Flying up to Ottawa

I flew to Ottawa today. A not particularly great day, but it beats the hell out of driving. The weather was pretty good up until the border, where the clouds starting filling in below me. Not a problem – that’s why I have an instrument rating after all. There had been an AIRMET for occassional moderate turbulence below 8,000 feet, and things were smooth at 9,000 feet. But soon after crossing the border Montreal Center wanted me down at 8,000 feet, and sure enough it was pretty bumpy down there. The clouds were solid with tops around 6,500 feet, and it was windy, so I think I was getting some sort of mechanical turbulance from the clouds. After a while bumping around at 8,000, they had me descent to 6,000 feet, which was in solid cloud. It was a little below freezing, but I was getting liquid water on the windshield, not ice. 10 or 15 minutes of that, and Ottawa terminal sent me down to 4,000 feet, which was below the clouds. I did the visual approach for runway 25. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to log an approach, but relieved I didn’t have to fly the approach for runway 25, which is a localizer back course (LOC BC) and I’ve never flown a back course in my life.
Along the way, I had some annoying little problems. First of all was the autopilot. I was planning to hand-fly the whole way just for the practice, but I snapped the autopilot on quickly while I set up the approach on my radios. It was fine for a while when suddenly the yoke started wobbling back and forth, and then it started turning off course. I moved the heading bug around, and it turned the other direction but went past the heading bug and headed off in the other direction. So I tried NAV mode, and it was worse – even though I was almost exactly centered on the selected radial, but it immediately started turning. I brought it back on course, engaged the NAV mode, and it turned in the other direction. So I guess the autopilot can be trusted for quick radio setups and the like, but not for anything extended. Another problem occured near the end of the flight, when I started getting a very loud sonar-like pinging though my headset. I couldn’t find any radio or navaid making that noise. Turning the intercom off got rid of it, though. The DG seemed to precess a lot as well.

The hardest part of making these weekend trips is trying to be reasonably sure I can get home afterwards. I love the national prog charts on the AOPA web site which go out 120 hours, but they’re available to AOPA members only so I won’t link them here. Almost as good are the ones on the Aviation Weather Center, but they only go out for 48 hours. So around Wednesday, I start looking at the AOPA site to see what my chances are. At first, it looked like the Sunday flight home was going to be VFR. Then it looked like it would be a bit rainy, with the VFR weather on Monday. Now it looks like Sunday and Monday morning are both going to be crappy, with clearing on Monday afternoon. Sunday shows a lot of snow showers along my route. But the temperature forecast is saying surface temperatures in the 40s. That makes me think that I can try in the clouds, and if I get icing, I can descend down to 3,000 feet which is a safe altitude here and the temperature will be above freezing.

Since getting my instrument rating, I haven’t flown much in winter, and so I have no experience judging whether clouds are going to give me icing problems or not. I’m hoping that by skirting around the periphery of icing problems, with a clear out to above freezing temperatures below, I can start to get some experience in that direction. Or maybe I’ll just get lucky and find an altitude between layers and not get any ice.

Bill Law

The NTSB Probable Cause report is out for the Bill Law fatal crash.

The summary reads

The National Tranportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows.
The pilot’s mismanagement of the fuel by his failure to select the proper fuel tank which resulted in starvation of subsequent loss of engine power in both engines.

The Factual report notes that the plane had run for 3 hours on the outboard fuel tanks, (which is just about the theoretical maximum for the fuel supply from those tanks) and that the Information Manual for this aircraft says not to use the outboard tanks for maneuvering flight such as take-off or landing when they’re less than half full because of the danger the tank outlets could “unport” and start sucking air. The inboard tanks were full, but were not selected.

The thought that such an experienced pilot as Bill could make such a mistake is chilling. But I can speculate that maybe the tank on the side of the engine that had just been serviced was the first one to run dry, and he thought it was a problem with the engine rather than checking his fuel selector.

I am thankful that the planes I fly have a much simpler fuel management system than that Piper Navajo – no inboard/outboard tank switching, no cross feeds, just a simple left/right switch. I also carry as much fuel as I can, even for a simple trip to Batavia.