Monthly Archives: August 2012

Hazy trip to West Virginia

My original plans for Saturday included a Pilots n Paws trip to Delaware. However, this didn’t end up happening because there were no pilots to fly the earlier legs. I still had the day free and I was eager to stretch my wings and go for a longer trip in the Cardinal. West Virginia is one state I haven’t been to yet and represents a nice big area on the map. Plus, I’d previously learned about the Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath Trail which is accessible from the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport (which is conveniently actually in Wiley Ford, WV!).

I was watching the weather carefully because while it looked good for flying in some direction I wasn’t certain I would be able to make the journey to Cumberland. Upon waking up on Saturday the TAFs looked good for airports along the route and while it was forecast to be hazy the conditions were forecast to be VFR with the exception of potential sub-VFR haze in Harrisburg, PA which I would be traveling west of. I decided I would try and make the journey knowing with full fuel I had the flexibility to return to clearer skies in New England if cloud layers increased and got me stuck on top. I brought my camera, and the full set of pictures can be found on my photo site.

I’m still at Fitchburg due to construction at Nashua. I had line service top off the tanks there then completed my preflight and departed runway 32 in calm winds and with the visibility around 10 miles. 10 miles is the limit of most automated weather measurements, but in this case the reported 10 miles visibility represented an actual visibility of 10 miles. The air was definitely hazy. While there were few clouds above Fitchburg the haze made a view straight up into the sky look white like there was an overcast. I climbed to 6,500 and headed direct to Cumberland, calling Boston Center to request flight following.

The atmosphere was actually a lot clearer at 6,500 with the bulk of the haze beneath me. Forward visibility was good and well above VFR minimums but at cruise altitude it can be tough to see the horizon on days with even 10 miles visibility in haze. There were a few small clouds at and below my cruising altitude but for the most part the air was clear. The clouds were scattered enough that my route almost never required lateral dodging of them to remain VFR.

View south along the Hudson River, the Hudson Highlands.

Soon I was crossing the Hudson River. Boston Center called out traffic ahead for me (which I saw) then gave another traffic call out “A 757, in your 6, you won’t see them but passing overhead, restricted above you”. This was a good opportunity to grab the camera! You can’t spot traffic behind you easily in a plane but the advisory was nice since I would have been surprised otherwise. Soon the 757 passed overhead, looking quite big! They were descending and had been restricted to descend to 7000, lower after passing me. I suspect they were going into Newark airport. I wonder if passengers on board could spot me below?

United 757 passing overhead.

The direct routing doesn’t spend much time over New York and after about an hour enroute I was passing into Pennsylvania with New Jersey’s Highest Point (High Point, NJ) visible off to the left and the Delaware River ahead. Soon the famous Delaware Water Gap was off to the left, barely there through the haze.

High Point Monument, High Point, NJ

The terrain around Eastern PA is fascinating. This is the northern end of the Ridges and Valleys Appalachians. It looks like corduroy from above. The big rivers like the Delaware and Susquehanna flow right through ridge after ridge in “water gaps” which are geological evidence that the rivers are older than the mountains were uplifted.

The Delaware River, looking south from around the PA/NY state line.

At one point I spotted a pair of ridges with a deep gorge and a river and high running up the valley. A set of power lines dramatically crosses the gorge far above the base. The power line cut seems to disappear then reappear when viewed from above. If you look at the big version of the picture you can even see the power lines.

Powerlines crossing between two ridges with river and highway beneath.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Pennsylvania without mineral mining and of course there is a lot of evidence of this seen from the air. Evidence of changes in energy extraction methods are apparent near Shenandoah, PA where right next to the open mining you can see a line of wind turbines lining the ridgeline. Personally I find that wind power is much more visually attractive than open pit mining!

Wind Power and mining in PA.

The air began to get hazier as I approach Harrisburg, PA, as forecast. Lines of corduroy ridges disappeared into the haze to my left. To the right the air was clearer with puffy clouds. After passing Harrisburg the cumulus clouds started to get heavier pushing up into my altitude and I had to make several minor diversions left or right to dodge them.

Ridges and Valleys disappearing into the haze.

With about 60 miles of flying left to reach Cumberland I decided that it was time to duck below the clouds and began a descent timed to get below the bases before the next heavy batch of cumulus clouds. Unfortunately this soon put me below the altitude where I could reliably receive Harrisburg Approach or be seen on radar while I had plenty of altitude above the hills I had to drop flight following. I was only about 15 minutes from Cumberland at this point although sadly it was a lot bumpier at this altitude below the cloud deck. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and soon after passing below the batch of clouds the sky opened up again with blue sky above. I could have gone around or over that set of clouds too.

Looking south towards Harrisburg… lots of haze.

I had my hands full with the bumpy ride but soon spotted Cumberland and the airport. Winds were reported pretty close down runway 05. Due to terrain around the airport Runway 5 is right traffic which means opposite direction from the standard airport traffic pattern which is left turns. Runway 5 was almost exactly the opposite direction I was coming from so I set up for a long downwind to the left of the runway. No one else was in the pattern. Two right turns brought me to a close in short final, full flaps to descend after clearing all terrain, and I made a reasonable landing. I was a bit left of center line which I chalk up to being less familiar with right traffic operations although the wind was gusting around a bit as well.

On the ground at Cumberland airport. There is a fancy terminal building but no airline service right now. Hills rise all around.

As I taxied off the runway line service called to ask if I needed any services. I asked for parking for a short while and a top off. I parked right out in front of the terminal building. There is a fancy building here including baggage claim, security, and ticket counters but it is all closed. According to Wikipedia this airport has not had commercial service from a major airline since 2001 and all airline service ended in 2003. Cumberland is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the US and it is not surprising that the past ten years have not seen a revitalization of air service. I was happy to put some money into the local economy especially with a very reasonable fuel price. The top off took 25.7 gallons which was what it took to get here from Fitchburg.

Topped off at Cumberland Regional airport by a friendly line guy.

I had brought my folding bike to check out the C&O Towpath and after confirming the location of the airport restaurant (in a separate building across the parking lot) I took off on the bike down a hill towards the Potomac. After crossing the river on a highway bridge you are actually in Cumberland, Maryland. The entrance to the Towpath National Historic Park is just to the right after crossing the bridge.

The towpath itself is unpaved with just gravel but well graded and relatively flat. At various points along the length I biked down there are obvious signs of the original canal even where it has been filled in or turned into forested sections. The Potomac itself can be seen through the trees to the right at times. I didn’t go too far since I was hungry for a late lunch and knew that I had to bike back up the big hill to get to the airport! Next time I will explore further.

The Chesapeake and Ohio canal (now filled in here) and towpath is down the hill and across the Potomac (in Cumberland, MD).

I had a quick sit down Philly Cheese Steak at Louie Louie’s airport diner. More money into the local economy (and I left a big tip). I did a quick weather briefing at the computer in the terminal’s pilot’s lounge since my iPad didn’t get any Verizon data service at all. No rain, no thunderstorms, and VFR all the way. After preflight I was ready to depart. I climbed straight out direct on course planning 7,500. I checked in with Johnstown Approach after clearing all of the terrain around the airport and got flight following to Fitchburg.

Heading back. Some bigger cumulus buildups to the west (might turn into very isolated tstorms).

The clouds had definitely built up higher but still scattered and my altitude of 7,500 kept me above all of it. Off to the west you could see some big clusters of buildups reaching well above my altitude and well off to the east over southern NJ there looked like there might be an area of convective rain clouds although I didn’t see any lightning.

Angrier clouds to the east over NJ.

While it was clear, cool, and excellent visibility at my altitude the haze below was definitely bad. The picture below shows how you can’t really see the horizon with the haze like this. This is legal VFR and doesn’t require an instrument rating but in some sense is instrument conditions because reference to the instruments is needed in order to remain oriented. At no point did it feel unsafe and when there was other traffic I saw it with many miles of margin indicating that flight visibility was more than adequate for visual flight. The air was perfectly smooth with not even a ripple of turbulence. Headwinds were around 9-10 knots.

The haze was very extreme over PA here. Hills poke up out of the haze layer well beneath me (I am at 7,5000 feet). It is clear, smooth, cool, and visibility is good and legal VFR at my altitude.

Eventually I encountered a knot of clouds southeast of Wilkes-Barre, PA that would require substantial diversion to the left and decided to climb to 9,500 instead. This would let me clear the clouds with plenty of margin and reduce the chances of another diversion. It turned out that the clouds soon dissipated almost entirely but there was no major issue with 9,500 as a cruising altitude. The temperate was quite cool up there – close to 40 degrees – and I turned on the heat and dialed the vents back a bit.

As I entered the NY area I was talking to Boston Center (due to my higher altitude). Several regional airlines were being instructed to hold at various altitudes underneath and above me due to congestion coming into Newark. I caught one of them proceeding on course just after exiting the hold beneath me – a Colgan Air (United Express) Dash-8 turboprop.

Dash-8 (Colgan Airlines) traffic beneath me. They have just exited holding due to congestion at Newark.

Soon I was crossing the Hudson River into quieter airspace and began planning the descent. Descending out of 9,500 feet does require a good bit of planning. I have learned two rules of thumb depending on how fast you want to descend. In VFR you can descend at 250 feet per minute and plan 10 miles for every thousand feet you need to lose. In the IFR environment 500 foot per minute descents are the norm so plan 5 miles per thousand feet. Adjusted for the slight headwind I headed down starting over the northwest corner of Connecticut. For power in the descent I will generally let the airspeed pick up and reduce power as needed to keep airspeed in the green arc.

Looking back towards NY with sunlight glinting off of the Hudson River.

I snapped a final picture looking back towards the through the clouds and glinting off of the Hudson river then stowed the camera and got the weather at Fitchburg. With the winds now favoring runway 14 I planned to overfly the field about 500 feet above pattern altitude (1500 feet above ground) then circle around to enter left traffic for runway 14 behind traffic that was already in the pattern. This time the landing was very nice and right on the center line. I taxied back to my home away from home tie down in Fitchburg and put the plane to bed.

The logged flight time (engine start to stop) was 2.9 hours for the way down and 3.1 for the way back making for 6.0 hours round trip flying. This also marks 153.9 hours of total flying time so I passed 150 hours on my way down. The trip ended up being a great addition to my experience with the weather, ATC communications, and long cross country. Next up, getting back to more instrument training!

Evening flight with Abby

I had originally planned to go for a solo flight tonight because my wife was going to be busy and no friends were available on short notice. But as it turned out she was able to come flying after work. The plane is still in Fitchburg due to the runway construction in Nashua and when we arrived two planes were doing pattern work. Abby had some criticism for the Cessna which as she noted flared too high but also noted their landings were improving as I completed my preflight.

My original plan had been to check out a new airport – Springfield, VT. But Abby wanted to see if we could find Putney, VT (just north of Brattleboro). After departure I climbed to 4,500 feet leveled off, trimmed out, and asked her if she wanted to fly. The heading I was flying would intercept the Connecticut River just south of the VT/MA/NH border and provide an easy to follow route up the river. She flew north following the river and practiced making level shallow turns.

Meanwhile the sunset was absolutely gorgeous with the sun disappearing behind a cloud then reappearing beneath it as a brilliant orange orb. I focused on scanning for traffic and monitoring the instruments as Abby flew. Soon we found the Putney school and since it was getting dark I decided to abandon plans to head to Springfield airport. Abby handed the plane back to me and I turned us back towards Fitchburg.

I asked her if she wanted to try some slow flight and the answer was a tentative yes. I turned the landing light on for visibility as we were maneuvering then talked her through slowing the plane down. The first step is a power reduction to around 18-20″ of manifold pressure, then hold altitude. This will require some trim adjustment as the plane slows down. Soon it will be within the safe range for the first 10 degrees of flaps (below 130 knots).

High wing airplanes without T-tails usually like to balloon up when the flaps are selected. I think this is due to increased downwash on the tail. It has become automatic to me to push forward as the flaps run out. Altitude was back and forth a bit but she was doing very well. Next I told her to put the gear down (below 125 knots limit but the flaps and power reduction had slowed us down to 100 knots or so by then). The gear requires similar active control inputs to hold attitude as the gear swing changes the CG balance. Trim adjustment got things back to hands off and level.

At this point we’d settled into 90 knots slow flight and I told Abby to turn 90 degrees right then back to our original course. In slow flight the control inputs are much more exaggerated and sloppy but she was doing fine. I had her select flaps 20 degrees and do the turns again. This time her coordination was much better and the ball was centered through the turns. Nice work!

Finally, a demonstration of the final approach descent with flaps 20, power at 15 inches, and the Cardinal settles into a nice 500 foot per minute descent at around 75 knots. This is perfect for the approach up until short final. At this point I took the airplane and demonstrated pulling the power all the way out and rolling the trim full nose up. This is what you want to fly on short final and will give you a nice steep descent with the airspeed pegged around 65 knots (flaps 30 for short field will be closed to the specified 62 knots). Then I pulled to level off until the stall warning horn came on (demonstrating a landing from that configuration) and recovered (I did not go all the way to the break especially with daylight waning).

At this point I cleaned the airplane back up and headed direct to Fitchburg. As we arrived in to the airport environment in the increasing darkness there were at least four different planes in the pattern or approaching. It was a madhouse and I slowed down to fall in behind all of it. I was happy to have a passenger to help me spot the traffic to follow at night. My landing was a bit sloppy but wasn’t bad for a night landing. It was not as good as my final of three night landings from last week. This tends to happen when I am concentrating on following traffic or an otherwise complicated approach situation. Each time it gets a bit easier to squeeze out a good landing but it isn’t always consistent yet. Given that the plane that landing before me (looked like a 172) used a lot more runway I don’t feel too bad!

Night currency

I was busy over the weekend for a wedding but on Monday evening the weather was perfect. I needed to regain my night currency which is required to carry passengers more than an hour after sunset. To be night current requires three full stop landings and takeoffs more than an hour after sunset in the last 90 days.

Since the plane is temporarily based at Fitchburg airport I headed over there after work on Monday. I missed my chance to have the plane fueled full serve at Fitchburg so with the sun setting in the sky I departed for Concord airport in New Hampshire. They have 24 hour self serve in a reasonably well lit spot on the ramp (you pay with your credit card on an automated kiosk, similar to an auto gas station pump).

The airport was quiet when I arrived and taxied up to the pumps. As I perched on top of the ladder fueling (complications of the high wing aircraft!) I spotted a helicopter take off from the NH Army National Guard hangar across the field. It departed to the south but it seemed to leave something slowly descending and rapidly blinking. On closer inspection this was a person doing a night parachute jump! Very cool to watch.

I headed back and by the time I was nearing Fitchburg it was already more than an hour after sunset. Night flying is nice but very different from the day. Everything looks different and even the instruments require different skills to read under the dim light. The air is usually very smooth and winds calm.

Fitchburg was deserted as I came in. I remembered that unlike most airports the frequency to control the Pilot Controlled lighting (123.0) is different from the Advisory Frequency (122.7). With the airport lights now on I overflew midfield and entered a downwind for runway 32. Unlike Nashua Fitchburg does not have a visual approach slope guidance system for runway 32 so my dark adjusted eyes on the dim runway edge and threshold lights were my sole guidance for approaching the airport.

Despite this my approach was very good and I judged the flare nicely based on the smooth landing that resulted. Of course, winds were light as is typical at night. I turned off at the taxiway and taxied back to 32 for another round.

The night currency requirement specifies takeoffs and landings for good reason. A night takeoff is substantially different from the day. Lined up on the runway I use the edge lights and the landing light on the center line markings to stay on the centerline during the takeoff roll. Once you reach rotation speed and pitch up you lose a lot of visual reference. It is dark out there past the end of the runway! The attitude indicator gets added into my scan to verify the appropriate amount of nose up pitch cross checked against vertical speed and airspeed.

Each time I came around to land my landings were good. After the required three I was feeling comfortable enough to taxi back to the ramp for what is often the hardest challenge of night flying… night parking! This was made worse by the fact that my spot was unfamiliar to me but fortunately the plane that was parked next to me before was still there which made it easy to find the spot.

Once the engine is shut down in front of the parking spot I pushed it back. One useful trick for pushing the plane back at night is to place a dim flashlight on the tail tie down spot. This makes it easy to see where you should be aiming the tail as you push the plane back and steer with the towbar. I even managed to get it pushed back right on the first try.

As the days get shorter I am very happy to have regained my night currency. Doing it without visual approach slope guidance was a good challenge combined with the reasonably long runway at Fitchburg. Often I’ve done my night practice at Manchester which is nice but the centerline lights, approach lights, and super wide and long runway can be the easy way out. Night flying is a lot of fun and I hope to do more soon, this time with a passenger!

Home away from home

On Monday Nashua closes the existing runway 14-32 for construction. This leaves Nashua with no runway until the new Runway 14-32 opens, scheduled for September 3. It will be open for helicopter operations but obviously doesn’t help me. Thankfully nearby Fitchburg airport (FIT) has offered free tie-downs for the month to anyone displaced by the Nashua construction.

Since I will be busy this weekend I moved the Cardinal from Nashua to Fitchburg this evening. I was able to get a ride from work up to Nashua and had a chance to do some “hangar flying” with my A&P and a renter at the flight school where I have been training. Finally I headed off to Fitchburg.

It’s a quick hop – just 24 minutes from engine start to engine stop even with a slight headwind. Fitchburg was quiet when I came in and I elected to use Runway 14 which had a light but almost direct crosswind at 5 knots. Soon after I landed another aircraft did some pattern work on 32. In retrospect the airport notes say “surface winds less than 5 knots use runway 32″. Since it was exactly 5 knots I did use 14 but 32 would have worked fine too – there is plenty of runway for me at Fitchburg.

My pattern was well executed and the final approach was very nice. I felt much more ahead of the airplane than when I flew on Saturday. I flared a bit early and aggressively which is probably a combination of old 172 flying habits and the fact that the plane was light with just me and 20 gallons of fuel (the difference between that and a full fuel load is 240 pounds). But the landing was still fine. The plane that was doing touch and goes after I landed had a few ugly ones too!

N52667 on the ramp at Fitchburg.

I picked an available tie-down spot and checked in at the desk. Now I have tie-down #80 at Fitchburg for the next three and a half weeks. Thanks again to the airport – I will definitely be buying fuel before Nashua is back open!

Finally, back in the air!

Forgive me, it has been 3 weeks since I have been flying! My last post ended with a gear hydraulic pump problem and this has been the primary reason. In fact, there were two problems with the gear. The hydraulic actuator for the main gear had an ancient O-ring which essentially disintegrated when my A&P removed it from the actuator. Obviously a problem! However, even after reassembling the hydraulic actuator the gear pump continued to run rapidly indicating an internal leak and had to be sent off to be rebuilt.

Unfortunately this meant that Abby and I couldn’t fly up to Burlington, VT last weekend for our anniversary. We drove instead. Turning a 1 hour flight into a three and and half hour drive is a nice reminder of the utility of flying. But my disappointment turned out to be somewhat moot as the weather (while beautiful in Burlington) was IFR or marginal at home all weekend. More motivation to work on my instrument rating!

Finally I got the call I was waiting for and the pump was back in, the gear swing checked out on the jacks, and everything looked good. I went up to the airport on Saturday morning and chatted for a bit before taking the Cardinal for a test flight. I planned to do three trips around the pattern and if everything looked good I’d stop back at the shop and settle the bill.

Well, after a month of not flying I have to say the plane was flying better than I was! Nothing too bad but the greaser landings I was getting used to were nowhere to be found. All three landings were fine but I was just a hair behind the plane and the approaches were on speed but required more fiddling with power than I like. Each one was a bit better than the last. The only blip to the alternator needle was the typical tiny pulse as the rotating beacon goes on and off.

I taxied back and paid the bill, then headed off to Fitchburg (FIT). Adding to my anxiety about getting the plane back is the fact that Nashua airport will be closing a week from Monday for three weeks due to construction. For many months now they have been constructing a new long, wider runway next to the old runway. The goal is to have a new longer runway which has greater taxiway separation required by standards for larger jets. The existing parallel taxiway Alpha will remain in the same location and the old runway will be removed. Right now the new runway is essentially done but unmarked and has no taxiway connections. In the next three weeks both runways will be closed as the old runway is demolished to extend taxiways to the new runway before it opens on September 3rd.

Fitchburg airport has been kind enough to offer free tie down space for the month to “refugees” from Nashua (along with Manchester airport). I’ll buy fuel from them and otherwise support the airport so this is a mutually beneficial deal. Fitchburg is about the same distance from home for me so this arrangement is great. But I needed to stop by the airport and sign some paperwork and make arrangements so Saturday was perfect.

The gear pump didn’t run at all (except when I wanted it too :) on the way over to Fitchburg. The pattern was busy with several planes approaching the airport so I kept my head on a swivel. Most of the traffic was following in behind me and a helicopter just west of the airport had me in sight (and I had them in sight) so I made my pattern. The landing was fine but still not a “greaser”. Fitchburg’s runway and taxiway surfaces are not as smooth as even the old runway at Nashua so that adds to the roughness.

I taxied up to a spot in front of the building which contains the airport operations office and a small restaurant. I chatted for a bit with the person at the desk there, signed my paperwork, and arranged to bring the Cardinal into its temporary home on Wednesday evening. I also got a temporary card to let me in the gate at Fitchburg. Now I just need to figure out the logistics for getting my to Nashua airport and my wife to Fitchburg to pick me up Wednesday evening!

Since it was noon time I checked out the restaurant and got a tasty bacon cheeseburger with swiss cheese and grilled onions. Friendly folks and a typical airport restaurant with several groups of pilots flying in. I’m sure they will get some additional business from other pilots displaced from Nashua for the month.

My flight back to Nashua was quick and bumpy with cumulus towers building. No gear issues. Still not a super smooth landing but this time with the winds reported as 6 knots gusting to 12 I can at least attempt blame the wind! I suspect it will not take long before I am back to making those greasers.