Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today at KBDR

After a totally uneventful flight this morning from the DC area to Connecticut, we found this classic gracing the ramp:
The aircraft is a Boeing B-17G named Yankee Lady. She is under the loving care of the Yankee Air Museum of Ypsilanti, MI and is spending a few days at KBDR where rides are available in exchange for a modest contribution.

Remember, the purpose of an airplane engine is to convert money into noise and a big radial does that better than anything else!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

It seems to me that in recent years the general consciousness of the purpose, the intent of the Memorial Day holiday has been improving. Less about picnics and parades and retail extravaganzas. More about remembrance and reflection. If my perception is accurate, then that's cause for satisfaction.

My friend, E.B. Misfit, has posted eloquently on the meaning of the day, and she says in part:

"From 1775 through today, men and women have gone to serve this nation in both times of war and peace. Many never lived to see their homes again. They did not ask if those conflicts were wise or not. Duty called and they went.

Many more, of course, did come home. Most hale and hearty, others suffering various injuries to their bodies, their brains and their souls. For these veterans, it is the duty of our nation to take care of them (and hang the expense)."

A small part of our duty is to maintain, as islands of tranquility and everlasting expressions of our gratitude, the final resting places of those who fell and remained on distant shores. One such place is the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

The cemetery is on the grounds of the former Fort McKinley which was recaptured on 17 February 1945 from Japanese forces by elements of the 11th Airborne Division. One of many to give the last full measure of devotion on that day was 21 year old TEC 4 Edmund J. Peters, Jr., 188th Glider Infantry Regiment. He rests beneath one of those crosses. Ed was my mother's younger brother, hence my uncle.

Each Memorial Day I raise a glass to Uncle Ed's memory and I reflect on my reasons to be grateful. First, of course, for the sacrifices of Ed Peters and all of his buddies and all those that have followed in their boot tracks. They each gave some or all of themselves so that we may continue to enjoy the fruits of freedom.

And then, also for the fact that looking at Ed's picture and recollecting his story makes Memorial Day personal for me.

It's been said death is not final so long as someone remembers. I hope that for every fallen hero we honor on this day at least one person takes on the responsibility of learning all that can be learned about their story and then makes certain that story will live on. Their gift to us is far too valuable to ever allow any of them to be forgotten.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Opfer müssen gebracht werden!"

The news was bad...as bad as it could be. And yet, not unexpected. We all knew what was likely and we all made a concerted effort to ignore the odds and to hope. And for those that believed, to pray. But deep, deep inside we weren't kidding ourselves. Nonetheless, Kyle Franklin's post on his Facebook page last evening was gut wrenching.

Most of you are aware of the accident in mid-March, when Kyle and Amanda Franklin - two of the very best airshow performers - were seriously injured in the crash of their Waco biplane after an engine failure. Kyle's injuries were serious; Amanda's were horrific. She suffered burn injuries of the most serious kind involving most of her skin area. Anyone who knows anything about burn injuries recognized immediately that the prognosis was not good. But she and her loved ones and her care-givers fought against the probable ending for 75 days.

The entire aviation community rallied to Amanda's support. But this time, no miracles will be forthcoming. The effects of her burns have overwhelmed the defenses of her young, fit body and the skills and determination of the best medical specialists in the world at Brook Army Medical Center's Burn Center.

Kyle has told us that he and Amanda's family have asked her care-givers to cease their heroic efforts to prolong her life. With this inconceivably difficult decision on his part, her way West is now open. Soon she'll be gone, joining the other aviators that have followed the trail blazed by Otto Lilienthal so long ago. His last words: "Opfer müssen gebracht werden!" "Sacrifices must be made."

But why? Why must these sacrifices be made? What god, behind what altar, thirsts after the blood and flesh of these splendid young people? Look, if you will, at this list of airshow incidents beginning in 1910 and ending with Kyle and Amanda's accident. It's a horrible butcher's bill.

I've been to my share of airshows. I've watched Sean Tucker and Mike Goulian do things with airplanes that I'd have thought impossible. I've watched the aerial demonstration teams light up the sky with the splendor of their performances. But I think I'm done. The game isn't worth the candle.

If a pilot wants to take a fully aerobatic airplane out to the practice area and "wring it out," more power to her. If this is what you're reaching for, may you find it:

"Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air."
But I'll no longer accept the Roman circuses. Enough of "The show must go on!" Just as aviation outgrew the time of the Barnstormers, perhaps we've outgrown the high-risk airshow exhibition. It's not my place to say it shouldn't be allowed...but it is my prerogative to say that I won't watch anymore.

UPDATE: A little after 10 PM CDT on Friday 27 May, 2011, Amanda Franklin passed away. She was surrounded by those who loved her and in the thoughts of aviators everywhere.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore!

It's starting to seem that low, gray weather has descended on southern New England and isn't going to depart any time soon! I've commented earlier that last Monday's weather was sufficiently un-promising for me to resort to the train. This week, as of Sunday evening, things looked a bit better. The Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Bridgeport as of 00Z (8:00 PM local time) looked like this:

KBDR 222329Z 2300/2324 15008KT P6SM OVC025 
     FM230200 14006KT 6SM -DZ BR OVC012 
     FM230500 14005KT 5SM -DZ BR OVC007 
     FM231600 17011KT P6SM BKN009 OVC012
Anticipating an arrival around 14Z (reference the line "FM230500"), the forecast called for visibility of five statute miles (5SM) in light drizzle (-DZ) and mist (BR) with an overcast layer at 700 feet (OVC007). OK, not so bad. I filed for an 0745 local time IFR departure.

When I got up about at 5:30 AM (0930Z), things were looking less good. Bridgeport was reporting a 400 foot overcast and nearby terminals were that bad or worse. But conditions from central New Jersey and south were fairly good and I was tired of not flying. So...press on! I have over six hours of fuel in N631S and if I had to I could fly to Bridgeport, miss the approach, fly back to Maryland and land where I'd started. Lots of options.

I was off the runway at Potomac airfield at 1152Z (i.e., a few minutes before 8:00 AM), and at that time Bridgeport was reporting:

KBDR 231152Z 12009KT 3SM BR OVC004 12/11 A3010 RMK AO2 SLP194
That's 3 miles visibility in mist with a 400 foot overcast. Since the minimums for the ILS Rwy 6 approach are 3/4 mile and 307 feet, it remained a workable situation.

The flight up into the New York area was uneventful. There was some spotty precipitation over Cape May, NJ and south of KJFK, but none of it was a factor for the flight. Along the way, I picked up an updated TAF:

KBDR 231311Z 2313/2412 13010KT 5SM BR OVC004
     FM231600 16012KT 6SM BR BKN008 BKN015
     FM232300 18010KT 4SM BR VCSH OVC006
     FM240600 20007KT 2SM BR OVC004=
This was telling me to expect visibility of five statute miles in mist and an overcast layer at 400 feet. The "13010KT" group told me to expect a modest crosswind from the right.

New York Approach did their usual professional job getting me across JFK and down to the approach altitude. A nice aspect of using the ILS 6 at Bridgeport is that coming up from JFK, Vectors-to-Final are almost straight in, so the arrival is very efficient.

At the start of the approach the weather was:

KBDR 231352Z 11008KT 4SM BR OVC004 13/11 A3008 RMK AO2 SLP186
Four miles in mist with a 400 foot overcast. N631S and I were vectored to the localizer and advised to maintain 2,000 feet until established. Once we were on the localizer New York stated "Radar service terminated" and "Contact Bridgeport tower on 120.9." I called the tower and heard, "N631S, not in sight, cleared to land."

Since we were going almost all the way down to minimums, I let the STEC System 50 autopilot mind the localizer while I concerned myself with staying on the glide-slope. There was no turbulence at all so staying on the glide slope was easy. Still, a certain amount of tension builds as the altimeter winds down, especially as it approaches the reported ceiling. I think we broke out at about 350 feet, with the runway threshold about a mile ahead. How very nice.

The landing itself was uneventful. As I put the cover on N631S I reflected on how satisfying it is to fly a successful approach to minimums. Now, if only the weather would break - we could use some sun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Bit Too Low for Me

The widespread low IFR weather in the Northeast has led me to opt this week for travel via AMTRAK from DC to Connecticut. Here are some of the METAR's on offer at 1330Z, about the time I'd have been nearing KBDR had I taken N631S out of the hangar this morning:

KBDR 161312Z 05009KT 2SM -RA BR OVC005 12/11 A2974 RMK AO2 RAB05 P0000
KOXC 161245Z 08009G16KT 050V110 1/2SM FG VV002 10/09 A2975
KDXR 161310Z 06007KT 1 1/2SM BR OVC004 11/11 A2974 RMK AO2
KBDL 161251Z 01009KT 10SM -DZ OVC012 12/09 A2978 RMK AO2 SLP085 P0000 
KPOU 161253Z 11006KT 10SM -RA OVC011 13/11 A2970 RMK AO2 RAB18E33B53 
KHVN 161253Z 03008KT 10SM OVC005 13/11 A2973 RMK AO2 SLP068 T01280111
KGON 161256Z 04014G19KT 10SM OVC007 12/10 A2975 RMK AO2 SLP075 T01220100
That observation for KBDR – light rain, mist, and overcast at 500 feet – is just what the Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) was calling for, and it isn't terrible. The minimums for the ILS Rwy 6 approach are one mile and 300 feet, so you could take a shot. My problem is that the low conditions are very widespread and expected to continue for quite a while.

If I took the chance, flew up to KBDR and was unable to get in, I would have needed to divert (probably to Bradley (KBDL) or Poughkeepsie (KPOU)) and would have been faced with a long-ish drive in a rental car. So, I opted for the certainty of the train.

Of course, this locks me into rail travel for the return trip on Friday when, presumably, the sun will be shining. Ah, well, that's aviation.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How's This for a Switch?

In this post, last week, I mentioned that the Push-to-Talk (PTT) switch on N631S's pilot's side control yoke had failed, that the replacement Cessna part was on the pricey side, and that the search was on for a more reasonably priced alternative.

After an uneventful flight back to Connecticut last Monday (using my old portable PTT switch left over from student-pilot days), I conferred with my favorite spark chaser, Dave, at Three Wing Avionics. Dave felt that the low-cost switch could be installed as a standard part so I promptly ordered one from Rob at Rob-Air Repair LLC for $17.99 plus about five bucks for Priority Mail shipping.

The switch arrived in two days and Dave installed it (left) in N631S.

I admit to being a little annoyed about the failed switch. It was installed as a replacement in July of 2009 and lasted for all of 21 months. For a gold-plated aerospace quality part, that's not very good. Asking around, I've heard that these switches (manufactured by Mason) are a common source of trouble. Unlike most momentary-contact switches, the design includes a "tactile feedback" feature (i.e., it clicks). Some folks speculate that the mechanical detent that provides the click is the switch's Achille's heel.

The new PTT switch performed "ops normal" on yesterday's flight back to the DC area. The flight was uneventful but did offer two comment-worthy events.

At left is the speed/altitude profile courtesy of FlightAware.com. If you enlarge it you'll see a segment where the altitude plot goes up to 9,000 feet. That happened when one of the New York Approach controllers moved me higher to let a faster aircraft (I believe it was a DeHavilland Dash 8) pass below me. The next sector took me back down to 8,000. It's comment-worthy only because most controllers would, I believe, have given me an "off-airway" vector to solve the problem. I was just as happy with the altitude change.

There was a bit of weather in the DC area on arrival, so N631S and I wound up shooting the RNAV Rwy 6 approach into KVKX. We descended into the schmoo at about 4,000 feet on the way down from BAL and broke out of the bases at 1,200 feet on final about 1.5 miles out. The instrument approach probably lengthens the overall trip by about 0.3 hours but I was happy to have it because I'm now IFR current through August.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Life's Little Annoyances

The first 95% of yesterday's flight from KBDR down to KVKX in the DC area was uneventful. I like uneventful. Then, as N631S and I got within about seven miles of home plate it got a little bit interesting. I don't care for interesting.

It pleased me no end, that one of the control sectors as I worked my way through Potomac Approach's airspace was being minded by my friend Sarah. We did, "Washington altimeter is 29.82, hi, Frank," and "29.82, 31 Sierra, hi Sarah!" And I felt so very comfortable and at home with that familiar voice on the frequency. In due course I was handed off to one of Sarah's colleagues who gave me a descent to 1,500 feet MSL, turned me toward KVKX, and asked me to report the field in sight. That's when it got interesting.

I acknowledged the transmission, turned toward KVKX, and soon reported that "31 Sierra has the field in sight." I then heard the controller say, "Skylane 31 Sierra, cleared for the visual approach to VKX." I acknowledged that transmission..."31 Sierra, cleared for the visual at VKX."

Then, I heard, "Skylane 631 Sierra, cleared for the visual approach, VKX." Umm...already heard and acknowledged. Whazzup? "31 Sierra, cleared visual at VKX," got me "Skylane 31 Sierra, if you can hear me, IDENT."

Oh, crap. Here I am in the most secure airspace in the western hemisphere and, while I'm not "NORDO" I seem to be "no-transmit". I hit the IDENT button on the transponder.

My controller came back with, "31 Sierra, IDENT observed; you are cleared visual approach to KVKX, keep your squawk code until on the ground then cancel IFR with Potomac Approach as soon as possible."

I switched to the #2 radio, no joy. That's when I noticed (finally!) that pressing the Push-to-Talk (PTT) switch on the yoke was not producing the distinctive "click" in the headset. OK, bad PTT switch. I reached down and grabbed the handheld mike.

By this time I'm turning onto the right downwind for runway 24 at KVKX. Using the handheld mike I transmitted, "Approach, 631 Sierra." The response: "Ah, there you are! I think I must have stepped on you." (Not!) "Change to advisory frequency approved, keep your squawk until on the ground."

I quickly responded, "31 Sierra, over to CTAF, cancel IFR at this time," and got, "IFR cancellation received..." Phew!

The landing at KVKX was uneventful. Sarah, if you're checking this out, let your colleague know that he did not step on me. It was an equipment issue and he was BRILLIANT! He can be my final controller any time!

There at left is the little bastard that I think failed (unless it turns out that it's a wiring issue).

That little guy is a Mason 611-4302 momentary contact switch. If you want to buy it under the Mason part number, it's just about $200.00. Cessna assigns their own part number to the Mason switch. It's Cessna p/n S1985-1 and they want about $156.00 for it.

Now, it seems that Rob-Air Repair LLC in Silverdale, WA, offers a part numbered RA S1985-1 as a direct replacement for this silly little switch, for $17.99 each. I have an e-mail in to the Rob of Rob-Air, asking him to provide the approval basis for his switch so I can convince Dave at Three Wing to install the low cost option.

Meanwhile I trust you have one of these (left), and it works, and you can fetch it up without looking down to where it's stowed. Better if you can slip it back in it's holder without looking down. I couldn't, and just dropped it on my lap. Rest assured, stowing the handheld mike will now be practiced until I get it right.

As for Monday morning, I have one of these (left) left over from my Student Pilot days 17 years ago. A portable PTT switch, that can be secured to the yoke with Velcro strips and is able to bypass the yoke-mounted PTT switch. Should be good to go.

Never a dull moment, eh? Well, that's what makes it fun.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Fix Your Little Problem and Light This Candle"

Half a century ago, the fifth of May was a Friday and I was in 7th Grade in New Jersey. Shortly after the school day began our teachers marched us (the older kids, at least) into the small auditorium where a black-and-white television sat on a table on the stage. From our seats we squinted to discern history being made in the snowy image. Fifty years ago today, this is what we saw:

It's interesting to remember something that happened fifty years ago. An initial reaction is, "Damn! I'm older than dirt!" But then you can stop and reflect, and appreciate the perspective of the long view.

We watched as Cdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to ride a rocket into space, inaugurating NASA's Manned Spaceflight Program. That first suborbital toe-in-the-water soon begat the Mercury orbital flights, then the Gemini developmental flights, then the Apollo missions that led - after just over eight years - to another black-and-white video image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon.

The most incredible adventure in the history of Western civilization started fifty years ago today. Guys in short-sleeved white shirts, with pocket protectors and, for God's sake, slide rules, designed and built incredible machines to take other guys, with ice water for blood and the famous Right Stuff, to another world and home again. There were heroes (Shepard was the first) and martyrs. There was the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, the triumph of Apollo XI and (before we awakened fully from the dream) the high drama of Apollo XIII. Oh, it was magnificent.

And then we lost interest. Just twelve years after Al Shepard told the engineers to "fix (their) little problem and light this candle," Gene Cernan climbed the ladder on Challenger, the Apollo XVII Lunar Module and became the last man to walk on the Moon. The last three Apollo missions were cancelled. The awesome Saturn V, the ultimate evolution of expendable rocket technology, flew once more to put Skylab into orbit, then never flew again.

It had never been about exploration. It had never been about choosing to do things because they are hard. It had always been about beating the Russians. Once the checkered flag had come down on the space race, the country turned away toward other concerns. NASA, left more or less without a job, lofted a few patchwork missions - three Skylab crews and ASTP - and waited around for the Space Transportation System (STS) - the Space Shuttle - to be ready.

NASA described the STS in glowing terms. We were going to make travel to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) routine. We would launch every two weeks. It would cost $100 to put a pound of stuff in orbit. We'd build observatories and space stations. Out of naiveté or desperation, they believed their own propaganda.

The Space Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it was never going to be anything other than an incredibly complex, high-risk, experimental aerospace vehicle. The pre-Shuttle astronauts came almost exclusively from the ranks of test pilots, and they never had any illusions about their jobs. The Shuttle astronauts, despite the inclusion of scientists and engineers and politicians and a school teacher, have also always been test pilots. The way the game was rigged was exposed when Challenger exploded.

Now we are anticipating the launch in late June of the last Shuttle mission. Challenger and Columbia are gone, sacrificed to the normalization of deviance that bedevils so many technology-intensive programs. Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are headed for museums and American astronauts headed for the International Space Station will be hitching rides on Russian rockets. After a couple of months more than fifty years, the American Manned Spaceflight Program will end.

The Shuttle, conceived (or mis-conceived) in response to NASA's need for an ongoing mission, is a magnificent technological dead-end. A look at the history of technology and in particular the history of transportation technology, will reveal many comparable instances where a technical paradigm evolved to produce a machine so wholly admirable as to capture the heart, and yet destined for the scrapyard (or, if lucky, for static display).

Donald McKay's clipper ships were the ultimate embodiment of wind-driven maritime transport. For a time in the mid nineteenth century they dominated the sea lanes and yet in a flash, they were gone. Mundane but reliable coal-fired steamers drove the clippers from the seas.

The steamers had their own century, mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth, and they too evolved to a peak exemplified by the liner SS United States. Nearly 60,000 tons, with a quarter-million shaft horsepower to drive her at nearly 40 knots, she had no peer on the trans-Atlantic run. But she did not sail for long before jet aircraft did to her what her ancestors did to the clippers. Now, she rusts quietly at a pier in Philadelphia.

The same jets that ended the career of the United States also wrote the last chapter for piston-engined commercial aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation. The "Connie", according to my friend Dennis Wolter "the most beautiful technological artifact ever designed by man," was the ultimate evolution of the propeller driven airliner and we aviation romantics can't forget the song of those four Wright R3350 turbo-compound engines. But beauty in commerce takes second seat to efficiency and so the Connie's and the DC-7's and the Stratocruisers went away.

The list goes on. The mighty steam locomotives, the graceful Concorde, and now, the Space Shuttle. Successful and at the same time doomed. Like the dinosaurs, unable to survive a changed environment.

It's been an exhilarating, exasperating ride these fifty years. I sat in that grammar school auditorium and watched Alan Shepard begin America's Manned Spaceflight Program. I watched its triumphs as the Apollo VIII crew circled the Moon at Christmas, 1968, and as Armstrong and Aldrin loped over the lunar surface. I held my breath as we waited for the Apollo XIII crew to come safely home and I suffered heartache in the aftermaths of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. And I expect to watch the end of the journey as Atlantis plunges toward the threshold of the runway at Kennedy Space Center, flares at the last second and settles onto the ground for the last time. That, I expect, will be a bittersweet moment.

And then? Will manned space flight rise again, Phoenix-like, in this country - driven this time by the efforts of men like Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk? Is a good dose of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit™ all that we need here? Pardon me if I am not reassured.

Let us toast the heroes and mourn the fallen. Let's retell the stories of great efforts and great achievements. And finally, always, let us hope.