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.