Saturday, June 30, 2007

IFR Currency

IFR Currency is something that is critical to maintain -- especially when you fly an airplane as capable as 36G. It is fun to fly VFR and look out the windows, but staying VFR throughout the range of a Mooney is darn difficult when you are based in the Midwest. It seems that every day we have some sort-of weather related problem.

NOTE: IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, which means that you are navigating by only referencing the instruments in the plane. VFR is Visual Flight Rules, which means you may use instruments, but you are primarily navigating by looking out the window. In other words, when you are flying in IFR conditions you cannot see the horizon or the ground.

36G is IFR ready, but unfortunately I'm not. To maintain IFR currency, a pilot must do a minimum of 6 instrument approaches, 1 hold, and intercept and track a course every 6 months. If this isn't maintained, you have 6 more months to get current by flying with another licensed pilot and/or flight instructor before you have to do an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC).

All in all, it had been over a year for me. First we had the major airframe upgrades and then the avionics. I simply did not have an aircraft to fly in order to maintain currency. I could have rented a plane, but my spare time was spent upgrading 36G. Nevertheless, I now had to do a full instrument competency test. The video below by Sporty's Pilot shop gives a general overview of the IPC process.

Where should I get my IPC?
The Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are very specific about IFR proficiency and I am at the point where I need to do a full IPC checkout. I have the option of hiring an Instructor and flying 36G on the checkout or going to a flight training school that has the equipment to simulate flying a plane without actually being in one.

I decided that it would be best to go to a training center that specializes in complex aircraft checkouts and IPC checks. They do it day in and day out. If I pass the course, then there is no question that I am qualified to fly in Instrument Conditions (IMC). Flight instructors are self-governed, but flight training schools have specific guidelines that their instructors must follow. If their syllabus is not followed to the letter the school could loose their license and the instructor would loose their job. Consistent, focused training is the key to being successful in this type of business.

There are several advantages of training in a simulator:
  • They are cost efficient since you don't have to fuel them or fly out of busy airspace to train.
  • They are efficient since and instructor can put you nearly anywhere in the world in any flight condition in seconds.
  • If you screw up you don't kill yourself.
There are a lot of flight training schools in Chicago, but generally they employ instructors that are building time. I wanted to get training from someone that has dedicated their career to teaching. To find a location like this you pretty much have to go to a school that does nothing but teach flying in a simulator. There is only one of these types of schools in Illinois and it is at the Champaign/Urbana, IL (CMI) airport - Recurrent Training Center (RTC).

The RTC training is comprehensive and price competitive. They don't have a Mooney simulator, but they have a Turbo Bonanza A36 sim. The Bonanza performance is similar to the Mooney, so it makes a good platform for training. This will have to do since I haven't been able to find anyone with a Mooney simulator as of yet.

Another advantage of the RTC A36 sim is that it has a GNS430 GPS, which will enable me to do advanced GPS training as well. I have quite a bit of time behind a 430 in a Cirrus SR22, but there are some things that simply are not safe to do in a real airplane that you can do in a sim.

The first day at RTC starts out with some paperwork and watching training videos that cover everything from weather planning, decision making and IFR pate review. The movies are not the best quality, but the information is superb. I was surprised how much I learned form the videos.

After doing a video session or two, the next step in the training process is to familiarize yourself with the simulator. The simulator is basically a cockpit of a real plane with real instruments that have been modified to be controlled by a computer. The RTC A36 simulator has a projector mounted above it that projects what is seen in front of the plane on a screen. The resolution isn't as good as it could be, but is more than sufficient to taxi, take-off and land. The rest of the time you are in the clouds.

"Simulators are meant to teach people how to fly airplanes, but airplanes are not meant to teach you how to fly simulators," said the instructor before we started. I thought to myself how hard can it be? Turns out it is pretty hard. The simulator is much more difficult to fly than a plane, which is actually a good thing. If your attention diverts away from flying it will get away from you in a second. There is no autopilot to help you either. You fly, you read charts, you do it all without any assistance.

The first couple of hours was learning how to fly the plane. We did steep turns, approaches, takeoffs and landings and a couple of missed approaches using the traditional non-GPS avionics. After about an hour of flying, I was getting comfortable in the sim and got use to its quarks.

The next flight was after lunch. This time it was the real deal. I did well the first go around, so they were going to administer the IPC. If I passed, the rest of the training will be focused on trying to kill me. We started off at CMI and departed IFR. Immediately after taking off, I had to turn back and do a full VOR approach back into the field. As I was doing the approach, they failed the vacuum system and I lost the attitude indicator. Of course, the field was below VOR approach minimums and I had to do the missed and an intersection hold without using the GPS! I then was vectored back for the ILS, broke out at minimums and landed without incident. I passed!

GPS Approaches
The next day was all about using the GPS. We flew enroute and had to divert due to an emergency -- one including a deer on the runway while I was flaring! A million holds, a couple of DME arch's using the GPS, etc. Amazingly enough, I nailed everything they put on me. No issues, never lost control, always knew where I was, etc.

The final flight I challenged the instructor to try to kill me. For the most part I was on my game, but he did screw with me a bit on a couple of approaches.

The first was a standard T-configuration GPS approach to a missed and ending up on a hold that is on top of the initial approach fix. After going around a couple of times, he cleared me for the approach. The catch with the GNS430 that I didn't know was that after I had done the full approach to the hold it will not sequence anymore. Even if I was on top of the IAF. I had to press procedure and activate vectors to final to get the approach to activate. Never did that before -- cool!

The second almost gotcha was doing the LOC Backcource into CMI using the GNS430 as the primary system. Those familiar with a BC approach knows that when you set them up you point the back end of the HSI OBS toward the runway heading. A BC approach senses opposite of everything else. This was no big deal, I've done it 1000 times. However, when heading to the approach I discovered something. The GPS doesn't fly backcourse's. It always senses normally. You have to push the OBS button on the GPS to tell it to follow the LOC frequency instead of the GPS signal. I was flying in and hadn't changed the GPS to the LOC mode and the needle was sensing the wrong way! This can be very, very confusing. The BC is backwards, but the needle was sensing normally? It took me a second and I remembered to press the OBS key! The needle quickly swung to the right side and I was good to go. That one could really do you in if you aren't on your game.

I passed my flight training, survived the instructor trying to kill me, I'm ready to fly!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Maiden Voyage

N5236G is ready to fly! She's IFR current, all of the systems are functioning, the engine is strong... Now is the time to take her up on mid-range trip to see how she does.

The first flight away from home is the scary one. Not that the plane will fall out of the sky (hope not anyhow), but that if something were to happen we could be a long way from home. It is no fun being stuck in a small airport out in the middle of nowhere without tools, qualified maintenance facilities or transportation back home to Chicago.

My wife and I decided the best place to go is somewhere we are familiar with... We lived in Columbus, Ohio for several years, so we know the area very well. We also know of an excellent Fly-in BBQ at Bolton Field (TZR) called JP's Barbeque Ribs and Chicken. We only wanted a day trip, so a quick lunch would fit the bill. We also have a very good friend, and my blogging mentor, Dave Gamble that lives adjacent to the airport.

Dave is the kind-of guy that when he does something he does it well. Aviation to him is a quest for learning, fun and perfection. Dave owns a Van's RV-6, which is a fast, aerobatic, experimental (homebuilt) airplane. His blog, The PapaGolf Chronicles, details his experience owning and maintaining an experimental aircraft. Dave's blog has YouTube videos, fantastic pictures and it is very well written.

We know Columbus, Dave has the tools if we have a problem, and worse comes to worse there is a direct flight from Port Columbus Airport (CMH) to Chicago. This decision was made...we're heading to Bolton (TZR).

Walking up to the hangar knowing that I will soon be flying 36G is exhilarating. Adrenalin fills the vanes and the excitement builds. Opening the door to the hangar is like seeing an old friend. It may have been a week since the last flight, but this one would be the real deal. 36G, my wife and I would be on our own.

The preflight took a bit longer than usual. I was very careful about checking the controls, under the panel, etc. to make sure that everything moved freely without any resistance or binding. Controls freezing in flight would not be fun ;)

We launched out of Gary/Chicago (GYY) where we are based without incident. 36G climbed 1200 ft per minute and it was no time that we were at cruising altitude. During the flight I tested all systems and everything worked perfectly.

The flight took about 1 hour 20 minutes, which isn't too bad considering we traveled over 220 Nautical Miles! By comparison, the drive in a car to Columbus form Chicago is 7+ hours. 36G is a traveling machine and I was holding her back. If we would have climbed into the 13,000 ft range we would have cut the time back to about 1 hour 5 minutes.

We made it to TZR and parked on the ramp without a problem. Not too long after we landed the King Air in the photo above pulled in. 36G is proudly sitting in the background. She isn't as roomy as the King Air, but from a performance, maintenance and cost perspective 36G will give the King Air a run for the money. The King Air can't get back to Chicago much faster than we can, yet they are paying over $1000/hour to operate. And 36G actually has better avionics! The Technically Advanced Avionics makeover we just completed blows the old King Air steam gages out of the water.

Experimental Flying
No trip to visit Dave and his beautiful RV-6 would be complete without actually flying in it. We were hungry, but doing aerobatics after eating a heavy meal is not prudent ;)

We waled up to Dave's new hangar and eagerly watched as he opened the door. His RV6 was ready to go and in impeccable condition. My wife got the first trip and then it was my turn!

We took off out of Bolton like a Rocket. Dave likes to lift-off and then level out to pick up as much speed as she can get. Then he pulls up and climbs out keeping the engine cool and the fun-level high.

We quickly passed over Dave's house just off the end of the field, wagged the wings to say hi and then we were off like a rocket. It has been awhile since I've intentionally done some aerobatics, so this was an excellent opportunity to see what she could do.

What a blast! We were out for awhile and I couldn't get enough. It was so much fun my next project may be building one...stay tuned..

OK, the fun is over. Now back to why we are here...a $100 Hamburger, or actually famous BBQ! JP's has been at TZR for years. Their food and service is well known and worth a stop if you are looking for a good place to eat. JP's has a very nice picnic area in the front where you can sit and enjoy the airport as well.

Flight Home
Lunch was great. We had a good meal and we headed back home. The first part of the flight went wonderfully. The sky was clear and the ride was smooth. As we were spending idle time in the plane I was checking out, testing and learning the equipment. I was over about Fort Wayne (FWA) Indiana and started checking the weather at home in GYY.

To my dismay I started seeing a major storm develop on top of where we were going that was not forecast. Every 5 minutes the WX would update and I could see the storm on the MX20 developing out of thin air. Unfortunately when you live by the lake this is a common occurrence. The Chicago area has unique weather patterns. There is ample moisture in the air thanks to Lake Michigan and it enables one-off systems like this to build seemingly out of the blue.

I continued the trek toward home and started to plan for alternates. Thanks to our TAA update, I was able to keep a close eye on the weather. Having XM Weather in the cockpit provides detail that most GA planes simply do not have. I could make decisions based on information that was not available to 36G before. Every 5 minutes I could see what the weather was doing in relationship to where I was and where I was going.

I decided to divert south around the weather and fly in after it passed GYY. I could see that it was clear behind the small system and there were other airports that I could go to if necessary. It added about 20 minutes or so to the flight time, but I diverted south and flew around the weather staying 10 miles+ outside of what was depected. I approached GYY from the south instead of the east and landed without getting a drop of water on the plane! The tower commented that I had just missed the storm...

In 36G's past I would not have been able to tell what was going on in front of me. All would know is what I could see and what general information I could get from Flight Watch and/or ATC. The GYY ATIS wasn't even reporting the weather since it is only updated once per hour. Now that 36G is Technically Advanced, however, I had options that enabled me to see the weather and make better informed decisions.

No question the on-board weather saved the flight and enabled me to fly around the system. Prior to the avionics upgrade I would have landed and let the storm pass over me, which is a time consuming process that also risks the plane since it would likely be sitting on a ramp getting rained and/or hailed on. Not anymore. The first flight out of the gate and the avionics update saved the day!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Avionics Upgrade - Part 9

36G's Extreme Avionics Makeover is nearly complete. The equipment has been installed and all appears to be working. The next step in the process is to do a complete checkout of the equipment with the engine and all electrical components operating. The key is to systematically test every function of every system in addition to following the test procedures in the install manuals. The manuals test the component, but do not necessarily test how they are integrated. You have to develop your own test plan to catch the interdependencies.

System Testing
The GNS-430 GPS has the most extensive checkout, so it makes sense to start with it. There are a number of tests that you are required to go through. One of the more confusing is the second radio transmission test. What Garmin requires is that you transmit on all COM radios installed in the aircraft (except the GPS itself) on several key frequencies while the GPS is locked onto the satellites and a direct-to is selected. The GNS430 is very sensitive and can lose the GPS signal if a transmission interferes with reception.

The transmit tests start with the second COM set to 121.150 and transmit for 20 seconds. Then switch to 121.200 and transmit for 20 seconds. You repeat the same process for frequencies 131.250, 131.275 and 131.300. These frequencies are the most likely to cause GPS interference. If you have interference while doing this test then you will need to install a 1.57542 GHz notch filter that is connected in the COM antenna line as close as possible to the COM causing the problem. A notch filter basically intercepts the erroneous signal and shunts it before sending it to the antenna. In most cases this will fix the issue. If not, it can be a bear to track down the problem. In most cases, however, the wires on the radio in question are probably not shielded/grounded properly. The COM antenna can also be faulty, the antenna may not be getting a good ground to the airframe or it is mounted too close to the GPS antenna. If you have any GPS glitches or any messages appear on the GPS during this test, it has failed and the aircraft cannot be returned to service.

The remaining tests are primarily functional. The Transponder has to send TIS data to the GPS, the XM weather has to send weather, the MFD has to receive flight plan changes from the GPS, etc. I also recommend doing these tests with high and low power settings and to taxi around the airport validating the signal is solid at all angles. If you have a VOT or VOR on the field these systems should be checked as well.

Don't forget that you are not only testing the radios, you are testing the controls, pitot/static system and all aircraft systems. NOTE: we disconnected the static lines during the install. When a line is disconnected for any reason a static test must be performed even if is not due by date. A new transponder and blind encoder was installed as well and must be certified before they can be used in flight. Avionic upgrades are a major alteration and anything can happen. Test, test and retest before releasing the airplane into service.

36G passed all of her tests with flying colors. There were no significant discrepancies. She's ready to fly!

Oh yes, I need checkout as well!
Speaking of flying, however, there is the little thing called currency. Yeah, that's right. I have to actually do that 3 takeoff and landing thing every 90 days! This project took more than 90 days complete and my free time has been spent putting her back together. Doing touch and go's right out of the gate probably isn't a good idea ;) It also isn't a good idea to go it alone for the very first flight. If something happens the more hands and brains the better, so I contacted a flight instructor and asked him to fly jump seat and assist with the checkout.

Flight Test
I must admit that it is a bit unnerving to takeoff in a plane knowing the extent of the work that was just performed; however, I can also say that it is a joyous feeling as well. Seeing the fruits of your labor come together in this moment is something that words cannot describe. It is very rewarding to know the project I just completed put new life into 36G. She will be a viable airplane for many, many years to come. 36G is now a Technically Advanced Airplane! That will, by the way, blow the doors off of nearly every other brand new $500,000+ single and/or multi-engine airplane you can buy!

The flight test went as planned. 36G quickly came up to power and launched off of the runway. It was very nice to be flying her again. The only issue we had was figuring out how all of the stuff worked! Testing on the ground is not the same as actually using the systems in flight. Technically Advanced Airplanes are not the same. Every one is different. You can have 10,000 hours flying behind a GNS430 and be lost in an airplane you are not familiar with. I felt the same way in 36G. Flying her was the same as usual, but navigating her...That was a different story. She's fast and wants to travel. It took awhile before we felt comfortable with how the systems functioned, which was a juggling act since we had to also make sure we didn't end up 200+ miles from home base.

Suffice it to say, we made it back on the ground safely. The systems worked perfectly! Not a single discrepancy. Every system was thoroughly tested and retested. We did some GPS approaches to full stop, ILS approaches to full stop, enroute navigation, holds, stalls, slow flight, etc. We put 36G and my flying skills through the ringer and we both came out with flying colors!

This concludes 36G's Extreme Avionics Makeover series. I hope you have enjoyed it. Feel free to email me with questions if you have any. I am more than happy to help a fellow pilot.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Avionics Upgrade - Part 8

The initial harness is fabricated, I've received most of the parts, we're ready to begin the reassembly process!

Reassembling the main panel sections is basically the reverse of removing them. The parts were only painted, not modified, so they should fit right in. I start with the Circuit breaker panel after I have installed all of the new circuit breakers required for the installation. It is much easier to do it now than after the panel is installed.

The trick to this install is to be slow and careful. It is important that every circuit breaker is properly identified and in the proper location. It could be disastrous if it isn't.

After the CB panel is mounted, the next step is to slide in the avionics tray. This is a process that must be approached with extreme caution. The new wire harness has to be carefully merged into the existing aircraft wiring while many of the wires in the airplane need to be connected to the panel (e.g. power, ground, intercom jacks, etc). Rushing at this step can snap wires and cause a troubleshooting nightmare when the systems are powered.

The key to this step is to lace the wires through the bundle keeping them as straight as possible. Initially use only a few wire ties keeping them loose. If you miss a wire it can easily be slipped through a loose wire tie. You also want to keep some slack in the wire so the tray can be pulled forward; however, you do not want the length to be much more than a few inches more than you need. Surplus wire will make it difficult to push the tray all the way to the back for final mounting and the extra wire can also get caught up in moving parts such as the control yoke assembly behind the panel.

After the tray is somewhat secure and the power, ground, antennas and other key wiring is connected you'll want to do the initial system checkout and interoperability checkout. It is much easier to find out now that a component is not working than after it is fully installed in the plane. There are two ways to do this with the GNS430. One, is to have GPS reception and see if it will intercept it. The second, is to put the unit into test mode. On the GNS430W this is accomplished by grounding a pin in the main connector. Note: If you install the test mode wiring, it must be completely removed before completing the installation. You cannot tie it back and leave it. Don't forget this step. You do not want a unit to go into test mode in flight.

When the systems are checked out and all is working, the main avionics rack can be slid all the way in and mounted. At this point the loose wire should be tied back and the copilot side should be very close to airworthy condition. I also mounted the filler pieces to do a final validation that everything will fit properly. NOTE: I temporarily labeled the circuit breakers and completed a through checkout. I also tested the communication systems (Transmit, Receive and GPS interference) on the KX165 and GNS430. This is the last easy opportunity to correct wiring or system problems!

The steps to install the pilot panel is fairly straight- forward. You mount the panels and then the switches. I then installed the JPI Engine Monitor in its new location using a 3" to 2 1/2" step down hole converter purchased from Aircraft Spruce.

At this point, all of the main panel pieces and avionics are installed. It's time to do another very, very thorough checkout of the systems. This is a good time to validate that the aircraft lighting, gauges, temp probes, GPS, XM weather, etc. are functioning properly. Again I carefully validate the circuit breakers. Any discrepancy must be addressed. An aircraft cannot be released back in service if there is even the remote question in your mind that something isn't right. Never ever compromise the safety of your passengers and innocent people on the ground. There is zero room for error when installing something that is critical to the operation of the airplane.

Control Yoke & Main Instrument Assembly
We are on the home stretch. The main pilot instruments are mounted by first installing the pitot and static lines and mounting the instruments connected to them (airspeed, altimeter, blind encoder and VSI), then mount the HSI and Flight director. After all systems are in we can mount the control yokes. NOTE: I generally mount the yokes last since they are typically in the way of everything.

After the yokes are mounted and all of the switches are soldered it's time to do a ground test of the autopilot. This is a fairly easy test that is well documented in the autopilot install manual. The key is to make sure that when the GPS, heading bug, etc. say to turn left the autopilot and the flight director indicates a turn to the left. NOTE: You can feel and see the yokes turn. Just make sure and hold them. If the AP disconnects the controls will neutralize and fall hard potentially causing damage that may not be initially noticeable. It is also important at the autopilot test stage that the switches are functionally checked. Trim up/dn should turn the trim wheel in the proper direction, the AP disconnect switch should disconnect the AP, the CWS switch should let you make fine control movements with some servo resistance without disconnecting the AP, etc.

Installing Wood Accents
Installing the wood accent panels is probably the most enjoyable part of the project. At this point we know that we are very, very close to flying the plane! The panels go on easy, but you have to be very careful. The parts are very fragile until they are mounted. I designed the panels for 36G so that the instrument screw holes, CB mounting nuts, etc. hold the wood onto the panel. This would likely be how the manufacturer would do it; however, it is very, very easy to over tighten and destroy a part. Patience is the key to this step. Be careful. If something doesn't fit, don't force it. Use a step drill bit to enlarge a hole if necessary.

Alright, we're getting close to flying! The avionics and components are mounted, the initial checkouts are complete, all placards are in the proper location, and the aircraft is now in a condition that it may be moved.

Next we'll get the plane outside of the hangar and do a real checkout, we'll complete the paperwork and if all goes according to plan we'll get 36G in the air!