Friday, September 18, 2015

Negotiating marginal VFR enroute to Kalamazoo

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I-AZO
Weather - 40I: Clear, 82 degrees, wind 160 degrees at 9 knots
Weather - AZO: Overcast, 74 degrees, wind 180 degrees at 5 knots

When it comes to flight planning, there are two sources of weather information I find invaluable. The first is NOAA's GFS MAV MOS graphics, which graphically depict what the weather models spit out of the supercomputers every 6 hours - the forecast visibility, ceiling height, and thunderstorm probability are particularly useful to me. The second is every local NWS office's Forecast Discussion, which is a rather technical discussion of what the meteorologists are interpreting from the current conditions and models, including a dedicated aviation section. Combined, they make it possible to watch trends develop and better understand the reasoning behind the simplified-for-public-consumption forecasts.

All week it was clear that rain and scattered thunderstorms were in tonight's forecast; the real uncertainty was whether a window with a clear path to Michigan would be open. At first it looked good, then mid-week it appeared to deteriorate. But this morning, after another detailed analysis of the graphics and discussions, it looked like it might just work out and I made the initial "go" call. A line of storms that moved through overnight was pushing east and the second wave and approaching cold front weren't expected to move into west Michigan until roughly 8pm. Visibility and ceilings would be approaching MVFR conditions along the final 1/3 of the route, but I'm familiar with the area and considered that acceptable for this flight.

Our friend Jeff, who we're staying with this weekend, planned on picking us up (thanks again!) and I sent him directions to our first, second, and third airport options. We originally were debating between Plainwell Municipal (61D) and Kalamazoo, as they live right in between. But I had already scratched Plainwell since the weather was likely to move in there first. So I sent him directions to pick us up not only at AZO, but also Three Rivers (HAI) and Battle Creek (BTL) since they are south and east, respectively - both good divert options if that became necessary.

I continued to closely monitor the weather at work and by lunchtime it was clear that a window still remained but we needed to be in the air by 5pm. Thankfully I was able to head out early, and left for home around 2:30. I quickly packed and got my final weather briefing in an hour; Gina met me at the house when she got off work and we headed straight to Stewart. She loaded the 172 while I organized the cockpit, fully fueled both tanks, and completed my preflight.

This quick video captured the conditions of today's flight's quite well

We took off about 4:55, right on schedule to beat the weather. I first leveled at 4,500 feet and contacted Columbus Approach for flight following up to KAZO. There was a broken cloud deck at 5,000 to 5,500 feet so that was the highest we could go. Based on the forecasts, I expected to have to descend to 3,500 or 2,500 as we approached Kalamazoo due to dropping ceilings. The PTT switch on my side was acting up and only transmitting intermittently so I swapped the plugs of my and Gina's headsets and used her PTT for the remainder of the flight.

Columbus handed us off to Fort Wayne Approach, which was nice - sometimes in that area you get handed off to Indy Center, and their radar coverage down low can be spotty. Soon after the handoff the clouds bases began to drop and I descended to 3,500 feet. Visibility was still around 10 miles and I was looking down upon many familiar roads and landmarks. Closer to Fort Wayne, I spotted an area of rain showers and decreased visibility to the northwest; the ceiling also decreased again slightly so I descended to 3,000 feet. At this point conditions were officially MVFR but I felt safe continuing, especially with many airports nearby. I also kept dialing in nearly every AWOS along our route to confirm conditions weren't deteriorating quicker than forecast.

We had to gradually descend while enroute to remain below the clouds

We passed through some of those rain showers over the final 30 minutes of our flight. At times visibility was definitely down near 5 miles, which I confirmed with AWOS broadcasts (though I think the lowest I heard over the radio was 6 or 7 miles) and a visual check of landmarks out the window and the GPS / sectional chart. Fort Wayne handed us off to Kalamazoo Approach roughly over top of US-20. Another plane that had just departed Angola to the east called in, also flying VFR to Kalamazoo. It's always nice to know someone else is up there with you!

I spotted Kalamazoo just over 7 miles out when the two familiar lakes south of the airport came into view. Traffic was light and I was cleared onto a long left downwind for Runway 17. Airport in sight, I descended from 3,000 down to pattern altitude, roughly 1,900 feet. The light wind was nearly directly on our nose and I touched down softly with the stall horn whining and a chirp of the mains on the runway. We turned off on Taxiway E and taxied to the FBO.

Radar after we arrived in Kalamazoo

Flight rules and radar shortly after our arrival

We slid in just before the front (and storms) moved through

A lineman marshalled us into a parking spot at Duncan Aviation. Fellow pilot friend and former Kalamazoo resident Chris loves the folks there and I agree - they do always take good care of us. Even when in a lowly rental, which doesn't class up the ramp nearly as nice as Warrior 481. Inside, I filled out a little paperwork and opted for their "Storm" option - they'd tie the plane down outside but move it into a hangar if they felt incoming weather was likely to damage the airplane. For $50. Better safe than sorry, though, right?

There's certainly a difference between flying over known, flat terrain with <3,000 foot ceilings and flying over unknown, slightly bumpier terrain with <3,000 foot ceilings. While I still think today's flight nearly pushed the envelope, I planned it extensively and had plenty of outs (i.e. airports to divert to) along the way. Then again, that trip to NY four years ago laid a solid foundation for decision-making that undoubtedly helped me with this flight. Just goes to show how pilots continually develop their skills and every flight, at least in some small part, adds to one's experience bucket.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 2.0 hours
Total Time: 338.7 hours

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Weeknight sightseeing with some coworkers in the Skyhawk

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I, Local 
Weather: Clear, 75 degrees, wind 180 degrees at 6 knots

I convinced a few coworkers to go flying this evening. We're still in the midst of some great flying weather. Lorraine, Joe, and I have all chatted about flying in the past. She was on board first and convinced Joe at some point throughout the day. We left work and met at the airport around 5:30pm. Sidenote - I'm sure our boss is happy I didn't take out half the Kodak color science and workflow team with any stupid pilot tricks this evening. ;-)

Getting the trusty 172 ready

Explaining the trim wheel prior to taxiing

While preflighting the airplane we all chatted and I explained a few things and answered their questions. Then I got everyone situated and strapped in. Engine running, before takeoff checks completed, and everyone ready to fly, I departed to the west on Runway 26.

Pardon the long video, but I captured some great moments with tonight's cockpit POV!

View out the back just after takeoff

Passing over the fields on the west edge of the airport

We first flew north, passing over Centerville, Lorraine's house, and the new Costco development next to I-675 before passing over the office. Then we circled over Oakwood, the University of Dayton, and Joe's house. I looped around downtown Dayton then followed the Great Miami River south past Moraine Airpark.

Costco and a Kroger under construction in Centerville

The Greene in Beavercreek

Great Miami River and downtown Dayton

Carillon Park and the Deeds Carillon

I-75 construction downtown

The center of downtown with the Oregon District behind (in the top-left)

The new Water Street District under construction along the river

Fifth Third Field

Visibility was great; we spotted downtown Cincinnati from roughly 40 miles away. Joe caught sight of a combine plowing crops below and snapped a photo. I pointed out more sights near Miamisburg as we passed alongside some hot air balloons out sharing tonight's splendid conditions. As we passed the last balloon, I rocked the wings to say hello.

Cruising south above the Great Miami River

Downtown Miamisburg

We passed over this huge combine harvesting the fields

The farm was rather scenic from above in the lingering twilight

Most of the balloons we saw were down close to the farmland

This balloon was up much higher, between 2,500 and 3,000 feet

Continuing south we passed over Mason. Lorraine is seriously into tennis so I made sure to point out the  site of the Cincinnati Masters. Across I-71 from the Lindner Family Tennis Center is King's Island; we all enjoyed the view of the amusement park from above.

King's Island is a regular waypoint on my sightseeing tours

Before returning to Stewart I asked if they'd like to try some steeper turns. Both were up for the challenge so I banked over to the right then then reversed course and went back to the left. They thought it was fun so I descended in a steep spiral. I failed to remind Joe to look out the front during that final maneuver so he didn't feel 100% by the end, though he was still doing alright. I really felt bad about that; though they were both eager and willing for more than straight and level I certainly never intend to leave any passenger with a bad feeling in their stomach. Fortunately I was entering the pattern at that point and he was fine by the time we landed.

Entering the pattern to land back at Stewart

Everyone was grinning when I landed softly, directly into the blinding sunlight and approaching sunset. So I think it was another successful sightseeing flight despite a couple degrees of excessive bank. Lorraine and Joe both appear ready to fly again sometime and said they had a great time tonight, so that's all I can ask for. Taking people for their first flight in a small plane is still one of my most favorite piloting privledges, no question.

Thanks to Joe for nearly all the photos in this post, too!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 1.1 hours
Total Time: 336.7 hours

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Our first $100 brunch in quite some time

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I-BAK-40I
Weather - 40I: Scattered clouds, 60 degrees, wind 300 degrees at 8 knots
Weather - BAK: Scattered clouds, 62 degrees, wind 330 degrees at 10 knots gusting to 15

Not that I'm complaining, as we've had quite the cross-things-off-the-bucket-list year, but Gina and I haven't hopped into an airplane to fly somewhere and share a meal in a long time. January 1st, specifically. And if you're not counting that annual local breakfast tradition or fly-in BBQs it's been something like three years. Yikes! I certainly don't know where all that time went.

Back home in Dayton - briefly, at least - I'm doing everything I can to take advantage of some seriously spectacular fall weather. I've often said that September and October are the finest flying to be had in these parts and 2015 is shaping up to be one of the best since I was finishing up my PPL back in 2008. Gina had to work at the airport this afternoon so I booked the 172 for a morning brunch flight. I first ventured to Columbus, IN just over two years ago with my sister and her boyfriend and thought today was a great time for a return trip with my better half.

It was a beautiful day to fly!

Piloting - I do still like our new Halo headsets

Passing just south of Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport (MGY)

Climbing above the clouds enroute to Indiana

We departed to the west, foregoing flight following for a change and tracking slightly north of a direct course to remain clear of Cincinnati's Class B airspace. One of the skydive planes out of Middletown was ascending into their drop zone; I spotted him as we climbed around some of the scattered clouds on our way to our initial cruise altitude of 4,500 feet.

A small cemetery tucked in amongst farmland in Palestine, IN

Approaching Brookville Reservoir 

About halfway there the clouds started to inch higher so we descended to remain clear. They were scattered enough that I could have climbed above but I didn't feel it was worth it to slow down to climb 2,000 or 4,000 feet only to have to descend again in less than 50 miles. So we endured the light bumps as we scooted towards Columbus Municipal Airport.

Now down level at about 3,000 feet to stay below the clouds

Lake Santee in Decatur County, IN

Downtown Indianapolis from about 40 miles away

As we approached BAK's Class D airspace and I went to call the tower, my push-to-talk (PTT) switch suddenly decided not to cooperate. For a brief second, I thought we may have to turn back for home - I actually started to turn south to remain clear of the airspace when the PTT suddenly came back to life and I was able to make my radio call. Normally I carry a handheld radio in case of such issues, but I temporarily loaned it to a friend. Go figure.

Comfortably in contact with the controller, I was cleared to land behind a Piper Meridian. He was on a long straight-in final to Runway 23 so I turned right for a very short downwind before turning base and final to follow him in. We touched down softly in gusty, direct crosswinds and taxied to the ramp.

Our trusty 172 on the ramp upon arrival at BAK

They've been remodeling the terminal - new signage and everything!

I love the old look of the control tower in Columbus

It really was a beautiful fall afternoon - bright, white, fluffy clouds set against a brilliant blue sky. We enjoyed the view of the ramp and the local traffic while waiting for our food. A USMC C-130 landed and picked up a group of Marines who entered and grabbed a quick meal (copious quantities of cheese fries, if you're curious) while we were there.

I had a rather healthy meal myself; a Skyhawk Pie - sausage, green peppers, onions and cheese covered in sausage gravy over potatoes with two basted eggs on top. Being Sunday, I almost went for their one-day-a-week fried chicken special, but the breakfast foods won out this time. Gina had slightly better self-control and enjoyed a similar layered feast with many more veggies, sans meat. It's definitely diner fare but I still really enjoy the menu at Blackerby's Hangar 5. You should consider a flight to BAK if you're in search of a $100 hamburger destination.

Cruising home from brunch

Sparse cloud cover between Columbus and Dayton

One of the more wooded sections of SE Indiana

Passing over Brookville Reservoir again, now with no cloud cover

We departed around 1pm into a still-gusty crosswind. The clouds had cleared considerably since the outbound leg and the return was a little smoother. I deviated slightly north partway home in order to snap a photo of Oxford and Miami University.

The campus of Miami University in Oxford, OH

Nearly back to Stewart after a nice Sunday flight with the wife

Approaching Stewart, I entered the pattern from the SW on a 45 degree entry to a left downwind for Runway 26. The airport was hopping like one would expect on such a nice day; I think we sequenced in between a taildragger or two of some sort. We crossed the treeline on the east side of the field, set down softly on the green grass, and taxied back to the tiedown.

All in all, this was certainly not the worst way to spend a splendid Sunday!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 2.1 hours
Total Time: 335.6 hours

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Good for two more years - my first BFR

Plane: Cub, 85 hp 
Instructor: Mike
Route: 40I, Local 
Weather: Scattered clouds, 81 degrees, wind 260 degrees at 7 knots

Believe it or not, I've been a licensed pilot for nearly 7 years and have never completed a Biennial Flight Review (BFR). Before you go calling the FAA let me clarify that I only mean a BFR in the traditional sense. You see, until now, I've always extended my PIC currency through seminars, courses, and flight training logged within the FAA WINGS program.

It goes without saying that this has been a hectic year and I haven't been flying as much as I used to. My infrequent blog posting schedule (sorry!) is certainly a testament to that. Between house projects, work travel, and our own vacations I simply haven't been home all that much; I've already flown about 65,000 miles this year.

What's the point of this anyway? In short, the FAA requires all pilots to complete a review with a CFI covering both ground (knowledge) and flying elements every two years. Personally, I needed a BFR by the end of August and today was the day to make it happen.

Although I've known him for years, today was my first flight with Mike as the guy in the front seat. We started the review on the ground, discussing airspace, cloud clearances, charts, and certification requirements before completing a full weight and balance for the Cub. It was a casual conversation but we covered a range of things over roughly an hour in the office.

He had a chat with a prospective student while I walked outside and preflighted the airplane. Having not flown much lately, I took my time to make sure I looked everything extra-thoroughly. Then Mike walked over, propped the engine to life, and I took off from Runway 26.

S-Turns are still one of my favorite reasons to record GPS tracks

In the air, we ran through most of the basic maneuvers. I climbed over the lake then leveled and put the plane into slow flight, putzing along at about 40 mph. After a few gentle turns, I pulled the stick back to my chest and did a couple stalls. Then we flew north and I did S-Turns along a road - I hadn't done any in a while and it's always good to practice ground reference maneuvers.

He pulled the power (somewhat unexpectedly - I've clearly lost the primary student's mindset of constantly expecting the CFI to simulate an engine failure over the years!) and I spotted a field below, put the plane into a full-on forward slip to lose altitude and speed. I would have been able to touch down on the east side, leaving more than enough room for a safe landing. Mike was satisfied and had me go around when we were still a few hundred feet up.

Back in the pattern, the Hobbs meter said we hadn't flown quite as long we thought so I made a few circuits; Mike had me do a short field and soft field takeoff and landing. On my own accord, I went around (never a bad thing to practice) prior to my final landing - a pretty soft and short touchdown in the modest headwind blowing straight down the runway.

All told we spent a couple hours between the ground and sky. While I somewhat prefer the additional education and time spent working towards completing a phase of WINGS, today was still a good all-around refresher. Most importantly, I'm fully qualified and current to fly for the next two years - provided I keep current with my takeoffs and landings, of course.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 1.0 hours
Total Time: 333.5 hours

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I still remember how to fly a plane!

Plane: Cub, 65 hp 
Route: 40I, Local 
Weather: Scattered clouds, 74 degrees, wind 360 degrees at 11-12 knots

We returned home from our amazing vacation this past weekend and, amongst many other things on my welcome-back-to-reality checklist, I didn't exactly want to let my currency expire. I kept looking out the window at work this afternoon since it was downright beautiful outside; I called Stewart when I left the office and snagged an hour in the Cub.

It was a little windy down at my favorite grass strip but I figured that would just enhance the knocking-off-the-rust experience. I did a more thorough preflight than usual to ensure I didn't forget anything then Jamie came over and to give me a prop. Having flown earlier in the day, one swing of the blade it all it took to bring her to life.

As I took off the wind was a nearly direct crosswind. Ailerons into the wind, stick forward as I pushed in the throttle and began the takeoff roll. That first liftoff was decent and the airplane quickly weathervaned into the wind as I climbed away. With skydivers jumping, I continued straight out until crossing the road west of the field before turning crosswind.

It's rather difficult to dislike this view

My first landing, frankly, felt about like you'd expect your first landing in two months. Safe but not completely coordinated; I don't think I bounced, though. It also felt like tailwheel was a bit more willing to break loose compared to the big Cub so my feet were doing some extra dancing on the rudder pedals.

The next takeoff was better and the landing was downright perfect. The right wheel touched first as it should but all three grazed the grass so smoothly there was no clear transition from flying to rolling on the turf. I made one more circuit and both takeoff and landing were again very good. Three up, three down - I called it a success and headed home.

One final thought related to our aforementioned trip, which I posted on Facebook after I got home this evening. While there are very many things I love about very many countries, ours is the only one where you can so easily enjoy the magic of personal flight. Today was a perfect day to hop back into the pilot's seat after two months spent as a mere passenger.

Today's Flight: 0.5 hours
Total Time: 332.5 hours