November 11, 2009
June 6 - Hi. Me again. Tom Horne, AOPA Pilot's editor at large. Steve Ells can't be with you this week because he's writing stories while hanging out at some California beach, probably. Anyway, he needs a break after supervising all the work that's been done on the Sweepstakes Bonanza during its stay at Chicago-DuPage's J. A. Air Center. Those of you who've been following the project know that JA installed some very, very fancy avionics in this vintage 1966 S35 Bonanza.
Anyway, the happy duty of flying this souped-up Bonanza fell once more to me. My assignment: Bring the Bonanza from its latest roost in Salina, Kansas, to AOPA's annual Fly-In and Open House at AOPA headquarters at the Frederick, Maryland, Municipal Airport. There, the Bonanza is to go on display for the adoring, hopeful masses who just know they'll win this airplane. But sometimes things don't go the way you think they will.
At first things went well. The drive to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, for example, went pretty well. And the United flight to Denver was nice, too. But I didn't much like the three-hour layover at Denver, and I found the two-stop flight to Salina - backtracking, for Pete's sake! - in a Great Lakes Airlines Beech 1900 a little more amusing than necessary. But what the hey, this is the airlines and sometimes it takes 12 hours and a 370-nm course reversal to go halfway across the country.
("Hey, what're ya wearin' them fer?" a fellow 1900 passenger remarked about my earplugs. An hour later I saw him bent over in his seat, hands clasped over his ears.)
Salina is the home of Aerospace Systems and Technologies Inc. (AST), the people who design and install the TKS weeping-wing ice protection systems. The Golden Bonanza (its brochures have a heavy golden hue) was having several main TKS components installed at the time, and the plan was for them to stop work and let me take the plane away for its public debut. I got to Salina at 6 p.m. and was met by AST's chief pilot Dave Henry. He said the Bonanza's work was almost done.
We went over to the hangar to take a peek at N14422. The hangar was dark. We flipped on the lights, and I spied something I didn't like: the Golden Boy's right aileron was disconnected and hanging down like some sort of broken appendage. Other evidence - the TKS fluid's bladder tank on top of the wing, the loose windshield spraybar, the spinnerless propeller - clued me in to the fact that the job still had a ways to go. Sigh. Looks like I won't be leaving tomorrow morning, when forecasters say that a break in the region's low ceilings and generally yucky IFR weather will happen.
But that panel! Wow. I climbed into the cockpit, hit the battery, avionics master, and EFIS switches and glory be! The Meggitt "Magic" twin EFIS tubes lit up in a wonderfully colorful, inspiring way. Vertical tapes for airspeed, altitude, and vertical velocity. A huge electronic attitude indicator, and an equally huge, second tube for the heading and navigation displays.
But what's this? A placard? Yes. Over on the left side of the panel are printed warnings that say things like "not for use in IFR," and "Day VFR only," and "units must be disconnected," meaning the Meggitt's two tubes. Seems that the unit hasn't yet been certified in old Golden Boy here, and I'd have to - shudder - fly the thing on what amounts to a partial panel. I'd have to comply with the placards!
Mike Fizer, AOPA Pilot's photographer, had been here a few days earlier to shoot the panel. For his photo shoot the mechanics hooked up the Meggitt's tubes to the ADAHRS (air data attitude heading reference system - a computerized brain box that feeds the Meggitt's magic). But they were still connected, and everything seemed to work just fine. Maybe, just maybe the AST mechanics would forget to disconnect the Magic and I could fly in style. Now that would be super-fine.
That night I stayed at a Day's Inn that Ells recommended to me. It was next to a truck stop. When you walk down the halls the floor squeaks and gives a bit. The trucks came and went all night. When I tried to plug in my computer I couldn't find an AC wall outlet at first. I had to follow the bedside lamp's wires. The plug turned out to be located behind the mattress, and a clump of wires like a monkey's fist sprouted from a three-socket-into-one plug, or whatever it's called. I pulled out the clock radio's plug and plugged my Dell in its place. A spark flew out of the wall socket, and that was that as far as my Internet weather briefing plans. Now I'm down to The Weather Channel and flight service. It was at that moment that I knew Ells was yanking my chain. From afar. From a California beach.
And it's 800-and-one in Salina. Yesterday the whole place was under a tornado watch.
The next day's weather wasn't much better. A massive, slow-moving frontal system was curving out on an arc from Minnesota to Texas, leaving IMC in its wake. At AST I spent the day with company president Kevin Hawley. We talked ice, icing accidents, and weather. Today's weather, in fact. It was a Thursday, and Hawley's Internet weather provider promised a VFR window on Friday. The good weather would spread from Kansas to Indiana, where a scattered to broken layer would live. I spent the rest of the day at the shop, watching mechanics put the Bonanza back together. By the end of the day the job was done. All the components - save the leading edge panels (they'll be installed after the airplane gets a new paint job) - were installed. So were the front seats. Well, the pilot's seat, anyway.
I left the Day's Inn and moved into a Candlewood Suites. No trucks. No squeaky, pliant floors. No sparks.
That night I went to dinner with Kevin and Dave, and Dave's wife. We went to a steak house and talked about the state of general aviation. The Eclipse project was one topic, and Hawley's ideas for a way to better meter the TKS fluid was another. He wants to install an ice detector probe capable of computing an ice accretion rate. Based on the rate of accumulation, the TKS system would then pump more, or less, of its glycol-based fluid through the tiny holes in the leading edge panels and other components. This would conserve fluid. Sounds like a good idea to me. I've always liked the TKS concept, and its method of pumping ice-protection fluid over virtually all of the airframe. With TKS, there are no boots to repair, no ice ridges behind booted areas, and flow rates high enough to battle the worst icing.
BMWs were another topic. Kevin has a 328i, and sold his old 325i to Dave. Dave bought a Z3 (but his wife seems to drive it a lot) and an M3, and he looked at a Z8 in Wichita just that day. Dave's wife would like to have the Z8 as much as Dave, but they're saving up for a retirement home. So, no Z8 for now. Maybe. I had a BMW once. A 1983 320i. In a moment of foolishness I sold it.
I lean on Kevin more than a little. "It sure would be nice if they left that Meggitt plugged in," I tell him, and "I won't look at it, promise." I'm hoping they'll intentionally-unintentionally "forget" to unplug the tubes, but I can't push it too much, you know. After all, it would be illegal to fly with the tubes.
Friday morning dawns bright and clear on the Kansas prairie. Flight service says the forecast is holding up: Clear all the way to the Indiana border, then 4,000 scattered to broken over Cincinnati, where I plan to stop for both biological and tactical reasons. The front that used to be over Kansas is now crossing the Appalachians, and there's no way I can make it to Frederick VFR. Not today.
The airplane is fueled to the max: both 37-gallon main tanks are full, and so are both 20-gallon tip tanks. I can fly forever in this thing, but right now my problem has to do with the 35-year-old pilot's seat. It's stuck in the reclined position, and that's no good. It would be like flying in a laid-back Barcalounger. I'd have to look between my knees to see the panel, for crying out loud!
The mechanics try, but there's no way the ratcheting gizmo will let the seat back come up. We come up with a really high-tech (or is it high- tack?) solution. Some carpet scraps are fetched from the hangar, folded carefully, then wedged behind my back. Now I'm sitting a little taller. Anyway, it'll have to do.
Then the key wouldn't turn the ignition switch. Fierce wiggling finally got it to work and soon the turbonormalized IO-550 came to life. This was it! I'm finally off to the fly-in!
Now the moment of truth. Did the mechanics go by the book and disconnect the tubes, or did they somehow forget? A flick of the EFIS switch and - No! The screens are as dark as a cave at night. Now I'll have to fly with the rudimentary instrument cluster that some day will serve as backup instrumentation to the Meggitt array. This includes an airspeed indicator, vacuum-driven attitude indicator, altimeter, turn coordinator, tachometer, and a manifold pressure/fuel flow gauge. Sorry, no vertical velocity indicator, and no heading indicator. My sole source of heading information will be the fancy, specially damped whiskey compass perched atop the glareshield. The tachometer is where the conventional heading indicator ought to be, and the whole cluster is mounted in the center of the panel. This means I have to look at it sideways.
It always takes some time to get used to a new airplane, and this was certainly no exception. I finally came to terms with my hodgepodge panel, and thanked God in Heaven for the Garmin 530 and 430 setup over on the right. Much more than the whiskey compass, they kept me on heading with their track information. Plus, they were plugged into a Goodrich WX-500 Stormscope, and I could dial in Stormscope imagery on one of the Garmins' navigation pages.
Managing the engine took some relearning, too. As a devout follower of Tornado Alley Turbo's (the outfit that installed the Bonanza's turbonormalized Superior Air Parts Millennium IO-550) COLOPO (Church Of Lean Of Peak Operation) I rammed the throttle to the stop and left it there at 29 inches of manifold pressure, dialed in 2,500 rpm, then leaned to about 80 degrees lean of peak TIT (turbine inlet temperature) once I leveled off at 9,500 feet. The result was a fuel flow of 15.2 gph and a true airspeed of 190 knots. This number would go up a few knots as fuel was burned. Tailwinds gave me groundspeeds in the 210-knot range. Just like Tornado Alley Turbo's George Braly said, the airspeed indicator was right at the bottom of the yellow arc. Oil and cylinder head temperatures stayed in the green. At the lean-of-peak setting, I was cooling the engine with air, not fuel.
Oh, did I mention that the Bonanza doesn't yet have a functioning autopilot? Well, it doesn't. It should be certified and operational at the time the Meggitt is baptized into officialdom.
So there I was, hand-flying this baby and getting recurrent on turns using the magnetic compass. Sometimes the panel would fool me. The manifold pressure/fuel flow gauge is where the vertical velocity indicator ought to be, so sometimes I'd look down there and think "hey, I'm climbing a bit," but no. It's just that the manifold pressure is pointing slightly above the 9 o'clock position, indicating its 29 inches. Sheesh.
By Indiana I was looking down from clear skies on a lower, scattered-to-broken cloud layer that extended like a shield everywhere to the east. I made my letdown and landed at Cincinnati's Lunken Field, almost exactly three hours after leaving Salina. Sunken Lunken, a place I always seem to stop by on long, eastbound trips. During the landing flare, this voice came over my headset: "Gear is down for landing ... gear is down for landing ...." The P2 audio landing gear and overspeed warning system works great. It warns you in case the gear are either up or down when you pull back the power to a certain value, and it also warns of encroaching overspeeds. This can come in especially handy when you try to do a slam-dunk descent using the Tornado Alley Turbo-endorsed method of descending, which is to reduce rpm and leave the throttle wide open. In this condition if you lower the nose too much you can easily blow into redline territory, in which case a woman's voice says "overspeed ... overspeed ...."
As I extract myself from the cockpit I notice the lineman is staring at me. He's looking at the carpet scraps. Does he think this is the Sweeps Bonanza featured in the handouts propped up on the FBO's front desk? I don't think so.
Now it's Friday night and I'm in a Radisson Hotel overlooking the Ohio River. There are breaks in the overcast and I'm telling myself that I could, ought to be able to, should be able to, climb up through a hole - VFR, of course - get on top, and make my way to Frederick just as that slow-moving front moves off the East Coast. Of course, that would be tomorrow morning, and the front may not move off as predicted. And another front was right behind me. It could reach Cincinnati by morning, although flight service says it shouldn't get here until late morning.
Is Ells messing with me again? Sort of like the time he goaded me into buying a set of Billy-Bob teeth at Oshkosh? How would I know? He's on a beach somewhere.
So now I pray to a plan, a hope: The wedge of marginal VFR weather behind the front over eastern Maryland improves to reasonably good VFR by 10 or 11 a.m., that the oncoming front will stay away from Cincinnati, and that I leave at 7 a.m., climb to on-top conditions at 7,500 feet or so, cruise for two hours, then descend into Frederick just as skies lift and visibilities improve. If this sequence of events doesn't come about, I'll be stuck at Lunken for who-knows-how long.
Saturday morning. The day of the fly-in. The people will start arriving in earnest by 8 a.m. It's 6 a.m. now and I'm in the briefing room at Lunken's Midwest Jet Center.
The news is not good. Martinsburg, West Virginia, Hagerstown, Maryland, and Washington's Dulles - all near Frederick - are reporting ceilings between 100 and 300 feet overcast, and visibilities as low as one-quarter-mile in fog. It's forecast to improve to 4,000 scattered to broken with good visibility by 10 or 11 a.m. and that fits in with my plan.
But now that front to my west is bearing down on Cincinnati. When I left the Radisson at 5:30 it was 6,000 scattered, 9,000 overcast with 10-plus miles of visibility. Now the lower layer is 4,500 scattered-to-broken. Radar shows level one and two precipitation at the western edge of the city.
What to do? Leave now, and hope that Frederick's low IFR yields to predictions? Wait until there's confirmation that the fly-in's weather is lifting, then go, knowing that the way behind me will almost certainly slam shut? Do I think the clouds and precip west of Cincinnati will hold off? Do I trust the central Maryland forecast? Do I want to flirt with clouds with such a grab-bag of instruments and no autopilot? Where would I go if the worst happened - the weather all around stayed low IFR - and I had to fly for hours before reaching decent VFR weather? Vexing sorts of questions that every VFR-only pilot must deal with at some time or another, and now I sympathize.
The debate is terminated by two things: 1) A telephone conversation with AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Tom Haines, who says that 300-and-three-quarter weather is holding, and only a handful of airplanes are getting in on Frederick's ILS approach, and 2) The sound of heavy rain hitting the plastic roof of the snack area next to me.
I'm stuck and throw in the towel. Haines will break the news to the awaiting masses, and I, the VFR-chicken with the hot rod engine and a 1953 Tri-Pacer panel, feel bad about letting everyone down. But what else could I do? Besides, even those with full IFR panels aren't getting into Frederick, and wouldn't until hours later, when the weather did finally lift a bit. Oh, if I only had those Meggitt tubes, and had all systems certified! I'd have gone on an IFR flight plan in a flash, held as long as it took to shoot the ILS to Frederick's Runway 23, and completed the mission. Sure, I'd have been a little late, but better late than never. And I'd have been welcomed as some kind of hero.
But no. Members and others who waited at the fly-in, I apologize.
Now it was time to plan another mission. Now I'm to take the Bonanza to Houston, Texas' Southwest Airport, where it will get its snazzy new paint job from Murmer Aircraft Services. I stay the night at the Mariemont Inn in Mariemont, Ohio, then depart the next morning after filling the Bonanza to the gills with fuel.
I leave at 8:30 a.m., and the timing was good. I deviated to the east of my direct route to skirt a line of thunderstorms, and came out the back of an east-west warm front somewhere near Birmingham, Alabama. The Stormscope was lighting up like mad, and proved very useful in negotiating my way around the cells. In the not-too-far distance I could see cloud-to-ground lightning.
Near Jackson, Mississippi, I had to climb to 6,500 feet to stay in clear, smooth air and remain on top of a scattered layer of clouds. Up ahead I could make out cumulonimbus tops, and the Stormscope confirmed it. This day, it would seem that everywhere I pointed old Golden Boy the Stormscope would light up like it was Christmas.
After four hours, 45 minutes of flying I landed at Alexandria, Louisiana, International Airport, gassed up, got a weather update, and blasted off for Houston. Lord knows I had enough fuel to deviate well to the west, around a massive area of thunderstorms in southeast Texas.
ATC helped with flight following and traffic advisories, so I was on air traffic control center frequencies. And you know how it goes when storms pop up. The radio comes alive with entreaties to call Hiwas, issuances of convective sigmets, and urgent pleas from pilots wanting to deviate for weather. The weather really was getting worse, what with the storms merging, moving north - into my flight path - and their tops reaching for the moon. I had to go well north of Lufkin, Texas, and climb to 8,500 feet to stay above the lower cloud layers. This let me visually avoid these aggressive storm cells, several of which had tops of 45,000 feet. That, plus the Stormscope - which still lit up ahead of me, no matter which way I turned - served me well until I passed the cells by near Huntsville, Texas, and descended into the Houston area.
It was hot in Texas that day, with surface temperatures at 90 degrees, and 70 degrees at my cruise altitude. The engine's oil temperatures went as high as 212-215 degrees under this stress, so I opened the cowl flaps and they dropped to 209 degrees. Cylinder head temperatures - the temperatures I was sure would be problematic, given the turbonormalization - never got above 358 degrees. The rule is to keep them below 380 degrees, so no problem.
The Houston-Southwest Airport was a sleepy place that Sunday afternoon. A helpful lineman, Carlos, towed N14422 to Murmer's place, then tried to call me a cab. Four tries, no cab. So Carlos drove me to Houston's Hobby Airport himself. I think he really didn't want to do it because Customs had called the airport and said it would be over right away to take care of an inbound flight from Mexico that failed to make its arrival notice. There was the promise of plenty of action as federal agents would grill the occupants, turn the sniffer dogs loose, and maybe even tear open the airplane.
Carlos drove his Hyundai at a high rate of speed and I was at the Hobby Hilton in 20 minutes flat. I just missed the last flight to Baltimore, so I watched America's Most Wanted - no more Weather Channel, for a while, anyway - and waited for sleep. I'd been hand-flying for eight-and-a-half hours, so it didn't take long.
That's my story, friends. Next week Steve Ells will rejoin you (unless he's still at the beach, in California) and we'll continue the saga that surrounds the upgrading of this remarkable classic airplane. I'm guessing the paint job will be the next topic, but I sure hope those carpet scraps are gone by the time EAA AirVenture rolls around!
The next stop is Putrajaya, Malaysia, on May 17 and 18 for the 2014 Red Bill Air Race World Championship, following an “electrifying” contest in Rovinj, Croatia.
AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg talks with AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Advocacy Jim Coon on his first 100 days and the top advocacy issues confronting AOPA.
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