Saturday, April 30, 2011

We're Not in Kansas Any More

At about 7:00 pm on last Wednesday I received an e-mail from my son that said: "Visually confirmed tornados headed NE toward Andrews. Looks like KVKX is in the path." I was in Connecticut and N631S was tied down at KBDR so my exposure was limited to the car that was parked in the hangar.

It turns out that the tornado in question, while just a pup in comparison with the monsters that decimated parts of Alabama this past week, was nevertheless a significant and damaging event. The storm called on KVKX, paying it just enough attention to damage a number of aircraft, then moved on to Andrews AFB. (UPDATE: There was a YouTube video here, giving a fine impression of the power of the tornado, but it's been taken down by the originator.)

I've fetched out some of the historic NEXRAD data for the time period and it certainly looks like a concentrated dose of nasty weather (click to animate):

When I arrived at VKX last evening after a flight down from KBDR I got a look at some of the aftermath. It's heartbreaking to see this sort of damage to aircraft.

N7508G is a 1970 Cessna 172K. I spoke with one of its owners who told me that the wing spar is bent and several floor stringers are deformed. The structural damage probably means that the airplane will be a write-off.

N86121 is a 1969 Skymaster owned by David Wartofsky (who also owns and operates KVKX). David may get to use his airplane again after the left wing is replaced and some damage to the lower vertical stabilizers is repaired.

As a Skylane lover, this one hurts. N3423R is a 1968 182L that clearly will fly no more. The storm picked this airplane up and smashed it to the ground. The prop is bent, the fuselage is twisted and nose gear collapsed and the wings bent. There's almost no part that's undamaged! The power needed to do that to a machine weighing in the neighborhood of a ton is awesome.

Here in the northeast/mid-Atlantic we don't usually think about tornadoes as a high-probability event. Tornadoes are things that happen in Kansas! But this is the second one at KVKX in three years. Let's hope we're not seeing the beginnings of a pattern.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (vii)

For the last couple of years I've wound up the series of posts on the Annual Inspection with a look at the final invoice. You can look back at "what it cost and why" for 2010 and for 2009. Now, here's a rundown on 2011.

This year was a little more expensive than either of the past two, at a "gross" cost of $6,858.69. Because I pre-paid Three Wing for the Flat-Rate portion of the inspection I received a discount of $722.50. So my net cost for N631S's Annual was $6,273.36. By comparison the last two years have been in the neighborhood of $5,000.

The cost of the Flat-Rate annual (discounted), additional inspections and AD research totaled $1,057.90. (Without the discount it would have been $1,780.40.) The total for items that might be viewed as "normal maintenance" was $1,331.19. That includes changing the oil, timing the magnetos, servicing the tires, wheels and battery, cleaning or replacing assorted screens and filters, dressing the prop and servicing the spark plugs.

The spark plug item included $197.88 for six new Champion RHB32E massive-electrode plugs in the upper positions. The "screens and filters" work covers six items and consumed 3.5 hours of labor ($301 worth) and $73.86 in parts; a total of $374.86.

So inspections and maintenance set me back $2,389.09, Now we can talk about actually fixing things.

In order of descending cost, the items revealed by the inspection (or "squawked" by me) that required repair were:

  • $481.90 to install a servicable Pointer 3000 121.5 MHz ELT, replacing the one damaged by battery corrosion.
  • $451.05 to install a new Zeftronics R15V00 Rev A alternator controller.
  • $409.83 to replace the chafed right main gear brake line.
  • $388.46 to replace an assortment of deteriorated cowling shock mounts and Cleco fasteners.
  • $363.99 to replace the broken left main gear strut fairing.
  • $316.25 to apply CorrosionX to the wing, aft fuselage and empennage interiors.
  • $210.65 to replace a failed CHT probe.
  • $209.70 to replace the left main gear brake disk that was worn below serviceable limits.
Those repair items add up to $2,831.83. That include 13.9 hours of labor ($1,195.40 worth), the balance being for parts and shipping.

Additional to the foregoing there were $915.27 worth of minor repair items. You know the sort, "stop drilled crack"; "dressed prop blades"; "cleared cable chafe"; "replaced bolt". At a couple of tenths of an hour each they add up.

The total of Inspections & Maintenance ($2,389.09) plus Significant Repair Items ($2,831.83) plus Minor Repair Items ($915.27) added up to $6,136.19. Add in an Airport Use Fee of $137.17 and you get to the full net cost of $6,273.36.

As I've noted in the past, no one ever suggested that aviation was an inexpensive pastime. But I reflected this weekend, as I flew (as described in this post) from Connecticut to the DC area and back, that dealing with the vagaries of nature and ATC are quite enough to occupy the mind. I don't care to worry about the condition of the machine and so I regard maintenance dollars, thoughtfully expended, as a good investment.

I'd like to conclude with a few words of appreciation for the excellent fellow I've referred to as "Mike the IA". This year's Annual is the third one that Mike Gavaghan has done for me and N631S. Working with him has been a consistent pleasure. He is rigorous and knowledgeable, creative and pragmatic. Mike has always been patient with my occasionally naive questions and maintains his good nature despite my daily 0730 visits. He makes sure that I'm safe but is always conscious of the costs of work on aircraft and is willing to adopt lower-cost approaches when they're safe and legal.

The fact is that I will, and in fact do, trust my life to Mike. I recommend Mike and the rest of the great maintenance crew at Three Wing Flying Services to anyone who'll listen and I hope to work with him again next year.

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.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (vi)

The 2011 Annual Inspection of N631S is history. Mike the IA finished all the work and had the airplane closed up last Tuesday morning. The CorrosionX treatment was completed and the replacement ELT and new voltage regulator were installed.

I discussed the ELT replacement a couple of posts ago. It took Mike a couple of hours to adapt the baseplate from the new Pointer ELT to the installed bracket from the old unit. He also needed to re-route some cabling to reach the connector locations on the new unit. But the result looks good and didn't cost nearly what the installation of a new 406 MHz unit would have.
The replacement voltage regulator is a Zeftronics R15V00(Rev A) solid state unit with an integral over-voltage sensor. The existing (and occasionally troublesome) over-voltage sensor was removed. The old voltage regulator was original equipment.

Wednesday morning I returned all of the loose items to the aircraft and during the day the line crew at Three Wing washed it. Then Thursday morning I took it up for a brief (0.4 hour) test flight. There was only one squawk - when I did my pre-flight I found that one of the landing lights was not illuminating. I wasn't about to tell Mike to pull the cowling off again just for that; I'll replace it at the next oil change.

The new voltage regulator controlled the bus voltage at about 13.2v with all of the night operations "stuff" turned on, where the old one was giving me barely more than 12v. I expect this will put an end to the weak-battery disease that has plagued N631S over the last couple of winters.

With a successful return-to-service test flight completed, N631S and I were all set for a Friday afternoon flight back to the DC area...which is fodder for another post.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More About Sleep

Driving to work this morning and listening to NPR, who do I hear but our friend Don Brown (of Get the Flick fame) being interviewed in a story about the controller fatigue issue.

The story is pretty well done and Don's take on the matter is cogent. Check it out!

Monday, April 18, 2011

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

This morning I received an e-mail from a veteran air traffic controller whose name I will not use here. I'd like to share his remarks with you:
Hello Frank,

I might be venting here a bit, but after many years of Air Traffic with the FAA, and a hitch as a Controller in the military, I think I can speak on behalf of a lot of controllers. My first thought is it makes me angry, all the negative press for a group that takes a beating day in and day out, where 95% of the general public has no clue what we do.

Does the FAA really think 9 hours between shifts is the answer? What frustrates me more than I can tell you is the NTSB after the Lexington accident said the shift work is a serious issue. Is there a reason everybody has to rotate shifts? Our facility has enough people that love to work either days or nights so this would not be an issue (sleeping at work), but the FAA refuses to let us do this. Myself, I am a night owl. I have always struggled with the morning shifts, getting off at 9pm, only to be back in at 5am. Does an extra hour help, hell no. Let me work nights, and let the folks who are early risers cover the morning shifts. We literally have enough folks to do this, but can't.

Does the FAA really think 9 hours is the fix to a controller who has a family that needs mom or dad, husband or wife, to be that, get rest, eat, sleep, s___, shower and be on his or her game? Instead of people who have never put on a headset, strapped in to pry airplanes apart making this decision, how about talking to the "average Joe" and this is solved. I truly love what I do. I truly hate my schedule. I have logged more than 100 hours of overtime this year already, and the work schedule makes life outside of work a disaster.

I can't talk to the news folks as that would get me fired, but the more sensible voices out there that know what we do, the better. I know you can't, and would not ask you to take this cause up, but the more educated voices the better. Let us solve this, and everyone is better....everyone. The system is already the safest in the world, but a flaw has been exposed, and if politicians are left to make the choices, ignoring the obvious fixes, risk that should and could be eliminated, won't.


The frustration in that message is palpable. I don't pretend to know whether the suggestions of my correspondent have merit but I do know that current procedures aren't working and the extension of the break between controller shifts from eight hours to nine seems like an inadequate measure. Let us hope that the NTSB can provoke some fundamental rethinking around these issues.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (v)

Mike the IA had found a problem with the elevator trim not functioning through its full travel. The trim tab is supposed to deflect 15º in the nose-up direction and it was only reaching 5º. Yesterday morning he told me he'd get into it to diagnose the cause. On investigation, he found that the trim actuator would only retract partially and as a result would not go all the way to the nose-up stop. He thought at first that it might be bent, a genuinely unpleasant prospect since the cost of a new actuator is about $2,000. So Mike pulled the actuator drive screw to confirm why it was bad and to see if there was anything to be done about it.

Not to keep you in suspense, Mike found that the shaft of the actuator was rusted (left) which kept the actuator from turning in the housing.

Mike was able to clean off the rust and reassembled everything. The trim control now functions as it's supposed to and I'm assured that it should be good for a lot more time. All this at the cost of 3 or 4 of Mike's hours. Compared to the alternative, that's a heck of a bargain!

In other news, it looks definite that we're going to install the Pointer 121.5 MHz ELT (discussed yesterday). The bracket modification is estimated to be a 2 to 3 hour job. Another bargain, compared with the alternative of installing a 406 MHz unit.

Unfortunately, as a result of the late start and the time consumed by the ELT issue and the trim actuator issue, it looks like N631S will not be ready for the weekend. I'd rather have things done right than done quick, of course, but it'll be one more weekend on the train.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (iv)

Mike the IA has finished inspecting N631S and there are a couple more non-trivial items to mention. For one, the right brake line managed to get itself badly chafed and will have to be replaced. The right main gear tire is significantly worn but we decided that it's still serviceable so it will be reinstalled and I'll watch it. The most interesting
item involves the Emergency Location Transmitter (ELT).

I've touched on ELT's in earlier posts on this blog, here and here and here. In brief, the world is slowly migrating to 406 MHz ELT's but for the time being the old 121.5 MHz units are compliant with regulations. Based on the kind of flying N631S and I do I've felt no urgency to make the change - at a cost of about $2,000. Now I've needed to revisit the subject.

At left are the mortal remains of N631S's dead 121.5 MHz ELT. The battery pack (that's the gray cardboard box) has failed and leaked corrosive material out into the housing of the ELT. The white powder in the ELT case is the product of corrosion, and you can see the hole in the plate at the bottom of the battery space that goes into the circuitry compartment. This ELT is, in a word, toast.

The first suggestion was that I ought to acquire a 406 MHz ELT as a replacement. They run about a grand and you can expect to spend another grand getting it installed. And, as I said, I am not highly motivated to make this change if I can avoid it. And I can.

I asked Jared, Three Wing's Avionics Manager, if he had any serviceable 121.5 MHz ELT's that had been removed from aircraft as a result of installing 406 MHz units. Yes, it turns out that he does.

Jared has a nice Pointer ELT Model 3000-11 unit (left) that he can let me have for a very reasonable price. Getting it installed will require a little bracket creativity but it will serve the need quite nicely without breaking the bank. Mike the IA is going to check around a bit to see if a used unit of the same make and mark as the old one can be found, as that would be a "drop in" replacement. But I'm not optimistic about that as the unit is a very old design. I believe it came with the airplane 34 years ago. So I'm guessing that I'll wind up with the Pointer unit in N631S.

And finally, in the ongoing quest to improve the performance of N631S's electrical charging system, we are going to replace the old voltage regulator (which seems not to be regulating so very well these days) with a new unit from Zeftronics.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (iii)

Something interesting has come up in the course of N631S's annual inspection. It emerged when Mike the IA turned to inspecting the main landing gear and really got down on the deck to look at the undersides of the gear leg fairings. When he looked at the left one here's what he found:
What you're seeing at left is a piece of the underside of the aluminum fairing missing. The open area is about 3" by 4". The white rod is the high-strength steel main gear leg and the stainless steel tube is the left brake actuation line. (And yes, that's the top of the photographers hat intruding into the frame from the left.) Amazingly, the fact that this chunk of airplane had gone adrift was totally invisible from above.

We're not going to return the airplane to service with the fairing in this condition. A new fairing will be ordered today. If we can get it in time, it can be installed in "green" condition (i.e., unpainted) to support getting N631S back on the flight line for a trip to the DC area on Friday. It's not a big deal to take the fairing off again for painting a week or two down the road.

The lesson learned here for me is that I need to get down on the ground periodically to closely examine the underside of N631S including all of its appendages. Perhaps that ritual needs to be added to my SOP for oil changes.

Other than the gear leg fairing, nothing of real significance has emerged. Four of the six upper spark plugs were beyond serviceable limits and the other two were marginal so we'll replace all six with the two passable plugs going into the toolbox for use if a plug fails on the road. These are massive-electrode plugs; the lower ones are fine-wire plugs and they're doing fine.

Finally, the portable O2 bottle has survived hydrostatic testing and can be recharged and put back in the airplane. In case you were wondering, testing an oxygen bottle costs $26.50.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (ii)

Mike the IA continues to examine N631S with an appropriately jaundiced eye. He's been concentrating his attention forward of the firewall and as of this morning nothing major has been found amiss. A couple of the shock mounts for the lower cowl are deteriorated and will need replacement and there are the normal assortment of cable chafes to be remedied.

I told Mike that I'd like to take the opportunity, while the airplane is "opened up" to treat the interior of the wings and the tail-cone with CorrosionX. This is a corrosion inhibition treatment that is sprayed into the interior of the structure as a finely divided aerosol. It coats the untreated aluminum interior and keeps corrosion from gaining a foothold.

N631S lived in the midwest, far from salt water, from 1977 until 2004. When I moved the airplane to the maritime environment of the East Coast in September of '04, I knew that it was important to take measures to prevent corrosion. I had CorrosionX applied at that time and repeated the treatment in the fall of 2006 and 2008. The 2010 treatment was deferred to the present to avoid the cost and inconvenience of opening up the airplane an additional time. Henceforth, CorrosionX will be applied at alternate annual inspections.

After getting out of Mike's way so he could get on with the job, I drove over to the Stuart L. White Co. in Milford, CT. They're primarily a fire protection equipment company but they have the capability to hydrostatically test N631S's portable oxygen cylinder. (It looks a lot like the one at left.)

Steel O2 cylinders are supposed to be tested every five years and this one is overdue. The folks at Stuart L. White will empty the cylinder, remove the valve, visually inspect it inside and out, fill it with water and pressurize it to 5,000 psig. Assuming that it lives, they'll then dry it out, replace the valve, and return it to me empty but duly marked as good-to-go 'til 2016. I'll then need to get the cylinder refilled at an industrial gas supplier.

I rarely make use of the oxygen bottle in the airplane but it's nice to know that it's available and it may as well be in compliance with the regs.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2011 Annual Inspection (i)

The folks at Three Wing Flying Services got started on N631S's annual inspection yesterday, a day late. Mike the IA did the engine runs, uncowled the airplane, dropped the old oil and checked the cylinder compressions as instructed by TCM Service Bulletin SB03-3.

One cylinder, #2, was not very tight. It tested at 48/80 psi on a day when the minimum acceptable value based on the standard orifice was 46/80. I've gone to the logs and dug out the compression values at each annual inspection since 2007 (charted below).

You can see that #2 has always been the "weak sister" among the cylinders. Since the result has to be considered in relation to the minimum acceptance value and that in turn varies with atmospheric conditions, I made another chart (below) that shows the difference between the test result for each cylinder and the applicable minimum value.

It's also clear that #4 experienced a considerable drop this year. But that's just one data point so we'll simply note the result and see what next year's annual brings.

Over the four years since the 2007 annual, N631S's engine has accumulated a bit over 500 hours. It's currently at about 1,340 hours since overhaul. That's really pretty good for a Continental engine, as they are noted for needing a "mid-life top overhaul".

Mike will inspect the cylinders using a borescope, and assuming he doesn't see anything unusual no action is needed. But I'll be watching for any evidence of further deterioration of the #2 cylinder. The engine still does not consume any significant amount of oil between changes so if oil consumption goes up the #2 cylinder will be the likely suspect.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Meanwhile, From the Train...

Well, it's Monday morning and I'm posting this from AMTRAK's Train 172 headed north just outside of Philadelphia. Last Friday's rainy weather coupled with a ferocious trough that brought arctic air and cold temperatures aloft meant that N631S had to spend the weekend in Connecticut.

Last week was generally cool in the northeast. One small benefit of this was to delay the peaking of the cherry blossoms in DC until I could get there. Yesterday the weather was still a bit cool and breezy but pleasant enough in the sunshine.

It's become a delightful annual ritual for us to go into the District during the peak period of the blossoms and join the throng for a walk around the Tidal Basin and past Mr. Jefferson's memorial; then a pleasant brunch at Olde Ebbitt Grill.

And as I ride the rails northward, the good folks at Three Wing Flying Services have presumably collected N631S from its tie-down and brought it into the maintenance hangar to commence this year's Annual Inspection. I will stop off after work this evening to collect all of the loose bits (flashlights and pubs and portable electronics and etc.) to get them out of the way. And over the next few days I'll be blogging about the progress of the inspection.

I'm hoping to get the airplane back by 4/14, thus having only one weekend lost to the maintenance period. Of course that depends on what turns up when we open up the airplane.