Sunday, May 31, 2009

First $100 burger at Wollongong airport

The $100 burger is a concept of mythical dimensions in aviation. I had come across it many times on other people's blogs, but never had a chance to perform the ritual myself. During my PPL training I had a $800 sub once on a long cross-country solo, but no $100 burger. I'm happy to report that since last week-end this gap in my aviation culture is a thing of the past.

The $100 burger refers to the cost of flying somewhere away from the home base for the sole purpose of eating a burger, and then flying back. This is as good an excuse as any other one to go flying. Taken more broadly, it is the acknowledgment that real good reasons to go flying are scarce compared to how often we feel the itch, hence creativity and rationalisation are required.

I had booked a Warrior for Saturday, and I didn't have too much trouble convincing my friends Ingo and Marcus to join the adventure. The plan was to fly out of Bankstown northbound, do a few orbits over Sydney Harbour, fly Victor One southbound and land at Wollongong to have a burger at the Aviator Lounge, and then fly back to Bankstown after lunch.

Looking at the weather forecast on Friday evening I decided to postpone the flight till Sunday. There were quite a few things I was not too happy with, starting with the very strong westerly winds:
2000 5000 7000 10000
250/35 250/45 250/50 260/55
35 knots at 2000ft and 45 knots at 5000ft. With a cruise airspeed of 105 knots in the Warrior, this translates to a miserly 60 knots ground speed on the way back to Bankstown. Barely faster than the cars below on the M5. Strong winds aloft are surely a nuisance, but not necessarily a safety problem unless they come with turbulence. Which takes us to the next section of the area forecast:

Westerlies blowing over the ranges create this "occasionally severe" turbulence as the wind tumbles down the hills. This is particularly bad in Wollongong since the city is built in a natural amphitheatre with very sharp cliffs to the west, as can be seen in the picture above. This makes for dramatic views from the airport, but also dramatic aerodrome forecasts:
TAF YWOL 151827Z 1520/1608
27025G41KT CAVOK
BECMG 1522/1524 24015G25KT 9999 FEW045
RMK FM152000 MOD/SEV TURB BLW 5000FT TILL 152400
FM152400 MOD TURB BLW 5000FT
Wind at 25 knots with gusts up to 41 knots? And moderate to severe turbulence below 5000ft? I don't think so. I would be nervous taxiing in such conditions, let alone landing or taking off. Crosswind in these conditions is a major problem for the main 16/34 runway, and a smaller problem for runway 08/26. However, given my low time on this aircraft type, little of which includes crosswind landings, I wasn't keen to chance it. The decision to postpone was easy to take, and my passengers were more than happy to fly on a calmer day.

The forecast was for conditions to improve overnight, and Sunday was indeed a beautiful VFR flying day. All the Warriors were booked so we took VH-NRF, a Piper Archer instead.

We took off from Bankstown on 29R flew north to Patonga and then to Long Reef. Approaching Long Reef I requested a clearance for a Harbour Scenic One procedure, which was granted and led to dozens of glorious digital photographs being taken. I particularly like the photo of Barrenjoey Head below, with the left wing flap and the reflection of the sun over the top of the stabilator.

We exited Victor One then climbed and tracked south to Wollongong. I knew from other airplanes on the CTAF frequency that runway 34 was being used. I overflew the airfield anyway to have a look at the windsock. It seemed to point at the threshold of runway 16, but with very little wind in it I decided to do like everyone else and joined crosswind for 34.

My first circuit was really tight and of course I ended up too high on final. I thought about sideslipping my way down for an instant but decided against it, out of consideration for safety, comfort, and the eardrums of everyone onboard.

The second circuit was a lot better, mainly because I was following another airplane which seemed to know his way around the place. I extended downwind all the way to the hills south of the airfield, and when I turned final the picture in the windscreen looked much more normal than on my first attempt. Landing was good, although I held the nose up a bit too much and soon after the stall warning horn went off we fell onto the runway from an altitude of about one foot.

The burger and fries at the Aviator Lounge didn't disappoint, which is what you expect from a $14.50 burger really. It was fresh and delicious, and came with the obligatory two slices of beetroot.

After lunch we took off on 34. A Seminole was performing a GPS approach to Runway 16, which he discontinued early enough to not create a problem and he passed us on our right. Navigation back to Bankstown was performed using a bit of dead reckoning and a lot of navigation by reference to the ground: Cordeaux lake, then tracking to Menangle to meet the M5 and follow it northbound till we find the 2RN entry point for Bankstown airport.

We joined final for 11L and I performed what must have been my best landing so far in the Archer. During the flare I kept my eyes focused on the end of the runway, and the nose on the horizon. I didn't realise we were on the ground until I heard the wheel rotate. A real greaser of a landing, and captured on video to boot:

Total flying time 2.1 hours, plus landing taxes, lifejacket and headset hire, amounted to $458. Divided by three, and leaving the cost of the burger proper out of the equation, we get a $150 burger. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

C182 performs wheeler landing at Canberra airport

I was in Canberra recently and came across this article on the front page of the local Canberra Times:

The nose wheel of a Cessna 182 fell off in flight, the pilot didn't notice and obviously was in for a little surprise on landing when he lowered what he thought was the nose wheel onto the runway at Canberra International Airport. The pilot was unharmed, the runway was closed for a little while and the ATSB is not investigating the incident.

This may sound odd at first, but when you look at their prioritization guidelines you understand why: no-one died or even got hurt and this was a private flight (priority level 6 out of 7, only above "High risk personal recreation/sports aviation/experimental aircraft operations"). In addition, and that's only my own uneducated guess, there is probably very little to be learned from this freak incident that would improve safety. Unless 182s around the world start loosing nose wheels in flight, investigating why this happened is not worth it.

The article goes on to say:

''[The pilot] said it was a very crunchy landing, but that he didn't know until he got out of the plane that he had lost the wheel,'' Ms Davy said.

This may sound funny, but is actually perfectly logical. There's no way the pilot can tell that the nose wheel fell in flight. The wheel just fell, and the pilot cannot see the front wheel from the cockpit anyway. Losing the nose wheel may reduce drag a little, but nothing noticeable through either the controls or the airspeed indicator.

On landing the noise of the nose wheel fork ploughing the runway must indeed have been very "crunchy", and the nose-down attitude surely indicated that something had gone wrong.

I just love the fact that the pilot went to the turf farm a week or so later to collect the missing wheel. Goes to show you never know where aviation might take you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spot the airfield: Aeropelican, New South Wales

On a Qantas flight from Sydney to Brisbane, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Aeropelican unlicensed airfield (YPEC) between the clouds.

The airfield is located in-between the highway and Lake Macquarie, which is why the ERSA entry says "high vehicles on the highway at the eastern end of the runway, or high masted vessels on the extended centre-line to the west, may infringe obstacle clearance gradient from the runways ends". The runway is oriented 07/25, is 820 meters long and is kind of sealed near the middle.

My guess is that the airfield is named after the Aeropelican regional airline which used to operate from the field, and now flies a modest fleet of three BAE Jetstream 32 turboprops out of Williamstown, north of Newcastle.

Even more interesting than Aeropelican is the tiny bit of land in the top left corner of the photo. This is the suburb of Rathmines, which used to be home to the largest RAAF seaplane base during WWII.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Retract endorsement a complex affair

Second and last flight for my retractable undercarriage endorsement, two days after the first one. I spent a full evening in-between writing down lists of checks and actions for each leg of the circuit, and drawing flow patterns that take me in a sequence through each gauge or control required at any stage of the circuit.

This proved quite useful, although there is as always a big difference between rehearsing things at home and doing them for real in the cockpit. Plenty of things come in the way, such as other aircraft in the circuit, that pesky instructor in the right seat, or the tower controller. Not even talking about the effect of stress on cognitive abilities. It is a well known fact that one only has half a brain left when flying an airplane, which makes planning and rehearsing beforehand all the more important.

So we did about 7 or 8 circuits in the Arrow IV on runway 29L. It's true that because of the T-Tail one has to pull harder on the yoke to get the airplane to rotate or flare, even with the trim slightly aft of neutral. The accepted explanation is that because the stabilator is outside the propeller slipstream, it becomes less effective at low speed. All other things being equal.

But are the other things really equal? The moment arm between the center of gravity and the stabilator is longer in the T-Tail Arrow IV compared to the Arrow III, which should help. Maybe the surface of the stabilator is smaller. Or maybe the reason for the design change is to be found elsewhere. According to this article on the Arrow IV, in 1979, Piper made a controversial design decision, opting to equip many of its airplanes with trendy, fashionable T-tails. So it may all boil down to a marketing fad in the end.

This turned out to be a lot of work in the circuit, which really stresses the importance of having sequences of actions and checklists memorised. I forgot quite a few times to touch the brakes before retracting the gear, which is not good since the wheels keep spinning inside the well, which may create some wear on the tires. Olivia had to use the Law of Intensity on me so that this particular aspect of operating a retractable undercarriage would stick with me, and it worked.

I made a conscious effort to slow down in the circuit to maintain separation with the other slower aircraft. It's actually a nice way to measure the ground covered since I started learning to fly in the C152 at Redcliffe two years ago: I am no longer the slowest guy in the circuit.

In the last circuit Olivia pulled the circuit breaker of the landing gear pump on me. I noticed that the three green lights didn't light up. She was happy I noticed, pushed the circuit breaker back in and asked what I would have done otherwise. I said I would have flown to the training area to perform the emergency landing gear extension procedure, which was the right answer. Olivia also insisted I verbalise out loud "three greens" as part of my pre-landing checks.

On each landing I tried to not float as much as on the previous one. The airspeed on final recommended by the club is 80 knots, while 1.3 Vs is 71 knots. The extra 9 knots add a lot of energy to the airplane, which also means that as it slows down from 80 knots it crosses a region of lower total drag, which does not help with slowing down further obviously. This was actually the topic of a recent training tip in AOPA ePilot newsletter.

We taxied back and Olivia put a new stamp into my logbook with an endorsement for the P28RT type, where R stands for Retractable and T for T-Tail. So I am now allowed to fly "complex aircraft" solo. Complex aircraft refers to aircraft with flaps, variable-pitch propeller and retractable undercarriage.

It's a very impressive term that conjures up a picture of aircraft mightier than a Piper Arrow. If I wasn't married I may even be tempted to use my newest endorsement in order to impress girls. Not unlike that scene from a movie we all know.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Look mum, no wheels!

After getting checked out in the Archer I decided to go for the next aircraft up in the Piper family, the Piper Arrow. This way, I would have access to the entire fleet of single-engine aircraft at the Schofields Aero Club.

This was a little bit more involved than a check flight though, since the Arrow has a design feature for which I was not yet endorsed: a retractable undercarriage. Undercarriage being a fancy name for a landing gear.

I had already obtained an endorsement for aircraft with a variable-pitch propeller (the so-called Constant Speed Unit endorsement) propeller last year on the Cessna 182, so I was already familiar with this aspect of the Arrow. The only thing to keep in mind really is "rev up and throttle back" to avoid overboosting the engine, and the manifold pressure and RPM settings for climb and cruise, 23-23 and 25-25 in the Arrow.

Each of the two main wheels retracts by rotating 90 degrees towards the fuselage into the wheel well situated inside each wing. When retracted, the main wheels are parallel to the wing. The nosewheel retracts by rotating aft. The pre-flight inspection includes checking the wheel wells for any obstruction such as birds nest and the like.

Each wheel has its own hydraulic actuator. On the photo below, the silver arm of the actuator can be seen. It is extended when the gear is down. The pressure is provided by a reversible electric pump: it pumps fluid into the actuator to make the gear go down, out of the actuator to make it go up. Once the gear is in position, either up or down, the pump stops and a shuttle valve isolates the actuator lines from the rest of the circuit. This keeps the fluid lines under pressure without having to keep the pump on, which comes in handy for emergency gear extensions. More on that later.

The main wheel doors are linked to the wheel leg. A microswitch somewhere reports if the door is closed, and activates the "gear unsafe" warning if it is not. Which I understand is utterly unreliable in the Arrow. The pipe on the right-hand side of the wheel is simply the hydraulic line to the main wheel brakes, which is a completely separate hydraulics circuit from that of the landing gear actuators. Hydraulic pressure for the brakes is simply provided by a master cylinder connected to the top of the rudder pedals, the so-called toe brakes.

On the main left wheel is a "squat switch", a microswitch that opens the electric circuit of the electric pump when the gear is extended and on the ground. This way, the gear cannot be retracted when on the ground. Of course we didn't try it. Call that lack of faith, but we were only one faulty switch or faulty wire away from a very, very embarrassing wheels-up what? Parking?

The plan was to go to the training area to get me used to the feel of the aircraft, operate the landing gear and perform the emergency gear extension procedure. We taxied and I called ready for 28R at the holding point, to which the controller answered that they do not have a runway 28 at Bankstown, so I re-issued my ready call with 29R this time.

Take-off didn't feel too different from the Archer. When I first flew the Cessna 182 I remember being surprised by difference in power with the 172SP, not so much going from the Archer to the Arrow. I guess a fairer comparison would be between the Archer and the Cherokee Six. Passing 400 feet I touch the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning, pull the gear lever over the detent and up, and a few seconds later the three green lights go off, and we climb a lot better.

Once in the training area Olivia pulls the circuit breaker for the landing gear pump and I went through the checklist for the emergency gear extension. This involves first checking that it is not the light bulbs for the three greens that are the problem. The bulbs are designed to be pulled out of their sockets and swapped very easily, which I find is very neat.

Then we slowed down the airplane and I pressed the emergency landing gear button. What it does is release the pressure from the gear actuator lines. The actuator no longer maintains the gear up, which then falls under its own weight into the down position. Same story for the nose wheel, except that gravity is not enough to lock the nosewheel down because of the relative wind. A spring is therefore used for moving the nosewheel fully into the extended position.

When the gear free falls into place it locks with a sound not very different to that heard on airliners when the gear goes down. Which feels good. Once the gear is down I do a normal retraction. We do one practice engine failure which takes me onto final for a ploughed field. Olivia asks me to keep a tight circuit since we're not very far from Camden CTR. We go around and go back to Bankstown via the 2RN. The day is quite misty and it's early morning, so we're greeted by the sight of the 2RN radio mast sticking out of the mist. Thank God there's a strobe on that entry point, otherwise I wouldn't have found it.

We join the circuit behind a Cherokee for a few touch-and-goes. The Cherokee is slower than us and at some point we have to request an extended upwind leg for adding a bit of space between us and him. In-between the CSU and the landing gear that's a lot of things to keep in mind when in the circuit. Feels like going back to GFPT days when a circuit in the 152 felt overwhelming.

Olivia insists that I do not rush the downwind checks and wait for the gear indicator lights to come up and not skip to the next item on the check list while the gear is coming down, which usually takes about 7 seconds. Pitch is only put to full fine on final, otherwise it is left where it is from downwind onwards, power adjustments are made with throttle. On final we check Red-Green-Blue for mixture to full rich, gear down and propeller pitch to full fine.

After three circuits we make a full stop and taxi back. Olivia recommends I work on memorising the cockpit actions and checks to be conducted while in the circuit for next time. Today was in Arrow III VH-SFJ, next time will be in Arrow IV VH-LSG. The big difference between the two is that the model IV has a T-Tail, which Olivia assures me is not terribly different from the regular tail assembly, except it's a lot heavier in the flare.

So what I do for the next hour is to sit in LSG, get used to where everything is and take picture of the panel so that I can later prepare flows patterns at home, an idea I found reading Sam's blog.