Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year (With a Look Back)

This is the fourth year that I've used this post title on 31 December. A year ago, I looked back on 2011 in this post, and a year earlier I reviewed 2010 in this one. The retrospective for 2009 was here.

N631S finished 2012 with 4,391.8 hours on the tach, having flown 184.5 hours in 2012. That's just a bit more than the 2011 total of 175.8 hours. I made the round trip from KVKX in Maryland to KBDR in Connecticut and back 32 times this year, two fewer than last year.

I logged 10.1 hours in actual IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) this year, compared with 2011's 10.0 hours. This year's total of 16 instrument approaches flown in actual conditions is up from last year by six. Time logged as night this year was 9.3 hours, not very different from last year's 10.2.

Once again this year, N631S has been a remarkably reliable machine. Beyond the normally expected maintenance items, the things needing repair have been rather minor:

  • During the Annual Inspection in March, one of the aft roller assemblies on the pilot's side seat had to be replaced.
  • Also at Annual, the muffler was replaced with an overhauled unit.
  • To clean up a bit of 'hangar rash', the right stabilizer and elevator plastic tips were replaced. We used the opportunity to accomplish a Service Bulletin replacing some rivets in the outboard stabilizer rib with larger ones.
  • Both magnetos were serviced, and each needed some fairly significant parts renewal.
  • The baggage door latch failed and was replaced with an overhauled assembly.
  • The left wing strut upper and lower fairings, badly cracked, had to be replaced. (The ones on the right side will get done at the next annual.)
  • And finally, two steel brackets in the upper cowling (that mate with the lower cowl at the crankshaft opening) failed due to fatigue cracking and had to be replaced.

This is the 43rd post on this blog for 2012. That compares with 70 in 2011, 100 in 2010 and 128 in 2009. This obvious decline in my productivity here is the result of two things: first, my non-aviation life has gotten somewhat busier, and second, some experiences that would have been "bloggable" in the past now feel repetitive. Perhaps that's a hazard to be expected in this sort of venue. Maybe 2013 will be more interesting, but I have mixed feelings about whether that would be a Good Thing.

In closing, I wish all who may visit here a healthy, prosperous and safe 2013.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Coolest Thing I Got for Christmas

Now I have to show off something that I think is really neat! Our daughter-in-law Kate is a staffer on Capitol Hill, and a while ago she got herself and son Rich onto the Capitol Dome Tour, which is a very tough ticket. If you've been in the Rotunda and looked up, you've seen where the Dome Tour goes. All...the...way...up.

A prominent feature in the dome is the Frieze of American History, which encircles the dome 58 feet above the Rotunda's floor. It's a trompe l'oeil fresco about eight feet high depicting 19 historical vignettes, the last of which is The Birth of Aviation. The frieze was begun in the 1870's by Constantino Brumidi, but the last three vignettes, including The Birth of Aviation, were finished by Allyn Cox in 1953.

So, anyway...Kate got some good pictures on the tour, including several of the frieze. And when unwrapping time arrived, I found this:

The work depicts, obviously, Orville and Wilbur in their moment of triumph. The figures at left are Octave Chanute and Samuel P. Langley (Leonardo da Vinci is out-of-frame left). Kate snapped the shutter, and Rich cropped, printed and framed the result. And I'm as thrilled as I can be.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Waiting Out the Fog

Last Monday I was concerned about whether N631S and I would be able to land at Bridgeport's Sikorsky Memorial Airport at the end of our northbound flight. Just over a week earlier the field had been extensively flooded by the surge from Hurricane Sandy. The ILS equipment and the VOR were damaged and out of service. The forecast on offer when I got up didn't look too bad but just a bit worse and the ceiling could go below the minimums for the available RNAV approaches – around 400 feet.

TAF AMD KBDR 120840Z 1209/1306 00000KT 2SM BR BKN007
       TEMPO 1209/1212 1SM BR 
       FM121400 20006KT 5SM HZ SCT015 BKN025 
       FM121600 20010G17KT P6SM SCT025 BKN100 
       FM130300 20012KT 5SM BR BKN025=
Winds calm, visibility one to two miles in mist with a broken 700 foot ceiling; forecast to improve at about my ETA to five miles in haze with scattered clouds at 1,500 and the ceiling up to 2,500 feet. Really, a good enough forecast to depart on. I checked the current conditions at KBDR just before leaving.

SPECI KBDR 121147Z 19004KT 1 3/4SM BR OVC005 11/11 A3047=
A mile and three quarters with a 500 foot ceiling. Consistent with the forecast, and good enough for the RNAV Runway 24 approach.

About 45 minutes after takeoff from KVKX I figured I'd better have a look at how conditions were developing up in Connecticut. So I checked the METAR for KBDR:

SPECI KBDR 121233Z 21006KT 3/4SM BR OVC003 12/11 A3047=
That's not so good. Both the visibility and ceiling had gone below the minimums for the RNAV approach. I hoped that this was just a passing bit of dense weather and that conditions would return to something more in line with the forecast. But hope is not a plan. I looked at the reported conditions at nearby airports so that I could start planning for a diversion. New Haven, Oxford, White Plains and Danbury were little better than Bridgeport. But Hartford-Brainard didn't look bad at all.

SPECI KHFD 121239Z 19005KT 3SM BR SCT009 11/09 A3046=
Three miles in mist, scattered clouds at 900 feet. OK, that's Plan B.

I kept watch on the situation as N631S and I motored northward. We crossed over KJFK at about 1340Z and the fog was much in evidence. The weather at Hartford continued to hold up quite nicely but the reports for Bridgeport just continued to get worse. The fact that the ILS was out-of-commission was irrelevant, as Bridgeport was below minimums even for that approach. It was small consolation, but the forecast for KBDR had finally been updated to reflect foggy reality:

TAF AMD KBDR 121347Z 1214/1312 19005KT 1/4SM FG VV002
       TEMPO 1215/1216 1/2SM FG 
       FM121600 19007KT 2SM BR BKN005
       TEMPO 1216/1217 4SM BR SCT005 
       FM121700 18010KT P6SM SCT025 BKN150 
       FM130100 17007KT 5SM BR BKN015 
       FM131000 22010G18KT 4SM -SHRA BR BKN015=
Visibility of 1/4 to 1/2 mile with vertical visibility of 200 feet for the next two hours; then improving to two miles and a 500 foot broken ceiling. The METARS for KBDR and KHFD were:

METAR KBDR 121352Z 20003KT M1/4SM FG VV001 12/12 A3047=
METAR KHFD 121353Z VRB04KT 5SM BR OVC009 12/11 A3046=
So, Hartford pretty good at 5 miles and a 900 foot overcast. Bridgeport not good at all at less than a 1/4 mile in fog with vertical visibility of 100 feet. I was handed off to the final approach sector controller and checked in with "New York Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra level 3,000, Sierra at Bridgeport, is anyone getting in over there?"

The controller answered, "Skylane 631 Sierra, Bridgeport altimeter 30.46, and no, a Pilatus just tried it and went missed. Whaddya want to do?"

In a triumph of wishful thinking over reality, I said, "Approach, 31 Sierra would like to go to BAYYS and do a couple turns in the hold, and see if things improve at Bridgeport."

"Skylane 31 Sierra, maintain 3000, cleared direct BAYYS intersection, hold as published."

BAYYS intersection is an initial approach fix for the RNAV Runway 24 approach into KBDR. I entered the hold there and pulled the power back. Perhaps in 15 or 20 minutes there would be some sign of improvement at KBDR. After a few turns around the hold, I checked with Bridgeport tower, who assured me that conditions were staying consistently bad. So I went back to New York Approach.

"Approach, Skylane 31 Sierra would like to divert to Hartford."

"31 Sierra, you're cleared to the Hartford-Brainard airport via present position to the Hartford VOR thence direct. Maintain 3,000."

I read that back and departed the hold to toward HFD. Very soon I was handed off to Bradley approach who cleared me direct to LAZRD, the IAF for the GPS Rwy 2 approach, circle to land Runway 20. Brainard Tower then kindly offered Runway 2 for landing with a few knots of tailwind and I taxied over to the ramp at Atlantic Aviation, where the nice folks provided a place to wait out the fog at Bridgeport.

I landed at Brainard Field a little after 10:00 AM local time and settled down to wait. The last timethat this happened I wound up leaving N631S at Oxford (KOXC) for a few days, as the fog at Bridgeport refused to dissipate. This time I was more fortunate. I watched the METARS issuing for KBDR and was happy to note some improvement.

SPECI KBDR 121541Z 00000KT 1SM BR OVC002 12/12 A3045=
SPECI KBDR 121550Z 00000KT 3SM BR BKN002 OVC006 13/13 A3044=
METAR KBDR 121552Z 00000KT 3SM BR BKN002 OVC006 13/13 A3044=
Over the course of a few minutes (from 1541Z to 1552Z) the visibility went from one mile to three and the sky condition from 200 overcast to 600 overcast. I promptly filed an IFR flight plan for a 1600Z departure KHFD to KBDR direct and went back out to N631S.

Brainard ground control gave me my clearance to KBDR via HFD thence direct, at 4,000 and I got underway for the 25 minute flight. By the time I was cleared to BAYYS for the RNAV Runway 24 approach, Bridgeport was reporting "better than 5,000 and 5." N631S and I touched down at 1625Z. Waiting out the fog had taken two and a half hours out of my day, but it was just another one of those things in aviation. Every now and then the old adage applies: "Time to spare? Go by air!"

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's Been Over a Week...

The seasons are changing, the weather is dynamic, and recently the flying has been somewhat entertaining. The last trip N631S and I made from Connecticut down to the DC area was a good example.

It's certainly the time of year when I start paying close attention to temeratures aloft. That Friday was a sort of a drizzly, rainy day so I wanted to see forecasts above freezing for my intended route.

Fortunately, the freezing levels forecast for the eastern Pennsylvania routing (a morning forecast at left, with a valid time of 19Z) looked quite good. The area where my flight path would be at 8000 feet MSL would have the freezing level between 9000 and 11000. That was good news, as I could focus on other things.

I was expecting to depart KBDR between 20Z and 21Z, and the TAF was forecasting basic conditions of six miles visibility in mist with a broken ceiling between 2500 and 3500 feet, but with periods of light showers and four mile visibility, ceiling at 1500.

TAF AMD KBDR 191858Z 1919/2018 15010KT P6SM SCT008 SCT015 BKN035
       TEMPO 1919/1921 4SM -SHRA BR BKN015 
       FM192100 15008KT 6SM BR SCT008 SCT015 BKN025 
       FM192300 17007KT 4SM BR SCT008 BKN015 
       FM200300 VRB04KT 4SM BR OVC015
       TEMPO 2006/2010 2SM BR BKN008 
       FM201000 VRB04KT 2SM BR BKN008 
       FM201300 24008KT P6SM SCT015
       FM201500 24010KT P6SM SKC=
The winds were going to be against me, quite vigorously. I was anticipating about 2:35 enroute, with an arrival at KVKX a bit after 23Z. But the forecast for nearby KDCA was quite benign...calling for good visibility and scattered clouds at 15000 feet. Clearly, it seemed, I was headed for better weather.
TAF AMD KDCA 192038Z 1921/2018 VRB12G20KT 4SM SHRA BR BKN035 
       FM192200 21005KT P6SM SCT150 
       FM200900 27006KT P6SM SCT200=
So I got on with the program and departed KBDR at 2034Z in the midst of a light rain shower. N631S climbed into the overcast and soon broke out into the clear at about 6000 feet. So far so good! The balance of the flight promised to be lengthy but uneventful.

About an hour later, things started to get a bit more interesting. The forecasts hadn't said anything about convective activity; indeed the outlook had used words like "slight" to describe the risk of thunderstorms. But there, up ahead as I approached Lancaster, was a rather nasty looking line of storms headed northeast and most certainly becoming a factor. Who ordered that? Not that I was terribly surprised. The strong southerly flow and warm air aloft indicated considerable advection of warm moist air, moving north and colliding with the cold air approaching from the west. Some atmospheric fireworks were to be expected.

The thunderstorm activity was clearly visible up ahead in the light of the setting sun. I asked Harrisburg approach for an early turn toward Baltimore to put a bit more space between N631S and the weather, and they accommodated with "After Lancaster, cleared direct Baltimore". I expected I'd need further deviations to the east as the line of cells moved north, but that was good for the time being.

By the time Harrisburg handed me and N631S off to Potomac Approach I was not liking the proximity of the weather outside the right cabin window at all. Frequent cloud to ground lightning was appearing about five miles west of my track. So, from the first Potomac Approach controller I requested a 15 degree deviation left, which he promptly approved. That vector pointed me toward Martin State (KMTN) and moved me away from the storm cells just west of Baltimore.

The scheme running through my mind as I was handed off to the next controller was "present heading for about 15 miles, then direct Nottingham (OTT)". I never got a chance to propose that, because the controller said, "Cessna 31 Sierra, fly a heading of 180 for now. We'll do that for 20 miles or so and then you can go direct Nottingham and then to VKX. That should be comfortable." I responded, "31 Sierra, that sure works for me." Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers?

Looking ahead, I could see that there were cells in the vicinity of Andrews AFB, just north of KVKX, my destination. It would, I figured, take me about another twenty minutes to get down to a point abeam OTT and I hoped that the active weather would clear to the north by then.

The south heading took me offshore over Chesapeake Bay (not, however, beyond gliding distance from the shoreline). The sun had set, it was getting quite dark, and the sound and light show off to the west was pretty spectacular. So much for the forecast of "slight" chances for convective weather!

Approaching OTT, I asked for the RNAV Runway 6 instrument approach into KVKX. It looked as though the active cells had moved away from the airfield, but I saw no reason to chance that cloud "debris" from the cells would hamper a visual approach. And, the extra 15 minutes or so that it would take to fly the approach would give the weather some extra time to move away. Sort of a useful delaying vector.

The approach was uneventful. The weather had moved off to the north and the final approach and landing offered no problems. I taxied N631S around to the hangar and put the airplane to bed.

Only after closing the hangar doors did I notice that in the half-hour since the wheels had touched the runway a serious layer of fog had settled over KVKX. If I'd been thirty minutes later, I doubt I could have landed there. Timing is, as usual, everything.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Today at KBDR (cont'd)

Watching the weather forecasts this past weekend, it became quite clear that a Monday morning flight from the DC area to Bridgeport's Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) was a Bad Idea. Hurricane Sandy was on the way and so I resolved to travel a day early.

I believe I could have made the flight on Sunday afternoon, but it didn't seem quite right to be flying an airplane TO an airport that most people were trying to fly away FROM.

KBDR's airport elevation is 10 feet above Mean Sea Level. The National Weather Service was predicting a storm surge in excess of 10 feet on top of an astronomical high tide. You can do the math.

So I opted to leave N631S in its hangar at KVKX and to take AmTrak. I spent Monday morning getting my office secured and the afternoon and evening listening to Sandy's sound and fury outside my window while hoping that the power would stay on – which it did.

At noon today I drove over to KBDR to have a look at what Sandy had wrought...and came away very happy with the decision to leave N631S in Maryland.

That lake over on the other side of the airplane is a couple of feet deep and Runway 6-24 lies at the bottom of it. Yes, that's the glide slope transmitter for the ILS Rwy 6 approach over on the far side.
There stands the BDR VOR transmitter across the pond. Runway 6-24 runs left to right, about halfway from where I was standing to the VOR. You can see that the flooding continues off to the left, to where Runway 11-29 lies. It's under water as well. The airport is closed indefinitely.

The rumor mill is operational, of course. I've been told that there is no plan for dewatering the field because no one has any idea of how it could be done. The airport was built on marsh so there's no place to send the water. A couple of years ago heavy spring rains left a large pond between the two runways. It took many weeks for the water in that pond to subside.

Over on the other side of the field, a T-hangar collapsed during the height of the storm, taking out two airplanes – a fairly new Bonanza that was in the hangar and a nice Mooney that was tied down next to it. In addition, a number of airplanes are reported to have been partly immersed in the flooding...and that's salt water.

So on the plus side of the ledger, I can congratulate myself for leaving N631S in a safer location as Sandy passed through. On the minus side, I may have to arrange to use a much less convenient airport (likely Waterbury-Oxford, KOXC) for my travels.

Of course, I'm in better shape than the folks who have airplanes at KBDR. Even the ones that came through the storm in good shape are faced with a problem...they haven't got a runway.

UPDATE 11/1/2012: I spoke with the Operations office at KBDR this afternoon, and learned that to the amazement and gratification of all, the airport has re-opened.

Runway lights, REIL's, taxiway lights, PAPI's/VASI's, VOR and ILS all OTS. Night ops not advised.

Runway 11-29 is still under water but 6-24 is open, as are a useful array of taxiways. As the ops guy noted to me, the water "subsided amazingly fast. Tuesday we were calling it Lake Sikorsky and figured it was there for a while."


Monday, September 17, 2012

This is Why We Walk Around the Airplane

A while ago I posted a discussion of how to change the oil in a Cessna 182. On the list of items to be gathered in preparation for changing the oil I included "a helper." The helper becomes very useful when it's time to wrangle the lower cowl.

About a week ago it was time, indeed past time, to change the oil in N631S. I'd accumulated about 56 hours since the last change and it was getting to be important to get to the job. But my usual helper was out of town on travel, and my backup helper was not feeling well. So I decided to see if I could change the oil "solo" – and in the event, it did not prove terribly difficult.

I removed the upper cowl and loosened the quarter-turn Cleco fasteners on the right side of the lower cowl. Then I disconnected the cowl flap control cable from the right cowl flap. This gave me access through the cowl flap opening to the quick-drain fitting on the bottom of the crankcase. Without too much difficulty I was able to slip a 1" vinyl hose over the quick drain and open it to allow the used oil to drain. (The resulting lash-up appears at left.) And while the oil drained, I replaced the filter and safety wire in the normal way.

I don't expect to make this my standard procedure for oil changes, because it doesn't provide an opportunity to give the lower parts of the powerplant a thorough inspection. But in the circumstances (no helper) it worked well.

Feeling rather satisfied with myself, I re-secured the lower cowl and replaced the upper cowl. The latter needed the usual amount of persuasion but after a few minutes it dropped into place and I finished up, closed the hangar, and went home.

About 0600 the following Monday morning I arrived back at the airport, for my weekly trip to Connecticut. I stowed my bag and briefcase and began to do my pre-flight inspection. Of course I use a checklist, but I also like to take a step back and just look at the airplane. And when I looked at the right side of the upper cowl, this is what I saw:

As you can see, the whole row of Cleco fasteners that fasten the right side of the upper cowl to the lower were not secured. As I finished the oil change, I'd gotten the right side of the upper cowl seated, walked around to wrestle the left side into place, secured the Clecos on that side and then declared myself finished.

And that is why you always walk around the airplane. If I'd not bothered with a good pre-flight walk-around, would the upper cowl have come adrift during the takeoff roll? I don't know and have absolutely no interest in finding out. This highlights a second reason to do the oil-change with a helper if one can be had – a second pair of eyes greatly increases the probability of trapping boneheaded errors.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Giant Leap for Mankind

He was the consummate test pilot. In those last eternal seconds as the LM descended, with the computer warning of errors and the fuel state approaching critical and the boulder field stretching out before them and the outcome quite seriously in doubt, he stayed cool and did what test pilots do, as well as anyone ever has.

It was then, even more than with the One Small Step, that Neil Armstrong won his place in history.

"Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying."
Neil A. Armstrong
First human to set foot on the surface of the Moon, 20 July 1969
Gone West, 25 August 2012

Photo: NASA/Science Photo Library

Friday, August 24, 2012

Today at KBDR (cont'd)

In July 1943 the US Army Air Forces accepted delivery (from the Douglas Aircraft plant at Long Beach, CA) of a C-47A-40-DL Skytrain aircraft carrying serial number 42-24064 and contractor's number 9926.

By the next spring, the aircraft was serving with the 74th Troop Carrier Squadron at RAF Aldermaston under the command of Major Ralph L. Strean, Jr. The 74th TCS was a unit of the 434th Troop Carrier Group, a part of the 9th Air Force. (The photo above at left shows the flight line at RAF Aldermaston in 1944.)

In the pre-dawn darkness of 6th June 1944, 52 C-47's of the 434th TCG, almost certainly including '064 (now marked with "invasion stripes" and carrying the squadron identifier "ID" and tail letter "N") crossed the English Channel into occupied France. Each Douglas transport towed either a Waco CG-4A or a Airspeed Horsa glider laden with troops, equipment and supplies to reinforce elements of the 101st Airborne Division that had already jumped from other C-47's into battle.

Aircraft '064 continued to participate in supply operations as Allied forces advanced across France and into Germany. The 74th TCS relocated from England to France and on 3 April 1945, while parked at an airstrip in Gelnhausen, Germany (near Frankfurt), '064 was involved in a minor mishap, being struck by a landing aircraft. The damage was repaired within a week.

The D-Day veteran continued to serve the military until it was demobilized and sold as surplus in 1947. Records indicate that as of 1954, now known to the FAA as N74589, it was working for a living in the livery of West Coast Airlines, flying passengers in the Pacific Northwest.

After the conversion to turbine power swept through the airline industry, N74589 went through a series of owners. It was abandoned at least once and claimed by an FBO in compensation for unpaid bills. (See photo at left of '589 sitting in the weeds.)

But eventually, she found a good home. Now, the Normandy veteran has been cleaned up, her paint freshened, and her colors restored to those of her glory days. This morning, I found Douglas C-47A c/n 9926 at rest on the ramp at KBDR, waiting patiently for someone to come spin up her twin Pratt R-1830's and take her into the sky once more. In her 70th year, the old gal still gives us a thrill.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ask for What You Need! (cont'd)

Friday's flight from KBDR to KVKX took me back to a theme I focused on about a year ago: the importance of asking ATC for what you need to stay out of trouble. You have to have good situational awareness and an understanding of where you need to be. ATC will help you to get there.

As it got close to the time I'd planned for departure, the weather near Bridgeport was good. But things were happening in central Pennsylvania that needed watching. The Terminal Area Forecasts (TAF's) in effect for Allentown (KABE) and Lancaster (KLNS) contained some strong hints:

TAF KABE 171734Z 1718/1818 24005KT P6SM SCT050 BKN250
       FM171900 22011KT P6SM SCT050 BKN250
       TEMPO 1721/1724 5SM TSRA BKN035CB  
       FM180000 29005KT P6SM SCT050 BKN100
       TEMPO 1800/1803 5SM -SHRA OVC050 
       FM180400 33004KT P6SM SCT025 BKN050 
       FM180800 34005KT 5SM BR SCT020 OVC025 
       FM181400 01005KT P6SM BKN050 
       FM181600 02008KT P6SM BKN100=

TAF KLNS 171726Z 1718/1818 26008KT P6SM SCT200 
       FM172000 23007KT P6SM VCTS BKN040CB  
       FM180400 32005KT P6SM SCT040= 
From 21Z to 24Z, Allentown was forecasting periods of thundershower activity, while from 20Z through 04Z Lancaster was expecting thundershowers in the vicinity. The radar picture showed a fairly extensive area of precipitation and unsettled weather in central Pennsylvania, moving eastward fairly slowly.

N631S and I lifted off from Runway 24 at KBDR at 2013Z. The IFR clearance was the same one that is always issued by ATC's computer: Vectors to SAX, thence V249 to SBJ, V30 to ETX, V39 to LRP, V93 to BAL and thence direct to KVKX. I could have said "unable", and insisted on a routing over JFK and down the New Jersey coast, but that would have entailed a significant delay. I judged the forecast and weather situation to be manageable with ATC's usual enroute cooperation. Shortly after departure, the NEXRAD display on the Garmin 396 was showing (above) the beginnings of the adverse weather still well north and west of the planned route.

Once N631S and I got to Sparta (SAX) I asked for and promptly got a corner-cutting shortcut direct to LANNA; and after the handoff to Allentown approach I asked for and also promptly received clearance direct to FLOAT, which lies on V39 about halfway between East Texas (ETX) and Reading (KRDG). This track kept me south of the weather that was approaching Allentown from the north but I didn't want to go all the way to FLOAT (see above left). So about then, I had a brief chat with Allentown Approach:
N631S: Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra.
Approach: 31 Sierra, go ahead.
N631S: Could you please tell me what level of precip you're painting up ahead at FLOAT?
Approach: It looks like moderate precip at FLOAT...in fact, extensive moderate precip there and to the west.
N631S: 31 Sierra would like to request an early turn toward Lancaster to give that area of weather a wider berth.
Approach: 31 Sierra, I have your request. I'll need to work something out with Harrisburg.
N631S: That'd be great. Thanks.

At the time of this conversation, the view off to the north (at left) was gray and opaque, but I didn't see any lightning flashes. I pressed on toward FLOAT for about five miles and then the controller came back with "Cessna 631 Sierra, cleared direct Lancaster." I thanked her and turned N631S to the southwest.

Just a few miles farther on, the Allentown Approach controller completed the hand-off to Harrisburg Approach. I'd already been looking at the weather N631S and I were now heading toward at Lancaster (LRP) (depicted at left) and I checked in on the new frequency with a proposal for Harrisburg:
N631S: Harrisburg, Skylane N631 Sierra, level 8,000 with a request.
Approach: Skylane 631 Sierra, Harrisburg Approach. Harrisburg altimeter 29.78; go ahead with your request.
N631S: What are the chances of an early turn toward Baltimore for 31 Sierra, to stay clear of the weather along Victor 39 between Lancaster and Reading?
Approach: 31 Sierra, if I can get you down to 6,000 I can give you an early turn toward Baltimore. Can you accept 6,000?
N631S: 6,000 would be no problem for 31 Sierra.
Approach: Skylane 31 Sierra, descend and maintain 6,000. You can expect direct Baltimore in about one-zero miles.
N631S: Skylane 631 Sierra is out of 8 for 6, and thanks!

As soon as I leveled off at 6,000 feet, Harrisburg Approach advised, "Skylane 31 Sierra, steer heading 220." That got me pointed away from the weather (see left – note that the turn has already been made). And just a few miles farther along, "Skylane 631 Sierra, cleared direct Baltimore."

And with that, N631S and I were in the clear. The rest of the journey was uneventful and away from the influence of unpleasant weather. Again, the controllers all along the route – especially at Allentown Approach and Harrisburg Approach – have my appreciation for their skill and responsiveness.

And that's the story. Except...after passing Baltimore under the watchful care of Potomac Approach, N631S and I headed south to Nottingham (OTT) as we do nearly every Friday. I expected a vector after OTT to about a 240 heading and after a while a turn toward "home plate" at KVKX. But I got a pleasant surprise in the form of a clearance direct to the field from a point just north of OTT!

I must admit that I didn't recognize my benefactor's voice – people do sound differently on different frequencies – until I had KVKX in sight and cancelled IFR. That's when I heard, "Have a good evening, Frank..." and figured out that my final controller was my friend Sarah. So, if you read this, Sarah...thanks for the early turn toward home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fortunate Timing

When N631S and I departed KVKX for our northbound trip to Connecticut on Monday the forecast for KBDR, the destination airport, was quite reasonable. It called for a light southwesterly breeze, good visibility and scattered high clouds. There was the possibility of periods of light rain but these were expected to be over by 8:00 AM.

KBDR 230949Z 2310/2406 23006KT P6SM SCT120 BKN250
       TEMPO 2310/2312 6SM -SHRA BKN035 
       FM231500 22009KT P6SM SCT050 BKN140
       TEMPO 2318/2322 6SM TSRA SCT025 BKN040CB 
       FM232200 22010KT P6SM VCSH BKN050 BKN120 
       FM240000 23005KT P6SM SCT050 BKN150= 
But things were a bit more complicated than that. There was also a Convective SIGMET in effect for thunderstorms with tops above 40,000 feet. They were at that time between Albany and Poughkeepsie, headed southeast. Toward Bridgeport.

I decided that since the weather on my intended route was good and the only question involved what the situation on arrival would be, it made sense to get underway and to work out options and alternates en route.

N631S was off the ground at 11Z. As soon as we were level at 7,000 feet, our final cruising altitude, I had a look at what the NEXRAD display would tell me. As you see at left, the first lot of stormy weather was passing KBDR. It was moving southeast at about 20 knots.
I panned the NEXRAD display on the GPS396 to the north and west and saw a second, larger area of weather coming along behind the first. It appeared that these storms would be influencing the area I was headed toward for some time to come. Without a doubt, it was time for some planning.

I took note that there was a clear area about ten miles wide between the areas of weather. With fortunate timing, the gap might accommodate my flight path from JFK to Bridgeport. I'd press on, and see if my luck was good.

Plan 'B' would be to land early and wait out the weather. There were a couple of places available for that. Miller Air Park in Toms River, NJ (KMJX) would work as would Belmar (KBLM). I'd watch the evolving weather picture and pick a spot to land if that seemed advisable.

Plan 'C' would be in effect if the situation kept looking good long enough to get me into the New York Class 'B' airspace and then quickly became unacceptable. Then I'd need to get New York Approach to help with weather avoidance vectors to an airport of refuge on Long Island or back in New Jersey.

With that thought process completed, I pressed on. With about 40 minutes to go, the first batch of weather had moved on and dissipated. It was no longer a factor. The second batch was moving toward the coast. The leading edge of the precipitation was about 20 miles from KBDR and the heavier returns were about 10 miles further out. I had already passed KMJX and decided to press on past KBLM. At this point I felt I had a good chance of reaching KBDR ahead of any significant weather.
Crossing JFK, and with 18 minutes to go, there was still about 10 miles between KBDR and even light rain. This was looking quite good. I felt that I had enough margin, even considering the well known NEXRAD latency issues and in case of need I could stay to the south and divert to either New Haven (KHVN) or Groton (KGON).

Conditions on the ground at KBDR were still good. New York Approach cleared me direct to KBDR and with less than 10 minutes left in the trip, I relaxed. I flew past the field, turned back to land on Runway 24 and taxied to parking. As I was putting the cover on N631S, light rain began.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sufficiently Interesting

My friend Craig from Oregon sort of wondered, in a recent comment, where N631S and I have been. He said: "FlightAware says N631S has been flying. Any details to share?"

I responded to the effect that "the flying has been pretty uneventful (i.e., not great blogfodder)" and in fact it's been six or seven weeks of pretty routine back and forth between Potomac Airfield (KVKX) and Bridgeport's Sikorsky Memorial (KBDR). However, this past Friday's southbound trip was interesting enough to talk about.

It was clear from the beginning that, at the least, we were going to get wet. The early chart from NCEP valid for 18Z showed a double-barreled surface low over southern Pennsylvania and Maryland with a stationary front trailing off to the east-southeast and widespread showers.

The Terminal Area Forecasts issued at 12Z looked pretty reasonable:

KBDR 201120Z 2012/2112 09013KT 6SM -SHRA SCT020 OVC050 
     FM201500 08014KT 4SM -RA BR OVC020 
     FM202300 07012KT 5SM -DZ SCT020 OVC025 
     FM210400 05010KT P6SM OVC035
KDCA 201125Z 2012/2112 33006KT P6SM BKN015 OVC060 
     FM201600 VRB05KT P6SM VCSH FEW030 BKN040 
     FM202000 31008KT P6SM VCTS BKN040CB 
     FM210300 03006KT 4SM BR VCSH SCT015 BKN030 
     FM210500 01013KT 4SM BR SCT009 BKN015
The forecast for a late-afternoon departure from KBDR was fine – four miles visibility in light rain and mist, moderate northeast wind and a 2,000 foot overcast. Nothing to be concerned about.

The arrival forecast for the Washington area (using KDCA) had something that would bear watching. From 4:00 PM local time, it anticipated thunder-showers in the vicinity and a broken ceiling of cumulonimbus clouds at 4,000 feet. Supporting that, the mid-morning Collaborative Convective Forecast (CCFP) map valid for 21Z showed widespread sparse convective activity, predicted with low confidence (the gray stuff) but with areas of higher confidence (the blue stuff) located where it might prove interesting to me.

I talked about that "VCTS" tag in the TAF back in May. It seems to follow from a forecast for scattered or sparse convective activity and is flyable with good on-board weather depiction and basic visual conditions. I'd have both, so the VCTS wasn't a "no go" item, but it did demand respect.

So, I was good to go but I continued to keep a watchful eye on the evolving forecast. And I was pleased to see the 18Z TAF's. Neither the forecast nor the view out of my office window had changed much regarding my departure, but things were looking up for arrival.

KDCA 201733Z 2018/2118 32007KT 6SM -RA BKN010 BKN035 OVC100 
     FM202000 36010KT P6SM BKN025 OVC150 
     FM210200 02012KT 5SM -SHRA VCTS BKN015 OVC040CB 
     FM210600 01008KT 4SM BR BKN007 
     FM211600 02007KT P6SM SCT007 BKN015
Basically, the forecast thunder-showers had been pushed out to later in the evening, well after my ETA. That was a nice piece of news. So, shortly thereafter, off to the airport!

N631S and I took off in light rain, but it was clear that the weather was breaking up quickly. After departing Runway 6 at KBDR and turning to the north, I was able to snap the picture at left showing what amounts to visual conditions over the Housatonic River. There were clouds and bursts of precipitation during the initial climb to 6,000 feet but it was the ragged edge of the weather. Just a few seconds later I captured the NEXRAD screen below.

This image makes it clear that there would not be much precipitation to deal with, at least for the first half of the trip. Of course, NEXRAD doesn't show clouds. Upon reaching the Hudson River, ATC asked for a climb to 8,000 feet. That put N631S into the clouds and there we stayed for most of the flight.

Having gotten the departure under control, it was time to look at how the weather was developing at the destination. I panned the NEXRAD display down to the south and got this:

Here too, the precipitation seemed to be departing to the east, and there was no sign of the convective activity that had been in the earlier forecast. Things were definitely looking good. The next step was to check recent METAR's for airports near KVKX to get an idea of current conditions. Early in the flight, here's what Washington National, Andrews, and Davison Army Airfield were reporting:
METAR KDCA 201952Z 35005KT 10SM -RA BKN017 BKN023 OVC040
           27/22 A2992 RMK AO2 SLP130 P0000 T02720217=

METAR KADW 201955Z AUTO 06007KT 7SM -RA BKN007 OVC015 24/23
           A2992 RMK AO2 RAB1941DZE1941 CIG 006V008 SLP131
           P0001 T02410232 $=

METAR KDAA 201955Z AUTO 29004KT 10SM -RA CLR 27/21 A2992
           RMK AO2 RAB1950 SLP132 P0000 T02690214=
The most interesting part of that was, of course, the marginal weather at Andrews AFB. Only about four miles from KVKX, Andrews is a better predictor of conditions at my home field than Washington National. Andrews had good visibility in light rain, but a broken ceiling at 700 feet. That's pretty low! It was time to break out the approach plate for the RNAV Rwy 6 instrument procedure at KVKX and hope that conditions would be improved on arrival.

The Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) for the approach to Runway 6 at KVKX is 680 feet MSL – 562 feet above the touch-down zone elevation (TDZE). A 700 foot ceiling cuts things fairly thin. One piece of good news was that the METAR's indicated winds favoring Runway 6. I would not need to worry about circling to Runway 24. The MDA for a circling approach is 60 feet higher, which would cut the margin further.

Just to make things a bit more entertaining, I hadn't flown the RNAV approach into KVKX since March. I'm current, but all my recent approaches have been at Bridgeport.

The flight continued smoothly and uneventfully past Allentown and Lancaster, and down to Baltimore. Passing Baltimore I rechecked the conditions at Andrews. Not much had changed:

METAR KADW 202155Z AUTO 04006KT 10SM OVC007 23/22 A2992 RMK
           AO2 RAB2102E212136DZE2102B2136E2138 SLP131 P0004
The rain had ended and visibility was a bit improved. The ceiling, still at 700 feet AGL, was now a solid overcast rather than broken. The recorded ATIS at Potomac Airfield (KVKX) was reporting winds five knots at 080. It doesn't report ceiling.

ATC asked my intentions and I said I'd like the RNAV 6 approach. "You can expect that," was the reply. I planned to shoot the approach, and if I had to miss, I'd go around and try one more time. A second miss and I'd divert to Manassas. I have a rule about never shooting an approach a third time.

Potomac Approach vectored N631S and me to the southwest and brought us down to 2,000 feet. Then we were cleared direct to WOBUB, the Initial Approach Fix (IAF), to begin the instrument approach. This picture, approaching WOBUB, looks off to the northeast toward KVKX, about 10 miles away.

The approach was routine and we broke out of the clouds at 800 feet, two to three miles from the threshold. It was nice to land and put N631S away, but if the cloud bases had been 200 feet lower the tale would have gotten longer and more interesting. I thought it was sufficiently interesting as it was.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: "China Pilot: Flying for Chiang and Chennault" by Felix Smith

There are two very good reasons to read Capt. Felix Smith's memoir, China Pilot. The first is to follow the author as he makes his way through the chaos that was Chinese aviation in the late 1940's. It's a fascinating journey taken as pre-war China disintegrated and the People's Republic was being born.

The second reason is to make the acquaintance of the man known as Earthquake Magoon [1]. That name, originally given by Al Capp to the comic-strip character he drew as the "world's dirtiest rassler", was the sobriquet inevitably bestowed on the legendary, Falstaffian James B. McGovern, Jr. Earthquake fit a lifetime of exploits into a decade in the Far East. In certain circles even today, nearly 60 years after his untimely death, Earthquake is spoken of with awe and amazement and Felix Smith brings him to life here in a skillful, loving tribute to an unforgettable friend.

But the journey begins in 1945 with the author dropping a DC-3 into a short, smoke-shrouded strip in the Yangtze River at Chungking. This was the end of his work with China National Aviation Corp. (CNAC), the largest civil airline in China. Felix, who'd grown up in Milwaukee and learned to fly in the pre-war years, had been invited into the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, and assigned to the Army Service of Supply – which had chartered the CNAC fleet and needed pilots to fly its aircraft "over the Hump" from India. With the war ending, CNAC was reverting to its civilian role. Smith was redundant, and headed back home.

Airline jobs back in the States beckoned, but Felix Smith had become smitten with China. General Claire L. Chennault, famous for leading the Flying Tigers, was organizing a new civil airline that would "distribute relief supplies throughout war-ravaged China." The General was looking for pilots, and Felix Smith signed on.

After a delay (during which the author flew a C-47 for a missionary group) Chennault's new airline acquired a name – Civil Air Transport (CAT) – and a clutch of surplus Curtiss C-46 Commando's. Capt. Smith participated in the recovery of the C-46's from a boneyard in Hawaii and the ferry flight back to Shanghai (no small adventure itself), and then began to fly cargo deliveries among China's cities. Hungjao. Hankow. Nanking. Kunming. Kweilin. Shanghai.

The flights were fraught affairs, plagued by lack of spare parts, the refusal of competing CNAC to turn on radio beacons for CAT flights, obstruction by mendacious Chinese Air Force officers, and a heavy dose of god-awful weather. The CAT pilots earned their pay, even though they weren't being paid. They'd voluntarily deferred their salaries, working for expenses until the airline was on a sound financial footing.

Between trips, the pilots recovered in Shanghai. One favorite spot was the bar at the Palace Hotel, where an actual cold beer could be had. It was there that Smith first saw...

"a broad foreign man with a bluff face and a black Vandyke beard. Massive eyebrows, like inverted gull wings, reached around the sides of his forehead. Feet planted on the lobby floor, hands on huge hips, he bent forward and scowled..."
The big man recognized the author and his companion as fellow Americans and joined them, leaving the bar in their company and walking with them to CAT's offices where they'd collect their expense checks. Along the way...

"The giant chuckled and put out his hand. 'Jim McGovern.' And then, gruffly, 'Friends call me Earthquake Magoon.'"
And after their business was finished...
"When...I turned to go, Earthquake Magoon was rooted to the floor, staring into a roomful of secretaries.

Glossy hair flowed neatly over their high-necked cheongsams, but the modesty of the prim neck-girdling collars was belied by the rest of the tailoring. Skintight, the dresses accentuated beguiling curves, while split skirts flashed glimpses of ivory thighs. Earthquake Magoon was as motionless as a taxidermist's bear. Speared by lust.

On our way down the stairs...Earthquake Magoon was uncharacteristically quiet, but when we got outside he said, "How does a guy get a job in this lash-up?"

In 1947 the Chinese civil war started to heat up. The Nationalists governed by Chiang Kai-shek, held most of the cities but the Communists under Mao Tse-tung dominated the countryside. As a result the cities were besieged one by one, and CAT became their aerial lifeline. Felix and Earthquake and their compatriots flew C-46's and C-47's into and out of increasingly precarious landing zones.

Repeatedly, Nationalist officers refused to admit how close the enemy was and more than once CAT crews were stranded, or nearly so, as the Nationalist resistance collapsed. The author's descriptions of these operations – the siege of Weihsien, the fall of Tsinan, the debacle in Manchuria – are riveting accounts reflecting the casual bravery of the CAT pilots, and of the Nationalist leaders the incompetence and occasional cowardice of many and the inspiring bravery of a few.

All of the cities fell to the Communists. Peiping. Tsingtao. Shanghai. CAT withdrew its operations to Hong Kong. Felix Smith became the Station Manager. They continued to fly to the mainland, landing within the ever-shrinking perimeter of Nationalist control. Chiang Kai-shek moved his seat of government to Taiwan.

As the 1940's ended, CAT settled into a Taiwan-based routine. But all semblance of routine ended in June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded the south. CAT promptly offered its services to the Air Force. The offer was at first declined, but soon the climate changed.

Newcomers appeared among the executive ranks. An OSS veteran, Alfred Cox, became CAT's CEO. Other 'suits' with military rather than airline experience appeared. In fact, CAT had been acquired by the U.S. government and was now a wholly-owned operating subsidiary of the CIA. The pilots were returned to full salary. And started flying intensively in Korea.

With the advent of CIA sponsorship, the flying soon included trips to French Indochina. The names would become heartbreakingly familiar – Saigon, Hanoi, Haiphong, Vientiane, Dien Bien Phu. The author describes the colonial society that the French were trying to return to a status quo ante bellum that would never re-emerge.

From 1951 through 1953, CAT (and the author) flew support missions in Korea and in Indochina. The latter involved use of Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar's given by the United States to the French. As the war began to go badly for the French forces, the re-supply missions grew increasingly hazardous. The C-119's were coming home with bullet holes in them.

Finally the French commander chose to make an ill-advised stand at Dien Bien Phu. Inexplicably, the high ground was conceded to the Vietnamese forces, and soon their artillery began to make itself felt. As the French situation grew desperate, air drops from the CAT C-119's became the only source of supply. The flights began to suffer casualties.

On 6 May 1954, attempting to drop an artillery piece to besieged French paratroopers, Earthquake Magoon's C-119 was struck by two anti-aircraft shells.

"Steve Kusak, in another C-119, closed in to help in any way he could. Oil from Earthquake's shell-torn engine spattered over Kusak's windshield.
'Which way are the hills lowest?' Earthquake called.
'Turn right,' Kusak answered.
Earthquake drifted down, toward the Lao village of Muong Het, sixty miles ahead, where a short dirt strip lay alongside a river in a narrow valley.
Kusak called, 'Bail out!'
'Shut up, I'm busy.'
Kusak followed him down. A few miles short of the village, Earthquake spoke his last words. Calm, matter-of-fact, he said, 'Looks like this is it, son.'
It was.
James McGovern, alias Earthquake Magoon, died in the crash along with his co-pilot, Wallace Buford. Dien Bien Phu fell the next day.
"I had just come in from Korea when I heard. I wanted to cry but couldn't. Just a long-term ache that returns as I write. Once in a lifetime you know someone who deserves special dispensation from the Fates to live forever. Earthquake Magoon was my candidate, but he didn't live half the span of an ordinary mortal."
The tone of the book becomes subdued after the account of Earthquake's last flight. There are tales to tell, friends to remember, debts to repay, and the author discharges these responsibilities with skill. But some of his heart is not in it. Still, he moves the narrative forward to February 1968 when a CAT Boeing 727 crashed during an ILS approach to Taipei. The CIA had been shifting its emphasis to its Air America operation and in the ensuing controversy was content to allow CAT to die.

In October 1968 Capt. Felix Smith left what remained of CAT. He would spend the rest of his career in the airline business in Asia but his time as a China Pilot was done. It was an incredible time, full of adventures and amazing characters and Felix Smith bears fair witness to all. Whether you come for the history or the Soldier-of-Fortune tale, you'll be welcomed and rewarded by this work.

Through the efforts of former CAT pilots led by Felix Smith, the remains of James B. McGovern, Jr., 'Earthquake Magoon', were recovered from Laos in 2002 and subsequently positively identified. On 24 May 2007 he was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

[1]: Most sources refer to James McGovern as 'Earthquake McGoon, but in this book Capt. Smith consistently uses the spelling Magoon, and here I have followed suit.(back)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury (8/22/1920-6/5/2012)

Word comes that Ray Douglas Bradbury has gone West, peacefully, at age 91. He blended soaring imagination with exquisite prose to conjure worlds more wonderful than we could conceive without his help.

So many of us grew up partly in his worlds. On the veldt. At the dark carnival. Gazing at the fire. Hearing the sound of thunder. Contemplating the coming of soft rains. He was of the Golden Age and yet somehow apart from it. The other giants stood together; Bradbury stood alone in magnificent splendor. Something wondrous came this way and we shan't soon see it again. R.I.P.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

-- Sara Teasdale

Friday, June 1, 2012

Some Days It's Not a Good Idea

The weather boffins have been saying all day that the afternoon and evening would be boisterous in the Mid-Atlantic states. The loud noises started around 18Z with thunderstorm cells forming in central Virginia and moving northeast toward the DC area.

My plan was to get a coastal route from ATC, depart Connecticut around 20Z, and fly south until I didn't like what I saw through the windshield. I was guessing I'd make it to Millville (KMIV). Here are a couple of the relevant Terminal Area Forecasts (TAF's) from 18Z:

KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 10018KT P6SM SCT015 BKN070 BKN200 
     FM020100 11015G23KT P6SM OVC010 
     KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 10018KT P6SM SCT015 BKN070 BKN200 
     FM020100 11015G23KT P6SM OVC010 
     FM020400 11015G21KT 3SM -RA BR OVC004 
     FM020700 13013G20KT 2SM RA BR OVC004 
     FM021000 17012KT 3SM SHRA BKN005 OVC012 
     FM021400 19007KT P6SM BKN025 
     FM021600 21008KT P6SM SCT030

KACY 012012Z 0120/0218 11011G19KT P6SM BKN020 
     FM012200 12012G21KT P6SM BKN030 
     FM020100 14012G22KT P6SM -SHRA SCT015 OVC035 WS020/19040 
     FM020400 15010G18KT 3SM SHRA BR OVC015 WS020/19045KT 
     TEMPO 0204/0207 2SM +TSRA BR OVC008CB 
     FM021000 28009KT 4SM -SHRA BR SCT015 OVC035 
     FM021200 29010KT P6SM BKN120 
     FM021500 29012G18KT P6SM SCT040
The forecasts have the rain starting in Atlantic City around 01Z and in Bridgeport not until midnight.

But Air Traffic Control had other ideas. When I requested the routing I wanted I was told that there were no routes available into the DC area due to weather. I understand their point...here are some images of what's going on around DC as I write:

This is the Surface Analysis released at 1933Z. (Click to enlarge.) It shows the warm front draped right across DC and the DelMarVa peninsula and the cold front pushing into western Virginia. The convective activity in the warm sector between the two fronts is no surprise.

And here's the long range base-reflectivity display from the Sterling, VA NEXRAD site at 2012Z. You can see that New Jersey looks good, but the weather is encroaching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In fact, it was moving from a 210 heading at approximately 30 knots. And yes, the red polygons are tornado warnings.

This one got my attention. It's the Tornado Watch updated at 2017Z. It warns of a moderate risk of severe tornadoes and 2" hail, over the entire DC and Maryland area. Upon reflection, I don't think I want to go there. So, based on a preponderance of the evidence I've concluded that this is one of those days when it's not a good idea to fly. Time to come up with Plan 'B'!

My options were:

  • Depart Bridgeport VFR and fly as far south as seemed to make sense, then land and 'hole up' until the worst of the weather passed (note to self: Could be pretty late), or get a motel room and press on tomorrow.
  • Hustle over to the railroad station and catch the AMTRAK train that departs at 5:02 and is scheduled into Washington about 10:45. Expect to get home about midnight. (Down-side: Then I'm forced onto the train on Monday morning for the return trip.)
  • Pack it in for today. File a flight plan for a 'Dawn Patrol' departure tomorrow morning, then go find someone who will sell me a burger. (Note to self: Turn in early for the early departure.)
The third option wins, hands down...provided the weather forecast for tomorrow morning supports it. Taking another look at the TAF for Bridgeport as it relates to an 0930Z departure:
KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 ... 
     FM020700 13013G20KT 2SM RA BR OVC004 
     FM021000 17012KT 3SM SHRA BKN005 OVC012 
     FM021400 19007KT P6SM BKN025 
That's acceptable. A normal, rainy IFR departure. If I file for a route west to Sparta VOR (SAX), thence over toward Allentown and then Reading, I'll be moving away from the weather. Here's the Reading (KRDG) TAF for the period:
KRDG 011750Z 0118/0218 ... 
     FM020800 25008KT 4SM -SHRA BR SCT015 OVC035 
     FM021000 29010KT P6SM BKN120 
     FM021500 29012G17KT P6SM BKN040
By the time I get over there, the weather will be clear (although the ride may be bumpy in the aftermath of the cold front). And finally, for arrival at KVKX around 12Z, here's the TAF for KDCA:
KDCA 012001Z 0120/0218 15016G25KT 4SM TSRA BKN035CB OVC050 
     FM020100 17012G20KT 4SM TSRA BKN025CB OVC040 
     FM020500 30010KT P6SM BKN050 
     FM021100 30012KT P6SM SCT050 
     FM021600 29014G18KT P6SM FEW050
That should serve nicely – scattered clouds at 5,000 feet and a mild northwest wind.

So that's the plan. I'm off to find dinner, then an early bedtime and an oh-dark-thirty wake-up. I wish you all a pleasant evening.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Today at KBDR

The roar of big round engines is again being heard in the pattern at Sikorsky Memorial Airport. The B-17G Yankee Lady is in town for display and demonstration rides. I stopped by the field this morning and must say that, at 68 years young, the Lady is looking quite lovely.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

For each of us, a wish for an enjoyable Memorial Day. But let each be sure to pause, to reflect on the debt owed to those who have paid the price of keeping us free to enjoy it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: "Fighter Pilot's Heaven" by Donald S. Lopez

Just a few weeks ago I posted here a review of Don Lopez' first memoir, "Into the Teeth of the Tiger." That volume was an account of the author's experiences as a fighter pilot with the 75th Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group in China from mid-1943 to early 1945. The present book, extending the story to cover Col. Lopez' five year stint (1945 – 50) as a test pilot at Eglin Field in Florida, is very different.

The previous volume was a riveting account of aerial warfare at the far end of the spear. It would hold the interest of the average reader as much as that of the aviation enthusiast. In a sense, the Warhawks and Mustangs are peripheral to the story...at its core it's about the young men going into harm's way.

A tonal shift occurs in Fighter Pilot's Heaven. The author's stories are still told well, and still entail risk and the ability to execute in situations fraught with hazard. Pilots die. But there is no longer a volitional enemy doing his best to kill or a mission where death is the intended outcome. In this new environment the "enemy" is the failure of design or workmanship that leaves a new machine inadequate for the task...or the moment of carelessness, incapacity or neglect that leaves the pilot exposed to disaster. Or, sometimes, just fate.

And so, this second book is about the airplanes, and how Don Lopez and his colleagues battled the risks inherent in flying immature designs on a daily basis. It's about staying alive long enough to learn lessons and to develop fixes so that in the future pilots of ordinary skill could come to regard flight in these machines as just another day at the office. The resulting book is certain to fascinate the aviation buff, but may prove less interesting than its predecessor to the general-interest reader.

Don Lopez was thrilled and excited to be assigned to Eglin in mid-1945. He writes:

"Eglin Field was the headquarters of the Air Proving Ground Command. All Army Air Force aircraft, weapons, and flight equipment were tested there for operational suitability. At Wright Field in Ohio and Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base) in California, aircraft were tested as aircraft, to ensure that they met their design specifications. At Eglin, they were tested as weapons to determine their compatibility with various types of armament and the best method of employment. It was a particularly desirable assignment because of the opportunity to fly many different types of aircraft, including the latest models. Equally exciting was the chance to use the experience I had gained in combat to influence the design of the aircraft I was to test."
There was variety, in spades. Over the course of the book, the author discusses his flights in the P-38, P-47, P-51, P-61, P-82, XF8B and F7F piston fighters, and the P-59, P-80, FR-1, P-84 and F-86 jet fighters. He also describes time logged in A-26, B-26 and B-45 bombers and cargo/utility types including the C-45, C-47, UC-64, AT-6 and PBY. We learn, sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, about each type. One thing that we learn is that Don Lopez was an extraordinarily skilled pilot.

Soon after arriving at Eglin, the author was "checked out" in a jet, specifically the new Bell P-59 Airacomet. The P-59 wasn't much of a fighter but it was something completely different. Lopez explains:

"I ran the engines up to full power (16,800 rpm), and released the brakes. Instead of pushing me back in the seat with its acceleration, it gained speed very slowly. The engines were so smooth and silent that I had the eerie feeling that the plane shouldn't be moving. I felt as though I were in a glider being pulled by an invisible tow plane. Gen. Adolf Galland, leader of the Luftwaffe fighters in World War II and a 104-victory ace, had somewhat the same feeling on his first jet flight in an Me-262. He, however, expressed it much better when he said, "It felt like the angels were pushing."

The author goes on to describe many flight experiences ranging from interesting to well past, as he puts it, "hairy". In several cases, fortune smiled and he lived to fly another day – as some of his friends did not. One episode obviously held great import for him even four decades later as he uses it in the preface to set the book's tone, and then returns to it for a detailed account in a late chapter.

In November 1948 he and his fellow pilots were participating in a "firepower demonstration". Lopez and his two wingmen in Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star's were to join up with Maj. Si Johnson in a new Republic P-84B Thunderjet and then the four-ship formation would conduct a simulated attack on a low-flying B-29. This they did with great elan and then, in the pull-up, Major Johnson's Thunderjet suddenly disintegrated so quickly that they could not be sure what had happened. Later, reviewing film of the event, it was clear that the fighter's right wing had severed near the root and the aircraft had rolled violently right and quickly "augered in". The pilot never stood a chance. It was eventually learned that an aerodynamic quirk involving the wingtip fuel tanks overloaded the wing structure leading to failure. A simple fix was implemented.

In reflecting on this mishap, Don Lopez has this to say:

"In combat, the death of a fellow pilot is easier to accept for two reasons: it is expected (after all, kill or be killed is the name of the game), and combat pilots are seldom acquainted with each other's families, which distances them from the family's suffering when a husband and father is killed. Death is an ever-present threat in flying and an even larger threat in test flying, but it occurred, fortunately, far less often than in combat."
Don Lopez would fly for nearly another two years as a test pilot at Eglin. In 1950, he was reassigned to the Pentagon. Later the Air Force sent him to Cal Tech for a masters degree in Aeronautics. He was one of the first faculty members at the Air Force Academy and after his retirement he worked as an engineer on several NASA space programs. His last assignment was as head of the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. But with those decades of varied experience, when he was writing this book, Don Lopez wrote something revealing. On the nature of test pilots, he said:
"Death is not the major fear for test pilots. What we fear most is screwing up in a way that causes the loss of the airplane or the loss of someone else's life. Alive or dead, the flier's image as an outstanding pilot – a precious commodity indeed – would be damaged or destroyed."
Note well: he said "we". Col. Donald S. Lopez, test pilot, went west in March 2008 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He has left us with two valuable memoirs, and this second one will bring great rewards to any reader interested in aviation history, the transition from propellers to jets, and the world of flight test.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I Was Wrong

A year ago, we were contemplating the imminent end of NASA's half-century manned space-flight odyssey. As one whose life has progressed in step with that program I had some fairly strong feelings about the events, and I had this to say:
"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."

I was wrong.

With today's successful rendezvous and capture of the Dragon spacecraft, Elon Musk's team at SpaceX have proven that they can do the hard parts. There are major hurdles still to be overcome – on this mission, berthing, reentry and recovery, then "operationalizing" the system, and then in the future, man-rating the system to provide transportation to low earth-orbit for astronauts. Almost certainly, failures will occur. But that all being said, after today I am reassured (as, a year ago, I was not). SpaceX is the real deal, and I was wrong.