Friday, December 31, 2010

A Learning Experience

I started "winter operations" at Butter Valley over the 2010 Christmas Holiday Season. First was just a short trip around the pattern, next a 45 minute flight with my son to introduce him to the airplane. After that I did another solo flight to work on my basic airwork and landing pattern. The last flight of the year was with my sister, again just an intro flight.

I learned a lot. Proper tie-downs, fueling the plane from gas cans, ice and snow removal (plane and runway) and generally how to operate out of a small non-towered field. None of this stuff is written down, it is the DOING that teaches.

An example: The 'little blizzard' left us with patches of snow and the above freezing temperatures gave us some unfrozen soggy sod for a taxiway. I had less then half of a fuel load, but two full sized occupants in the cockpit. When the nose wheel didn't respond while taxiing to the run up it was easy to believe that it was slogging through the wet turf. The longer then normal takeoff roll could be attributed to some ice in the wheel pants, or the heavy load, but in no case did I think any thing was wrong. Until I tried to back taxi after a normal (smooth) landing and found that full power wasn't enough to get her turned around. Shut 'er down and inspect to find a nearly flat nose wheel.

With parents and relatives watching I got out the tow bar and pulled her back down the center of the runway, and when sure it was safe restarted the engine (hot start procedures) to taxi back to the tie down spot. Fortunately I had some help to keep the situation under control and keep the on lookers off the active runway.

Yes, I did preflight which included checking tires. Yes, I will check even more closely for now on. Yes, there is light maintenance on the field, and I did go over to meet Harry. I can get his help next week to troubleshoot and repair the tire.

There are dozens of small but important lessons I've learned just in this one short month of airplane ownership. 2011 is going to be a real learning experience.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The brothers built a movable track to help launch the Flyer. This downhill track would help the aircraft gain enough airspeed to fly. After two attempts to fly this machine, one of which resulted in a minor crash, Orville Wright took the Flyer for a 12-second, sustained flight on December 17, 1903. This was the first successful, powered, piloted flight in history.
While I had gone over to the airport a few times to look at her, '74PS had not been started in over a week. That just seemed too long to me. So I took the tie down straps off, removed the canopy cover, flipped on the switches to check the battery and was pleased to find it all in good shape. So I gave her a good preflight, just to make sure nothing unusual had happened, no bumps or bruises or scratches on her skin. I pulled her out about a foot or so to straighten the nose wheel and make sure the tire wasn't developing a flat spot, and then settled myself in the cockpit and went through the checklist. Nine or so props later she came to life. Still a bit strange to use choke instead of mixture, but once closed the engine smoothed out to a nice purr.

Glitches #1 and #2 still there, it was a bit early to check on #3. I kept the RPM low to let the oil warm up, and watched the needles for anything strange. It felt good. After a few minutes the oil temp came up and I did the run-up, all very smooth.

Then the sun came out, beckoning me to fly. It didn't take much to convince me. Just one lap around the pattern to a full stop. Just sweet. From the time I left the house, to the time I got back was just over an hour. Flying on a lunch break, I can really get into this.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Flight Home - into 7N8

Decision time. The weather was forecast to be cold and bumpy...very bumpy. We sat in the hotel room and reviewed our options. We both decided that it would be wise to have her continue home via rental car while I went solo for the remainder of the trip. I believed I could probably get to northern Virginia before getting into icing conditions, or snow or other lousy winter weather. So she drove me to the airport in the rental car and with sad eyes we said goodbye. This was NOT how we wanted to end this adventure, but we both knew it was the right decision.

Glitch #1 was still with me during the run-up, but Glitch #2 didn't seem to be much of a problem. The take-off was normal and I climbed east on course and contacted flight following using KSBY as my destination. That would take me east around the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area. (I missed her being with me in the cockpit, but didn't want any new friends flying as my wing-man.) About an hour into the flight glitch #1 went away. All was right with the world. The air was much smoother than forecast and the sun warmed my right side enough to keep me from complaining about glitch #3. ATC advised me that a restricted area on my path was 'hot' and asked for my intentions. I said I would take a vector, but he offered me JIMIE to use as a way point. That worked out fine. It was approaching JIMIE that I got just the slightest sense of being alone. The Chesapeake is a "big puddle" and I found myself checking the nearest airports more frequently. Glitch #1 came back.

I contacted ATC and told them my new destination KPTW. The weather started to burble when I turned north toward KSBY. A small scattered layer began to develop right at my level and I had the fun of piercing one of those little puffies before descending to 4500. Constant weather checks showed a ceiling above me at 9000 but a thin haze layer was developing by the time I passed the power plants just south of New Castle. Down to 3500 and staying clear of the Vice Presidential residence I encountered more chop. Winds were picking up gusts to 28 and my little plane and I were getting quite a ride. Once clear of the Philadelphia Class B I canceled Flight Following and told the nice lady I would be going to 7N8 VFR.

I planned to overfly Butter Valley to check the winds, and give myself two tries before diverting to N47 or KPTW. Down wind was a little close so I broke it off and repositioned to give myself a nice long straight in. Everything looked great (except for those trees on final) and I touched down just past the line and stopped before going up the hill. I felt GREAT! No one to celebrate with, I headed toward a tie down spot and secured her for the first time.

My wife arrived safely home about five hours later.

The Flight Home - into KJNX

We spent a wonderful weekend with family and friends in Atlanta. Good food and good fun and lots of great people to meet. Monday morning came much too early and it really cold as we headed out to the airport. Fortunately Hill Aviation had hangered N674PS so she wasn't quite frozen. I was very glad to be able to do the preflight inside.

Startup was normal, but soon we found another glitch. The canopy would not align properly on both sides for the latch to catch. We fiddled for awhile and finally got it to work but this annoyance is something that must be addressed. We took off into sunny skies heading east over Atlanta climbing on course.

After about two hours glitch #1 reappeared. Suddenly the tach was warning me that 4000 RPM was too high. I hit the nearest button and headed to KLKR. Here I spent time on the phone with the good folks in Florida, got some advice from the local A&P, and ran my thoughts past the airport manger, and experienced pilot familiar with G1000 avionics. These were simply wonderful folks and that will be my airport of choice if ever back in the area. All of us felt that it was an indicator, not an engine problem. So I planned on 'airport hopping', picking places along our route of flight that I could quickly divert to in case something more serious presented itself. It was a cold and bumpy flight. Glitch #3 is the heater. We were really tired by the time we reached KJNX, and ready for a hot shower and warm bed.

The Flight Home - into KFTY

Actually, the trip down to close on the airplane started with a bit of a disappointment. A night lighting package is being developed for the PiperSport and I had expected it to be installed on our airplane before leaving Fort Pierce. It wasn't ready. I saw the prototype and think it WILL look great, but so far it isn't available.

Everything else was great. The opportunity to speak with experts, other owners and all of the folks associated with the PiperSport program was a wonderful experience. I'm so glad I decided to pick up the airplane there instead of having it delivered to a nearby location for assembly.

Thursday was my first flight, basic high work and landing pattern. That afternoon we went up again for avionics checkout and crosswind landing practice. Financial closing happened between the two flights.

Friday morning was my first solo. I played with all of the avionics to insure I had learned my lessons well and returned to KFPR for a full stop. I was ready to go.

Saturday was an "ODarkThirty" rise for an 0800 take off. Smooth flying past the Kennedy Space Center up to KSGJ for the first fuel stop. Left there after an hour or so to fly past KNIP (old stomping grounds) headed toward KAYS, but after calculating fuel decided that the winds might allow me to reach FTY nonstop. Over time the smooth air started to burble a bit and the winds shifted more to a headwind. I decided to stop at KDBN outside of Macon to top her off.

Wow, it was no longer just a burbles, the gusts had turned into moderate turbulence. Gusts to 24 right down the runway (which thankfully was long and wide). She bounced a lot on base and final, but smoothed out nicely for the round-out and flare. This would be the first time I ever used a self service gas pump. Yes, I know, nothing to it...but the first time for everything is...a learning experience.

A glitch. During run-up the tach read 4000 RPM as a max read-line. Normally over 5200, I checked to see if anything else was indicating a problem, and as I started to return to the FBO conditions went back to normal. A full run-up with my 'radar' on revealed nothing unusual so we proceeded on.

A bumpy takeoff into turbulent air bounced my head of the canopy, but smoothed a little as I climbed to 6500 ft. Unfortunately a layer was developing there, so we glided down to 4500 ft and put up with a light chop. XM weather didn't show anything significant with destination weather windy and 4500 overcast. So we stepped down again approaching the ATL Class B, and then again to 2400 ft when requested by ATC. Investing in the autopilot was a good decision. Stone Mountain off to our right, Hartsfield off to my left and a bumpy road all around, we cinched our harnesses a bit tighter and looked for the field. 'Light" Sport means something, like a small boat in a storm there simply isn't much inertia to keep it stable. I was glad when told to switch to tower for the final approach and chuckled a bit when traffic was called at my two-o'clock. The Goodyear blimp was out covering the SEC championship, a hard target to miss.

An uneventful landing followed.

Light Sport

I cut my teeth flying an Aeronca Champ. My instructor didn't teach me wheel landings, but did insist on using my feet and on solid airmanship. I remember watching traffic pass me as I followed roads in Pennsylvania on a breezy day. So I was already familiar with the concept: minimal, basic, stick & rudder flying. While that appealed to me, I had just spent a year flying the Cirrus and wasn't sure I wanted to go back to those basics. No IFR, no night flying (which I love), slow, would mean a significant change to my mission profile. And, the planes are NOT cheap! If I was getting into this to save money, the payment on the note was going to be a real challenge.

Another concern was the number of makes and models and the strength of the various companies. I didn't want to buy a new airplane to find within a year the company was bankrupt and my support was gone. Cessna had already announced a Light Sport Airplane (LSA) and in January Piper announced they would take over marketing and support of the Czech built SportCruiser, and rename it the PiperSport.

I was already a big fan of Piper. The first plane I soloed was a Cherokee 140 and most planes I've flown since have been low wing configurations. In September we went down to Fort Pierce to fly one. It didn't take long, I knew after just a bit of high work that it exceeded my expectations...and the landings were sweet. We placed a deposit two days later.

So, I could buy a very nicely IFR equipped used airplane for the price of an LSA, why did I do it? It fit 90% of my mission requirements.