Friday, May 30, 2008

Rocky Mountain Dawn Patrol

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
 May 2008
BJC (Denver, CO) - GNY (Granby, CO) -
20V (Kremmling, CO) - LXV (Leadville, CO) - BJC
3.6  621.3
 May 2008
N9908K BJC - SBS (Steamboat Springs, CO) - BJC 3.4 624.7

Soaring Tricks in Powered Flight

With an indicated altitude of 13,000 feet, the Piper Archer wallowed in the air, its asphyxiated Lycoming O-360 powerplant struggling, failing, to gain additional altitude.  Craggy terrain rose above the toiling aircraft.  Directly ahead, a ridge grew to fill the windscreen.

A mere 200 feet from the ridge, it happened.  A sensation of buoyancy and, moments later, the vertical speed indicator (VSI) needle twitched and abruptly leapt from an anemic near zero climb rate to an astounding 1600 feet per minute.  We rode an upward surge of air as the westerly wind slammed into the sheer rock wall of the ridge.  Terrain dropped away from the soaring Archer, revealing a world beyond the stone battlements surrounding Weston Pass.  Less than two minutes later, we were level at 15,000 feet.
As the exhilarating moment waned, I came to understand a bit of what it meant to fly in the Rocky Mountains.  It was the art - no, the science - of leveraging wind, sun, and stone to make an aircraft perform beyond its capabilities.

Early in 2008, I planned to attend a scientific conference in Denver, CO during the first week of June.  This got the wheels turning in my head and I realized that staying in Denver would provide a perfect opportunity to stretch my envelope a little by taking a mountain flying course.  Over time, my plans for the conference disintegrated, but I had become so enamored with the idea of learning to fly in the mountains that I went ahead with the vacation anyway.

I searched for flight schools in the Denver area and stumbled across Journeys Aviation at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.  Not only did the website advertise a mountain flying curriculum, but Journeys had a stable of Piper aircraft available to rent.  This appealed to me because it meant that I could do the training in a familiar airplane, rather than divide my attention between a new (to me) make of aircraft and mountain flying.  With Journeys as my front runner, I called to see if I could do the training in a Piper Archer (a 180 hp version of my Warrior) rather than the recommended Diamond.  I was told that most of the instructors would not fly the Archer back in the mountains, but that their most experienced instructor, Reuben, would.

A few more phone calls later and I had reserved four mornings with Reuben for the last week in May.  We planned three flights with the fourth day held in reserve in case weather failed to cooperate.  After all, weather almost always fails to cooperate.  And it did.

The morning of May 28 began with the airport beacon at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan turning in silent declaration of IFR conditions at the field.  The airport sits atop a large hill on the outskirts of Denver and was literally thrust into the diffuse belly of low hanging cloud for much of the morning.  Reuben and I used that time for mountain ground school.  I was delighted to find that Reuben taught to my learning style.  He avoided dogmatic "do this" and "do that" directives in favor of establishing fundamental principles of mountain flying that I could use to think my way through each situation.

A review of winds aloft forecasts and data from automated weather observation facilities throughout the mountains quickly squelched any hopes of flying on May 29.  Winds were howling through the passes at speeds that Reuben considered unsafe (or, at best, not conducive to an enjoyable experience).  We occupied ourselves that morning with flight planning and reviewing performance data for the Archer I had reserved.  To our chagrin, Piper performance charts largely top-out at 8,000 feet.  With some extrapolation and conservative overestimation of gross weight,  we arrived at some reasonable performance figures.  Blind faith in extrapolated numbers is well outside of my comfort zone, but we mitigated this by planning several practical safety checks during the flights.  For example, we calculated minimum altitudes for crossing each pass and determined departure abort points on all runways.

Our first good flying day was May 30.  We departed Rocky Mountain Metropolitan at 7:20 am.  To the west, the so-called Flatirons (pictured above) marked the foothills of the Rockies.  Though impressive from the ground, the Flatirons were obviously much smaller than mountains further west.  

Though small enough that they barely register on a sectional chart, the Flatirons are striking in appearance.  As the Archer clawed its way to higher altitudes, we crossed directly over them.  From above, they appeared to be massive plates of stone thrust up on edge through the Earth's crust.

Once clear of the Flatirons, we needed altitude.  Our goal was Corona (aka Rollins) Pass, above the Moffat Tunnel.  Given the 11,500 foot elevation of the pass, our objective was to cross at 13,000 feet to provide adequate buffer for the inevitable downdraft we would experience from our leeward approach.  At these altitudes, the Archer performs rather poorly and we sought thermals to expedite the climb.  Once we reached 13,000 feet, we crossed Corona Pass at a 45° angle to the ridge (pictured above).  Once across the ridge, we found ourselves in the mountains proper.  What struck me most was how smooth the ridgeline was.  Mountain flying experts often suggest visualizing wind behavior by imaging how water would flow under the same conditions.  The analogy seemed particularly pertinent as I looked at the erosion-smoothed ridge below my wing.

Our first destination was Granby Grand County Airport at an elevation of 8203'.  The week before, Reuben had a scary experience at Granby when a student performed a poorly executed go-around.  This prompted me to ask what a go-around at high elevation was like, so Reuben had me do one about 20' off the runway surface.  Frankly, I think he wanted to do one just to cleanse himself of the previous negative experience.  Fortunately, the go-around went quite well.  We circled around in the pattern again, made a full stop landing (a total greaser), and we departed westbound for McElroy Field in Kremmling.

Pictured above is the road running from Granby to Kremmling, with the town visible to the far right of frame.  I was very surprised by the varied terrain within the Rockies.  As we flew among the mountains, we saw more than jagged stone and inhospitable terrain.  Rivers, lakes, and green valleys dotted the landscape, providing the alert aviator with many emergency landing sites (some obviously better than others).

After a full stop landing at McElroy (elevation 7411 feet), we turned southeast toward Leadville.  Our first visual waypoint was the Green Mountain Reservoir (pictured above) located approximately 10 miles from McElroy Field.

South of Dillon Reservoir, we entered a steep valley.  Breckenridge ski resort is somewhere on the other side of the pictured ridge.

We cruised close to the eastern ridgeline to minimize turbulence and leverage the updrafts provided by a westerly airflow.

As we neared Fremont Pass, the Climax molybdenum mine came into view.  This mine was once considered the largest supply of molybdenum in the world.  Though past its glory days, the manmade cuts into the mountain made for an impressive view.

Here I am with the iconic mural on the hangar doors of Lake County Airport in Leadville.  As the highest elevation airport in the United States (9927 feet above sea level), this airport has reached almost mythic status among pilots.  It epitomizes the deleterious impact of high altitude on aircraft performance: less air for the propeller to bite into, less air to support the wings, and the engine virtually suffocates for lack of oxygen.  Our departure from Leadville was an eye-opener.  At full throttle, the engine made all of the usual noises without any of the usual acceleration.  Had it been a much warmer day, the 6400 foot long runway would have been inadequate for a safe departure in Archer Zero Eight Kilo.

My rented steed, N9908K, parked on the ramp at Lake County airport in Leadville.  A 1978 Archer II, this airplane flew just like my Warrior with the exception of 20 extra horsepower.  With V-speeds within a couple knots of the Warrior, I did not have to learn anything new to fly this airplane properly and my first landing in Zero Eight Kilo was a greaser.  It is a well-rigged, solid airplane.  After flying no other airplane but Warrior 481 for over four years, I never misidentified Zero Eight Kilo on the radio.  Perhaps that's my greatest accomplishment for the entire trip!

Our original plan had been to depart Leadville for Glenwood Springs, a tricky airport on the western side of the Rockies.  But during out time on the ground at Leadville, rotor clouds began to appear downwind of the peaks to the west.  We decided to defer a trip to Glenwood Springs for the next day and make our way back to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan.

The most exciting part about leaving Leadville was successfully finding ridge lift near Weston Pass.  We climbed from 12,000 feet to 15,000 feet with a vertical climb rate of 1500+ feet per minute.  This exercise underscored Reuben's assertion that, in order to successfully navigate the mountains, a pilot needs to exploit sources of lift beyond what the airplane provide on its own.  The rapid ascent was exhilarating and we quickly cleared the peaks ringing the valley around Leadville.

Our second flight took place on the morning of May 31.  Though we had planned to make for Glenwood Springs, we changed our plans owing to poor visibility in that direction.  Our backup plan was to fly to Steamboat Springs.  En route, we observed this impressive gash in a mountain ridge created by a narrow river; another tribute to what erosion can accomplish on a so-called geological timescale.

Reuben caught this shot of us lined up on final approach for runway 32 at Steamboat Springs (SBS, elevation 6882 feet, 4452 feet long).  On the ground, we took a break, planned our next move, paid a ramp fee (much to our annoyance) and met Ted the Airport Cat.  Though the ramp fee was not exorbitant, it emptied my wallet of cash and I had to ask Reuben to chip in a couple of bucks.

Pictured above is one of nature's ways of saying "Do Not Enter".  Looking east, the sky was filled with lenticular clouds indicative of wind shear and potential mountain wave activity.  My vote was to turn south, away from the lenticular clouds, and cross back out of the mountains via Corona Pass.  Reuben agreed that this was a good idea and so we departed the mountains the same way we had entered that morning.
In the end, it was an incredible experience.  And how did I do?  I received high marks from Reuben for my ability to navigate from the sectional chart (ah, the dying art of pilotage) and for my near flawless execution of a high-elevation go-around at Granby.  He was even complimentary of my landings, though a few of them were more firm than I prefer.  Am I suddenly transformed into an experienced mountain pilot?  Of course not.  But I do think about terrain and altitude a little differently than I did before and that will be helpful for future trips to the Adirondacks or even the "mountains" of Pennsylvania.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Groundhog Amuck at Pontiac

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
 May 2008
5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) -
AZO (Kalamazoo, MI
3.8  613.4
 May 2008
N21481 AZO - LWA (South Haven, MI) - FNT (Flint, MI) - 5G0 4.3 617.7

We returned to Kalamazoo, MI over Memorial Day weekend to visit friends.  We made several stops along the way to see other friends and family.

What was once novel has become routine  - our route took us directly across Ontario, Canada.  Pictured above is the Welland Canal that connects Lake Ontario (top of frame) with Lake Erie and, ultimately, the westernmost great lakes with the rest of the world.

Our first stop, after flying over Canada, was Pontiac, MI.  We stopped there so that The Bear could meet her great grandparents and great uncle.  Pictured above is our turn onto final approach for runway 9R at Pontiac as observed by Kristy from the back seat of Warrior 481.

Before launching from Pontiac, we were idling on taxiway Charlie, third in line for departure behind a citation jet and a corporate 737.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a hint of movement and looked beyond the right wing to see its cause.  A corpulent brown rodent was charging headlong directly at us.  Beneath the groundhog's fur, I could see its shoulders working furiously as it raced across the grassy area between taxiway Charlie and runway 9R.  Soon, it disappeared from  sight underneath Warrior 481.  I desperately hoped that it would avoid the whirling meat grinder on the front of my airplane because a groundhog/prop strike would ruin the day for all parties involved.  Moments later, it reappeared on the left side of the airplane with the cause of its distress readily apparent: a bird was attacking it, fluttering along behind the fleeing groundhog and pecking at its head.  The besieged critter continued across the ramp haltingly, seeking safety from its feathered antagonist.  Truly, it was a strange bit of drama to play out at an airport, beneath the notice of the kerosene-guzzling behemoths coming and going on runway 9R.

After spending two nights in Kalamazoo, the return trip was more circuitous: 20 minutes the wrong way to South Haven.  While there, we discovered that South Haven had become a veritable flying museum.  Our first hint came when Mike G's Grumman Wildcat strafed the field while I was taking advantage of $4.30/gal avgas.  Mike even let The Bear and I climb up on the Wildcat's wing to get our pictures taken.  Other new additions to the airport included a Stearman and a T-28 Trojan that launched from runway 22 just before we did.

Partway back across Michigan, we stopped for the first time at Flint's Bishop International Airport to visit with friends and family.   Our experience at Flint was extraordinary.  We parked at AvFlight, where the FBO staff were very friendly and tolerated us taking over their lobby for a couple of hours.  Air traffic control at Flint has always been top-notch, but I was particularly impressed this time.  When we departed, I was unable to raise Flight Service.  The Flint RCO was out of service and no other frequency seemed to work.  When I reported this back to the Flint departure controller, he contacted Flight Service by land line to open our flight plan for the trip back across Canada.

Here's something really unusual, photographed over Ontario while returning to New York: a drive-in movie theater.  I do not see many of these any more.  But what's particularly striking is that this one has not one, not two, but four screens all grouped together.  I hope the Canadians don't mind American aircraft flying overhead and photographing their top secret entertainment installations!

We encountered the most spectacular sight of the trip on the way home to New York.  From 5500', a rainbow could be seen shimmering within the veil of mist from the Canadian horseshoe falls.

As we crossed over the top of Niagara Falls, we observed the "Maid of the Mist" carrying her passengers on what will undoubtedly be the wettest boat ride any of them will ever experience.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spring Has Sprung

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
11 May 2008 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - 5G0 2.7 609.8

Every year in the north, spring arrives so abruptly that the rapid greening of the landscape seems to be accompanied by an audible "pop".  This year, the effect seemed even more pronounced because spring came while my airplane was tucked away in the maintenance shop.  But with work on the airplane finished and a shakedown flight completed, it was time to take the family out for our first fly-in breakfast of the season.

At 8:30 am local time, we were transiting Rochester Class Charlie airspace en route to the Oswego County Airport.  During our time on-frequency with Rochester approach, every general aviation aircraft that contacted Rochester was Oswego bound.  This obviously did not escape the notice of the controller, who responded to all aircraft that did not immediately declare a destination with a "going to Oswego? " query.

At a cruise altitude of 3500 feet (chosen to minimize the impact of an easterly headwind), we crossed over the southern portion of Rochester and took in the remarkably lush landscape that had popped since mid-April.

We flew just south of the University of Rochester, the campus nestled in a bend of the Genesee River.  Though I count some U of R alumni among my friends, the most memorable tale of the university came this past January from someone I had just met.  I was on a business trip in Boston.  Upon hearing that I was from Rochester, one of the people I had gone there to meet mentioned that he was a U of R graduate.  He went on to declare that the distinctive rotunda on the main library building (visible above) was referred to as the "Nipple of Knowledge" by the students (I suppose this is better than IU's Borg Cube).  It was, at the very least, an interesting comment with which to make a first impression.

Oddly, that was not the only time I heard about U of R on that Boston trip.  Boarding a commercial flight home from Boston, I found myself sitting next to the only faculty member from the U of R that I know.  In the course of chatting about his work and my work, I discovered that (1) he vehemently disliked flying and (2) he was completely unaware of the U of R main library's anatomical nickname. 

Approaching the city of Rochester, we flew over the Cobbs Hill Reservoir.  This reservoir is capable of storing approximately 150,000,000 gallons of water for use by the city.  It is also quite distinctive from the air at night, recognizable as a kidney-shaped ring of lights southeast of the city.

Once outside of the Rochester metropolitan area, I notified Kristy that passengers were free to move about the cabin.  The Bear took this opportunity to press her nose against the window to survey the farmland passing below our wings.

At Oswego, the winds were picking up: 18 knots out of 130°.  There were five aircraft in the pattern, so we adjusted our arrival time by flying over the field and turning back for a left downwind entry to runway 15.  By delaying our arrival slightly, we entered the pattern during a lull in the traffic.

On the second Sunday of every warm weather month (warm by upstate New York standards, of course), EAA Chapter 486 at Oswego County hosts an impressive fly-in breakfast.  Eggs to order, pancakes, french toast, sausage, ham, and homemade doughnuts are highlights of the menu.

Ignoring the various real airplanes on the field at Oswego, visiting children are much more taken with these pedal-craft (this Ford has an unpictured Mustang counterpart).  With her arm placed jauntily on the side of the airplane, The Bear took this Ford for a spin.  I'm sure the EAA folks who provided this bit of diversion were pleased to witness the participation of such an enthusiastic young aviatrix.

Unfortunately, The Bear was completely unable to reach the pedals, so Kristy provided the thrust necessary for forward movement.

With The Bear's check-out in the EAA's Ford completed, we started back home around 11:00 that morning.  When we reached Le Roy, the winds had increased significantly from the calm conditions that prevailed when we departed.  With a 50° crosswind of 13 knots gusting to 22, the first attempt at landing was not shaping up particularly well.  We went around and, on the second try, I determinedly stuck the right wing down and pressed the left rudder nearly to the floor.  The resulting landing was very nearly a greaser.  At the very least, it was sufficiently gentle that The Bear did not awaken from her slumber until I cut power to the engine at the fuel pump.