Remos!ShaMEMos! What’s the fuss?

I was on the AOPA website last night watching the video the organization has posted about flying their Remos GX LSA to Oshkosh.  The filmers assumed the Remos represented every LSA and, while I don’t disagree totally with some of what they said, a lot of what they presented was and is applicable only to the REMOS.  Part of their rationale for flying the aircraft to Oshkosh was to establish whether an LSA (again, there they go generalizing!) can be a good cross-country aircraft.  I laughed when I saw they only flew a six hundred mile trip; that’s the length of an average cross-country trip in our CTSW.  So, for those of you still thinking about LSA, let me give you the perspective of a different LSA owner.

First, the most misleading thing anyone can do is to assume that all LSA’s are the same.  Every LSA is different, even within the same manufacturer’s lines, though in some cases the piloting differences may or may not be small.  As both a pilot and a prospective owner, you’ve got to do your homework and learn as much as you can about each airplane.  Owner’s forums are an excellent place to do so and often are the best places to ask questions or just bone up on techniques or troubleshooting.

To that end and to specifically address some of the points within the AOPA film, baggage space is one thing we are not short of in our CTSW.  Even though the baggage compartment is split by a Ballistic Recovery System, it’s as large as the baggage compartment in our ex-Grumman Cheetah.  It is one of the reasons why we picked this airplane.  I had looked at baggage carriage in both an Evektor SportStar Max and the Remos and, in both aircraft, the baggage areas are small and behind the seats.  In the CTSW, the baggage compartment is behind the cockpit and is accessible through pop-out dual doors, one on each side.  Admittedly, the door sizes and the fact that most of the space must be packed vertically means we pack our clothes and gear in soft bags, but that’s the only sacrifice we make that’s unique to the airplane.  The CTSW, if you can manage to stay within its weight and balance limitations while doing so, can load up 110 lbs of bags, 55 lbs on a side.

According to the film, the Remos they took to Oshkosh cruised at about 100 knots.  I typically book keep a 112 knot cruise and often see 115 knots indicated when flying locally at 75% power, and this is not unusual in this series of aircraft. My highest groundspeed so far has been 146 knots; and while most of the excess is tailwind, the fact that the airplane routinely cruises in the 110 knot plus range is part of what contributed to that.   That “record” occurred during a single leg, three and a half hour trip from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Pearland, Texas, just south of Houston Hobby.  We routinely travel to Alabama, North Carolina, and northeastern Missouri.  Our longest flight so far has been the trip from Columbia, California to Pearland, Texas after we bought the airplane, a distance of 1463 nautical miles.  So, when the AOPA guys are talking about how an LSA is more suited for trips around the patch, they may be talking about the Remos but they are NOT talking about the CTSW or probably anything else from Flight Design!

My airplane is equipped with a two-axis autopilot, a Garmin 496 with XM radio and weather, an attitude indicator, turn-and-slip inclinometer, an airspeed indicator, a VSI, a magnetic compass, a Garmin SL40 communications radio, and a Garmin 327X transponder.  It also is equipped with lights for night flight, though current light sport rules prevent us from using the aircraft after dark.  We also carry an ICOM A-24 handheld with VOR and backup communications capability, a unit that may be replaced in the near future by a Sporty’s SP-400 handheld with VOR and ILS.  Combine that with paper sectionals and an iPad carrying sectionals, IFR low altitude charts and approach plates, and backup GPS and weather capability using 3G, and we’ve got quite a capable little package.

Yet, it seems, we see advertising about the Remos all the time and little about the Flight Design line of airplanes.  That’s strange considering that, according to FAA records, there are 121 Remos built aircraft versus 317 Flight Design built aircraft flying in the US.  There are, in fact, almost twice as many CTSW’s as there are Remos aircraft period (216 vs. 121).  So, why all the fuss?  Beats me!

I’m sure the Remos is a nice airplane.  I saw one up close recently, and there are some things I admire about it.  But don’t assume that one LSA is like all the rest.  That just ain’t true.  Do your homework and find out for yourself what the differences are, and then fly or buy the one that’s best for you.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 18 (Final)

I awoke to the sound of an airplane roaring into the sky.  I could see that the sun was up.  When I heard a second airplane take off thirty seconds later, I felt like something was up and hopped out of bed to peer out the window. The sky immediately out the window was clear, occupied with only a few scattered clouds.  But to the south, I could see a solid, low layer of clouds slowly moving toward us.  If we wanted to get out before it arrived, we had to get up and go.

I awakened Connie and quickly explained to her what the situation was, and she agreed we needed to get going and hopped out of bed.  We both wanted to get home today if it was possible, and I felt there was a good chance that thunderstorms might make any afternoon arrival in Houston problematic.

So, while Connie was getting ready, I ran DUATS on the computer and got our weather and NOTAM briefing.  We would have scattered to broken clouds and scattered thunderstorms to contend with, and there were no NOTAMS that affected our flight.   I then hauled my bags down to the airplane and while at it performed a preflight.  Everything looked good except for the gas; we hadn’t taken on fuel the night before so that was one thing we still had to do.  Connie finally finished getting ready, so we grabbed her bag, checked the hotel room for anything left behind, checked out of the hotel, and made our way quickly to the airplane.  We strapped in, started up, and taxied over to the fuel pumps by the terminal where we got out and fueled up.  Once we were done, we hopped back in, started the airplane again, and ran through our pre-taxi and taxi prep steps.  We then taxied for runway one – four, stopping just before the hold-short to complete our run-up and takeoff checklist.

I called our departure over the radio as we taxied out onto the runway, and the little airplane rushed into the air as I pushed the throttle forward.  We turned out toward the east as soon as we could while also looking for a couple of radio towers to avoid, one northeast and one south of our position.    We climbed through some scattered clouds at about four thousand feet, and I took us up to fifty-five to level off above them.  The winds were in our face this morning, so after leveling off, we hit just a little over a hundred knots groundspeed.

Below us, the ground stayed green but leveled out more, filling with trees, as we would catch glimpses of it in between clouds.  We could see and hear the traffic flying from San Marcos as we crossed over its airport and then Lockhart Municipal beyond.  In front of us, we could see a couple of towering cumulus clouds slowly expanding upward like a marshmallow volcano, positioned close to our course but none directly on it, so at least I wasn’t going to have to divert around them.  But the clouds we were flying over were building upward (or lifting upward) as well.  To keep ourselves legal, I shoved the throttle to full and climbed us up to seventy-five hundred feet.   We kept pressing east toward Houston as the clouds also continued to bubble upwards.  About seventy miles out of Houston, I knew I was going to have to go up to ninety-five hundred feet and make a fairly hairy descent dodging the clouds while inside very busy Class B airspace or I was going to have to dive back down now and accept the bumpy ride that surely awaited.  I really did not like the idea of dealing with the Class B and possibility getting vectored to kingdom come, so I decided to take us down below the clouds now and motor in relatively low.

After informing Connie of what I needed to do, I found the biggest spot between clouds I could and rolled us into a high-speed dive.  I could push us up toward the one fifty knot Vne, but there was no need to do that. A one hundred twenty knot dive was letting us cartwheel down at between fifteen hundred and two thousand feet a minute.  The bases of the clouds were down around twenty-two hundred, so I pulled us out at fifteen hundred and put us back on course.  The clouds towered over us like roaming behemoths as I set the throttle back to fifty-two hundred, the Rotax’s equivalent of seventy-five percent power.

As I had expected, the ride was bumpy as we roared up on Robert R Wells Junior’s airport’s single runway.  We called our position, altitude, and direction of flight on the common traffic frequency but got no response and saw no one as we flashed on by.  The GPS switched to the next checkpoint, Eagle Lake airport, only ten miles away.  Happily, that airport used the same traffic frequency as Wells, meaning that we would hear any traffic calls for each airport as we approached either.

“Eagle Lake traffic, November Five-Four-Seven-Alpha Whiskey is ten miles to the west at fifteen hundred, traveling west to east, will be crossing over Eagle Lake.”

We got no response, and continued to press in.  But as we closed our distance to five miles, we heard a Cirrus call he was three miles out on the Eagle Lake GPS Runway 17 approach.  The hair on my neck stood up.  We would be crossing the airport almost perpendicular to each other.

I called our position again and also called “no joy” to let the Cirrus know we didn’t see him.  He responded that he had us on TCAS, which made him feel a lot better tha me since I still didn’t now exactly where he was.  As we approached the airport and crossed over it, both Connie and I were totally eyes out, but seeing nothing.  As the airport fell off behind us, we heard him call he was two miles out.  The odds of him hitting us just went down, though I didn’t relax completely until we were more than five miles away.

We continued blasting low across the green Texas flatlands toward Lane airport as we also could now see the environs of Houston crawling toward us.  We crossed over lane’s single black asphalt runway without seeing any other traffic, heading now for Houston Southwest airport, the last checkpoint before we got home.  But we could see a large, grey cloud parked over the field and the grey, straggling strands of rain pouring down on it.  With a pack of two thousand foot tall radio towers to the north of the place, I diverted us south, and we curled around the whole thing maybe a mile or so from it.  We could see the runway clearly through the rain.

We were back in home territory now.  The floor of the class B airspace above me was at three thousand feet but would drop to two before we got to Pearland, so staying down where I was made the only sense.  While I couldn’t see the airport specifically, the area where I knew it was and where the GPS was pointing us looked clear, though I could see a cell raining down just to the south and wasn’t sure which way it was moving.  Still, it looked good enough to press on in, so we followed the GPS across the city environs toward the CTSW’s new home.

Soon, I had the airport and its single runway in sight.  I called our approach over the common traffic frequency and told of our intent to cross mid-field for a landing on one-four.  We flew exactly that, rolling into a left bank to hit the downwind as we decelerated toward landing speed.  I lowered the flaps to fifteen, dropped my approach speed back to sixty knots, and turned base.  We landed about a third of the way down the runway, and I needed only a little braking to slow us down enough to turn off at the first exit, taxiway Bravo.

We taxied past the old familiar terminal building and down to the third row of hangars, turned right onto the short taxiway that led to ours, and then turned left to put the nose of the airplane just outside our hangar door.  We ran through the shutdown checklist, safing the BRS, shutting down avionics, and then stopping the motor with a “clunk!”  We were home!  We had safely made the longest cross-country I had ever done in a general aviation aircraft, and in a light-sport at that!  Since last Wednesday, we had covered fourteen hundred and fifty-two nautical miles, and we had gotten home just in time.  As I crawled out and swung the airplane around to push it back into our hangar, we heard a crack of lightning and felt the first cool gusts of wind from a nearing thunderstorm.  It was letting us know we were back in Houston once again.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 17

I smoothly pushed the throttle forward while using my feet to keep the nose pointed straight ahead as the little airplane zipped down the runway.  Stick back at forty-two knots and we leaped into the air, climbing straight ahead, straight down the runway with only a little bump here and there as we did.  At my usual three hundred feet, I  popped the flaps up and rolled us left to find our courseline east as we watched the looping form of I-10 and the grey buildings of Fort Stockton beyond spin past.

Frankly, I was a puzzled that the takeoff had gone so smoothly.  The wind was kicking us around as we climbed; had I taken off in a lull?  That seemed to be the only explanation, but it really didn’t matter.  For whatever reason, we had gotten off safely and without much struggle; and I was happy to be on our way.

While the sun was behind us now, it was still pretty hot; and our oil temps were headed toward the “yellow” as I held the nose up, keeping us slow and making us climb.  The ground elevation was still about three thousand MSL, so climbing only to fifty-five hundred wasn’t going to give us any relief from the bumpiness.  The winds were better as we went up, so I decided to go to seventy-five hundred and stop there.  I was convinced we couldn’t climb the airplane high enough to get us out of the rough air, so taking advantage of the tailwinds was the only thing I could do.  We were in a race, now; to stay legal, we had to be on the ground at Fredericksburg before the FAA’s definition of night, which I was interpreting to be the end of civil twilight. That time, fetched via the Internet from the US Naval Observatory and applicable for Fredericksburg, Texas, was written on my kneeboard and was the benchmark I was now flying against.   Every few minutes, I would add the Estimated Time Enroute from the GPS to our current clock time to ensure we would be on the ground before the nighttime fell and add throttle as necessary to make sure it happened that way.  We had only about ten to fifteen minutes to spare.

We watched as the desert slowly mutated from solid brown to a mixture of green and brown and eventually all green, as trees and vegetation replaced the sparse desert plants as we pushed east.  We gazed at the rows and rows of wind turbines, occupying the flat tops of some plateaus like stiff, scattered hair follicles on an almost bald old man; and that despite their ecological purpose, formed the greatest eye-sores to destroy a desert landscape I had ever seen.  We dodged scattered cumulus clouds as they floated overhead and past to avoid the predictable thumping and diving to recover altitude that the uplift under them would cause.  We continued east, racing the night to Fredericksburg, determined to be the ones who got their first.

Soon, we were letting down in a cruise descent to the place.  The airport was still a few tens of miles ahead, but I wanted the extra speed even a gradual descent could give us.  As we passed other general aviation airport friends, we called our position, altitude and direction.  We listened to a Grumman Cheetah pilot overfly an airport he was hunting for and turn around to find it and land; and conversed briefly, much to my surprise, with a gent who had also recently bought a CTSW and was flying it home.

The GPS was telling us that Gillespie County airport was less than ten miles ahead, but the visibility was down a bit and there were lots of trees so I couldn’t pick it out.  We were just inside of five miles when I did; the runway’s lights were on and we were approaching it from a modified right base.  We had hear no one in the pattern but I called again anyway, notifying the world of our intention to fly an angling straight-in approach to a full stop.  I roared us in and didn’t slow down until within about a mile, when I dropped the speed back far enough to drop flaps to fifteen.  We made our approach at sixty knots, and I was a happy man when we felt the contact and heard the chirp that told us we were on the ground.

I let the airplane roll past the terminal building, turning off in front of the Hangar Hotel and taxiing up to the parking spots laid out in front of it.  A couple of gents were perched up on the hotel’s second floor porch to watch the goings on, but they said nothing as we shut down, got out, and tied the airplane down.  I was tickled pink we had made it with about ten minutes to spare and was enjoying seeing the runway lights on.

We popped open the baggage compartment and dragged our bags out of the baggage compartments and lugged them inside the Hangar Hotel.  We got a room up on the second floor and made our way to it, dead tired.  It was not our first time at that fantastic place, so we knew that at night one often had to go into town to get something to eat.  But neither of us felt like going anywhere, so we asked if there was some way to get food delivered to the hotel.  It turned out that a pizza place would run out there, so we got its phone number and called them from our room at the hotel.

While we were waiting, I pulled out my MacBook Pro and used it to hook into the hotels’ Internet network.  I ran the weather for the morning using ADDS and DUATS.  The forecast was showing that a low ceiling was expected that would burn off between eight or nine a.m.  We could then expect scattered to broken clouds with scattered thunderstorms as we approached mid-day.  With Houston now only one two hour flight away, it certainly looked like we would be home tomorrow.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 16

I pushed the throttle forward and our little airplane accelerated down the runway.  Liftoff seemed to take only a second or so more than usual before the runway was falling away like it always did.  At three hundred feet, I popped the flaps up to zero and called our departure and turn to the southeast over the radio as I rolled us left and we arched over Interstate 10, headed out over the brown desert below. Rolling us out on the GPS’ course, I glanced at the sectional to make sure we were not wandering into Mexico.  We were just a tad too far north to use the Rio Grande we could see just off our left as a border; the river laid entirely within New Mexico here.  We would cross over it before we reached El Paso, Texas, on the other side of a mountain lying on our nose.

As usual, I was climbing at best rate and seeing five hundred feet a minute.  But as we approached sixty-five hundred feet MSL, the climb rate suddenly shrank to almost nothing.  I eased the nose up a little to see if I could get it back up again, but nothing was happening.  For whatever reason, the airplane had stopped climbing.  I was convinced that density altitude had gotten us.  I crept our attitude up a tiny bit more but still saw no response.  When we still weren’t climbing after a few seconds more, I made the decision to turn back around and land back at Las Cruces to wait for better conditions in the morning.

Just as my mouth was starting to announce my decision and my hand was starting to roll the stick, I felt a little thump and saw the VSI head upward!  We had caught a thermal or some kind of uplift, and we were shooting up at just short of a thousand feet a minute!  If I could hold this for only a couple of minutes, it could get us up to our targeted altitude! I kept the airplane’s nose just above the horizon, pointing on course but prepared to roll back into the uplift the instant I saw the VSI start to level off.  Much to my surprise, we were still climbing at about five hundred feet a minute as we hit ninety-five hundred feet, and I pushed the nose over and leveled off.  We reached our target altitude and El Paso was still just under twenty-miles away!

What a great advantage of flying a light sport!  I never had thought about being able to ride the lifties with such alacrity.  But just as the little airplane could ride the lifties, Nature was about to show us how it would ride the sinkies as well.

As we approached the mountain north of El Paso and the outer rings of the Class C airspace below us, I decided to let El Paso Approach know we were there and gave them a call.  I gave the controller our position and stated our intentions to overfly them at ninety-five hundred feet.  He assigned me a squawk, told us he had “radar contact” and told me to advise him of any change in altitude.  I acknowledged his instruction and we continued chugging along, crossing the mountain while the city spread out for us across the flat desert.  We could see El Paso International airport just to the right of our nose, and we watched a United airliner lift-off from one of its runways and climb up to our altitude.  It took only a couple of moments for him to reach us before he was turning away and climbing above us.  It felt odd to watch him climb up to us.

We continued crossing the town, slowly chugging eastbound, and beginning to bounce a little as we did.  Thermals from the blasting sun were reaching us, turning our smooth ride into something akin to scraping our butts across a gigantic metal washboard.

The winds had shifted, too, and our groundspeed dropped to just over a hundred knots.  I bumped the throttle up to hold 5300 rpm and 106 knots, something that would keep us somewhat on schedule with a flight plan figured at 110.  We stared out at the west Texas desert capped by the sharp peak of El Capitan off to our left and wallowed in how big it was and how slow we were going.

By the time we neared Fort Stockton almost two hours later, the ride had become bumpy and Connie was not feeling too well.  Surface winds were blowing strongly down runway 12 with a significant crosswind from the right.  We performed a very long right base entry into the pattern with a long straight in, with flaps down to 15 during the last part of the leg.  While I was fairly active during the landing, I still managed a pretty nice touchdown in the first third of the runway.  I let us roll down toward the Terminal building, which appeared to be on our right.

We parked the airplane fairly close to it and, within sight of the fuel pump, shut down.  As we had seen at a couple of airports, the tie downs there were chains too big to fit through the tiny metal loops under our wings.  So, I set the parking brake and then installed our traveling chocks around the nosewheel.  The wind was gusting up between twenty and twenty-two knots, so I wasn’t exactly comfortable with no tie-downs but the chocks were the best I could do at the moment.

The Terminal itself was deserted.  There was a lounge next to the main entrance and a desk containing a computer used by an FBO as well as a small, glass-doored refrigerator holding some complementary bottled water.  Connie went to lie down on a couch while I continued to scout the place for a Coke machine.  I did find one in a back room on the way to the restrooms but it didn’t seem to work.  I also found a small room with a computer I could use to check weather ahead, but I took Connie some cold water before disappearing back into it.  The winds were blowing out of the south at sixteen knots gusting up to twenty-two, and I was looking to see if they were forecasted to die down a bit later.  They were, but by the time they did we would not have enough daylight left to go anywhere else.  Further, a front would move in tomorrow that would likely keep us trapped in Fort Stockton for a day.  I told Connie we’d stay the night if we needed to (i.e, if she didn’t get to feeling better) but she assured me she would get to feeling better and she just needed to lie down a bit.  So, I found a comfortable lounge chair and plopped down in it to rest myself.

CNN was on a TV playing in the background, and a report was coming in about a collision between a Piper and a helicopter over the Hudson River.  They had video that showed the event, though it wasn’t clear exactly how it happened from that.  What was clear was that both vehicles had been destroyed and everyone aboard both were lost.  With our own close-call so recently in mind, I pondered whether we would have survived such an event.  I believe we would have as long as the helicopter’s blades had not slashed through the cockpit or severed the BRS.  Assuming we made it through the initial clash, once it became evident the CTSW was not controllable, I would have deployed the parachute and let it take us safely to the water.  It’s really too bad more general aviation aircraft do not have them.

Not that such a device makes an airplane death-proof.  All one had to do was search through the Cirrus accident records to find accidents where the deployed parachute did not save the occupants.  As is also true for ejection accidents out of military aircraft, a large percentage of those are due to deploying too late so that the chute simply doesn’t have time to work or is deployed outside an envelope where it can survive.  One of the niceties of our CTSW was that the chute system is rated to handle speeds up to Vne; so, for most instances, you could deploy the chute almost under any circumstances without too much concern it won’t work.  The most major limitation is to make sure you have at least three hundred feet of air underneath you (and that assumes your deployment conditions are not too heavily biased in a negative direction).

About a half hour later, we heard a pickup truck pull up outside.  A young man in his late twenties or early thirties came in to welcome us and ask if there was anything he could do.  I told him “no” but thanked him for his interest, and we discussed how to in touch with him if we decided we needed to stay the night.  He then left us alone again, and I went back to the computer to run another weather check.  The winds had died down a few knots, but otherwise, nothing had changed.  I got the sunset time and time of “end of civil twilight” for the next and final checkpoint of the day, and then used the AOPA Flight Planner and real world winds to re-calculate the leg to Fredericksburg.  We were nearing a “drop dead” takeoff time that would get us there just before dark, so I talked to Connie to see how she was doing and whether she wanted to continue on.  The one thing she wanted was not to spend the night in Fort Stockton, so I told her to continue resting while I went out to gas up the airplane.

Once I got that done, I retrieved her from the Terminal and we manned up our little airplane again.  I was a bit nervous about the winds; the gusts were hitting only three knots below the limit where my pilot’s operating handbook said “don’t fly”.  We could feel the wind buffeting us as we taxied out the parallel taxiway for runway 12, feeling every foot of its seventy-five hundred foot length.  As we hit the end and turned to face the hold-short, I swung us into the wind and then ran the takeoff checklist.  After finding no problems, I asked Connie if she was ready to go; and she replied she was.

“Hold on,” I said.  “I don’t know how rough this is going to be.”

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 15

Our takeoff checklist was complete, and everything had checked out as expected.

“Casa Grande traffic, Flight Design Five-Four-Seven-Alpha-Whiskey departing runway two-six, doubling back eastbound,” I called over the radios.

I goosed the throttle enough to taxi us out onto the runway, kicking left rudder to turn us onto the runway centerline, and pushing the throttle forward to reach full as the nose aligned with it.  The little Rotax engine buzzed to life, and three seconds or so later, I was pulling back on the stick, and the little airplane jumped off the runway.  I climbed us straight ahead until I got the flaps up to zero, and then rolled us into a climbing left turn as I called over the radios again that we were departing eastbound.

As we rolled past the town of Casa Grande to the south, ahead of us laid nothing but desert and mountains.  The sun was in our faces, already beating down on us with its heat, and it worked to send the daily temps up toward one hundred degrees.  Our little airplane clawed its way upward, trying to defeat the sun by finding cooler air.  I watched as the oil temps, even this early in the day, kept slowly increasing and heading into the yellow.  The airplane was giving me close to 500 feet per minute as a rate of climb, not bad considering we were flying at maximum gross weight.

Slowly, we edged closer to the mountains as we made our way higher.  Our first checkpoint was the small airport near San Manuel, Arizona sitting in the valley between the mountains that separated us from Tucson and our first big ridgeline to the east.  We could see Interstate Ten as it rolled toward Tucson and that city’s outer edges, but mountains blocked us from a view of the city itself or Davis Monathan AFB beyond.  For a moment, I thought about my “bail out” plan which was to fly down a valley east of Tucson and pick up the lower lands surrounding I-10 if my airplane could not make it all the way to our target altitude of 9500 feet.  It looked like that would be unnecessary; the airplane was finding its way into cooler air and that was not only keeping the oil temps from climbing faster but also was helping the climb rate increase a bit.  Still, as we approached seventy-five hundred feet, I decided to level off there for a bit to get the oil temps down and give us more speed that our eighty-something knot groundspeed.

As soon as the oil temps were back to normal,  I pushed the throttle up to full and continued the climb up to ninety-five hundred feet.  Our GPS and our sectionals led us straight to San Manuel, and I called us as overflying the airport at 95 west to east as we went by.  The first of two mountain ranges the altitude was designed to get us over laid just ahead, and at a distance where the ridgelines appeared to be almost level with the nose. Connie asked if I was sure we had enough altitude so I showed her the sectional and told her we would have about two thousand feet between the mountain tops and us when we got there; what she was seeing was an optical illusion because of the distance.

The air was both cool and smooth as we penetrated the airspace over the mountains.  With about twenty knots of tailwind, we were seeing in excess of a hundred and thirty-two knots over the ground.  I had thought we would see some kind of turbulence with that kind of set-up, but there was only a very light occasional bump.  So, it was a really enjoyable ride for me.  I engaged the autopilot to let it fly for a while.  Connie, unbeknownst to me, was not so relaxed; it was the first time she had been this high in a little airplane or over any mountains this tall.  And she hated the autopilot, and I had just engaged it.

I relaxed a bit too much and let my feet down off the rudder pedals, forgetting that the autopilot didn’t handle the yaw axis.  While I did have it fairly well trimmed up, the yaw trim wasn’t perfectly centered, and for the CT, that means that the fuel feed from the wings was not going to be even.  In my CTSW, the fuel feed is very sensitive to any yawing moment exerted on the airplane, and anything other than a perfectly centered ball will cause it to feed preferentially from one side.  The airplane is very active in yaw and needs more attention paid to it than even most taildraggers I had flown, and my butt has never been the most sensitive when it came to slipping or skidding anyway.  Keeping the ball in my scan is a constant part of me flying the CTSW.

About an hour and a half into the flight (with about a little less than hour to go), as we were crossing the second mountain range north-northeast of Cochise, Arizona, I noticed the fuel level on my left side was down more than on the right.  To force more fuel to feed from the right side in an attempt to even it out, I kicked left rudder to displace the ball so it was touching the right line, meaning we were flying with the right wing just slightly high.  This is also had the side effect of flowing fuel on the left wing away from the sight gauge, so the left side looks artificially low.  This brought immediate questions from Connie about our fuel state, which I answered by saying we were okay and by telling her what I was doing.  That answer held her for only a few minutes before she was asking me again about it and wanting some reassurance.  I kicked the airplane level to show her where the fuel states really were, and then kicked it back into my left side-slip to keep balancing the fuel.  When she came at me a third time within the same five minutes with the same concern, I lost my patience and told her to get a grip or I’d have no choice but to put her on Southwest Airlines in El Paso so she could finish the trip home.  That abruptness quieted her down, but not before she told me how much she hated this “feature” of our airplane. I didn’t like it either but had learned from other owners it was a quirk of the design and there was nothing mechanically to be done to fix it.  The management laid in pilot technique, and I would prove that out even on this leg of the trip.

Because we weren’t using flight following, we were listening to the traffic frequencies used by each airport.  I was noticing that, unlike the airports in East and Central Texas and other well-populated area, the pilots out here used the frequencies to inform each other of location, altitude, and intent tens of miles away from their home fields.  Out here, radar coverage at airport altitudes was sparse or non-existent, so the pilots extended the use of the radio to make up for the air traffic services they lacked.  We called Lordsburg, New Mexico traffic some ten miles out from that airport and at ninety-five hundred feet, saying we were crossing west to east.  We did the same approaching Deming, and got an answer back asking us to avoid direct overflight of the airport as they had a glider working right over the field.  I acknowledged the call and swung us a bit north, informing them of what I was doing.  We never did see the glider, however, even though we both spent some time looking for it.

The land near us was brown and flat for tens of miles, especially ahead of us where Las Cruces laid.  I could see the sharp jagged edge of the Organ Mountains in the distance; I knew them well from my almost-year of living in Alamogordo, NM.  The Las Cruces airport was on our side of them, though I couldn’t see it yet.  Until I could, we busied ourselves by following the GPS and chart lines of our course through the desert and by watching the toy-like cars and trucks move past us on the straight-line grey ribbon of I-10 below that bisected the airplane.

As the Las Cruces airport crept into view, we could see runway 8/26 pointed right at us.  The winds were out of the west, still, as they had been, for the last two days, making the approach into the airport easy.  I simply throttled back a bit as we got close and descended to pattern altitude keeping runway 26 to my left, which put us just about over the Interstate.  I called our downwind over the radio and I ran through the Landing Checklist, dropping the flaps to fifteen to decelerate us and help steepen our approach.  I extended us out a little bit and then rolled onto base ad then final, picking up the two ball VASI on the left.  It said I was high so I pulled the power all the way back and settled on the glideslope, catching it with power as we came down.  Flying the VASI put me too far downfield to make the first turnoff after I touched down, so I let us roll down to the second before I turned in.

We taxied across the parallel taxiway to the ramp, as my eye caught sight of the Phillips 66 sign that belonged to Southwest Aviation, one of the two and the older of the FBO’s on the field.  I arced us toward it and shut the airplane down just short of the place.  We opened our gull wing doors and hopped out, and I chocked the plane down but decided to skip the tie-downs since the winds weren’t gusty.  We walked into the FBO to cool off and see about getting gas.  The attendant was very cordial and immediately departed for the fuel truck, which he had some trouble starting.  But he did get it going on the fourth attempt, and we met at the airplane and got it fueled up.  We seemed to be his only customer, though there were several single engine airplanes pulled up to the restaurant and FBO at the center of the field.  The restaurant had to be killing him.

Connie and I took care of our bathroom needs and then walked across the ramp toward the restaurant, seeking lunch.  Despite the heat of the noontime sun, a family was sitting at one of the restaurant’s outside tables as we approached.  The man of the group asked what airplane we had flown in.  I replied that we had flown the light sport behind us; and when he asked where we were headed, I answered “Houston”.  He nodded and we went inside, stepping into the FBO’s cool, air conditioned air.  We passed a desk where the FBO did its business, including flight paraphernalia, and the restrooms before encountering the restaurant itself.  The Crosswind Grill itself was not very big, a small quarter of the building with some tables, a few booths, and the kitchen behind closed doors.  Connie and I grabbed a table and waited for someone to show up to help us.   Across from us sat a couple of EMT’s and an air ambulance driver and, from the talk, a couple of Civil Air patrol pilots.

When the waiter finally arrived, we both ordered a couple of grilled sandwiches and fries.  As we waited, we talked about the flight in and what to expect on the next leg.  We were headed to Fort Stockton, Texas next; I had never been to its airport though I had driven through the town many times on my way to Big Bend National Park or on my way back home from it or places further west.  We hoped to do one more leg today after going there, and it would have us end the day at Fredericksburg, Texas and the Hangar Hotel.

The lunch was both good and welcome; we finished eating about an hour after we had arrived, paid up, and then headed back out to our airplane.  The sun was high in the sky, pounding down on us with its heat and driving the density altitude higher.  With the airport already at 4456 feet MSL, I knew the airplane would think we were taking off at something like six thousand, and I wasn’t sure what it would mean.  We had many times more runway than I would need to make a safe decision, but I knew this would probably be the worst takeoff of the trip, at least from a performance standpoint.

Nevertheless, we did a quick walkaround, unchocked the airplane, and climbed in.  As we started her up, I checked the ASOS to find the winds were still out of the west, even though they were blowing at only a few knots.  I taxied us out to runway two-six, stopping at its hold short to perform our takeoff checks.  With everything set and ready to go, I taxied us out onto the runway and readied for takeoff.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder Part 14

Connie was unnerved by seeing a County Convict cleaning up the airport terminal .  I had not seen that before, either, but figured it made sense from a budgetary standpoint, even though I suspected it didn’t do much to improve the community’s visitor image.  And we were visitors.

The FBO’s desk was unoccupied.  I wasn’t sure where the airport’s computer equipment was, and I needed to check the weather for the next planned leg to Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I found the flight planning room tucked away and used it to find there was a possibility of scattered thunderstorms along our route.  That over-mountain leg did not have a large number of nearby airports we could scurry to if needed.  While the airplane’s Garmin 496 was supposed to have XM weather, it didn’t seem to be working, even though the previous owner had said he’d leave it turned on while we made the trip home.  So, once we took off, we’d be using “out-the-window” thunderstorm avoidance.

It was already over a hundred degrees on the tarmac outside, and the density altitudes both high and along the route were only going to get higher, though not a whole lot higher, than they already were.    The possibility of running into the thunderstorms, the high density altitude, my relative unfamiliarity with this aircraft, the fact we were hot and tired, and the recent close-call all convinced me to go no further today.  We’d leave early in the morning when density altitudes were much lower, the day’s heat had yet to build into any menacing cumulonimbus clouds, and we had time to process the events of the day.  We still had several days to get home and only four legs to go, so Connie welcomed my decision to make this a stop for the day.

A Hispanic-looking gentleman was now behind the FBO’s desk, and so I asked him if they had any other tiedowns available and explained why.  At first, he didn’t think so, but then he remembered his boss had a set that might work and we watched him haggle with the man in the next room who didn’t seem too happy about it but finally nodded “yes”.  The Hispanic gent came back and told us to fetch them out of the bed of a white city pickup parked outside and urged us to make sure we put them back in the morning when we left.  I assured him we would and went outside and found the truck and the tiedown straps and hauled them out to the airplane.  I strapped the little CTSW down and then popped open her baggage doors and hauled our luggage out of them.  Connie came out to help me lug the stuff back inside.  After getting the airplane fueled, I asked about a hotel and a rental car, and the gentleman connected us with the local Hertz office and recommended the Francisco Grande Hotel (and Golf Resort).  The guy said they had a deal with them and, of course, it was a really great place!

About forty-five minutes later, a woman from Hertz delievered a SUV for us to use.  When we opened the rear door, it was clear the thing hadn’t been completely cleaned since the last user had it.  The woman apologized but said it was all they had; so Connie and I took it since we were only going to use it for one night.

We had been supplied with some directions to the hotel but they weren’t quite right so we used our iPhones to lead us to the place.

The Francisco Grande was new forty-five years ago when John Wayne was a regular visitor, along with some other Hollywood royalty, I’m sure.  The building is a tall rectangle with roofs that fly out like someone had slid gigantic metal plates through it near its top.  A green golf course covered the land next to it like a moss while palm trees provided some cover for small pieces of the ground.  We pulled into the parking lot and puzzled over where the hell the lobby was, but figured it out and walked through its glass doors to a shiny wooden desk behind which an attractive young woman was talking on the phone.  When she finished, we told her that we wanted a room for one night, which she gave us up on the third floor.  We took an elevator up to the floor and found the room.  Its door opened to the outside walkway.

The room itself was old but acceptable, though Connie is picky about hotel rooms and if there had been another acceptable hotel close by, I think she would have wanted to move.  Instead, we settled for a view with a partial golf course, desert, construction crane, and pool shaped like a baseball bat.  The hotel was now obviously after the sporting crowd, not light sport airplane pilots.  Of course, a pool shaped like a CTSW would be an odd thing.

Connie was a bit restless and wanted a Diet Coke.  We tried the vending machines at the hotel with little luck, so we hopped back in the car and drove back into Casa Grande.  Highway 84 in front of the Francisco Grande led straight east, eventually hitting several small strip malls and Interstate 10, a highway that led straight to Houston.  We wandered back to city center and then north up Arizona 387 to find a McDonald’s and satisfy Connie’s Diet Coke fix, and then turned around and headed back to the hotel.

Once there, we decided to go to the hotel’s restaurant to eat dinner.  The food was acceptable and expensive like most hotel restaurants, though Connie got prime rib and seemed to like it.  We spent the rest of the evening simply resting and watching TV.  I wanted us in bed early so we could get up early and be gone before it got too hot.

The next morning we awoke to clear skies, cloudless skies.  I ran the weather using my laptop computer from the hotel room.  We would have clear conditions for the first leg to Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Winds at altitude were out of the west, though not as high as they had been yesterday.  We would encounter some turbulence from Las Cruces through to Fort Stockton with high, gust winds expected there at our landing time.  The weather from there to Fredericksburg, TX also looked clear.  We checked out of the hotel, threw our bags in the SUV, and headed for the airport, stopping at a McDonald’s to grab a fast food breakfast and eating on the way.

There was no one but us at the terminal when we arrived.  We locked the keys to the SUV in it and then wound around the outside of the terminal with our bags to the CTSW, loaded it up, and unstrapped it from the tarmac.  I took the tie-downs and placed them in the bed of a white city-owed pick-up as I had been instructed to do and returned to my airplane.  Connie was settling in the airplane by the time I returned to it, so I popped down the flaps and did my preflight, then pulled out the chocks, stowed them, and slid into my seat.  One enters the CTSW by sliding his/her butt into the seat and then rotating his/her legs in, moving the stick as necessary to make it all work.  It’s not an uncomfortable procedure after you’ve done it once, making sure not to grab the instrument panel while doing it.  It’s not very sturdy, and a long, round structural bar running from one side of the cockpit to the other high and in front of you makes a better handhold.

I strapped my harness on, strapped my small kneeboard onto my right knee, checked I had the right charts and the immediate one open and ready, and then placed my headset around my neck as I always do before engine start.  Down the Pre-Start Checklist I went, making sure the Hobbs time at start was recorded, parking brake set, BATT/GEN circuit breakers in, rotating beacon on, all electrical and avionics were off, fuel valve open, ignition key in, throttle back, chock on, and CLEAR PROP!  The Rotax started immediately with my turn of the key, rattling like a penny inside a shaking tin-can.  Oil pressure was good, so I put my headset on my head as Connie did likewise, and I turned the choke off while advancing the throttle just a tad to help the engine warm up while I retracted the flaps step-by-step, checking them visually.  We turned on our radios, checked the ASOS for winds, altimeter, and density altitude, which was already beginning to creep up.  The winds were out of the west again, so we would be taking off on runway two-six.  Using my kneeboard’s navigational log, I pulled up the ROUTES function on the Garmin 496 and plugged in our waypoints for the next leg. Connie double-checked me as I did, and once that was done, we were ready to go.

Back Into The Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 13

I started the letdown into Blythe when the GPS showed my target descent rate to it hitting five hundred feet per minute.  We could see the T-shaped black asphalt of the airport’s runways sitting on the desert floor some twenty miles away and the towering ridge of brown and olive mountains beyond, separating it from the great town of Phoenix Arizona some ninety or so miles away.

Winds were out of the west and that made the approach into the place easy: I was almost aligned with runway eight so I only needed a slight jog to the south to put me on downwind for two-six.  In my mind, I could see the sectional warning about overflying the powerplant to the east, i.e., “Avoid Direct Overflight of Power Plant”.  That was not so much a warning associated with fears leftover from 9/11 as it was a warning that the thermals the place created would shoot you upward like you were a cannonball.  I wouldn’t have to worry about that at all; the downwind pattern put me on the wrong side for a collision and the right side for “no worries”.

I pulled the throttle back to slow us down and dropped the flaps to fifteen as the airspeed dropped below eighty knots.    I pulled the throttle back a bit more,  slowing us to sixty knots and beginning our descent as I also rolled us left onto the base leg, turning us across Interstate 10 below that hurried on to the east.  As we rolled onto final, I picked up the four ball VASI to the runway’s left and it was showing us high, so I pulled the throttle all the way back and pulled the nose up slightly to slow us up a bit more.  Intercepting the glide slope, I flew the VASI’s glideslope until we were only feet above the runway and then switched to pulling off a smooth touchdown, which was a bit beyond the first turnoff point.  Letting the airplane coast down the runway, we turned off just before we hit the intersecting runway and taxied back toward the half-moon hangar and the box-like building that was the terminal building.

We were the only plane on the ramp.  The place looked deserted at first, and then we saw two curious heads stick out of the hangar to see what kind of airplane we were.  After shutting the airplane down, I got out and tied us down and once Connie had emerged the two of us headed toward the terminal building.  We were hoping there were cold drinks and good bathrooms inside.

Inside the door to our left was a glass display case where the FBO held items it wanted to sell, but there was no one behind it.  There were some couches and chairs to our right along with a refrigerated case holding soft drinks and water.  The walkway past them all led to the bathrooms, and Connie and I headed there to take care of business.  When we came back out, an older gent was behind the glass case along with an old black dog content to lie on the floor.

We bought from them a couple of candy bars and some water.  After we both felt at least a little refreshed, I talked to him about getting some fuel for the CT.  Gas was self-serve but the pumps didn’t take credit cards, so the old guy followed me out to the airplane, which I untied, started, and taxied up to the pumps.  He helped me get a a ladder in place and reset the pumps while I climbed up the ladder and, one at a time, added fuel to the wings.  Once finished, I pushed the airplane back over to the line and set the parking brake.  While I waited for Connie to catch up, I was surprised by a helicopter that came roaring over the horizon and spun into a hover only yards away.  It carried the markings of the Phoenix Police Department.  I braced for any rotor wash that might rock our little airplane or, worse, turn it over, but the helicopter shut down near the gas pumps without disturbing me or my plastic steed with hardly a bump.

Connie crawled in the airplane’s other seat  and I then followed her in, and I started the CT up.  We checked the ASOS and set up the GPS for the next leg to Casa Grande, Arizona just south of Phoenix.  Our course would carry us almost due east over mountains and just north of some restricted zones until we were just east of the big city, when we would cut southeast toward this leg’s destination.  Once the GPS was set up, we began our taxi to runway two-six.  The winds were still out of the west.

I stopped us at the hold short to the runway ad completed our run-up and takeoff checklist, setting the flaps at fifteen degrees, and then called we were departing.    I bumped the throttle up, taxied us forward and turned to align with the runway centerline, ad pushed the throttle all the way forward.  One potato, two potato, three, and we were off, accelerating upward on the Flight Design elevator.  At my usual three hundred feet above the ground, I pushed the nose over a bit to accelerate us as I also raised the flaps to zero, and then rolled into a left turn as I called our departure back to the east.

The little airplane clawed its way up into the blue sky against the brown desert below.  Ahead of us, a dark mountain ridge stood in our way, a precursor to the mountains beyond.  As we headed toward it, I realized we weren’t climbing fast enough to clear it, so I rolled us into a left turn.  We slowly orbited just south of the town of Blythe itself as both the altitude and the engine oil temps slowly increased.  According to the sectional, the highest peak in the ridge before rose to 3316 feet, so I was climbing for five thousand five hundred.  As we finally reached it, I nosed the airplane over and let her accelerate out while keeping the engine oil temps in my scan.  They obediently fell toward the green within moments of the level off.

The air was still smooth but slightly hazier than it had been in the morning.  We still had lots of visibility.   But my mind went back to the Sunday afternoon I had given up to fly this leg using Microsoft Flight Simulator X when the simulator had suddenly grabbed real world weather and plunged the visibility down to five miles.  We were still legal but the horizon was for all practical purposes gone, melted in a grey murky mess, and the desert less familiar since we could now only see landmarks within that meager radius.  It took me a few seconds to switch to a primarily instrument scan, something possible to do in this model and in my airplane which presents an attitude indicator as part of its autopilot system.  It had been a good wake-up call for the conditions we could encounter.  But we were lucky today; I still had a good twenty miles or more viz.  I was grateful we had what we had for weather.

Our groundspeed was still a little over one hundred twenty knots so it was good but not as high as the morning’s.  Still, the ground seemed to be moving sooooo sloooowly past us.  We edged past GPS and sectional-shown Restricted airspace to our south, the center part of which contained the Kofa Wildlife Refuge, which I was familiar with because of mismanagement of the mountain lion population there by US Fish and Wildlife and the Arizona Department of Fish and Game.  I was so pleased to see the area with my own eyes; it made the conflict there more personal to me.  I wanted to go back there and hike it one day; but, today, I contented myself with taking in its rugged peaks and olive drab features.  Later, I would realize I had probably run just south of those mountains years earlier in an F-14; we had run some low level training missions while flying out of MCAS Yuma.

I decided to climb us up to 7500 feet to get a little more tailwind.  As we approached he southwest side of the Phoenix area, I debated with myself about whether to call up Phoenix Approach.  I made a decision not to because we would be remaining completely outside the Class B airspace and because I was a bit tired and didn’t feel like taking on an additional burden.  The city itself was about twenty-fives to thirty miles away, and we could only see the edges of it.  I was disappointed not to be able to see the city itself.  As we approached Estrella Sailport which we could clearly see over the nose, I switched the radio to its traffic frequency of 122.9 and gave the world our location, altitude, and direction of travel.  Just past it, the GPS began telling me the target descent rate to Casa Grande was 500 fpm, so I pulled the throttle back ever so slightly and began a very gradual letdown toward the airport.

I was looking for traffic but didn’t see any and was looking around so much I didn’t notice we were crossing over Phoenix Regional airport until we were on top of it.  I was about to transmit our location, etc., when something caught my peripheral vision on my left.  I snapped my head left to find a low wing, single engine airplane about to hit us, heading somewhat in the same direction and crossing less then fifty feet below!   I popped the stick back and rammed the throttle home and, sure I was clear, side-slipped right to see where he was.  He was now about a quarter of a mile away and didn’t appear to be reacting, which amazed me since I had clearly seen the two male occupants beneath the airplane’s clear canopy. How could they HAVE NOT seen me?  I wasn’t sure if the airplane was a Diamond or a Piper Tomahawk, but its T-tail configuration had also been clear.  Connie continued to watch them as we opened the distance; I returned us to our course and steepened our descent a little.  There was no sense in calling Approach now; Casa Grande was our next stop and only a few miles away.

I pulled us into a right downwind for runway two-three since the winds were still out of the west.  I was still not settled down from our near miss, so I dropped the flaps to fifteen and turned base too early.  Realizing it, and not feeling that even dropping more flaps would salvage the situation, I normally would have taken it around and tried again.  Instead and knowing I was the only airplane in the pattern, I added power to stop my descent and rolled the airplane into wide left three-sixty degree turn to realign myself with the final approach.   We touched down with a slight chirp and I let the airplane roll to the first turnoff, which was not quite a mid-field.

“Well, I hope nobody saw THAT approach!” I said to Connie.

We pulled up in front of the terminal building and we could see some folks inside but nobody came out to greet us.  I shut down the airplane and got out to tie it down but found they were using chains instead of rope for their tie-downs, and they were much too big to fit in the tiny metal loops that came with my airplane.  I chocked the bird and we walked into the terminal.

The first person we saw was a convict from the county jail.