Pilot in Hibernation

A few weeks ago I flew the Mooney from my home base in New Jersey to South Carolina. My father, a renowned aircraft mechanic currently working for Boeing, will spend the next several weeks completing the annual. At the same time, my partner in the aircraft and I decided to get the engine overhauled and the interior refurbished. It’s a huge project!

First, we bought the airplane last year with this work in mind. The engine was at about 1650 hours SFRM (since factory remanufacture), with a recommended time between overhaul (TBO) of 1800 hours. The interior, while functional, was not very comfortable and not at all fashionable. We negotiated the price of the aircraft down to reflect the need to take care of these two major issues.
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Aircraft Ownership : 6 month edition

My thoughts on owning a 1980 Mooney M20K-231, so far…

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1) Partner up!

There is just so much work involved in owning a small airplane, let alone the sheer cost of it all, that having another person to share responsibilities is crucial. I co-own N4006H with a friend who I met via a former instructor; we are in totally different points in our lives in terms of kids, careers, incomes, etc. But we share a common love of flying and especially for Mooney aircraft. From there we spent time building first mutual respect, then a friendship, as we went through the process of searching for the right airplane. There really is no disadvantage to having a partner–maybe even two partners–except for our inherent dislike of sharing anything. I’m not saying that partnering with just anybody with the means to buy an aircraft is a good idea. Go get to know this person, talk about what their goals and mission profile will be for the airplane. Talk about jobs and families and get used to sharing info you’d usually keep private, like salaries and medium-to-long term life and career goals. It is incredibly rewarding to share the experience of owning an airplane, but also very challenging, so you have to make sure you will be compatible. On another note, you might wonder how scheduling time works. Generally we check in with each other every week or so by text or email and discuss any planned longer trips in person. So far we haven’t had any conflicts that were difficult to resolve, and I expect we could both fly 150 hrs a year and still not have any trouble.

2) Things break–a lot–so be prepared mentally and financially.

Since we took possession of N4006H we’ve had problems with an oil leak, a broken Com 2 radio, and a failed vacuum pump. These are all relatively minor problems (the vacuum pump thankfully did NOT fail while in IMC!), but they certainly add up, each requiring 1-2 hrs of shop time plus whatever materials are needed for a fix. There are no shortcuts; things break and they are expensive and you will want them fixed right away because you were inevitably planning a cross-country to see your sister next week.
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Meeting my personal airliner

In mid-May, a friend and I bought a 1980 Mooney M20K 231.

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We spent a few months casually browsing Trade-a-Plane, Controller, and various other places for the right Mooney.

We made lists of all the contenders, with side-by-side comparisons. We narrowed them down to the best three. Then we would call and find out we had been too casual about it and the airplanes had already sold.

Trying not to feel too discouraged, I would tell myself it’s okay, take your time, find the right one. All the while fighting the fierce urge to own and fly one of these great machines.

Finally in late March, I proposed that we go see the guys at All American Aircraft in San Antonio, Texas.

Jimmy and Dave were clearly Mooney guys, with about a dozen examples on hand. I didn’t realize at the time they are among the most well known people in the Mooney circle, as well as the wider general aviation community.

I’m obsessed with Mooney aircraft, so being able to go and see hangars full of them was a near-religious experience. Each one evokes a feeling I just don’t get when I look at other airplanes–save for maybe King Airs and Aerostars–but certainly not other single engine planes.

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We weren’t looking for a K model. Our list consisted of about eight J models with one or two others (F, K). The airplane we eventually bought wasn’t on the list. We showed up at the tiny Kestrel Airpark (1T7) and were quickly immersed in the available Mooneys by Dave, an easy-going gentleman with a seemingly endless knowledge of Mooneys, and a very fine teacher to boot.

I’ll admit to loving about five different aircraft at first-sight. But when it came time to test fly one, we were drawn to a K model, N4006H. It hadn’t made it onto our list but I’m not sure why–great panel, low total time, relatively low price for a turbo model.

It spoke to us somehow, I’m not sure how to describe it, but we decided to fly it, and I would sit left seat first. I was as excited as I’ve been about almost anything else climbing into the left seat, with a distinct sense of awe of the machine around me–I wasn’t in a mindset to be a difficult sell.

Dave quickly walked me through the starting procedure, and on the first turn of the key the engine roared to life. The sensation was spine-tingling, lighting the fire of a six cylinder engine for the first time ever, getting lost in the sound of that throaty growl and the sense of raw power at my fingertips.

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Down the taxiway we went, all the while Dave walking through some of the intricacies of the plane, the avionics, and the engine. I could barely keep up as my heart pounded and my mind raced.

Departing from Kestrel is an interesting experience. It’s a 3000 foot runway but one end of it is sharply uphill. We were departing down that hill. I pushed the throttle forward to 30″ MP, then Dave coaxed me to nudge it up to 35″ MP. The airplane lept forward when I released the brakes and in no time we were airborne and the gear was coming up.

We were heading to Boerne Stage airfield (5C1) along with another Mooney from Jimmy and Dave’s collection. This was not only my first flight in a turbo Mooney, it was also the first time I’ve flown in formation with another aircraft.

We entered the pattern #2 behind the other Mooney, and on downwind Dave told me to land like I do in the J model, so I went through my typical pre-landing checklist, lowered the gear and slowed to 90 knots. I turned base, added flaps and reduced power, down to 80 knots. I was getting more and more nervous but I just stuck to the protocol, turned final, added the last bit of flaps, and tried to breathe and relax. Once over the threshold I pulled the power to idle and somehow coaxed the nose-heavy 231 to a very smooth landing with copious use of nose-up trim.

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In the end, we bought this airplane six weeks later, and flew it back to New Jersey where it currently lives. I will try to write a lot more about the purchase, the transition training, and the flying I’ve been doing–including getting my instrument rating. It has been such a joy, so challenging, and yet so rewarding, to have my own personal airliner.

 

A Trip to the South: Final Leg Home

The last in a series of posts describing my trip to bring a Mooney to South Carolina for a pre-buy inspection. See the previous installment here. Last time, my Dad completed the pre-buy inspection in South Carolina, and we made the decision to stay overnight in Raleigh, North Carolina. We landed that evening at KRDU.

The next morning I woke up before dawn, and instinctively checked the weather on my phone. A strong cold front was racing across western Pennsylvania, with a dramatic shift in wind direction and an increase in wind speed to 30+ knots. The terminal area forecasts for New Jersey put the frontal passage at around noon, and I knew we would be racing it on our way back. We needed to leave…now.

My Aunt and Uncle, who had graciously let me stay at their beautiful home on very short notice, dropped me off at the airport.

My flight instructor, having stayed with his relative in the area, was dropped off about 10 minutes later. We took another look at the weather, that cold front was moving fast. “I think we can thread the needle,” he said. “It’s gonna be windy, but we can make it back.”
“Okay I’ll preflight, you file.” I replied, walking out the door to the ramp. I laughed when I saw what we were parked next to:
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The Cessna Citation X would have gotten us back a bit faster, but might have burned a bit more fuel.

I finished the preflight, my instructor climbed in, and I fired up the engine. A few minutes later he was calling Raleigh Clearance-Delivery and copying our IFR clearance back to Trenton-Robbinsville.

Three minutes later, after a run-up on the ramp area, we were cleared for takeoff. I poured on the coals and 20 seconds later we were in the air. We were cleared up to 7000 feet, and at altitude I could clearly make out the weather features we were racing home, with a sharp line of cirrus clouds curving to the north on our left. The flight really showed how great a Mooney can be. A very favorable tailwind gave us a max ground speed at 207 knots, while burning 10.9 gallons of fuel per hour. Under 90 minutes later I was going through the in-range descent checklist, and starting to bring back the power.

About 30 miles out we listened to Trenton ATIS, and inexplicably they were reporting “winds calm.” I knew this had to be false, all of the forecasts were calling for gusty NW winds. We checked another nearby airport: winds 260 at 18 gusting to 28–that’s a little more like it. They were also reporting wind shear. I knew it was going to be a challenging approach.

ATC cleared us to descend, and as soon as we were below 3000 feet we hit some continuous light chop. I kept pulling the power back, and at 2000 feet the turbulence increased to the moderate range. I entered the downwind leg of the pattern to Runway 29 at Robbinsville, and put the gear down. With all that extra drag the plane was really getting pushed around by the turbulence. I focused on correcting the large deviations, while relaxing on the stick enough to let the plane ride out most of the chop. I turned Base leg, did a GUMP check, took a breath and turned final. The turbulence increased as we got lower and slower. I elected to keep 10 kts extra speed on final, and didn’t extend the flaps all the way–typically a recipe to float a Mooney all the way down the runway, but not in this kind of wind. I wrestled the airplane down to ground effect, including through a moment of what I think was wind shear that made the plane feel like the bottom dropped out. A last gust pushed me off centerline but I kicked in right rudder and left aileron and eased the airplane on the ground. It really is true that you have to fly the airplane all the way to touchdown. With a big sigh of relief I pulled off the runway and taxied back to the parking spot, still covered with snow and ice. I realized I was sweating profusely, but it was a huge boost of confidence to land the airplane in those conditions, on the first try. It made me feel like I’ll be pretty good at this pilot thing.

Something Doesn’t Add Up

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Photo Courtesy of FlightAware.com

 

It’s easy to hate Justin Beiber. He’s 19 years old, wealthier than most people could ever imagine, famous the world over. It’s easy to hate him, especially when the source of all that fame and money is music that is just so…bleh.

But even more so, because he is privileged enough to decide to go to the Super Bowl, charter the Gulfstream G-IV shown above, and proceed to smoke enough marijuana that the pilots, according to reports, donned the supplemental oxygen masks for fear of failing a drug test. And according to reports, he and his entourage–including his father–we’re dismissive of the pilots and verbally abusive towards the flight attendants. And then after they land, the plane is searched by law enforcement officials at Teterboro (I bet the pilots alerted ATC prior to landing). Some of the occupants are kept for questioning. They detect a strong smell of marijuana on the plane, but no marijuana is found, everyone is released and there are no further consequences. Something doesn’t add up.

Full disclosure, I don’t like marijuana and I worry about its effects on society, but I also think the current minimum sentence laws in America are far too harsh and unjustly target minority populations. This case is a perfect example, but it’s actually not the part that angers me the most. Whatever your thoughts on the physical and social effects of marijuana use, it’s the sort of behavior and sheer disregard for the people tasked with their successful, safe passage in a jet flying 500 mph at 25,000 feet, that is so intolerable.

Mr. Beiber, I know what it’s like to be 19 (even though I don’t know what it’s like to be rich and famous), and I know you probably think your recent activities are sending exactly the message you want to send. But try to remember that you are somehow a role model for millions of young people that aren’t as privileged as you, who would surely suffer much greater consequences for actions similar to yours. And, finally, next time you decide to be dismissive of the pilots you’re paying to fly you in a jet to wherever you’re going, try to remember how difficult a job they already have. You might not need much focus and skill to do your job, but I assure you us pilots do.

A Trip to the South: Part II

Continued from Part I

The speed raced past 60 knots, I pulled back on the stick and the airplane lifted off the icy, snow-covered runway to begin the flight from Trenton-Robbinsville N87 to Santee-Cooper KMNI in South Carolina. We were on an IFR flight plan with a route as follows: N87 CYN V16 RIC V157 LVL V155 CTF KMNI, filed at 4000 feet which gave us a near 25 knot headwind. While this made for a terrible groundspeed of about 125 knots, it was better than what we’d get had we climbed higher. The jet stream wasn’t our friend that day. As I mentioned before my CFI was along for the trip, and he graciously handled the radio calls while I flew the airplane and operated the GPS, a Garmin GNS480. The instrument is a bit less intuitive at first than some other units (such as the more common Garmin 430), but after a few early hiccups it started to make sense and its benefits as a more powerful flight management system became clear. We settled in for the nearly 4 hour flight, stretching the range of the airplane close to its limits, assuming a personal minimum of landing with an hour of fuel in the tanks. I picked up this habit after reading Richard Collins’ The Next Hour, but it is a common-sense rule.

The terrain below was cold and bleak, the rivers and even much of the expanse across Delaware Bay was frozen over after a few weeks of sub-freezing temps. But despite the headwind, there were virtually no bumps, and the 120 knot groundspeed in the Mooney burning 11 gallons/hr was much better than the 85 knots at the same fuel burn in a 172 or similar airplane.

I was perfectly happy, watching the ground below show gradual signs of warming as we flew south over Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. But I had this small voice in the back of my mind, constantly wondering if I had made the right decision to go. Fretting over whether we could get back that night. I tried to relax and focus on flying, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the day wouldn’t work out as we planned. I thought about the factors involved: if my dad was going to be able to do a pre-buy inspection, it would have to be on a Sunday. We didn’t want to wait too long so as to delay buying the airplane, or waste the owner’s time waiting for us. The weather, while not perfect, looked better than it had for several weekends prior, and than it looked the following weekend. I was bringing my CFI along, so if I got stuck, it would be disruptive to more people than just myself. The weather was moving in faster than forecast, so we had only narrow windows of time to work with, and we were flying an unfamiliar airplane, which though it was loaded with all the features and equipment you could want, would be difficult to adjust to if we were caught in actual IMC. It’s funny how many things go into flying an airplane besides actually flying. It’s at least 50% mental.

We sped southward at 4000 feet, then 5000 feet, talking to a long list of air traffic controllers–some of them the same ones as I had spoken to on my VFR flight at the end of December. Finally we approached central South Carolina, and the large Lake Marion, appeared on the horizon. We descended and cancelled IFR when we had the field in sight, setting up for a pattern approach to runway 20 (I had landed on runway 02 the month before, runway 20 ends in a drop off directly into the lake). Though the winds were strong, I made an acceptable landing and taxied up to the hangar, happy to get out and stretch (and use the restroom!). To my great surprise, my Grandfather was standing there waiting with my Dad. He lives in Charleston, about an hour away, but I hadn’t expected to see him, and he gave me a hug and a warm welcome. My Mom was also there, embracing me tightly, excited as always to see me, as was I to see her. Even my Dad’s sister was there, also from out of town, so it was a nice impromptu family reunion.

We pulled the airplane into the hangar and Dad set to work inspecting the airplane. First he pulled off the engine cowling while I opened the tail access panels. He then did an engine cylinder compression check. I had a bite to eat from the brunch mom had prepared, famished from almost four hours of flying and a small breakfast at 5am that morning.
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He frowned as he ran his index finger along the seam of the engine crankcase and along the edge of one of the cylinders, noticing a small but worrisome amount of oil. The news didn’t get better, with the compressions from cylinder 4 on the low side and cylinder 3 was on the borderline of needing a replacement. He looked at me and grimaced, silently. He then went over the rest of the airplane with the precision and attention to detail that I knew would make it worthwhile to fly all the way down. He’s simply the best at this kind of thing. Whatever cost it took, or inconvenience, was worth it to have his opinion.

About 3 hours had passed and Dad was finishing up, so my CFI and I began preparing for the trip back home. A look at the weather had us both frowning. Although the forecast ceilings back in New Jersey were 4000 – 5000 feet, a line of snow showers was moving in faster than expected, and conditions could decrease to MVFR or lower. “It’s your call,” said my CFI. He offered as an option to stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for the night, as he had family there he could stay with. I mulled the details for a few minutes, and called Landmark Aviation at KRDU to check the landing/overnight fees. Finally I said “I haven’t made a night landing in almost a year, and I don’t have any actual IMC experience so far, so I don’t want to combine, possibly, both of those things tonight.” My CFI agreed immediately, adding, “and especially in an airplane neither of us own!”

We confirmed that we’d head up to Raleigh, landing at KRDU, an international airport (Class C airspace), about an hour’s flight north, and we’d fly VFR. We fueled the airplane, I said goodbye to my family, and we climbed in. Dad lingered by the airplane, and we spoke through the pilot window hatch. “Keep looking,” he said. “The airplane is in good shape in terms of airworthiness, but it will need some investment soon, maybe a top-end overhaul.”
“That’s exactly the kind of advice I flew down here for,” I said.
“And the paint is pretty ragged,” he went on. Neither of us do thank-yous or goodbyes very well. I was sad to leave so quickly, especially to leave and know I wasn’t going home that night. A feeling of homesickness started to creep in on me.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said.
“Anytime, I hope you bring more planes down here for me to look at,” he replied, walking back behind the wing and clear of the plane. I fired up the engine and we were in the air five minutes later, headed north and talking to Shaw Approach for flight following.

It was beautiful to fly in the late afternoon as the sun sank to the horizon. The approach to KRDU, my first time landing a Mooney at a towered airport, was fun and exciting, and the speed brakes helped immensely to keep the airspeed in check. The landing was smooth on the long runway 23L, and within a few minutes we were taxiing up to Landmark Aviation on a ramp full of jets. Everyone we interacted with was extremely pleasant, treating us like we belonged, and explaining the ramp fees when we asked. We decided to add 5 gallons of fuel to the plane, and they waived the overnight fee (total without fuel would have been around $40). The fuel was expensive ($7+/gal), but not unexpected, and the convenience of landing at a major airport and walk from plane to car in about 30 seconds can’t be overstated. It is simply amazing to fly yourself from place to place, especially when you get to pull up on a ramp full of jets.
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The flight back to New Jersey and the most challenging landing I’ve made

TO BE CONTINUED…

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…