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The Grand Tour: Legs Seven, KBDU-KTVL-KTRK

Clouds and Peaks

Clouds and Snow-capped Peaks, Colorado Rockies

Okay, IFR fans, here’s one for you (but, non-aviators and VFR-only pilots, you’ll still find content typical of my other Grand Tour leg posts). Two simple words: contact approach. I don’t mean the request to make a radio call, either. Read on.

Looking West on the Ramp, KBDU

Looking West on the Ramp, KBDU

The Sky, the Clouds, the Rockies

The Sky, the Clouds, the Rockies

The winds aloft forecast was favorable for an easy non-stop to KTRK, where I would meet my wife (who’s there for the weekend), spend the night, and then continue home. The en route weather was reasonably benign: an inactive convective SIGMET promised the possibility of isolated to widely scattered thunderstorms over central and western Colorado starting mid-morning. There were only two issues to address, really, during flight planning: departure weather and an airshow at KTRK.

What? An airshow? How does this affect things? The Truckee Airshow includes both static displays and flight displays: aerobatic flight displays. There were two TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) that would be active around my arrival window, one to 12,000′ and the other to 16,000′, closing the airspace for my arrival until 4pm. Normally, this would be no problem: with a four hour flight time, a post-lunch departure would handle things nicely.

Rocky Beauty

The Natural Beauty of the Rockies Seems Endless

Mother Nature had other ideas, though. The Boulder weather and the Colorado en route weather for later in the day wasn’t looking nearly as inviting as that for the middle of the morning. The new plan: launch mid-morning after breakfast and divert to KTVL, South Lake Tahoe airport, if the TFRs were, in fact, active (sometimes, parts of an airshow are cancelled and the TFR rendered inactive), waiting at KTVL until KTRK reopened.

Rocky Lakes

Clouds and Lakes over the Rockies

The weather at KBDU was marginal VFR: good visibility, but about a 1500 overcast ceiling (see the picture, above, from the ramp looking west). As I climbed out to the east immediately after takeoff on runway 8, I saw that the ceiling was rising. A WACO biplane called on the KBDU common frequency (no tower there) advising he was transition the area east of the field, south-to-north; I easily spotted him, and let him know (along with the glider-on-tow slight north of the field heading west), and he confirmed that he saw me. As I climbed and turned north per ATC’s instructions, I had a nice view of the WACO to my left, only a couple hundred yards away. I saw that the overcast layer ended only a few miles east of KBDU. ATC turned me back to the south for the climb to clear the Rockies, then west and on course (to Kremmling [RLG] VOR). The climb was uneventful over the ridge.

In fact, there was really only one notably eventful thing on the flight, besides the beauty of the Rockies and the contact approach. About a dozen miles west of Kremmling, in cruise at FL200, I entered the top of a benign cumulus cloud—at least, it looked benign. My windshield quickly picked up a spattering of ice, and I saw a little rime ice on the inboard part of the wing. I watched for fifteen seconds or so, and saw that the ice accretion continued. The rate was not alarming, but I didn’t just want to keep flying along. With an outside air temperature of -6ºC, I figured that a 2,000 foot climb should take care of the ice, dropping the ambient temperature enough that more ice would be unlikely. Indeed, that climb took care of things, and I soon left the cloud behind. After a scant several minutes, the ice had sublimated.

Path to divert around R-6402A and R-6405

Path to divert around R-6402A and R-6405

PIREP near Delta, Utah

PIREP near Delta, Utah

I made a couple of en route PIREPs (pilot reports) to Salt Lake Flight Watch, so other pilots would know about the flight conditions out in the middle of nowhere. Around Eureka, Nevada I checked with Reno Flight Service Station about the status of that KTRK TFR: yes, it was active as scheduled, and would remain so until 4pm. (The other jog to the south in the route that Flight Aware shows was to skirt some military restricted airspace. The 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah trains out there, and their airspace runs from 100′ AGL to FL580!)

ATC immediately approved the diversion from KTRK to KTVL, clearing me direct KTVL.

KBDU-KTVL Profile

KBDU-KTVL Profile

KBDU-KTVL Track

KBDU-KTVL Track

The weather at KTVL was gorgeous: clear, miles and miles of visibility, and pleasant temperatures with light winds from the north-northwest. I asked ATC for the visual approach, and was told to expect that.

For those unfamiliar with it, a visual approach is used in IFR flying (flying by instrument flight rules, regardless of the actual weather) to simplify and expedite arrivals when the weather is good. Once a pilot reports the airport in sight and ATC issues a clearance for the visual approach, the pilot can fly almost as if on visual flight rules: he or she can just fly to the airport, providing his her own navigation, and responsible for his or her own terrain clearance. While on an instrument approach, the pilot must keep the airport (or the preceding aircraft, when told to follow someone) in sight at all times until landing.

I descended from FL200 to 16,000′, then to 13,000′, and could easily see Lake Tahoe (hard to miss on a clear day when I could see forever!). The ridge on which Heavenly Valley ski resort sits was between KTVL and me, so I could not actually see the airport, and ATC could not clear me for the visual approach, and I couldn’t go any lower (because of the terrain in the area, while flying IFR I had to stay fairly high: the ridges top 10,000′ around there). At this rate, I wasn’t going to be cleared for the visual until I was almost on top of KTVL, since that ridge is only about 5 miles from the airport—and I didn’t relish losing 6,000′ in 5 miles (though, indeed, I would have just flown around for a little longer, probably heading up toward Lake Tahoe to lose altitude). I was starting to think about canceling IFR so I could start down (and head around the ridge). Then, I remembered what might be the least used tool in an IFR pilot’s kit: the contact approach.

A contact approach is similar to a visual approach in that the pilot is responsible for navigation, terrain clearance, and weather avoidance. Two important differences between visual and contact approaches:

  1. A contact approach only requires that the pilot has and can maintain visual contact with the ground (not necessarily with the airport).
  2. While ATC can provide a visual approach clearance of its own volition (in addition to after a pilot requests it), a pilot has to request a contact approach: ATC may not issue a contact approach clearance without the pilot having requested it.

(There are a few other subtleties to the contact approach that I’ll skip.)

I couldn’t see the airport. I could see the ground. I knew I could stay clear of clouds and terrain. So, for the first time in my decades-long instrument flying career, I said, “2FR request contact approach.” And, for the first time in my 30-ish year IFR career, I heard, “Mooney 2FR, cleared contact approach.”

I started down, flew north around the ridge, and came in for an easy, smooth landing. After relaxing for a couple of hours, I treated myself to a low-level tour of the west shore of Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Tahoe west shore

West Shore, Lake Tahoe


Sailing on the Lake

Looking East over Lake Tahoe Sailboats

Truckee Airport from over Highway 267

Truckee Airport from over Highway 267

The Grand Tour: Leg Six, 4D8-KBDU

Into the Rockies today, though just barely, staying on the front range and traversing a big chunk of the Midwest. I’d been watching the weather map, and once again thunderstorms were in the forecast, supported by moisture and frontal activity (stationary front and cold front). The good news was that they and I stayed clear of each other.

A straight shot from Milford to Boulder clips the corner of some military airspace (a “military operations area,” or MOA), about 10 miles after departing Milford. The area’s floor it at 8,000′, and I planned to fly at 12,000′, so I’d be in that MOA—though only for about five minutes. Still, if it was active, I didn’t want to chance interrupting the Iowa Air Guard’s training, especially since I could clear the MOA with but a three mile diversion.

Departure brought a new experience for me: using a “ground communications outlet,” or GCO, to contact air traffic control to get my IFR clearance. Four clicks on the mic over the specified frequency connects the local radio transceiver to ATC (six clicks yields Flight Service) over a phone line. Almost as easy as a direct radio connection, and much simpler than calling ATC on the phone for the clearance.

Lake Okoboji

Lake Okoboji

The Missouri River ("The Big Muddy") at Yangton, Nebraska

The Missouri River (“The Big Muddy”) at Yankton, Nebraska

There was one other benefit of skirting the MOA to its north: weather. There was some interesting weather a little south of the direct course, and that slight diversion would keep me even more clear of it.

The first nice view of the day came very shortly after departure: Lake Okoboji, where I had been visiting family and tending to things.

PIREP YKN

PIREP over Yankton

PIREP SNY

PIREP over Sidney

It wasn’t too long before the second of the Midwest’s mighty rivers came into view. I’d crossed the Mississippi the day I arrived at Okoboji, and now it was time for the Missouri. Near Yankton, Nebraska I got a nice shot. I made a pilot report (PIREP) a bit further on to let other flyers know what the conditions really were: 13,000′ overcast, 10ºC, winds from 245º at 40 knots (!), continuous light turbulence. A little over an hour later, over Sidney, I made my second PIREP of the flight: scattered-to-broken clouds at 14,000′ (I was flying at 12,000′), 12ºC, winds from 220º at 16 knots (so much nicer!), no turbulence. Screenshots from ForeFlight show both of these reports (in the second screenshot, the small brown box with white chevrons in the upper left corner shows the location of my Yankton PIREP.)

Triangle and Near-Rectangle of Trees in Nebraska

Triangle and Near-Rectangle of Trees in Nebraska

Are those Letters of Trees?

Are those Letters of Trees?

Nebraskans do interesting things with how they plant their trees, at least if what I saw on this flight is any evidence of that. First, I saw groves planted in shapes: rectangles, triangles, etc. Not solid shapes: outlines. It got more interesting, too: in the picture at right, follow the road from the wingtip away from the foreground. (You’ll probably have to click on the picture to get a larger image.) To the right of a thin, white line (a building), just across the road from the building (to the picture’s right), you’ll see a lush, green pentagon. At the bottom-right of the pentagon, look for a box of dark green. Inside the box—which is made of trees—you’ll see some odd lines and shapes.

Casey in Trees, North Central Nebraska

Yup: writing. Someone named Casey is semi-immortalized in this grove of trees. I wondered with this was a memorial, a self-tribute by an ambitious resident, an expression of love to a husband, wife, or child, or something yet different, perhaps crying to all who could look that Family Casey’s farm was here.

Interesting Cloud Layers, Northern Nebraska

Interesting Cloud Layers, Northern Nebraska

Continuing southwest on an otherwise uneventful flight, the clouds started to build. Clouds below, clouds above: a pretty place to be flying. Some people say large parts of this country are boring, but I disagree. Look carefully, see what there is, observe the subtleties—especially of things we don’t normally see—and few places are boring. Most, in fact, have at least strains of beauty.

The ground began to rise slowly, and it was time for me to do the opposite: descend. I had about 6,000′ to lose, so I didn’t have to start down until much later than I often do (especially on those eastbound legs early in The Grand Tour, when I would start down perhaps 120 miles from destination, instead of the 35 miles or so in this case). Heading toward and approaching Boulder, I got some nice views of the Boulder plains and the front range of the Rockies, capped with snow and topped with clouds.

Not time to relax yet, though: Boulder is a very active sailplane training airport. Those small craft with slim fuselage and slender wings are hard to see, so I watched carefully for traffic, and listened likewise on the radio. Yes, there was sailplane and towplane activity around Boulder, but it’s easy to avoid those if you a) know they’re there, and b) know what they’re likely to do. KBDU has two runways: 8-26 and 8G-26G, with the latter being a turf runway reserved for gliders.

The Rockies, from Boulder

The Rockies, from Boulder

The Grand Tour: Leg Five, 57C-4D8

Near Fennimore, Wisconsin Looking North

Near Fennimore, Wisconsin Looking North

Near Fennimore, Wisconsin Looking South

Near Fennimore, Wisconsin Looking South

Time to head deeper into the Midwest: north-central Iowa. This wasn’t part of the original tour plan, having been added (for non-business reasons) during the month’s delay.

The weather looked okay: not great, but okay. Lots of moisture in the air, with high relative humidities. The worst of the weather would be further west, and the high humidity conditions were forecast to improve, though the haze would linger.

The navigation plan was straightforward, and the clearance complied: find an intersection near each of 57C and 4D8 that are close to along the direct route. The resulting route was DALEY ONTIJ, initally at 8,000′. (I tried 10,000′, too, for the latter part of the flight in hopes of getting a higher groundspeed, but to no avail). With little traffic, simple navigation, an airplane and autopilot performing very well, and no significant weather anywhere along the route, it was an easy flight.

My Wisconsin-based colleague mentioned he had grown up in western Wisconsin near the confluence of rivers, so I kept an eye out for a likely candidate. It wasn’t hard to spot where the Wisconsin flows into the Mississippi. Along the way, I enjoyed the rest of the scenery, too. About two hours after departure, the tires squeaked on the concrete in Iowa, and I had my first experience taxiing 2FR on turf taxiways and parking on a turf ramp. I was glad that the ground was firm and the grass close-cropped!

Near Millville, Looking North toward the Wisconsin

Near Millville, Wisconsin, Looking North toward the Wisconsin

The Wisconsin meets the Mississippi

The Wisconsin meets the Mississippi

Flight Path from FlightAware

Flight Path from FlightAware

The Grand Tour: Legs Four, KSFZ-KRNP-57C

All Dressed Up and Ready to Go

All Dressed Up and Ready to Go: KSFZ

Near Wynantskill in eastern New York, Approaching the Hudson

Near Wynantskill in eastern New York, Approaching the Hudson

An interesting day was this one.

Step one was finding the airport. More precisely, finding the way to the FBO so I could get to my airplane. It only took two passes along the road before I saw a couple of guys outside with the FBO’s t-shirts (a very bright, very visible greenish-yellow). That solved, we drove out on the ramp to the airplane and unloaded, and I bid my Massachusetts colleague farewell.

I had stayed up a bit later than I’d have liked the previous night, planning the flight to give myself reasonable options. I was hoping, though not expecting, to make the flight to 57C non-stop. The weather forecasts led me to be pessimistic: the winds were forecast 35 kts of headwind at 10,000′, getting stronger about as quickly as I would fly faster with increasing altitude. The resulting ground speed left resulted in about a 5:20 flight (five hours, twenty minutes), assuming a direct route and no weather deviations. Neither of these was likely:

  • Flying in the congested east coast corridor often results in some indirect routes, to smooth the arrival and departure traffic flows. Once well clear of the terminal area, direct works, but in the terminal area (departure or arrival), there’s a good chance you’ll fly at least 15 minutes out of your way for many flights.
  • The weather forecasts showed a strong possibility of thunderstorms from southern Ontario across Lake Huron and eastern Michigan. These would require deviations, in order to avoid the nasty turbulence and icing in thunderstorms, which would mean more time and more fuel.
  • Weather forecasts also showed a likelihood of thunderstorms over Lake Michigan.
  • If air traffic conditions precluded my flying over Lake Michigan at a high enough altitude for me to feel comfortable, I would have to divert well to the south, around the lake and Chicago.
Great Circle Route, KSFZ-57C

Great Circle Route, KSFZ-57C

Combining these factors, I decided to stop for fuel. Next question: where? Inexpensive fuel at appropriate airports with paved runways and instrument approaches near my planned route was available at many airports. The considerations:

  • I wanted to go non-stop if possible. Stopping early would preclude this, whereas stopping late would give me a chance to see my actual ground speed and the winds aloft, and determine whether there was a chance of making it non-stop.
  • I wanted to cross Lake Michigan at 20,000′, so I could glide to shore if necessary from anywhere on the lake. I needed enough distance between the fuel stop and the lake to make that climb.
  • Not having my passport with me, I wanted the fuel stop to be in the U.S., rather than in Canada.
  • Knowing that routings in the northeast can be notoriously indirect, I wanted a good fuel reserve.
  • I wanted to avoid Chicago O’Hare’s airspace. ATC wasn’t likely to clear me smack through there, so I’d have to go around—well south, as noted above.
Northeast of Canandaigua Lake

Northeast of Canandaigua Lake

Most of the best choices were in New York and Pennsylvania. (Although the great circle route doesn’t go over Pennsylvania, Erie and environs, in the northwest Pennsylvania mini-panhandle, are a very small diversion.) All of these are early in the flight, eliminating the non-stop option.  This resulted in four reasonable choices:

  • D98, Romeo, Michigan;
  • KHTL, Houghton Lake, Michigan;
  • KRNP, Owosso, Michigan;
  • C03, Nappanee, Illinois.

Wait: make that three. Stopping at Nappanee would mean flying through—around, really—KORD’s airspace. Comparing the remaining, the flight distances are:

  • KSFZ-57C direct is 749nm.
  • KSFZ-D98-57C is 749nm.
  • KSFZ-KTHL-57C is 781nm.
  • KSFZ-KRNP-57C is 750nm.

KHTL is a little out of the way (a jog up to the north-central part of Michigan’s lower peninsula). Looking further, the instrument approaches into KRNP are a little better (i.e., allow the pilot to fly lower before having to be clear of clouds) than D98′s. D98 is further east, so KRNP gives me a little more time to decide whether a non-stop is possible. Fuel prices are reported as within 3¢ of each other, essentially a wash.

KRNP it is, then.

KSFZ-KRNP_FlightPath

KSFZ-KRNP Flight Path

KRNP-57C_FlightPath

KRNP-57C Flight Path

My expectations about the wind were met: it was too strong to make a comfortable non-stop flight. There was convective weather (i.e., thunderstorms) over southern Ontario and Lake Huron. My routing out of KSFZ and southern New England wasn’t too bad: not direct, but at least not down to Long Island Sound!

You can see the FlightAware log for the first leg of to the left, for the second leg to the right. The weather wasn’t nearly as bad as what FlightAware is showing for the first leg: I had one small diversion, and was able to get through to the back side of the building cells. I’m just glad I left on the early side: the weather was building, and would have been more challenging later in the day.

KSFZ-KRNP_Profile

KSFZ-KRNP Profile

I needed two small diversion for the second leg to skirt the nasty stuff: once when I turned left over western Michigan, and then the little southern jog near Lake Michigan’s western shore. The lake crossing was uneventful: no problems at all with ATC and my wanting to stay at FL200 until a bit past mid-lake.

To the left is the flight profile for the first leg. I started at 10,000′, then tried out 16,000′ in hopes of getting a better groundspeed and going non-stop. I succeeded in improving the groundspeed, but not enough to skip the fuel stop. Worth the attempt, though.

The Grand Tour: Leg Three, KSYR-KSFZ

Leg Three of The Grand Tour was almost as straightforward as foreshadowed—once I got airborne.

Remember that #1 alternator that stopped making electricity (described in my previous post)? The shop in Syracuse fixed it: it was the alternator that had failed (rather than the voltage regulator).

For this leg, I arrived at the airport, loaded up, preflighted, and fired up. All looked good. After I pulled out of the tie-down spot, I did a quick alternator check, bringing the engine RPM up to about 1200 and switching each alternator off in turn. When I turned off the #2 alternator, I heard a distinctive click-thud, the sound of a circuit breaker tripping. And the #1 alternator showed dead. And the #1 alternator’s field breaker had tripped. I reset it, tried again, and click-thud it tripped again.

With two alternators on the airplane—one was working, anyway!—I could certainly have launched, and hoped to get the problem fixed at my next stop. (And then send the folks in Syracuse the bill!) But, changing the #1 alternator on this airplane is not trivial, perhaps not even readily accomplished in the one day I’d have with the airplane in Woonsocket, Rhode Island (KSFZ). And if the shop wasn’t able to fix the problem, or couldn’t get the parts for a while, I’d be without valuable redundancy for a 2400nm trip. Not a good plan. I taxied back to the tiedown and got maintenance to look things over.

About two hours later, I was ready to try again. The mechanics had found what they thought was the problem: a missing bonding ground connection to the #1 alternator. Once they diagnosed the problem, and triple-checked on the schematics, the fix wasn’t very hard. I did a quick check on the maintenance ramp, and all was well.

KSYR-KSFZ As Cleared

KSYR-KSFZ As Cleared

KSYR-KSFZ As Filed

KSYR-KSFZ As Filed

I filed for a nearly direct route: KSYR TEBOR GRAYM KSFZ. My initial clearance to KSFZ was RH RV V483 SHERB V14 ALB GRAYM. Not quite what I’d hoped to get, but not too horrible a route: you can see the pair at left and at right.

Launch to the west was uneventful. Very shortly after takeoff, I was given a left turn to 150º, direct SHERB when able. I flew through a little light turbulence starting about 2,000′ below the cloud bases and continuing until I reached the cloud tops (clouds were dubbed “few”: ⅛-¼ of the sky covered), but it was certainly no problem. As always, climbing through areas of cloud like this was very pretty: I enjoy being among clouds that don’t form a solid layer, especially with blue skies above.

KSYR-KSFZ Revised Clearance

KSYR-KSFZ Revised Clearance

KSYR-KSFZ 2nd Revised Clearance

KSYR-KSFZ 2nd Revised Clearance

Along the way, ATC called with a new routing. Why they couldn’t have given me this initially, I don’t know, but they didn’t. This takes me well out of the way, all the way down to Rhode Island Sound: not my idea of an efficient routing for me, though it is for ATC. As I approached Windor Locks, Connecticut I requested something more direct, T212-PUT. ATC said they couldn’t give me that, but, instead, gave me direct KSFZ!

KSYR-KSFZ Flight Aware

KSYR-KSFZ Flight Aware

The end result of all this is shown at left, and is not far from my original request.

Along the way, I took a few pictures that I included below.

Getting the alternator fix right.

Getting the alternator fix right.

Carrier Dome

Carrier Dome

The Hudson River

The Hudson River

The Grand Tour: Finally Continuing

I resume my trip tomorrow, following nearly a month’s delay. On a short flight during this delay, I noticed that the #1 alternator (labeled “L” in the cockpit, corresponding to the gear-driven of the two alternators on the engine) was not producing electricity. Somewhere on the outbound flight of that trip, the alternator failed. That’s been fixed now, the airplane’s oxygen tank is refilled, the fuel tanks are refilled, and we should be ready to launch. Next stop, rather than 6B6 (Stow’s Minute Man Airfield), will be KSFZ (Woonsocket, Rhode Island’s North Central State Airport).

24 Hour Forecast, as of July 5 Evening

24 Hour Forecast, as of July 5 Evening

Suraface Analysis, July 5

Suraface Analysis, July 5

Hurricane Arthur produced some interesting weather, but it won’t be a factor for tomorrow’s flight: Arthur, now a post-tropical storm (not that I want to fly into that, either!) has moved well to the northeast, roughly over Newfoundland.

The medium- and long-range forecasts for points west are looking pretty good. I expect I’ll have to dodge some weather again, as I did on the KGTU-KTEL leg. The biggest issue on my mind now is the KSFZ-57C flight, because of range. I’d like to make it without stopping for fuel while still maintaining my required fuel reserves and crossing Lake Michigan at a safe altitude (high enough to glide to shore from mid-lake, as I discussed in my post on curveballs in flight planning). I won’t really be able to plan this out fully until the winds aloft forecast for Tuesday, when I make that flight, become available, and then I’ll have to check things carefully once airborne.