Saturday, March 29, 2008

Smoke in the Cockpit (almost)

Dennis has had some bad luck with the flying schedule. First we took off into what was supposed to have been a 1500 foot ceiling, which would have been plenty for ground reference maneuvers, but in fact the ceiling was at about 500 feet, so we flew the one pattern and called it good. I suppose that the ceiling was 1500 at the ASOS station behind us.

A few days later, we pulled the airplane out of the hangar after a quick check of the radar, because the forecast called for snow showers. There was one big shower that was clearly going to pass east of the field. By the time we got the doors open and the airplane pulled out, though, the sky to the southwest had become dark and swirly. We watched a little as the storm approached with the airport boresighted, and I made the decision to lickety-split put the airplane away. The line crew was tied up playing tiddlywinks, so I just muscled it in as the snow started to fly, big sideways flakes getting into my ears.    Now the radar showed that the shower really had passed to the east, but had expanded while it did so.

Today the weather was way better than forecast and the airplane was available, so I called Dennis and we hustled out the field. We had briefed this flight several times, so we got in the air pretty quickly. We started with a climb under the hood, then some turns and a good stretch of straight-and-level, which went pretty well. The most annoying part was a new loud buzz in the intercom until we passed the localizer antenna. You know the kind of buzz: It's the "alternator failure" buzz.  I made a mental note.

We're still exanding his stall envelope.  We did clearing turns and the first stall went pretty well, although he almost got a secondary stall.  But it didn't smell right. Something on the ground, I thought. since we were downwind of a town. A couple of more stalls; the smell reappeared when the power was pulled back. I did not like the smell but he didn't smell it yet. Whatever it was was coming from the airplane. I turned off the landing light, and then the heat, but as soon as the power went to idle the smell came back. We turned back to the airport and landed.

There was no smoke. I have seen smoke in a 172 cockpit, thankfully on the ground just before takeoff, and was pleased not to see it again. But I sure was looking for it!

So Dennis has had more than the usual exposure to what the FAA calls "Aeronautical Decision Making": several instances of weather worse than advertised and a genuine "system and equipment malfunction." We had a good discussion about instruments and systems and what you lose when you turn off the master, with the added sensory input of the burn in the back of our throats from the ozone.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Flying the Diamond Star

Spring Break means having fun, so we packed up the kids and headed to Southern California and four days of sunshine. This was particularly welcome after this winter's heavy snow (by the end, I needed to be careful to aim the snowblower exhaust toward the low spots in the snow banks). We had the usual fun (beaches, nice meals, the Getty Center...), but one day was reserved for my kind of fun: flying something new. In this case, something new meant the Diamond DA-40 Diamond Star.

The school sent me their checkout form and my heart sank. It was about 10 pages long, and included lots of questions that could be answered "painted on the airplane". (This metaphor is still appropriate with the Diamond Star's Garmin G1000 panel, because all of the engine displays indicate minimum, maximum, and normal operating values.) Typical aviation test: make it hard by making the questions hard, rather than making the material hard. Limitations are serious matters (although I once had a Chief Pilot who told me to "forget about" the Seneca's maximum zero fuel weight limitation), and should be studied. But there was no question about glide performance (ugg -- 8.8:1), which is the kind of thing that people need to know right now. Nor was there any reasonable flight planning information.

The Diamond Star POH is available online, so I suppose having the quiz helped guide me through it.

The situation at the airfield was completely different. A professional instructor (former regional airline pilot) met me and walked me through a lot of the G1000 stuff. This is important, and a large part of why I wanted to fly the aircraft: every flight instructor needs to understand these systems, and while I have plenty of time flying the Collins EFIS in King Airs, the G1000 is different. After this, we sat down at a genuine G1000 simulator, where I got to press the actual buttons and twist the actual knobs. Most of it was easy, based on past experience with various GPS and FMS systems, but there are always a few tricks.

An instructor also has to understand the stick-and-rudder basics; I'm counting on my tailwheel and glider experience to keep me sharp in this way. But that leads to a question: the DA40 POH lists Vx and Vy at 66 knots (maximum gross weight), and this does not make sense aerodynamically.

The airplane was nice. The wingspan looks short, with little winglets. Steve asked if I had ever flown a composite airplane, and I felt pretty dumb. Composites have been around general aviation for at least 20 years, and except for one flight in a Grob in Australia, all of my composite time is in gliders.

The seats were very comfortable, and the big canopy moved easily (it must be counterweighted?). It i hinged forward of the cockpit (the glider I am looking at has its canopy hinged aft of the glider, which might make it exit the aircraft if it came open in flight). There is plenty of visibility, and the ventilation is good.

The nose wheel casters, so you steer with brakes, like a Grumann Tiger. The engine controls feel really good, and it is easy to set power. The stick (yes, it has a stick) is held by the left hand, and I remarked that I had never flown a stick with my left hand before, but it became natural very quickly.

Maneuvering the airplane is easy, although there is a little more breakout force than I like. The G1000 is hard to learn, and for a while I was behind the airplane, more flying it out of the corner of my eye while staring at the wrong screen.

The G1000 supports a traffic display, and a pleasant voice said "traffic" when someone got close. We were dodging GA aircraft, airliners, Lears, and helicopters, and the display really did make it easier to see them.

My big complaint was that there is no place for a chart. A kneeboard would interfere with the stick. The cockpit is too tight for a built-in chart table. This is the big advantage of a side stick, and it seems odd to me that Diamond would have made this so difficult. It's OK in the G1000 versions, but the older ones didn't have the G1000s and then what did you do? Maybe you could lay them on the console?

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Below Minimums [sic]

Saturday, I went to Logan to help the glider club with our annual.  I had planned to fly down in the Cherokee Six,  but when I checked the weather before breakfast, Logan had a 100 foot ceiling.  The forecast was for improvement, but the weather was lower than forecast already.  The approach lights were out of service, too.  This potential accident chain had too many strong links for me.  I have seen down through a 100 foot ceiling, but that was at night with approach lights.  There would be ice on the approach, and while the Six has a lot of power (especially with just me), it has no deicing equipment.  I did once have it in ice so bad that it would not climb, over the Cascades.  I did not like the idea of being at the bottom of a steep valley in an iced-up airplane.  Besides, the weather was even iffier for the return.  I drove.

One always questions these decisions, with the macho pilot inside saying that you had handled that kind of weather before, while the instructor inside saying that it really was a VFR-only airplane.  The drive down was mostly in VFR conditions, but as I got closer to Logan there was some fog, and when I turned off the highway to the airport I had to slow down, because the visibility was well below one quarter mile.

We had fun with the glider (there were more hands than the work required, so it went quickly, and we didn't find anything wrong), but when I started home my wife said that it had been snowing all day.  Home was a mess, with wet sticky snow, the kind that always makes a ton of mixed iced.  

A good day for driving, all around.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Windy Evening

When I got home and my wife asked how it had been, I replied "Awesome!"  

Hearing the wind rumbling through the trees in our yard after dinner, it occurred to me that I was no longer night current in singles, and that this would be a great night to fix that.  Here were the METARs:

KPIH 140353Z 23020G28KT 10SM CLR 02/M03 A2978 RMK AO2 PK WND 23030/0300 SLP096 T00221028
KPIH 140253Z 23019G25KT 10SM CLR 02/M03 A2977 RMK AO2 SLP094 T00221028 55000
KPIH 140153Z 24016KT 10SM FEW025 SCT070 03/M02 A2977 RMK AO2 SLP093 T00281017

As you can see (that is, if you are a pilot), it was windy and gusty.  The peak gust was 30 knots, at 0300Z, and it was gusting to 25 most of the time.

[By the way, I was chatting with a couple of Canadian DND pilots this morning, and they  pronounce METAR more like "meter".]

It was a beautiful postfrontal evening, with light years' of visibility.  An hour and a half after sunset there was some glow to the west, but Orion and Sirius were very bright, and Aldebaran was clearly visible, although I could not pick out the Pleiades.  To the north, the big dipper was standing straight up.

I could hear and the feel the Archer's prop reacting to the gusts as I taxied downwind, and as soon as I broke ground I knew that I had made the right choice for an evening's entertainment.  There was a shear layer about 200 feet above the airport, marked by a sharp bump and a 5 knot airspeed rise on the way up (and a loss of 5 on the way down), and I was watching the lights on the ground slide by, alternately from left-to-right and from right-to-left.  The wind correction angles were crazy on crosswind and base, but kept changing on final.  

I flew a few patterns of right traffic, and then crossed the airport sideways at midfield for a little left traffic.  Crossing at midfield meant that by the time I had turned downwind it was time to turn base.

Some glider pilots think that power flying doesn't do much to improve glider flying, but I think a night like this proves them wrong.  Judging where you are in the pattern, and, more importantly, judging where you are going to be in 5 or 10 seconds, is an important skill.  You might react to these judgments differently depending on the airplane, but that is also part of the fun.  

In any case, fly the airplane you are in.  But take what you have learned into every aircraft you fly.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Student Joy

I flew with my student and friend Dennis the other day.  He has about six hours now and is having the usual trouble relaxing in the cockpit.  There were a few low level bumps, which bothered him, but even though the air smoothed out when we reached altitude I could see that he was still a little anxious.

We did steep turns (his first), and they were good, then we had the planned engine failure.  "What are you going to do?", I asked.  "I forget!", he said, but recovered and set up a good glide and picked a good field.

Then it was time for rectangular courses.   I was feeling a little discouraged since there was little or no wind.  I toyed with the idea of forgetting the whole thing and going home.  But I figured that there would be some training value in the maneuver, so I reluctantly pointed out a farm that took up a whole section, and Dennis started flying a rectangle around it.  I was busy pointing out landmarks and turnpoints and the like, and he was busy looking outside the airplane.  That's when it struck me: his hand was relaxed on the yoke, and we were flying straight and level effortlessly.  Eureka!  He can fly.

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