Sunday, August 30, 2020

My Date with Connie

Jersey Girl

She was born post World War II and moved from the United States to Paris, France at a young age, living her life on a glamorous international stage. Known as Connie to her adherents, her unique elegance left a lasting impression on the world. She survived into the twenty-first century and outlived all but three of her many siblings.

And for some reason, she retired to New Jersey.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Inspired by the success of last year's magnificent excursion along the Manhattan skyline, the Williamson Flying Club planned a repeat event for Saturday, August 29. Unsettled weather swirling in the wake of Hurricane Laura caused us to cancel. We refocused our efforts on Sunday, August 30 when the low pressure maelstrom was expected to move far enough over the Atlantic to encourage calmer weather along the eastern seaboard.

While scouting locations for a fuel and restroom stop north of New York City, I came across Greenwood Lake Airport (4N1) with inexpensive avgas, a proclivity for abusive crosswinds, and an unlikely pilot lounge inside a 1946 Lockheed Constellation. A distinctive triple tail melded to a svelte, pressurized fuselage made the “Connie” one of the most recognizable, comfortable, and capable airliners of the pre-turbine era of commercial air travel. 

How is it that I have flown in the northeast this long without knowing that this was here?

Sunday morning, several club pilots gathered in a socially distanced circle on the ramp at the Williamson-Sodus Airport to contemplate the weather forecast and make a decision. After a thirty minute debate, the trip was cancelled due to concerns over low clouds, gusty winds, and potential turbulence. "We could do it, but it wouldn't be any fun.” I heard the voice of my original flight instructor, Bill; an internalized whisper evoked from nineteen years past. Besides, I firmly believe that any forecast inspiring such a prolonged go / no-go discussion probably warrants an automatic “no-go” outcome. After all, the debate comes from conditions being on the edge and, for club events, that is not where we want to be.

Vigilantly Airborne

I had awoken that morning with the intent of flying my airplane somewhere. It is always disappointing to visit the airport without even raising the hangar door. As the weather improved in the early afternoon, I decided to get some solo flight time. While driving back to the airport, I chose a destination: I was going to investigate that Constellation at Greenwood Lake.
Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
30 Aug 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 4N1 (West Milford, NJ) - SDC 4.2 2143.2

To say that I fixated more than usual on cylinder head temperature (CHT) readings in the climb would be something of an understatement. Penn Yan replaced the main nozzle in the carburetor after finding a flaw there and Ray hung the carb back on the engine in time for a Thursday evening test flight. CHTs are running lower than they were in Maine, but I still see opportunities to make incremental improvements to the cooling baffles over the coming weeks. I do not plan to ground the Warrior in the meantime, but I will monitor the temperatures carefully.

Cayuga Lake from 7500 feet

In spite of an AIRMET for turbulence, the air enveloped my airplane like velvet at 7,500 feet. With the lingering vestiges of Laura drawing atmospheric flow out over the Atlantic, I was sped along by an air mass conveniently moving in the same direction I wanted to go, accelerating with every mile closer to the low pressure center. 

Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes

Whatever Happened to “Flying Greyhounds”?

Regular readers may be scratching their heads over my enthusiasm about the Constellation because I am not usually enamored with airliners. A strong dislike of flying cattle class has long inspired my description of commercial airliners as “flying Greyhounds”. My attitude has not changed, but there are exceptions. For example, the DC-3 is such a storied airplane that it is difficult not to grant it some well-earned respect or recognize the simple beauty of its capable design.

Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes

To my mind, the Constellation represents the pinnacle of piston-driven commercial air travel. It was designed to specifications crafted by Howard Hughes and TWA by the legendary Kelly Johnson of Lockheed. Johnson's noteworthy contributions to aeronautical design include the P-38 Lightning and the SR-71 Blackbird among many others. Whereas modern airliners are little more than flying sewer pipes with wings (e.g., any Boeing with a "7" as the initial digit of its model number), the elegantly contoured taper of the Connie’s fuselage evokes the body of a dolphin, of a creature meant to glide smoothly through the dilute fluid of the atmosphere. Although it was not the first airliner with a pressurized cabin (that was the Boeing 307 Stratoliner), it was the first mass-produced airliner to easily transport passengers through the rarefied air above the weather. This was a game-changer because, as explained in the film The Aviator, "7,000 feet is bumpy as shit."

In the twenty-first century, the Connie is rare. Not counting variants like the Super Constellation, there are only four surviving L-049 Connies in the world. Two of the survivors are located in Brazil and Bolivia, a third is at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona, and the fourth is in Greenwood Lake, NJ.

Orville Wright made his final flight aboard a Constellation piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye just after the pair set a transcontinental speed record in 1944. Wright commented that the Connie's wingspan was greater than the distance of his first flight in the 1903 Flyer. This was no exaggeration; the Connie's 123 foot wingspan is three feet longer than the spacing between markers in the sand at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC. After a few minutes on the controls, Orville is said to have described the experience with characteristic modesty. “I guess I ran the whole plane for a minute, but I let the machine take care of itself. I always said airplanes would fly themselves if you left them alone.”

Obviously, the Connie was never a mere flying Greyhound.

On the Interaction of Wind and Terrain

Just north of Ithaca, I climbed to 9,500 feet to remain above cloud tops threatening to swallow me from below. At that altitude, Warrior 481 flitted through the air with an impressive 150 knot ground speed.

When I departed Sodus, the automated weather reporting station at Greenwood Lake indicated a direct crosswind of 7 knots. That sounded trivial, but I read substantial commentary warning of frequent and vicious crosswinds there and was ready for a rough ride. Because I needed fuel to get home, I decided to divert to the 6,300 foot long runway pointed directly into the wind at Sullivan County Airport (KMSV) if a landing at Greenwood Lake was untenable. 

I came down through the scattered cloud layer expecting to find choppy air beneath the bases and was surprised to find a smooth ride at the lower altitude. Roughly thirty nautical miles away, silhouettes of Manhattan skyscrapers grew larger in my windscreen as I neared Greenwood Lake. The terrain below was surprisingly agrarian for New Jersey (photo above). Maybe this is the part of New Jersey to which the license plates refer.

Ten miles out, I began to understand why the winds are so notoriously tricky around Greenwood Lake. The local area, including the lake itself, sits on a low plateau with a ruffled surface of densely wooded ridges that run perpendicular to the prevailing wind. It is exactly the sort of terrain that would be expected to produce a nightmare of localized up- and downdrafts on a windy day.

Descending over the airport, I spotted the triple tail of the Connie and knew that I was in the right place. The windsock appeared to be hanging limp, so I chose to fly left traffic for runway 24.

WHAM! About 1500 feet above the airport surface, Warrior 481 was walloped by a succession of up and downdrafts. Shaken and buffeted, I experienced more turbulence during a few minutes in Greenwood Lake's traffic pattern than I have experienced in all of 2020.

When I lined up on final approach, I was broadsided by a rogue gust so powerful that it shoved me left of the extended runway center line by more than a wingspan. I banked to fix my alignment as the airplane buffeted in steadily increasing chop during the descent. Air flowing over the terrain and through the trees swirled around my airframe, battering the Warrior, alternately jerking the airplane skyward, then abruptly pushing it back toward the Earth.

Every spring, I re-acclimate to turbulent air after being used to the calm, dense air of winter. I did not really re-acclimate this year because I did not fly at all during the turbulent spring. I confess, the abusive wind caught me unprepared and it made me anxious. I maintained too high an airspeed on approach and floated a long time above the runway. I seemed to hover over the surface vulnerable to the whimsy of a fickle local atmosphere, before plopping down in a flat, three point attitude. It was not pretty and I used nearly all of the 3471 foot long runway to land and bring the Warrior to a controlled stop.

Well, that was embarrassing. Welcome to airport #206. Clearly, all the commentary about the crosswind at Greenwood Lake was spot on. I puzzled out how to operate the unfamiliar fuel pump ($4.49/gal), fueled the Warrior to the tabs, and pushed her into a parking spot. 

I paused to admire the windsock, barely twitching in a sterile bubble of lethargic air. Treetops around the field were incongruously active, thrashing back and forth as though they were on a completely different planet from where I stood.

Star of the Azores

Taking stock of my surroundings, I saw a small bank of old T-hangars with peeling blue paint nearby, but most of the aircraft based on the field were tied down outside. There was a nice looking Dakota, more than one Bonanza, and a North American T-6 painted in the traditional yellow color scheme of a World War II military trainer. A medical chopper rested on a rolling platform near the middle of the ramp. 

Undeniably, the dominating feature of the field was the massive 1946 Lockheed Constellation incorporated into the terminal building. Patrons of Smoke Shack BBQ and Burgers sat at picnic tables beneath the Connie, many of them completely ignoring the aircraft that was once an aeronautical paramour of Howard Hughes.

Inside the terminal building, I met Andreas, a flight instructor at Sky Training LLC.

"You just landed here? First time?" he asked with the hint of an impish grin playing at the corner of his mouth.

"Yep. It was ugly," I acknowledged. Andreas boldly touted his students' crosswind skills. Based on what I just experienced, I knew that he was not exaggerating. The Williamson-Sodus Airport has a similar reputation for squirrelly winds and a lying ASOS, but Greenwood Lake clearly out-Soduses Sodus.

Andreas offered a tour of Greenwood Lake's Connie. Though the passenger cabin was converted to a pilot lounge, the cockpit was largely intact. This immediately caught my interest, but I stopped at the low gate marked "Do Not Enter" that barred entrance to the cockpit proper.

"Go ahead," Andreas encouraged. "I don't mind."

I did not need to be told twice, stepping forward to crouch between the captain and co-pilot seats of the venerable airliner. Seventy-four years ago, pilots routinely navigated across the Atlantic Ocean from those very seats. 

Originally registered as F-BAZA, Greenwood Lake's Connie was the first of four Constellations purchased by Air France. She made her first leap across the Atlantic on 9 July 1946 and regularly flew the New York to Paris route until 1950. She was acquired by TWA in January of 1950 and rechristened Star of the Azores with a United States registration number of N9412H. She flew for TWA until September of 1959, then continued on in the service of several smaller airlines before going into storage. 

She was bought by Frank Lembo Enterprises for use as a novel restaurant venue at the Greenwood Lake Airport in 1976. Her landing at Greenwood Lake in July 1977 marked her final flight. Now, she counts among the four surviving L-049 Constellations worldwide.

Is that an actual RMI?

I loved the details, like the elegant symmetry of ignition switches for the four radial engines. I had to resist the urge to snap them all from "off" to "both".

A center pedestal carried some burly trim controls, flanked on either side by Lockheed logo rudder pedals.

The TWA hat was a nice touch. Were it not for the dust, it would appear as though the Captain set it down just moments before on his way out of the cockpit after another successful sojourn across the ocean.

The flight engineer's position was the most complex, set before a panel festooned with gauges and indicators that would largely be replaced by a computer in a modern aircraft.

I was surprised by the appearance of the engine cowlings. Either someone went on a rampage with a ball peen hammer or the Connie flew through her fair share of hail storms during her decades in service.

While the triple tail is an eye-catching aesthetic choice, the practical design reason for it was that a single vertical tail with the same surface area would have made it difficult to tuck the Connie into many hangars existing at the time.

Greenwood Lake has one of the best conversation pieces that I have ever encountered at a GA airport.

The Veteran

The T6 advanced trainer appeared to be in excellent condition despite being tied down outside.

I was glad to see that my Warrior is not the only airplane out there suffering from lopsided strut disease.

Andreas had mentioned that the engine was newly overhauled. It certainly looked tidy.


"Stay below the trees until your speed is up, don't just try to climb immediately," Andreas offered as advice for my departure. This was SOP for me at my home field and did not come as a surprise, but I appreciated that he was willing to offer local expertise to a transient pilot.

"And the restaurant is really good. You should come back with friends next time!" 

I might just do that. Maybe on a day with calmer wind.

After preflight, I watched the windsock dither over which runway was favored by the crosswind. It seemed to me that I felt more wind on the right side of my face than my left as I looked north, so I made the decision to launch on runway 6.

As I taxied past a tiny cliff, it occurred to me that someone worked hard to put that runway in if it was necessary to blast through the rocky hilltop to do it.

Climbing northbound over Greenwood Lake

I received some aggressive, Sodus-like buffeting on departure, but held course and waited for the airspeed to reach Vy before climbing through the shear layer overlying the treetops. Terrain and a fluid atmosphere worked together to give me a rough ride out of the area, but I eventually climbed beyond the reach of mechanical turbulence.

I chose a 4,500 foot cruise altitude to minimize the headwind. My ground speed increased gradually along the way as I left the cyclonic remnants of Hurricane Laura farther behind. I averaged about 104 knots over the ground going home and enjoyed a surprisingly smooth ride.

Cayuga Lake

It seemed like no one was enthusiastic about providing VFR flight following on the way home. I was dropped by Wilkes-Barre just south of Binghamton ("squawk VFR"), the same sectors of New York Center and Boston Center passed me back and forth multiple times, and I was given at least four different beacon codes to broadcast along the way. I was beginning to feel unwanted.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, Rochester altimeter is 29.98, are you going in visually or would you like to practice an instrument approach at Sodus today?" 

I can always count on Rochester Approach to make me feel valued.

Overall, I enjoyed my first date with Connie. Next time, I'm getting barbecue.

A photo attributed to J. Roger Bentley taken of the Greenwood Lake Connie during her post-TWA service in the early 1960s. For more photos, see this page.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Technologically Advanced Airplanes and Omelets

Airliners excepted, I have never flown in a technologically advanced general aviation airplane before (otherwise known as a TAA, because the FAA likes three letter initialisms). With Warrior 481 lacking a carburetor as Ray continued troubleshooting the high CHT issue, Brad offered me a ride to breakfast in his SR-20.

Chris, Melodie, and Brad

The SR-20 is so advanced that it comes with a socially distanced cockpit! Quite innovative for a 2007 model.

As we passed Cayuga Lake en route to Cherry Ridge (N30) for breakfast, a glance at the wing explains a lot about why the Cirrus is so fast. No seams, no rivets or screw heads, and the wing itself is relatively tiny. That, my friends, is a big reason why the Cirrus is so much faster than the Pipers on the field.

The modern avionics and the automotive fit and finish make for a comfortable, nice looking interior. Now...which TV am I supposed to look at?

We joined Tom and Alicia for breakfast on the deck at the Cherry Ridge Airport Restaurant. It's not a very creative name, but the food is good, the people are really nice, and -- honestly -- do we need another Runway Cafe or Tailwind(s) Cafe?

While eating breakfast, a familiar red and white Citabria swooped in for a landing. It was Mark followed by some other pilots from South Jersey Regional. It was great to see him without spraining a wrist this time.

As Brad put the coals to the Cirrus, Tom and Alicia held short of the runway in Eight Five X-Ray.

A direct route between Cherry Ridge and Sodus crosses directly over the top of the Binghamton Airport.

There were a few clouds to maneuver around. Technologically advanced or not, the strategic elements of VFR flying are relatively unchanged no matter what you fly. The speed at which those decisions must be made might vary, however.

Overflying Cayuga Lake on the way home.

Lining up on runway 28 at Sodus, none of the TVs in the cockpit could compete with the view out the window of bringing an aircraft back to Earth.

I am thankful to Brad for the ride and can truly see why the Cirrus is such a capable travelling machine. In the hands of an instrument-rated pilot (to his credit, Brad is most of the way there), the suite of avionics appear to be a truly powerful tool. 

Maybe when I grow up I can fly something this nice. In the meantime, I’ll just have to admire Brad’s airplane while fruitlessly chasing him during fly-outs.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Vacation, 2020 Style: Part 6, Hot Headed

Last Chance at Lobster

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13 Aug 2020N21481 IWI (Wiscasset, ME) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 3.42139.0

I have often said that the Aviator's Corollary to Murphy's Law is that any landing with an audience will be something less than awesome.

Photo by Tom

That is particularly true when the audience contains a knowledgeable pilot holding a camera. I flared a little too high, came down down hard on the mains, and downward momentum planted the nose wheel. Thus, we thumped-down at Wiscasset, my 205th unique airport, while Tom captured the graceless landing on "film".

Photo by Tom

We pulled alongside Eight Five X-Ray and parked. Tom gathered photographic evidence that my family actually flies with me sometimes.

"Do you think these tie down ropes belong to someone?" I asked, concerned that I was taking someone's tie down spot.

"Naw, they're airport ropes," Tom answered. "There was a Cirrus parked there before, but he probably didn't bother to put the ropes away."

"Yeah, those Cirrus guys are the worst." We shared a laugh over the inside joke. Our good friend Brad owns an SR-20 and we are all secretly jealous of his modern aircraft that was built this century.

We left Eight Five X-Ray and Warrior 481 together at the airport to get re-acquainted.

Using his local traffic knowledge, Tom got us to Sarah's Cafe on US-1 via a back way that mostly avoided the usual traffic congestion. On the way, Tom and Alicia regaled us with the their own tale of rental car difficulties; at least such problems were not unique to us that week.

Red's is on the other side of US-1 from Sarah's, supposedly serving the best lobster rolls in Maine.

We chose Sarah's over the more popular Red's because they offered more seating and were less notoriously prone to long lines. I have never been a big "brand name" guy anyway. Our food was good and I exercised my last chance to get a lobster roll before we put Maine to our airplane's tail. The Bear ordered a shrimp scampi pizza that was so garlicky that it completely changed my long-held opinion that it is impossible to put too much garlic on anything. With that said, it was still really good. Kristy ordered a crab cake and a delicious-looking blueberry soup.

I always enjoy hanging out with Tom and Alicia and, this time, The Bear did not try to steal any of Tom's food.

N1185X made a perfect camera stand for our group photo.

Back at the airport, we noticed that the Cirrus had returned, parked in the next spot over, and reclaimed his ropes. I momentarily imagined the pilot grumpily moving the ropes from under my airplane to the adjacent tie down and had a brief moment of regret, but come on, I had to park next to Eight Five X-Ray.

We said our goodbyes and launched skyward.


On climb-out, I remarked to Kristy that the cylinder head temperatures (CHTs) seemed to be climbing faster than usual.

"Should we turn around?" she asked.

"No, I think..." 

As I spoke, the CHT on cylinder #2 hit 450°F, reaching a pre-programmed alarm point that I had set on the JPI EDM-700 engine analyzer sometime around 2008. Although Lycoming indicates that CHT redline for their engines is 500°F, recent work suggests that continuous operation above 400°F is undesirable. Cylinder #3 on my old engine would occasionally crawl above 400°F on a climb, though it never ran that hot at cruise or for any prolonged period of time. In setting the alarm on the JPI, I split the difference at 450°F, intending to set a meaningful alarm point before the heat became too dire, but avoiding nuisance alarms during climbs on hot days.

In twelve years, I had never tripped that alarm. Until now.

Based on telemetry data recorded in ForeFlight, we were just two minutes off the ground when I throttled back, pushed the nose over to increase cooling airflow through the engine compartment, and turned 180° to Wiscasset. These actions brought the temperatures back into a normal range and we flew a standard pattern at low power, landing less than ten minutes after breaking ground. It was my second-ever emergency landing.

Kristy and The Bear disembarked while I consulted with Ray. Because all cylinders were running hot, the likely culprits were ignition timing or running at too lean of a mixture while demanding full power. The latter could suggest an induction leak (affecting all cylinders), low fuel flow, inadequate mixture travel, or a carburetor problem. 

I verified that the mixture control went to the stop on the carburetor when full forward. I also checked the baffling on the engine for good measure.

Focusing on the ignition system, I did some experimental run-ups alone in the airplane to see if the temperature readings were affected by running solely on the Surefly versus the conventional magneto. CHTs do not react quickly and the troubleshooting was inconclusive, though running on one mag versus the other did not produce a discernible effect. 

I did a quick solo test flight to reassess the effect of single magneto operation on CHT while I had high airflow over the engine in hopes that it would make CHT more responsive to ignition changes by hastening equilibrium. Again, this was inconclusive. But I determined that a shallow climb would keep the CHTs reasonably in check.

Meanwhile, Ray talked to Penn Yan and SureFly. Penn Yan was unconcerned about my 450°F alarm, reiterating the Lycoming party line of 500°F being redline. "But isn't a big change like that on an engine cause for concern?" Ray asked. SureFly was responsive, but did not have much to offer.

I explained to Ray that I had observed some aberrant temperature readings earlier in the trip and was certain that something was changing or drifting. Ultimately, I was in no position to do any further troubleshooting in Wiscasset and there was no skilled help available at the airport.

"If you can manage your climb to keep the temperatures under control, get it home so I can look at it," was Ray's final word of advice.

If we were uncomfortable doing that, my other options included staying put (Tom and Alicia offered to host us at their camp) or flying my family home in Eight-Five X-Ray (Tom and Alicia did not need it again until the following week).

After a long discussion with Kristy, we decided to follow Ray's advice. 

But if I was going to fly home, I wanted to be smart about it. If the CHTs got out of control, we would turn around, land at Wiscasset, and explore other options. Our route home (KIWI - GRUMP - KSDC) would pass directly over Brunswick Executive about ten miles west of Wiscasset, which has a full service FBO (FlightLevel). My high school friend Alex lives nearby. Therein lay another backup. We would also pass close to several other airports along the route I chose. By considering the route, we managed some of the risks.

Splitting the Difference between Terrain and Sky

Clouds near Laconia, NH

With a shallow climb, CHTs never exceeded 430°F. Brunswick Executive came and went. In level cruise at 6500 feet, temperatures hovered around 400°F while the engine was leaned at 75% power. Though the temperature was a little higher than normal, it should not have been overly abusive. Had the CHTs begun to increase, I could have reduced power or enriched the mixture.

Clouds at our altitude forced a descent to 5500 feet as we crossed the New Hampshire-Vermont border. Though this cruise altitude may have broken the hemispheric rule, doing so was better than passing too close to the mountain peaks below. (How does one define AGL in the mountains, exactly? For some reason, this did not come up during ground school in flat-as-a-pancake southwest Michigan.) I could have requested a pop-up IFR clearance and climbed above the clouds, but I was not interested in adding IFR complications to the flight, nor was I interested in subjecting Warrior 481 to any unnecessary ascents.

While I was prepared to defend my altitude choice, neither Boston Approach, Boston Center, or Syracuse made any comment about flying westbound at an easterly VFR altitude. 

In spite of it all the flight home was beautiful. I have always been fond of sunbeams, mountains, and dramatic clouds.

Eventually, we reached flatter, lower terrain near Rome, NY and descended to an appropriate 4,500 foot cruise altitude. Through it all, Warrior 481 purred along smoothly without any indications of trouble.

2020 Style

Home again. Photo by Kristy.

In the final analysis, this year's family vacation included:
  • 8.5 total flight hours
  • 1 missing rental car
  • 1 day in a rural ER
  • 1 kidney stone (passed)
  • 1 emergency landing
  • 1 N1185X sighting by ADS-B while in flight over Brunswick
  • 1 valuable object lesson for two teenagers about paying attention to wind while on the water
  • 1 crummy Jeep
  • 2 ridiculously large slides
  • 2 whole lobsters, both with faces (consumed)
  • 2 matching Emma's Lake Placid Creamery t-shirts
  • 3 airports visited (1 new to me, 3 new to Kristy and The Bear)
  • 3 outings for ice cream
  • 4 obvious instances of Mark and/or Dena using the Jedi mind trick on retailers to get free stuff
  • 5 tomes of significant size devoured (metaphorically) by The Bear
  • Some of the best-smelling porta potty hand sanitizer on the eastern seaboard
  • Experiencing beautiful places like Lake Placid, NY and Mount Desert Island, ME
  • Wonderful times with terrific people like Izzy, Dena, Mark, Alicia, and Tom
Clearly, we had some great times, but also some 2020-consistent awfulness. Either way, it all made for some memorable vacation stories and -- most importantly -- everything worked out in the end.


As of this writing, the root cause of the CHT issue remains unidentified. Ray verified that the timing is spot on, that the cooling baffles are in excellent condition, that the JPI EDM-700 temperature readings are accurate, and that the carburetor looks pristine. Through process of elimination, the carburetor remains suspect and Ray has sent it back to Penn Yan for additional testing and inspection.

We'll see what happens. In the meantime, the airplane is down. Again.

Such is 2020.