Saturday, September 16, 2017

Spoiled

Evolution

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
16 Sep 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC 5.6 1711.9

In my brief four years as an instrument rated pilot, I have become spoiled by how much easier the flight across Canada between New York and Michigan is when flown in the IFR system rather than VFR. In the VFR days, the procedure was this:

  • Call flight service to submit a flight plan (though, later, I submitted electronically through DUAT),
  • Depart the airport and contact / try to contact Flight Service in the air to activate the flight plan,
  • Call the nearest radar facility for flight following and a transponder code,
  • Close the flight plan by phone on arrival (I used to write "CFP" for "close flight plan" on the back of my hand to help me remember this).
These actions would satisfy the requirements of being on a flight plan, squawking a discrete transponder code, and participating in two way communication with air traffic control for the border crossing.

After a 2010 mishap with Flight Service resulting in our being reported overdue while still en route across Ontario, I followed the advice of a Flight Service briefer and regularly activated my VFR flight plans on the ground by phone. This was useful because in-air activation was often problematic as a result of RCO outages and/or poor audio quality.

Since earning my instrument rating, I feel that the process has been streamlined:

  • I file IFR flight plans electronically through ForeFlight,
  • Depending on the situation, I receive clearance from Ground Control or Clearance Delivery (at towered airports), by phone prior to take-off, or in the air from the local radar facility (Approach or Center). 
The rest of it is automatic. There are no concerns about hearing "radar service terminated" along the way. That can and does happen while VFR. There are no concerns about remaining VFR should a cloud layer present itself en route. On landing, Tower closes the IFR flight plan automatically or, if landing at a non-towered airport, I cancel in the air when I can. On occasions when I fly an approach to a non-towered airport, I may still need to remember the phone call for cancellation. Exercising an instrument rating has definitely shifted my preference to using towered airports.

Two weeks ago.

Then, two weeks ago, my attitude indicator malfunctioned.

Mission: Pontiac

Mom was out of the hospital and recuperating at home. With a pristine weather forecast and high pressure dominating the entire route of flight such that there was virtually no wind aloft, I decided to visit. The Bear had a cold and remained at home with Kristy. We always want clear heads in the airplane (in more ways than one).

I have scheduled Warrior 481 to have her mechanical attitude gyro replaced with a Garmin G5 solid state electronic indicator. These are selling faster than Garmin can make them and they are currently back-ordered into October. In the meantime, the Warrior's vacuum pump was old enough that I had it replaced as a preventive measure. Without a reliable attitude indicator, however, I was not going to file IFR to Michigan.

Going Old School

I read a self-contradictory weather forecast the morning of the flight. Though every terminal area forecast for every airport along the route indicated VFR conditions after 9:00 am, three separate IFR AIRMETs covered the entire route of flight until 11:00 am. I decided to launch anyway and resolved to use Flint as my alternate because it had a better forecast than the rest of the route, was outside of the AIRMET areas, and still reasonably close to Mom.

After filing a VFR flight plan through ForeFlight for the first time, I was on the run-up pad for runway 28 at Sodus. It was 9:00 am with 10+ mile visibility and a clear sky. With run-up complete, I attempted to call Flight Service to activate the flight plan before take-off, but I could not get my phone to pair with the Zulu headset by Bluetooth. First world problems, true, but I did not want to waste time fiddling with it and I did not want to shut the engine down just for the sake of making a phone call. Instead, I consulted the sectional chart, identified the frequency for the Flight Service RCO co-located with the Rochester VOR (122.6), and decided to activate in the air.


After making contact with Rochester for flight following, I requested to go off frequency to contact Flight Service.

"Buffalo Radio, Warrior 21481 on 122.6," I broadcast. Then I waited.

Nothing.

I broadcast again and waited.

Still nothing.

I swapped over to my #2 radio, which has a lower squelch setting than the #1 and repeated the call.

Nope. I was reminded of numerous experiences in years past when I struggled to reach Flight Service while airborne.

I double checked the frequency, verified adequate volume on the radio, ensured that I had the correct radio selected at the audio panel, and tried a fourth time.

At first, there was nothing but a faint crackle. Then, I heard an elderly voice with just a hint of a waver that lacked the confident presence one usually hears on the aviation band.

"Aircraft calling Buffalo Radio, say call sign again." The audio quality was abysmal, but understandable.

Intellectually, I understood that I was not talking to someone in Buffalo. Flight Service Stations were privatized and consolidated into a small number of facilities years ago. I wondered if low demand had driven even further consolidation since the last time I called Flight Service. I envisioned a cartoonishly weather-beaten little shack in the middle of Nebraska to which all Flight Service RCOs fed. It was staffed by one little old man with a long white beard who listened to an ancient radio set through an ear trumpet, his face lit by the glow of vacuum tubes. In a corner, a rusty saucepan collected water leaking through the roof. Somewhere in the distance, a donkey brayed.

I shook my head, reigning in my imagination, and responded. "Buffalo Radio, this is Warrior 21481."

"Warrior two...one...four...eight...one," repeated the Flight Service Specialist haltingly, struggling with the readback. "Say request." I gave my spiel, requesting activation of my flight plan to Pontiac as of 1300Z.

"Warrior 21481, VFR flight plan will be activated as of 1315Z...wait..." The radio fell silent. If he wanted to activate at the current time, I was fine with that. I was more concerned about how long I had been off-frequency from Rochester.

He returned, amending the activation time to 9:00 am and warning me that I was departing from an area with an active IFR AIRMET. I already knew that, of course. The air was hazy, but I could already see Buffalo roughly 30 miles away. I acknowledged and flipped back to Rochester Approach. A new controller was working the position, but she seemed unperturbed by my absence. A few minutes later, she passed me to Buffalo.

The ubiquitous Niagara Falls photo

I was admiring Niagara Falls from just east of the international border when Buffalo called. "Warrior 481, radar service terminated." He paused just long enough for me to process a mental "dammit!", then continued. "Keep the squawk. If you want further flight following, try contacting Toronto Center on 133.4." I did and Toronto was helpful as always.

Everything worked out fine. I was on my way to visit Mom, substituting a 2.5 hour flight for a 6+ hour drive. However, I was annoyed by both the clunky radio interaction with Flight Service and about being dropped from flight following. This thought was quickly followed by the realization that I was spoiled after four years of seamless IFR travel across Canada.

Proto-Autumn

I enjoyed the sights of Ontario passing below, including localized low clouds around some wind turbines. It was not Fall yet, but the landscape was beginning to hint at Autumn's arrival.





Just Like Old Times


On a long final approach to runway 27L at Oakland County International, I spied the former Pontiac Silverdome in its death throes. The lower bowl seating was almost entirely demolished. At the airport, taxiway rework continued. This week's visit presented an entirely different array of closed taxiways to negotiate than two weeks prior. As I rolled out for landing, the controller pitched a roundabout taxi route to Michigan Aviation requiring three runway crossings before countermanding himself and offering a simplified route that involved back-taxiing on the main runway.

As before, the wonderful people at Michigan Aviation offered me one of their crew cars for the day. When I expressed concern about tying it up for several hours, the lineman waved this off by saying, "That's what they're there for." Like last time, I topped off the tank before returning the car. Michigan Aviation has been our home at Oakland County International for many years now and they have always treated us very well.

Jeff and me standing. Photo by Mom, sitting.

Mom looked great, even though she was only a couple of weeks into recovery from her surgery. We talked for a while until Jeff, one of my closest friends from high school, arrived for lunch. I knew that I would be hungry when I arrived in Michigan, but Mom's feeding tube and limited mobility meant that I would not be going out to lunch with her. I worried a little bit about subjecting her to more visitors, but Jeff and I used to spend enough time at each other's houses that he has referred to her as "Mom" for years and the three of us had a good reunion.

After lunch, I spent the rest of the afternoon with Mom. We went for a short, careful walk around the village and stopped by a luncheon at a neighbor's house. By 3:30, Mom needed rest and I needed to head back to the airport. It was a short visit, even though the logistics of flying back and forth made it a long day for me. Regardless, Mom appreciated having me there, which is what I set out to achieve in the first place.

Mission accomplished!

A VFR Return

Learning from that morning's mistake, I called Flight Service on the phone from the airplane just before I was ready to crank the engine. In the old days, Flight Service would sometimes balk at a request to activate a flight plan a few minutes in the future. Not so today.

"This is N21481 on the ground at Pontiac. Can you activate my flight plan to Sierra Delta Charlie ten minutes from now?"

"I sure can!" came the enthusiastic response. I like enthusiasm, but this was a little bit over the top. The rest was easy and before long I was in the air squawking and talking with Detroit.

Left downwind departure from runway 27L at Oakland County International

At 7500 feet, I listened to some music and enjoyed the proto-Autumn landscape of Ontario rolling past in reverse order from that morning. I had the late afternoon sun at my back and a mild tailwind.

Weren't there fields like this in an X-Files episode?


Throughout the flight, I periodically uncovered the attitude indicator to check in on how it was doing, glutton for punishment that I am. It displayed a number of different attitudes, some surprisingly accurate, some wildly off-kilter. Aside from these spot checks, I left the instrument covered for the duration of the flight.



Not quite halfway home, I caught myself yawning. I could feel fatigue gathering in my shoulders.

I am not nearly so tired as I would have been driving the 13 hour round trip, I thought to myself as I flew over where the 402 out of Sarnia dead-ends into the 401 near London, Ontario. Coincidentally, this is usually the point on the return drive where traffic usually picks up and fatigue sets in.


At one point, I encountered a large build up near Tillsonburg. It was the only one and I could see it from miles away. I had a brief moment of anxiety. Should I climb or descend? What lurked behind it? I went around.

FlightAware ground track from PTK to SDC

My deviation planning and return to course were a little crisper than they were during my VFR days. Flying IFR has certainly tightened my flying precision.


Despite many crossings of the Welland Canal, this was the first time that I took a moment to study three of the eight locks that step ships down a total of 326 feet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.


A downhill swath of the Niagara River foamed with rapids leading to the Whirlpool. I noticed a large, red-roofed resort set near the river gorge and wondered if it was the Great Wolf Lodge. It was. Score one for me.

Growing Accustomed

As someone who was devoutly VFR-only for many years, my sour reactions to flying this trip VFR surprised me. Opening the VFR flight plan through Flight Service on the outbound leg was an annoyance. Being dropped from VFR flight following and debating about whether to go above, below or around the cloud build-ups added a little bit of extra work and angst to the flight of a sort that I have not needed to worry about for a while.

With respect to that angst, I realized that flying IFR has become a security blanket for me on the hop across Ontario. It brings a comforting level of certainty. I know that I will not be dropped from the system. I know that I will not become trapped above the clouds. While I am still learning and the IFR rating comes with some additional concerns that must be managed (e.g., go/no-go weather decisions, undesirable routing), I am evidently more comfortable in the system than I realized.

However, the most important thing is that I was there in person to support Mom in her recovery, regardless of how I accomplished it.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Bad Attitude

Milk Run

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Sep 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.5 1702.8

Cool air supported our aluminum wings at 6,000 feet and a tailwind hastened our passage over the Earth. We were filed direct to Oakland County International Airport, a flight we have made so many times that it has become routine. Unlike our last several cross country flights, the sky was absolutely clear of clouds. An advisory for moderate turbulence in the vicinity of Detroit was the only potential weather risk ahead.



Typical of any direct flight between Sodus and Oakland County, we passed north of Niagara Falls.

Ho-hum. 

When something as spectacular as Niagara Falls evokes a nonchalant reaction, that something has officially become old hat.

FlightAware ground track from KSDC to KPTK

In the vicinity of London, Ontario, we were assigned a new squawk code and given a revised clearance. "Cleared present position direct AXXIS, then SWWAN TWO arrival." Interesting. Usually, our flights to Oakland County are direct and it is only on departure that we are assigned a specific routing. I put us on course to AXXIS and studied the arrival procedure as the Warrior cruised approximately one mile over Ontario farmland.

We were established on the SWANN TWO arrival procedure while still over Canada, but this was a temporary state. Detroit Approach vectored us off the procedure before we passed Lake St Clair. I suspect that the vector was to move us south of the skydiving drop zone near Romeo, MI.

Oakland County International was rather busy that morning. We were number three to land on runway 9 Right with additional traffic alongside us for runway 9 Left. The Bear gave a traffic alert for the Piper Arrow on approach to the parallel runway slightly aft of our left wingtip. Parallel runway operations can be uncomfortable for those of us that do not regularly conduct them and The Bear was no exception.

As for the forecast turbulence, that did not come to pass. It was the easiest cross country flight we have experienced as a family in a long time (no clouds, no weather, no customs, no exploding water bottles, etc.)



After landing, we negotiated the recently renamed taxiways to the Michigan Aviation ramp. Once parked, I gawked as Michigan Aviation line service tugged a T-28 Trojan (post WWII military trainer) out to the ramp.

Visitation

Surgery and a hospital stay for Mom inspired this hastily planned day trip to southeast Michigan. Michigan Aviation was kind enough to lend us a crew car for the duration of the afternoon so that we could visit her at "St. Joe's" in Pontiac. For someone who spent several hours in surgery just two days before, Mom looked fantastic.

After a great visit with Mom, we returned to the airport by 4:00 that afternoon for the journey home. For the first time in years, the expected routing email I received prior to launch was "radar vectors / direct". There was no need to negotiate with ATC for a route that did not cross Lake Erie.

Stratus Versus Cumulus

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Sep 2017 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 2.9 1705.7

As we climbed toward our filed 7,000 foot cruise altitude, we penetrated the cloud deck and smoothly passed through several stratus layers before emerging on top. As I suspected she would, Kristy decided that she preferred stratus clouds over cumulus.




Ontario lay below, invisible beneath layers of cloud. Generally, we were either in the clouds or between layers. Passing through areas of precipitation, we watched water streaming over the wings. Though she is not a fan of flying in the rain, even Kristy admitted that it was an interesting visual.


The Bear simply conked-out for most of the ride over Canada.

Check Your Attitude

Occasionally, we encountered mild updrafts and I would push the nose down to hold altitude. After a while, I realized that the attitude indicator (AI, a gyroscopic instrument displaying an artificial horizon) showed a greater pitch downward than was realistically possible.

Over several minutes, the displayed pitch increased and developed into an apparent rightward roll as the AI gradually failed.


The vacuum pump was producing adequate suction and the directional gyro, also vacuum driven, was functioning normally relative to the magnetic compass. All other indications, including the pitot-static instruments (airspeed, altimeter, and vertical speed indicator) and the turn coordinator (an electrically driven gyroscopic instrument) provided consistent data. There was something wrong with the AI gyro.

As the AI rolled into a patently ridiculous indication, I covered it and opened the electronic attitude display in ForeFlight fed by AHRS data from the Stratus 2. This equipment is not certified for instrument use, but it does provide useful backup information in a pinch and I specifically bought it for that purpose. Fortunately, I have practiced partial panel flight enough times this year to feel comfortable and proficient flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with the AI covered.



We continued eastbound in between layers. As we crossed the international border after checking in with Buffalo Approach, we entered dense IMC and I could feel my workload increasing. The weather in Buffalo indicated a ceiling around 4500 feet. I informed ATC that my AI had failed (per FAA regulations, equipment failures on IFR flights need to be reported to ATC) and requested a descent into VFR conditions.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, descend and maintain 5,000. If that's not low enough, we'll get you lower." The controller checked with another aircraft in the vicinity to confirm that the new assigned altitude would work.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, do you want to declare an emergency?"

Emergency?

Many pilots attach a stigma to declaring an emergency, fearing a mountain of paperwork combined with unholy retribution from the FAA. Most sources indicate that this is not really the case. In fact, declaring an emergency confers upon the pilot advantages of preferred handling and allows the pilot to do what he or she needs to do in the name of safety, even if it results in breaking some rules. Declaring an emergency is a useful tool available to pilots in need of additional help.

With this understanding firmly in mind, this did not feel like an emergency. I was calm, in control, and proficient on partial panel operations. I had already been granted clearance to a lower altitude in visual conditions to reduce my workload. Thus, I was already getting what I wanted. What more did I need?

I told Buffalo that I did not want to declare an emergency at that time.

What would have pushed it over the line for me? Had the ceiling been much lower necessitating an instrument approach to land, I think that would have constituted an emergency. In that case, additional hand-holding from ATC would have been welcome.

We emerged from the cloud bases over gloomy western New York terrain shortly before leveling at 5,000 feet. My workload instantly dropped to normal.

Buffalo passed me to Rochester Approach, where I informed them of my intent to fly a visual approach into Sodus. A few minutes later, we entered IMC again and I asked for a lower altitude.


Rochester cleared us down to 2,500 feet, an altitude that we held for the remainder of the flight home.



Somewhere between Rochester and Sodus, the cover fell off my AI. It was now displaying a normal indication and continued to do so as I maneuvered into the pattern and landed. The contraption may have reverted to good behavior, but I have officially branded it as untrustworthy.

FlightAware ground track from KPTK to KSDC.

Oh, Deer...

After clearing the runway, I brought the Warrior to a stop. Three deer were congregated ahead near the side of the taxiway. If any of them ran into the propeller, it would mean a lousy day for everyone involved. We looked at them. They looked at us. The ears of the closest deer flipped up and, moments later, those of her two comrades did as well. We continued to stare at each other.

We had a standoff.

In hopes of breaking the stalemate, I locked the brakes and ran the engine up to 2,000 RPM. At the roar of the engine, all three deer bolted for the woods and cleared the way for us. "It's not like I have a horn to use," I explained to Kristy as we continued on to our hangar.

It was just one more thing to manage in the life of a pilot.

Next Steps

Mike Busch once wrote in a 1995 article that, "The accident database and university research seem to agree: if your attitude gyro quits while you're in thick soup, you're probably gonna die." Having a backup, even a non-certified backup like the Stratus 2, made a big difference. However, my fundamental take-away from the experience with an AI failure is that practiced proficiency can make the difference between an emergency and a challenge. This is why we practice. I am grateful to the other pilots who have ridden right seat in Warrior 481 with me this year while I practiced partial panel operations under the hood. I think that made all the difference in the world.

Warrior 481 is officially banned from IMC until I resolve the issue with the AI. Options include overhauling the mechanical SigmaTek AI already in the panel or replacing it with something else. The AI has been overhauled twice since I purchased Warrior 481, once in 2005 and again in 2011. Another six years later, it's starting to go again.

I am intrigued by the Garmin G5, a solid state electronic replacement AI with a four hour battery backup. It is reasonably affordable (a relative term in the realm of avionics) and would eliminate my dependence on two balky mechanical systems: the mechanical AI gyro itself and the vacuum pump that powers it. This setup would still require a vacuum pump for the directional gyro, but that gyro is less critical to the safety of flight than the AI. With 630 hours since install, the current vacuum pump is also due for replacement.

Sometimes, even milk runs come with their challenges.