Sunday, August 28, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 7)

After getting my pilot's license, I wanted to take my family on outings and vacation in the plane. We did get to take one trip down to Lincoln City OR, but shortly after that, our third child arrived.

That meant Sandra, and our kids, and I would not fit in a four-place airplane. I called all over the Puget Sound trying to find a rental with more than four seats. At the time all of six-place planes were multi-engine and I did not have a multi-engine rating (I still don't). And even if I did, the insurance companies would not cover me as I had very little experience. So when we got the plane back in the late 90's, one of my reasons for getting a six-place plane was to be able to use it for family trips.

We've made several hops in the plane, but never a big trip. Finally this summer we got the opportunity, Sandra and I wanted to take a bit of family vacation in Colorado Springs. This was my chance to turn a long drive into a couple of short flights.

From where we live it is about nine hours of flying to get to Colorado Springs. We decided to fly the trip in three legs of three hours each. With no in-flight restroom in the back of the plane, we figured this would be a reasonable duration, and it allowed me to land the plane with plenty of fuel reserve. So the first leg would get us to Nampa ID, the second would get us to Rock Springs WY, and the third would take us to our destination. We further decided to split the trip into two days. Six hours the first day, and then one easy hop the second so we would arrive fairly refreshed.

We took off out about 8:00 am on Saturday, and landed in Nampa and had a very nice lunch with Di and Colby, some friends who used to live in the Seattle area. After refueling us and the airplane we took off and headed for Wyoming. If you have never flown across Southern Idaho and Wyoming in the summer in a small plane, I will strongly recommend against it. This was the most persistently turbulent fight I have ever taken.

About 45 minutes out of Nampa the bouncing around started. Our path took us over Bear Lake. As we neared it became apparent that three hours was too long between restroom breaks. And too long between bouncy ride breaks. So I pointed the plane down hill and landed. The six of us piled out of the plane and headed for the restroom.

The airport "terminal" at Bear Lake consisted of what appeared to be a double wide where the airport manager lives that had been remodeled to section off a small eight by ten room and one restroom – adequate for making a phone call and relieving any physiological strains. Outside the winter spring freeze-thaw cycle had not been kind to the blacktop that covered the ramp. The airport manager had been attempting to patch the crumbling surface with a batch of concrete. These areas had the meagerest of markings to prevent them from being walked on
one had only a sawhorse set over the top. To our four-year, this meant nothing. Having been separated from age four by many scores of years, the airport manager did not grasp the deficiency of his markings. So instead he took to scolding a forty-pound girl for walking on his freshly dried concrete. Yo, get a grip.

After a short break and some belch-inducing sodas to calm my passengers we were back in the air for the last bit of trip to Rock Springs.

Rock Springs in the 1980’s had a reputation for being the most corrupt city in the US. Our friend from Nampa tells of having played in a band that played Rock Springs. Their first night in town all of their equipment was stolen. Upon our arrival a very kind fireman named Brian greeted us. The firemen at Rock Springs do double duty as line-men, refueling airplanes. Brian was out to our plane as soon as the propeller stopped turning to welcomed us.

The Best Western Outlaw Inn sent a mini-van out the 7 miles to pick us up. Brian directed the van driver, Shawn, out to our plane to help us transfer our luggage. Suffice it to say we got exceptional treatment in the once troubled Rock Springs. Our room was just outside the pool, which gave Sandra and the kids an opportunity to get some extercise after a day of sitting. Meanwhile I reviewed the flight plan for the next morning.

When flying IFR, airways are given Minimum Enroute Altitudes or MEAs. These MEAs provide two things, at least 2,000 feet of clearance above any obstacle within four miles of the airway, and line of sight radio navigation reception. In Wyoming amidst the Rocky Mountains, the lowest of these airway MEAs is 10,000 feet. Since eastbound aircraft are to fly at odd-thousand altitudes this would put my plane at 11,000 feet. There were several other airways that would have shortened our trip but each would have put the plane and passengers above altitudes at which they operate well. So I selected airways that would keep my plane, it's passengers, and the pilot (me!) comfortable.

Wanting to arrive in Colorado Springs before the seasonal afternoon thunderstorms, we got an early start. As we were climbing up to our assigned altitude we were given a new routing by the controllers. Along with this routing, we were also assigned a new 13,000-foot cruise altitude. According to the FAA, flying above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes requires oxygen, and I had none. I began to negotiate with the controllers to avoid the oxygen thin altitudes.

I worked out a deal with the controllers that would put me just 500 feet higher than planned, so I continued my climb to my new assigned altitude of 11,500 feet. By now we were climbing over a thin overcast layer of clouds.

Around 10,500 feet, there was an abrupt and loud BANG. The plane seemed to lurch to the side, the engine coughed and sputtered, and then returned to normal operation.

I quickly scanned the instrument panel looking for something that would indicate our condition and what had just occurred. Airspeed 90mph, altitude 10,500 and climbing, heading fine, manifold pressure fine, RPM fine – all indications were that the plane was generating plenty of thrust to continue the flight. I looked outside the airplane to identify a suitable spot to land the plane if things got worse; the clouds below greeted my search. I knew from my flight planning that below them lie the freeway. That would work.

My scan continued, oil pressure in the green arc, oil temperature in the green, cylinder head temperature in the green, both tanks still full of fuel, fuel flow in the green arc. And then I saw it. Blinking on the left side of the panel was the warning "BATTERY 11.9" and then confirmed against the amp meter indicating a discharge. My alternator had stopped generating power.

I radioed the controller, advised him of our situation, and requested priority handling to the nearest airport – Rock Springs, 20 miles behind us. We were given an immediate left turn back direct to the airport, and a descent down to 10,000 feet. The controller clarified our situation, yes we were no longer generating electricity, and I risked losing radio contact with the controller. I tuned my handheld back-up to the controller’s frequency, and advised the controller that in the event of total electrical loss, I would be switching to my handheld, and that I may be off frequency for a moment while I switched. The controller responded in a way to indicate he was glad I had a back-up radio. I began to turn off electrical systems I would not need to preserve my battery. Pitot heat off, com radio 2 off, nav radio 2 off, lights off, beacon off. By the time I was done, only the Garmin 430, turn and bank indicator, and intercom were drawing power.

During this process of shutting things off, I was also thinking through scenarios that could have occurred. Clearly the alternator was no longer working and the initial bang indicated something had broken under the cowl. Was it as simple as a belt? Could the alternator have come apart? Could the drive pulley separated from the crankshaft? Was there any side-effect damage caused by what ever broke? I began a regular rescan of the instruments in an attempt to detect any changes that would indicate there was more damage than I initially isolated.

I put Sandra and kids on the intercom to explain to them what was going on. Each had several questions; first on the list was "Will we die?"

Not if I can help it. I will do everything within my power to keep us safe.

"Will the engine stop?"

I don’t think so, it uses magnitos to make the spark-plugs fire so it does not need the battery.

"What happens if we run out of electricity?"

I have to change radios.

"Will we make it back to the airport?"

I’m pretty sure we will, but if not, there is a lot of freeway and empty road below us we can land on.

The controller asked if I would like to declare and emergency. Oh boy. Is this an emergency? What if everything is ok? Should I declare one? What if it was a catastrophic failure and I’m only seeing the beginning of the trouble. If I say, "No" do I lose special assistance? If I say, "Yes" is there extra paperwork? If I say, "No" is it true the controller will do it for me any way?

I settled on "Yes" just in case. The controller asked "How many souls on board." What? Souls? Like live people? I don’t often fly with dead ones.

I responded "Six." Ahead I could see the airport and I started my descent for the traffic pattern. The wind was coming from behind me, so it made most sense to enter the pattern downwind and make the 180-degree turn landing into the wind. As I came up abeam the end of the runway, another plane started its take off roll. At first I thought it was odd that the pilot would take off in front of a landing plane that had declared an emergency, but as I thought about it I realized that if I did land short of the runway, there would be an air-born spotter that could quickly help locate us. It seemed like a good idea to have an extra set of eyes.

We turned into the wind and landed without event. From the ground, my radio no longer had line-of-sight range to the controller, so I relayed through a passing United Airlines flight to advise the controller I was on the ground.

It turned out our problem was as simple as a failed alternator belt. However a Sunday in Wyoming is not the day to attempt to find an airplane mechanic or an airplane belt – they don’t sell those at NAPA.

Rather than arriving in Colorado Springs late Sunday morning, it took until Monday evening to find parts, get the plane fixed, and make the final flight in.

Time to spare? Go by air.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I was right. (I love the sound of that)

Neener neener. :-)

Back in January I speculated as to what was going on in the Google Kirkland office. At one point I asked the guys why Google had not jumped into the IM world. Well according to Joe, I my guess was right. Get Google talk here.

I love it when I am right.

Next step is to move VOIP to mobile devices. Your cell phone will never be the same.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 6)

This story begins back in 1995 when I was first taking flying lessons. Back then there was a young lady named Debbie taking lessons at the same time. She was working on her flight instructor license. Debbie eventually became an instructor and I became a pilot. Somewhere I learned that Debbie’s dad was a bit of a local celebrity. Her father, Bud, was a pilot for a major airline, and owned a couple of aerobatic airplanes.

A couple of months later, I officially met Bud Granley while I was fence-clutching out at the airport. Fence-clutching is a time honored tradition at airports. You can often find people participating in this, standing outside the fence, their fingers woven through the chain link fence, hands framing their face, and their eyes glazing as they bathe in the sights, sounds, and smells of the engineering marvel on the other side. The only difference between them and me is that I can stand inside the fence.

Bud was giving a fellow pilot some last minute instruction as the pilot was strapping into Bud’s Yak-55. As the pilot closed the cockpit and taxied away, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Bud. We stood together as his plane started its takeoff roll, and disappeared behind some nearby hangers, we listened to the Yak’s big radial engine growl in the distance. The airplane seemed to take a long time to emerge from behind the hangars but Bud calmly said, “It is still making flying noises.” Shortly after this, the Yak rose above the hangers and headed for the sky.

Over the years since that day, I’ve bumped into Bud every once in a while. His hanger is behind Regal, so I started creating opportunities to interact with him, and I began to follow his air-show career. In the process Bud collected a Harvard (the Canadian version of the AT-6), other Yak’s and a couple of jet powered Fouga Magisters.

Jump forward to this past weekend. I took my family to McChord Air Force Base to see the Thunderbirds perform on Saturday, and Bud was performing as well. On following Monday, I was out at the airport to take some public school teachers for an airplane ride. Bud and a young man from Russia, one of Paine’s regular fence-clutchers we call Wally, were in his hangar changing the tire on his Yak. I stopped to help him and compliment him on the show. I had talked and emailed a couple times about a ride in the jet, and this day Bud said, “Hey, the Fouga is ready to go, is today a good day for a flight?”

I had to think about it for about .0001 seconds before saying, “YES!” I called Sandra to let her know I would be late getting home.

We finished the tire, and headed out to the Fouga. Bud went through the preflight, and had Wally help me strap in. Strapping in to this thing was an adventure in itself. The seat back is padded with a parachute. So we started by climbing in over the left side of the cockpit and settling into the seat, and then strapping in to the parachute like a backpack, with the shoulder straps being bound together at your chest and two straps that wrap around each leg, and connecting in the center, creating a snug cradle for your torso. Once into the parachute, you then strap into the five-point harness that holds you to the seat.

We locked down the canopy and started up the engines, left first and then right, and taxied out to the runway. The tower gave us a quick release and we rolled the plane onto the runway and started our take off roll. I was not slammed into the back of the seat like I hoped, but there was a pleasant squish against the seat. We lifted off to the north on the long runway, and then banked right, headed east to the practice area.

Bud turned the plane over to me to get a feel for the controls. As I rocked the wings left and right, I watched the turn and bank indicator show that I needed to use rudder. Before I could get my feet synched up with my hands, Bud’s voice came over the intercom,
Even though it is a jet, you still have to use the rudders.” Busted. I started with a couple gentle rocks of the wing to get my feet going, once settled in, I banked more aggressively and started some high bank turns – or so I thought, Bud would later give me a new definition of high bank. By now my feet were hooked in to the process. I also tried out the elevators pulling and pushing up and down. I commented on the lightness of the controls. This was a pretty easy plane to control.

Bud described the control system and its boost system. The plane has the equivalent of power steering, and Bud started by turning it off. Now I was in a wrestling match with the control stick. He turned the boost system back on and then turned off the feedback system. The best way I can describe this is that the feedback system seems to keep the stick centered and with this system off, letting go of the stick resulted in it falling off to one side, and the plane following it. Bud turned this system back on too.

Normally in this climb out, I set my plane up for a cruise climb of about 500 feet per minute, so gaining any significant altitude takes some time. Not in this plane. We were barely 6 miles away and we were approaching 6,000 feet. WHOO HOOO!!!

We headed back down and I went back to my yanking a banking. Bud took the controls, pushed the nose down a bit and then rolled the airplane inverted, and then back through to level. He described the maneuver, and then turned the plane back over to me to attempt the same thing.

Nose down, 220 kts, nose up, full left stick an the right wing comes up over the top, hit the right rudder to hold the nose up as the plane goes over on its back and the blue and green sides of the horizon in front of me trade places. Release the rudder. Hold in the stick full left and the now the left wing arcs in to the blue half of the sky, and poke in a bit of left rudder. As the blue and green return to their normal sides of the horizon return the stick back to the center and kick just a bit of right rudder to stop the roll. WOW!

We rolled for a while; in between we bank and turn to keep within the area Bud is comfortable with.

I ask if we can do some loops. Bud says push the nose over and accelerate to 250 kts (about 287 mph). When we hit 250, I pull back hard on the stick and I am slammed into the seat below me. I hold back as the earth ahead disappears. All I can see in front of the plane is the blue sky and white clouds, I look off to the sides to find the horizon, and then tip my head back to look behind me to find the earth swooping over my head.

As the nose fell through the top and starts to point earthward Bud coaches me to hold the stick full back. When the nose started coming back up to the horizon Bud warned me to let up on the stick, but I let off too late. The airflow over the wing has started to separate and the plane shuddered. I pushed the sick forward to stop the shudder and then pulled back to find that spot just before shudder. We did this a couple more times until I could do the entire loop with out the shudder.

Then Bud took the plane. We went up into a series of loops each separated by a 90-degree turn. I fought the G forces to stay alert. I tightened the muscles in my legs and stomach, and I grunted. I don’t know that it help, but I stayed with the entire maneuver. The horizon spun around us. Blue, green, blue, green, blue, green, and back to blue again. I was in ecstasy. Bud looped the plane up on its back and just as we were starting back down, he rolled the plane back to right side up and continued the dive back down.

We did rolls, loops, and turns, yanking and banking, grinning and giggling. This is my kind of flying!

All too soon we were headed back to Paine, where I flew the plane up to the point where we were on final approach and all that was left was the slowing down and landing. Bud put the plane gently back on the runway.

As we taxied in, a curious pilot asked where the plane was from. Bud responded on the radio, “It is French and is a Fouga Magister which means ‘flight master’ in Latin.

The other pilot responded that he caught the French part, but had missed the last half of the transmission. In an attempt to help, the tower repeated the message: “He says it is French, and Fouga Magister means ‘noisy.’”

Back in our parking place we shut down and climbed out.

For the next couple weeks I think all of my conversations will start: “I FLEW A JET!”

Thanks Bud. Due to you, I get to check off one more item from my life’s to do list. You’ve made me a happy pilot.