Saturday, September 25, 2010

iPhone Attitude Indicator with gyroscope

Finally, an Attitude Indicator for the iPhone that uses its gyroscope, and actually works! In fact, it shows all primary flight instruments on a 'glass cockpit' display using tapes for altitude, speed and heading, plus vertical speed and rate of turn. In addition, it it shows your position relative to the nearest airport, to help you when ATC asks you for your position.

Head over to to check this out, or straight to iTunes to check out the app.

What makes this work better than anything else in the app store right now are the calibration and auto-level features. Inherently the gyroscopes in the iPhone are not stable, so some algorithmic tweaking is needed to clean them up and make them useful and reliable in flight. Of course, this is still no FAA-approved backup for your AI, but if it fails it sure is nice to have some options.

Friday, October 31, 2008

100 ft OVC and 1 mi visibility

I made a wonderful trip through Northern California in August. Following an in-promptu golf-outing with two friends on Friday afternoon, I departed KPAO in the SR20 from West Valley Flying Club that I have been flying lately, on an IFR flight plan to San Luis Obispo. Taking off around 6.30, it was a wonderful evening flight with the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean as I was cruising over the mountainous terrain. South of San Jose, I was called out as traffic to an airliner, whose smart-mouth pilots responded with 'if only he'd pull his chute, we'd be able to see him!' Oh well...

I had installed my portable collision avoidance gear (the Zaon XRX) and hooked it up to my Garmin 396. This allowed me to see nearby traffic, and in fact I was alerted to traffic once, which was easy to spot, thanks to the yellow traffic indicator on the Garmin. ATC never called the traffic for me, despite the fact that it came relatively close, was visible to ATC (it had its transponder on, otherwise the Zaon would not have seen it either), and I was on an IFR flight plan. Reminds you of your 'see and avoid' duties when in VMC, even when on an IFR flight plan and under ATC control.

The approach into SBP was cool. By then it was dark, and I was being vectored over the ocean, over the marine layer that invariably forms this time of year. I had asked for the GPS approach to runway 11, instead of the more logical ILS, because I thought it would be interesting to fly this, and the MDA was not going to be a problem because the marine layer had not yet moved far enough inland to envelop the airport. There is a slight dog-leg in the GPS approach (probably because of a mountain slightly to the left of the final approach course) that puzzled me, because it obviously wasn't required for the ILS. In any case, the procedure went fine, and as I was handed over to the traffic advisory frequency I clicked the mic a few times and saw the airport light up like a christmas tree. Very cool! I was a little high, but with side slip the landing was uneventful, and I spent the Saturday roaming the coast around San Luis Obispo, which was fun.

On Sunday morning, the plan was to fly to Yosemite National Park, but that marine layer was still very much there when I arrived at the airport at around 7 am. This was expected, and I had carefully planned for a Departure Procedure (DP) out of SBP, (CREPE THREE departure, towards the west), so I could turn on course northbound to the Paso Robles VOR more easily than the eastbound departure would allow. This DP called for a climb rate of 275 ft per NM until 1700, which I had calculated to be well within the capabilities of the SR20. As long as I exceeded 500 fpm in climb, there would be no problem and I would clear the obstacles around me by at least 1000 ft.

The ATIS called it 1 mi visibility and 100 ft overcast, and that's what it looked like. I had considered the fact that I would not be able to return to the airport if something went wrong, but I knew that the layer would be thin, and that there were several airports nearby that were CAVOK. Plus, there was always the parachute! I pre-flighted the airplane more carefully than I believe I have ever done, and started up with confidence, albeit very aware that this would require me to concentrate and aviate as well as I knew how. Tower cleared me to runway 11, but when I asked if I could depart westbound they agreed without fuss. The take-off roll was as you'd expect, and with 1 mi visibility this was not a problem. As soon as I rotated and lifted off, I concentrated on the gauges (well, the PFD - it being a glass display Cirrus), and made sure I kept the wings level, and the airplane climbing more than 500 fpm. The CDI was surprisingly sensitive, and deflected more than I liked. Since this was the first time I had programmed a Departure Procedure in the Garmin 430 I was a little concerned that I might have done something wrong, but with some course correction things turned back to center. Within a minute (that seemed much longer) I broke out on top of the marine layer, with mountain peaks left, right and in front of me sticking through the clouds. A wonderful sight, that again reconfirmed the beauty of flight, and why I love doing it! Since I was now in VMC, I started looking around and slacking off the climb rate a little, causing my Garmin 396 to call out for the terrain ahead of me with a loud 'Terrain! Terrain! Pull Up' warning. That's the first time I ever heard that, and it was reassuring to know that this little box was looking out for me. There was of course no danger, as I had the rock clearly in sight and wasn't going to hit it in my climb. I took some pictures, and enjoyed the trip.

I had wanted to go to Mariposa-Yosemite (MPI), which was the closest to Yosemite that I felt comfortable with, but I checked the club rules and found that I was not supposed to land at an airport at greater than 2000 ft elevation without a mountain checkout. That, plus the fact that it would likely hit 100 degrees F made me decide to land at Modesto, which has a really long runway that would allow me to leave in the late afternoon, even with high temperatures. The downside was that I had to drive for 2 hours before I got to Yosemite, but it was worth it! I had been there in 1990, and it was as impressive now as it was then! The take-off from Modesto, with tanks half full and only me in the plane, was indeed rather long, but not a problem, since I was well under gross weight and things had cooled down a little. I took off right at sunset, and the short hop to PAO was again beautiful.

Parking 725SB at Palo Alto in the dark, I looked back on a really fun weekend exploring California, and enjoying 'getting there' as much as being there. I wish I could afford more of these trips!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Crowded along the shoreline

I took my sister up to fly over Chicago the other day. This is the same sister they lives in France, and whom we've visited by plane a couple of times from the Netherlands. This time she was here, and interested to see a bit of the Midwest corn fields (she's a vet).
Beautiful sunny day, early morning we went up from PWK and flew northeast to Lake Zurich. Beautiful! She flew quite well, and was happy to do some steep turns over the lake. Then heading back towards the coast, we descended to 3500 ft to stay below class B and above Kenosha's class D.

It was very busy along the coast as we flew south along the shore. I asked for flight following but was denied at first (too busy) but accepted a few minutes later (after I heard the guy behind me get accepted!). Traffic call-outs were fast and frequent, and my sister barely had time to look at the skyline. She did take a couple of really nice pictures though.

On the way back north we flew parallel to and slightly faster than another Cessna, which is always uncomfortable. At one point, there were 4 planes close to each other, and I really wished I had my Zaon Portable Collision Avoidance System with me, but unfortunately I had it sent in for repair. ATC gave a general 'be careful, lots of planes around your location' and suddenly we saw a Diamond coming from the north, same altitude, maybe 1000 ft to our right. Just in time to know we were not on a collision course, but still kinda scary.

Just around that time we were abeam PWK and turned inland. An Eclipse called Palwaukee tower as well, and ATC asked us to keep the speed up to allow for the jet behind us. The Eclipse called back, somewhat embarresed, that they were a Diamond Eclipse doing 80kts on final, not a jet, and we slowed down for a normal (and quite nice!) landing.
My sister really enjoyed the flight. So we'll take her up again when she comes back here, which I hope is soon!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Carbon Monoxide over the Malaysian jungle

A couple of years ago, when I lived in Singapore, I used to fly a lot to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I was a member of the Republic of Singapore Fying Club the oldest flying club in Singapore), and they had two Socata TB9s and one TB200. Never quite got that latter type designation, but it was very much like a TB10, in that it's fixed gear but a variable prop (the TB9 is the fixed prop trainer version). I like Socata's - they are French and it feels like you're stepping into a Peugeot, which brings back fond childhood memories of our puke-green, 12 year old, hand-shifted Peugeot 405 Break, that required artful mastery of the pedals and the choke to get it running, and any time in the first 20 minutes after start when you were trying to run it idle (like: at a stop light)! Masters of technology! My dad to this day claims it was his favorite car though, so they must have done something right. I've only had the privilege to drive it a few times just when I got my license, so suffice to say my love for it was not as great as my dad's, having stalled it many many times in awkward situations!

I digress. The trip to Kuala Lumpur is fascinating, and also predominantly over jungle and palm tree plantations. Not the best place to try to put down an airplane. It's also subject to notoriously bad thunderstorms and requires flight very near mountain ridges, but more on those adventures in another post.

The flight is only about two and a half hours, but because it is international, it requires a LOT of weird steps. Starting up for taxi, you ask the tower for taxi clearance to immigration, just across the field on the other side of the runway. There, you shut down, get out, and drop 1 copy of your flight manifest and flight plan at immigration, 1 at the airport administration (where you pay your fees for international flight, including per passenger charges), and 2 at the national security office (you slip it under the door - there is never anyone there). You then go 'through' immigration and security check, and walk back out the same door you came in through! Back on tarmac, you walk to the tower for a weather briefing and a look at the all important weather radar. It's range is only about 80 miles, but it's the only thing you have to see those monster thunderstorms, so you better take a look at what's there. The forecast will tell you that there are TCB (thunderstorms) because there always are (every day at around 3 pm it rains in Singapore - we joke that the evening weather forecast is a replay from the 70s, as it really never changes!). The forecast therefore isn't much use, hence the visual and radar inspection of the skies. You walk back to the plane, and this time, because it is an international flight, you need to request start-up clearance before you start your engine, lest you speed off and do nasty things.

The above is the same as usual (and you get pretty fluent at it, after a while - I had a series of PowerPoint files set up where I could simply enter flight manifest and flight plan details and print the requisite number of copies off). This time, after starting I thought the engine sounded a little strange (a little tinny and clanking), but after checking this without my headset on I shrugged it off as due to the noise reduction circuitry in my LightSpeed 20XL. That circuitry does do funny things with sound sometimes, especially when it is not quite sealed at the ears. Similar tinny sound at run-up, but since there really was nothing there, I decided to take off.

The beginning of the flight was uneventful, so much so that I began to feel a little sleepy. I found myself losing my concentration, and made a point of perking up and very explicitly scanning the skies. That helped a little, but not enough, so I decided to open the vents and let some cooler air stream in my face (hard at 2 degrees latitude, by the way) and things were OK. I arrived safely at the old Kuala Lumpur international airport (now used only for domestic airline flights and GA), and taxied to my designated parking spot. There, I was awaited by the handler guy with his mini-van (another weird thing: you have to go through a handler to get through customs and immigration if you come in by private plane), and as I got out the plane, he pointed to the cowling and asked what had happened. I looked, and found that a hole the size of a quarter had burned through the cowling (evidently it was made of glass fiber or something like that), with black, molten stuff streaming backwards from there. Turned out the exhaust had cracked (Aha! The tinny clanking sound!) and the hot exhaust gasses had burned through the cowling like a blow-torch. Amazing. In addition, I suspect that the exhaust gasses had somehow found their way into the venting system and the cabin, explaining my weariness and sleepiness. Fortunately, it was only a little, but a scary thought nonetheless.

Obviously, I was back by scheduled airliner, and picked up the plane on a subsequent trip a week later (with a brand new exhaust pipe and cowling). A good reminder to act if something sounds off - not to shrug it off. I have subsequently aborted a take-off in the same plane because the controls felt unusually stiff during the take-off roll, as a precaution. It's the only time I have every aborted a take-off, but I still feel good about that decision in the wake of the earlier experience. Better safe than sorry, especially in aviation!

Cirrus over California

Finally, finally I am signed off to go flying the SR20 around California. It's not that it took me so many hours, but it did take me several cancelled days until I got a good shot this week. Surprising, given the California weather, but this January & February have seen a lot of rain on the days I was available.

In case you remember that I was taking G1000 sim lessons to get ready for the Cessna 206, personal circumstances made a 4-seater in the Bay area quite OK. Could still have gone with the Cessna 182 of course, but since I expect to be flying a lot at night, and because the area is rather hilly, the SR20 with its parachute sounded like a better idea. It's a wonderful plane. I had flown about 10 hours in one in Chicago, but I'd forgotten exactly how wonderful it is. And what was new was the Avidyne glass cockpit display. I think I do like it better than the G1000 (although the G1000 is more integrated and the integrated autopilot apparently is fantastic), partly because I am used to the Garmin 430 already.

It took a while to get comfortable with the plane, and WVFC does a great job getting you ready for it. I feel much more ready and confident than I did flying the SR20 around Chicago. The big 'checkout' I did this week was a good combination of VFR and IFR flight. First a take-off and the usual air work: slow flight, approach stall, departure stall and steep turns. We then did a hold at TRACY (with a parallel entry no lesS!) as we tried to get Norcal Approach's attention for an ILS clearance. We did an auto-pilot coupled ILS into Stockton to a landing, followed by special landings: half flaps, no flaps, engine-out in the pattern, go around (all done at Stockton), and then a hand-flown ILS into Livermore, ending in a low approach and low pass over the runway. Setting up for the GPS into Palo Alto, the engine failed (not really, of course), and I discovered that almost all the green fields were plowed the wrong way! Back in the direction of PAO, the PFD failed (yes, lots of stuff on this flight!) and I popped the circuit breakers and hand-flew based on GPS track. Not too accurately, unfortunately, which got me a nasty remark from Approach, who didn't know I was having this simulated emergency, so I forgive them :) All went well when we got a direct clearance to the initial approach fix, and I could let the autopilot take over. Uneventful landing at PAO, and happy as a clam that all is well and I can go flying by myself now - I can't wait! Unfortunately I'm of to Japan, Korea and Australia, then vacation in Curacao, so I won't be able to for a while...

The great thing about all of this is that I feel really confident about flying this plane. It's wonderful, fast enough, handles really nicely and will just be a blast. I'm planning on little trips in California (that I'll be plotting over the next weeks) such as Sacramento, and LA, and possibly a trip to Vegas to meet up with my wife flying in from Chicago. Wouldn't that be nice!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A gap in the clouds

One of the more fun trips I've made was visiting my sister, who lives in France. I lived in Singapore at the time, but was in the Netherlands with my family of five, and our domestic help. I was fortunate enough to find a Cherokee Six, fixed gear, 6-seater dating back to 1964 at 'Singles and Twins' in Lelystad, the Netherlands. A couple of touch-and-goes, and engine out practice (man, this thing comes down without power!), and we were good to go. As I wasn't IFR rated at the time (and still am not in the Netherlands, by the way), this was to be a VFR trip. Since it was summer, this wasn't necessarily a problem, although any 500 mile trip with a return a week later is tricky if you need to have VFR weather!

We were lucky, though, and soon buzzing along at about 2500 feet, below the scattered clouds, enjoying the trip. As I was fairly new to flying such long cross-countries, and very aware that getting stuck above a cloud layer would be a problem, it took me a while to feel comfortable climbing above the clouds. At the border between Belgium and France, I did just that, and flying was smooth and wonderful at about 5000 ft from there on.

France is quite interesting to fly. There are many, many flight training areas, that require you to go climb and descend to stay out of it, or, if you fly through it, to really check for traffic (they fly fast!). I've had no trouble with it, but a few miles to the west of Paris is like the epicenter of these training areas, and I had to go right through it, so it was a little uncomfortable. The other thing is that pilots speak French. No surprise there, but they do it on the radio too! Very little consideration is given to us non-French speakers, which I guess matches the image of the French as being rather snobbish to foreigners, but I was surprised to find that in aviation. Fortunately, I do understand French enough to pick up most position reports and such, but would maintain that it's a safety hazard, especially when approaching an airfield for landing.
After about two-and-a-half hours, we had to leave our lofty 5000ft to come in for landing. And it got bumpy. Bumpy enough to make our poor domestic help throw up in the back, and make the rest of the family decidedly uncomfortable. That's the thing with afternoon arrivals in summer - you can't get around it really. I've had the same but far worse on arrival in Rapid City, and it bums me out to end a wonderful flight in such a bad way, because that's what the passengers remember. Anyway, we arrived safely and had an absolutely wonderful week in France. The only concern was a massive thunderstorm that pummeled the area a few days later, but fortunately the airport where we were parked was not affected (another one just miles away was heavily damaged).

On the way back, feeling a little more confident, I decided to stick it out above the clouds as long as possible, to avoid another stomach upset in the back. As we were approaching the Netherlands, the cloud cover was building to broken, and it was increasingly difficult to find a good gap through it. Radioing the Antwerp controller (there is no 'flight following' in Europe, but like in the US you are advised to stay in contact with a controller even on VFR flights - it's a little less formal and organized than in the US, but it ends up being about the same!), I asked for the weather further ahead, and was told that things were going to overcast in a hurry.
I wasn't really sweating it, as I had plenty of fuel to go back and drop below the clouds there if necessary, but of course would like to avoid that. Now looking intensely fort a decent size hold in the cover, I found one and let the controller know I was going to let down through it. I throttled back to almost idle (no shock cooling in summer? I don't know, but shock cooling wasn't a subject anyone had taught me about at the time), and started a healthy descent of about 1500 fpm. Since this obviously felt and sounded different than our cruise flight, my wife, sitting next to me, woke up to a windscreen filled with the most beautiful puffy white clouds. She described it to me as the most awe-inspiring sight she had ever seen, and I would agree. We slowly spiraled down the hole, and emerged in the below-the-cloud layer with much reduced visibility. Unfortunately, the rapid descent didn't do so well on the ears of my oldest son (remember, 500 fpm is about as much as you should aim for in normal flight with passengers!), and he started crying. Fortunately, it passed quickly, and all was well soon.

As we crossed the Dutch border, the sun was beginning to set, and in the calm evening air the city of Rotterdam, with its massive rivers, bridges and ports glided by port-side against a beautiful red backdrop. A wonderful end to a wonderful flight, and a wonderful week. It did convince me I needed to get an instrument rating if I wanted to do real travel, though, as travel above the clouds really is much much more comfortable than below!

Friday, December 28, 2007

The 4 or 6 seat compromise

I'm torn. I love the Cirrus because of its advanced panel, high performance and safety features, but it only has four seats. My family numbers five, and they are getting bigger, so cramming them all in a Cirrus - as I admit to having done in the past - is a little tricky, albeit legal. For this simple reason, I have done most of my family flying in 6-seaters. Starting with a 1965 Cherokee 6 (VFR from the Netherlands to the west of France, no less - more on that in a different post), and recently in a 1975 Piper Lance with 310 horses under the hood. I nice plane, but old, with a dilapidated panel (ok, it had the Garmin, but that was it) and an increasingly suspicious number of maintenance issues. Not exactly the gear you want to fly your beloved wife and wonderful sons around in, I'd say. Cram them into the Cirrus again and hope they don't kill each other in the back seat? Find a newer 6-seater for less than $280 per hour? Good luck with both.

Luck, as it tends to do, seems to now have presented itself in the form of the Diamond DA50 SuperStar. What a wonderful plane! Five seats, without a third bench, a 3-panel G1000 panel that makes me drool, and a FADEC controlled 350 horsepower engine that can pull this thing through the air at 200 knots! Who doesn't want one, especially if you need to transport more than 4? I'm very bummed that I had to miss Oshkosh this year, and didn't get to see this beauty in person...

In short, I can't wait to find out more about this plane, and am actually secretly looking for possible partners to go and get one! This would be the ultimate plane for me, no other wishes (promise!). Unfortunately, our friends at Diamond haven't given a firm indication of price yet, so we won't know how much for while. My guess is around $600k: a little more than the SR-2 G3, and a little less than a fast 6-seat Piper (like the $775k Matrix, with the $573k Saratoga II TC just below, but slower). If you know anyone interested in a 3 or 4 person partnership in the Chicago area, let me know!

Until (and, more likely, unless) I get access to one of these babies, I'll continue to be torn between the cool Cirrus and old, crappy 6-seaters. Oh well, we'll just have to get checked out in both then, don't we?