Saturday, July 30, 2011

100 Minutes

The trip back to the DC area last evening included a very interesting 100 minutes of flying. Just an hour before departure from KBDR, the weather radar showed very little convective activity along my expected route. I launched at 2032Z, as yet unaware that a lot of fast-growing, fast moving convective weather was developing in places that N631S and I intended to be. Managing to stay out of trouble would take all of the resources that I – and a series of great controllers – had available.
As usual, you can click on the images to "big-ify" them.
I had filed for a route across JFK and down over New Jersey, but the ATC computer issued me the "usual route" involving vectors to Sparta, south to Solberg, west to Allentown then south to Lancaster and Baltimore, thence home. This time, I wasn't smart enough to say, "Unable." I knew, however, that it was going to be a long evening when 20 minutes after departure I was still east of KBDR! (This was due to "vectors for sequencing at Sparta," from New York Approach.) I was watching that storm cell approaching Stewart (KSWF) but that one turned out to be the least of my worries.
After another 20 minutes of slow westward progress it was clear that I wouldn't be affected by the cell to the north...but the weather down the route near Solberg (SBJ) was looking like a potential problem. The most pressing matter was to avoid the cell that was then just west of the Broadway (BWZ) VOR. If I got past that point I was confident that a path could be found through the cells then to the south of SBJ.
I asked for an early turn to SBJ, something that's not usually available. This time, the New York Approach controller accommodated me, the first of many times that ATC would help me on this trip. Also, I usually ask for and receive a short cut to LANNA from about 15 miles north of SBJ. This time I didn't request it and wouldn't have taken it if offered as that would have taken N631S and I into some nasty looking weather.
The early turn gave me a little breathing room and the change in course gave a few more knots of ground speed. I started planning to ask the controller for a 270 heading as soon as I was past the threatening cell. Before I could make the request, he said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, let me know when you can accept direct East Texas." I liked that...the course to the East Texas (ETX) VOR would be almost exactly the 270 heading I'd need. Then after 15 to 20 miles of that, I could work out the next bit of strategy with Allentown Approach.
On the way down to SBJ there was some moderate precipitation and occasional light chop for about five minutes, but nothing serious. Just a free airplane wash. That undoubtedly corresponded to penetration of the "yellow" part of the NEXRAD return shown in the screen capture at left.
Very soon after the hand-off to Allentown Approach I asked whether "direct FLOAT" would be a good idea. FLOAT is an intersection near Reading, south of my then current course. The Allentown controller didn't think much of that idea. "This stuff is moving fast," he said, "so by the time you get to FLOAT it'll be there. We need to vector you around it." I was happy to agree. He then added, "31 Sierra, turn left 20 degrees at this time for weather avoidance." The screen capture above left shows the effect of that turn - and yes, I guess the weather was moving fast. I could see his plan...15 to 20 miles on the new heading then a turn to the northwest to exploit the gap between two cells.
At a strategic moment, I suggested that a turn "direct Allentown" looked good to me, and the controller concurred. "Skylane 31 Sierra, turn right direct to the Allentown VOR, that's Foxtrot Juliet Charlie." That course split the cells nicely. On the way through the gap there was only light precipitation and occasional light chop. Nearing FJC, N631S and I broke out into clear air and sunshine. I gave the controller a report of flight conditions between the cells and heard him relay the information to another aircraft that was following along behind me.
I'd reached a point where a turn to the west, along the back side of the cell, would work, so I requested direct ETX and then resume my original clearance. That was approved. For a while I could enjoy the fairly benign conditions rounding the back of that weather...but the fun wasn't over. there was another problem ahead, approaching Lancaster (LRP) from the west. Given how fast that these cells were moving, I was sure that the cell would beat me to LRP and I'd have to work around another one.
Twenty minutes later, the Harrisburg Approach controller had suggested a 250 heading to work around the back of the cell that was raining all over the Lancaster airport. The NEXRAD image at left is 6 minutes old and the weather was already a couple miles east of the position shown, so the flight conditions were pretty mild. 10 more miles, then a turn to about a 210 heading and I'd be out of the woods. A quick look ahead showed no additional weather between me and home.
Just about when I expected it, the Harrisburg controller said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, turn left direct Baltimore, resume own navigation." It had been just about 100 minutes since the weather started to make life interesting. Once again, two important things were reinforced: On some nights, an on-board NEXRAD weather radar display is worth it's weight in gold; and there is no greater asset than to have on your team sharp controllers who have "got the flick."
The rest of the flight was uneventful...which was a good thing. I'd had sufficient fun for one day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hot Air!

As I taxied N631S away from its tie-down at KBDR last evening, the outside air temperature (OAT) gauge read 102°. Now, that's toasty! I was anxious to get off the ground and up a few thousand feet to where it might be a little bit cooler.

Of course, it wasn't going to be that easy. Half way to the runway, the ground controller said, "631 Sierra, for whatever reason, Approach has decided to modify your clearance...and it's a full-route clearance, so...advise ready to copy." I gave him a "Wilco" and pulled into a convenient spot for my run-up, then said, "31 Sierra is ready to copy."

I had filed for, and initially received, a clearance for what I've come to think of as "the usual route." It takes me west to Sparta (SAX) then south to Solberg (SBJ), then west again to Allentown and Reading, down to Lancaster, across Baltimore, and finally home to KVKX. The re-route was for a coastal flight path: Vectors to Deer Park (DPK) then airways over JFK and down past Atlantic City and Cape May, and across the DelMarVa peninsula toward home. Often, weather factors make this a desirable route but I usually have to beg and plead to get it. This time, it appeared spontaneously. Why? It's a mystery.

So I copied and read back the new clearance, did my run-up, then sat at the hold-short line for five or six minutes, quietly perspiring while awaiting IFR release. "Skylane 31 Sierra, cleared for takeoff" came at 2030Z.

As New York Approach cleared me to progressively higher altitudes, I kept the nose down and the speed up in an effort to keep the engine relatively cool. Instead of going for a good rate of climb, I kept the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI) at 500 feet per minute. This allowed me to complete most of the climb up to 6,000 feet (my final altitude) at 100 knots indicated and kept my cylinder head temperatures around 400°F.

Level at 6,000 feet, the OAT was 73°. The "Top of Climb" checklist includes "Cowl Flaps – Close" but I left them wide open. Even so, with my normal cruise conditions set (throttle wide-open, 2350 RPM and 11.8 GPH fuel flow) the cylinder head temps were creeping up. Since I was operating on the lean side of peak exhaust gas temperatures, I knew that my power output was a simple function of fuel flow. I adjusted the mixture control for 11.4 GPH and watched with satisfaction as the temperatures of the hottest cylinder heads settled down to about 395°. I'd given up about 3 or 4 knots of true airspeed, but having a happy engine was more important.

With cruise conditions set, it was time to look ahead at the weather along the route. Before departure, radar had indicated some scattered thunderstorm activity and it would be prudent to see if any of that was scattered in places that N631S and I needed to go.

Just before New York Approach handed me off to McGuire Approach, I saw the picture at left on the weather display. Clearly, the cell just to the west of the Coyle VOR (CYN) would bear watching. Checking in with McGuire, I asked the controller what he was looking at down around Coyle and he said there was a cell west of the VOR, moving eastward with precipitation echoes up to Level 5 (that's mean stuff!)...and he might need to vector me around it. Of course, I concurred.
But as I watched, that storm cell dissipated as summer "popcorn" cells often will. By the time N631S and I got to CYN, it was just some light rain visible off to the right of the airway. False alarm, but better to be prepared.

The balance of the flight was warm but uneventful. Soon after crossing the Delaware Bay, Potomac Approach took me down to 4,000 feet where the OAT was 83°, and then (nearing the DC Class B airspace) down to 3,000 feet and an OAT of 88°. It was hazy, with a flight visibility of about five miles approaching KVKX, but I know where to look now and could report, "31 Sierra has the field in sight," in a timely way for the visual approach. The final controller cleared me for the visual and accepted my IFR cancellation. Now at 2,000 feet, the OAT was 95°. As some would say is normal, the DC area was full of hot air.

N631S and I were on the runway at 2238Z. The surface temperature was 93° – actually a bit cooler than it was 2,000 feet up. I promptly put the airplane to bed in the hangar and headed home in the convertible...with the top up and the air conditioning on.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stormy Weather

Last Friday afternoon I watched with concern as widespread convective weather developed over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Around 21Z I made my way over to KBDR and pre-flighted N631S, then went into the FBO to have a look at the weather radar. It was, in a word, ugly (see the image below, from 2129Z):
I've gotten used to being able to find a way around the typical summer afternoon weather, but this wasn't typical. The NEXRAD returns showed serious weather echoes to the north, west and south. Severe thunderstorms were reported in the area, with the conditions forecast to persist throughout the evening.

I called Lockheed-Martin Flight Service and had a talk with one of their specialists. We looked at the radar picture and tried to figure out a viable strategy for making the trip down to the DC area that evening. Neither the usual routing over eastern PA nor the coastal routing down over NJ held promise.

Finally I said, "I hate to admit defeat, but I think I'm going to pack it in and make the trip tomorrow morning."

"I'm really glad you said that," the briefer replied. "Because if you launched tonight in this stuff, I was going to have to do a lot of paperwork."

So I set an alarm for 5:15 AM the next morning, was off the ground at 6:04 AM and was back on the ground at KVKX at 8:18 AM.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor...and you've got to know when to say no.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Blue Stain Blues (cont'd)

Eagle Fuel Cells held up their end of the deal and got the replacement fuel cell for N631S to my friends at Three Wing Flying Services yesterday. Below left, it sits on the table, looking much prettier than the old cell that was pictured in this earlier post.

This cell is an overhauled unit originally manufactured by FFC in 2004, which Eagle has supplied with a 5 year warranty. It's my understanding that there were quite a few cells from FFC dating from the 2002-2004 time frame that have experienced early mortality. I'm having faith that Eagle has learned what the problems were with the FFC cells and that their current overhaul procedures are effective in addressing them.

The failed fuel cell was installed in February 2003 by N631S's previous owner with the work being done by Lindner Aviation at Keokuk (IA) Municipal Airport. I sent off an e-mail to Greg Gobble, the boss at Lindner, asking if his records indicated the source of the failed cell. Greg has let me know that:

"The fuel cell was p/n 3030-23, s/n CR2909 purchased 2-4-2003 from Eagle. WO# N010303004. Looks like they have a 5 year warranty but it is worth a try."

Having purchased the overhauled cell from Eagle, I shall be speaking with them about a generous repurchase of the old core, considering that it provided only about 2/3 of the expected time in service. They have, of course, no legal obligation but they may wish to share in the consequences of their vendor's quality issues. I'll let you know what happens.

Just incidentally, if you are planning a serious cross-country flight, Keokuk Muni (KEOK) on the banks of the Mississippi River is a great place to stop for an overnight. Greg and his folks are wonderfully helpful, Keokuk is a nice town with good lodging options, and Lindner Aviation is a full-service FBO that can deal with about any problem you can imagine. They were the "minders" of N631S for about three years prior to our acquisition and they took excellent care of the airplane...as they will yours. VERY highly recommended.

Meanwhile back at KBDR, Mike Gavaghan has been making N631S's left wing fuel bay ready to receive the new fuel cell. The photo at left looks down into the bay, showing the installation of the protective tape over riveted seams. Getting the bay cleaned out and all of the tape in place is one of the nastier jobs and I'm grateful for Mike's patience and thoroughness. I suspect that by tomorrow morning the new cell will be in place and closing out will be the order of the day.

And next to N631S on the hangar floor, the lovely 1993 Pitts S-2B pictured below. Now, I have no desire whatsoever to be upside-down in an airplane, but if that's your thing it's hard to conceive of a nicer machine for the purpose.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

A couple of images, if you please, to capture the exuberance and the solemnity that are intertwined on our Independence Day.
First, the "bombs bursting in air" last night over the Potomac River. This view of the National Harbor program is from Alexandria's Founder's Park with the Wilson Bridge in the foreground. A thunderstorm had passed by headed southeast, about 45 minutes before and more than a few times "the rockets' red glare" was complemented by flashes of lightning in the clouds. It was a scene both unforeseeable and unsurpassable!
This morning, Patricia and I spent a couple of hours walking the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, which occupies a commanding height that overlooks our capital.

We stopped to view the Eternal Flame at John Kennedy's grave. We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, as the Sentinels of the 3rd Infantry Division expressed on behalf of us all the incredible respect owed to our nation's fallen. And we visited Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, where we could reflect that the ultimate use of his lands is fitting and proper indeed.

These thoughts and images aren't about aviation but rather, about the land where our love of aviation can be freely expressed in ways not possible anywhere else in the world. Freedom is cause for celebration and also demanding of reflection. Its price is often dear, but it allows us to soar beyond the heights we could reach without it.

NASA image posted elsewhere by Astronaut Doug Wheelock.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Blue Stain Blues

Last Monday brought a sight no Cessna owner wants to see: a blue stain starting at the trailing edge of the left wing root, down the pilot's side door post and onto the fuselage. The classic signature of an AvGas leak - and probably a failed fuel cell.

So the airplane is in the shop. The left fuel cell has been drained (and the valuable 100LL is stored in drums (left) and will be returned to the new fuel cell using a filter-equipped pump).

N631S is a 1977 vintage Q-model Cessna 182. The adoption of the O-470U engine in 1977 triggered the change in model designation from 182P to 182Q. The '77s had 14 volt electrics and rubber fuel cells. The '78s went to 28 volt electrics and the '79s (last year for the Q's) went to a "wet wing" fuel system, eliminating the rubber fuel cells. There are two schools of thought on rubber fuel cells. On one hand, they inevitably require replacement. On the other hand, the "wet wing" design, if it ever does leak, can be very hard to fix. Also, in the event of a crash, it has been suggested that rubber bladders are less likely to burst than a wet-wing tank. (I am not aware of any definitive evidence supporting this.)

There on the table (left) sits N631S's removed fuel cell. The mechanics at Three Wing Flying Services opened up the wing, verified that none of the fittings or gaskets were causing the leak, and then extracted the old fuel cell. Once the cell was out of the bay, they cleaned out the gunk (a fuel leak makes a mess) and renewed the protective tape that covers all the pointy ends (rivets and such) that could put the new cell at hazard. Now we await the arrival of the replacement cell, due Tuesday.

After querying my knowledgeable friends at the Cessna Pilots Association about the best sources, I opted to purchase an overhauled fuel cell from Eagle Fuel Cells of Eagle River, WI. My options were: (1) have them overhaul my cell, for $395 to $425 and a three to four day turn-around; (2) purchase an overhauled cell outright for $550 with the option of selling them my failed cell for up to $100; (3) purchase a new cell for $950. Options 1 and 2 come with a 5 year warranty, while option 3 comes with a 10 year warranty. I chose option 2 for the quick turn-around and to keep the cost down.

Based on where the leaking fuel seemed to be collecting in the wing, the folks at Three Wing think there's a leak in the area of the "nipple" pictured at left. Nothing is visible - which is not, I'm told, uncommon.
The longevity of this fuel cell is a disappointment. The original cell installed by Cessna in the spring of 1977 lasted until late 1989 - 12 years 8 months. The second cell lasted 13 years 3 months, until February 2003. This one only lasted 8 years 4 months.

Other 182 owners have told me that the manufacturer of this cell had "quality issues" in the early years of the last decade and that I am far from alone in getting less than the expected life out of cells manufactured during that period. The unpleasant message is that I can probably anticipate a need to renew the cell on the right side before too much longer.

For those interested, I'll update this post when I get the bill so you'll know the number of shop hours needed for removal and re-installation. And, of course, this weekend's trip to the DC area and back will be courtesy of AMTRAK.