College Park Airport’s first 100 years

August 31, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of College Park Airport.

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of College Park Airport.

Only 33 nautical miles away from AOPA’s headquarters, College Park Airport’s (CGS) 100th Anniversary AirFair was the nearest event for AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22.

The Aug. 29 event was the first centennial of any airport anywhere, as College Park in suburban Washington, D.C., is the world’s oldest continuously operating airport. And airport supporters outdid themselves with the unveiling of an exact re-creation of the Wright Brothers’ 1909 Flyer, the airplane that launched fixed-wing military aviation in the United States.

Actors in period dress helped re-create the look and feel of the early days of the green, leafy, tree-lined airport a stone’s throw from the University of Maryland campus.

An aerobatic display by veteran airshow performer Greg Koontz was a rare occurrence inside Washington’s highly regimented flight restricted zone, the inner wall of the already imposing special flight rules area (SFRA).

Even though the straight-line distance to College Park is short, getting there required getting TSA and FAA screening in advance. Fortunately, I’d been through that bureaucratic scavenger hunt last year, so the IFR flight planning and filing process the morning of the event was virtually identical to any other domestic trip.

Fog and low clouds blanketed the mid-Atlantic that morning, however, and had barely lifted enough (700 feet) by 10 a.m. to allow the Let’s Go Flying SR22 to make it there on time.

Even with clearance to enter the SFRA, it’s a bit unnerving to see all the red lines and warning areas graphically depicted on the multi-function display, and then intentionally cross them. The two Garmin 430W GPS units practically beg you not to with multiple warnings of “special-use airspace ahead,” and “inside special-use airspace.”

Our ATC-assigned route directed us to the KRANT intersection, which, according to the Avidyne MFD, looks like it’s located just about on top of the White House swing set.

“I can’t believe they want us to fly that close to the Capitol,” said fellow pilot Joey Colleran, director of AOPA’s Airport Support Network, as we flew along in the clouds, watching the miles count down.

I was hoping for a turn to start the RNAV/GPS Runway 15 approach before we got there, and thankfully, we were cleared to descend and begin the approach before anyone scrambled the F-16s.

The WAAS-derived vertical guidance on the approach made flying it extremely smooth and precise, and we broke out of the murk in plenty of time to see the airport. The winds were calm, and the deer that like to graze on the grass near the 2,600-foot runway were absent.

The clouds lifted throughout the late morning, and we got to see some exceptional flying and talk with some of the many dedicated people who have done so much to keep College Park open despite the onerous restrictions and pressure to close the historic gem.

More than a dozen volunteer pilots at College Park were giving airplane rides to a long line of visitors, even as the 5 p.m. deadline to finish the flights approached. Scores of first-time passengers had been introduced to general aviation already that day, but the volunteers couldn’t accommodate all of them before time ran out. Fortunately, enough of the volunteer pilots kept at it, filing their own individual flight plans for each trip, to ensure no one who wanted a first flight left the airport without one.

It’s that kind of generous, resourceful, and determined spirit that ensures that, despite the obstacles, College Park will extend its remarkable legacy.

Post your comments »

Where might the Cirrus show up next?

August 24, 2009 by Tom Haines

A quick call to friend and fellow pilot Tom Linton on Saturday, August 22, confirmed his participation in our all-day aviation immersion experience. I picked him up less than 12 hours later on Sunday morning and we headed to Maryland’s Frederick Municipal Airport. The Let’s Go Flying Sweepstaks Cirrus SR22 was tucked in Hangar A11. And I do mean “tucked.” The Cirrus’ 38-foot, four-inch wingspan leaves only about two feet on either side inside of the hangar. My biggest fears regarding the Cirrus have nothing to do with flying the airplane; it’s putting it back in the hangar.

Anyhow, we pulled the flashy sprinter out into the early morning mist, loaded her up, and headed northeast to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for Airport Community Days. The all-weekend event was lightly attended on Saturday because of testy weather. The air show had been moved to its rain date of Sunday.

We arrived after a quick flight from Frederick, with Tom getting his first flight in a Cirrus and a little stick time too from the right seat.

The effecient air show crew soon had us backed in front center between an A-10 Warthog and a Russian Beriev Be-103 low-wing amphbian. We were in good, albeit eclectic company.

Before the crowds arrived, Tom and I took a quick walk down the ramp, passing a peck glimmering of P-51s, a B-17 Liberator, a couple of more of the angry-looking A-10s, a fleet of World War II trainers from Fairchild, Grumman, and other iconic companies, and a big clutch of light sport airplanes.

Somebody somwhere threw open a gate and we were suddenly awash in people oogling the A-10 next door, kids crawling in and out of the Beriev, and AOPA members checking in on “their” Sweepstakes Cirrus.

Unlike AirVenture, Sun ’n Fun, and AOPA Aviation Summit, where the audience is predominantly pilots, the folks at the community days were mostly nonpilots. It was a target rich environment for engaging folks about the benefits of general aviation and letting them know what an airplane such as a Cirrus can do for them. Many had never fathomed that someone would or could own an airplane themselves. “What would you do with it?” was a common question. As one who is immersed in aviation and who routinely uses GA airplanes for business and personal travel, I was at first stunned that people didn’t know. But I quickly recovered and began evangelizing about the benefits of GA flying, taking some tips from AOPA’s GA Serves America campaign.

Almost an equal number of people expressed an interest in flight training, giving me an opporunity to tout the advantages of learning to fly—which is a part of the Let’s Go Flying theme of this year’s sweepstakes project.

Meanwhile, AOPA members were pleased to see the Cirrus and get a chance to peek inside after reading about it in AOPA’s magazines and on its Web sites all year.

I was glad Tom was there, because we were swamped—heavier traffic than we usually see at the big air shows. Tom is a consummate salesman and quickly picked up enough facts about the Cirrus to answer most of the routine questions. He backed me up all day long. Thanks, Tom!

After two different versions of the air show throughout the day, the crowds dwindled and the ground crew quickly got us pulled out on the taxiway for our quick flight home. A strangely intense isolated rainshower just southwest of Lancaster caused us to deviate a little westerly before turning to Frederick, giving Tom a little more Cirrus stick time as reward for his volunteering a day to the cause.

Back in Frederick, a helpful line guy helped us tuck those long wings back in the hangar, wing tips still intact and without a scrape.

What a fun day visiting a nicely organized local aviation event. If you see such an event in your region, make a point of going. You probably won’t be disappointed, and who knows, perhaps our Sweeps Cirrus will greet you on the ramp.

Post your comments »

Getting there is half the fun–and most of the challenge

July 28, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Crossing two Great Lakes, a right hook into Canada, and a safe arrival at OSH

Getting to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, from the Mid-Atlantic by Cirrus requires answering one central question: whether to fly over Lake Michigan, or around it?

Flying over the lake means being out of gliding range of either shore for about 20 minutes – but it also results in a shorter total distance, an efficient non-stop flight, and a mercifully brief period in Chicago Center’s busy airspace. Staying over land requires circumnavigating Chicago to the south and west, sometimes way south and way west, a fuel stop, and the associated descent, hot start, full-power climb, etc.

This year’s trip to OSH presented an especially challenging set of circumstances that, in the end, illustrated some of the AOPA’s 2009 Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes Cirrus SR22’s impressive capabilities.

For starters, fellow traveler Warren Morningstar and I would have to confront 30-knot headwinds over most of the route. A menacing line of thunderstorms would require a significant deviation north or south, and if we climbed near the airplane’s 17,000-foot service ceiling to extend our range, we’d be at, or close to the freezing level. And even though there were only two of us aboard, we’d be carrying so much gear for the show that the airplane would be near its 3,400-pound gross weight limit.

Warren took the left seat and handled the takeoff and climb like a pro, even though it was his first time flying an SR22. He hand flew the airplane to 12,000 feet and configured for a lean-of-peak cruise (164 KTAS at 12.4 gph). The headwind made its presence felt right away, but if we could continue our relatively straight line, we’d get to the big show with more than two hours of fuel remaining.

That’s when the XM Weather depiction on the Avidyne display gave us the bad news about the storm system ahead. A cold front in the Ohio Valley was spawning a big line of storms that stretched from southern Indiana well into central Michigan. The south edge of the front was thin but violent with red and purple radar echoes and numerous lightning strikes. The north side was wider, but the radar showed only greens and yellows representing light and moderate rain showers.

We had brought a pair of inflatable life preservers in anticipation of crossing Lake Michigan. Deviating around the approaching weather system north of Cleveland, Ohio, meant they’d be doubly useful as we’d cross Lake Erie as well.

Morningstar, who grew up in Utah, said he didn’t mind flying over the big bodies of water.

“At least it’s summer,” he said. “The water down there’s probably about as warm as it ever gets.”

We entered IMC and continuous light chop near Cleveland, and a nearby airliner reported light rime ice at 14,000 feet. The OAT indicators (two of them) in the Let’s Go Fling SR22 weren’t in complete agreement. The one on the PFD (which derives its information from a probe on the wing) indicated the air around us was within two degrees of freezing. The one on the MFD (which gets its data from a probe on the engine cowl) showed eight degrees F above.

“I wonder which one we should believe,” Morningstar said.

We continued north all the way into Canada before a wide gap allowed a west-bound turn toward Muskegon, Michigan. We stayed at 12,000 but soon began collecting traces of rime ice. The airplane’s TKS system removed the traces quickly from most of the wings and tail, but small amounts remained on the wing roots and tips.

The OAT on the PFD registered freezing while the one on the MFD registered six degrees above.

“I guess we know which one to believe now,” Morningstar quipped. (The OAT probe on the cowling was likely getting some heat from the engine.)

We could have descended to warmer air, but flickers of blue sky above showed we were near the tops of the clouds. We climbed to 14,000 feet and pushed our way westward in blue sky and smooth air. The higher altitude allowed us to reduce fuel consumption to 10 gph, and ground speed was virtually unchanged. We had sufficient fuel reserves to make our destination under normal conditions. But the often swarming VFR arrival into Oshkosh isn’t normal, and we didn’t want to enter the melee with anything less than two hours of fuel in the tanks.

The clouds disappeared over western Michigan allowing a clear view of the blue waters of Lake Michigan. We were on an IFR flight plan for Sheboygan on Wisconsin’s eastern shore (Oshkosh wasn’t accepting IFR arrivals), so we planned to cancel when we arrived overhead and then continue VFR to the big show.

Oshkosh had wisely put its ATIS information on an extraordinarily powerful transmitter and we were able to pick up the information more than 120 miles away. The winds were out of the west at 16 gusting to 23 knots and the ceiling was 4,600 broken.

Morningstar clicked off the autopilot and started a long descent over the lake. Shortly after reaching the Wisconsin shoreline, we ducked under a layer of cumulus clouds and bounced along toward Ripon and the well-known Fisk Arrival.

It had been several years since I last flew to Ripon, joined the conga line, and followed the railroad tracks to Fisk, then Oshkosh. But the well-written and illustrated Oshkosh notam made the process straightforward and easy to understand.

Morningstar took out his video camera to record the event, and I took over the flying duties.

Given the strong west winds and relatively light traffic (for Oshkosh, anyway), I assumed we’d be landing on Runway 27, and I’d pre-programmed the radio frequencies accordingly. As we approached Fisk, however, the Cherokee Six in front of us was assigned Runway 36, and we got the same instruction.

One frequency change brought us to Oshkosh Tower South, and we were told to land on the “yellow dot” about half way down the runway.

The Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22 and its highly authoritative rudder pushed back against the crosswind and held the centerline. Moments later, Oshkosh volunteers directed us to AeroShell Square where we shut down the engine. The Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22 still had 24.1 gallons of fuel remaining after 4.8 hours in the air.

The ground crew tugged the airplane to the Big Yellow AOPA Tent for its weeklong display.

We were pleased to open the airplane to the highly knowledgeable and airplane savvy visitors that Oshkosh attracts, and glad to answer questions about the many modifications that have been made to the Let’s Go Flying SR22 in recent weeks. The Forward Vision EVS-100 infrared camera system and its pop-up display screen drew the most curiosity, and AOPA members also wanted to know about the in the AmSafe airbag seatbelts and S-Tec roll autopilot roll servos.

We didn’t intend to add so many new products and upgrades to what was already a fantastic airplane when philanthropist J. Lloyd Huck donated it in late 2008. But each modification has improved the airplane’s already impressive performance and utility.

And when you see it at AOPA Summit in Tampa Nov. 5 -7, the Let’s Go Flying Cirrus SR22 is likely to be sporting a few more improvements.

Old habits are hard to break.

Post your comments »

Chrissy’s Vinyl Wrap

July 14, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

When Alex Kosloff, owner, builder, and pilot of an experimental Pulsar based in Santa Paula, Calif., saw the vinyl graphics on the AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22, he decided to one-up us.

Instead of parroting the distinctive, eye-catching scheme designed and installed by AirGraphics LLC, he decided to get an entire vinyl wrap for his airplane. It’s tempting to say he parroted our design, but his inspiration is actually his own pet Cockatoo—a bird named Crystal. (That’s a photo of Crystal on the Pulsar’s tail.)

Kosloff said the graphics cost less than aircraft paint and avoided much of the down time.

“The cost was about 10 percent less than a paint job,” he said. “It was done in one-tenth the time, weighs about half as much, is eco-friendly, and is more impact resistant.”

Koslov plans to fly his Pulsar to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., at the end of this month.

Post your comments »

Flying the Soldier

June 22, 2009 by Dave Hirschman
Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Paratroopers tend to regard airplanes as good for takeoffs only. So it was no surprise that Sgt. Joshua Ben, a youthful, former cavalry scout in the 82nd Airborne Division, cast a wary eye on AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22 before boarding it at Florida’s Orlando Executive Airport.

Ben, 22, an Afghanistan combat veteran, won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart there in 2007 after losing his right leg in an ambush. He’s in the process of moving from the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., to Orlando where he’ll become a full-time student at the University of Central Florida in the fall. But on this warm June night, he needed to return to Walter Reed for some additional medical treatment—and that’s where the Let’s Go Flying SR22 came in.

The Veterans’ Airlift Command, a group founded to link general aviation volunteers with wounded veterans in need of transportation, put us together via the Internet. Ben and I met at the Showalter Aviation terminal, and I gave him a quick introduction to the Let’s Go Flying SR22.

“I’ve jumped out of C-130s and C-17s before, but I’ve never flown in anything quite like this,” he said.

When I told Ben that our aircraft was equipped with a ballistic parachute that could bring the entire aircraft down safely in an emergency, he warmed to the idea immediately.

Climbing up the step and onto the wing was no problem for the compact, square-jawed soldier with the athletic build, and he quickly eased his body into the right seat. Getting his prosthetic leg inside the airplane, however, required a trick that only a modern amputee would know. Ben pushed a button on his high-tech leg that allowed him to rotate the knee forward and fold it like a pocketknife. He was soon strapped in and we were taxiing to Runway 7 for departure on a marathon five-hour flight to Frederick, Md., AOPA’s headquarters (about 40 miles from Walter Reed).

It was already 9 p.m., and the sun had just disappeared as the Let’s Go Flying SR22 got off the ground.

Ben had flown in a Cessna 172 once as a young teen near his family’s home in Columbia, Mo. He asked a few questions about the futuristic, glass-panel SR22, and caught on to the GPS navigation system immediately. A moving map showed our route would take us over Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., then inland over the Carolinas and Virginia to Maryland.

Level at 11,000 feet and 160 KTAS with the engine using 11.4 gallons an hour, the Avidyne Entegra avionics system showed that we’d arrive at our destination with nearly two hours of fuel remaining, despite a 20-knot headwind.

“Once you take off, it looks like there’s not much to do until it’s time to land,” Ben said.

Even though not required by regulation, we strapped on the clear nose hoses from a portable, two-place Mountain High oxygen system. Ben had spent 12 months at high elevations in Afghanistan before being wounded in October 2007, and he said he was beginning to recognize the physiological effects: colors on the moving map were getting less vibrant, and the small numbers on the screen were blurry. The oxygen cleared that up right away.

We had originally planned to make the flight the following day—but a forecast calling for violent weather prodded us to move up our departure time. The XM Weather on the Avidyne multifunction display showed monstrous thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley, but we were scheduled to arrive at our Mid-Atlantic destination well before the nasty weather.

Ben plans to study forensic science in preparation for a law enforcement career. It’s a big change from military life, and one he didn’t plan for before being wounded.

While serving as a gunner atop an armored Humvee, Ben and his platoon were ambushed on a narrow road by scores, possibly hundreds, of Taliban fighters. A dozen U.S. soldiers including Ben were wounded in the attack. A rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the side of his vehicle and wrecked his right leg in an instant. It happened so fast, he said, that he felt no pain at the time. Ben’s body armor protected him from most of the bullets that struck him, but one pierced his abdomen. Fortunately, it didn’t damage any organs, and doctors were able to remove the bullet during surgery. Ben, the future forensic scientist, keeps the nearly perfectly preserved AK-47 round in a specimen jar at home.

Ben credits a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt pilots for helping save him and his fellow soldiers with well-timed strafing passes.

“The sound of those Gatling guns was like music to us,” he said. “No one who hears them that close ever forgets the sound.”

Ben reclined his seat and slept for parts of our marathon SR22 flight. I was a poor host with few snacks or beverages to offer. Ben declined everything but a half stick of Doublemint gum.

The flight was the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s first in actual darkness since its new Forward Vision infrared camera system was installed at Lancaster Avionics, and it worked beautifully. There was little to see at altitude except a few scattered clouds. But as we descended over the Catoctin Mountains, the image on the glareshield-mounted, pop-up screen clearly showed the Catoctin’s curvy contours.

And on an ILS approach to Runway 23 at Frederick with visibility reported as four miles in mist, the lone obstacles—a pair of grain silos a mile from the threshold—showed up as bright as daylight.

“Just like NVGs,” Ben said, referring to the night vision goggles U.S. soldiers commonly wear in the field.

We tied the airplane down on the vacant ramp and loaded our bags in my car. Ben spent what remained of that night in our guest room, and my wife and two kids, ages 10 and 13, were excited to meet him at breakfast. Ben gave my son a few skateboarding tips before we began the hour-long drive to Washington, D.C.

The drive turned out to be the scariest part of our entire trip as the storms we had avoided with our early departure finally caught up with us.

“I’m glad we’re not flying through this,” Ben said during a cloudburst on Interstate 270.

Ben guided me among the winding roads at Walter Reed and soon had us at Malogne House, the temporary home of America’s wounded warriors as they remake themselves for the next phases of their interrupted lives. It’s a place of indescribable tragedy and triumph, and Ben appeared instantly at home among his brave fellows there.

As a member of the GA community, it’s a privilege to use the mobility we so enjoy on behalf of a young man who has made such a terrible sacrifice for his country.

Post your comments »

Home again in the sweeps SR22

June 1, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

The Let’s Go Flying SR22 is tucked back in its hangar at Frederick, Md., after a coast-to-coast-to-coast journey that showed general aviation’s exciting new possibilities from the Chesapeake Bay to the Golden Gate and back again.

The two-week odyssey spanned the Appalachians, Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Rocky, Wasatch, and Sierra-Nevada, scorching Southwest and soggy Southeast. The airplane got a exterior makeover in Middleton, Wis., was on display at Watsonville, Calif., on the Monterey Bay, and stopped in Memphis, Tenn., on the banks of the Mississippi River, where AOPA Pilot staffers researched a magazine article and produced a video on a fascinating family of agricultural fliers there.

The cross-country portion of the trip included eight takeoffs and landings, six time zones, and about 34 total flight hours. The Let’s Go Flying SR22 flew at altitudes all the way up to its service ceiling of 17,000 feet topping the snow-capped Sierras near Mt. Whitney’s 14,505-foot summit, and its broad windows offered panoramic views of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan, Great Salt Lake, Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and San Francisco Bay.

But now that it’s over, it’s easy to recognize that the most valuable and lasting part of the trip wasn’t the majestic scenery, America’s grandeur, or learning the nuances of the sleek, technologically advanced aircraft that some fortunate aviator is going to win in January (although those aspects were certainly enjoyable). The truly magical part of GA travel was the ability to connect with geographically far-flung family and friends and tend to some of the bonds that time, distance, and our ceaseless busyness erode.

In California, I got to share the cockpit with my sister-in-law Loree, a former U.S. Navy pilot. That was a treat in itself, as was seeing her amazement at the glass-panel revolution that has given modern GA airplanes navigational and collision-avoidance tools that surpass anything in the S-3 Viking and F/A-18 Hornet jets she used to fly.

I also spent most of an afternoon with an old friend whose feelings I had needlessly hurt years ago. She came along on a photo flight over the San Francisco Bay on a sparkling afternoon, and any bitterness or awkwardness from that long-ago period was vanquished by the time we landed. My mom, a private pilot since 1968, wanted (and got) a detailed explanation of the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s Avidyne Entegra avionics system on the ramp one evening; and my five- and seven-year-old niece and nephew got to explore every inch of the composite aircraft when it was on display at Palo Alto Airport.

In Memphis, I had the privilege of introducing AOPA colleagues, Tom Haines and Warren Morningstar, to the amazingly talented, resourceful, and lively group of GA pilots who helped me get started in flying when I lived there for 10 years ending in 1999. David Peeler hosted a cookout at Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport near downtown Memphis that brought together an uncommon assortment of agricultural, airline, aerobatic, and warbird pilots and families for an absolutely delightful evening.

Haines, editor in chief of AOPA publications, flew the Let’s Go Flying SR22 on the eastbound, transcontinental flight home. He had much to contend with in terms of changing weather, strong winds, and high terrain, and he used all the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s considerable tools to deal with ice over southern Nevada, thunderstorms across Arkansas, and powerful, shifting winds in the canyons of Arizona.

Haines owns and flies a GNS 530-equipped Bonanza, so he quickly mastered the dual GNS 430Ws that drive the Avidyne Entegra avionics system in the Let’s Go Flying SR22. He also flew simulated or actual IFR approaches at Sedona, Memphis, and Frederick.

The final 4.1-hour leg of the trip home took us up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the craggy hills were invisibly draped beneath a thick blanket of clouds from Tennessee all the way to Maryland and beyond. I amused myself by snapping photos of some of the more dramatic cloud formations along our path. We arrived at our home field about 30 minutes before the first in a series of towering cumulus clouds brought more rain to a now-vibrantly green region.

Even though Tom and I were anxious to get home to our families, we lingered in the hangar for a time wiping the bugs and road grime off the Let’s Go Flying SR22 and getting the airplane fueled, oiled, and ready for its next adventure.

The Let’s Go Flying SR22 looks no worse for the wear after its long, sometimes challenging, and richly rewarding U.S. circuit. It’s an amazing aircraft that not only can carry people safely and comfortably across continents—but also brings us together.

Post your comments »

Peeing in airplanes

May 22, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Airplane designers have gone to extreme lengths over the last 100 years to make airplanes fly faster, farther, and more efficiently.

We’re now blessed with general aviation airframes capable of flying four or five hours or more at a stretch – far beyond the bladder capacity of most pilots and passengers. Do the designers mean for us to squirm and grit our teeth? Dehydrate ourselves? Should we stop every couple of hours for bathroom breaks and forgo the smooth air, cool temperatures and operating efficiency that come with high altitude?

Of course not.

Pilots are supposed to stay hydrated and comfortable on long flights – even in airplanes without lavatories. But it takes a little planning. And a few bottled sports drinks, an autopilot, and ride reports that warn of turbulence ahead sure can help.

Still, many general aviation pilots absolutely refuse to pee in airplanes, and they plan cross-country trips with the endurance of their bladders – not aircraft performance – in mind. After completing a recent four-leg, 16-hour, cross-country trip, several experienced pilots wrote to say that such a journey would have been impossible for them due to required potty stops. When I landed and shut down after a particularly long flight, the person who met the airplane (and had been watching its progress on volunteered to tie the airplane down anticipating that the pilot had to sprint to a bathroom immediately.

Cross-country flights are complicated enough without putting potty breaks in the equation.

Here are a few tips that (although kind of gross) can make long-distance flights a lot more bearable. But first, a couple of qualifiers: I’m a guy, and I approach the subject from a male perspective. Also, this article doesn’t address questions of etiquette for multi-crew airplanes or what’s appropriate when flying with your mother in law.

Relief tubes

World War II-era military airplanes, even trainers with limited range and endurance, almost all came with “relief tubes” as standard equipment. The arrangements were brilliantly simple: a funnel clipped to the bottom of each seat was attached to a rubber hose that drained out the bottom of the fuselage.

The contraptions were hard to miss, easy to use, and relied on gravity alone. They weren’t perfect. Hoses got kinked, blocked, separated, or frozen. But they worked well for many years, and it’s a mystery to me why long-range GA airplanes never incorporated them.

The high-tech solution

A variety of firms make “piddle packs” that contain a sponge or powder meant to absorb urine. Military pilots use them on long trips.

But they’re more expensive, harder to find, and problematic than other means of solving the same problem. Also, the powder inside can spill or lose its absorbency.

I was on a long flight with a fellow AOPA staffer once who was planning to write a review on one such product. He put it to the test over Lake Michigan (funny how the large bodies of water affect us). To say it didn’t work as advertised would be an understatement.

I hope no one who ever flies that airplane knows its history. (Your secret is safe with me, Nate Ferguson!)


I don’t have any preference when it comes to flavor or electrolytes. But sports drinks are perfect for the cockpit due to the shape of the bottles. They have large openings, so their advantages for guys with poor aim are obvious.

Bottled water is easy to find at most FBOs these days – but their small openings can be problematic, especially in turbulence.

The downside to these kinds of plastic bottles is that they’re clear. Once you’ve filled one, you’ve got to find a way to discreetly dispose of it (and dropping bottles from airplanes in flight is extremely tacky). I usually slip the full bottles into a canvas bag and empty them in an FBO bathroom, but I’m ever fearful a cap will come undone.

Also, beware changes in atmospheric pressure. A bottle filled and capped at high altitude will tend to crumple in a descent. That’s usually not a big deal – but watch out for the reverse situation. If you fill, or partially fill the bottle, then climb, the air inside will expand and build pressure inside the bottle. If you’ve ever a bag of potato chips explode at 10,000 or 12,000 feet, you know what I’m talking about.

Empty one-quart oil bottles have the advantage of being opaque, and such bottles also have a clear seam meant to show fluid levels. They would be ideal for in-flight relief — except for the fact that they, like water bottles, have small openings. (Murphy’s Law also creates the real and unpleasant possibility of mistaking a repurposed bottle for actual oil the next time your engine’s a quart low).

Say your intentions

There’s an ongoing debate about the proper times to use autopilots – but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re a godsend when it’s time to go.

Still, no matter how long the radio frequency has been silent, it’s virtually guaranteed that ATC will call with an advisory or reroute at your most exposed and vulnerable moment. That’s why it’s a good idea to let ATC know you’ll be leaving the frequency momentarily (no, they don’t want or need to know why) before getting too far into the process. ATC will ask you to “check back on” in a few minutes, and that’s what you should do. Your voice is likely to sound noticeably lower and more relaxed when you call.

ATC also can be helpful in providing ride reports for the area ahead. Smooth air definitely simplifies matters, especially if getting down to business requires loosening or unlatching seatbelts.

XM Weather on some GPS units and multi-function displays also show areas of turbulence, so plan accordingly.

Half full

Flying at relatively high altitudes dehydrates you faster and increases fatigue levels, so it’s important to keep drinking on long trips. But it’s better to have one or two half-full sports drinks than one full bottle for a simple reason. When the time comes, you don’t want to have to guzzle an entire sports drink just to free up the bottle. This isn’t a zero-sum game. If you drink 12 ounces, make sure you have an empty 16- or 24-ounce bottle nearby.

This is one of those times not to press your luck – and a half-full bottle is better than a full one.

Post your comments »

On to California

May 21, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Four takeoffs, four landings, 16 flight hours, and about 210 gallons of avgas.

Some aspects of general aviation flying are easy to quantify, but the 2009 AOPA Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22’s trip from Frederick, Maryland, to Watsonville, California, like any air journey, is much more than the numbers in a logbook entry.

The modern, GA airplane’s first stop was Middleton, Wisconsin, 625 nm and across Lake Michigan against a headwind, for a new graphic design that will be part of a high-profile campaign to raise awareness of GA’s contributions to the American economy. The airplane’s bold message is sure to resonate as AOPA and other aviation organizations change the tone of the discussion and focus on jobs, innovation, productivity, and aspirations that GA provides.

Leaving Wisconsin, the Let’s Go Flying SR22 was cleared direct to Ainsworth, Nebraska, more than 400 nm away. But with lighter-than-anticipated headwinds and an economical, 11.5-gallon-an-hour fuel burn at 12,000 feet, the airplane easily covered 150 additional miles to Sidney, Nebraska. Looking down at the ocean of land along the way, it was easy to imagine the buffalo herds that once covered them, and the native Americans who lived there for thousands of years. Next, the Missouri River came into view, and little about the waterway seems to have changed since it carried Lewis and Clark and their fellow searchers on their perilous voyage of discovery. To the south, trains were still traversing the transcontinental railway, and the epic ambitions and effort it took to build it are still awe inspiring.

Scattered but intense thunderstorms were approaching western Nebraska from the southwest, so after a brief fuel stop, it was time to continue west. Rising, increasingly barren terrain became wavy, windswept mountains in Wyoming, and then the SR22 vaulted the jagged Wasatch Mountains in Utah. Approaching Provo, a golden sunset and patchy rain created brilliant rainbows against the mountain backdrop.

The next morning brought the final, 571-nm leg to Palo Alto Airport–and a direct route across the Sierra Nevadas requiring a long climb to 16,000 feet, just 1,000 feet below the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s service ceiling.

A portable Mountain High oxygen system made the three hours at high altitude possible, and comfortable.

At 16,000 feet, full throttle (16.4 inches manifold pressure), 2,700 rpm, and the mixture set 50 degrees lean of peak, the Let’s Go Flying SR22 was traveling at 165 ktas (126 kias) and burning less than 11 gallons an hour. At that power setting, the airplane (which carries 84 gallons of fuel) could have continued flying more than six hours.

The route took the airplane just north of Tonopah, Nevada, and the remote, dry, lake beds where formerly secret military aircraft such as the F-117 Stealth Fighter and U-2 flew. Then the snowy Sierra passed underneath with a dramatic, downward view of the incomparable Yosemite Valley. ATC asked for a steady descent across California’s Central Valley, and over the oak-covered hills to the Silicon Valley at southern edge of the San Francisco Bay.

Landing at Palo Alto (PAO), the Let’s Go Flying Cirrus had more than 34 gallons of fuel remaining. It’s currently parked front-and-center at Advantage Aviation, a thriving flying club, where it will be on display until it makes the short hop to Watsonville.

It’s been a wondrous, eye-opening trip so far.

I’m looking forward to the east-bound return trip (and maybe even a tailwind!) next week . . .

Safe arrival at Palo Alto Airport.

Safe arrival at Palo Alto Airport.

Half Dome

Half Dome

California's Yosemite Valley.

California's Yosemite Valley.

Approaching the Sierra Nevadas.

Approaching the Sierra Nevadas.

Climbing to 16,000 feet over Nevada.

Climbing to 16,000 feet over Nevada.

On the ILS approach to Runway 13, Provo, Utah.

On the ILS approach to Runway 13, Provo, Utah.

Rainbow over Provo, Utah.

Rainbow over Provo, Utah.

Fuel stop in Sidney, Nebraska, with some ominous clouds moving in.

Fuel stop in Sidney, Nebraska, with some ominous clouds moving in.

En route to Utah at 12,000 feet.

En route to Utah at 12,000 feet.

Over the Wasatch Mountains, approaching Salt Lake City.

Over the Wasatch Mountains, approaching Salt Lake City.

Post your comments »

A real cross-country flight

May 19, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Pilots tend to revert to regulatory definitions—even when the terms we’re using are perfectly descriptive.

This week, for example, the AOPA 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22 is going on a cross-country flight. Most pilots take that to mean 50 miles, the minimum distance required to meet the FAA cross-country definition. But this is an actual, cross-the-continent cross-country.

On May 17 the SR22 was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. In a couple days, it will be in Watsonville, Calif., for the annual, vintage aircraft-flavored airshow on Memorial Day weekend.

The west-bound portion of the trip began May 18, and it’s off to a promising start.

The first leg was a four-hour, nonstop hop from AOPA’s home base in Frederick, Md., to Middleton, Wis., a Madison suburb. Members who have been following this year’s sweepstakes will recognize Middleton as the home of Air Graphics LLC, the firm that designed and applied the distinctive vinyl color scheme that makes the Let’s Go Flying airplane so recognizable.

Well, the folks at Air Graphics LLC have designed an equally bold new statement meant to draw attention to the vital GA Serves America campaign that AOPA is leading. Our goal is to show the world how important GA is to the American economy, and the Let’s Go Flying SR22 is going to carry the GA Serves American banner proudly—starting May 19.

The airplane’s festive vinyl graphics have been stripped clean. Under the hot blast from a pair of heat guns, the graphics withered away, leaving only the bare, white, composite skin. The airplane looks like a winged Moby Dick as it awaits its new colors. I’ve got to admit to feeling more than a twinge of sadness seeing the baby blue script come off. I had come to identify with it since it was first applied in January. But the new graphics will be equally recognizable—maybe even more so—and provide a bold rallying point for pilots and aviation supporters everywhere.

Real-world conditions

A cross-country flight is also the best way to really test the performance of an airplane and learn how it operates under real-world conditions.

The Let’s Go Flying SR22 really shines on a long trip.

The airways route to Middleton’s Morey Field (C29) is 625 nm. That’s a long way for most GA airplanes, and this one was especially challenging because a 20-knot headwind covered most of the route. Considering the fact that a late portion of the flight is over Lake Michigan, the route requires an airplane with outstanding range and endurance.

At full power and climbing to 10,000 feet over West Virginia, the SR22 swills down about 24 gallons of avgas an hour. The binge is mercifully short, however, because of the airplane’s climb rate of more than 1,000 fpm at a cruise climb speed of 120 KIAS.

At 10,000 feet, leaned to an economy cruise setting (60-percent power, 2,500 rpm, 50 degrees lean of peak) the engine was loafing (EGTs: 1,400 degrees, CHT: 270 degrees, OAT: -5 degrees Celsius) while burning 12.8 gallons of avgas an hour and traveling 168 KTAS. Even with the headwind, the range was sufficient to reach the distant destination with more than 90 minutes of fuel in the tanks.

The news got better, however, as the headwind turned into a crosswind over Ohio, and then a slight tailwind over Indiana.

Chicago Center made things interesting with a re-route that took the SR22 way out over the deep, blue water (is that why they call it the “brave” intersection?). Along the way, ATC vectored the airplane northbound, over the middle of the lake, to the watery Michigan-Illinois-Wisconsin border.

The SR22 has a 9.6:1 glide ratio. At an altitude of 10,000 feet with light winds, that meant the airplane could cover about 20 miles if it suddenly became a glider. Using the magic of the Avidyne Entegra MFD, I put the airplane in the center of the moving map and set the range ring to 20 miles. The airplane was beyond gliding range of the shore for just 18 minutes. But still, it was nice to see the Wisconsin shoreline come into view.

The trip had gone so smoothly that there had to be a challenge lurking. It became apparent when ATIS foretold a gusty, 21-knot surface wind at Morey Field—and it was a direct crosswind. The airport has a 2,000-foot turf runway that was oriented into the wind. But there was a steady rain falling, and I didn’t want to the Cirrus to get stuck in the mud. The airport was visible 10 miles away, and the SR22 handled the crosswind with aplomb.

After flying just short of four hours, the SR22 touched down with 30 gallons of avgas in the tanks.

The airplane is a joy to fly and an incredible traveler.

It doesn’t just change the scenery. It changes the time zones (and the weather!). And if you thought you knew this airplane, take another look. You may not recognize it the next time you see it.

Post your comments »

Let’s Go Flying SR22 gets AmSafe airbag seatbelts

May 5, 2009 by Dave Hirschman

Pilots have long been known to harbor an incongruous mix of fatalism and optimism.

We’re fatalists in the sense that we know aircraft accidents will happen. We’re optimists because we believe they won’t happen to us.

Consider the case of airbags for airplanes.

Even though seatbelt-mounted air bags have become standard equipment in many new airplanes—including new Cirrus SR22s—I was pleased by the fact that AOPA’s 2009 Let’s Go Flying SR22 didn’t have them. The seatbelts in the 2005 model SR22-G2 are made from soft material, and they’re comfortable to wear on long cross-country flights. You can cinch them down firmly in turbulence. They’re just normal, the way aircraft seatbelts have always been.

But a visit from the folks at AmSafe, the world’s leading seatbelt supplier, changed several minds at AOPA about the safety value of airbag seatbelts, including mine, and I’m pleased to say the Let’s Go Flying SR22 is getting a new set of seatbelts, with airbags, in June when Landmark Aviation, a Cirrus service center in Frederick, Md., installs them.

AmSafe has been making automotive seatbelts for many years, and they’ve been installing them in aircraft since 2001, mostly in airliners and business jets. They’ve also moved into general aviation, however, and their products are now found in new Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, and Mooney singles. Seatbelt airbags have already saved several lives in GA, and they’ll doubtless save more as the technology becomes more widespread.

I always assumed that aircraft accidents took place at such high speeds that the presence of an airbag was unlikely to make a difference in survivability. It turns out that’s not true. Many aircraft mishaps would be survivable with airbags. And pilots and passengers could walk away from some pretty horrendous takeoff and landing accidents if their airplanes were airbag equipped.

I didn’t have to look outside my immediate family for an example. My brother, Harry, was a passenger in a Cessna 180 that crashed high in the Sierra Nevada a decade ago. He and a friend were returning by air from a camping trip when they decided to take a close look at a high-elevation landing strip. The problem came when the pilot (a highly experienced aviator) lowered the Cessna’s flaps in preparation for a touch-and-go landing. The airplane started to settle, and in the thin air, it wouldn’t hold altitude even at full power. They were heading toward a clearing and had almost made it when the airplane hit a tree and cart-wheeled.

Harry’s face hit the instrument panel, and he’s got an impressive scar in his forehead and some missing teeth as a memento. The pilot fared worse with a broken wrist and jaw. Their rescue was a story in itself, but afterward, they both spent the better part of a week in intensive care. Had their airplane been equipped with airbags, their injuries almost certainly would have been less severe.

AmSafe belts can now be installed as a retrofit on most existing airframes including SR22s. And I’ve got the feeling that they’ll become an even more popular product in the future—especially if aircraft insurance companies get on board and offer lower rates for airbag-equipped airframes.

There’s never been an inadvertent or uncommanded airbag deployment on an aircraft. They don’t pop out in turbulence, or firm landings. It takes bent metal to fire them, and the deployment is virtually instantaneous—much quicker than the blink of an eye.

Let’s hope the future occupants of the gorgeous Let’s Go Flying SR22 never use the AmSafe airbags we’re installing; but I’ll feel better flying it knowing they’re there.

Post your comments »