Thursday, June 30, 2011

Waiting on weather

Not dead, not gone yet. Just waitin' on weather. There was a beautiful day - but I was down sick. There was another beautiful day - and I was still trying to get over the sick. I got healthy, and the weather's been down.

Today, the weather here is good, the weather at Tok and Northway is... passable VFR... and Mentasta pass is "Um, I think I see a little sunlight coming under those clouds, maybe..."

Not that I've been grounded - I took a fellow apprentice mechanic flying, and it was as rewarding to see the fun she was having as it was to fly. She helped rebuild the tailwheel and overhaul my brakes, among other help, so it was fun to let her take the controls and enjoy the feel of being in the air in something she'd worked on.

Yesterday, I went up with The Gunny, but I was the least important passenger in the plane - the most important one was the eagle scout sitting up front, who was completing his aviation merit badge, and his father sitting behind him. The Gunny's right - you do get to see a lot more when you're an interested passenger instead of the pilot focusing on the runway coming up.

Today, if able, The Gunny and I may take his plane to Talkeetna for lunch. I'll mail out a last few items - tomorrow I'll drop off the town car my favorite park ranger in the whole wide world has let me borrow. And if I'm not gone by Saturday, unless we're socked in solid, I'll be going as far as I can, even if I have to camp, to get out of here twenty or a hundred or three hundred miles at a time.

I miss my husband. Alaska's glorious, but it's time to be gone, to be home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Homer Trip

The weather has been less than stellar, and I needed a long cross-country trip to really get the feel for fuel burn when going places, not in the pattern or hanging around something at a slow speed. The Gunny and I have long wanted to give each other rides in our airplanes, trips dreamed of when our birds both sat under extensive maintenance in the same hangar. We picked a day, and it spawned miserable weather. As the day wore on, the clouds lifted from MVFR to fully VFR, and with the long sunlight of almost-solstice, it seemed like the best chance was to seize the moment. If all the passes are closed, straight south along the mountains to Homer was opening up.

Going south across Turnagain Arm, I couldn't climb as high as I'd like for a water crossing - there were solid clouds in the way. My fuel burn may be a little rich for better weather, as the following picture shows well why carb heat was pulled practically from takeoff to landing.

click to embiggen; the pictures look better when bigger!

Fortunately, we didn't have to go directly through much rain, and the rest of the way was more like this:

The Gunny is a helicopter pilot. Yes, he has a "seized-wing" airplane he loves, but rotor-wing is addictive enough that it's very rare to find someone who'll identify with fixed-wing at heart if they have both ratings. Like most rotor-wing pilots, especially those who learned their training for environments where people are shooting at them, he prefers a flight altitude of about ten feet below tree level. I prefer about 2000 AGL as a cruising altitude. When he had the controls, this meant we compromised, if not without some good-natured teasing.

Skilak Lake

Lake Tustamena. If anything, the camera washed out the startlingly bright shade of blue that comes with the rock flour in the glacial meltwater.

South of Tustamena, the land rises in a giant swelling dome of rock wreathed in clouds. We tucked toward the mountains, taking the channel carved by massive glaciers before, following meltwater rivers down to Katchemak Bay.

No photos of the Bay itself, though it is very impressive - about the time we came in range of Homer's CTAF, got the ATIS, and got ready to enter a long final, another plane reported in behind me. I know the plane, and it's owner, and it's a fast, impressive hauling machine. (I keep thinking it's a twin. It's not, but the owner does work all over the state, and it hauls everywhere from Nome to Dillingham to Kodiak to Yakutat every day there's a job.) So I was more interested in flying the plane and reporting my position to the other traffic than taking pictures.

(He didn't spot me until I was on the runway - if he had, I would have arranged for him to overtake me. But he couldn't find my bright yellow plane, so he ended up doing a 360 for spacing, despite starting 8 miles behind me at the first report. He's fast.)

With my new nifty phone with internet, I looked up a cab company, and used the highest-tech, most-reliable method for finding a great restaurant: ask the cabbie. It worked, too - Fat Olives is a great restaurant. Some really good food and strong coffee later, we returned to the airport.

On the way back, we went the long way, stopping at Kenai for the utter luxury of flush toilets. Sure, I could have landed at some short strip and used the weeds, but honestly? I like hot running water and civilization. I should have decided to put my bulky jacket back on when getting in the cockpit, but it wasn't until the next day that I'd realize I was already falling sick. The cabin heat, despite its legendary weakness, actually served well enough to keep our feet warm, and as we got closer to home, the sun drew down to hover below the cloud deck, spilling golden evening sunshine across the world and painting the mountains in burgundies and claret.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inner Lake George

By the Knik Glacier - a good place to land later, in dryer weather. Wide, flat, long open approaches, nestled btween the terminal moraine for one glacier and the Knik Glacier below.

Flew to Homer last night, with The Gunny. Ate at Fat Olive's, good food, even better company. Didn't put jacket back on after stopping in Kenai for a brief break, caught something that's kicking my immune system.

Will post pictures soonish. More hot tea now. Anyone looking for pre-war Taylorcraft wing parts? Have some for sale.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Coffee and Glacier Run

The rain drifted down in a light mist, barely enough to notice on the windscreen, while north of Palmer it was an opaque veil obscuring the mountains and the ground below. It made the day seem dimmer, grainy, washed-out like a bad photograph taken too quickly.

But the clouds had lifted while we'd had coffee at the Vagabond Blues in Palmer, so on the way out we turned left instead of right, and went up the meltwater river to the glaciers that spawned it.

The picnic table strip is at the terminal moraine for the Knik Glacier - some enterprising soul ran a picnic table up on a jetboat some years ago. Last I heard, the main strip is so well-used that it's rutted and rough. People have actually started landing on "the alternate strip" often enough it's becoming the new picnic table strip. On the other hand, the main one is the easy one to spot from the air.

Carrying the mountains down to the sea in a reverse skunk stripe, the glacier touches my bones with a bit of cold no engine heat in the cabin can erase. Wind leaking in every crack and space brings the scent of ice, ground rock, age, and implacable force.

Going down the valley on the way home, the ground dropping away beneath my feet, with thousands of spots to land beneath, I always feel a little internal sigh of relief.

No landing at the Upper Lake George strip today - the old dry lake bed was not nearly so dry right now, and I'm new enough to my airplane and low-time enough I know when I'm out of my depths. It was enough, anyway, to satisfy my passenger's sightseeing desires.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Case of the Howling Cowling

Blame Calmer Half for the title - he thought it up, and it was just facepalm-inducing enough to convey my feelings of the past week.

The alternator came back from bench testing with a clean bill of health, but when I flew the airplane for three circuits, the high shrill whine was still there. (Softer, though - it was no longer washing out my voice when transmitting, just really annoying.) I came back, talked it over with the IA, and he suggested a longer flight, and trying turning off the field switch, then the master switch entirely, to see if that changed anything.

It didn't. What did change, however, was the level of noise when I started doing some rusty dutch rolls, yawing the nose wildly left and right. Waitaminute...

I landed, called my IA with much chagrin - because a high metallic whine that changes with airflow over the cowling is likely to be... the cowling. It only appears at high RPMs, because that's when the vibration is worst against the front piece and the fuselage. I recalled, then, that there had been some very ratting clear tape - it looked like packing tape - on the edge of the cowling. Between a puppy that likes to chew loose things and a mechanic whom I remember pulling the "loose trash" off... a cowling suddenly bereft of its anti-chafe tape chafes miserably, with a high metallic shriek of tortured metal.


So, out comes the can of brakeclean and paper towel, to take off the last lingering remnants, note the shiny spots and dirty where the top cowl has been rubbing hard, and start prepping surfaces to take brand-new anti-chafe tape. Taping, a check flight, and more taping later, the whine is down to as soft as a mosquito in a summer back yard - only really noticeable if you're looking for it.

Who would have thought?

In the end, the plane is running fine, I know more about the engine, and it could have been so much worse. It's all good. And sights like these wash the frustration away.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I don't like whining. I don't like whining when adults do it, or when I catch myself wanting to do it. I don't like whining when small children do it, and I most especially do not like it when my airplane engine does it.

Unlike small children, adults behaving same as prior, and frustrated puppies, when my airplanes whines, it means something really has gone wrong and is getting worse rapidly.

When the whining came right as I applied full power for takeoff, I thought it was electronic - it was not that far off in tone from the radio antenna that bleeds over frequencies into Birchwood's CTAF and leaves squeals and ghostly echoes of music in horrible harmonics filling every second no one's transmitting on the frequency. I was almost to the mountains when I'd troubleshot all possible electronics, and did the last thing possible - lifted my headset off my head.

The whine was definitely coming from my engine compartment, and loud. Very loud.

Right, so, FLY THE AIRPLANE. Immediate turn back to the airfield, keeping the army airfield in gliding range until the air force base's runways were in gliding range, over the highway in case I wasn't in as much range as I thought. Check all the gauges. Tell the passenger the flight is terminated, calmly, explain the problem, do not say four-letter words or anything to panic them. Call tower, inform them that we're coming right back, not yet declaring an emergency, but the engine's making a very unhappy sound (realizing it's loud enough that it's transmitting with my voice, as though I'm speaking with heavy static).

Why does the wind, which was high and gusting but still inside my personal limits, decide to start switching directions by twenty degrees and getting worse - and gusting harder - while I'm headed back unexpectedly? Why am I suddenly having trouble mentally picturing the right base I need to make for the runway? Why can't I find the very well camoflauged C-130 doing touch n' go's at the air base and intruding on my airspace the tower is warning me about, even after my passenger spotted him? Why in the whole wide world are my gauges still all showing green - oil temp, oil pressure, CHT's, Voilts, Ammeter, Fuel flow, fuel remaining, all green and good, and this would be a perfect flight if the engine would stop screaming, so what can it be that's failing?

Note to self: when a lot of my brain is locked up on monitoring all guages with the expectations of something going wrong Real Soon Now and trying hard to appear calm for the passenger, my landing skills sink to the lowest level of sloppiness I've ever allowed myself, and then go a bit lower still. Train for perfection, not good enough, because my landing skills sure didn't rise to the occasion. On the other hand, the judgement still worked - when I knew the landing was on the cusp of absolutely unsalvageable, I made the conscious decision not to turn a bad situation into a worse one. The guages were all good, so I applied power and went around. Interestingly enough., the screaming whine went away when I pulled power - and came back instantly when I re-applied power. Definitely engine, the pooor thing.

Landing number two proved that 20 knots is a good fraction of my stall speed of 28mph - the wheels were planted, and then suddenly, they weren't, anymore. I threw in too much throttle to soften the sudden descent back to earth when the gust died - and as the wind got stronger instead, and we were climbing, with the runway rapidly disappearing beneath me. Go around again. Third time was so smooth it would have been a perfect end to a flightseeing trip, which only chagrined me more for the two prior.

The whine was gone like it never happened at taxi idle, so we crept to the parking spot, shut down & tied down, and I popped the cowl. There I beheld... nothing. A perfectly normal-looking engine. No oil leaks, no loose nuts, engine mounts tight, not a single piece of stretched safety wire or chafe mark. Confused, but relieved to be down (and wired on adrenaline) I called tower and gave them my heartfelt thanks, swearing I didn't know what it was, but it was going straight back to the shop in the morning.

Given I just put in a new starter, that was the first thing I pulled the next day - and it was perfectly fine. We checked the prop - tight, but fine. I put it back on, and did a full-power static run-up, tied down. Nothing. If there's one thing I like less than problems, it's intermittent problems. Next, I pulled the alternator - and while there was nothing I could immediately point to, the gear did have a strange amount of wear for barely more than ten flight hours (it's a newly overhauled alternator.) Off to the shop - they'll bench it first thing next week.

Just when I was starting to feel a little defensive (I'm not crazy, there was a sound I can't reproduce with no obvious causes), my passenger comes up with video she shot of the flight (it was supposed to be a flightseeing trip, after all.) Note - neither my IA nor any of the A&P's, despite any jokes about "autorough", ever doubted that I had heard something unusual. I've had plenty enough condescension, derision, and outright dismissal from male car mechanics to really appreciate that when pilot says there was an unusual noise loud enough she terminated a flight immediately, people take me at my word.

My IA listened to the video, and nodded, very calmly, then began explaining the variety of things that can go wrong with an alternator, and how they lead to intermittent failure. Another A&P stopped by the computer, listened, and nodded. "Sounds like the alternator." Given the alternator's already at the shop in queue to bench-test, it'll be ready to fix Monday.

I feel better now. Given a cause, I can fix that. Hopefully this doesn't sound too much like whining to you!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Starter - Now in Black!

The old starter, generally referred to as a T-handle starter, or a pull starter, had a very simple operation. The pilot smoothly pulled the T-shaped handle, which had a cable that ran to the starter arm. (We're looking at the arm in front of the green cylinder on top of the engine compartment.) A stub at the base of the arm pushed the starter gear into the engine to engage on the first two-thirds of the arc, and then the arm would make physical contact with that big metal button - the one with the giant wire running to it from the battery, and the merely thick wire running away to power the electrical bus. The button would then be depressed, and the starter motor would engage its gear. When the starter handle is released, the motor shuts off, and the gear is spun out of the turning engine back to its resting position. Simple, troublesome, annoying, and a world better than hand-propping.

The teeth on this gear are supposed to be slightly angled, because there's no guarantee the gear with which it engages on the engine are going to stop exactly in alignment on engine shutdown - and the hole in the center is for a stud in the engine that keeps the gear aligned. Slightly angled does not mean chewed like this - this gear is now a paperweight. I wanted a new Sky-Tec starter, but the stud in the engine must be ground out. When it comes to taking my engine off the plane, cracking the case, packing it so the metal from grinding the stud off doesn't destroy anything else, and then reinstalling... I put the new Sky-Tec starter on my someday list, and got a used serviceable replacement of the same type.

Since the gear looked like it was missing bits of metal, I changed the oil. Sure, the oil was only 8 hours run-time old, but looking at that gear, I knew there was metal in there somewhere. When draining the filter, prop it at an angle so the drained oil does not create suction inside the filter, making it stick to the pan.

The longer you let the filter drain, the less messy it is. I was impatient, and only gave it a few hours - with cold oil. Generally, if an airplane's flyable, one should fly the plane, then change the hot, thin oil.

Also, best hand soap for getting engine oil off your hands? Dawn dish soap.

No significant metal was found in the filter, which made me happy, but it's not the only place to check - the oil sump itself has a screen designed not to let any large chunks through the pickup. (This isn't my plane, but the owner of this one in annual was kind enough to let me take a photo for reference - same kind of oil sump.) So we ran a magnetic pickup around the bottom of the sump, fishing for chunks.

Found one. Go on, click to embiggen and clearly see its sharp shard-like menace!

Here's the new starter. Yay new starter!

As long as we were swapping all other starter-related items, it was a great time to pull the starter cable out, check its condition, hit it with brake cleaner to remove corrosion and lubriplate for protection and easier pulling.

Also, new tie-down ropes. The ends are not only melted together, but secured with heat-shrink so they won't fray when the melted end cracks. The rings marked in red sharpie are so I can tell if I've got two ropes or two ends of the same rope.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Breakfast Run

Today I flew out to Palmer, not far away, for the pancake breakfast. It was an interesting flight, as the shiny RV taildragger in front of me requested a deviation across Elmendorf AFB's airspace. Tower asked if I was headed to Birchwood or to the Palmer pancake breakfast as well, and offered to coordinate a deviation for me, as well. Well, heck, take the hypotenuse of a triangle instead of two longer legs in the crowded corridor between highway and mountains? Sure!

Thankfully, tower told the RV Elmendorf's frequency about the time I was going to turn crosswind, so I had spare brain attention to get ready and dial it in myself. On the other hand, it was a good thing Elmendorf was quiet. While the RV went like greased lightning and was almost out of the airspace before I was in it, I'm not so fast.

The rain yesterday was very soft and gentle, like melted snowflakes drifting down. On the mountains that aren't on the western flank of the Chugach, you can see why; a fresh layer of new-fallen snow. I need to get some gloves before I fly out; my hands were getting a little stiff from the cold. Fortunately, it was nice and only lightly cool, mid-fifties, on the airport surface.

The food was good, but while I was there, the wind off the glacier went from strong, with a few turbulent bumps, to much stronger. Leaving, it was blowing 16 gusting 22 knots, so I opted for the short runway, 9, into the wind. (See the dust trail it kicked up from the meltwater river bed.)

Departing traffic was like a hive the bear is still digging in for honey - I was in a swarm of taildragging Cessnas, a Harvard Mark IV, STOL nosewheel Cessnas, supercub-like experimentals, and various other planes. Not all of them were announcing, and some didn't remember to listen first, then tell the FSS on field that they had traffic and the numbers (the automated weather), so the poor Flight Service Station guy was trying to cram the information in while traffic was in very active motion. I feel bad for not telling him when I was clear of the airspace, but frankly, I couldn't get a word in edgewise. So I flew the plane, kept my ears and eyes sharp, and didn't have much time to spare for pictures.

Passing Chugiak, you can see summer coming up the mountain with verve and vigor.

Back to Merrill:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Transponder waivers

Public Service Announcement / reminder to self:

The TSA/FAA waiver website is at

Yes, the TSA themselves reference the wrong URL in their own FAQ - they tell you to go to "". Sigh.

Yes, when you find the right site, it not only proudly proclaims it is a site still in beta testing, it crashes like it, too.

It does not work on android phone browser - any attempt to login will take you immediately to a 401 Bad Login page, with no way to see a login screen. It randomly goes bad and fails to load on both IE and firefox. I could not, on Internet Explorer, find the link to check prior submissions to see if the first try actually submitted when the website fritzed and started returning "failed to load - please refresh". It works tolerably well on Firefox, but still returns errors. At least I can log in on Firefox and see that the first one that started reporting the page didn't load and was in error actually did submit, and that the other two I got kicked out while trying to submit (not knowing the first one went through) were saved as drafts.

In the end, it doesn't matter - what matters is the thing is submitted. Remember the real URL so I can go back and check on it in a few business days.