A Flight Between Storm Systems

by on December 11, 2014


Northern Nevada’s Pyramid Lake – at normal water levels only the tops of the island peaks are visible.

We’re finally getting some much-needed precipitation up here in the mountains. Several of the ski resorts are open for business with a good start on their snow pack and we have a couple more days of storms on the way in from the coast. There was a break in the weather last weekend, so I decided to go get some airplane exercise.

I got to the hangar about 9 am, plugged in my engine pre-heater and then decided to spend some time in the pilot lounge of the new airport terminal/operations center. There were two pilots in there when I arrived sitting at a briefing table with all sorts of charts and manuals spread out. It turned out to be some ground training for an instrument instructor student. He and his instructor were going over all the chart symbols for an airport entry in the Airport Facility Directory (A/FD).  I heard them asking someone on the phone about some A/FD annotations that were unfamiliar to them. I happened to know the answer so I offered some input. Then they asked how I happened to know – it was just one of those pieces of trivia that was presented in a class some time that I remembered – the weight-bearing capacity of a runway depending upon the landing gear configuration (S, D, 2S, 2T, AUW, SWL, etc. – Check the A/FD Legend here).  They had another question that stumped me until the next day when I did the old forehead slap…  In the top right corner of the airport entry in the A/FD, in this case for Reno-Stead (KRTS) is the annotation

H–3B, L–9A, 11A

The legend says that this is where the sectional, high and low altitude instrument charts are listed where KRTS can be found. Then IAP means there are Instrument Approach Procedures available at the airport (AD means it has an Airport Diagram, DIAP means it has a DoD IAP = military: see KSUU).

KRTS is on the San Francisco sectional and it is on panel B of high altitude IFR chart 3 and on panel A of the number 9 low altitude chart. The question was what the 11A meant. Duh. The low altitude IFR charts overlap each other. It turns out that KRTS is in the overlap area and also appears (barely) on panel A of low altitude chart number 11. We sat there scratching our heads trying to make it more complicated than it was.

The CAF N3N getting ready for a cold morning flight.

The CAF N3N getting ready for a cold morning flight.

When I got back to the Hangar to pull the plane out I noticed that the CAF guys were doing some flights in their Boeing N3N. Their plane was sitting in the wash rack area while they (snow)suited up and got into the cockpits. I opened my hangar and got ready to pull the Swift out but then waited and watched until the N3N  started and taxied out toward the runway.

Foreflight track of a local flight.

Foreflight track of a local flight near Reno, NV.

I had called my friend who lives down south of Minden to see if he was available for lunch – that would have given me a destination for the flight – but he was about to drive up to Reno for a meeting so there wasn’t much reason to fly down there.  I decided to just go wander around the area for a while.

It was a nice smooth flight – just a few small bumps when I flew close to the eastern side of any of the mountain ranges.  I flew over to Pyramid Lake, then south down that valley until I got to Interstate 80 just west of Fernley, NV where I turned around and flew back. As I got back into radio range of Stead at my altitude (not very high) I heard that there were two planes in the pattern and two move converging on the pattern from different directions.

Foreflight track of traffic pattern departure and arrival.

Foreflight track of traffic pattern departure and arrival at KRTS.

Rather than complicate the situation any more I turned north and did a little more sightseeing until the traffic cleared out. Three of the planes made full-stop landings and as I called on my 45 to downwind the last of the planes did a touch-and-go and left the area to go back to the commercial airport (KRNO). Since I was alone in the pattern I did a touch-and-go and then a full stop just for fun. The flight schools at KRNO often fly up to Stead to do their traffic pattern training – and to get uncontrolled airport experience. It can occasionally make the pattern a bit ‘messy’ but Stead is a big beautiful airport and deserves to be used.

The weather guessers were pretty close on their predictions for the big storm this week. yesterday we had record-setting winds in the area. Our neighborhood clocked gusts to 70 mph and the top of one of the ski hills recorded 145 mph. Unfortunately the rain/snow didn’t do much in the valley and the ski resorts are showing only a couple of feet of new snow. Sounds like most of the precipitation fell in California as rain – and lots of it.


No Aviation BullshitAs many of you probably know, a Phenom 100 crashed on approach to the Gaithersburg, MD Monday killing three people on the plane and another three in one of the houses that it hit.

The Washington Post got right on the trending subject and put out an article on their website that would get them as many page-loads (and advertising revenue) as possible while being semi-related to the subject. Their article The Many Reasons Small Planes Crash was obviously a quick survey of the latest Air Safety Institute Nall Report interpreted and “explained”  by a non-pilot reporter. The USA Today “Investigation” was also quoted as a main source of information – an article ripped completely apart by the FAA, AOPA and NTSB for its sensationalism and inaccuracies.

There are currently eight comments to the Washington Post article – most blasting it for the inaccuracies and false conclusions.  A couple of the comments are obviously from people with no knowledge of aviation who just want to see their words in print.

One part of the article was particularly onerous to me:

There are several reasons the risks are higher with small planes. For one, they are piloted by people who don’t fly planes for a living. The rules are looser for amateur pilots, who don’t have to log as many flight hours to be certified. Small planes also land at small airports that may not even have paved runways.

This, above all, indicates just how little the reporter knows about aviation. Every pilot must have the same amount and type of training to be certified at a particular certificate level. The requirements for a given pilot certificate are clearly specified in 14 CFR Part 61. If a pilot meets the minimum requirements for a particular certificate level  it is their decision option to take the written, oral and flight evaluations for the award of the certificate. But no matter what the certificate level, all pilots start out as a student pilot and train to proficiency in the flying skills for the certificate that they are seeking.

Yes, higher certificate levels require more experience. That is because the higher certificates may be used in commercial operations where the pilot is being paid to transport good or people. It is the same philosophy that the government uses to certificate bus drivers and truck drivers – more training is required to be paid as a professional.

The Washington Post reporter cited the statistic that in 2012 a total of 440 people died in General Aviation accidents (all non-airline operations). Yes, that is too many and the aviation industry has active initiatives attempting to reduce the accident rate. Why did the reporter even bring up the number? Because very few people know anything about aviation. There are roughly 316 million people in the United States but only about 600,000 are certificated pilots. That makes aviation an excellent target for sensationalism – you can say just about anything you want and few people will know whether or not it is a valid statement or conclusion.  Contrast that with approximately 210 million licensed drivers in the United States. ‘Everybody’ knows how to drive, it’s common-place.  And every year since 2007 over 300,000 people have died in auto accidents – averaged out that is over 800 deaths on our highways every day. Why no sensationalism every time there is an accident – because it happens all the time and everybody knows how to drive – you can’t make wild statements or draw invalid conclusions without being called out by every driver who reads the article.

I’m not trying to trivialize the deaths in this accident. The loss of a young mother and two infant children in one of the houses is truly tragic… as are the other lives lost in aviation accidents.  It is our duty as pilots, at whatever certificate level we hold, to perform in as professional a manner a we are capable. And it is our duty to try to educate those around us about all aspects of aviation.

This reporter and her editor obviously took no time to seek out an experienced pilot to gain additional insight for the article. I’m sure reporters are assigned to write articles all the time on subjects about which they know relatively little.  Maybe some day they will learn to ask a professional in the subject matter for input  – but for aviation articles I find that doubtful… after all, sensationalism sells.



Pattern Work in the Swift

by on November 22, 2014

I managed to get the Swift back into the air for an hour yesterday.  I had looked at the weather forecast and today (Saturday) around Reno wasn’t supposed to look very nice. It turned out that they were right. It has rained off and on most of the day and the winds have been gusting around 35kts. Reno-Stead (KRTS) is currently:

KRTS 222335Z AUTO 31025G32KT 9SM -RA FEW031 SCT041 BKN050 07/02 A3005 RMK AO2 P001

The runways are 8-26 and 14-32, so it’s close to being down the runway.  Multiple layers of clouds and light rain don’t really make for a nice VFR day though. The field elevation is 5050’MSL so the broken cloud layer would be at a bit over 10,000′ MSL with those scattered layers starting at about 8200’MSL. Peavine Mountain, 11 nm SW of Stead goes up to 8700′. Donner Pass on Interstate 80 leading to Sacramento tops out at about 7100′ with 9000’+ peaks on each side. Blue Canyon (KBLU) on the west side of the pass is now reporting 200′ BKN  1/2SM with light rain and fog.  Glad I got out yesterday.

Standing waves over Reno-Stead.

Standing waves over Reno-Stead.

As I got ready for the flight it wasn’t apparent that the weather guys were getting the winds right. I took this photo looking north down my hangar row while my engine pre-heater was doing its thing.  It’s obvious that the upper level winds were forming some waves on the eastern side of the Sierras.

The winds on the ground were reasonable and the TAF said that they were supposed to stay that way so I thought I’d give it a try. I figured that I could always just stay in the pattern. I got up in the air about 2 pm and headed north for a bit – to the end of the valley where Stead is located then turned west to the next valley that direction picked up highway 395 and took it south back to the Stead end of that valley.

Looking South past Reno.

Looking South past Reno.

Looking at the GPS ground speeds while flying the various directions it was apparent that the stronger upper level winds were there they just hadn’t received the push to come down to the surface. Whenever I got on the eastern side of a mountain range/peak it got a bit bumpy. Never more than an occasional moderate bump but I wouldn’t have wanted to go any long distances in the conditions.

During the time I was flying there were about a half dozen other planes that came to or left from Stead. When I got back to the stead area valley I headed north again to let a couple of them enter the pattern then turned back south for my pattern entry. When I turned south and before I started the descent to pattern altitude I snapped another picture looking down the valley past Reno. You can see standing wave clouds starting to form down that way, too.


Swift pattern work recorded using Foreflight and imported into Google Earth

I had been flying for about a half hour when I got back into the pattern and wanted to log at least an hour so round and round I went.

My first couple of patterns were shared with a Maule. We managed to stay on opposite sides of the pattern, so spacing was never an issue. Then they landed and I was on my own. If you count the ground tracks you will see 7 trips around runway 26. I keep my patterns pretty tight since the glide ratio of the Swift is about the same as a crowbar.

I probably would have flown a few more circuits but there appeared to be rain showers coming over the ridge to the west. When it became obvious that they were continuing to move toward the airport I headed for the hangar. By the time I got the plane cleaned up and covered there was light rain falling.

We can really use the precip around here, so it would be fine with me if it poured (or snowed) for a few days.

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All Set for Another 2 Years

by on November 17, 2014

Piper Cherokee similar to the one I flew for the Flight Review. Photo Credit: Lau Svensson, Flickr:CC

Piper Cherokee similar to the one I flew for the Flight Review. Photo Credit: Lau Svensson, Flickr:CC

I managed to check off all the required boxes for another two years.  With a fresh eye exam and two new pair of glasses I headed to the AME for my FAA Class III medical. That went smoothly – with the admonition that I need to get off my butt and get more exercise. That was not at all unexpected.

I mentioned in my last post that I had purchased the Sporty’s Flight Review iPad app for my review. I completed it – an hour and 40 minutes of short videos covering the required ground items. It was OK, but not something I will do in the future. It was much too easy to let my mind wander while the videos played – putting in the time, but not really having the information sink in. I guess it depends upon your motivation/dedication to complete the review – and if it’s really a review or seems like new information.

I also said that I was going to try the FAA online course again. I did do that ( Course ALC-25 at FAASafety.gov ). It is a free, self-paced course with a quiz at the end. Successful completion of the course material and quiz permits you to print out a completion certificate and earns you an hour of ground training in the FAA Wings Program.  Since the course is self-paced you can complete it as quickly as you want. The time it takes is directly related to how much of the supplemental material you access and study. There are multiple links in each section to relevant online Regulations, sections of the AIM and other manuals/advisory circulars. I actually enjoyed this course more than the iPad version – mainly because I could easily access and study more relevant information if I desired – which, as usual, led to links to more information that sounded interesting, etc, etc. Rabbit holes everywhere…

After running through the two courses I was able to arrange to spend enough time with an instructor to assure him that I know enough to fly competently and safely. The ground part of the official Flight Review was pretty straight forward though I have one area that always irritates me.


Students are taught (and flight reviews reinforce) the memorization of what in my opinion is aviation trivia. Things like the daytime VFR visibility and cloud clearances in Class E airspace above 1200′ AGL and below 10,000′ MSL. Every student can spout those numbers and virtually every CFI asks the question on each Flight Review.  Can anyone gauge accurately those distances while in flight traveling at 2 or 3 miles a minute?  Does anyone address the fact that those are the absolute minimums that are specified by the FAA and that if you are flying VFR in those conditions it does not register a very high score in the judgement block?  Just because those numbers are published  does not mean that you should be flying by them. Yes, I’ve flown VFR at, and probably below, the published minimums because of my errors in judgement. I have been lucky and survived without hurting myself or an airplane but the experience has taught me that there is no reason to do it again. You have a pilot certificate – set your own VFR minimums according to your abilities and the capabilities of the aircraft you are flying. Is it legal to take off VFR from your home airport in Class G airspace with 1 mile visibility? Yes. Is it smart? Not even close.  I know, you have to know the numbers to pass the written and oral exams for the various pilot certificates. There has to be a knowledge starting point of some sort that can be evaluated. But the general aviation accident rate doesn’t relate to rote memory of trivia, it relates to poor aeronautical judgement – judgement that says that one mile visibility is legal so I can go ahead and take off.


I chose to do the flying part of my Flight Review in the instructor’s airplane for a change of pace from my normal flying. He has a Piper PA-28-180 in the form of a Cherokee Challenger based in Carson City (KCXP). Yeah, I had to look that one up, too. It is the predecessor to the Piper Archer – four-place, fixed gear, Hershey-bar wing. It is a nice-flying, stable aircraft even if it does have the little wheel on the wrong end. We accomplished all the standard Flight Review maneuvers and then for fun flew over to Reno and requested vectors to the ILS for Runway 32 at Stead. A Garmin 430 had been installed in the plane recently and it was a good way to check it out. There is also a basic autopilot installed in the plane but I elected to hand-fly the approach for practice and because my philosophy has always been that if you don’t know exactly how the autopilot works you shouldn’t be using it. Having an autopilot do something that you are not expecting and then trying to figure out what is going on is an excellent way to totally screw up an instrument approach.  The approach went well (in perfect VFR conditions) and the experience got me interested in getting my IFR currency back again. Going through the hoops of passing an IPC would probably be a fun challenge. The hitch would then be in trying to maintain the currency.  My Swift only has a communicaitons radio and a transponder so maintaining IFR currency would require renting another plane – an added expense that is not in the budget. I might reconsider should I elect to upgrade the panel enough to comply with the ADS-B mandate in 2020 but that is a long way (and three physicals) in the future. Who knows what will happen by then…

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