Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I'm not lost...

What happens when a non-pilot tries their hand at navigating an aircraft?

Those of you who have been following along over the last couple of years will have noticed me mentioning my good friend Jim, who is a splendid chap and is very generous with the right seat in his aeroplane, a Vans RV-7A.

Aside from a couple of trial lessons many years ago, I have no formal flight training. However, I have been lucky enough to fly often with Jim over the last two years, and each time I fly, I learn something new. Jim has given me control of his aircraft around the patch, where I have practiced steep turns. I can hold a course and maintain a reasonable altitude. We have tried some slow flight in which I handled the aircraft with mushy-feeling controls. Jim has shown me a practise forced landing, and we have flown some of the SARL air race courses around the Taylor area. We even took a long cross country flight over to Marfa in West Texas, about 350mn each way. Naturally, Jim remains Pilot in Command, but it's great to be able to have a go at flying.

Much of the time I'll be photographing or videoing the proceedings, but there's only so many pictures you can take of the view, and I need to make the most of these flying opportunities. And I wanted to know if I could find my way about without the GPS that we normally use. Jim often asks me, "So where are we going today?" and I wave into some random direction and off we go, which is all well and good for local flying, but doesn't really stretch our navigation skills.

So when Jim invited me to fly this time, I figured I'd better have an answer for him for the question of where to go. I sat down over breakfast with the San Antonio sectional chart and plotted a triangular course. From Taylor, perhaps we could fly to Skylark, then to Cameron and back to Taylor. I drove off to the airfield and met with Jim, who looked at it and figured Skylark was a bit close to the restricted airspace around the military base Fort Hood for his liking, so why didn't we go to Salado, then fly up to Marlin, down to Cameron and back to Taylor?

You can follow our journey with the letters on the chart below…

We preflighted the aircraft, topped off the fuel tanks and were set to go. A bright blue sky punctuated with mid-to-high level clouds awaited us. It was a cold morning by Texas standards, so the RV leapt into the air in short order as we took off to the south. Jim steered us to the west and out of the circuit, and asked me where we were headed. I gave him a heading of 350 degrees and away we went. Shortly afterwards, Jim asked if I wanted to fly as well as navigate? Hell yeah! (A) Jim was on top of things, adjusting the throttle as needed, keeping a watch for potential landing spots etc, but our direction and altitude were mine to control.

Now, I should mention here that although Jim has 40 years of flying behind him, he is not a flight instructor (unless he's been hiding something from me) and I have never done navigation before in my life. I know the compass bearings and have an idea of the theory of flying a bearing and time to get somewhere, but I hadn't prepared the route in that detail. So there I am, chart in one hand and stick in the other, guiding us as best as I can towards Salado. I am studiously ignoring the GPS in front of my nose; too busy looking out of the window for landmarks.

I can see a main road with the railroad in parallel to our track on the chart, and there they are to my right on the ground. They bend away to the right, but there are some power lines that lead me in the general direction of Salado. There is a river, and there are the second set of power lines, just as expected. Here is Salado on our nose, and Jim reminds me I'd better turn right before we fly over the local airfield that is used as a parachute drop zone. I kept my eyes very peeled for parachutists but saw no activity. One steady turn to 060 degrees later, we were heading for Marlin. (B)

I am watching for the main road to cross our path; there it is. I can see the large town of Temple off to our left. Here's the second main road, followed by two rows of power lines. They are getting hard to distinguish; the haze is increasing as the day warms up. It blankets the horizon in white nothingness. We keep going. I am trying hard to maintain altitude at 3,000ft but I'm all up and down. I can usually do this better than I am doing but then I don't usually have my head in a chart. It is getting bumpy and the aircraft is kicking around a bit. Now there are very few landmarks; the land is wide and open and beige and brown, the colours of Texas in winter.

Holding my heading, I am looking for the town of Lott. Eventually it appears off our left wing. We are a bit further to the southeast than we should have been, but at least I know where we are. That was a nice thought while it lasted! (C)

A slight turn to the left, and then to the right. (D) I'm really not sure why I didn't look at the compass, but I turned way too much to the right. I'm flying along, looking for the town of Marlin and not seeing it. But surely by now, we should be on top of it? Then my eye happened to catch sight of that darn GPS and it showed the aircraft pointed in a decidedly east direction, when we should have been pointing much more North. I said to Jim, "Erm, we appear to be heading East!" (E)

Lesson 1: Look at the compass! Even if it suffers from compass lag, it helps to actually look at the thing in the first place!

Lesson 2: If the roads and rivers are where they are meant to be, but their angles intersecting your path don't look like they do on the chart, then you're going the wrong way.

I should also mention that this particular RV-7A is a lightweight, slippery example of the breed and we are doing about 200 knots. This means mistakes happen pretty quickly at around three miles per minute. So we continue further East while Jim and I discuss the situation. We agree that our position is a bit north of Bremond. I suggest that Hearne is nice this time of year and perhaps we should head for there? I begin a turn to the south (F). Jim then suggests we should head back towards Taylor, so I swing the aircraft around to a southwest heading. (G)

We maintain a steady course, and I am really keeping an eye on my altitude now as I've annoyed myself by not doing so well enough thus far. We have descended to 2,500ft and I challenge myself to remain within 100 feet of this, which I achieve for most of the way home, even though the air remains bumpy. On turning towards the sun, the haze has whitewashed the horizon even more now, and there are not many obvious features with which to cross check my position, but I keep us flying straight and we pass the town of Cameron off to the right; I can see the airfield on the edge of town. (H)

Now here is where it gets embarrassing. Jim pointed out the lake ahead, saying, "There's the power plant over towards Taylor". For whatever reason, I got it into my head that the lake was Granger Lake. No matter that I have read plenty about get-you-home-itis, and about becoming convinced that things in front of you are what you think they are, not what they actually are. No matter that I didn't think we had flown far enough to be that close to Taylor, nor had we crossed the roads and river marked on the chart between Cameron and Taylor. No matter that there wasn't a power plant on the edge of Granger Lake the last time I flew over it a couple of months ago, and they don't build them that fast. There was a lake, whose shape I was twisting around in my head, trying to match it to the chart.

At some point around the letter (I), I must have mentioned this, at which time Jim put me out of my misery and suggested that I follow the large, handy road back to Taylor…

Lesson 3: Things on the ground are what they are, not what you want them to be!

We made a right turn before reaching the town (J) and headed over the real, actual Granger Lake (K), which is a whole lot bigger than the smaller one we'd just seen, and completely devoid of power plants. We made a wide approach to Taylor to avoid traffic (L). I started the descent and Jim took over control, landing us back down onto Taylor's tarmac.

I learnt one heck of a lot on this flight. Even though Jim was doing the throttle, lookout, radios and being pilot in command, I am pretty proud of the fact that I flew an airplane around a course, and while it was far from perfect navigation, I was able to pick up from my mistakes for the most part. Maybe one day I can learn this in a formal training situation and put it together properly. Those kinks in the route? I wasn't lost…. just temporarily uncertain of my position ;-)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sunset Flight

Jim and I took a sunset flight out of Taylor. It was a really pretty evening.

Here's the eye candy:

And our aerial chariot:

Now you get to come and fly with us!:

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Visit to 356th Airlift Squadron

A friend of mine (hello David!) has a friend who is a C-5 pilot, based at Kelly AFB in San Antonio. He asked if his friend, Major Matt Van der Walle, would give me a tour of his squadron. Maj Van der Walle kindly agreed, and so it was that I found myself heading to San Antonio on the day before the Lackland Airshow.

I was visiting 356th Airlift Squadron, part of the 433rd Airlift Wing. They fly the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft and supply training to future C-5 crews. They are trained not only as pilots, but loadmasters and engineers also. A C-5 flight crew consists of two pilots, one flight engineer and two loadmasters.

Student pilots arrive at the 356th after training in T-6A Texan, and T-1 Jayhawk aircraft, in which they receive their initial and advanced, multi-engine flight training.

The majority of the flight training is done in the simulator. The 356th has two simulators, one featuring a glass cockpit and the other equipped with standard analogue instruments, reflecting the two variants of C-5 model operated by the Squadron. The machines are huge - although I have seen pictures of this kind of machine before, I was not prepared for the size of the room into which we walked, with two behemoths housed within.

Going inside, the view is really very realistic. Sure, you can see it is a computer projection, but it's placed a good few feet outside the windows, enough to provide some convincing depth. When the simulator is running, hydraulic rams move the entire capsule, providing a sense of motion. Although we did not get the chance to actually run the simulator - it was booked already by others - I could instantly see how powerful a training method this is.

They train here to fly missions to all parts of the world. A normal flight is around eight hours in duration. Students will make around forty flights in the simulator, experiencing bad weather, engine failures and all other kinds of emergencies. They then make flights in the real aircraft, of which the squadron has nineteen examples.

Going outside again, we were entertained by practise demonstrations from the F-22 Raptor, MiG 17 and the Thunderbirds F-16 display team. They were gearing up for the weekend's show, and it was an unusual treat to be able to watch the displays from a different angle to normal. We were across the other side of the base, well behind the show flightline.

Maj Van der Walle took me airside, onto the ramp, to have a close look at the C-5A Galaxy aircraft. Many were parked nearby, being worked on by maintenance crews, but one was currently unattended and available for us to look at.

The C-5 is the largest aircraft in the USAF inventory. It measures 66 feet high at the tail, and can carry 31,000 cubic feet of cargo. The cargo bay is 121 feet long. I asked the Major about how it was to fly such a large aircraft, and he repeated some advice he'd been given: "Just get the front end where you're going, and the rest will follow!"

The C-5 has four of these General Electric TF-39 engines, each putting out 43,000 lb of thrust. The intake is eight feet in diameter. Apparently you can fit a VW Beetle in there!

We ascended the steps into the aircraft, and with the ramp door closed at the back, the light fell into shadow along the length of the interior. It looked huge! I have walked through the C-5 at airshows, as many folks have done, and it doesn't look as big there as when you can't see the end of the interior.

Onwards up a second flight of steps, into the flight deck area. The example we were in had glass panels in the cockpit, although without power running, they remained dark. The engineer's panel is behind the pilots.

The nameplate on the center of the control yoke.

I was surprised at just how much space there is upstairs in the C-5. The only thing visible from outside is the cockpit windows, so I hadn't realised that there is a lot more accommodation behind the cockpit area. There is a crew rest area, with large airliner seats that recline almost flat. They looked well worn, yet comfortable. There is a head, and a galley, and behind this is another room that can be closed off, for transporting VIP passengers.

There is another ladder behind the cockpit, which leads up through a small hatch, from which you can pop your head up through the top of the aircraft. It is not every day you get to see the tail from this angle!

Many thanks indeed go to Maj Van der Walle for his time and generosity in giving me this splendid tour of his Squadron and aircraft. I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Air to Air from a B-25

Last weekend was one of the most awesome experiences ever, during which I was able to capture some of the best photographs of my life. I don't say that lightly! Read on...

I went up to Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, TX. Their airshow was held on the Saturday and Sunday. I went up on Friday morning, to hook up with a bunch of friends of mine, who had travelled in from all over the USA and from Europe. Most of these guys inhabit the Mustang Air-to-Air thread on Fred Miranda. If you click the link, you'll find us there hovering near the top of the page. It's a fabulous community of aviation photographers that has coalesced over the last couple or three years, and it was started by Jim Wilson.

Jim is a professional aviation photographer and Ultimate Nice Guy. He also has the B-25 Mitchell 'Pacific Prowler' at his disposal. Here it is, parked on the ramp at Alliance:

And here's Jim, sitting in his customary shooting position in the tail of the bomber. Notice how there's no glass? Or anything else? Yup, Jim straps in and shoots his gorgeous images from there, with the subject aircraft formating directly behind. No glass, perspex, distortions or anything else to get in the way.

Jim had organized for those of us who were keen and willing (and able to stump up the cash), to join him on a pair of photo missions that he had planned for Friday and Saturday nights. Friday night's mission got to shoot a T-38 in Thunderbird colours, and a T-37 Tweet.

I went on the Saturday mission, and this is what I saw...

A Douglas A-26 Invader

A Douglas A-1 Skyraider

A North American P-51D Mustang

And an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros

Can I just say, this really was awesome?!

There were five photographers crammed into the back of the B-25. Jim stayed at the end of the tail, harnessed in, and acted as a block, while the rest of us took turns in crawling up the tunnel so we could shoot around Jim at whatever was hanging off the tail at the time. On my second journey up the tunnel, I was greeted by the sight of the P-51 rising into position from underneath - what a sight!

There were also two side shooting positions; one large porthole through which three could shoot at once, and they removed the gun from the other side which left a hole a few inches wide, good enough for one shooter at a time. These were great for when aircraft flew alongside.

It was noisy, crowded, uncomfortable, breezy and warm in the Texas evening sky. We were climbing over and around each other to get the shooting positions we wanted, as aircraft moved around us. Crawling up the tunnel was a hands-and-knees affair, and I was deeply glad I'd brought knee pads!

Large amounts of thanks go to Jim for setting this up, to Gunny and Jim who piloted the B-25, and all the owners and pilots of the subject aircraft who came to have their photos taken. I hope we did you justice, and that we get to do it again!

Finally, here's a short video. It's full of perspex reflections and something weird has happened to the letterboxing - first time I've used video out of the 7D and I guess I need to tweak my Final Cut settings - but here you go; it gives an idea of what it was like:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jim & Jo's Adventure in Marfa, TX

My good friend Jim and I have planned for months to fly Jim's RV-7A from his home base in Taylor, TX to Marfa, about 350 miles west. Marfa is deep into the West Texas Desert, across vast plains and tall mountains. We finally found a weekend in which we could both make the trip, and that the weather was good, on the 9th October. Tally-ho!

Here's the route we followed; from T74 (Taylor) to KOZA (Ozona) - fuel stop - to KMRF (Marfa):

Chart courtesy of Skyvector.com

The landscape in Central Texas is mostly green, we have lots of trees and farmland around here. Once you get past the Hill Country to our immediate west, the land flattens out into plains and scrubland, before carving itself into valleys and plateaux.

We stopped for fuel in Ozona, a little over half way to Marfa. The folks there were friendly and supplied us with water.

Here is Marfa from the air. It's pretty small! It is an artists' colony, only about six blocks wide, and maybe fifteen long. The airport lies three miles out of town, out of shot to the right. The kind folks there gave us a ride into town. They were enjoying the presence of many business jets, as there was an art festival going on this weekend. We later saw the price tags on some of the art pieces were in keeping with the owners of business jets...

Some of the architecture on Marfa's main street is fabulous. This is an old bank building. At least three of the most interesting buildings have been taken over by an architecture company, appropriately enough.

Here's an old Porsche. There's a number of good looking older cars around town.

This is Jim, posing against the town marker at the top of Main Street.

Jim then took the camera and shot me, in the garden behind.

This is the very nicely kept Courthouse; the seat of justice for Presidio County.

And again.

We got lunch at a mobile food vendor which arrived just after midday; named 'Food Shark', they sold really fabulous Mediterranean food. Judging from their web site foodsharkmarfa.com, this is one of several cars that follow the wagon about.

Soon enough, it was time to call for our ride back to the airport (Thanks Shelley!) where we fueled the aeroplane. Here is our aerial chariot parked on the edge of the desert.

And before long, we were over the mountains, which were rugged, desolate and impressive.

We got bounced around a lot flying over them; updrafts and downdrafts pummeled us around the sky as the warm air currents had their effect. We soon got past these and enjoyed a smooth ride home.

We arrived back at Taylor happy but tired, so went for some Mexican food to recuperate before heading our separate ways. It was a fabulous adventure!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

T-43 Retirement

On the 17th September 2010, the United States Air Force retired their T-43A Gator aircraft. It was used as a navigation trainer and was known as 'The Flying Classroom'. A short ceremony at Randolph AFB took place with personnel from 562nd Flying Training Squadron and the 12th Flying Training Wing, with whom the T-43 finished its service.

Here's a final flypast of the existing Air Education and Training Command Aerial Review formation:

And a first look at the new formation, featuring two T-1 Jayhawks where before there was one:

Finally, the T-43 made one last pass over Randolph before landing.

As she taxied in, she was greeted with a traditional salute of a water arch.

A closeup of the 'Spirit of San Antonio' as the pilots prepare to disembark for the final time.

To hear the roar of those engines and the crowd's applause, watch the video! (Click for HD)

Thanks once again to Beverly Simas, Chief of Media Relations, 12th FTW and to the personnel of 562 FTS. It was an honor and privilege to be present for the last flight of the T-43.

You can see a few more of my pictures on the news story at AF.mil.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Star

We own a pub!

Well, actually, we are member-investors in one of Austin's newest brewpubs, Black Star. It is a co-operative, so it is owned by its members who each pay some money into the enterprise. I'm not sure how it works out; whether we own a couple of bricks or a whole brewing vessel, but it's really cool to know you have a bit of your own pub :-)

Last week, the place was fitted out enough that the kitchen and bar could have some trial runs, with the membership invited to be guinea pigs. So along we went. Black Star's own beer won't be brewed for a few weeks yet but they had some very tasty local beers on tap.

They also have a good looking menu, with a variety of tasty snacks and meals, with ingredients largely sourced from local suppliers. Alan had a bowl of chili and I had a chicken pot pie, both of which were delicious.

Black Star opens for business sometime this week. May it be a huge success!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

T-43 Training Mission

On September 1st 2010, I had the very good fortune to be invited down to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to take part in a media flight aboard the T-43A Gator aircraft.

The T-43 is a modified Boeing 737 and is used for navigation training exercises. Combat Systems Officers receive their basic navigation training here before moving on to their specific roles elsewhere in the Armed Forces; usually to large aircraft such as the C-130 or KC-135.

However, after 37 years of service, the T-43 is being retired on the 17th September. Training will move to the smaller T-1 and T-6 aircraft and be located in Pensacola, Florida.

We started with a tour of 562 Squadron. Normally there would be five hundred people here, but with the last few students finishing their training, the personnel has been whittled down to a minimum. Mission planning rooms are empty, and the equipment has already begun to be removed from the Simulator Room.

Here we see Lt Col Peter Deitschel showing us one of the radar simulator stations, from which the radar screen is missing. There are four such stations in the room, plus a master control console.

We move on to the flight briefing. The entire crew is here and different subject areas in the briefing are covered by different crewmembers. The students explain the route we are to fly, while the pilot gives the safety briefing. Other concerns include danger zones on the charts (some contain static balloons, for example); bird activity, NOTAMS in the local area and weather conditions.

This is Mr Lawrence Humphrey, the pilot. He and the co-pilot are civilian contractors. They are both military trained pilots and have been flying the T-43 for some time. Contractors were brought in during the late 1990s when there was a drain in military pilots, so the use of contractors kept the T-43 program flying. They fly to military standards and military procedures, so the only practical difference is the colour of their flight suits.

We move out to the aircraft. This is one of two remaining T-43s flying at Randolph. The Air Force had nineteen of them originally. This one will remain at Randolph as a static display, while the other will go the the Boneyard.

Today's callsign is 'Gator One'.

There seems to be a lot of checklists and procedures to go through before we can start. Although some of these are related to the trainees, I am not sure if the Military go through more steps than a civilian crew, or if it's just less hidden than on a passenger jet. However, you don't tend to see the Flight Attendents on Southwest looking for obstructions prior to engine start, as happened here.

We all got to play a part in the preflight, even the media folks. Since we were sitting at a navigation station, part of the checklist involves testing the communications. So I did get to say 'S7, loud and clear!' when my turn came.

Taxiing the aircraft is certainly done with more speed and panache than in a civilian jet. The military pilots really don't hang about. There were a brace of T-38 jets landing at the time we wanted to take off, so after some time waiting for them all, the controller gave us a short slot in which we had to backtaxi down the runway, execute a rapid U-turn, and take off.

After takeoff, Col Deitschel explains the training programme that the students go through. The T-43 training is an undergraduate course, during which they learn basic navigational principles. Reading the radar screen is an art form unto itself; they have to learn the physics behind radar to understand what information is being returned to them; what makes the light and dark areas on the screen.

Looking out at the wing, it's a delight to see the USAF stars and bars instead of an airline logo! We cruise at 27,000 feet. We can't go any higher as the T-43 lacks a particular piece of equipment that is required for flight in the high altitude jet routes. While it would be possible to install it, and take advantage of fuel savings at higher altitudes, the equipment is too expensive to make this economical, given the service life remaining on this aircraft.

Today we're flying a standard training route, which takes us from San Antonio, west towards Marfa, TX; north to Roswell, NM, then northeast to Amarillo, TX, before turning south via Abilene back to San Antonio. A distance of 1047.8 miles, if we stick to the flight plan.

Here we have one of the mounting points for the Celestial Navigation System. We're looking straight up at the middle of the ceiling. In previous years, they inserted a periscope sextant into the hole, which pokes through the top of the aircraft. This allowed crews to navigate by the positions of the sun, moon and stars. In dawn and dusk hours when it was too light to see many stars but the sun had gone down, they could use a polarized viewer to figure out where the sun was, as sunlight gets polarized when travelling through the atmosphere.

This is the master navigation station. Many of the knobs and switches on the left are replaced by painted panels at the other stations. Control is shifted to different students during the flight, who verbally direct the pilot to fly at the heading and speed that each student calculates, in order to get the aircraft to a particular place and time.

These two students are under instruction from Maj Adam Blanchard. They use the charts, protractors and compasses to navigate from first principles. They use the radar screen to confirm their position. The computer screen in the centre shows a GPS track of where they actually are.

This is the flight deck. This is a 37-year old aircraft, so it has a traditional 'steam gauge' instrument package; no glass cockpits here. There is the standard six-pack in front of each pilot. The middle panel contains fuel and engine instrumentation, along with the flap indicator and landing gear control.

The lower panel between the pilots contains the throttles, flap selector, speed brake and trim wheels. An overhead panel has controls for electrical systems, heating and cooling, communications, fuel pumps and lighting, amongst others.

I was very fortunate to be allowed to sit in the jump seat for the last twenty minutes of the flight. This was a fabulous, rare, opportunity to observe the operation and landing of a large airliner from the best seat in the house.

Looking down the length of runway 14L at Randolph AFB as we approach on final to land.

A successful mission is complete! We take a moment to regard this fine aircraft.

It will be a sad day in aviation history on the 17th, when the last flight of the T-43 is made. This aircraft has seen thousands of airmen pass through during its life, who have gone on to many different branches of the service.

Many thanks indeed go to Lt Col Deitschel, Commander of 562 Squadron; Beverly Simas, Chief of Public Affairs, 12th Flying Training Wing, and all who were aboard 'Gator One' on September 1st. This was a wonderful opportunity to observe what you do.

Now you've seen the pictures, watch the movie!
It's in lower resolution here, but I strongly recommend watching this in HD. Click here to go through to YouTube and click on the 720p choice at the bottom right of the video player.
However you choose to view - enjoy it!