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.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Normal Departure

For those of you who routinely fly IFR, this post will be old news. But for others, it may be of some interest to come along with me as I get N631S ready to depart on an ordinary rainy Monday morning.

The alarm is set for 0510. I awaken 15 minutes before that, which is good because I can secure the alarm and let Patricia continue to sleep. Walking down the hall, I check the most recent Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) and the latest METARs for nearby airports. I find no surprises – the weather picture is consistent with the last forecast I'd seen before turning in. Good to go.

By 0540 I'm showered, dressed and breakfasted. A sleepy kiss goodbye and I'm off for the 20 minute drive across the Potomac River to Maryland. I arrive at Potomac Airfield (KVKX) just about 0600. To the east, the sky is getting a bit lighter, but there's a solid overcast not very far up. Probably no VFR departure this morning. The good news is that it's not raining yet. There's just a fine mist in the air.

I drive around to the hangar, unlock it and slide the doors open. Then I collect suitcase, briefcase and flight bag from the trunk of the car and stow them in the airplane. I run through the cabin portion of the checklist – open the cowl flaps, check alternate static source closed, remove the gust lock, remove and stow the throttle lock, pencil the tach time on my kneeboard, check that the plate for the RNAV Rwy 6 approach procedure at KVKX is clipped to the yoke. Check avionics power off, 'MASTER' switch 'ON'. Landing light 'ON', strobes 'ON', beacon 'ON', nav lights 'ON', pitot heat 'ON'. Verify that all of those (and the stall warning) are working, then turn it all 'OFF'. Extend the flaps fully, then master switch 'OFF'.

Time for a walk-around. I circumnavigate N631S, casting a skeptical eye on everything. Touching, flexing, wiggling, checking for binding or obstruction of things that are supposed to move and for rigidity and stability of things that are not. Pull out the nose plugs, sump the fuel tanks (finding only 100LL aviation gasoline) and check the oil (finding a sufficient number of quarts of Aeroshell 100W). Returning to where I started I stow the fuel sampler and say, "Yup, it's an airplane."

I pull N631S out of the hangar into the falling mist and then pull the car inside, closing and locking the hangar doors behind it. It's 0620. Time to start the airplane.

Settling into N631S's left seat, I open the side window, pull the door shut, fasten the shoulder harness, and slide the seat forward. Set the parking brake, check cowl flaps open, fuel selector to "both", check avionics power off, mixture full rich, prop full forward, throttle forward about a half-inch, carburetor heat off, rotating beacon on, ignition key in place. I pull the primer plunger out and listen to the sound of fuel filling the cylinder. When the sound stops I push the plunger in. Repeat three more times. Look forward to see (as best as I can) that the propeller arc remains unobstructed and call out "CLEAR!" to warn anyone foolish enough to be hiding from me behind the cowl that the prop is about to come to life. I click the 'BATTERY' side of the 'MASTER' switch to 'ON' and turn the key.

The starter engages and spins the prop. One blade passes before me, then a second and a third and then with a snarl and a shake the big Continental engine awakens. Quickly, now, the mnemonic is 'ROAR'. RPM to 1,000; Oil pressure coming up nicely; Ammeter showing a modest discharge (a huge discharge would mean the starter is still engaged after engine start, which is bad); Radio Master (a.k.a. avionics master) to 'ON'. Now, the 'ALT' (i.e., 'alternator') side of the split 'MASTER' switch goes to 'ON' and the battery starts to recharge. I lean the fuel mixture so that the spark plugs won't load up during ground operations due to excess fuel.

Usually when I land on Friday, I fill the fuel tanks before putting N631S to bed...but this week I didn't. So now I get to taxi to the fuel island and top off the tanks in the rain. I release the parking brake and taxi through the wet grass to the paved taxiway and then to the fuel pumps. I park and shut down – avionics master 'OFF"; magnetos checked by turning the key to the 'OFF' position momentarily (if the engine begins to die it proves that the mags are indeed "cold" when the key is off); mixture to the 'CUTOFF' position; 'MASTER' switch to 'OFF' after the engine stops, and ignition to 'OFF'.

I set the parking brake, get out of the airplane and zip up my jacket against the dampness. I pull the grounding cable from its reel next to the pumps and clip it to N631S's tie-down ring so that there will be no difference in electrical potential between pumps and aircraft. (A spark while fueling can ruin your day.) I position a ladder in front of the right wing and then go through the ritual involving cards and keypads that will let me start the gas pump.

Pick up the nozzle, turn on the pump, drag out about 25 feet of hose. Climb the ladder, remove the cap from the tank, and dispense fuel into the wing (while always keeping the nozzle in contact with the edge of the tank inlet – again, no sparks wanted). As the tank fills, I can hear the tone of the escaping air changing. I slow the rate of flow and fill until the fuel is less than an inch below the opening. Put the cap back in place, closing it carefully and firmly. Climb down and repeat the entire procedure for the left side. Then walk the nozzle back to the pump, turn it off, rack the nozzle and let the spring-loaded reel haul the hose back in. Tell the pump I'm finished, collect my receipt.

Friday's trip was 2.5 hours long and I just pumped 27.84 gallons of AvGas. That's an average of 11.14 gallons per hour which is good. Also, today's price for fuel is $4.98 per gallon. It's below $5.00 for the first time in weeks. This is also good.

My watch says about 0635. The mist is turning to drizzle and I'm glad to be done fueling. I leave N631S parked at the pumps (at this hour I'm not going to get in anyone's way) and go into the office to take care of business. The first piece of business is to visit the restroom. A wise old pelican advised me that there are two things you never pass up – a chance to put gas in the airplane and a chance to go to the 'head'. I intend to do both.

The next item of business is to sit down at the computer and check the latest pertinent weather forecasts and observations. For departure conditions, I check the METARs at National (KDCA) and Andrews AFB (KADW):

SPECI KDCA 141019Z 19011KT 3SM -RA BR FEW009 SCT014 OVC048 
17/16 A3012
SPECI KADW 141025Z AUTO 18008KT 10SM BKN009 BKN044 OVC055 
17/15 A3012 RMK CIG 008V011
Washington National is reporting visibility of 3 miles in light rain, light southerly winds and few clouds at 900 feet. But Andrews reports a broken layer at 900 with ceiling variable from 800 to 1,100 feet. There will be no VFR departure today.

The TAF for Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut indicates that things will probably be better on arrival:

KBDR 140838Z 1409/1506 22007KT P6SM BKN060 BKN100
     FM141900 20010KT P6SM BKN050 BKN080 
     FM150000 19009KT P6SM SCT015 SCT050 BKN080 
     FM150400 16008KT 5SM BR BKN015=
The TAF predicts good visibility, a broken ceiling at 6,000 feet, light winds favoring Runway 24 and no significant weather. Nothing wrong with that.

I review the forecasts and observations for the rest of my route and see nothing noteworthy. Lots of IFR weather from the DC area to central New Jersey, then reasonably good VFR weather from there to destination.

Next piece of business: a call to Leesburg Flight Service (FSS). There's a reason I need to be timely today. It seems that POTUS is going to New York and so, commencing at 1415Z (at last word) there will be a 10 mile radius "no fly zone" centered on Kennedy Airport (KJFK). My filed route takes me directly over the JFK VOR. If all proceeds according to plan, I should be past JFK and on the ground in Bridgeport over an hour before that Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is in effect. But I need to make certain that nothing has changed overnight.

So I call FSS and tell the specialist that I've self-briefed the weather but I'd appreciate confirmation from him that the TFR in New York is still scheduled to be in effect from 1415Z. He kindly confirms that for me and so I can move on.

I look out the window. It is no longer drizzling. It is raining.

My next call is to Potomac Consolidated Tracon (PCT), Mt. Vernon Sector:

PCT: "Mt. Vernon Data."

Me: "This is the pilot of November 631 Sierra for clearance, IFR to Bravo Delta Romeo. I'd like a "Hold for Release" and I'll call you again from the hold-short line."

PCT: "OK, we can do that, stand by."

PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra is cleared to the Bravo Delta Romeo airport via radar vectors to POLLA, Victor 312, GOLDA, Victor 268, Smyrna, Victor 16, JFK, Victor 229, Bridgeport. Climb and maintain 2,000, expect 7,000 after 10 minutes. Departure frequency...let's see...125.65, squawk 7160. Enter controlled airspace heading 180°, hold for release."

Me: (Read all of that back.)

PCT: "631 Sierra, read-back correct."

Me: "I'll call you from the hold-short for Runway 6 at VKX in about 10 minutes."

PCT: "Roger. Have a good flight."

This is not quite the route for which I filed. If I actually fly this clearance, Potomac Approach will have me climb to 7,000 and then hand me off to Dover Approach. Dover is not allowed to let me continue on V16 past the Smyrna VOR (ENO) higher than 5,000 feet because of interference with Philadelphia arrivals. So they will have me descend to 5,000, and since I've expended the fuel needed to climb to 7,000 I won't be happy about this. My alternative is to request a re-route after ENO along the continuation of V268 to the LEEAH intersection, thence V1 to JFK, remainder of route unchanged. This will add just a few miles to the route but will allow me to stay longer at 7,000 where (I expect) I'll have a more favorable tailwind. That's what I filed for in the first place.

I could have the discussion with Mt. Vernon right now and probably, after an unpredictable interval, get the route that I want. But I won't do that. I accept the routing offered and plan to request what I really want from Dover Approach. Experience tells me that's the path of least resistance.

I zip up my jacket, tucking in the kneeboard with my clearance written thereon, and walk out through the rain to N631S.

Back in the airplane, I open my book of checklists to "Start Procedure" and get down to business. Back over the things I'd checked before. Cowl flaps. Fuel selector. Trim. Mixture rich, prop forward, throttle in just a bit, carb heat off. Beacon on, key in place. This time, with the engine recently run, no priming needed. Master on. "Clear!", and start. The engine starts immediately and I settle it in at 1,000 RPM and lean the mixture. Avionics on. Set the Shadin fuel totalizer to 75 gallons, full fuel, and enter my assigned 'squawk' code into the transponder.

I load and activate the stored VKX – BDR flight plan in the Garmin 530W, pausing to delete 'LEEAH' and insert the Cedar Lake VOR (VCN), in accordance with the clearance I've accepted. Presumably, I'll change it back later. I set the comm and nav radios to the right frequencies and set the OBS's (Omni-bearing Selectors, if you must know) to 068°, the course to ENO. I set the autopilot heading bug to 180°, my initial heading after takeoff.

I key the mike three times and listen to the automatic weather station (AWOS) tell me the wind ('calm'), altimeter setting and preferred runway ("Runway 6 is the preferred calm wind runway"). I dial the setting into the altimeter and observe that the result actually approximates the known field elevation. A good thing.

I key the mike four times and the automatic radio lets me transmit a radio check: "631 Sierra Comm 2". It echoes back to me and says, "Power 10 of 10." Repeat for Comm 1.

Onward. I release the parking brake and steer N631S onto the taxiway. Along the way I step on the brakes and verify that they are willing to perform their intended function. I observe the flight instruments and note that the readings are as expected. Approaching the end of the runway, I pull N631S toward the right edge of the taxiway and turn left to a 45° angle. Time for the "run-up", and it's polite to direct your prop-wash off to the side.

Set the parking brake. Verify flight controls are free and correct in their operation. Strobe lights to 'ON', flaps extended 10°. Mixture to full rich. Throttle forward until RPM is about 1,700. I turn the ignition key two clicks left to turn off one magneto, and observe the RPM drop. I expect about 50 RPM and that's what I get. Back to 'BOTH' then repeat for the other mag. Same result. Back to 'BOTH' and pull the propeller pitch control back until I get about a 300 RPM decrease. Observe the change in manifold pressure. Repeat and observe the change in oil pressure. Carb heat on, and observe about a 100 RPM drop, then pull the throttle to idle. Observe a steady idle with carb heat on. Carb heat off and observe recovery of RPM. Throttle back up to 1,000 RPM. All very nice. This is a happy engine.

I steer back into the center of the taxiway and up to the 'hold short' line for Runway 6. I set the parking brake and take out my mobile phone. Moving my headset aside so that I can use the telephone, I call the Mt. Vernon Sector of PCT again:

PCT: "Mt. Vernon."

Me: "Skylane 631 Sierra, ready to go at VKX. Holding short of Runway 6."

PCT: "631 Sierra, stand by one."

PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra, you are released. Time now is 1056 Zulu. Clearance void if not off by 1100 Zulu. If not off, contact Potomac Approach at this number by 1105 to advise intentions."

Me: "31 Sierra is released. Void if not off by the top of the hour, call to advise intentions."

PCT: "631 Sierra, read-back correct. Have a nice flight."

Me: "Roger, 31 Sierra. Thanks and so long."

I end the call, put the telephone into "Airplane Mode", and drop it into my shirt pocket. Time for a last check of the "killer items". This time the mnemonic is, "Can I Go Flying Today, Peter Rabbit?" (Yeah, I know...) The corresponding actions are: Controls verified free and correct; Instruments checked (HSI and compass aligned, and the 'CDI' switch on the GPS set correctly); Gas supply assured (set to "both", mixture full rich); Flaps as required (here, extended 10°); Trim set for takeoff; Prop fully forward; Run-up completed. Anything else that I've forgotten is unlikely to result in a smoking hole in the ground.

I scan the gray, rainy sky beyond the approach end of the runway, expecting to see nothing and I see exactly that. (At left, the pertinent NEXRAD image, downloaded after the fact.)

Press the push-to-talk switch and transmit, "Potomac Field traffic, Skylane 631 Sierra is taking runway 6 for an immediate departure. Will depart the area to the south, Potomac Field traffic." I release the parking brake.

N631S and I move onto the runway. Line up with the center-line, then a quick glance up at the compass to see that it is settling down in agreement with the big white number painted on the ground. Press firmly on the toe brakes and push the throttle all the way forward. A look at the tachometer to see that the Continental is developing full static RPM, then release the brakes. Let's go flying!

N631S surges forward and within a few hundred feet the air-speed indicator's needle starts to move. "Air-speed is live," I say to myself. Passing the half-way point (abeam the gas pumps), we're up to 55 knots indicated and I pull back a bit on the yoke. With no crosswind to deal with, N631S rotates and un-sticks nicely from the runway. We rise 15 or 20 feet and I push forward to arrest the climb. I want to use the rest of the runway length to gain speed.

Crossing the far threshold, 80 knots indicated and the trees are beginning to look rather tall. I pull back on the yoke and N631S rewards me with a 500 foot per minute rate of climb and continues to accelerate. We clear the trees handily. I hold runway heading to about 600 feet then begin a turn to the south. At about 800 feet, the wisps of cloud begin and very quickly the obscuration of the outside world is complete. It's very gray out there...but of course, N631S doesn't know that. I reach over for the flap control and pull up the 10° used for takeoff. There's a slight change in pitch as the flaps retract, then the airplane is clean and climbing.

I switch radios and listen for a few seconds to be sure I won't "step on" anyone, then give Potomac Approach (PCT) a call:

N631S: "Potomac Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra, 1,400 climbing 2,000."

PCT: "631 Sierra, Potomac Approach, climb and maintain 3,000 and Ident."

N631S: "631 Sierra, climb and maintain 3 (hits 'Ident' button).

PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra, radar contact 2 miles south of VKX. You're cleared to Bravo Delta Romeo as previously issued. Climb and maintain 5,000, heading 150 for now, I'll have on course for you shortly."

N631S: "631 Sierra, continue climb to 5,000 and 150 on the heading."

...and after a normal IFR departure, N631S and I are on our way.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


When N631S and I left KBDR at about 20Z last Friday for our weekly flight down to the DC area there were a number of indications that convective weather might be a factor. Earlier, a SIGMET had been active over eastern Pennsylvania for a line of thunderstorms in the York – Harrisburg area, but those seemed to be dissipating. And the 18Z Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Washington's National Airport (KDCA) indicated that some thundershowers might show up:
TAF KDCA 041726Z 0418/0518 00000KT P6SM SCT045 SCT100 OVC140
FM042300 28006KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB BKN150
FM050100 31006KT P6SM BKN050 BKN150 
FM050900 35007KT P6SM SCT050 BKN150 
FM051600 02009KT P6SM OVC050=
The "VCTS" means "thundershowers in the vicinity" – normally, within five to ten miles of the field. I expected to get to Potomac Airfield (KVKX) about 2230Z (i.e., before the thundershowers were forecast) but the destination weather would bear watching.

And in fact, there was no weather worth mentioning for the first 90 minutes or so. That's about when N631S and I were passing Lancaster, PA and entering Potomac Approach airspace. Looking at the NEXRAD weather depiction down the road, I saw that a cell was working over KDCA and heading eastward toward KVKX. I hoped it would move on to the east fast enough to be a non-factor for my arrival.

Passing Baltimore, I picked up the METAR for KDCA to see what conditions were like:

METAR KDCA 042152Z 18012KT 10SM FEW040 BKN110 BKN200 26/16
 A2990 RMK AO2 WSHFT 2121 TSB10E30RAB13E32
 SLP125 VCSH S CB DSNT S MOV E P0000 T02560156=
The METAR indicated that the big airport was having good weather, but that a thunderstorm had begun at 2110Z and lasted until 2130Z. The associated precipitation had begun at 2113Z and lasted until 2132Z.

The weather observer saw showers to the south, and cumulonimbus clouds to the distant south with cell movement to the east. The NEXRAD base image at left (click to enlarge) is from about the same time. There were a couple of cloud-to-ground lightning strike returns. The red line is the route I would normally get from ATC, south from Baltimore to the Nottingham VOR (OTT), departing thence on a 250° heading then turning toward KVKX for a visual approach. Given the current conditions, I didn't think that would be a great plan.

As I pressed on I could see the cell clearly to the south. (I wish I had a photo for you, but I was a little busy...) I didn't want to dive into the cell and try to find KVKX visually...and I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of the RNAV Rwy 6 instrument procedure either, as it would involve passing through the cell to approach the field from the southwest. Of course, I had lots of fuel so I could just ask ATC to send me somewhere to hold for 45 minutes or so while the weather cleared the area. But...looking over to the west, I could see that Andrews AFB (KADW) was in the clear. And knowing where KVKX was relative to Andrews, I could see that it was emerging from the rain. So I keyed the mike:

N631S: "Approach, Skylane 31 Sierra, request."

PCT: "31 Sierra, go ahead."

31S: "Can you turn me west right along the south boundary of Andrews? That's in the clear and I can make a left-base visual approach to VKX."

PCT: "OK, I have your request."
Not more than two minutes later, the controller came back with:
"Skylane 31 Sierra, steer heading 195. I have to keep you going south a little further, but the supervisor is talking to Andrews about your request. I think we can work this out for you. Meanwhile, descend and maintain 3,000."
I gave him a "wilco" and started a fairly rapid descent. Before I got down to 3,000 the controller cleared me down to 2,000 and turned me to the west. And after a couple of miles it was, "Cleared for the visual approach to VKX." The image at left shows the the weather situation as I approached the field and the routing that Potomac Approach and Andrews Tower arranged for me. (Again, click to enlarge.) Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers?

I descended to 1,500 feet and as N631S and I were crossing just south of the arrival ends of Runways 1R and 1L at KADW I said to the controller, "Please pass my thanks along to Andrews Tower. I appreciate their doing this for me." At that point, all that was left was a 30° turn to the left and a three mile straight in visual to a dry Runway 24.

Just for fun, here's the track of the last few minutes of the flight, courtesy of FlightAware.com. The weather depiction in this image is from 2130Z, about 50 minutes before N631S and I landed.