A Stretch of Bad Weather

by on February 11, 2014

De-icing an airliner at its parking gate.

De-icing – a cold, miserable job.
Thank these people whenever you get the chance.

I haven’t had the plane out of the hanger for almost two weeks now and it looks like the non-flying stretch is going to last a bit longer.  Last weekend our winter finally came back. There was a little precipitation but, more relevant to an aircraft without a heater,  the temperatures dropped about 20 degrees (F) for the daily highs – barely reaching 40 late in the afternoon. Yeah, I know, compared to what is happening in the central and eastern part of the country 40 degrees is a heat wave.

This weekend the weather wonders are saying there is a 50-60 percent chance of rain/snow… and more wind. Around here they don’t put out a percentage that high unless it’s actually raining at the time. Such is forecasting in the mountains – way too many variables.

CFI Open Forum

Last week the local FAASTeam representatives put on what they call a CFI Open Forum. The FAA used to sponsor CFI workshops that, over a period of time with consistent participation, could qualify for a CFI renewal. They ended that program and the local office picked up with these Open Forums events. It’s a way to get a little more information out to the local CFI community and a chance for the CFIs and DPEs to get together and talk about the latest ‘problem areas’ that are showing up in certificate check rides.

The primary topic for this Forum event was Preventing Loss of Control Accidents. There has been a string of accidents in the Reno-Tahoe area over the past 12 months that has attracted the attention of the FAA Safety people.  When you live up here in the mountains it is easy to attribute accident causes to inexperienced mountain flyers – flat-land pilots flying up to mountain destinations for a weekend or to visit friends and then disregarding the tremendous differences in aircraft performance and weather phenomena between the two locations. In this case though, only about half of the accidents involved pilots from out of the area.

One factor that appeared in multiple accidents was an ignorance or disregard for density altitude. This FAA document discusses density Altitude in fairly clear terms and includes a Koch Chart that can be used to determine the effect of density altitude on typical non-turbocharged aircraft performance. You enter the chart with the OAT and the airport Pressure Altitude. It’s more for reference than specific number – that’s where your individual aircraft performance handbook needs to be referenced. If you use the Koch Chart and enter with 80 degrees and a Pressure Altitude of 5000′ the chart says to increase your normal takeoff distance by about 130% and to decrease your rate of climb by almost 65%.  Most general aviation runways will have enough pavement to handle the added distance necessary to lift off (though I would use 200% to account for my technique, engine condition and aircraft rigging). The question then becomes what you do after you get into the air.

In most cases ‘climb on course’ is not an option.  The safest option for a VFR pilot (especially at night) is to fly the airport traffic pattern rectangle in a climb until you are well above the mountains/obstacles that you have to cross. In our minds we know that mountains do not move – but they sure look like they are growing if you are flying toward them. Instrument pilots are familiar with ODPs (Obstacle Departure Procedures).

Most major airports have charted departure procedures that combine obstacle clearance with integration of the flight into the air traffic control system but small airports can have them, too. The Instrument Approach Procedures Chart has a section on Takeoff Minimums and (Obstacle) Departure Procedures. Each airport listed has a section for IFR minimum weather conditions for takeoff and a section that describe in text the Departure Procedure for each runway. As a VFR pilot, what do you care?  Well, the procedure described will keep you clear of terrain/obstacles no matter what the weather might be.  You know that the procedure listed will keep you clear of terrain. If you have any questions in your mind about what your options are for climbing out of a mountainous area, check the published Departure Procedure and see what is shown.

For instance, at Reno-Stead taking off on runway 26 the procedure says to use a climbing right turn to head 050 degrees and intercept the FMG 314 deg radial and proceed inboud to the FMG VORTAC. Then climb in the holding pattern at the VORTAC and describes the holding pattern. Then is says to depart the VORTAC at or above specific altitudes (from 10,000′ to 12000′) for different directions of flight. If you are VFR just call up (NORCAL) Approach Control and tell them what you want to do. There is no reason not to call them and get flight following out of the mountains anyway.

That was another topic of discussion – flight following, flight plans and personal tracking devices. One of the accidents described was survivable. Two of the three airplane occupants lived through the crash but died before the aircraft was found. No flight following was used, though I believe a flight plan was filed. It just took too long (measured in days) for the route of flight to be traced, the location determined and the rescuers to arrive. One Forum attendee recommended always carrying a 406 MHz PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). I don’t have one of those, but I do use a SPOT Satellite Messenger. It is set up to record my location on a map every 5 minutes. The map is available at any time to my specified list of individuals. The unit also has the ability to sent an “I’m OK’ message or a ’911 -  I need help’ message. So far the 5-minute interval seems to be sufficient. For an additional subscription fee I can decrease that to every 2 1/2 minutes.

As with most accidents we read about, every one could have a different outcome had the pilot in command made at just one different decision.

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A Trip to the Low Country

by on January 27, 2014

Donner-Pass

One of the peaks near Donner Pass.

I took advantage of the good weather again this weekend to get another of those $200 omelets. This time I decided to fly ‘over the hill’ to Auburn, CA (KAUN). The Auburn airport is in the foothills just to the northeast of Sacramento at an elevation of 1539′ MSL, a bit over 3500′ below Stead’s field elevation.

That sounds like a nice downhill flight, but between Stead and Auburn there is a hill with a pass known for the Donner Party. The sectional lists the elevation of the pass at just under 7100′ MSL with peaks on either side rising to about 9000′ MSL. Interstate 80 runs through the pass, so it’s an easy IFR ( I Follow Roads ) route to follow.

As long as the winds are light and variable I am willing to go through the pass at about 9000′. Anything more than a light breeze and I go up to 10-12,000′. Searching the Internet for Donner Pass weather will give you a non-aviation look at the weather in the pass at highway level. The closest airports to the pass are Truckee, CA (KTRK) on the west side down in a valley and Blue Canyon Nyack (KBLU) about 16 NM to the west at 5300′.

There was hardly any wind at all, so for my breakfast run I flew through the pass at about 900o westbound and 9500′ eastbound. Yes, 9000′ is not a VFR altitude for a westbound flight but you also need to remember that 9000′ MSL is well below the 3000′ AGL specified in Sec. 91.159.  The MEF in the sectional quadrant where you find Donner Pass is depicted as 9600′. I made sure to use see-and-avoid and flew on the right side of Interstate 80, sort of an unwritten rule when following major highways, especially through confined spaces like a pass – this mimics what you would do in a car and it allows you to keep the highway in sight on the left side of the plane.

The flights both ways were really enjoyable. The Auburn Airport was busy as would be expected with the weather so nice. I managed to arrive in the traffic pattern during a lull in the action between the breakfast departures and the lunch arrivals. A Piper landed as I was entering the pattern and a Highway Patrol plane was flying along the highway but no other traffic was in sight. I found an empty transient parking slot, secured the plane and headed for the Wings Cafe. It was definitely t-shirt weather in the lower elevations. All of the outside tables with nice views of the aircraft ramp were taken so I was relegated to sitting inside. There are plenty of large windows that let you watch the action, but eating at an outside table in late January would have been a nice experience.

After breakfast I wandered the ramp a bit. There is a pilot shop on the airport, but it was closed. The sign said they were operating under “Winter” hours – undeterred by the clear skies, temperatures in the mid 60s and undoubtedly losing business. By that time there were no transient aircraft parking spots on the restaurant end of the ramp. Most of the planes on the ramp were as you would see at any active general aviation airport. One transient that came in caught my eye – a Van’s RV-7 with a nice-looking 4-bladed Sensenich prop.

The weather people up here in Reno are saying we will get our first chance of rain/snow tonight and then an even better chance Wed/Thur this week. We really need it so I hope their guesses are correct. We have been experiencing great flying weather lately, but it is setting us up for a nasty fire season if we don’t get some rain/snow pretty soon.

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A $200 Omelet

by on January 20, 2014

Lake Tahoe, CA

Calm waters on Lake Tahoe.

I finally made it back into the air this weekend. The weather had been beautiful all week and Saturday was no exception. It hasn’t been much fun for the ski areas and the newcasters have run segments on our extreme drought conditions, but the flying weather has been great. Well, last Saturday wasn’t too good unless you really wanted some wind practice. At one point I saw winds of 30G47 knots at Stead. It was right down the runway so landings would be possible but probably not fun. The hard part would be getting off of the runway – making that 90-degree turn onto the taxiway. Definitely not fun.

I had flown enough since I last bought fuel to be down to just the main tank  so I headed south to Minden (KMEV) for breakfast and their self-serve fuel island. I still had 2 hours of fuel on board but that restricts the places I can comfortably fly to from Stead and return.  It was a beautiful flight with calm winds, even over Lake Tahoe.

I entered the traffic pattern joining an LSA pilot who was practicing landings. My timing placed me on mid-field downwind as he was lifting off from his touch-and-go. I was down and had cleared the runway by the time he called his base leg turn.

My first stop was the fuel island – I topped off all three tanks and registered 36 gallons on the fuel pump meter. At $5.39/gal that added up to about $194 -  with the standard $10 omelet I had hit that $200 mark.

I pushed the plane away from the fuel island, chocked it, closed it up and walked down the ramp to the Taildragger Cafe. There were no tables available, so I sat at the end of the bar and had breakfast there. One end of the bar has Blackjack gambling screens embedded in the counter (remember, I’m in Nevada) while the other end is flat and suitable for serving food. A large portion of the tables were arranged in a U shape for an expected group of people. When I left Stead I saw that the local Search and Rescue group was amassing for a training flight or whatever they do. Based upon past experience I would imagine it is a good excuse to all log a bit of training and to fly out for breakfast.

Since I had arrived before the crowd I managed to get back in the air ahead of the group. I decided to head straight back to Stead by crossing through the Reno Class C airspace. I called NORCAL Approach when I was abeam Carson City and got a squawk code and was cleared direct on course. It always bothers me that I have to call California to fly over Reno. In one of their consolidation operations the FAA moved Approach Control for the Reno-Tahoe area to Sacramento with remote radar/radio outlets in the Reno area valleys. NORCAL controls traffic at 6500′ and above in the area which is about as low as you want to fly through the valley VFR. The Reno-Tahoe Airport (KRNO) is at 4400′ MSL but Mt Rose, 11 NM southwest of the airport, rises up to almost 11,000′ and Peavine Mountain, 9 NM to the NW, is listed at just under 8300′ MSL. The east side of the valley tops out at 7500′-8500′. Nope, definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Safety Seminar

AOPA conducted one of their safety seminars in Reno last week. They are held in one of the conference rooms at the Atlantis Casino/Resort. It seems that the Reno venue regularly gets the first presentation of a new seminar. I’m not sure why it works out that way. This seminar’s topic was the new Accident Case Study: Live. Three accidents were covered in detail progressing through the entire scenario with NTSB findings brought into the discussion at the appropriate times. The first accident that was discussed involved a real estate broker from Truckee, CA, although the accident occurred in southern California. The group seemed to take more interest in the details of that one, probably because of the connection to our area. Another of the accidents covered was written up in the latest issue of EAA’s Sport Aviation Magazine (Jan 2014, p. 78), though the live seminar covered it in more detail.

If you get the chance I would recommend attending the seminar. It is always a good exercise to see how easily you could find yourself in similar circumstances and hope that you would make different decisions at the right times in the sequence of events.

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A Weekend on the Ground

by on January 7, 2014

No flying this weekend.  Having flown on Wednesday it didn’t seem that urgent. I was out at the airport each day, though. Saturday I spent the afternoon in the hanger working on some window frames. I plan to replace a couple of windows when the weather warms up. I cut out the aluminum frames for the windows, shaped them, cleaned up the edges and drilled the attachment holes. It would have been nice to continue with work on the Plexiglas, but it was barely 40 (F) degrees and that makes the Plexiglas a bit brittle.

It’s really frustrating to work for a couple of hours shaping and drilling holes in a new window and then almost at the end have the drill bit catch and crack the window. I have a set of drill bits ground for use on Plexiglas but you can still screw it up if you let your attention wander.  Been there, done that. Then, when you throw the ruined part across the hanger you invariably knock something onto the floor that you really didn’t want spilled. Things you laugh about…….  much later.

Sunday I went out to the airport again, this time to go flying. I plugged in my engine pre-heater, uncovered the plane and got it ready to go. I let the little pre-heater work b;owing warm air into the engine compartment for about an hour in the colder temps to try to get the oil lubricating everything as quickly as possible on engine start. While I was waiting I checked the local area and NOTAMS on ForeFlight and did some reading. I found myself falling asleep ( I didn’t sleep very soundly Saturday night). At that point I questioned whether I ought to go flying and that gave me the answer.

The way I figure, if you ask your self if you ought to be doing something or question whether you should continue on a particular course of action, then you have already answered the question with a negative. If you didn’t have doubts the question wouldn’t have come up in the first place. At that time, the right course to take is to put the plane back to bed and go home or land, find a room and try again the next day. The world will not end if a flight is cancelled, a meeting is missed or you don’t make it to that date or kid’s ball game. I can’t remember the last time that I saw photos of a crash scene that were taken in bad weather. And how many times have you read an accident report and asked yourself why in the world the pilot kept going?

The Airlines, the Military and the New Rules

I’ve seen a couple of articles lately that said the Air Force is getting concerned about their ability to keep enough pilots to fill all their cockpits. That’s probably a valid concern considering the current state of the aviation profession. With all the cutbacks the squadrons are probably getting just enough in their budgets to meet the minimum flying currency requirements. Pilots, especially military pilots, don’t like sitting around.  At the same time the airlines are starting to look hard at potential pilot availability compared to known retirements.

The increase in the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots changed from 60 to 65 about 5 years ago so now all those pilots who were going to be forced to retire and got a temporary reprieve are hitting the mandatory age again. Then Congress mandated that a pilot must have at least 1500 hours of flight time in order to occupy a copilot position in a scheduled airline cockpit (commuter or major airline). And just a couple of days ago a new set of crew rest requirements went into effect. The new rules were a much-needed change to some marginal rest rules, but the effect is that the airlines now need more crew members to cover those times when the new rules require the crew stop working for the day and a new crew must be called into action.

Probably the biggest effect will be felt by the 1500-hour rule, although there are some exceptions to the experience requirement. As I understand, graduates from aviation schools like Embry-Riddle and the University of North Dakota can get a Restricted ATP rating at 1000 hours and graduates of military pilot training courses can qualify for the Restricted ATP at 750 hours.  These Restricted certificates allow the individual to be hired by an airline as a copilot. When they accumulate the full 1500 hours of flight experience they can remove the restriction to their ATP certificate and qualify for job upgrades. Before this new rule airlines, especially the commuter airlines, were permitted to hire copilots with only a Commercial pilot certificate and often as little as 300 hours of flight time.  The assumption was that the new-hire pilot would gain their upgrade experience flying for their employer. That was fine as long as the airline was diligent in not assigning two pilots with minimum experience to the same crew. That hasn’t always worked out.

A general aviation pilot might average 100 hours in a year when flying on their own dollar. That’s 2 hours a week, every week, regardless of weather. That would require 15 years of flying to reach the new airline hire limit. Reaching the 1500 hour mark requires getting some sort of flying job that builds hours quickly. You can probably cut that to 2-3 years if you find the right flying job and don’t burn yourself out. Frankly, I’m at a loss about how any pilot can get the numbers to show that choosing an airline career will result in a positive income in less than 20 years or so from the start of flight training.  I was extremely lucky to have completed a military career and then had the opportunity for an airline career. I managed to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m not saying not to choose professional aviation as a career path, just do it with open eyes and an understanding of what the process will be to achieve your goal. There will always be pilots who will do just about anything in aviation in order to earn a living by flying. The question is whether there will be enough of those types of people to fill all the cockpits. One wonders with all the talk by the alphabet groups trying to get more people to join the pilot ranks at any level.

The Photo:  A typical dinner appetizer on a Narita (RJAA)  layover – a big bottle of Sapporo beer and an order of Gyoza.  I believe I took this photo on my last airline flight before retirement.

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