A Trip to the South (and getting stuck for a night)

The alarm went off at 5am…on a Sunday morning. My warm bed and my sleeping girlfriend were almost too much to resist dragging myself from under the covers into an adventure that would see me fly about 1,000 nautical miles with a forced overnight stop in Raleigh, North Carolina and a landing back in New Jersey that I won’t soon forget.

I was bringing an airplane I’m considering buying, a Mooney with a mid-time engine and a fantastic instrument panel, down to South Carolina for my Dad to complete a pre-buy inspection. Dad is a world class aircraft mechanic, and his opinion is invaluable to me. The owner was fine with me taking the airplane that far, so long as I brought my instructor along.

I forced myself out of bed, and groaned slightly when I heard the sound of a strong wind gust buffet the bedroom window. maybe I should just get back in bed, I thought. I went through my usual routine and rushed out the door, forgetting the coffee I had made. At least there wasn’t any traffic that early in the morning.

The airport was dark and cold–the latest blast of arctic air was moving in, causing the temperatures to drop and the winds to gust. I walked out to the completely empty ramp, then further all the way out to the runway, to check the surface condition. It wasn’t good, still covered with snow and ice from the recent storm that came through. As the sun started to rise I brushed the layer of fresh snow that had fallen overnight off the airplane. I kept having to take a break and sit in my car to get out of the wind.

Finally my instructor arrived and we finished the final preparations–removing the last ice that had built up, and fueling the airplane for the flight South. My instructor decided to file IFR, completing the process on his iPad with the Foreflight app. He frowned when he realized we’d have a 25 knot headwind and nearly 4 hr enroute time. Then he asked if I was making the “go” decision.

It’s never an easy decision, and especially so when you’re putting so much distance between yourself and home base. To be honest, I don’t know exactly how to make the decision, I just try and make sure that, as a previous instructor said, every decision I make is to try to become the oldest living pilot. With a slightly sinking feeling, I made a “go” decision. Without hesitation he said “alright let’s go.” We climbed in the airplane and the engine fired right up, thanks mainly to the engine heater protecting it from the brutal cold.

As the engine idled and I completed my after engine start and taxi checklists, my instructor called McGuire Departure control and received our IFR clearance with a release time in just 10 minutes. Everything moved fast from then, taxi across the icy ramp and down to the departure end of the runway, a quick run-up, final check, and we were accelerating down the runway and lifting off into the frigid sky.

The Flight down South

TO BE CONTINUED…

How to stay calm during turbulence

Let’s say you’re in seat 26C, an aisle seat, on some airliner halfway between Denver and Atlanta late-ish one winter night. You’ve been comfortably cruising for about an hour, the flight attendants are almost done with their in-flight service, you’re starting to doze off. Happily strapped into a big, new, modern metal machine, you’ve gotten over that initial pang of nervousness as the airplane took off and climbed up to 37,000 feet. You wouldn’t admit you were nervous; besides, everybody gets nervous during takeoff, right? Except that guy across the aisle from you. I don’t know how people can sleep through takeoff, you think. But now everything’s fine, in a few hours you’ll be at your sister and brother-in-law’s house in Raleigh-Durham after making a connection in Atlanta.

“Ladies and gentleman this is the captain speaking,” the PA suddenly squawks, “uhhh, looks like there’s some weather up ahead over Nashville and there may be a few bumps so, uhhh, we’re going to turn on the fasten-seatbelt sign. If you wouldn’t mind please, uhhh, return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, thanks.”

You take a sip from the cup of water sitting precariously on the tray table in front of you. Then you down the rest of the cup in one gulp. Okay, that didn’t sound too bad, just a couple of bumps, you think to yourself, reaching down and tightening your seatbelt without even thinking about it. A flight attendant comes by and you hand her your empty cup and latch the tray table into the seat back, glad to be free of any extra junk. You glance up the aisle, wishing with envy to be one of the people that already fell asleep. You look across the aisle, noticing the guy sitting there, now awake, open a book and start reading. Seems like he couldn’t be bothered. You feel the plane gently jolt and jostle with a few bumps in the air. You unconsciously grip your armrest and the muscles in your neck and jaw clench. That’s not so bad, you silently hope, maybe that’s what he meant. You take a breath and sit back, closing your eyes, trying to find that calmness that was so rudely snatched from you a few moments ago.

The PA barks to life once more. Maybe we’re through it, you think, already feeling better. This time the voice that comes through the speaker is not the captain. It’s the co-pilot. His announcement is more terse than the previous one; indeed, it’s not even meant for the passengers.

“Flight attendants please discontinue service and take your seats.”

That’s it? you think, incredulous, suddenly realizing with a sickening feeling in your stomach that the previous announcement concerning “a few bumps” was a little rose-colored. You lean over, looking up the aisle and back, pleading with your eyes for signs from the flight attendants that everything is fine, that this is totally normal. With a sinking feeling you see them hurrying to their seats and buckling in, carefully fastening their lap belts as well as, could those be, shoulder harnesses?

Why don’t we have shoulder harnesses?, you wonder as the jolts and jostles become more frequent.
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Now you’re more than a little nervous, bordering on frightened. Along with the muscle tension in your jaw and neck, the muscles in your legs and abdomen contract, restricting your breathing. Your neighbor, an older man with thin glasses and slight features sitting in the middle seat, turns to you and says something, smiling and tightening his seatbelt. You couldn’t hear what he said so you just mock smile and nod and retreat back to your own thoughts. You don’t even realize it, but a very primal force has complete control over your mind and body. In a cruel example of irony, your “fight-or-flight” response has been triggered, sending a cascade of hormones and nerve signals throughout your body, priming it for immediate action if necessary. It’s thought that we evolved this response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, to better protect our relatively fragile bodies from dangerous animals and other life-threatening situations. Right now you could jump higher or run faster than you probably could at any other time. But the cruelest irony is that you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re strapped to a big, cold, unfeeling machine.

The airplane jostles a few times in a row, you look outside into the black night, all you see is the red glow at the end of the wing, bouncing up and down in concert with the light turbulence. Suddenly the entire window–all of the windows you can see–flash brilliant white zap zap, then blackness. You realize it was lightning.

Just at that moment, you hear the steady whine of the jet engines spool down inexplicably. And even though you have no reference to which way is up, down, left, or right, your inner ear senses that the plane is turning, sharply, to the right. A second later the airplanes enters clouds, you can tell by the glow of the red light on the wingtip and the flash of the strobe light. Suddenly the plane is gripped by three successively stronger jolts, pushing you down into your seat then lifting you back up slightly then shoving you to the left. Are we still turning? you wonder. I think we’re still going right, you think, or is it left? The tubular structures in your inner ear are extremely sensitive, but with no visual reference they can wreak havoc with your spatial orientation, sending signals to your brain that seem to conflict with your visual cues, especially when you’re inside a moving airplane and can’t see the horizon due to clouds or nighttime. Another bolt of lightning outside makes the windows flash brilliant white.

The turbulence is getting worse, each jolt is more intense, as if a giant hand has reached down and is tossing the airplane around for fun. Suddenly you feel the plane lurch upwards and you’re pushed down hard in your seat. The plane seems to tremble for a moment before the bottom drops out and the plane falls sharply, a few people yelp, and you feel weightless for a second before the plane seems to catch the air again. Maybe you yelped too, you can’t remember. You glance across the aisle, the guy is still reading, you think, now more annoyed than envious. The plane is rocked by a gust that lifts it to the left (or is it right?), then another, stronger one, the strongest yet, that seems to make the plane lift up and fall down at the same time. More people yelp. Somebody whisper-shouts “Dear Jesus!” You swear that last one felt like we were out of control for a second. You feel as though your heart will beat right out of your chest as you sense the airplane is turning again, but now you’re sure you don’t know whether it’s left or right.

You try to think of something, anything, that will get your mind off of the terrifying, helpless situation you find yourself in, but it’s no use. In this condition you’re primed to react to every bump, jolt, drop, shove, turn, every sight sound and feeling that comes your way. Your mind is racing along with your heartbeat. It’s agonizing. You start making deals with yourself, or maybe with God, no longer thinking about your sister in Raleigh, now saying you’ll be happy just getting to Atlanta. You start thinking about how you should drive more.

The bumps get less intense, then, gradually, less frequent. You start to sense that the airplane is no longer making any turns, and your inner ear seems to agree, so you start feeling more at ease. A few minutes go by, and finally your heartbeat slows to normal, and your grip on the armrest loosens.

“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to apologize for the tosses and turns we had there for a few minutes,” the captain says over the PA, as if he owed anybody an apology. “I know a few of those bumps may have felt a bit, uhhh, severe, but, I assure you we had everything under control up here in the flight deck.” I’m pretty sure no one feels assured, you think. “The weather is behind us now and we should have smooth air for the rest of the flight,” he says, “We’ll have you on the ground in Atlanta in about, uhhh, 30 minutes. Again, sorry for the delay and the turbulence.”

Listen, the moral of this story is not to make light of the fact that people react in different ways to different situations. Some people are nervous or frightened. Some might pray to a higher power. Some are just going to remain calm, from experience or simply from nerves of steel. The moral of this story is that it’s perfectly normal to get stressed out while strapped inside a machine going 500 mph through the top of a thunderstorm 5 miles above the ground. Or when making a difficult approach to land with low visibility and gusty winds and rain or snow. Or any number of other situations at which you should marvel at the miracle it is to be flying.

What you can do to stay calm through it all is to trust that, indeed, everything is under control up front in the flight deck. Too often the general public marginalizes the role of pilots (you could argue, based on salaries, that airline management is guilty of doing the same). This attitude is probably caused by the perception that the airplanes do most of the flying, and that the pilots are little more than babysitters. While modern airliners are marvels of technology and safety, all of that technology is there to serve the pilots’ decision making and situational awareness, so they can make the decision on precisely which path to fly through that storm up ahead to avoid the dangerous, convective parts of the clouds. Or to have the information necessary to bring an airplane carrying 120 people, flying at 160 knots, to a safe landing at a busy airport that’s shrouded in fog or rain or any number of things the atmosphere can throw at it.

The public perception of pilots is also tarnished by unfortunate accidents. There is no good way to change this fact. Things can go wrong, we can’t predict and train for every situation, and even if we could we would still not be able to completely prevent human error. Just remember that commercial airlines continue to become safer and safer, all while making more and more flights. Remember that the traveling public expects to leave and arrive on time, no matter what. In service of that very high expectation, pilots can and do fly through weather that would make a small-airplane pilot like me cower in fear. They can do it because they fly amazing machines and undergo intense training and frequent recurrent training, and have a depth of experience that gives them the confidence to know they can do it and do it safely. So next time you take a flight and it lands safely, when you’re shuffling off the airplane, looks in the pilots’ eyes, say “thank you,” and mean it.

I sat there in my aisle seat one night, trying to read a book through what I knew to be just moderate turbulence. I knew to expect it when the first officer told the flight attendants to take their seats, and I braced for some good bumps after I saw the lightning outside. I even found myself a little nervous, likely since small-aircraft pilots like me are trained to give thunderstorms a very wide berth. I kept having to re-read the same sentence in my book. I was thinking about the pilots, how this was probably the best part of the day, getting to turn off the autopilot and hand fly through the radar echos. They’re probably having fun up there, I thought, as about 100 people back here are freaking out. Especially the poor guy sitting across the aisle from me.

Why a Mooney?

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“Prop full forward, mixture full rich, flaps set for takeoff,” I said out loud as I lined the Mooney M20J-201 on Runway 02 at Santee-Cooper Regional Airport, KMNI, on a calm cool morning just after Christmas. A low pressure system was scheduled to move in later in the afternoon, so the sky had those high stretched-out wisps of cirrus clouds. I advanced the throttle smoothly, let my eyes dance back and forth from the runway centerline to the oil pressure gauge to the RPM and manifold pressure gauges, all while keeping track of the quickly increasing airspeed. “60 knots, rotate.” It seemed like just saying the words made the plane fly. A few seconds later, “80 knots, positive rate, gear up,” I said as I lifted the gear handle and added some down trim at the same time to compensate for the striking pitch up from the airplane as it lost all the drag from the landing gear.

Maybe the Mooney isn’t the only airplane that makes me feel the way it does in those first few moments of flight. I’ve only been pilot in command of Cessna 172s and a Mooney M20J. Maybe a Bonanza would make me feel the same way; it’s undeniably a good-looking airplane, it’s fast, has a decent useful payload (though still not a 4-adult + full fuel airplane). But a good Bonanza would be a little expensive. To find one comfortably in my price range I need to exclude virtually all of those made in the last 30 years.20140112-164935.jpg

A Cirrus would be great, they’re fast and attractive airplanes with great avionics packages, and the whole-plane parachute is an amazing feature. But the airplane also smacks of a rich-man’s ride, even a first-gen with high time on the engine is out of reach. I’m not saying it’s bad, it seems like a great airplane, I just can’t afford one.
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“What about the Cessna line of airplanes?” you might ask. Well, the 172 just isn’t fast enough for me. The 177 Cardinal (assuming an RG) is faster, and the 210 Centurion (especially a turbo version) is more my kind of speed machine. But the Cardinal just isn’t sexy, and the 210 burns too much fuel and is too expensive. The 182 seems like a good blend, but again the speed/fuel burn/cost/sexiness equation just doesn’t add up. The Cessna 400 is sexy and extremely fast, but astonishingly expensive. So too, for that matter, with the fast Piper singles like the Saratoga, Matrix, etc.

“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie contact Norfolk Approach on 125.2”
“Over to 125.2 for three zero one kilo charlie, have a good day,” I reply, reaching up to turn the knob on the Garmin 430.
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I wait a second and make the call, “Norfolk Approach Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, with you level at five point five.”
“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, Norfolk Approach, Roger, Norfolk altimeter three zero two nine.”
“There zero one kilo charlie,” I quickly reply, adjusting the altimeter setting slightly. My girlfriend is taking some pictures. The air is perfectly smooth, just over halfway home to New Jersey as we pass over Norfolk, between three or four naval installations. I look down over one and convince myself the little grey jets lined up on the ramp are F22 Raptors. “Awesome,” I think to myself, glancing up at the engine gauges, checking that everything is as it should be. I’m sure the Navy wouldn’t mind that much if I had to land on one of their fields if I had an emergency, but I really don’t want to find out. Just over an hour and we’ll be back on the ground in New Jersey, covering about 500 nautical miles in about three hours, ground speeds between 160 and 175 knots, burning 11.7 gallons of fuel per hour.
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I’m choosing a Mooney because it is the best blend I can find of fuel burn, speed, stability, safety, and sheer attractiveness.
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Light Iron : Mooney

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Okay, so I’m obsessed with Mooneys. These posts used to be reserved for the heavy-iron, and there will definitely be more of those, but I hope you’ll bear with me as I’m consumed by thoughts of owning one of these great airplanes.

For me, honestly, I’d much prefer a small airplane over a heavy jet, for the simple fact that I get to be the one up front flying it. It seems very unlikely at this point that I’d start a new career as an airline pilot, so my chances of ever flying a 777 are basically zero. Instead, I’ll be perfectly happy cruising down lower and slower in my own personal airliner.

Owning an Airplane (Why I decided to Buy)

Two years ago I never would have dreamed that I’d be seriously considering buying an airplane of my own at the start of 2014. I hadn’t started flight training at that time; in fact, the thought didn’t even cross my mind for another six months.

Even just a year ago, 5 months before getting my private pilot’s license, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be on the cusp of buying an airplane, and especially not a Mooney, what I’ve long considered to be my “dream” plane. But here I am, lining up financing, insurance, tie-down space, and the terms of a partnership on a mid-80’s Mooney M20J-201. And if I’m perfectly honest, I’m absolutely terrified.

How it Happened

In August and September I was enjoying my private pilot privileges, renting a 172 for a few hours at a time and introducing friends and family to my passion for flying. But that was not the reason I got my license, I don’t want to just be a weekend pilot flying in circles or on quick hops to local airports for a hotdog or something. I want to travel, see new places, avoid commercial airlines and commercial airline passengers and lines at security.

So I investigated local flying clubs. For the price of the admission fee, in essence, buying a share of the club, and cheap monthly dues, I would have access to a few airplanes and be able to take them on trips without incurring the typical “daily minimum” requirements of renting from an FBO. It seemed to be the most logical thing to do; indeed a flying club is probably the best ratio of cost per hour flown when compared to renting from an FBO or owning your own airplane. I found a club at a nearby airport, went to a membership meeting, had conversations with the board of directors, was offered a place in the club, and sent in a deposit check to be held until I returned from a vacation to Europe (which I mentioned in my last post).

While on vacation I had a sort of epiphany: I don’t want to be in this flying club. Going from renting from an FBO among a pool of unknown pilots to scheduling one of three airplanes among a pool of 50 other club members just didn’t feel like that much of a change. I’m not exactly a people person, and while most of the members I had met were very welcoming and encouraging, there were more than a few that were clearly hostile to outsiders, set in their ways, and generally just people with whom I have no interest in interacting. So for me the decision ended up being less about the cost to fly, which was clearly advantageous in a flying club, and more about the social aspect. I don’t want to share an airplane with a bunch of people. I would pay more to have access at almost any time, and more importantly, I want almost all of the control in decisions regarding the maintenance and upkeep of an airplane. I don’t want just a 1 in 50 vote. This is of course a very personal decision, and for many people a flying club is an excellent option, and there are many fine clubs across the country. But I realized I wanted more than the club could offer. So when I returned from Europe I requested the flying club destroy my deposit check and apologized for wasting their time and efforts. The administrators were very helpful and understanding throughout this process.

The Mooney

Soon after, I decided to continue my flight training and get my complex aircraft endorsement. I went back to Princeton Airport and took some ground instruction to fly a Cessna 172RG “Cutlass.” The weather didn’t cooperate so I didn’t get to fly it, but to be honest, the airplane isn’t one I’m interested in flying. I want to go fast. I did some digging and was shocked to find a Mooney M20J-201 for rent at a nearby airport. I called immediately and the guy that answered the phone said, “Well you’re in luck, I usually never answer the phone here, but I’m the guy that teaches the Mooney.” We went on to have a long conversation, me explaining that I’ve loved Mooneys since I was a kid but how I’m a low time pilot and wonder if it’s a good idea to learn to fly one now. Him explaining why the Mooney is as close to the perfect aircraft as you can get, and how it’s fine if I’m a low time pilot, while the airplane has a steep learning curve it is very stable and predictable. We clearly had both “drank the Kool-Aid” about Mooneys.

Overjoyed, I scheduled a time to get introduced to my new teacher and to the airplane, and started reading as much as I could about learning to fly the airplane. That first up-close encounter with the airplane was thrilling. It was just a ground lesson, we didn’t even start the airplane. But touching it, sitting in the pilot’s seat, smelling the inside of the engine cowling, I was entranced, obsessed. It felt like a sleek, powerful, mean, mythical beast, daring me to turn the ignition. Taunting me to try and learn to tame it.

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My instructor is a smart guy, a good pilot, and a little edgy, quickly apologizing mid-sentence for saying the F-word a lot. But he has a deep well of respect for Mooneys, and I think he can tell I’m completely enthralled and a little intimidated by the airplane. I just try to be a dry sponge, absorbing everything he says in his no-nonsense, rapid-fire style. “Keep it simple,” he says. “60 knots rotate, 70 kts liftoff, 80 kts gear up, 90 kts flaps up, 100 kts climb,” he explains the takeoff. I furiously write it down. He goes on, “100 kts on the downwind gear down and first notch of flaps, base leg 90 kts GUMP check and 2nd notch of flaps, turn final gear down check last notch of flaps stabilized approach 80 kts, 70 kts over the fence, 60 kts touchdown,” he describes the landing. Simple, I think, with a gulp.

If that first encounter with the Mooney was so exciting, the first flight was almost better than sex. He had me sit right-seat, and he did the first takeoff, then handed me the controls soon after and I flew the rest of the time. We turned East and headed out over the shoreline, then followed it south to Cape May, picking up flight following along the way. I marveled at the ground speed of 188 kts heading East, and more than 160 kts headed south. 20 miles from the airport, at 4500 feet, he started the in-range descent checklist, and began reducing the power an inch of MP at a time. I could already tell I was way behind the airplane. He walked me through the motions for the gear down checklist and final approach, and I landed the plane on runway 28, from the right seat. We were both a little impressed by my landing, and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. My brain felt like jello, but we taxied back and I made a good takeoff and headed north back to Robbinsville. Again he helped me stay ahead of the airplane, and made sure I noticed how checklist-dependent I should be with it. I made another fine landing in the waning minutes of daylight, and we taxied back and shut down.

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Needless to say, I was hooked. Although I had some bad luck with the weather for a few weeks, I spent the next 6 weeks learning and practicing how to fly the airplane. We made another trip to Cape May and I sat in the left seat, then we had a lesson on maneuvers, power on and off stalls, steep turns, etc. I was amazed at how well the airplane handles and behaves in every part of the flight envelope. Then we spent two lessons practicing landings, the hardest part about the process. Over nearly 20 landings, I finally acquired the skills to make good smooth touchdowns and slow the airplane down without inducing the oscillations the airplane is famous for. The landing gear, unlike other airplanes, is cushioned by rubber disks, and they will bounce strongly if the landing isn’t smooth. Even if the landing is fine you have to be cautious about adding too much braking too soon to avoid causing a nose wheel oscillation. My final exam was another trip to Cape May, and it was dependent on me completing the flight without help from my instructor. Thankfully, I did a lot of mental preparation and felt confident. I flew the airplane beautifully and made several excellent landings, and a few hours later I was a proud newly-endorsed pilot of complex aircraft. More importantly, I was signed off to rent and fly the Mooney.

There is a Mooney for Sale

Near the end of my training, my instructor had me take a walk with him. He showed me another Mooney and told me it was for sale and that another one of his students was interested in having a partner to buy it. I could hardly contain my excitement. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my decision to not join the flying club was made so that I would be able to take an opportunity like this if it ever presented itself. I never dreamed that it would come up less than two months later!

Since then I rented the FBO Mooney and flew VFR from New Jersey down to South Carolina, a distance of 500 miles. It took just over 3 hours each way, which is the longest flight I’ve taken so far, and further strengthened my belief that I got my pilot’s license in order to travel. The entire flight was thrilling, and the trip could not have been faster any other way, if you assume for a commercial flight that you leave the house 2 hours before, and that the distance to and from the airport adds another hour or two, a commercial flight would take about five hours door-to-door if there weren’t any delays. The Mooney was clearly faster, and waaaayyy more fun! However, the daily minimum to rent the Mooney is 3 hours, meaning that it costs $600 dollars per day to rent the Mooney to take on a trip–even if I don’t fly it for a day or two. This is impractical, and is the primary reason I’d like to buy a Mooney of my own. Of course, the argument can be made that the costs of ownership are even more prohibitive, despite the lack of a daily minimum. I will examine these costs in a future post.

Return to the Blog and Update on Recent Events

I enjoy having a blog, I feel like I have a lot to say, but I don’t have a lot of time to say it.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, “I just don’t have time today,” I say. Meanwhile I find I waste countless hours every week doing not much of anything but staring at the computer or my iPhone or my iPad. I’ve decided that in 2014 I’m going to spend less time on mindless activity like laying on the couch and watching TV and inevitably falling asleep, and more time being creative, learning, writing, reading, and working out.

There, now that that’s out of the way, let me show you what I’ve been up to since August:

In September my girlfriend and I took a trip to London, Paris, and Normandy. Here is our view from our stop in Etretat, made famous in several Monet paintings. The next day we saw the D-Day beaches and the American Cemetary, some of the most moving and patriotic places I’ve ever seen.

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For six weeks in October and November I worked, studied, and practiced to get my endorsement to fly complex aircraft (those with retractable landing gear, constant speed propeller, etc). I was overjoyed to find out that another nearby airport, Trenton-Robbinsville (N87), had a Mooney M20J-201 for rent. It has always been one of my favorite aircraft, and the type I would buy for myself if I were to get an airplane. So I decided to get my complex rating in the Mooney, which is one of my best decisions of 2013.

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I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about the Mooney, as it is such a challenging yet rewarding airplane to fly, and an opportunity has come up to buy one with another pilot friend of mine! Stay tuned!

Happy New Year!