A great flight

I’ve been feeling antsy about the fact that I haven’t flown in clouds since the flight back from Oshkosh last year. So I’ve been thinking about waiting for a day with low ceilings, but not too low, and getting an instructor and going to fly some approaches in real conditions. But we’ve had so many thunderstorms this summer, and I’ve been working so hard that the confluence of the conditions I wanted and the spare time haven’t happened.

So something good happened – I got a chance to get a plane for the weekend, and it was nicely cloudy. The thunderstorms passed through the area a few hours before, and it looked like the nice sorts of clouds.

I was a little nervous about this – like I said I hadn’t flown in clouds in a while, and I wasn’t sure I still had the knack. The other thing I was nervous about was that the reason the airplane became available for my weekend is that they just replaced the engine in it.

When aircraft engines are newly overhauled, there are special break-in procedures. You have to fly at high power so that the rings seat, and you have to keep the mixture rich to keep the cylinder heads cool. In order to do both, you have to fly low. Normally when I fly to Ottawa I like to get as high as possible, because although I file “Victor 2 to KONDO direct Watertown VOR” (which takes you around the corner of the lake), they tend to clear me direct to Watertown VOR right from Rochester, and that’s well over water. But at 5,000 feet with a new engine, I did NOT want to be that far away from the shore.

One digression (yeah, not the first, not the last) – the previous time I flew to Ottawa IFR I just figured I’d go direct from Watertown VOR to Ottawa. I filed it that way and got cleared that way. But when I got close to Watertown I was talking to Wheeler Sack Approach (I think they’re an Army base and they always sound so military on the radio) the controller told me that I’d have to fly the CYRIL ONE transition, which basically means flying to the CYRIL intersection (leave Watertown on a 40 degree bearing for 69 miles) and expect radar vectors from there. Ok, no problem except that time I had sneakily filed IFR to Ottawa without my Canadian approach plates on me – I knew it was really VFR conditions so I figured I could get away with it. So this time I figured I’d do it right and file the CYRIL ONE transition. But I tried, and the computer wouldn’t take it. So I called the Flight Service Station and tried to file it with a real live human being, but he said his computer wouldn’t take it either. So I filed the same way I did last time, got the same clearance, and got the same ammendment from Wheeler Sack. But this time when the Wheeler Sack controller said “I have an ammendment to your clearance”, I said “You mean CYRIL ONE?” and he said “Affirmative.”

Anyway, I launched from Rochester and got into the clouds at about 1500 feet. I have to climb slowly because of the break-in – in order to keep the engine cool, you have to keep the nose down and the airspeed relatively high to keep the air flowing over it. But even after I levelled off, I found it was taking a lot of attention to maintain wings level, track the Victor 2 airway, keep my altitude, and monitor the engine in very wet and bumpy conditions. So I gave in and called on George (the autopilot). George keeps the wings level and keeps it on a given heading – with that one task off my list, I could control the rest much better.

After 15 minutes or so, the clouds lowered a bit, and I found myself skimming mere feet overtop of a perfectly flat solid layer of clouds. It’s incredible the feeling of speed when you’re just over the clouds instead of thousands of feet above the ground – it’s very similar to kayaking where the water is right there. I must confess that I fudged my altitude a bit – flying a lower altitude than I was supposed to in order to stay just above the clouds as long as I could. There was another layer above me at first, but that disappeared after a while, leaving me with solid clouds below and beautiful clear blue skies above. I remember why I got my instrument ticket now.

Just before Watertown VOR, the clouds raised up and I found myself back in solid clouds again, but non-wet, non-bumpy ones. Hey, I could actually hold heading and altitude without George here. Nice to know I still have the knack.

Just as I hit CYRIL, the clouds pretty much vanished. The Ottawa ATIS (Automated Terminal Information System) had clued me into this ahead of time, so I wasn’t surprised. But that meant that I wasn’t going to get a real instrument approach in. Oh well. I was cleared for the visual approach behind an MD-80. Oh well, I intercepted the ILS and flew it like an instrument approach, even though I could see everything. Flying the ILS also made sure the engine stayed at high revs like the break-in procedure recommended – I fly the ILS quite fast, basically keeping it at cruise speed until right over the numbers. I do it that way because it helps the controllers fit you into a busy traffic stream, and also the winds and bumps don’t throw you around as much. Of course you can only do that with a really long runway because you float for thousands of feet, but fortunately big airports with ILSes have long runways as a matter of course.

It was a great flight, it’s too bad I forgot my extra headsets so I can’t take my kids flying today.