Saturday, June 29, 2013

Summer Fun

Yesterday's trip from Connecticut down to the DC area was sufficiently entertaining to warrant a post here. Also, it gives me an opportunity to again express appreciation for the amazing skill and willing team-effort on the part of the controllers who shepard N631S and me along our route and keep us out of trouble. In this instance, particular kudos go to the folks at Harrisburg Approach and Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT).

I'd been watching the weather map for several days and the synoptic picture forecast for Friday afternoon wasn't very nice. A cold front associated with a deep trough was approaching from the West and was forecast to stall along the coast on Friday. Conditions would be ripe for lots of convective activity. Thus, the Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Washington's National Airport (KDCA) was unsurprising:

TAF AMD KDCA 281852Z 2819/2918 19010KT 5SM TSRA BKN050CB
TEMPO 2819/2820 VRB30KT 2SM +TSRA OVC030CB
FM282200 25007KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB  
FM290000 27005KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB 
FM290100 27005KT P6SM BKN050 
FM290400 VRB03KT P6SM SCT130
FM291600 21007KT P6SM BKN050=
I was planning a departure at about 1930Z, so the period of heavy thundershowers (+TSRA) was expected to be over well before my arrival, but the prevailing weather for the whole evening was calling for thundershowers in the vicinity. The TAF's for intermediate locations enroute looked pretty much the same.

I decided to depart anyway, watch the weather carefully, and if necessary, land before things got boisterous and wait it out – overnight if necessary. Despite the highly convective environment, this was "air-mass" weather, not frontal activity. The organized lines of storms accompanying a front defy penetration, while the more scattered weather in store in this case often offers a way through if approached with an abundance of caution, lots of information and plenty of fuel.

Everything was peaceful for the first hour or so, but westbound, passing Allentown (KABE) and approaching the turn to the south onto V39 toward Lancaster VOR (LRP), the NEXRAD display showed that things would soon become interesting. Allentown Approach handed us off to Harrisburg Approach a few miles east of FLOAT intersection. Checking in with Harrisburg, after the normal dialog involving altimeter settings, I asked, "Harrisburg, Skylane 31 Sierra is wondering what weather you're painting along Victor 39 to Lancaster and then south towards Baltimore?"

The controller's reply was, "Everything looks good as far as Lancaster, then there's a band of precipitation, heavy to extreme, from south of Lancaster and to the northeast about 50 miles."

I then asked, "Have you got a work-around for that band? I don't want to go and paint myself into a corner down there."

This drew a "Skylane 31 Sierra, stand by," which meant that I had him thinking about the problem. After a pause of about a minute, the controller came back to me with, "Skylane 31 Sierra, it looks like after Lancaster, Victor 143 down toward the BRINS intersection will keep you clear of the weather. Then you can go direct Baltimore." It was my turn to say, "Stand by." I grabbed the Low Altitude chart from the seat next to me, quickly flipped it open to the panel depicting Lancaster, found V143 (which departs LRP on about a 248 heading) and traced it to the Southwest, and located BRINS. I compared that with the NEXRAD depiction and then pressed the Push-to-Talk switch. "Harrisburg, 31 Sierra likes the looks of Victor 143 after Lancaster. I think that's a plan."

After another minute or two I heard, "Skylane 31 Sierra, you are cleared present position direct to Lancaster, Victor 143 to HYPER intersection, then direct to Baltimore, direct to destination. HYPER is a little further, you'll probably be able to turn toward Baltimore before you get there." I read that clearance back, ending with a sincere "Thanks very much." Looking at the weather depiction and noting that the storm cells were moving to the East, it appeared that I'd be in the clear all the way down V143 – and that indeed proved to be the case.

Harrisburg handed us off to Potomac Approach and N631S and I motored along Victor 143, skirting the Northwest edge of the weather. The Potomac controller gave me the customary amendment to my routing, "After Baltimore, direct Nottingham then direct destination," and about ten miles short of BRINS he gave me a 220 heading, adding, "Turn east direct Baltimore when able. Just let me know when you make the turn." It looked to me like it would be about 20 miles before that would be a fine idea.

I turned N631S toward Baltimore, still in the clear and keeping the weather well off to our left. About 25 miles West of Baltimore, the PCT controller said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, there's some weather moving in to the South of Baltimore; that direct Nottingham route may not work. I'd suggest you tell the next controller you'll need to deviate to the East to stay clear of that weather." I acknowledged that with thanks, and got "Contact Potomac on 119.85."

After checking in with the next sector I requested a left-of-course deviation for weather avoidance. She replied with, "31 Sierra, do you have weather radar on board?" I said, "31 Sierra has a NEXRAD weather display."

The controller then said, "Go ahead and navigate around the weather to the east. Just let me know what turns you're making." I said, "31 Sierra is going to go from present position on a 160 heading for a while, then I'll go direct Nottingham when able." This drew, "31 Sierra, that's approved."

I kept N631S on the 160 heading for 12 or 15 miles, descending first to 4,000 feet and then to 3,000. When I could see past the weather to my right I turned toward Nottingham and said (in response to the controller's query) that I'd like the visual approach to Runway 6 at KVKX.

As you can see from the picture at left, that was a fairly enthusiastic patch of weather off N631S's right wing. The overhanging cloud shelf was pretty dramatic as well.

And here's a half-minute of video recorded in about the same spot:

A few miles to the south, the way was clear for a turn toward home plate and the landing at Potomac Airfield was uneventful. It took about a half-hour to get N631S put to bed in the hangar, and as I was driving off of the airfield the heavens opened and gave forth an impressive deluge, leaving me thinking that timing is everything.

All things considered, the conditions for this flight were pretty challenging. Good on-board weather awareness (i.e., NEXRAD) was a 'no-go' item but the real essentials were a creative and savvy controller at Harrisburg approach who quickly developed a workable re-route, and a couple of smart, and above all flexible controllers at PCT who made it possible for me to complete the trip safely. My profound thanks to all.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


One of the most enjoyable parts of blog-keeping hereabouts is the curating of the sidebar. That stuff over there on the right, adjacent to the primary content column. The process is fun and it leads to places.

For example...my recent review (rant?) of the biography of Lawrence B. Sperry started out down there in the depths of the sidebar. I had decided to "enhance" the entries on my favorite designers with an appropriate quotation from each, revealed on mouse-over using the HTML abbr tag. A significant amount of Google-aided research failed to provide me with anything memorable from young Mr. Sperry, so I decided to obtain his biography where a nice quote was found. And if you've read the review you know the rest of the story.

I add things now and then. A recent inclusion is the panel showing five recent tweets (or retweets) sourced from my Twitter account. (If you feel like following, that'd be most welcomed.)

So, you're invited to slide on over to the right and poke around the sidebar. If you're moved to offer any comments or suggestions I'd appreciate hearing them (perhaps in a comment on this post). And as always, thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: "Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry" by William W. Davenport

It has been my practice to confine book review posts to books that I would recommend to a friend as being enjoyable or instructive – or, preferably, both. In that light, the book I'm about to discuss, William Wyatt Davenport's Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry, is troubling. It does indeed present an enjoyable story. And, reading it does prove instructive...but not in the way one usually hopes. The lesson of the book is that some biographies may be works of fiction clad in a thin layer of verisimilitude, and that a healthy skepticism is a useful tool for the reader of history.

I wanted to learn more about Lawrence Sperry, as the stories commonly told about his brief and colorful life consistently rendered him as a fascinating character. What better approach, thought I, than to lay hands on a copy of his biography? This was readily accomplished with the aid of a used book vendor, facilitated by the good folks at Amazon.com. But very soon after opening the book I encountered a warning sign. What does one make of a biographer who, in the Acknowledgements at the front of the work, says this:
"As in every life that has been lived to the hilt, there are hiatuses, documents that have been lost or suppressed, the ambiguities of reality, questions that have not been answered, problems that have not been solved. In such cases, in my attempt to gather up the radiance of a dynamic personality, I have been authorized to indulge in some judicious speculation and have occasionally asserted poetic truths where actual facts were missing." (emphasis added)

I had to read that twice. It took a while for the realization to solidify that the author was saying, "When I didn't have solid evidence to tell the subject's story, I just made stuff up." Really? At this point I went directly to the back of the volume where I found no list of sources and no end notes...just a somewhat sparse index. The conclusion became obvious: nothing in this book can be trusted. Any assertion made by the author is just as likely to be a "poetic truth" as an "actual fact".

Lawrence Burst Sperry deserved better than this.

Some examples illustrate the scope of the problem. The book tells a tale (one can't say "the tale") of the development of the gyro-stabilizer (precursor of the autopilot) for use in aircraft. It would have you believe that Lawrence, with minimal involvement of his father, the noted engineer Elmer A. Sperry, designed, developed and demonstrated the apparatus completely on his own. His native genius is depicted as a perfect substitute for the engineering education he regarded as unnecessary. But other sources cast doubt on this charming narrative.

A biographical memoir on Elmer A. Sperry by J.C. Hunsaker (published in 1954 by the National Academy of Sciences) has this to say:

"As (Elmer) Sperry was tied up with...other activities, he called in his friend Hannibal C. Ford, an extremely clever designer of intricate apparatus. Ford and Sperry together started on the design of a gyro compass... As a sideline they designed a small gyro stabilizer for an airplane..."
This was in 1910. Hunsaker goes on to say:
"In 1913 conditions seemed ripe for resuming the airplane
stabilizer work started but discontinued in 1910. Sperry knew Glenn Curtiss at the Aero Club in New York, got in touch
with him, and arranged to send his son Lawrence to Curtiss's shop at Hammondsport. Lawrence Sperry had already built
and flown his own airplane and later was awarded F.A.I. Pilot's License No. 11.

The Aero Club of France announced an international competition for a safe airplane with a prize of 50,000 francs to be awarded to the winner. Curtiss, in whose flying boat the gyro stabilizer had been tested, persuaded Sperry to send Lawrence to Paris to compete for the prize. The demonstration flight was made in June 1914.

As the plane flew low past the judges' stand the mechanic climbed out on the wing and Lawrence stood up in the open
cockpit raising both hands above his head. This was indeed convincing; nothing like it had ever been seen before. He won the prize."

The patent application for the airplane stabilizer was filed on 17 July 1914 and led to the issuance of US patent 1,368,226. The sole inventor named on the patent is Elmer A. Sperry. In addition, the work to develop the airplane stabilizer was honored with the award of the prestigious Collier Trophy for 1914. One name is engraved on the trophy for that year – that of Elmer A. Sperry.

Was Lawrence involved in, and important to, the project? Most certainly. Was he the driving force behind it? It would seem not.

Another example revolves around the origins of the aircraft type most often associated with Lawrence Sperry – and the one that eventually took his life. Known most commonly as the Sperry Messenger, it got its start in life, according to the author, when:

"Billy Mitchell...wanted an inexpensive, maneuverable little single-seat plane that the Army could use as a training ship for pursuit aviation. This coincided precisely with Lawrence's desire for a single-seater sports plane. He went to his drawing board and designed a small biplane whose lower wing was almost unnoticeable. Delighted with the design, Billy Mitchell ordered three of the planes, the first sports plane in American aviation, for the War Department. This plane was the famous Sperry Messenger; it was Billy Mitchell who gave it it's name." (Emphasis added.)
But other sources tell a different tale. For example, K.O. Eckland's authoritative Aerofiles site says:
"M-1 Messenger, M-1A, MAT (Verville-Sperry) 1920 = Army liaison and utility. Designed at McCook Field by Alfred Verville; aka Engineering Division M-1. Ailerons on all wings. POP: 22 as military M-1 and 20 as M-1A, plus 1 civil sport version that failed to spark any public interest, and the idea was never pursued."
Did Lawrence Sperry go "to his drawing board" and give birth to the Messenger? He absolutely did not. The talented Alfred Verville, working for the Army, designed the airplane and the Lawrence B. Sperry Airplane Co. was then hired to build it. (The Smithsonian, by the way, agrees.)

There are other statements at variance with accepted facts throughout the book. The text includes many instances of direct quotes from conversations where only two people were present and no record could have been made. More of those "poetic truths", I suppose.

The question I'm left with is, "Why?" To what end does the author steal the glory of Elmer Sperry, Alfred Verville and others and assign it to Lawrence Sperry? He had plenty of his own glory as the legitimate inventor of the life-saving gyroscopic turn-and-bank indicator (see US 1,433,102), as developer of major improvements in pack parachutes for pilots, as a central part of the project that developed the first "cruise missile", as a renowned aviator and proselytizer for flying in its early days. And yes, even as the spiritual founder of the Mile High Club (with essential assistance from Mrs. Waldo Polk). Why would the author risk his credibility, with all of this to work with?

Perhaps the clue lies in the use (seen above, in the quoted segment about "speculation" and "poetic truths") of the word authorized. I'd suggest that the author was not free to write his own book. Someone else had to be considered and satisfied. The story that was told had to be, at the end of the day, the authorized version. What a shame.

If you want to learn about Lawrence B. Sperry, go ahead and read this book. Then verify anything of particular interest through other credible sources. That's the only way you'll sieve out the "actual facts" and leave behind the "poetic truths."