Monday, July 29, 2013

Don't Go By Air

If you absolutely, positively, have to be there... don't go by air. A common joke in the GA community and one that should be taken to heart whenever planning a trip to a place that you need to get to via light airplane. If you really need to get there, especially by a specific time, always have a plan B.

The Plan

In our case we were planning on flying a new-to-us plane from San Jose to Centennial Airport near Denver for the bi-annual family reunion last week. The route was to be similar to the route we flew two years ago. South around the southern Sierras then crossing the Rocky Mountains at either La Veta Pass or near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The plane is a Beech Debonair similar in design to the Beech Bonanza we flew to Centennial two years ago, but a little slower and able to carry a bit less payload. This Debonair was fresh out of annual and my husband had spent almost 4 hours flying it to get acquainted with the plane, none of it in cruise flight aside from brief trips to/from practice areas. This was going to be my first flight in it. While I could legally PIC the plane, being high performance and complex endorsed, I would not be PIC of this flight having not flown a Bonanza in more than straight and level or gentle descending flight and never flown a Debonair. It felt weird not being PIC, especially for a cross country trip, but I suppose my husband should be allowed to be PIC once in a while.

The New Plan

The day of our departure the weather was fine in Northern California but afternoon thunderstorms were building southeast along our planned route of flight and the following day's forecast for the same route seemed worse. The weather briefer suggested going to Reno and staying there for the night and then taking a northern route through Utah and Wyoming into Colorado instead of south towards Needles (one of our possible stopping points for the first leg south) and the rest of our original route into Colorado. "At least Reno has a lot of hotels. Better than being stuck in Needles!" The briefer said.  We also have good friends who live in Reno and liked the idea of having an excuse to visit them. That seemed like a good plan. We were both familiar with the route to Reno so we got into the plane and took off for Reno with no more planning done.

The Flight

I quickly got introduced to the ancient seeming avionics in the plane. They still worked but this was the oldest set of radios I'd ever used. Both of them were labeled COM1 but the top one was COM1 and the bottom was COM2. To switch frequencies we used a three step process. Program the new frequency into the radio not in use, then switch the monitor to that radio and then switch the mike. If you wanted to talk inside the plane you had to switch the radio to intercom.  For someone that is used to radios that have "flip/flops" on each radio and being able to talk inside the plane at all times, this took some getting used to. COM2 had better sound than COM1. I could barely hear what the controllers said on COM1 and we resorted to yelling to each other rather than switching between intercom and radios. Our "system" worked well until the PIC forgot which radio we were talking to ATC on and set the wrong radio to ATIS for Reno. Normally I would have written down the frequencies but I was working very hard at not being PIC and deliberately didn't do some of the things I normally do when I am PIC in order to make sure I knew who was. Looking back this was a mistake. In any case, between the two of us we remembered one recent frequency. We switched to that frequency and then were redirected to the correct frequency.

The PIC asked me to fly the plane as he "worked out some things". We were getting close to the Sierras now and Blue Canyon airport. I was very familiar with the terrain and the route to Reno having flown this same route on my solo cross country adventure less than two months before. I asked him to turn off the auto-pilot so I could get the feel of flying the plane. It seemed reasonably responsive to control inputs and easy to hold in straight and level flight. He kept calculating and recalculating something, but I didn't know what. I did notice we weren't going any faster in ground speed than I did on my prior trip in the 182 and this was supposed to be a faster plane. It was then that I realized that I didn't know what the winds aloft were near Reno. I would know that if I had planned the flight. I didn't like not knowing if our "slow" ground speed was due to winds or something else.  I didn't even know what to expect from this plane as "normal". It turns out our PIC didn't either, but there were other things on his mind.

We were lucky to have smooth air over the Sierras until we started descending for Reno. Lucky for us, if there is one thing my husband is good at is putting a plane where he wants it. We were high coming into the Reno airspace and he was able to easily get the plane down using the gear as an air brake. He was caught a little by surprise by the high ground speed at the high DA airport (Reno is about 5000' elevation) on landing and his hand slipped off the throttle after we landed. He asked me to pull the throttle out as we rolled forward on the runway. I had to quickly determine which of the three "knobs" was the throttle. Fortunately he had already had me work on the mixture during the flight and the blue knob was obviously the prop, so that left only one. I pulled the throttle to idle and the PIC kept control of the plane on the runway and we were good.

The New New Plan

Our friends met us at the airport and we went out to dinner and spent some time hanging out. It was great to have an excuse to spend time with them and we were lucky they were available and had room for us to stay the night. Through dinner and spending time with our friends I could tell something was bothering the PIC. I didn't quite know what it was but something was up. He explained he wasn't sure if the plane was OK for sure. The airspeed seemed off, the oil temperature and pressure didn't behave as he expected on climb out and cruise on the way to Reno. Even accounting for the fact that IAS would be different at higher altitudes than near sea level, something was strange. He was pretty sure the plane would be able to continue the flight but, it was bothering him.

After dinner was over we spent considerable time working out our route to Centennial with plenty of potential stopping places if the weather (or the plane) turned bad. He was still researching what could be going on with the plane when I went upstairs to get some sleep. When I went upstairs I got online and checked for available flights on Southwest Airlines from Reno to Denver. Surprisingly, there were 10 different flights with seats available for the next day. I had credit on Southwest from previous tickets so even the cost seemed attractive.

Exchange between dad and daughter.
He came upstairs finally. I said, "Hey, would you feel any better if I said we could fly commercial?" He looked a bit relieved. "Yeah", he said. "I'm thinking the plane is telling me something and its not happy." Both of us had that instant feeling of "rightness" that comes from making a decision that your gut knows is the right one. We weren't convinced the plane was really having a major issue, but we both felt better not to have to prove it by flying it to Centennial.

Thus we had Plan C. We would all fly to Denver via SWA. My daughter and I would fly directly back to San Jose on SWA when our vacation was done. He would fly back to Reno a week later when his work was done and fly the plane back to home base.

I texted my Dad to let him know about the change in plans. I knew he was worried about us flying out with the weather that was going on and didn't want him to worry any more. My Dad has a PHD in Meteorology so he was not only worried, he was knowledgeable about the weather risks in the late summer monsoon season. This led to an amusing exchange.


Right now, my daughter and I are home safe and sound, the plane is sitting in Reno and my husband is in Denver working. This coming Sunday (or Monday depending on weather) he will fly the plane back to RHV and we'll figure out what the plane was trying to tell us. In the mean time I've learned quite a few lessons from this little adventure:
  • When taking a new plane out for  a long cross country trip, its a good idea to do a short cross country trip, or at least spend some time doing normal cruise flight, before departing. Thus you know what "normal" is. 
  • Even if I'm not PIC, it doesn't hurt for me to do a little PIC-like planning and research on the plane I'm in for a long cross country flight.  For one thing I would be more comfortable and for another I'd be more useful. 
  • And even if I'm not PIC, it doesn't hurt for me to do my normal drill of writing frequencies, knowing the route, etc, etc. for the same reason.
A good pilot is always learning, even when that pilot isn't the PIC :)

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