Monday, April 25, 2011

There and Back Again

The weekend just past brought the opportunity to fly N631S from Connecticut to DC on Friday and back again on Monday, for the first time in weeks.

Friday afternoon's weather called for some serious thinking. The high pressure area in the northeast combined with a front approaching from south and west was pulling moisture into the mid-Atlantic states and the freezing levels were not all that high. The conditions forecast for eastern Pennsylvania were particularly menacing. Reading and Lancaster were anticipating light rain, overcast around 4,000 to 5,000 MSL and the freezing level in the same neighborhood. I decided that I really wanted to do the trip over the coastal route where the terrain would let me fly a lot lower if necessary.

Of course my expected route, regardless of what I filed, was the usual "vectors to SAX thence V249 SBJ V30 ETX V39 LRP V93 BAL Direct." Not what I needed. After I got N631S pre-flighted I told the controller working the Clearance Delivery frequency that I'd have to "unable" any clearance via SAX due to icing conditions over Pennsylvania and that I needed an alternate routing. He asked me what I wanted and I said, "Deer Park, Victor 16 to ENO, then Victor 268 to Nottingham, Direct," and he asked me to stand by.

About ten or twelve minutes passed and he came back, saying "I think I have something that'll work for you." What he had was: DPK V1 LEEAH V268 GOLDA BAL Direct. That was fine to get me on my way and across JFK to New Jersey. The southern end would need some tweaking but I could work that out with Atlantic City or Dover Approach. N631S and I launched and headed south toward the weather.

The flight provided another nice example of to characteristics of composite NEXRAD weather radar images. The screenshot at left shows N631S just northwest of Atlantic City and based on just that image you'd suspect that we were flying through steady light rain. Well, you'd be wrong.

At left, the view through the windscreen two minutes earlier. I'm sure that the rain existed, but there was none at 4,000 feet. It was all above the overcast and was at that point not reaching the lower altitudes. I'm a fervent fan of NEXRAD in the cockpit, but the information conveyed by the images has to be thoroughly understood and supplemented with input from the Mark I eyeball.

It was about then that I called Atlantic City Approach to "clean up" the southern portion of my clearance. I told them, "the clearance has me going to Baltimore thence direct to destination, VKX. I don't want to go to Baltimore and I don't think Potomac TRACON wants me there either. Can we do after LEEAH Victor 268 to GOLDA then direct Nottingham, direct?" That brought a couple minutes of silence. Then the controller said, "31 Sierra, I haven't forgotten you, I'm just trying to find it. Where IS VKX?" I told him, "It's Potomac Airfield, just a few miles southwest of Andrews."

That solved the problem. "OK," he said, "I can give you the Andrews routing. You can go direct Waterloo - that's ATR - from there. Then it'll be Victor 308, Nottingham, Direct."

I could deal with that. The "direct ATR" part resulted in a little longer "single-engine over water" leg than I'm happy with, but sometimes that's just part of the IFR world. I've got a lot of faith in that Continental O-470U that pulls N631S along the airways.

If you look at that clip from FlightAware.com, you'll see a fair amount of weather approaching VKX from the south and west. The weather depicted in the image is over an hour prior to my actual arrival and in fact, we entered moderate precipitation soon after reaching the DelMarVa peninsula and it kept up all the way to VKX. And, the temperature at 4,000 feet hovered around 34F. I was happy to be no higher.

Of course, the weather necessitated flying the RNAV Rwy 6 approach to VKX. The AWOS on the field does not offer ceiling information but nearby Andrews AFB was saying they had 1,200 overcast. The MDA for the approach is 680 MSL so I felt pretty confident. Well, descending through 1,200 feet, no joy. Through 1,000 feet, still in the schmoo. At 900 I was starting to think about the miss. But (hooray!) we broke out of the ragged ceiling at around 850 feet and continued to an uneventful landing. It was good to have N631S back home.

This morning's return trip was interesting in other ways. When I arrived at VKX there was some ground fog but it was dissipating nicely by the time I got N631S out of the hangar, pre-flighted and taxied around to the fuel island. (I had skipped fueling on Friday to avoid getting rained on.) After topping the tanks I went into the office to call PCT's Mt. Vernon sector for my clearance.

The controller was as friendly as ever, but there were some changes in the telephone procedure. When I said I could depart VFR he emphasized that I had to do so on a 180 heading (normally understood and unspoken) and he read to me the clearance I could "expect" and emphasized that I was "not cleared to anywhere" until I got the clearance from the controller after radar identification. I commented on the changes and he said they were "fine tuning procedures." I'm just guessing, but perhaps this has something to do with Mrs. Obama's Terrifying Go-Around.

After departure, the first part of the flight was unremarkable, save for the presence of an excellent tailwind that had us clocking 160-165 knots ground speed most of the way north in brilliant sunshine at 7,000 feet. But from just north of Atlantic City to around JFK the ceilings below were extremely low. I listened to a Gulfstream requesting the ILS into Miller AirPark in Tom's River (KMJX) and asking McGuire Approach to revise his outbound clearance, to Milwaukee, to originate at KMJX instead of KBLM. Presumably they were unable to get into Bellmar and diverted to Miller. Minutes later they were back up, on the miss and requesting another approach. As the McGuire controller vectored them around for another try he requested the flight conditions on their first approach. The pilot reported "We just picked up a light as we went missed at 200 feet. That's why we're trying it again."

Kennedy had a 400 foot ceiling and very limited visibility, but the north shore of the sound was better. As I was getting vectored for the ILS Rwy 6 approach, Bridgeport was reporting broken cloud layers at 2,300 and 3,800 feet with ample visibility, making the approach pretty much a formality.

With the help of the tailwind, the northbound flight had taken 1.9 hours. Friday's trip south was 2.6 hours so the round trip totaled a very efficient 4.5 hours.


Sarah said...

Hi Frank!

I saw you fly in Friday night but didn't get to actually work your flight...glad to see you're back in the air again, though! Your picture of southern NJ brought back fond memories; before moving to VA I used to instruct out of Hammonton (N81), just outside of ACY's Class C airspace.

As far as the change in picking up your clearance, I believe there may have been a misunderstanding last week with a flight out of one of the MD3 airports that raised some questions and they are working to find a way to clarify satellite departure procedures. If you're departing VFR, so far it seems that as long as you aim to depart the FRZ clear of Bravo airspace via the most direct route you should be fine.

Blue skies,

Frank Van Haste said...

Hi, Sarah!

That makes sense. VKX management made sure I understood that I was expected to get outta dodge on a 180 heading when I came aboard there, but I guess someone somewhere might not get the word.

Have fun with the TwinC...I hear it's a sweet airplane.