Duckin’ Fark

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CAP captain, myTransponder co-founder, and friend Rod Rakic happened to be in town this weekend and we made it a point to try to get up in a CAP aircraft for some proficiency work and aircrew activities.

I’ve flown in the same aircraft with Rod on several occasions. The first was the Cessna Citation Mustang flight during AirVenture Oshkosh 2009 with me in the left seat and Rod in the back. Then Rod flew me in a C-182T Nav III to Marshall, Missouri and back to get some B-2A weapons system trainer time in our logbooks.

But I had not yet flown Rod under circumstances under which I was in the left seat and was in the right seat. Where he could reach the flight controls and make it a fair fight.

Saturday afternoon, the wind howled like hell. I’m talking 18 knots with gusts over 30. Even with the wind coming pretty close to right down the pipe, that’s a log of gust factor, especially considering that I hadn’t flown the C-182 since last October or so. And I’m a pretty typical non-primarily-182 driver inasmuch as it’s a very nose-heavy airplane that likes to sink quickly and I live in fear of whacking the nosewheel.

I have no problem with the G1000. I just don’t like seeing the nosewheel strut come through it.

I arrived early and preflighted the airplane like I was buying it. The wind howled around the hangar. Badly enough that I feared opening the hangar door and badly enough that I had a hard time being understood on the phone by my flight release officer because of the noise of all that sheet metal that wanted to depart the tee hangar.

But around 6:30, it magically calmed down to a steady 18 knots right down the runway. Rod arrived, I got my flight release, we stomped the ramp (a very abbreviated ritual along the lines of the Haka – you had to be there) and we launched about an hour before sunset.

We flew up to Yale, Michigan located my high school buddy’s place, descended to about 1,600 MSL, and did a mock photo mission over it. Flying at 90 KIAS in a 45-degree bank that low would have bothered me a lot just a year ago. But, after NESA MAS and flying as much tailwheel and acro as I have, it seemed really natural. And the C-182 is a really stable platform for those kinds of maneuvers. You can almost roll in and fly the maneuver on trim alone.

Takeoffs, as they say, are optional. Landings, as they also say, are mandatory. Aviation, unlike maritime pursuits, has a perfect safety record. We’ve never left one up there.

We went to St. Clair County Airport (KPHN), whose Runway 28 was within 20 degrees of a 15-knot steady wind. Rod had spent a lot of time there in his youth as a line guy and student pilot, so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane for him. I was reluctant to face my C-182 demons more than 40 nm from the airplane’s home base in case I yard-saled it across the TDZ. And I began by mistaking Runway 22 for Runway 28.

But I got her headed in the right direction (without entering Canadian airspace in the process) and turned a very nonstandard entry into a very stabilized approach. 70 over the numbers, then kissed it down. I taxied back and got another trip around the patch, this time getting it a little flat, but serviceable and most of the parts stayed in formation with the rest of the airframe.

Rod is getting ready to become a CFI. And the CFI manner is beginning to creep into his right-seat personality. I pointed out a couple of the things that he said or did and made that comment. He was a little taken aback, but admitted it. I assured him that there were no violations of Wheaton’s Law involved. In fact, it’s very cool to see one’s friends constantly evolving and challenging themselves.

Additionally, Rod is going to be a great instructor. He’s already a very precise and disciplined pilot. But he also has an excellent way of inspiring confidence and channeling knowledge without being imperious about it. As someone who has watched new student pilot starts fall off and student pilot completions plummet, it would be important to me that Rod become a CFi regardless of whether he was one of my bros. But having him as one of my bros as well? Bonus!

To be sure, Rod gave no “instruction” per se in the aircraft. He’s not a CFI. And, even if he were, he’s not authorized by CAP to give instruction in CAP birds. (Yet.) We even briefed our roles standing at the nose of the aircraft before leaving. As PIC, I told him that input was welcome. And expected. But I was PIC and any yard sale that I laid out on a runway was mine and mine alone. A good way to brief almost any flight, in fact.

We departed St. Clair and pointed the airplane at Ray Community Airport (57D). I have some plans for things this summer at Ray and I wanted to show the airport to Rod. Ray is the prettiest airport to which I have ever personally been. And Runway at Ray 9/27 is just under 2,500 feet, which I had just proved was a distance within which I could get a C-182T down and stopped. But it was a little dark to actually see anything there and I was reluctant to put my C-182 skills to the test on a shorter runway in the dark.

So back to Pontiac. We got the straight-in approach to Runway 27R. No excuses. I had the airspeed and configuration dialed in from five miles out. the only issue was that it was dark. I mean “duckin’ fark.” It was less than an hour after sunset, but not a lot less.

Last notch of flaps at a half mile. Yeah, a half mile is further than I could glide with the barn doors hanging out, but a stable approach coming over the fence was more important in this case with this pilot in this airplane than the much-lesser chance of being screwed by an engine failure on short final.

Airspeed 75 KIAS over the fence. 70 KIAS over the numbers. I had my attention way over the nose and off to the side. Rod was looking directly out the side at the ground.

He said “flare.”

It was a little earlier than I expected to flare. But I had five more knots of airspeed than I really needed and lots of power available. And Rod has lots of experience in the C-182. All of the input funneled through that high-speed pachinko machine that I’ve built in my head. I made the decision as PIC to accept the suggestion from my PNF and flare.

I flared. A moment or two of feeling the sink and beginning to think about pushing in the power. Then “doink.” Mains down. Yoke in my chest. Nosewheel down. Nice! Let her roll to Kilo and then taxi to Royal for gas.

I think that the landing would have come out safe either way. My way might have been flatter, but would likely have been okay. In any case, it’s good to have two sets of eyes and two brains focused on the issue. And it’s one of the most special things in all of aviation to have a PNF next to you that you know well and whose thoughts will accelerate through your pachinko machine and get quickly to the place where you make the right decisions.

We hit the Pontiac pilot watering hole (the Shark Club) for beers and dinner after. I think it bothered Rod slightly that I had noticed CFI noises coming out of him on the flight and he was concered that it had been bothersome and launched into a discussion that was part apology.

I cut him off. “Dude, you had me at ‘Flare.’”

Laughter, beer, food, and pilot talk, then the departure – me for home and and he for his family in Clawson. I a slightly better pilot. He with a little more time in the right seat trying out the view from there and really thinking about what it’s going to be like when he adds the rating and starts flying with people who need his counsel more than I do.

All epic. In a smaller way than Dick-Collins-ing through the yellow IMC over Chicagoland at 2:00 a.m. But in an important way nevertheless.

Up aircrew! Huah!

Zero to Hero – Part 2

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I got together with founder and fellow CAP officer Rod Rakic to talk about accelerated flight training. Rod has done accelerated programs as a part of both his commercial and instrument training. I did my AMEL, ASES, and DC-3 (SIC) training in accelerated programs. And Rod and I are both graduates of the CAP National Emergency Services Academy’s Mission Aircrew School.

We talked about the benefits and drawbacks of accelerated and/or concentrated training and how best to take advantage of it.

What I Mean by "Epic"

We sling around the word “epic” a little too freely, thinks I. And I guess that I’m more prone so say something like that after the last few days. They’ve been – well – epic.

When last I posted, I was at the hotel on Whiteman AFB in Missouri. After shutting down and clearing out, Rod Rakic and I headed out onto the base.

The first order of business was to secure breakfast. It turns out that, as the Alamo and Riverwalk are to San Antonio, the breakfast burritos at the bowling alley are to Whiteman AFB. No fewer than three people volunteered that the breakfast burritos at the bowling alley were second to none and suggested that we’d be fools not to try them out. And they were right!

Rod then dragged me to Military Clothing Sales to right a wrong that he has been seeing in my Air Force cover for months. I procured the largest one they offered (7-7/8) and it’s still a little small, but serviceable.

Then on to the good stuff. We were guests in the tower to see how operations work at the base for the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Everything you’d expect to see in a regular FAA tower, but about twice the personnel and A-10s, T-38s, and attack helicopters also launching regularly. And, when it came time to launch the B-2 training sorties, let’s just say that we had a unique view from close up. OPSEC suggests that I say little more, but it was a completely new experience for me.

Shortly thereafter, we got some lunch and then headed to the training center for a couple of sorties in the Level D full-motion B-2 simulator. (Yeah, I said Level D full-motion B-2 simulator!)

Side note: Please pardon the lack of pictures or other multimedia. I left the cameras and other shovels and rakes and implements of the podcaster’s craft back in the car. OPSEC is king there at Whiteman and I wanted to be a good guest. I know that I’m the guy in the new-media community who’s the first to shout at another new-media guy, “If you didn’t get audio and video, it didn’t happen!” Fair enough. The following didn’t happen.

The facility is in a vault (!) in the interior of the building with all kinds of security surrounding it. And that’s the security that we could see. I’m guessing that there were lavers upon layers of it that we couldn’t even tell were there.

I’ve never been in a sim facility before that was this sophisticated or realistic. You walk over a bridge to the sim compartment, which is itself on hydraulic supports and capable of a wide range of motion in all relevant directions and at all relevant rates. It’s a full B-2 cockpit with a wrap-around video display that cover the entire window area.

Each sortie involved a takeoff, a 30-degree turn (uncharacteristic for this aircraft that likes to stay very flat and present a very limited radar signature), a climb to a KC-135R tanker, various attempts at aerial refueling, then an ILS and landing back at Whiteman.

Rod flew the first sortie and I flew the second. The guy not flying hung out in the control room with the sim technician and watched a set of panels and a view “outside” while listening to the conversation in the cockpit.

Each sortie was about 0.7 long with the IP in the left seat and Rod or me in the right seat. You have a stick in your right hand and a fistful of throttles in your left hand. The PTT for the intercom is on the throttles. There are varying levels of automation and you engage them at various points after takeoff to assist in flying the aircraft.

Takeoff was surprisingly normal-feeling. Just a lot bigger and more protracted. Not unlike flying the DC-3 or another large aircraft that actually has vertical control surfaces to speak of. There’s a long takeoff roll and then you rotate off at well in excess of the cruising speed of most of the aircraft that I usually fly. Once established, you let the autopilot fly the climb airspeed until it’s time to pitch over for cruise.

At that point, the sim causes a KC-135R to appear magically in front of you and you climb to meet it. Boy, do I have a lot of respect for anyone who gets gas in mid-flight! I suppose I had already begun to have that respect from the sortie last summer in the KC-135R from Grissom ARB. But the process from the “get” side is awe-inspiring.

I was really saturated throughout the refueling process. But I remember stealing glances at the airspeed indicator and kicking myself for being two knots off. Two knots makes a big difference. It’s a walking pace. You can cover a lot of linear distance in ten seconds at two knots. Enough to blow right out of the top, bottom, or sides of the 2,000 or so cubic feet that I’m guessing make up the volume in which you can receive gas.

And the B-2, like any other large aircraft, reacts slowly and deliberately to control inputs. If you’re moving the controls in response to what you see out the window right now, you’re just piling up pilot-induced oscillations. What you see out the window and on the displays is the aircraft reacting to what you did three to seven seconds ago. It’s like playing guitar plugged into a long delay effect. You’re listening to what you did awhile ago, but you have to play now to make stuff happen in a few seconds or the whole thing gets downright un-musical in a hurry.

Rod and I each had boom strikes on the windshield and we caused permanent simulated psychological damage to the simulated boom operator. Neither of us actually got connected to the tanker. But neither of us killed anyone, either.

Each of us confided to the other after the experience that he was hoping like hell that the other guy wouldn’t get any gas. KMHL to KPWK is a long time to spend in a C-182T with a guy who got gas when you didn’t.

Rod got the better landing. You don’t flare the B-2. It’s a flying wing. You just point it at the touchdown zone and roll the power to idle. The airplane flares itself. I had a hard time with that and had to push a little at the IP’s call. Rod just flew the thing on. Cool on his part, but not enough to make the flight back to Chicagoland in said C-182T any worse than it needed to be.

And I guess I got the last word by remembering to bring my logbook. The IP signed it for the sortie and an already cool logbook got one notch cooler.

We got back into the minivan and headed back to Marshall (KMHL) to preflight, fuel up, and get back to Chicagoland. We launched just before sunset and air-filed back to Chicago Executive (KPWK). It was severe clear most of the way back with stars guiding the way, but the destination was iffy. A low-pressure system was dominating the whole area. KPWK was forecast to be 1,000 overcast with four miles or so of visibility and we were good to go with that. Two G1000-qualified aircrew in a good airplane with lots of alternate options.

As we neared the area, the METAR had dropped to 300 overcast with low visibility in mist. We were busting through banks of stratus and cumulus clouds, although the ride was mostly smooth. We got within 10 miles or so of the airport, snatching glances down through breaks in the clag to see the whole area around KPWK socked in.

We had briefed minima for our aircrew of 1,000 ft ceilings and three miles of visibility. There was some temptation to go down for a peek, but I’m proud to say that this aircrew planned the flight and flew the plan. Rod keyed up ATC and requested a diversion to DuPage (KDPA). We got vectors immediately and planned for the ILS.

The approach got downright interesting. We spotted the runway from two miles outside the final approach fix. About that time, KDPA tower advised us that visibility was at a half mile – minimums for this approach. We let the tower know that we could plainly see the runway. The tower allowed as how the other end of the airfield might be worse than our end of the airfield. In any case, we had both FAA minima (according to the AWOS) and out own minima (according to two installations of the Mark II Eyeball) and Rod brought her in for a good landing.

As it turns out, the other end of the field was socked in pretty well. I recall offering Rod $100 cash if he’d shut off the strobes sooner rather than later. But we made the taxi to Illinois Wing CAP headquarters without incident and buttoned up the aircraft for the night.

The next day was a training exercise for the Illinois Wing. As many of you know, I’m planning to attend Civil Air Patrol Mission Aircrew School at the National Emergency Services Academy next month and get trained to be a mission pilot. In order to do that, I need to first, among other things, become a mission scanner. I had completed all of the requirements other than a couple of technical operational items and flying on two training sorties. I’ve been slightly bunched up about the possibility of not getting the sorties in and missing the chance to go to MAS, So I lined up three opportunities in the hopes of hitting two.

The first was an Illinois Wing exercise on Saturday. Rod had arranged to let me fly on an aircrew in the exercise to known out a sortie there before driving home. The next opportunity was a Michigan Wing SAREX at KFNT the next day and, if one of those opportunities blew out, I had a self-funded unit sortie scheduled for Tuesday.

I got the Saturday sortie after the weather cleared up at KDPA. I sat front seat with Rod and we had the privilege of flying with 1Lt Tommy Whang and 1Lt Sheri Sorenson in the back. Sheri was flying a scanner sortie and the Tonny was shooting photos to maintain a qualification.

We located the target northwest of the Chicago area, did an expanding square pattern with the help of the G1000 and the GFC 700 autopilot before getting the required pictures and heading home.

I beat feet for home and arrived at KFNT early the next morning. After cooling my heels at the mission base for a few hours, Capt Norm Malek and 2Lt Dave wood arrived with the KPTK C-182T. We drew a sector search with a start at a lat-long point and a full mow of the lawn for the rest of the sector if we didn’t find anything. And there was a photo mission to boot on the way back.

We arrived at the start point and I set up the search with the G1000. The amount of time that I have in this particular airplane, together with the seven or more hours I’d spent sitting behind the G1000 over the prior few days, made setting up the search second nature and I had us in an expanding square in no time.

By the fourth leg of the square, Dave spotted a blue tarp and the letters “CAP” mowed into the grass behind a house in the search area. We radioed in to base and were instructed to photograph the find and then return to base.

Mission scanner sortie no. 2 complete! Locked and loaded for MAS and NESA 2010! And the end of an exhausting and challenging four days in a flight suit.

Which brings me back to the epic-ness of the last few days. We spend amazing amounts of time, money, and energy learning how to fly. How to make airplanes perform missions to their full potential. And, all too often, it’s simulated ersatz stuff. Hoods instead of clouds. Discussions of hypothetical weather on hypothetical trips to hypothetical places. Calculating weight and balance for people in the back seat who never actually sit there.

I’m not saying that those exercises aren’t useful. They are. But it’s not hard to arrive at a state of mind in which the hypothetical is enough. Is all you need. Is normal.

I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough and you shouldn’t let it be normal. It’s not easy to decide to launch into known weather on one of the longest trips you’ve ever flown. In strange airspace. To strange airports. With the very real challenge of thinking on your feet when things don’t go as planned. Then doing it at night in sustained actual IMC with low ceilings and wildly varying visibility. Then launching with a CAP aircrew to go find stuff on the ground that, although simulated, is real enough for you because you’re up there packing crazy amounts of workload into limited bandwidth and actually putting the words of the MART into action and objectively demonstrating skills.

None of this stuff is easy. Especially the first time. And the general aviation training culture seems pretty willing to let you keep pretending as long as you like.

But I’m here to tell you that the hard stuff is worth it. I just got a four-day immersive demonstration of that very thing. I stretched just about every limit I had and the preparation and willingness to go launch into it paid off. This is epiphany. This is discovery.

This is epic.

Channeling Dick Collins: IFR to Whiteman AFB – Almost

So Rod Rakic calls me up a few weeks ago. Seems we have an opportunity to go check out the B-2 Spirit bomber at Whiteman AFB. Cliff, a mutual friend, had kindly offered to give us a tour of the facilities and get us close to the mighty Mach 0.95, 335,500-lb. Heavy stealth bomber.

I, not being an idiot, say “Let’s go!”

To make it even more epic, Rod arranged for an Illinois wing CAP C-182T Nav III to make the trip from Chicago Executive (fka Palwaukee) (KPWK) to Whiteman.

When we got together at KPWK and sat down to brief the mission. A band of precipitation sat between us and our objective. No getting around it, really. It was all green and yellow, but non-convective as nearly as we could tell. Ceilings between 800 and 3,000 and tops between FL180 and FL250. It was clear that, if we were going to make this trip, we were going to be in the crud for a good portion of the flight.

Both Rod and I are qualified CAP pilots in the G1000-equipped bird. We’re pretty good operators – Rod perhaps more so than me. The issue now became whether to go launch into weather that we both knew that the bird could handle and for which both of us are well-trained, but that neither of us had experienced first-hand.

It was like a Dick Collins video. Planning to go launch into the soup for an extended period.

I’m a reasonably cautious guy. Old and bold pilots and all. I plan to be old. So’s Rod. I’ve talked with him about go/no-go decisions a lot in the past. We’re both conservative. But we came up with a “go” for this mission. Capable bird. Two qualified pilots. Weather thick but non-convective.

So we launched. We got into the soup well before Moline at 6,000 MSL. Then we hit the precip. Green on the XM satellite radar. Then yellow. Then green again. We gave the airplane a good bath.

And we were rewarded with a smooth flight and a beautiful phase between an undercast and an overcast. One of those great feelings you get when you train for something and then have success when you go out and actually experience it.

Then circumstance frowned upon us. We had been watching some convective activity near Whiteman, but it appeared that it would blow over by the time we got there. But the red stayed near the base. And then ATC called us up and told us that the Whiteman tower was evacuating because of a tornado in the vicinity. No good for Whiteman.

So we looked at our alternate, which was near Whiteman, but also close to the thunderboomers. With the help of the G1000, we identified Marshall Memorial Airport (KMHL) in Marshall, Missouri and shot the RVAV 18 to a smooth landing. The field was well above minimums, but it was scattered and ragged with a frond in the area and we stayed IFR through landing, then called up flight service to cancel.

As we taxied to the ramp, our eyes were greeted by the glorious sight of a CAP van parked outside the terminal building. It’s assigned to the Marshall Composite Squadron, which is based there at the field. A couple of phone calls later, we were meeting with the squadron’s commander and getting the keys to the van to drive the last 50 miles to Whiteman.

As we drove, lightning lit up the skies and low and dark clouds rolled overhead. Rail came down in varying amounts. Like all good pilots, we rehashed the flight and the decision to divert. I think we did a pretty good job of being situationally aware, being nimble and flexible to deal with the weather, and using good CRM to optimize cockpit operations.

Channeling Dick Collins for the first time. Flying through the soup and letting nature wash the airplane. This is the payoff for a lot of hard work. Now down to the hotel lobby to meet Rod and go see us some bombers!

Cessna Citation Mustang – Video Episode

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. If you want to listen online, please use the direct link below.

Remember when I said that I spent the summer building up great content and spent the off-season here in the northern US editing it all and making it compelling? Well, here’s some of that content.

You’ll recall the audio episode covering the demo flight in the Cessna Citation Mustang? Here’s the video from the flight. I had the camera up front for the takeoff, then David Allen ably took over the HD camera duties while Rod Rakic took the Flip video, Jo Hunter shot stills, and Cole (“FOD”) provided color commentary.

Be sure to check out the audio episode, Flying the Cessna Citation Mustang, for a complete account of the flight, including 30-odd cockpit audio outtakes!