Saturday, January 24, 2009

Finally back in the sky

Plane: Cessna 150
Route: 40I-MGY-40I
Weather: Overcast, light snow, 23 degrees, wind 330 degrees at 6 knots

Over three weeks since I last took to the skies, I managed to get up and run myself through the paces this afternoon. My goal is to fly every two weeks at a minimum so I went up solo to run through pretty much a mock checkride for a thorough refresher. It was plenty cold out and Emerson (one of the owners) came out to help me get 338 started. Once she was warmed up, I filled the tanks and did a quick preflight before running through my pre-takeoff checks.

From Stewart to Wright Brothers with maneuvers in between

The winds were out of the Northwest but quite light compared to many of my recent flights at around 6 knots. Departing for the first time at Stewart, I made a normal (and pseudo soft field, as is the norm on the grass) takeoff and climbed quite quickly into the pattern - gotta love the engine performance on a cold winter day. I remained in the pattern for five landings, randomly switching between short field, soft field, and the normal variety. I could tell I was a little rusty but they were still pretty smooth and my soft field landing was one of the best I've ever made. On the final approach, I intentionally practiced a go-around and departed the pattern to the Northeast.

Caesar Creek Lake covered in ice

The clouds were up at around 4,000 feet so I climbed to 3,000 and made two sets of steep turns. I wasn't holding altitude all that great the first time around but got my head in the game and cleaned things up on the second set. Then I climbed up to 3,500 and did a series of power-off and power-on stalls. I hadn't done that latter in the 150 since my checkride (nearly two months ago) but managed a few stalls with good, clean breaks and smooth recoveries.

Looking North with US-42 down below and the power lines

Feeling good about stalls, I descended and made S-Turns along a straight section of high-tension power lines. Without much wind the practice probably wasn't that useful, but looking at the GPS track it appears I made relatively consistent turns. I then headed off towards Wright Brothers Airport and pulled my power enroute to simulate an engine failure. There were plenty of fields as I set up and made a slow turn so that I would be landing to the North on the longest field clear of power lines.

About 200 feet off the ground, I knew I would have made the landing and pushed in the throttle... and then the engine sort of coughed and didn't come back. I pulled it back to idle and advanced it slowly and it roared back to life. This isn't anything new in the 150, as you often have to advance the throttle more slowly than usual when it's really cold out. Nonetheless, you wouldn't believe the number of thoughts that ran through my head in those 3 short seconds. Of course, I was still in a position to make an emergency landing - so at least I had that going for me!

Flying near where I simulated the engine failure

Maneuvers out of the way, I continued towards Wright Brothers and made a crosswind entry to the pattern for Runway 2. Nobody else was flying when I arrived but traffic picked up while I was there. At one point, there were 5 of us in the pattern. Same as at Stewart, I made a variety of landings. The crosswind was stronger here, and interestingly cut out or picked up within 10 feet of the ground every time on final so I couldn't trust the windsock too much. But even with having to make some quick corrections on short final I managed to set it down without any drift all but one time.

Entering the pattern at Dayton Wright Brothers Airport

Heading back home, I climbed up to 2,800 on departure because another plane was inbound from the East. I never did see him, but we were calling out positions over the radio and he said he had me in sight. It's a good time to mention that I flew through snow showers off and on during all my flying this afternoon - they came and went in varying intensities. Nothing so bad that visibility was ever less than 5 miles, but I probably wouldn't have set off on a cross-country to an unfamiliar destination today. For practice, however, the weather was great. Plus it's fun to have the whole Star Trek warp-speed look out the front as the snow zooms past.

One last smooth landing at Stewart and I was safely back on the ground. It sure felt like forever since I had been up last and I was glad to once again feel good about piloting a plane. Honestly, I was more excited to go up today than I have been in quite a while. Other than the cold temps it should be nice tomorrow, so the plan is for me and Gina to fly up to Urbana for a $100 lunch. The itch to be in the sky is one that you can only ignore for so long!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 1.8 hours
Total Time: 85.5 hours

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pilot Toys: BrightLine Bag

Nov. 2010 - I have posted a two year update to my review, which you can find here.

Our lovely winter in the Midwest has kept me on the ground for quite some time now. Frigid temperatures, low ceilings, snow and ice - not much has gone my way lately. But I'm still around (house-hunting, in case you're curious) and figured I'd take the time to put up another post I've been working on for a while. Hopefully the weather cooperates and I'll get something about actual flying up again before too long!

I only really asked for one flying item for Christmas this year, which most pilots will probably find hard to believe. But seeing as how I bought myself the Lowrance 600c GPS a few weeks before the holiday there wasn't much else on my gadget list. So what did I ask for and receive? Why, a BrightLine Flight Bag.

Looking at the "gear" side of the BrightLine Bag

Since I started flight training I had been keeping all my flying gear in two bags - the little portfolio style one from ASA that came with my Private Pilot kit and one that came with my headset. I shoved the headset, digital camera, and everything else electronic into the headset bag and all my charts and flight planning stuff in the other. Obviously I (for those who know me and my overly organized self) wanted something a little more compact and functional.

Over the past year, I caught a lot of pilots talking about the BrightLine Bag on the AOPA Forums. It's designed by a pilot and has a bunch of individual compartments that hold just about everything we tend to carry around all the time. The continued reviews touting its quality and design sold me over and I lucked out when my Mom got me one for Christmas.

Turned around to view the "chart" side of the bag

So what do I think about it? Put simply, it lives up to the hype. Everything that was in my two bags before is in the BrightLine Bag now - and it's much smaller than the ASA bag was alone! The pockets and compartments absolutely do keep things organized and accessible and I find that to be incredibly valuable. You can separate the bag in half - one side holds your headset and gear and the other is designed to hold charts - to leave charts and flight planning forms on the ground when you don't need them for local flights.

Here's everything in my bag:
Seriously, everything listed above is in the bag and there's still some room to spare. Check out the diagram (PDF) from BrightLine to see exactly how many pockets the bag has and what they're designed for. No matter what you have you can probably configure the bag to hold it securely and neatly - the main pocket where I store my headset has an adjustable divider, for example. I love that the chart pocket is perfectly sized to hold sectionals, too. The colored zipper pulls also make it easy to quickly spot any pocket you're looking for. Durability-wise it appears to be made of very high quality materials that haven't given me any trouble so far.

Inside the "gear" side of the bag

Opening up the "charts" side of the bag

I really can't recommend this bag enough. It's pricier than some out there (around $120) but worth every penny. You can't really put a price on having everything easily accessible in the aircraft - especially if you need something in a hurry. If you're in the market for a new flight bag, definitely be sure to give the BrightLine Bag serious consideration!

Rating: 5/5 Cubs

If you decide to purchase this bag based upon my review, I would greatly appreciate if you do so by clicking one of the BrightLine Bag links in this post. Thanks! -Steve

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pilot Toys: Lowrance Airmap 600c GPS

For a long time I debated whether or not to buy a GPS once I had my certificate. They're certainly useful devices but I also wasn't ready to fork over $500 or more for one. Then a couple weeks ago all the major online retailers put the Lowrance Airmap 600c on sale for about $299. Combine that with a $50 rebate that was available from Lowrance through December 31st and you've got a color GPS for under $250. Knowing that I plan to do plenty of XC flying, coupled with how ridiculously good the price was, sealed the deal for me. The little device arrived a couple weeks ago and I figure it's time for a review now that I've used it on two local flights and one XC.

The 600c attached to the included RAM yoke mount

What do I like?
  • Color display + terrain awareness + 3D airspace depictions. Honestly, the increased situational awareness this GPS can provide is astounding... assuming, of course, that you don't spend all the time staring at it when you should have your eyes outside the cockpit.
  • It's very simple to use. I did read the manual and play around with it on the ground but most settings and operations are very intuitive. To switch between different displays (full map, HSI, terrain) is incredibly easy - just click the Pages button and scroll through.
  • Speaking of the displays, there's an excellent selection. Not only do you get a standard map display (to which you can add/subtract all sorts of aviation and non-aviation features) but there are numerous variations of the HSI and navigation information so everyone should find a version they like. I love the Map Panel, which gives you a moving map up top with a ground speed and altimeter tape-style readout on either side along with a compass below on which you get a CDI needle for navigating along a course. Sounds like a lot (and it a mouthful to say/write!) but it's organized so well that everything you need is easy to spot.
  • I'm going to mention terrain again because I think it's that nice a feature. Maybe it's not as useful for me in flat-as-a-board Ohio but aside from the Earth itself all obstructions like towers are included. When you are in terrain mode, they change colors (green/red/yellow) based on your altitude trend (level/climbing/descending) to indicate whether you are in danger along with being labeled L or R for their horizontal position in relation to the plane. Additionally, you can turn on terrain warnings that color the ground below (again in green/red/yellow, depending on your height) when you are less than 1,000 feet agl on all the map displays.
  • Signal reception is excellent. I've never before used a GPS that locked on to satellites so quickly. Even inside my apartment or other buildings (not next to windows) it manages to get a 3D (4+ satellites) lock with WAAS reception. Impressive.
  • The informational database (AFD + Navaids, mainly) is thorough and easy to use. Put the cursor over an airport, click Find -> Enter, and up pops all sorts of information. Frequencies, runway lengths, phone numbers... it's all there. Put your cursor inside any airspace and it is automatically highlighted, with the controlling agency and frequencies displayed if you press Find -> Enter. You can even enable runway extensions to help line you up with the extended centerline, which could be especially useful in locating a field at night.
  • All the included mounts and accessories. You get a yoke mount and a suction mount, along with the cradle for the unit. They are all very high-quality and made by RAM. An external antenna with suction mount is included as well, but I'm yet to use it aside from checking to see that it works. Haven't had to - see "reception" above.
  • Pretty simply, it works. Plug it in, enter the route, and off you go. You can make it as complex or basic as you want with how customizable all the displays are, but at the end of the day it provides basic navigation - and does so very well.

What could be better?
  • The display is not very readable if the backlight isn't on. Many pilots don't like this fact when it comes to the 600c, but it doesn't bother me. Every plane I rent and use for XC flying has a power jack, and the DC adapter is included in the box. If for some reason I want to use it in the Champ or Cub a set of batteries will easily last for a few hours with the backlight on - and I'll run out of gas before that.
  • Some of the menus require you to dig deep (press buttons more than 3-5 times) to get to what you're looking for. But that's also a function of the number of features packed into this thing. Anything you want quickly can be reached quickly, for the most part. I do wish it was quicker to access your saved routes, but even that only takes 5 seconds max.
  • The audio beeps for approaching airspace and timers are worthless. There's no way you could possibly hear them in an airplane with a headset on. However, all the audio alerts appear in conjunction with text on screen so the functionality is the same. And they are very noticeable when they pop up on the display. Just don't expect to hear any loud beeping warnings as you approach your local Class Bravo.
  • Some descriptions are left out of the manual. It explains how to use the thing, but in a few places the description is along the lines of, "to disable XX, press ENTER to turn XX Off." Well that's nice, but what the heck is XX?!? Just a pet peeve of mine, I suppose. For the record, most settings have help information that pops up on screen and is quite useful.

What am I leaving out?
  • Auto (land) navigation mode. I already have a GPS in my car so I've had no reason to try this thing out in that mode. You can download detailed maps to the memory card using the included software (PC only) and card reader, and I've heard from others it works pretty well. In my opinion, if you really want auto navigation it still makes a whole lot more sense to just go buy one designed for that purpose. The ease-of-use will be much improved over something that is really intended to be in the sky.
  • Recording your GPS track and saving it for export to create a Google Earth or Google Maps overlay. The 600c can create such track logs, but I already own an AMOD 3080 GPS Logger that I've been using since early on in my training to create Google Earth KML files.

Dual map/terrain awareness screen

Overall, it's an incredible value for a color aviation GPS. The terrain display is a great aid to any pilot's situational awareness as is a moving-map that where you are in relation to airspace in three dimensions. The display is very clear as long as the backlight is on. It picks up a signal incredibly fast, within 1 minute even when I've moved it over 200 miles since it was last powered up. As with any technological wizardry, you have to make sure you don't become too dependent on it. Yes, it's easy to follow the little purple line but you certainly don't want to (and shouldn't!) be lost if the batteries die.

Rating: 5/5 Cubs

Thursday, January 1, 2009

In case of fire, keep cranking!

Plane: Cessna 150
Route: 40I-FGX-40I
Weather: Clear below 20,000 feet, 34 degrees, wind 160 degrees at 11 knots

I've certainly been learning the hard way lately. First the whole almost starting the plane with the prop over gravel thing a couple weeks ago and now my first encounter with a carb fire. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's not as scary or damaging as it probably sounds. Basically when you prime the engine (as you do when it's cold out) some fuel can leak out of the cylinders and drop onto the air intake from the carburetor. That's not a problem unless the engine backfires, as they can be prone to do when cold, and ignites the fuel on the filter.

Alas, my engine backfired and there were soon flames up front. But we're taught to keep cranking the engine if that happens since it will suck the flames in and put the fire out. And just to let you all know - it works just as advertised. Long story short, I had to replace the filter since it burned through in the middle but otherwise we looked the engine over and everything checked out ok. Then we thoroughly preheated the engine with a kerosene heater and started it up normally. I've heard most carburated planes have had at least one fire (and trainers likely more) so I suppose I get to add my initials to 60338's long history. Facetiousness aside, it was a essentially a non-event and illustrates why you should always have a spotter when starting a cold plane in the winter. Chalk up another learning experience.

The winds were strong - 60 knots ground speed there, 120 knots back!

With all that out of the way, it was time to actually get in the plane and fly. I had intended to fly me and Gina down to Fleming-Mason Airport (FGX) in Flemingsburg, Kentucky to log some cross-country time. Actually I planned to fly there for my second solo XC back in October, but the airport was closed while they repaved the runway. It would be a little tight, but the planned time enroute would get us back around 2 and that left enough time for Gina to get to work at 3. The winds aloft were moderate and from the South so I knew we'd be cooking on the way back - more on that shortly. I fueled up, started up, and then taxied us down to the end of Runway 8 for the pre-takeoff checks. Everything looked great so I took the runway and made a smooth crosswind takeoff with a departure to the South.

A relatively close plane behind us near Mount Orab, Ohio

This was my first opportunity to really put the new Lowrance 600c GPS to use and I plugged in the route and used it as a backup to my charts as we navigated towards Kentucky at 3,500 feet. More than anything, it was awesome to have the ground speed readout. I compared what was on the GPS to my calculated speed (based on the winds aloft forecast) and saw they matched up nicely. My calculations came out to 56 knots and the indicated speed was 58. So along we went, passing by some small lakes and towns on the way. At one point near Mt. Orab another plane was flying in circles (we spotted them around 5 miles away) and I made a couple small turns that hopefully made it easier for them to see us. They came within about a half-mile at one point but were directly behind us so I sure hope they had us in sight.

Flying over Brown County Airport (GEO) in Georgetown, Ohio

We continued South into the headwind, traveling between 58 and 63 knots across the ground. Our route took us directly over top of Brown Co. Airport (GEO) and I snapped the above photo. I only heard and saw a few planes during the entire trip and opted not to contact ATC for flight following and just enjoy the sights as we squawked one two zero zero. Gina started to take quite a few photos as we approached the Ohio/Kentucky border (a.k.a. the Ohio River) since the terrain becomes more hilly and is quite nice to look down upon. We crossed the river just East of Maysville, Kentucky and what appears to be their plethora of power plants.

Flying over the Ohio River on the way to FGX

Flying over the Ohio River just Northwest of Maysville, Kentucky

The William H. Harsha Bridge over the Ohio River in Maysville, Kentucky

I spotted the airport around 10 miles out and began a descent to 1,900 feet. The air got slightly bumpy below 2,500 and I entered the pattern on a 45 to a left downwind for Runway 7. The winds only slightly favored this runway since we essentially had a 90 degree direct crosswind. But coming in from the North it made for an easier entry to the pattern and, being the only plane there, I had no reason not to. In an effort to keep our trip short, I decided to do a touch and go and brought us in for a pretty smooth landing - not bad for the direct crosswind. Carb heat off, full throttle, flaps up, and off we went into the sky once again. Gina thought the touch and go was a lot of fun too. Climbing out we already were indicating over 90 knots ground speed while climbing at 65 knots indicated!

A short video of our approach and touch and go at FGX

Departure from Fleming-Mason Airport

Jeremiah Morrow Bridge on I-71 just South of Stewart

Once level, the venerable 150 was cooking across the ground at 120 knots. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the little bird. Thirty knots directly on the tail does make most small planes fun! What was a little over an hour trip down would turn out to take only about 30 minutes on the way back. As I descended from 4,500 down to 1,800 a few miles out from Stewart I hit 136 knots ground speed - which is about 155 mph! The ground was really zooming by and looked even faster as we got closer. Fun times all around. Entering the pattern, I got to make another direct crosswind landing and touched down softly after a small bounce. Not perfect, but it felt pretty good. Other than the excitement in getting the plane started, it turned out to be a beautiful day to fly and finally log some XC hours again. Happy New Year!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 1.9 hours
Total Time: 83.7 hours