Thursday, June 17, 2010

Catching up on blog posts

Has it already been two months since my last post? Egad. Life has been quite busy, so I'd better catch up. In the last two months:

  • Neil and I successfully took the Mustang round trip to the UK over the World War II North Atlantic ("Blue Spruce") routes
  • Had a routine VFR flight to Bar Harbor which turned out not to be so routine
  • Test flew the Phenom 300
So lots of interesting information to share. Posts and pix are coming shortly. Also, some buddies and I will be attending AirVenture / Oshkosh. Drop me a line if you'd like to meet there.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review of "The Cockpit: A Flight of Escape and Discovery"

As a follow on to my review of "My Heart is Africa", another perspective on "lone pilot takes single engine piston plane across Atlantic to Africa and discovers himself", can be found in "The Cockpit: A Flight of Escape and Discovery" by Dr. Paul M. Gahlinger.

The Cockpit has plenty of danger and adventure to keep the reader enthralled, but without the recklessness of Griffin's book. Gahlinger is a more sympathetic person. He never seems to have his personal life together, yet he's clearly intelligent, sensitive and has the support of a loving family. He seeks a greater purpose in life through various adventures and jobs, of which this specific flight is but one volume of a multi-volume odyssey. And indeed since this flight, Dr. Gahlinger continues to write relevant books, most recently "A Guide to Medical Tourism", surely to be an important topic as health care costs continue to exceed inflation in the US.

The author must have been inspired by Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, as he also weaves a parallel narrative between his personal life and the legs of the flight. It's particularly effectively here, without trickery, as various phases of flight trigger different memories explaining how he reached this unusual circumstance. The idea of going forward in flight from the US, his birthplace in Canada, his parents' origins in Switzerland and eventually to the dawn of mankind in Africa, is a stretch and less interesting than learning about the frailty of a single man, who wants to do the right thing but can't always find the right path.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Choosing a VLJ Mentor Pilot

I've finally completed an article about Choosing a VLJ Mentoring Pilot. Insurance companies, training companies and web sites discuss the need for a mentor but rarely explain the qualities that differentiate a good mentor from a great one.

Last week, Philip and I went to Phoenix with the family for a business trip. There's no blog entry, as I really didn't learn much from my third cross continent trip in the last few months.

I'm not worried about my learning curve flattening. This weekend, Neil and I leave for London, England in the Mustang. It will be my first piloted Trans-Atlantic trip. Almost all of our preparation is complete. Wish me luck and expect several posts about the experience.

Friday, March 26, 2010

VLJ Accident History

New wiki article: VLJ Accident History. Summary:

  • Eclipse incidents have been primarily due to manufacturing and design issues.
  • Mustang and Phenom incidents have been primarily due to operator error during landing, especially runway overruns.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review of "My Heart is Africa"

Just completed "My Heart is Africa - A Flying Adventure" by Scott Griffin. Griffin is a CEO who takes off two years to contribute to the Flying Doctors Service in Nairobi, Kenya. He flies his Cessna 180 from Toronto, around Africa and eventually back home.

The book is an enjoyable read, both as a flying journal and as insight into the unvarnished world of living and loving in Africa. The adventures, flying challenges and tangible contribution to the less fortunate are inspiring.

The risk taking he incurs while flying seems beyond reason to me. While he's lucky to be alive, his need for adventure and personal challenge seem excessive, almost pathological. Some of situations, like purposefully flying into a thunderstorm or landing 1000 lbs over gross, are engrossing like a bad horror movie, waiting for the blood to spurt. The descriptions of the landscape, the diversity of people and societal injustices are the strengths that hold the book together. Recommended, provided you don't mind watching multiple suicide attempts.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Impressions of the Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) Course for the PW615F

Today, I completed the completed the Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) online PW615F General Familiarization Course, which is the engine exclusively used on the Mustang. There are equivalent courses for the PW610 (Eclipse) and PW617F (Embraer Phenom 100).

The Mustang Wiki has a review of the course. Bottom line: highly recommended for the Mustang Pilot 4/5.

Online courses have become inconvenient. In addition to this course, I recently took several other commercial online courses. In protecting the intellectual property of the courseware, the utility has decreased. As a software guy, I'm all for the protection of intellectual property. The course material is no longer conveniently available offline or in a portable way. Worse than that is the material times out completely in as little as three months in the case of some of the providers. At least in an instructor led course, the materials are yours to keep forever.

The moral equivalent is paying full boat for a perpetual software license but then the software shuts off after three months. Either charge less for monthly access, or let me have perpetual access.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Extended Over Water Operations for Mustang

In the last month, I've had plenty of time to think about flying these light jets over water. New wiki article: Extended Over Water Operations for Mustang and Phenom 100. It's a start mainly focused on gear, not procedures.

Monday, February 22, 2010

How to Fix eAPIS

The Department of Homeland Security implemented eAPIS a little more than a year ago. Having flown more internationally than domestically in the last month, I can now unequivocally state that it is a horrible system. I have no problem with the general concept of having the passenger manifest and passport numbers sent in advance for arrivals. I understand the need to balance security against privacy and convenience.

Here are the major flaws:

  • Internet access required. Outside the US, where flight plans are often still on paper, hand walked or faxed in, Internet access is far from a given. Mandating Internet access is unrealistic.
  • Departure manifests. If I drive my car from Boston to Toronto, I can get on a flight to almost anywhere in the world. I do not need to inform the US Government prior to departing the country by car. Why do I need to tell them if I leave by private plane?
  • Cannot cancel a manifest. If a manifest is submitted and then the flight is canceled or delayed a day, a completely new manifest has to be submitted. I already know in advance the flight is canceled. There would be less confusion for everyone if I could cancel or modify the manifest rather than re-submitting it.
  • Still need to call local customs office. While eAPIS replaced the 178 form, most Airports of Entry still expect a call on the day of arrival to confirm.

In contrast, Canada has been operating the CANPASS system for years. CANPASS addresses these flaws in a simple way.

  • Advise by phone. A manifest can be submitted and updated simply by phone. A change in tail number is a simple quick call, not the complete submission of a new manifest. The same main number removes the need to notify the local office, instead of keeping a directory of all Customs and Immigration offices across the country.
  • No departure manifests.

The CBP web site is so bad that multiple vendors have stepped offering alternatives. At least the CBP had the foresight to specify an XML submission format as an alternative to their horrible user interface, leaving companies like to make a better user experience.

Nevertheless, if CBP adopted some of the common sense of the CANPASS system, the system would be a lot more usable for everyone involved.

More at the AOPA ASF Blog

Can I Borrow your Fire Truck?

Returning home from Nevis was relatively easy and uneventful. A quick technical stop in Turks and Caicos, clearing customs in Wilmington, and a fast hop home to BED.

When preparing and pre-flighting the previous day, we noticed fine grit on the plane either due to dust, or possibly volcanic ash from ongoing emissions at Montserrat. The engines and all openings were carefully plugged so the only residue was on the surface of the plane, including the wings.

So how does one remove this grit with no real FBO facilities? Simple: you ask to borrow the fancy new fire truck at the airport. The fire captain was very pleased to show off his new toy and provide some training for his new recruit.

To celebrate our departure, Montserrat stopped emissions for the first time in a week, much to our delight.

Thoughts on Nevis

While biking around Nevis, I had some thoughts on the island. It's a special place, relatively unspoiled by development foisted upon a lot of the Caribbean. Part of the reason is difficulty in getting there. There is no scheduled airline service directly from the USA or Western Europe. Large commercial planes and cruise ships go to nearby St. Kitts instead. The runway is long enough for turboprops and small jets but not long enough for common carrier planes like Boeing, Airbus or even Bombardier and Embraer RJs. There are no casinos or other man-made significant attractions.

Instead there is natural beauty of the volcano, the rain forest and the sea.

NASCAR enthusiasts would love the place since there is a single ring road, driving British on the left side, so one can go fast and turn left all day long (If the runway is closed, there's always the private drag strip on the east side of the island. Strangely, this isn't mentioned in any of the tourist guides).

Literacy is 98%, which is better than Israel and Greece (source). While the beaches are not in the top ten of the Caribbean, they are still far better than almost anywhere in the US or Canada.

The food at the Nisbet Plantation was excellent, far exceeding our expectations. Michael Pollan would approve as most of the ingredients were grown locally on the island. The fish and seafood was caught daily - we could see the boats going out. The roads are lined with goats and chickens - to the point that as a driver one wishes they did not have so much free range. One caveat: if you see lamb stew on the menu, it's likely goat, not lamb.

A 12 year old friend of ours stayed on the island a year ago and hated it. "There was no wifi [at the time] and no TV." That's a feature, not a bug.

There aren't that many places like this left to visit. Enjoy them while you can.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day Trip To The Martinique Carnaval

On Tuesday, we took a quick day trip from Nevis to Martinique for the carnaval. This fun event provided some interesting flying lessons.

Leaving a Caribbean airport takes much more time than it should. The day prior requires some preparation, like filing a manifest in Caribbean eAPIS. It's unfortunate that the US DHS tyranny is spreading to international destinations. There are fines if it is not used, but none of the individual customs agents we dealt with seemed to know or care. France provides excellent free charts to TFFF in a single downloadable PDF.

The G1000's database was again incorrect in several respects. At TFFF, only one of three ILS 9 approaches are available. The Final Approach Fix was wrong. When flying internationally, it is critical to verify the printed chart again the G1000 encodings.

The following day was the carnaval's last. Nicolas Sarkozy was scheduled to visit (most likely due a succession vote that failed the prior month) so security was especially vigilant. Upon arrival, we were met by a police man who effectively gave me my first ramp check, anywhere. We produced all our documents, and he was glad for my functional French.

Once past this, we cleared customs and immigration in just a few minutes, much faster than the British heritage islands.

The carnaval is mostly a local event, with everyone on the streets dressed in red on this devil day. I've never felt so white and obvious. I took to the moniker of "banane" with endearment.

After paying for fuel in cash, we headed back to Nevis, overflying the Montserrat volcanic ash, and then dropping at 4000' / min for a dusk landing with 6 minutes to spare before the night limit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nevis, Night and Volcanos

We left Saturday on our first major family trip in the Mustang. Nevis, next to St Kitts in the Caribbean, was our destination. With all the US mid-Atlantic snow, and occasional thunderstorms in the Bahamas, the weather in Nevis was the least of my concerns. It's the dry season now with day after day of consistently beautiful skies. Just out of general curiousity, I checked the BBC Caribbean News site on the morning of our departure to find out that Montserrat, the closest inhabited island to the Southeast had released its largest volcanic ash plume in four years.

Volcanic ash is particularly toxic to turbine engines, more so than pistons. The higher heat of the turbine causes the blades to be covered with molten silicate leading to flameout and irrevocable engine damage (source). The National Weather Service's Volcanic Advisory Service predicted an ash plume heading northwest covered the islands of St Kitts and Nevis. There was no way I was going to fly into volcanic ash and risk a dual engine failure over water. The morning news had the potential to ruin weeks of planning. We elected to depart and go as far as our planned Exuma fuel stop, recheck conditions, and then perhaps find an alternative vacation location in the Caribbean far from Montserrat.

To further complicate matters, our first stop in North Carolina had received more snow the previous night than in the last 11 years. Even after calls to the FBO, we weren't certain if by the time we'd arrive the ramps would be clear and de-ice would be available. As a contigency, we planned alternatives further to south. Aviation provides great lessons in managing risk and thinking through alternatives.

In Exuma, we checked everything we could. Neither St Kitts nor Nevis have published weather, so we called both towers to crosscheck and verify. I'd rather speak to a controller who can see outside the window and know the arriving traffic rather than read a dry METAR. The commercial operators were flying and another jet had just landed so it seemed like the plume was not a significant factor.

Nevis limited us with one more constraint. We could not land any later than an half hour past sunset (6:45 AST / 5:45 EST PM). (An additional endorsement is required for night landings). We had planned to arrive 1 1/2 hrs before the cutoff but one small delay after another was cutting into that margin.

By the time we arrived in the St Kitts area, the sun had already set on the ground and there was broken cloud cover between 3000-5000 feet. Looking down into shadows at night over water, it's virtually impossible to determine what's water, cloud, or in this case, volcanic ash. The St Kitts Controller could not vector us below the clouds as there is no radar coverage. The only option is to fly an NDB approach into St Kitts and then circle to land at Nevis ("cleared for the NDB-A approach at St Kitts, report seeing Nevis in site").

It had been a long day, starting with the 5 am volcanic wake up call. Now, 13 hours later we had the following challenges:

  • Unfamiliar *type* of approach, over water, at night. How often do you fly an NDB approach with a circle to land at a different airport 10 miles away? Let's just say that this scenario was not covered at Flight Safety.
  • unfamiliar phraseology with a strong accent. It wasn't even clear to us which of the two NDB approaches the controller wanted us to fly.
  • Possible volcanic ash which was no longer visibly discernable.
  • Twice, the G1000 did not do what we expected while in GPS mode. It did not perform the course reversal, which had fortuntely backed up on the ADF. Once on final to Nevis, it tried to bring us back to the approach at St Kitts. We dumped the FD / Autopilot about 4 miles out.
  • No radar and weather reporting in the area.
  • A longing to be on the ground already.

We had the following powerful tools at our disposable:

  • a two person crew that worked well together and divided tasks efficiently.
  • With the exception of the miscoded approach, very capable avionics, providing moving map, terrain and synthetic vision so we knew we not at risk of hitting anything.

There was one final literal hurdle. Runway 10 at Nevis has a 500' displaced threshold due to a hill on the approach. It's always scary to look horizontally at warning lights, especially so in fading light.

We landed safely into a rapidly darkening tropical night, all the wiser with some important lessons. If you don't understand what a controller is saying, even with an accent, ask again until you are absolutely certain. Especially with the nagging get on ground feeling, take time to fully brief the approach and plan to stick with it. If the plan doesn't work out, take the necessary time to rebrief again.

After unnecessarily complicated immigration and an inbound customs inspection, we arrived at the hotel to enjoy a well earned meal. Staring out the next morning at the coconut palms and turquiose sea made the challenge of getting there all more worthwhile and satisfying.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Second Relief Mission Complete

I did another Haitian supplies run on Superbowl Sunday. This was a mission with Bahamas Habitat to take medical supplies and food from North Carolina to Nassau, Bahamas. We used this mission as SIC training for my friend Michael, who will accompany us on a transatlantic flight in April. Michael has a huge amount of turboprop experience and more General Aviation Atlantic crossings than anyone I know, but limited jet experience.

The flight from North Carolina to the Bahamas was easy using the Atlantic Routes. These routes are as busy or busier than a typical Northeast corridor, as they cut through many of the Military airspaces all the way down the East Coast and save hundreds of miles compared with hugging land. The furthest we were away from an airport was 176 miles, a reasonable distance in a twin. Of course, we had a life raft, PLB, life jackets, etc. on board just in case.

If you are a pilot, have a plane, and want to contribute to the Haiti relief efforts, I recommend Bahamas Habitat. They were very well organized. There were staff waiting to load and unload the plane at both ends. Loading and unloading took less time than paying the fuel bill! They helped with whatever we needed whether it be Bahamian customs, or dealing with local FBOs. BH pilots fly into all the secondary airports of Haiti, besides Port au Prince, thus helping many who do not otherwise have access to supplies and medical aid. BH have a huge inventory of items to move either from North Carolina or more piston friendly FXE, so whatever size aircraft you have, there's a way to contribute. They have already flown 150 missions into Haiti, sometimes up to 25 in a single day. The only downside: they do ask that volunteers have "a strong christian faith", which I'm not. It was a case of "don't ask; don't tell."

The return was via KILM, Wilmington, NC. This is the most northern Airport of Entry coming from below 30° latitude. Conveniently, customs is open 6am-10pm, 7 days a week (the latest Guide to Private Flyers, dated 2008, lists only M-F 8am-6pm). Well worth the $50 customs fee.

After Michael completed his required three SIC legs, I flew the last leg home with Neil. Since it was over 9 hours of flying, Neil was getting a little tired. Nothing like waking up your co-pilot by testing the fire warning system. I made it home to catch the last quarter of the Superbowl.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

First Relief Mission Complete

A generous construction company owner from upstate NY bought a total of 600 tents and then needed to move them to Haiti. I volunteered, along with my friend, Philip, to relay them to Turks and Caicos on January 20-22, 2010. Each of the two missions transported 18 of the 10-person tents, so enough housing was moved for 360 people. From Turks and Caicos, a combination of King Airs and Barons took them on a short hop into a small strip in Haiti.

The biggest challenge? Not the weight planning, the weather, nor the long over water legs. It was U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and their awful eAPIS tyranny. This miserable site requires very specific information for both entering and departing the U.S. with specific border crossing times in the air. Besides entering all this information, a pilot still has to call the local CBP office ahead of time. The only way to file eAPIS information is via the web. Well, what happens if you are flying to a small remote country that has spotty or no Internet connection? Answer: you're stuck.

It was very satisfying to contribute in a tangible way. I'm probably the only white guy who has stayed overnight in Turks and Caicos but did not go to their world renowned beaches. Another time.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haitian Relief Waiting in the Wings

So Thursday morning in Seattle, Neil comes down to breakfast and says: "What are you doing next week?"

"Funny you should ask that - I was about to ask you the same question."

"Wanna to fly to Haiti?"

"That's what I was going to ask you."

You'd think it would be simple to load up 600 lbs of urgent supplies and up to four people in order help out. As I previously taken Red Cross Shelter Operations courses, it isn't so easy. You need organization, coordination and most importantly trained volunteers. It's great that individuals want to help, but without training it becomes even more taxing on relief workers. Which is why at times like this, the Red Cross and other organizations ask for money instead of time.

The stories coming from the Haitian airport are daunting so far: circling for 2-3 hrs, no fuel at destination, no coordination to get supplies out. The military is far better equipped for this. A C5 burns in fuel in one minute the equivalent of the Mustang's total baggage capacity.

Nevertheless, I've registered at the NBAA Haitian Relief web site and waiting for their call. In additional to money, I hope to be able to help with time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coast to Coast in a Day

We went from Boston to Seattle yesterday, in the longest trip yet in the Mustang. After 1.5 hr delay in the morning (because SOMEONE forgot their bags and had to go home to get them), we headed off into clear skies. "Cleared direct Manchester direct destination."

Well north of Lake Huron, the radios were quiet so we asked always friendly Canadian ATC where the closest traffic was: "I've got a guy 60 miles south of you". First stop in the Upper Michigan Peninsula (CMX) was not looking good due to ever present Great Lake moisture. With only a 20-30 kt headwind, we diverted further down the road to Hibbing, MN (HIB), home of Bob Dylan's youth. In the FBO were various animal trophies. My Israeli-born passenger inquired if that indeed had been a real bear, which of course it was.

We continued on over North Dakota, land of frozen rivers. Even though visibility was hundreds of miles in all directions, we still could not pick out the ICBM launch sites from 8 miles up in the air.

Landing in beautiful, 20 dC warmer Great Falls, Montana (airport diagram), ATC asked us to exit runway 21 at taxiway A3. With a 2 mi runway, no visible traffic, nothing showing on our cockpit traffic, why would the tower ask us to attempt a landing with only 1500' of runway? We declined and used a more practical 5000'. Before fully exiting the runway, we had our answer as two ANG F15s screamed behind our back for a military break and landing.

The final short leg to Seattle was at lower altitude in go-fast mode. We hit some light icing, the most we've had so far in the Mustang. The boots did their job adequately. Constant moisture from the Pacific coupled with mountain lifting in the Cascades, makes the Pacific Northwest one of the ripest areas for icing in the world. On approach at Boeing Field (BFI), a small piston was in the pattern on the parallel runway while we broke out at 700' above minimums for a landing on the wet runway.

Amazing what you can see in 8 hours of flying.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cirrus Sold

Cirrus SR22 N97RJ has been sold as of December 31, 2009. Congratulations to the new buyer. Thanks for all your inquiries and a special thanks to Philip for his original posting on his Cirrus SR20 page that generated a lot of interest.