I need not to need.

by Berck

It’s cold out. Looks like it got down to about -10F last night. The red car barely wanted to crank over this morning when I took Joanna work, the clutch felt frozen, the shocks didn’t work. It was cold. We’ve only got one car with snow tires, which generally works out okay, since I don’t fly when there’s snow on the ground. So I take Joanna to work, then go home. Usually when the weather is bad we sit around all night, hoping for a phone call. If we haven’t gotten one by the time the alarm goes off, you play the game of sleeping in as long as possible, knowing that the phone isn’t going to ring until you get into the shower. It’s a given.

Yesterday, with a 100% chance of snow last night, we were told not to bother come in until we got a call, which is a nice change. My phone rang a few minutes ago, and it looks like we’re going to get the last flight of the day in. It’s beautiful weather, sky’s blue, wind’s calm and it’s cold. Perfect flying weather.

So, I promised to write about the trip to Garden City. This is certainly the coolest thing I’ve gotten to do while working at the Academy. A few months ago, our program manager mentioned that all the planes were going to be needing new engines soon as they approached the recommended time before overhaul. Most general aviation folks overfly time before overhaul by quite a bit, waiting until the engine is showing definite signs of needing a rebuild, like low compression in one or more cylinders. The Air Force, however, has specified that we must replace the engines at the TBO, so our maintenance folks have been busy trying to do so. They’re unable to rebuild the engine in-house, which means locating a supplier. The obvious choice, Teledyne Continental Motors of Mobile, AL is unable to supply any because they’re shipping them to Diamond Air for all the new planes they’re building for Doss IFS, where I hope to get a job soon. In any case, there’s a shop in Montrose, CO that’s able to rebuild one a month or so, so they’ve slowly been changing the engines.

After an engine is changed, it needs to be run at high power settings, high compression, for extended periods of time to allow the piston rings to “seat” as soon as possible. In this case, TCM recommends that the engines be run over 75% power for the first 10 hours or so. 75% power is unattainable at altitudes above 5,000 feet because there’s just not enough air. And our runway is at 6,535 ft elevation. So that means flying east where it’s lower, and doing so as low as possible. Back in November, the program manager mentioned that he’d be glad to let us do some of these flights, and that they’d chosen Garden City, KS as the destination. As of last week, not too many employees had gotten to do the flights, because we were all too busy working. The Air Force guys we work with got to do most of them. I complained that they ought to have the Air Force fly our flights, and let us do the Garden City runs.

Amazingly, the whining paid off. I got a telephone call Thursday night from our flight commander asking if I wanted to go to Garden City the next day. “Hell yes!” Scott, who’d also loudly expressed an interest in going, would be going with me. Scott and I get along well, so that was great news.

Scott and I showed up at work the next morning, all anxious and excited about the trip. We walked down to Base Ops and got a Wichita Sectional and a North Central Airport Facilities Directory and did some rough flight planning. Since we would be flying at 500 ft over the ground, navigation by either pilotage or VOR would be difficult, since you can’t see very far that low. Fortunately, our planes are equipped with a Garmin GNS 530 GPS system, which in a lot of ways is totally cheating. We talked a bit about the possibility of the new engine failing on us at 500 feet, but were reasonably confident that the ground east of here is so flat we wouldn’t have trouble setting down somewhere safely. The winds aloft were predicted to be out of the west at about 25 knots, giving us an estimated 1.5 hour trip down there and 2 hours back, if we flew in a straight line. We had no intention of flying in a straight line:) Management wanted us to try to get 5.0 hours on the engine, and we decided to do the best we could.

We were instructed to get a briefing from Ace, the chief of Standards, before we left. He still hadn’t gotten to work around 8am, so we hung out a bit and tried to kill some time. At about 8:30, we talked to Bob, the chief of maintenance who told us the plane would need a prop retorque and an oil change before we could go, but it should be done around 9am. He also said, “And, there’s a minor oil leak we’re looking at… nothing you need to worry about.” The words a pilot loves to hear.

Ace finally showed up to work at about 9:30, and we got our briefing, which basically consisted of what we already knew. Fly at 500′, be safe, there was a charge account at the FBO for fuel, and a credit card at the restaurant for lunch. Sweet. We headed down to maintenance, to find our plane still sitting in the hangar with the cowling off.

It turns out the oil leak was on one of the oil cooler lines, and was causing a bit of frustration, but they assured us it was a very minor leak and they’d have it under control soon. We hung out in maintenance, looking at the planes in various stages of disassembly. I’ve always liked seeing the planes in maintenance, because they look so different with no seats, engine cowling, sometimes with flight controls or even wings removed. The maintenance guys love chatting with us, and I love asking questions, but they don’t seem to get a lot done while we’re down there. We looked at a plane down for a 1,000 hour inspection, at which point they pull the whole thing apart. We asked how much the wings weigh, and they let us pick one up– very light at 120 lbs. We saw the flight control pushrod installation and how they worked. I asked about some fuel modifications, and was amazed as always at how archaic the technology in our virtually brand new planes is. I learned a bit more about the mechanical fuel injection system, the modifications to the engine since it was new in the early 1950’s (almost none), and so on.

Meanwhile, a mechanic had pushed our plane out of the hangar and was running it at various power settings to leak test the engine. He shut it down and said it was still leaking. Scott and I were very worried that we weren’t going to be able to go, and decided to leave the maintenance guys alone for awhile. We got all stuff ready to go just in case, did some paperwork, filed our flight plan with Base Ops (it feels so cool to file a plan with a callsign like Talon 17), and went back to maintenance. By now Bob assured us that they’d, “gotten the leak down to a seep,” and we could go ahead and take the plane.

Scott did the cockpit checks while I checked the outside of the plane. We were a little worried it might be too warm in Kansas, at full power, to have the outlet baffles in, but the same time we wanted the engine to be nice and hot for the break in. Bob suggested we only install the baffles on the side of the cowling with the oil cooler, so that’s what we did. We decided I’d fly the leg down there, and Scott would fly the leg back. We’d switch seats down there, with the person flying in the left seat, since that’s what we were used to, in spite of all the instruments being on the right side.

We climbed in, and went through the checklists. I started the engine; it fired instantly and ran smoothly, which gave me a bit more confidence. We listened to ATIS, and I taxied down to the taxiway and prepared to call ground when I realized I’d already forgotten the ATIS code, what without a student to write it down for me. Scott couldn’t remember it either, and so we listened to at again before calling. We taxied to 34R, where we carefully went through the run up procedure and were satisfied that everything was good to go.

After take off, we flew a standard Woodmen Departure out to the east areas. As we crossed further east than either of us had been before, I pushed the nose over and descended initially to about 7,500 feet, which seemed really low even though the ground was somewhere around 6,500 feet. After I got acclimated to being that low, I descended even farther. At this point, it became obvious that the predictions of west winds were nonsense, as we had an enormous northward climb to maintain an easterly track. I eventually got down to what seemed like 500 ft AGL and was awed by the sensation of speed.

The first half of the flight was in continuous light to moderate turbulence, which took constant attention on my part. I was trying to fly at engine redline like they wanted us to, but unfortunately, that put as 125 knots, which is just over the 118 knots Vno for this aircraft– the speed at which you don’t want to exceed except in smooth air. I was worried I’d have difficulty finding just what 500 feet AGL was, but after awhile I realized that as the ground was descending, I was naturally descending with it, and started to get a picture of what it looked like.

Scott programmed the GPS to give us a direct to Garden City course on the GPS screen which I occasionally referenced, but made no serious effort to track closely. Since we’d gotten off at 11am MST, and wanted to be sure to get there before the restaurant closed at 2PM CST, we didn’t take too many detours, but every time something looked interesting, we’d fly over to it and check it out. I flew low along some roads for awhile– we realized just how low we were at one point when Scott and I simultaneously pointed out a 65mph speed limit sign along a highway.

There were periods where everything was just a vast sea of flat, empty white. It could have been a cloud layer, but it was the ground, still covered in snow. It looked like eastern CO got a lot more snow than we’d gotten against the mountains, or at least it stuck around more. We found hay bails that were almost completely buried. We saw as bunch of coyotes and herded some antelopes. We were doing about 150mph over the ground, and when you’re that low, the antelope don’t hear you coming until you get right over them. Then they start running, and the others further away start running, looking back, and we imagined they were thinking “Huh, what’re we running for?” I thought quite a bit about Scott Carrier’s stories of running after antelope, and saw how they form little groups and split away, just like he described.

Initially, I was worried about the sanity of flying 500 feet the whole way out to Garden City. At that altitude, there are all many towers that reach far higher, and not all of them are on the charts. Fortunately, when you’re below the towers, and the ground is white, they all stand out pretty well. We were even able to make out the guy wires on many of them. In addition, there’s always the concern of “where do I go when the engine quits?” Well, the world is so empty out there, the answer, 95% of the time, would have been, “Why, right here, of course.” We played with getting very low across some fields, which was reasonably safe and legal, since there were no people or structures, and plenty of place to set down if we needed to.

Whenever we’d see a town, we’d fly over to it and fly by it, but not over it, checking it out. We were close enough to read the names of the towns on the water towers or grain elevators. Flying that low gives you an entirely different perspective on the world. It’s high enough that you can see reasonably far compared to being on the ground, but low enough you can still make out amazing detail on the ground. The condition of the roads, the depth of the snow, the run-down look all the buildings in all the towns had. I find most midwestern small towns to be depressing as you drive through them on small two-lane roads, but flying next to them they seem even more so. The roads were almost all covered in snow, yet the towns all looked dirty and messy, despite being laid out on a rigid grid. We were astounded by the number of enormous cities that turned out not to be cities at all, but feed lots. At that altitude, you can make out the muck, sometimes even smell it.

We continued to chase roads and frozen creeks, antelope, cows, coyotes, and even a few elk while progressing in the same direction as the line on the GPS. It was great not to have to worry about getting lost– I’d never flown anywhere with a GPS before. And, even if it quit, it wouldn’t be hard to climb up higher and figure out where we were using our charts.

Since we were too low to get any air traffic control services, we kept a constant watch for traffic and towers. We never saw another plane, mostly because no one else flies that low except pipeline patrol and crop dusters, and no one dusts crops in the winter. We tuned up the AWOS frequency for Garden City, and eventually were able to receive it about 25 miles from the airport. As we approached the city, we stopped descending with the terrain, and leveled out at traffic pattern elevation about 3,800ft. Cities grow towers, and we were a bit worried about them. Plus, we’d need to fly over a bit of the city, and we didn’t want anyone calling and complaining about an Air Force plane flying low over the city. Between staring at the GPS and the area ahead, with Scott’s help I was able to make out the runway, and gave Garden City Tower a call, “Garden City Tower, Talon 17 is ten miles to the east, inbound for full stop.” “West, Berck, West!” I don’t know why I always do that, but it’s something I’ve done several times when approaching an airport, and has to confuse the crap out of controllers. Before the controller was able to say anything I keyed the mike and said, “Correction, that’s ten miles to the WEST.” “Talon 17, report a 2 mile left base for runway 35, winds [blah blah blah]” as he relayed the weather information we’d gotten, but which I’d neglected to tell him we’d gotten. D’oh. I pulled the power back and started a descent for base, keeping the speed up. I reported a 2 mile base, and was cleared to land. We didn’t hear anyone else talking to tower during the whole approach– seemed to be a sleepy airport. I made a pretty nice crosswind landing, using my preferred method of staying in a crab until the last minute and kicking it out with some rudder and enough opposite aileron to hold centerline just before we touched down. We taxied up to Flower Aviation, got out, and tied down the plane, which caused the fueler to ask if we were staying overnight. “Uhhh.. no?” “Well, why’d you tie it down?” See, at USAFA, fuelers won’t fuel planes if they’re not tied down. Scott and I forget that the rest of the world is a little more sane.

We each had an excellent burger at the restaurant, and were airborne again with Scott at the controls in less than an hour. We figured we had 3.5 hours of fuel, and should try to take 3 hours to get back. We departed due north so we could fly up to Scott City and get a picture for Scott’s benefit. I practiced navigating by pilotage on the way back, which given a lack of landmarks, low altitude, and being rusty, wasn’t awful, but wasn’t beautiful either. We meandered east a bit, then headed almost due south and intercepted highway 50, where I made my only significant navigational mistake, where I thought La Junta was some other town. I wasn’t sure, so we consulted the GPS, and found out I was rather wrong. Whoops. We noticed we’d burned not quite 1/3’rd a tank of gas in a hour, which meant we probably had closer to 3 hours than 3.5 at this power setting. No problem, a straight line track back to the academy would only take a little over an hour from our present position.

Only, we didn’t take a straight line because we wanted to stay airborne as long as possible, figuring we’d kill another half an hour. I started getting a little concerned about fuel when I noticed we had about 1/3rd of a tank of fuel remaining and guesstimated that we were still 45 minutes away– we weren’t going to be able to land with 30 minutes of fuel left. I did some quick calculations, which were tricky, not knowing the actual distance back to the academy, given that we had to fly the arrival procedures, not a straight line. I decided that if it looked bad, we could always land at Colorado Springs or Meadowlake and get some gas, though that would be pretty embarrassing. Still, less embarrassing than running out of fuel.

We flew through the southern most practice areas that no one ever goes to, and called them out on Eagle Traffic in order to amuse our coworkers. As we intercepted the corridor for the arrival, we had just under 1/4 tank of fuel, and crossed Meadowlake with over 1/8th of a tank. I was nervous, but we knew we’d make it without much problem. When we shut the engine down at the academy, we had 1/8th of a tank left, which would give us half an hour of flight at 2200rpm or so, or about 15 minutes at full power like we were flying. Not extraordinarily close, but closer than I tend to cut it.

We had a blast, and got a few decent pictures, which are available in the gallery.

One Response to “I need not to need.”

  1. nana Says:

    I loved the account! Glad you got to the restaurant in time and had a good hamburger.
    I love how you laugh at yourself…what a grand adventure!

Leave a Reply