Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prince Nymph

Sectional Chart
Our annual fishing get-together in Montana is traditionally on the first Fall weekend with snow, so I was afraid when we moved it to late August. Would it really snow that early? But I confidently reserved the Archer and did some flight planning. Flight planning for this trip is silly, not because I have done it many times but because the high terrain means that there is really only one route: I-15 to US Highway 20 to US Highway 287.

Flight Planning Gone WildEven sillier was the the AOPA Internet Flight Planner, which proposed a 2001 NM odyssey that went well into British Columbia.

Not so silly was the long term forecast. The same high terrain that makes the flight planning easy rules out any kind of IFR flight in something like an Archer. Ennis, where I was headed, has no instrument approach, and the MEA on the airway overhead is 15,000' MSL, clearly out of reach. Dillon might be an acceptable choice; the MEA there is "only" 12,000, which is within reach but leaves you no options.


So I drove. Call me chicken, but I had to had to had to be back at school on Monday, and the probability of a successful VFR flight was way too low.

Sunday saw lots of thunderstorms with hail and high winds. There was a short window when I could have made it from Dillon but that would have been at a price; the headwind was so strong that my car's gas mileage was decreased by about 10%. To the east I could see the Madison Valley, where Ennis is: the valley was blocked by thunderstorms all evening. I would have been stuck.

My reward? I caught more fish than anyone else.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Blinded by the light(ning)

We got a late start, and caught between a high to our west and a low to our east we were fighting headwinds that put the groundspeed below 100. (It doesn't matter what you're in, if the groundspeed is below 100 and you're not sightseeing then you are going slow.)

The first really bad bump was the Center Weather Advisory for an area of developing thunderstorms ahead. I plotted this out; the line was thin, but extended 100 miles either side of our route. I turned toward the soft spot around Dubois (U25). I've flown that valley a gazillion times on fire patrol, so it should be easy, right? Then we'd go over Jackson Hole and then home.

But then there was lightning, and it looked like the storm would pin us onto the mountains north of Dubois. I turned southeast, paralleling the Wind River Range. Where there was no storm there was a too-high mountain, and where there was a low spot there was a storm.

Our destination was reporting 7 miles in light rain, forecasting visbility 3 - 4 miles in smoke from a 6,000 acre 20 miles south. My wife pointed out that an hour of maneuvering around this junk would cost way more than a hotel room and a nice meal.

The end result? We landed. This being the west, there was a pilot I knew in the FBO lounge, working Air Attack on a fire nearby.

"There's no way that airplane is going through that weather," I opined. He agreed.

The best part of the story? This morning, I proved that my family could be airborne at 0700.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Shut up and Fly


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Which Way?

One of my mottos is "Sometimes you just have to fly toward the blue sky," and I have taken some monster diversions in my time. This post from UpShip! showing Airship Ventures's Zeppelin doing the same is a good reminder. You can check the flight track here.

Enjoy the closeup of the panel and the unusual instruments and terminology. Did you know that you can get training in airship flying from these folks? It's a bit too pricey for me right now, but someday...

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Through A Glass, Lightly

I have to admit to being a little disingenuous with my last post discussing the perils of the glass cockpit, because even as I wrote it I knew that I was planning to buy a new portable GPS to replace my beyond-aging Trimble Flightmate, whose database expired in 1995. The Flightmate worked fine as a GPS: its position, track, and groundspeed estimates were as good as any of the more more modern units, even without WAAS. But Trimble no longer supports the unit, so no database update is available. There is no moving map, although I still say that I don't need a moving map. And, worst of all, the older chip uses a lot more power than a modern chip, so battery life is poor, and the Trimble had a really clunky power cord that was always in the way.

In my mind, the position sensor is irrelevant: what we do now is database navigation, not GPS navigation. Pilots need to think about the flight as a whole, not as the next fix, and the habit of thinking a flight through will carry over into more advanced flying.

So yesterday's UPS brought me a new Garmin Aera 500 and an excuse to go flying. Knowing the perils of head-down time, I invited an advanced student to ride along, as well as my son.

The unit just blew me away, in the good sense. The yoke clip fits intuitively, with no restriction on the controls. There is only one cord, which is built in to the yoke clip (nobody has mentioned this, and I think it's a terrific idea), so the cockpit no longer resembles the floor of an Italian restaurant at the end of a long night of dropped spaghetti.

I found it easy to program, and it has all of the approach intersections, although not the full procedures (more on this later). Its terrain warning module stays in the background until there's a problem, when a window pops up with red and yellow warnings and Xs to mark where you will hit. While there are some problems with this, of which I've been aware for a long time; see my essay in RISKS 19.56, I am convinced that it still leaves us better off than we were before.

Part of my prepurchase debate with myself was the following: the cost of these units approaches the cost of used panel-mount IFR GPS, with which I could file IFR; the aera is definitely not for IFR. But an informal poll of the members of my flying club led to the conclusion that we are a VFR club. Only two other members are instrument-rated, and neither of them is current. So the improved navigation is something that I want, not the club.

The thing is, you can still use the aera to monitor an instrument approach. It doesn't do all the things that an IFR unit would do, nor is it legal even if it did. The aera will put the final approach waypoint and the missed approach point into the flight plan, but the Aeronautical Information Manual is very clear that we can only fly IFR approaches retrieved from the database. Still, if you insert the transition waypoints into the flight plan and get yourself on a segment before "loading" the approach, the fixes are all there.

I see a lot of training value in this. A student under VFR can load the approach (using almost the same keystrokes as in the panel mount Garmins) and practice, say, an area arrival. The instructor can ask the student to make the same calls (for example, "Approach Active" when 2NM from the FAWP). The student has to recognize the step-down fixes and read the chart to fly the appropriate altitude. It may not count as an RNAV approach, but the student gets the experience and will be much closer to the Escoffier standard of instrument proficiency when he or she moves up.

I think you can teach someone almost all of the ins-and-outs of a modern glass panel with the unit. I tcompares well with the various IFR GPS units I've used, and even the UNS-1 I flew in a King Air. In some ways its terrain display is more intuitive than the one in the King Air, which didn't do anything except squeek "terrain" at awkward moments unless you chose that page on the MFD.

In my case, teaching at a school with no glass cockpits and no panel mount GPSs in the trainers, this may be the only way I have to get a student to learn something about 21st century navigation.

With the Trimble, I could only teach 20th century navigation.

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