible way forward.

Please read them both.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Break in the Weather

January was thoroughly unpleasant, and unproductive from an aviation viewpoint. N631S and I flew from the DC area to Connecticut on 3 January and then the airplane stayed parked for four weeks. One of the consequences of this hiatus was that my IFR currency lapsed. I no longer could claim the required six instrument approaches in the preceding six months. But with the weather looking good for this Friday (4 February) I needed to remedy the situation.
As mentioned in this post, the friendly folks at Volo Aviation had pulled N631S in out of the storm for the most recent weather event. I asked Andrew Post, a great young CFII at Three Wing Flying Services, to meet me there for an evening flight for which I had three objectives. First and foremost, to get me current so I could fly IFR legally the next day. Next, to shake off some of the cobwebs that would have accumulated on my flying during a four week layoff. And finally, to assure myself that N631S had come through the down period none the worse for wear.

With the cooperation of New York Approach we flew the RNAV 36 at Oxford (KOXC) and the RNAV 29 back at KBDR to a full stop. Mission accomplished in 0.8 hour. I was a little ragged on the first approach but the second was better. N631S performed superbly. Andrew was a delight to fly with and I expect I'll do so again. On landing we taxied to the Three Wing ramp and the line staff plugged in the Tanis heater to keep N631S warm overnight.

There was dominating high-pressure, and clear skies over most of the northeast yesterday so I anticipated an easy flight but a long one. The winds opposing the westbound parts of the flight would be impressive. FltPlan.com was telling me to expect 2:42 en route. That proved to be almost exactly correct.

The graphic below, from the FlightAware.com site, traces speed and altitude for the flight. You can see that during climb (at the left of the figure) speed over the ground drops to about 40 knots. N631S and I were climbing at an indicated airspeed of 90 knots. For much of the flight the ground speed hovered around 100 knots while true airspeed was about 140 knots.

But the flight, while long, was enjoyable. Flight visibility was excellent. At one point, soon after crossing the Hudson, I looked off to the south and could see the runways at Teterboro (KTEB) and Newark (KEWR) clearly. I asked the Garmin GNS-530 how far away KEWR was and it said 27.5 nautical miles. Soon (around 2130Z) a very nice sunset presented itself over Pennsylvania. (The bright spot on the ground in the picture above left is a ski area southwest of Allentown.) Darkness flowed over the landscape and the lights on the ground provided cheery company.

N631S and I were handed off by New York to Allentown and then to Harrisburg Approach and finally to Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT). Usually Harrisburg asks me to descend to 6,000 feet but in this case I was still at 8,000. The first Potomac controller issued the expected route change ("After Baltimore, direct Nottingham, thence direct to destination") and soon after, the expected altitude change. But with a twist:

PCT: "Skylane 31 Sierra, descend and maintain 6,000."
Me: "31 Sierra, down to six."
PCT: "Let's make it pilot's discretion descend to 6,000."
Me: "OK, PD down to 6...I believe I'll stay at 8 for a while."

This was a bit different. The controller had told me that he'd like me to descend to 6,000 feet but was leaving the timing of that descent up to me. I knew that they wanted me at 6,000 feet over Baltimore but the situation was ambiguous. When in doubt, request clarification:

Me: "Approach, Skylane 31 Sierra, when do you need me at 6?"
PCT: "31 Sierra, tell you what, cross 10 miles northwest of Baltimore at 6,000."
Me: "OK, 31 Sierra will cross 10 northwest of Baltimore at 6."

Woo-hoo! A crossing restriction! That was the first one of those I'd gotten in the 900 odd hours flown since getting my Instrument Rating. Just like the Big Guys!

Of course, if that restriction was issued to Cap'n Dave and Fi-Fi (the Electric Jet), he'd just punch a few buttons on his FMS and the computers would handle everything. I, however, needed to figure out when to start down to ensure I'd be at the specified altitude crossing the specified fix.

The GNS-530 has a vertical navigation (VNAV) function, but I don't normally use it and wasn't sure that it could deal with a descent over distance that involves a change in ground-speed. And this wasn't the time to pull out the manual.

My customary procedure for en route descents is to pitch the airplane down and accelerate to the top of the green arc (for the Skylane, 142 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS)). Soon thereafter, the descent rate settles down to about 500 feet per minute. I needed to lose 2,000 feet of altitude so that would take four minutes. The question was, how many miles would I cover in those four minutes?

The top of the green arc was about 15 knots faster than my current indicated airspeed, and the GNS-530 said that my ground-speed was 128 knots. So in the descent, my ground-speed ought to rise to about 143 knots. That's about 2-1/3 nautical miles per minute. Four minutes would eat up a bit over nine miles. A glance at the GPS display told me I was 35 miles from Baltimore. So, I could motor on at 8,000 until I was 20 miles out, then initiate the descent and level off at 6,000 feet just prior to the 10 mile mark.

Well I wasn't about to cut it that close. I waited until I was 25 miles out and called approach:

Me: "Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra out of 8 for 6."
PCT: "31 Sierra, roger."

The descent scenario played out exactly as expected. N631S and I leveled off at 6,000 feet just about 16 miles from BAL. Simple but satisfying.

To provide a nice ending for the evening, my friend Sarah was my final controller as I approached KVKX. I introduced you to Sarah in the post describing my recent visit to PCT. We exchanged pleasantries (without cluttering up the frequency) and I do not think I embarrassed myself. And, by the way, the lady gives good vectors!

The landing was uneventful, and occurred well before the arrival of today's rain event (returns from which are visible to the south in the FlightAware.com image above). As I type this N631S is snug in the hangar at Potomac Airfield. The break in the winter weather has been most welcome; it was really good to get into the air again.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Nice Surprise

Last evening after work I went over to KBDR to check on N631S and to see what would be needed to liberate the airplane from the aftermath of the recent winter weather. It was rather a shock to walk onto the apron and find that the airplane was gone. As in, not where I left it. Gee, it was there last Friday...

I thought first that perhaps the folks at Three Wing, from whom I rent the tiedown, had moved it to another location but it wasn't anywhere on their ramp, nor in either of their hangars. Then a thought occurred to me. I walked down the line to Volo Aviation's big hangar and looked in the window. There, snug and warm in a corner among the Gulfstreams and Lears, sat N631S!

Although I rent my tiedown from Three Wing, it is actually closer to Volo's ramp. When the storm was approaching they pulled the big iron inside and, according to their line person, "We couldn't see leaving you out there in the weather so we pulled yours in too."

Now, I am not a customer of Volo Aviation. They didn't need to trouble themselves about N631S. There's been no hint that they want to be compensated. They were just being good neighbors on the airport. So, herewith, a warm "Thanks, guys!" to the staff and management of Volo's KBDR operation. I owe ya' one.