Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Simple Maintenance Ferry

I wake up to fog and low cloud, the same thing that has delayed departure for the last few days. I'll call the client about that after I get ready. Of course the phone rings while I'm in the shower. I answer it wet, discuss the weather, then finish my shower. The decision has been made: no mission this morning, so I'll fly south for maintenance. There are a few more hours on the airplane than needed to get to the maintenance facility, but not enough to be worth waiting around for. I pack up my gear, stashing some of it in my co-worker's room, eat breakfast, and then dally. The visibility improves, but we continue with low cloud and misery. Thunderstorms are forecast later, but there's a respite in the middle of the day that should get me there.

I spend all day refreshing the weather reports and forecasts. I need 2000', considering terrain. (The HSI has been removed now and sent somewhere for evaluation, so we're still not IFR). The weather is giving me mostly 1500' broken. There are some breaks here, but the general forecast is still low overcast with drizzle. I don't want to get stuck out there in a valley I can't escape. The maintenance crew is there waiting, but I'm not going if it's not safe. It's just maintenance.

The weather is good at destination, but still marginal for departure here, with mostly uninhabited rough terrain in the middle. There's an unusual patch on the graphical area forecast, a little round spot only a hundred kilometres or so in diameter in which it is forecast to be "30BKN50 P6SM PTCHY 1-4SM BR CIGS XNTSV CIGS 4-10 AGL. CIGS AND VIS BECMG LCL BY 20Z." The GFA doesn't usually forecast phenomena that limited, and the terrain doesn't suggest a reason for the little spot of doom. Weird. Satellite views are unrevealing, because there are higher clouds.

The weather here still hasn't improved as originally forecast. Instead the periods of poor weather have kind of merged in the new forecast. So it's still calling for improvement at 20Z, as FM252000 01006KT P6SM SCT025 BKN050 which would be great: scattered 2500' good to go, except that those groups are immediately followed by TEMPO 2520/2606 P6SM -SHRA BKN020 PROB30 2521/2604 VRB15G25KT 5SM TSRA BR BKN020CB FM260600 34006KT P6SM SCT007 OVC015 TEMPO 2606/2607 3SM BR OVC007 , warning that for the same time period, I can expect on-again off-again 2000' in rain--still acceptable for the flight--with a thirty percent chance of thunderstorms. Note that this forecast is only for the airport, there's a thirty percent chance of thunderstorms at the airport, but close to a hundred percent chance that there will be thunderstorms somewhere along the route. I have to integrate the station forecasts with the GFA and the progress visible on the successive satellite images in order to build a forecast for the route. The thunderstorms are building ahead of a front that is coming from the west, bringing the worse weather. After 06Z the weather is forecast to be unflyable with temporary periods of insanely unflyable. But before that front arrives, if my airport is clear and the destination is clear, I can go around thunderstorms. The GFA is calling for only isolated thunderstorms, and the satellite shows only a few buildups, still well off to the west. Maybe this will work.

Twenty zulu comes and goes but the ceiling never got as high as 2000'. What I got was:

METAR 252300Z 34004KT 20SM -SHRA BKN015 BKN040 BKN090 13/08 A2990 RMK SC6SC1AC2 SLP136
SPECI 252240Z 31003KT 20SM -SHRA BKN015 BKN040 RMK SC6SC1
METAR 252200Z 35003KT 10SM -DZ OVC015 13/07 A2992 RMK SC8 SLP141
METAR 252100Z 31006KT 10SM -DZ OVC012 13/07 A2993 RMK SC8 CIG RAG SLP145

So I go for dinner, eat, pay and return. My hotel card key has finally stopped working. I go back downstairs to the desk, and get an escort to let me into my room. They still don't know when the new card encoder will arrive. It has been shipped from Texas, which probably means it was at the Canadian border in a day and then will sit there for a week before getting lost entirely on its way this far north.

The good news is that the weather has cleared. There are now a very few clouds at 2500' and a scattered layer at 4000'. The line of thunderstorms is moving very slowly from the west, they are behind schedule and satellite imagery shows one lousy cell heading towards my track. The destination is forecast wide open for most of the night. Awesome.

I get a ride to the airport, preflight, run up, and text my flight follower and maintenance guys that I'll be at destination in an hour. There are a couple of hours left until nightfall and the trip should take only one of them, but I put my nav lights on anyway. They may help someone see me. I take off and turn southeast at 3500'.

It's raining a bit, so I put the pitot heats on. It's pretty gloomy outside. I put the instrument lights on too, and make sure I'm not wearing my sunglasses. You wouldn't believe how often that happens, that I'm peering through miserable weather and then realize it would look a lot better without sunglasses. But I don't have them on now. My altitude is good. My route keeps me out of the mountains and I have the terrain warning mode on the GPS on. The light that is supposed to illuminate the #2 VOR is flashing on and off. I'm not using the VOR, but I can't turn off the light without turning off other lights that I'm using. Something else to be fixed.

It's raining harder. The forward visibility is not so great, but it's not like there is anything to see out here. In cruise, if the visibility is less than five miles, I can't see anything ahead of my airplane anyway, because the nose is in the way, so I check to the sides to make sure I'm not in cloud. I'm not. It's just raining. Whatever. Life in the sky.

I double check that the radio frequency is 126.7 in preparation to make a position report and check for other low level traffic in the area. It's dark enough that the flashing nav radio is starting to irritate me. The comm frequency is correct, but there's a burst of static before I can transmit. I hate that interference sound when two people are transmitting at the same time and all you hear is scratching and squealing. I do what I usually do in that circumstance and tune the radio to another frequency for a a moment, to let the transmission conflict pass. There's static on the other frequency, click, click ... static on multiple frequencies. Wait a moment ... getting dark fast ... really dark, considering it's an hour before sunset, , raining harder, annoying flashing and static on all frequencies? Hey kids, what is big and dark and full of rain and electricity?

Shit, I've just flown into that thunderstorm cell I was planning to fly around. I didn't see it coming, the stratus fractus below and the 4000' stratus layer hid the obvious shape, and my expectation of poor visibility in rain below the stratus allowed me to ignore the other signs. The wisdom is that if you are forced to fly through a thunderstorm, you lower your seat, and crank the cockpit lights way up so you're not blinded by the flash of the lightning. They also say don't turn around, but that is so as not to stress the airframe in turbulence and I'm not in turbulence, nor in an up or downdraft. Altitude is steady. I know it's worse ahead of me than behind me. There is high terrain to the west, so I choose to turn left. It's a big cell or group of cells and I'm getting the heavy rain, but not the downdraft. I can see the lightning right ahead of me as I start the turn. Yeah, don't want to go there. It's dark, dark like night, even though it's an hour and half until nightfall. I do the textbook one-eighty prescribed to pilots to get away from bad things and then I fly straight and wait to get out of there. I can see the lightning flashes behind me even though peripheral vision isn't supposed to work that way. I guess it comes in through the side windows and illumnates the whole plane. This is a lot of lightning. When the sky goes back to the colour it should be this time of evening, I head east.

Did I blindly fly into the one cell in three hundred kilometres, or is there something more developing than I thought? It looks good both north and east now. I fly a bit further east and then the southern sky looks like sky, too. That's a big fricking cell. Idiot.

I'm literally halfway from origin to destination. I try to call flight services but no joy. The forecast for the destination was much better than the continuing forecast for my originating airport. I finish the big detour and continue south. I'm going to be twenty minutes late on my eta, maybe thirty. Yes, that was a big detour. About 50 nautical miles from the destination I manage to raise the FSS and give them my amended eta. I'm not on a Nav Canada flight plan, but I tell them that they may get a call from my flight follower looking for me. After a few tries I manage to get a text off to the people waiting for me at the hangar, too. I'm not sure it went through. I'll get there when I get there.

A bit later, I call flight services at the destination with a position report and ETA. They issue me a transponder code. "Hey," I ask them, "When did you guys get radar?" Last time I was here it was with a comm failure, and it would have been nice to squawk 7600 and get some attention, instead of just flying in triangles and being ignored. Apparently they have had radar for almost a year. That's the problem with being always on the move. You think you're familiar, but you don't know what's going on. They give me a convenient runway and I ask for taxi directions to the named hangar.

I miss the turnoff and have to do a one-eighty on the taxiway. It's not a really well-lit apron and there is a little slope with grass growing through cracks in the pavement. It's really easy to taxi into a ditch at an unfamiliar airport. Even on the apron, I don't know about its level of maintenance. I'm concerned about taxiing into a hole, so I go very gingerly. I stop on the taxiway in front of what I think is the hangar and call on my cellphone to say that I'm here. The lights go on inside the hangar, so I picked the right one. I shut down and call my flight follower. He was worried about me, but hadn't called the FSS yet, so didn't get my revised eta. "Yeah, sorry. I had to go around thunderstorms, and then I couldn't find the right hangar."

The guy who brought the hangar key gets a tug and tows the airplane in. We quickly drain the oil and I unload my gear while I listen to the two AMEs discussing with fervour the work that is to be done. It's a pretty nice hangar, but lacks some of the equipment they had been promised.

We all go to the hotel, and agree to meet for breakfast at eight.


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

Yeah...simple. Sure. I hate VFR in sketchy weather. I've been accused of filing to go to the bathroom...but your world is different. Anyway, nice work.

When you were getting up close and personal with that cell, did you notice any odd behavior from the ADF? I'm told that the ADF is the poor man's Stormscope and that it will point toward the electrical activity. (e.g., refer to Richard Bach's Stranger to the Ground.

Glad it all (obviously) worked out.



Unknown said...

Nice Frank! "Filing to go to the washroom..." Well said and I hear ya. However you're earning your pay and then some when you've got missing instruments and no radar... I know I've filed IFR in some pretty nice wx 'just-in-case.'

As always great writing 'Trix, the description of the flashing VOR light and still-missing HSI is just great graphic writing. It reminded me of my time flying all over with interesting equipment as well as, in a couple of cases, airplanes that maybe shouldn't have been flown.

Hope your trip's going well!



Echojuliet said...

One of the main reasons I started reading your blog is to keep thinking about what to do in real life situations (and not just the unsavory ones like this!). Thanks for sharing experiences and letting everyone learn something from them.

Ditto Aaron's compliments on the writing! I was hunkered down in front of my computer, thinking, "c'mon, where's the daylight, get outta the storm" while not even thinking that it was written several weeks ago.

david said...

Unlike you, I followed the "don't turn around" rule when I stumbled into an embedded thunderstorm as a relatively low-time pilot a few years ago. It was some time after I saw the first lighting and heavy rain before I hit the earth-shattering turbulence -- there was lots of time to turn around and get out of it, like you did.

Dumb rule, really. Good choice on your part.