Monday, September 26, 2011

Oil Pressure

Dale starts every flight with a prayer, and yesterday morning he prayed for good judgment. We were headed out to explore the local grass strips in the Ercoupe.

We flipped a coin to see who got the left seat, and I won. Last time we flew together he got the left seat, so I figure he'll get it for our next flight.

Our first stop was the beautiful Rainbow Ranch and its lovely turf. Dale did a nice landing and as we rolled out I scanned the obstacles to the West: the East is a small ridgeline, more than the 'Coupe can outclimb. I took the controls and we taxied back to the far end. "Tail in the Weeds!"

Throttle in and we're rolling. Airspeed alive. Check the engine gauges.

What?? Why is the oil pressure so low?? I aborted.

We taxied away from the owner's home so I could do a runup. We had oil pressure but less than desired. The temperature was rock steady and not too high.

What had we prayed for?

That killed the plan for exploring grass strips. We would either stay at Rainbow Ranch, or fly home. Which? This was on the edge: we had oil pressure, it was steady, and the oil temperature wasn't rising. Perhaps a stuck relief valve? Grounding the airplane at RR was an unattractive option, but not doing so required judgment.

We had enough runway and were surrounded by excellent landing fields, so an engine failure on takeoff wasn't that big a deal. We would climb out at Vx, watch the temp and pressure, and fly home a little higher to increase our landing options. We would not overfly the one town between the RR and home. There were dozens of fields in which to land, almost too many.

It was my takeoff and we launched. The pressure held steady and we climbed to altitude. The air was so smooth that I flew hands off, but more so I could focus on the terrain around us.

Quite soon home was in sight. The wind was calm, so we could choose the better way to land. If the engine quit landing north, we would be in the Walmart parking lot, but if it quit landing south we would be on the empty golf course. An easy choice.

I entered the pattern high to double check the sock. The pressure held steady. I flew a close-in downwind and announced a landing point about 1/3 of the way down the runway, aiming a little long on purpose.

We landed on the spot.

Now to figure out what's wrong.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

More on the Ercoupe

I was privileged to attend EAA 1114's breakfast meeting at the beautiful Cox Airfield (NC81) last Saturday. The speaker was Skip Carden, Executive Director of the Ercoupe Owner's Association, who gave his personal reminiscences of Fred Weick and the development of the 'Coupe. A couple of interesting tidbits. Several owners had their 'Coupes on display, so after the talk we all got to go look. Multi-modal knowledge sticks the longest...

[*] The 'Coupe was built back-to-fron and front-to-back simulataneously, meeting in the middle. Then the two halves were riveted together, just aft of the baggage compartment. That's why the rear section rivets over the front section. Look at one: it's true!

[*] The hat shelf was sloped so anything heavy on it would fall into the baggage compartment, preventing an aft CG. That's important: an aft CG reduces elevator authority and thus makes it harder to recover from a stall.

[*] A 1941 CalTech research project put JATO (Jet-Assisted TakeOff) bottle rockets under the wings. These weren't very powerful (I think it was 30 pounds of thrust for 12 seconds), so it wasn't the dramatic Fat Albert JATO takeoff you've seen at Blue Angels shows. But they still got interesting data.

[*] We got to see a film of the only twin Ercoupe: two airplanes bolted together with a center section replacing the left wing of the right fuselage and the right wing of the left fuselage.

I'm trying to put together a plan to fly into NC81 later this week. It will involve some luck, but I'm planning to try hard.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Finding Finesse

[This is another short essay exploring the roles of essence and finesse in aeronautics. Remember that "essence" is largely energy, while "finesse" is lift over drag.]

Asking how the pilot sees finesse evolving starts with asking how the pilot sees finesse.

Seeing finesse is easiest when the ship has no power. Keep your speed steady. Pick a bug on the windshield, and make a mental note of what it hid on the ground. Say it's a haystack; focus on the haystack. If the haystack falls below the bug, your glide will go beyond, and if the haystack moves above the bug, your glide will fall short.

Keep your speed steady. If you will be short, pick another dead bug further up the windshield and note the shrub that it obscures. Watch the shrub. See if it goes up or down. Pick an bug on the opposite side, and play the game again, hoping for a smooth field that moves neither up nor down.

Finesse takes you to the spot that does not move.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Guy

There's a new guy working in the tower. Oh, that won't mean much to most of you, but this is a small town and the tower chief, whom everyone calls "Tower Dan" is a good buddy. For example, I have seen him and his wife in some pretty outrageous Hallowe'en costumes. So a new guy needs to be treated with care.

I heard the new guy while taxiing out for my weekly commute. (This is not Frank's epic commute we read about at N631S, but still...).

New Guy: "Taxi to runway 3 via A and F, give way to the Mooney passing right to left."

Me: "3 via A and F, Mooney in sight."

Mooney? Oh, look, there's Jon, just leaving his hangar half a mile away. There would be time to do a runup (nothing was behind me) while I waited. Rather than chastise the new guy for making me wait, I had all of my pretakeoff checklists done before Jon waved on his way by.

So I start following Jon to runway 3. I'm thinking there's a good chance that he'll block my way while he does a runup, and I have a class to teach. (Yes, there's a touch of get-there-itis here.) I'm coming up fast on intersection D, 6000 feet TORA. This is the time to exercise the judgment I mentioned in the previous post, because I could get a big gain for minimal risk.

Me: "Ground, we'd like to depart from D." I was going to do my first intersection departure in years!

New Guy: "Taxi to runway 3 at D." I'm already there, so I quickly switch to tower.

Me: "56X, ready runway 3 at D, straight out."

New Guy: "Clear for takeoff."

I was almost clear of the Class D before Jon departed.

I wonder what the new guy will wear at Hallowe'en?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Silence of the ECAMs

Unlike last year, this year's fishing trip featured sun and clear skies. I got my medical on Wednesday, but by that time all of the club airplanes were reserved. Luckily my friend Art would be passing nearby in his 210 and kindly offered (1) to stop and get me and (2) to let me do all of the flying.

We did not need the 210's ability to climb, and had a pleasant flight to Ennis, MT (KEKS). Well, pleasant except for the fact that I hadn't flown a 210 in about 5 years and was appropriately behind the airplane.

Ennis is in the Madison Valley, which, to me, is the ideal Western valley. The world-renowned Madison River flows out of Yellowstone Park and through the valley. Every year we complain about the new construction, but in fact the valley is quite empty.

The fishing, friendship, and weather were wonderful, but this morning it had to end so Art and I drove the rental car back to Ennis. The airport sits among wheat fields on a bench above the valley with dramatic mountains rising just to the East. It is often perfectly quiet, or perhaps the most noise you hear is a 172 from Bozeman practicing touch-and-goes. I enjoy this noise.

But this morning was different. A midsize jet from one of the fractional-ownership operations was on the ramp, Auxilliary Power Unit (APU) screeching loudly. I checked on flightaware, and their departure was still an hour away.

The fractionals, like the airlines, depend on standard operating procedures (SOPs) to make their operations safe and smooth. Their pilots often find themselves flying with strangers, but despite this, both of them have to have the same plan and have to react the same way. They have (or are reputed to have, although some recent events lead me to question this) well-defined Pilot-Flying and Pilot-Not-Flying roles which have been negotiated in training, so there is no confusion when something goes wrong while flying an approach to minimums.

I'll bet a noise-abatement fine at Santa Monica that this company's SOPs call for APU start long before departure. There could be a lot of reasons for this, including cooling the cabin and, more important, charging up the battery to reduce the chances of a hot start. But please, guys, have a little judgment: your APU, which is in fact louder than your airplane, was ruining the beauty of the Madison Valley for everyone.

The fractional crews always seem a little overwhelmed at mountain airports, anyway. Their mindset is tower-controlled fields in urban areas. They wander around the ramp looking for a Blackberry signal and ignoring the other pilots and airplanes. I watched the captain walk by a beautiful Super Cub without a glance!

(On our way in, another fractional warned us over UNICOM of the monster crosswind, voice dripping with fear, audibly holding himself back from telling us not to try to land there. I landed with about 1/3 control deflection, not a hairy situation at all.)

I got a briefing and filed a flight plan while Art topped the tanks. The midsize jet started to taxi to depart runway 16, unaware of the 172 in the pattern for runway 34. Luckily, the Skyhawk departed the area, and the midsize jet left to the south before turning north over the valley. Go figure.

We departed straight out, pulling the prop back as soon as it was safe (a 210 at 2700 RPM is among the loudest airplanes known). Clear of terrain and pointed in the right direction I lowered the nose for a 500fpm climb at about 130KIAS, so we got out of your hair soon after you heard us.

I took advantage of having another pilot on board to do an instrument approach, which preserved my currency. I don't get to fly with a Garmin 530 very often, but it came back pretty quickly. My scan is rusty, so I'll need more practice, but I'm sure that will be fun.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011


I got my medical yesterday morning (second class, since the FAA is being generous this season), but didn't use it until last night: I needed night currency (when I was a Sport pilot, night currency was moot, since Sport pilots are limited to Day VFR). This was real night currency, none of this full-Moon-on-a-snowy-evening stuff. Last night had no Moon and there was a lot of smoke around, even though the visibility stayed above 10SM the whole time.

The winds were all over the place so it was hard to fly a square pattern, but I managed good touchdowns. After two stop-and-go landings I switched to touch-and-goes, knowing that my final landing would be the third full stop.

When the tower closed I switched to left traffic and the wind was pushing me toward those unlit hills to the East. Since I was only "staying in the pattern" I had not rigged my handheld GPS with its terrain display. I don't need a terrain display, but having seen it (and verified its performance against some known threats) I know that my procedures plus the terrain display is more comfortable than procedures alone.

Fatigue set in after about an hour and I landed. I enjoyed the airport silence while I tied the airplane down. I drove home, listening to jazz. Just what an evening should be.


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