Monday, May 31, 2010

Stationary Weather?

The flight Friday evening down to the DC area from Connecticut offered something new (or at least, unusual).

The photo at left was taken at 2131Z (and I apologize for the poor quality). At the time, N631S and I were headed west in Allentown's airspace and I was looking rather unhappily at all that colorful weather just to the west of my destination. That picture usually says that the interesting weather will arrive at KVKX at about the same time I do. This is not very good.

But, I watched that weather for the next hour + 15 minutes and it didn't move! I found that really remarkable.

In fact, the more severe parts of it seemed to dissipate. By the time I landed at 2246Z, all I got was a light shower passing to the east of Andrews AFB, followed by an uneventful visual approach.

It was certainly nice of that weather to stay where it was rather than coming east to make my life difficult.

This pretty bird was parked at KBDR on Friday morning when I stopped by to stow my bag aboard N631S. They had an airshow laid on for this weekend, to include a number of Corsairs. Thousands of them were built at the Vought plant right across from Sikorsky Memorial and so there is a lot of affection for the type in that area. I hope that they had a successful show.

And this is Rolling Thunder! The shot was taken about 1:00 PM Sunday on Independence Avenue in DC, across from the National Museum of the American Indian. We watched as about 6,000 motorcycles passed on their way to the annual gathering on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. The event started years ago to draw attention to the POW-MIA issues left unresolved after the conflict in Vietnam wound down. Lot's of the guys are getting pretty gray now, but it's a stirring sight to watch them ride into town.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Some Quality Time with Rapid Robert

Each year in May, the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) commemorates the 1927 flight of The Spirit of St. Louis by presenting the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture. This year the lecture was presented by the pilot that Jimmy Doolittle called "the greatest stick-and-rudder man that ever lived," R.A. "Bob" Hoover. And I had the good fortune to be in the audience.

I'm pleased to report that Bob is, at the age of 88, doing quite well. He has a bit of a problem with walking - about which he is apologetic, attributing it to delayed after-effects of having his legs broken during a high speed ejection a few decades ago. (Click the photo to check out his Wikipedia article.)

I imagine Bob, on being informed that he'd been chosen to give this year's Lindbergh Lecture, asking, "Well, what do you want me to lecture about?" And the museum director saying, "Aw, hell, Bob, just get up there and tell some stories." And that's what he did.

Appropriately for the event, Bob told us about his friendship with Charles Lindbergh, and how he persuaded the great aviator to emerge from seclusion in 1969 to be honored alongside the newly-returned Apollo XI crew at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots' 1969 awards banquet. He went on to tell us about Jimmy Doolittle, whom he described as his hero and who became his close friend.

Bob shifted his focus from aviators to airplanes and piloting, and told us how circumstance had led to his acquisition of greatly varied experience and how surviving that experience allowed him to become one of the icons of aviation (my words - not his). And he told us about a few flights that didn't turn out as he hoped, including his getting a Spitfire shot out from under him and fracturing his spine in the crash of the F-100 Super Sabre prototype.

He was asked his opinion of the continuing rumors that the North American XF-86 exceeded Mach 1 before Chuck Yeager did that deed in the Bell X-1. He supported his view that, essentially "it couldn't have happened," with considerable convincing evidence based on personal observation. And he was there!

The hour-and-a-half flew by as the auditorium full of aviation devotees hung on "Rapid Robert's" every word. When the Director of the NASM called time on the proceedings, we all stood and applauded for a long time, as it is indeed a rare privilege to stand and honor a man like Bob Hoover.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Adventure in Three Acts

Act One of Friday evening's trip from Bridgeport down to the DC area provided a lovely tour (green track, left) of Connecticut and southeastern New York. This is what they called "radar vectors to Sparta". I have to assume that the controller had sequencing issues but it was making me nervous because I knew there was a lot of convective weather approaching from the west. It would greatly behoove N631S and I to turn the corner and start heading south with minimum delay.
After finally getting "cleared direct Sparta," I was able to negotiate an early turn toward Solberg (SBJ), making the run to the south just in time to turn the corner at SBJ without anything more than moderate rain and light turbulence. If you look at that screen-shot, however, you'll note that there is a patch of serious "red stuff" garnished with yellow lightning-thingies, in the Allentown (KABE) Airspace, obscured in part by the top right data block. That led to Act Two.
Looking at the weather over Allentown I knew I couldn't go there. Given the movement of the cells, it didn't even seem like the usual "cleared direct FLOAT" (which shifts the track a few miles to the south) would suffice to keep me out of trouble. I would need a fairly serious diversion to the south. So I checked in with Allentown Approach, prepared to request a change, and the response to my check-in call was, "Skylane 631 Sierra, Allentown altimeter 29.97, and if you can stay on the airway for a couple of miles we're working on a better routing for you."

I imagine my smile in response to that was pretty wide! I said, "Allentown, 31 Sierra, that sounds great, something that starts with direct Pottstown (PTW) would be nice." And that brought, "31 Sierra, cleared direct Pottstown and I'll be back to you in a few minutes with the rest of your re-route."

The screen-shot at left was taken at 2216Z and shows the clearance I received: PTW MXE V378 BAL direct. It nicely set up a divergent track for me away from the weather. I have to say, too, I've heard that Philly Approach has a reputation for being prickly but they were as helpful as I could have asked for.

Having avoided the weather approaching from the west, it was time to look ahead at what was going on in the area of KVKX, our destination. Which brings us to Act Three.

I'd been aware of a fairly isolated cell that was working over Dulles (KIAD) and Manassas (KHEF) and had thought to myself, "It'll be just my luck to have that get to VKX the same time I do." Guess what? (Note: The weather depicted above at left (click to enlarge) was as of 22Z. That big cell had moved fairly fast in the succeeding hour.)

But again, I drew an outstanding controller. Just before reaching Martin State Airport (KMTN) he said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, there is some severe weather near Andrews at this time so fly a 180 heading and we'll take you south to around Nottingham (OTT) and figure out how we're going to get you in."

On the way down toward the OTT VOR he asked me, "31 Sierra how are you on fuel? Can you accept a delay of 45 minutes or an hour?" A glance at the Shadin fuel totalizer said I had about 40 gallons to spare - again, the best safety feature on N631S is 75 gallons of AvGas in the long-range tanks. I replied, "631 Sierra can accept an hour delay with no difficulty."

As you can see from the track, the controller had me carry on to the south for a while, then turn west when I was clear of the cell. All along, I was watching occasional strikes of cloud-to-ground lighting four or five miles beyond my right wingtip.

From about fifteen miles due south of the field, the controller suggested a turn for home. I had some turbulence on the descent to the airport (moderate; actually, the worst of the whole trip) but the visual approach and landing on a wet Runway 24 was routine.

Here, with a hat tip to the folks at FlightAware.com, is the track for all three acts stitched together:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Timing is Everything

This morning N631S and I got off to a later start than usual for the trip from KVKX up to KBDR in Connecticut. We had to hang out at the airport for an extra hour to let some fast moving heavy weather cross New Jersey and get clear of the northbound airway.

We were "wheels up" at 1240Z in light rain, hurried along by a healthy tailwind. Above left, the track courtesy of FlightAware.com. And below, a new feature from FlightAware, a profile showing altitude and ground speed as a function of flight time. I like this!

You can see that the blue line that indicates ground speed is up around 185 knots for a while during the early part of the flight - a 40 knot tailwind push! In fact, I actually saw 200 knots on the Garmin GNS-530W during the descent from 7,000 feet to 5,000 feet.

All was going smoothly, save the weather conditions for arrival at KBDR. A stubborn low cloud layer had settled in, with a broken ceiling at 200 feet. Here's the METAR that was being broadcast as we checked in with the final New York Approach sector:
KBDR 031419Z AUTO 20009KT 1 1/4SM BR BKN002 BKN018 18/18 A2969 RMK AO2 RAE09 PRESFR P0000.

The only available approach was the ILS to Runway 6 (with a 9 knot tailwind!) A Navy-operated KingAir had just gone missed and it looked like a diversion to Oxford (KOXC) was going to be necessary. But then the KingAir came back on the frequency to report that conditions were improved from the east and could he please have the VOR Rwy 24 approach? A new METAR indeed showed some improvement:
KBDR 031422Z AUTO 19009KT 5SM -RA BR SCT002 BKN018 18/18 A2968 RMK AO2 CIG 001 R29 SE PRESFR P0000.

Five miles and 200 scattered is a lot more "approachable" than a mile and a quarter with 200 broken. I quickly asked for the RNAV Rwy 24 approach and was vectored in sequence behind the KingAir. The approach was to minimums (the Minimum Descent Altitude is 450 feet) but it worked out, with N631S and I landing just as the briefly opened window slammed shut behind us. We were the last IFR arrival for 3-1/2 hours.

Sometimes, timing is everything.