Archive for May, 2009

Peeing in airplanes

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

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.

On to California

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

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.

A real cross-country flight

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

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.

Let’s Go Flying SR22 gets AmSafe airbag seatbelts

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

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.