Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ask For What You Need!

For a variety of essentially uninteresting reasons, last Friday was extremely busy in a way that had nothing to do with aviation. It was noon before I had a chance to look at the weather or file a flight plan. I quickly came to the conclusion that the flight from KBDR down to KVKX might be mildly entertaining. I did, however, file a flight plan for the normal routing that takes me over eastern PA, then south into MD.

When I headed over to the airport at about 20Z, I knew that there was an active Sigmet covering most of eastern Pennsylvania and a good chunk of western New Jersey. I wasn't thrilled with the notion of flying the "usual route", that takes me west from KBDR to Sparta (SAX) then south to Solberg (SBJ) then west again into Allentown Approach's airspace. Lots of convective activity was forecast for that region.

On arrival at KBDR I paused in the flight planning room for another look at the radar depiction. Pennsylvania continued to look bad. Over New Jersey there were two strands of weather (I hesitate to call them "lines" - they weren't that organized), one just over the south-bound airway, one fairly far inland. It looked like I could "thread the needle" if I could get the New Jersey routing.

I went out into the slight drizzle and pre-flighted N631S, then raised Bridgeport Clearance Delivery on the handheld radio. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Bridgeport Clearance, Skylane 631 Sierra requesting a change to proposed IFR routing to VKX.
KBDR: Skylane 31 Sierra, say request.
Me: 31 Sierra is unable the routing via SAX due to extensive convective weather over eastern Pennsylvania airways. Request routing that starts with vectors Deer Park then Victor 1 then whatever they want at the south end.
KBDR: 31 Sierra, they're really busy down there right now. If you can give me the full route clearance you want I'll see if I can get it for you.
Me (ready for this): Skylane 31 Sierra requests vectors Deer Park, Victor 1, ENO, Victor 379, OTT direct.
KVKX: 31 Siera, that's Deer Park, Victor 1, ENO, Victor 379, OTT direct?
Me: Bridgeport Clearance, read back correct. (I always wanted to say that!)
KBDR: [click-click]

The controller was advising other aircraft to expect a significant delay prior to release, so I anticipated a bit of a wait, but in less than five minutes I was given exactly the clearance I'd requested! My comment to the KBDR controller: "Wow! They swallowed the whole thing!"

Bridgeport advised that New York Approach was still "looking at" my clearance and I'd better expect some changes en route. Fine...just get me out of Dodge and over New Jersey. And sure enough, while taxiing, I got a change (which I paused to copy): "after DPK, Victor 16 to DIXIE, Victor 1 to ATR, Victor 308, BILIT, DCA, direct." Not likely to work in the long run but OK for now.

With the modified clearance copied I reported in at taxiway Kilo, ready for takeoff, and was promptly cleared and rolling. N631S and I climbed into the schmoo at about 500 feet and New York approach soon had us radar identified and turned to a 180 heading, vectors for Deer Park. Leveling off at 4,000, I could see that we were just under the tops.

We made the turn to the south at JFK on top in bright sunshine. I was very interested in what weather was in store to the south along the airway. The NEXRAD display on the Garmin 396 (left) showed some moderate precip just west of DIXIE and some heavy (red) precip near Lakehurst NAS (KNEL). It seemed like it would be a good idea to hustle down the airway.
As it turned out, there was plenty of clearance on the way past Lakehurst. The weather was moving to the east quite slowly and I was beginning to feel pretty good about the trip. This spot of weather would not be a factor.
But looking ahead (on the NEXRAD display) I could see another cell that appeared to be approaching Coyle VOR (CYN). I asked the McGuire Approach controller what she saw on her radar. The answer was "there's moderate to extreme precipitation over Coyle." With the first area of rain passing to my right, I asked McGuire for a 10 degree left deviation to put some space between N631S and the weather at CYN. She said, "Approved as requested. Report back on course when able," but before that seemed like a good idea I was handed off to Atlantic City Approach.
I checked in with, "Atlantic City Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra level at 6,000 and deviating 10 left of the airway for weather avoidance." The controller responded, "Skylane 31 Sierra, Atlantic City Altimeter 29.89...tell you what, you can go direct Atlantic City then direct Waterloo now and that should keep you well east of that weather."
The resulting flight path nicely split the difference between the two cells of adverse weather (above left) and gave me a good view of some fairly heavy rain (for example, left) as I made my way south.

This proved to be the last bit of weather to influence the flight. The rest of the trip across New Jersey and the Delmarva peninsula was routine.

Looking back at it, the flight was a good example of an important principal in dealing with Air Traffic Control: "Ask for what you need." As busy as they were, New York Approach accommodated my need for a routing with less convective weather; and the controllers at McGuire and Atlantic City were quick to approve deviations that kept N631S and I away from trouble.

Courtesy of FlightAware.com, the entire route is depicted below.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Weather in Motion

Last Friday's trip from KBDR down to KVKX was made interesting by weather in motion at each end of the flight. At the start, N631S and I had to wait for a line of convective activity to move out of the way and at the end we had a bit of a race to land at Potomac Airfield before some weather arrived.

The map at left (from the NWS' Hydrometeorolgical Prediction Center) shows the forecast conditions expected for 1800Z Friday. It depicts a remnant of an occluded/cold front from Lake Ontario down through lower New York with an associated region of rain and thundershowers.
And, in the event, the NEXRAD picture at 1835Z looked just about like you'd expect given that frontal picture. A line of convective weather was running from north of Poughkeepsie south through northern New Jersey. It wasn't the kind of weather you felt like going through and going around would require an extensive diversion. Better to wait it out. Unfortunately the line's speed of advance was only about 20 knots. It would be a while before it would pass to the east of Bridgeport so that N631S and I could head west.

At 2130Z (5:30PM local time) it was raining pretty hard at KBDR and by 2200Z it had slacked off to a drizzle as I did my pre-flight on N631S. There was still active weather lurking not far to the southwest but the radar picture looked good to the northwest. Runway 24 was active so when I picked up my clearance I asked the tower controller to request, on my behalf, an early turn to the northwest. I was pleased, after I taxied to the runway, to hear, "Skylane 631 Sierra, cleared for takeoff; on departure turn right to heading 330."

This screenshot of the Garmin 396, about ten minutes after departure, shows active cells to the south and clear weather ahead. Looking at it you'd think that I was in an area of moderate precipitation but in fact, here's what I saw out the window at 6,000 feet:

Once clear of the departure weather, the flight west across lower New York and into Pennsylvania was uneventful. At 8,000 feet for most of the trip, all of the clouds were below, the air was smooth and the winds were even a bit favorable. It wasn't until the Lancaster area that weather in motion once again became a subject of interest.

The storm cell (left) between Westminster (EMI) and Martinsburg (MRB) is the potential villain. It was moving fairly quickly southeast, straight for KVKX. Gaging the distances and speeds involved I thought I'd have time to land before the weather arrived.

But it was going to be a bit close. For the next 75 miles I watched that weather as I flew through Potomac Approach's airspace. If the weather got to KVKX before I did, then Plan B was to ask Approach to vector me off to the south somewhere and let me hold until the storm moved on. I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Fortunately, N631S won the race. Wheels on the runway at 0035Z, and the rain began five minutes later. I got a bit wet putting the airplane into its hangar but by the time everything was secured it had stopped.

Weather is always in motion. Sometimes (as with my departure weather) you wish it would move faster. Sometimes (as on arrival) you wish it would move slower. But always, you have to think about and adapt to the trend and the timing.

For the record, courtesy of the good folks at FlightAware.com, here's the track for the flight.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fire in the Sky

There is no hazard more feared in aviation than an in-flight fire. No other danger is quite so fraught with the combination of helplessness and horrific consequences. Two recent incidents in quick succession have shown once again that when there is fire in the sky, we balance on a knife-edge of fate.
"The only time an aircraft has too much fuel on board is when it is on fire."
-- attributed to Capt. Ernest K. Gann

On Monday morning, the B-17G Liberty Belle departed the Aurora, IL airport. Only a few minutes after takeoff the pilot of the T-6 flying in company with the old bomber notified it's crew that they were on fire. What happened next is recounted by Ray Fowler, the Liberty Foundation's Chief Pilot, on the organization's web site:
"Directly below the B-17 was a farmer’s field and the decision was made to land immediately. Approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds from the radio report of the fire, the B-17 was down safely on the field. Within that 1:40 time frame, the crew shutdown and feathered the number 2 engine, activated the engine’s fire suppression system, lowered the landing gear and performed an on-speed landing. Bringing the B-17 to a quick stop, the crew and passengers quickly and safely exited the aircraft."
Most of the photos of this incident seen in the press depict the airframe completely ravaged by fire, giving the impression of an airplane meeting a violent end. The picture above tells us that this was not a "crash". In fact, Liberty Belle's pilots turned in a superb piece of airmanship getting the big Boeing on the ground, in an emergency, on an unprepared field, with the whole crew able to walk away. If fire apparatus had been able to gain access, the airplane may well have flown again.

But the key here was the rapidity with which the airplane was put on the ground once fire was detected. Fire in the sky gives you no time to waste. There have been far too many in-flight fires where time was either wasted or inadequate and tragedy ensued.

  • ValuJet 592, the DC-9 that crashed in the Everglades in 1996 after a mis-handled shipment of oxygen generators ignited in the cargo compartment.
  • Swissair 111, the MD-11 that crashed in the sea near Nova Scotia in 1998 after a fire started in the entertainment system's wiring. In that case the crew wasted precious time dumping fuel to avoid an overweight landing, allowing the fire to render the aircraft uncontrollable.
  • UPS Flight 6, a 747-400F freighter that crashed in September of last year near Dubai. Fire on the cargo deck created smoke so dense that the crew could no longer see the flight instruments. Shipments of lithium batteries have been implicated in the disaster.
  • The 2007 crash of a NASCAR-owned Cessna 310R in Sanford, FL. The accident (discussed in this blog HERE and HERE) where an electrical fire incapacitated the crew.
In all of these cases, time - never granted in abundance - ultimately ran out. The pilots of Liberty Belle, only minutes away from their departure airport, still made the correct decision. An airplane on fire has to be put on the ground now!

I wish that was the end of the story this week. We could regret the loss of a precious old airplane while rejoicing in the safety of her crew. But, fire in the sky wasn't done with us.

Word was slow coming from across the sea about the loss to fire of a blimp operating in Germany under contract to Goodyear. It's too soon to know the cause of the fire, but its consequences are tragically clear. The pilot got the airship close to the ground and told his three passengers to jump.

The airship pilot, Capt. Mike Nerandzic was a veteran of many years and many thousands of hours of blimp operations. He had to know exactly what would happen when 250 kilos of passenger weight suddenly exited the aircraft. Still, he told his passengers to jump, and they lived. The blimp shot upward and soon was completely ablaze. Mike Nerandzic, 52, from Australia, died in the fire.

Fire in the sky is a terrible thing. If it comes for us, there is so little we can do. We obsess about maintenance, we operate our systems conservatively, and we resolve to seek the ground at the first hint of spark or smoke. And we hope for the best.

Gone West, Capt. Mike Nerandzic, 1958-2011 Photo: Paul Riley/news.com.au