Long Distance Flight- a story from Stephen

“Pearland Traffic, 92P is departing to the northwest, Pearland Traffic.” “Bye Steve! Have a good trip!” -comes over the radio and I reply, “See you in a week!” A new adventure trip has begun. Such was the beginning of my trip to Colorado to go skiing. It was a long needed break, and the first actual vacation I have taken in many years. Sure, I have taken other people on vacation, but I myself have not been on vacation for longer than I can remember. So, when the opportunity to take a trip came, I decided to go. The big thing with me and vacations is that I do not want to go alone on a trip- that is no fun! But this time, I was going to spend time with friends and do fun things, so even though I was traveling alone, I was not going alone. This was also the first time I have taken a vacation flying myself to the destination. It would not have been possible if not for Seth needing the break in his new engine, but not having the time to do it. Luckily, the amount of time needed to break in the engine would be about the same as the time to take this trip- so it all worked out. I was also looking forward to it so that I can have a different kind of flying experience that I could come back and share with you, my students. So let me take you along for the ride, and tell you about the different challenges that came up, and what it was like. So come on this trip with me….

January 5, 2020
It was a nice day for flying with scattered layers at different altitudes, I might get to fly through some layers, so I decided to file IFR. This will be fun! You know, I really don’t get to file IFR all that often, even though I file with you all the time. I rarely get to do it by myself, by myself, and actually do all the flying. I was looking forward to some much needed practice(instructors have to practice too!), and the fun of planning a flight. Yes, I find planning trips to be fun. Especially when planning to somewhere I want to go. For you beginning student pilots, the flight planning gets easier, and when you file IFR, there are a limited number of variables that you can actually plan since they don’t really let you know exactly where you are flying until you get your clearance just before takeoff. Oh, sure- you are going to the place you want to go, but the way you get there is completely up to ATC, and may change from planning to clearance, from the initial clearance to what Center wants to do on your way. So we always plan for lots of fuel. FYI, it is not usually wildly different from what you plan, but sometimes it is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you are going to get! Going to Colorado is a long trip, so I decided to do it in 2 legs. I chose Vernon Texas as the destination for my first leg, which was a triple benefit for me. First, it was a good halfway mark with cheap fuel prices. Second, it would give me a chance to have some lunch, and third, I would get to see an old friend- Mary Latimer. Mary was the DPE that gave me my instructor’s rating, and I have long wanted an excuse to fly in there and see her and her husband again. Vernon is a little off the beaten path, so it is difficult to get by there. This leg of the flight was not a real challenge- while just under 2.5 hours away, it was a little long-ish, but the weather was good, it is in Texas, and I flew at 8,000 ft. Nothing too exotic. The field elevation was 1265, making the pattern altitude 2265, but that is expected. It is higher than we are here, but not so high as to change my thinking too much. That part is coming later in the trip. So what did I do to prepare? First of all, I wanted to dress for the terrain that I was flying over. If I get stuck somewhere, I want to be able to be comfortable and protected. The weather in Texas for the first leg was mild, and this would not be an issue. But I brought clothes that could help me if I needed them. I filled all the tanks on the Comanche. Sure, I would only burn 2.5 hours out of 6 on this first leg, but it is always better to have more. I pack my bags and leave for the airport, anticipating an early morning departure so I will be at my destination well before any hint of sundown. Why? Well, quite simply, this is a first trip over unfamiliar terrain to an unknown airport, and it is always good to be able to see you surroundings. Well, the early takeoff didn’t occur until 9:30, so another reason to plan an early wheels up- you might not get into the air when you planned. I had to get the plane out and preflighted, and after fussing with all the ground issues, the morning was already getting eaten up. I call FSS, get my briefing and file my IFR flight plan. Oh great. He said I might have some headwinds and a little turbulence. Hmm. This will be new, so I start thinking about what scenarios I might encounter. Taxi, run-up, lean after so I can get my clearance before takeoff. Non-IFR students, this could take a while so that is why on some checklists you will see that it says to lean the mixture after the run-up. It’s for the IFR people. Finally, I get my clearance and I am on my way. I am excited to fly IFR, excited about where I am going, but admittedly, a little nervous about what unknowns are ahead. You know, that is the thing with long trips. Over the course of 6 hours, a lot of things can change, and sometimes pilots get nervous about what if the weather changes while you are flying. With short flights, this is not nearly an issue. Excited and a little nervous, I release the hounds as the throttle is pushed forward, and the Comanche leaps forward. Oh yeah, with that new engine, she pulls really strong, and the sensation on takeoff is fantastic. Gear up, 500 feet square up, and I am on my way! Climb to 2,000 ft, turn to the given heading from the clearance, time to make my last call to Pearland and then get in touch with Approach. “Pearland Traffic, 92P is departing to the northwest, Pearland Traffic.” “Bye Steve! Have a good trip!” -comes over the radio and I reply, “See you in a week!” I don’t know exactly who it was, but it was nice to have a send-off. Time to switch frequencies and get this party started. “Houston Approach, Comanche 92P climbing through 1200 to 2000.” I get the standard radar contact call, a vector, and the trip is started.

A word about breaking in an engine- When an engine is new, you don’t want to go do touch and goes and the like because the rings on the pistons are not seated. This means that they have not found themselves a home, and are going to wear a little to find a place where all the parts in the engine really just settle in and get used to one another. Until that happens, oil will slip past the rings, and the new engine will use more oil then it would normally. During this period, the best thing to do is to bring it up to power, and just let it run without stopping. A long IFR flight would be just the ticket for this. It is best to vary the RPM’s on the engine up and down the span of cruise power- in this airplane it is basically between 2100 RPM and 2500 RPM. It is ideal to spend about 10 minutes in each power setting so the wear pattern will develop over the spectrum of where that engine will be used. So this is what I did. You will know that the engine has broken in when the oil consumption comes down to a normal amount. Until then, watch the oil level. I noticed on the way home the oil consumption was half as much as the way up, so I know that somewhere in there the engine broke in. First, I get cleared up to 4,000, then 5,000, then finally up to my target altitude of 8,000 feet. I was nearly over College Station when they finally let me get up there. From CLL, it was direct all the way, no more vectoring. It wasn’t perfectly smooth, but I wouldn’t call it turbulence. I had good speed, and I was making 155 knots over the ground. The head wind was showing up, but not all that bad. Well, as the leg wore on, I got a few more bumps along the way, and at times my groundspeed fell to about 135 at times. Isn’t it good I decided to carry full fuel? The method to my madness is starting to show, and I am reaping good benefits from it. I don’t worry about fuel since I have way more than I need to make the leg. But, apparently now I need more, and it is ok- the trip continues. It gets a little bumpier as I go, and as I start to get closer to Vernon, I plan to shoot the instrument approach. This is a time I get to fly an approach, and I am not demonstrating to someone! Yay! I am starting to feel a little hungry, so I know it is time to stop anyway. The beauty of shooting an approach somewhere you have never been is that it puts you right on final, so you never have to worry about getting to the runway. The sky is clear by now, but even so, I am at the right altitude and ready for landing. Gumps, then gumps again, get down the the end of the approach with a ‘red, blue green, runway is clean!’ and I am ready to land. I am a little tired, but after a good lunch and some fuel, I will be ready to take on the most interesting leg of the flight. The Latimers were fantastic. They took me to lunch, and we got to catch up, talk flying adventures, what they are doing these days. Mary has these events to help girls get into flying, and we talked about that some as well. The problem with old friends is that there is never enough time when you do get to see them. Such was the case here, but alas, the trip must continue. It was so good to see them. Nice people. Drop in on them sometime. Fueled up and fed, I am ready for the second leg of my flight.

I decided to fly VFR on this leg, so I put KAPA in the GPS, called Center for Flight Following, and I am on my way with no delay. At this point I am a little nervous because I am going to be getting into Colorado, and close to the mountains. The weather is clear all the way, but an airmet for light to moderate turbulence was in effect. Plus, it was going to start getting cold too. I climb to 8500, and stay there for most of the flight. It was another 3.5 hours to Denver, with occasional bumps on the first half, then I started getting more turbulence the closer I got to Denver. It never got bad, and past half way, the wind started turning to a tailwind, and I made between 150 and 160 knots. It kept changing, so it was never boring. On the last hour of the flight, I had to use cabin heat, and since everything was new up front, I thought it would be best to use caution and I mixed the heated air with fresh air from outside. This was to prevent any opportunity for carbon monoxide poisoning. I did not think this was a real threat or I would not have taken the plane, but it is always better to be safe than sorry. The last hour, I noticed that I was getting tired. Not too tired, mind you, but that I could start to notice that my performance was not as good as the start of the flight. Since I was alone, I figured that I would have to keep extra special tabs on myself. I noticed I was having a harder time holding my course- not terrible, but enough that I was noticing it. It didn’t help that the wind was shifting the whole time too, but that was not the concern. The last half hour I decided to cut the heater off unless I got really cold, sometimes cold air will help you stay alert.

So let me talk a little about flight physiology- you remember in ground school when we talked about the effects of flight on the body, that we need supplemental oxygen when we get high, and how your body starts slowing down the higher you go. Bonus goes the to first person who tells me what altitude we need to have supplemental oxygen. Well, it is not 8-9000 feet. You all know that. But we all live at sea level, and I just spent 6 hours at 8000 feet. Let me tell you it does wear on you. Now, it doesn’t make you unsafe, but people do get fatigued even at that level. It was not hugely fatiguing, but it was building. That mixed with vibration fatigue and noise fatigue, you get tired. It had been 3 hours since lunch, and my blood sugar may have started getting low too.

So, the last half hour of the flight, I put myself on alert that I was not at my peak performance, so I would have to take that into consideration, and started to prepare myself for the arrival way ahead of time. I also told approach that I was coming to Denver Centennial for the first time and that I was not familiar with the terrain. This was a nice and subtle way to say, ‘hey, would you watch my back please’ . Approach obliged with an understanding tone, ‘92P, proceed direct on course and you will be fine.’ So now I am watching me, and he is watching me too. Now I focus on my tasks. The flight couldn’t be simpler- fly direct to the airport, contact tower, who says proceed on left base cleared to land 35 right. So I repeat back but I accidentally switch up my left and right, so he clarifies and I say it right the second time. I am pretty tired by now, but the flight is almost over now. I knew I was saying it wrong when it came out of my mouth. It happens sometimes, and we are all human.

The next challenge I had to face was the high altitude performance characteristics of the airplane. Of course, I researched high altitude airport flying, but you know something? They all talk about the take offs, but no one talked about the landing. How would the landing be different? After talking with a few airline and jet pilots, it was really just common sense. The airplane is going to behave about the same- the indicated airspeed was going to be the same, but it was going to feel a little more sluggish than at sea level. The speed over the ground is faster for the same airspeed, it doesn’t float as much- just keep a touch of power in on landing to compensate, and it will seem normal. That is pretty much what happened, too. Centennial tower cleared me to land and once I got my read back correct, now all I had to do is focus on doing on good landing. I was worried about the mountains, and there was a ridge south of the airport, so I climbed up to 9000 feet to be sure, then started my descent into APA. two GUMPS checks and on short final my ‘red blue green, runway is clean’ and across the numbers I come at about 200 ft AGL, settling into this massive 10,000 ft runway. Watch for the runway to flatten out, there it is, let’s work the nose up. Keep that touch of power until it settles on the runway now, watch to any drifting and compensate if needed. Ease that nose up but don’t let it climb. Okay girl, let me know when- the mains touch down and I hold the nose off until she come down on her own, and I ease the power off. Well, that was a nice landing! And better that I expected since I know I am tired by this point. I pull in, shut down, and am greeted by the line crew. Victory! I took on the long leg high altitude (well higher that we are accustomed to) trip and I did a great job! I discovered the challenges of diminishing performance on both the airplane and myself, so now I can better evaluate my personal minimums over time. We set those personal minimums as if they are a fixed point. But the reality is that the longer and higher you fly, that point becomes a moving target. There was never a point in the flight where I felt is was unsafe, or that I was incapable. But, I was able to gauge the rate of my becoming fatigued, and now I can use that in the future. What is one way we can compensate for fatigue on long flights? Bring a few energy bars and a drink, or hey- bring someone with you. A person to talk to in the airplane is a good way- I have been on long flights with someone else, and it changes the whole dynamic of the flight. But notice the situation I decided to take on this flight- it was VFR almost the whole way, and clear as a bell at my destination. Mountains- I did not fly in the mountains, but I did fly up to them. I noticed that about 50-100 miles from the mountains, it was more turbulent. This is just the nature of the mountains. At high altitude airports, you need a lot more runway, and pay close attention to density altitude. It was cold when I got there so density altitude was about the same as field elevation. I was hoping for a lower DA then the elevation due to the cold, but no luck this time, but at least it wasn’t higher.

Time to go skiing and have some fun in Colorado! One thing about being in the mountains, is that you have to drink more water- lots more. You will be able to recover and not get as tired out if you drink more water. This can help us with flying too, but keep in mind that you don’t have a bathroom on the plane, so I try to keep it balanced. I hiked in the mountains, visited friends, and of course went skiing after a couple days getting used to the altitude. I went to see my old friend Brian, and he took me to an aviation museum. How could I resist? it was fantastic, and you know what? I never get tired of finding new and different planes to look at. I was playing with the idea of staying a few more days after my day of skiing, but mother nature had other plans. Alas, icing conditions and IFR weather were going to move in on Friday, so I would have to leave Thursday or get stuck indefinitely. You know, after some storms, it takes a week or more before the weather clears up, and this was starting to look like it might be one of those. So, my last night in Colorado was at a famous bar in Vail sipping some Bailey’s on ice while I talked to a lovely lady. It was a nice time, and a wonderful way to end the day. I didn’t look at the weather until we got back to Denver because I knew that I would instinctively go into flight mode, and all the scenarios and planning would start buzzing through my head. That will start soon enough, enjoy this time free from the distractions of flight planning. Try to draw a personal line for yourself so that when you are with family and friends, you are with them, and not in the cockpit already. Of course give yourself enough time to do all the proper planning and prep work to keep safe, but enjoy the time being present to your people.They will appreciate it, and will also respect you when you need to go into ‘flight mode’. After all you focussed on them, they are happy to give you what you need to get ready. The closer people are to you, they will be able to see this transition in you before each flight.

Thursday morning came on schedule and with the weather checked after getting back to Denver, it was clear that I would have to leave on Thursday. Darn. I really wanted to stay another day or two.I did some preplanning before bed, and got up in the morning to have a leisurely breakfast with my friend, up until it was really time to start getting ready. I sensed myself going into full-on flight mode and got myself to the airport to finish my plans, weigh my options and get going. I had to do this with the ice storm coming, but I also had to not succumb to any hazardous thought. Sometimes, that can be a fine line. Back at the airport, good byes all said, I turn to the planning room and look at my options. Thursday was going to be clear all day, but then it was going to turn into an arctic blast Friday with lasting effects. It was clear all the way to Houston, but later it would cloud up in Houston. This was the good part. The bad part was getting out of Colorado, there would be moderate turbulence and 40-50 know headwinds possible. There was a storm in Dallas, so that would prevent a more direct flight, so I would have to fly more westerly on the way home, and I chose Abilene. I left APA about noon time, which here at home would be 1 PM. With a low density altitude, cold air, and full tanks, I take off from Denver, and head on course to ABI. I flew this leg VFR, and it was clear the whole way. Well, they weren’t lying about the headwind, or the turbulence either. The turbulence wasn’t scary, but after a while it was tiresome. I was only making about 135 knots the whole way to ABI, and a flight that should have taken 2.5 hours ended up taking 4. In turbulence. The day was wearing on, but I had made a plan to take on fuel, eat a good meal, and fly to Houston, probably arriving an hour after dark. It didn’t work out that way. I got to ABI, went in the lobby and sat down for a minute as I watched the sun slip past the horizon and immediately changed my plans. I was in no condition for any more flying today. Exhausted, hungry, and tired, I knew it would be a bad idea to press on, at night, in turbulence with possible IFR conditions. Time to find a hotel and get some rest. Four hours of turbulence at altitude will wear you out. That is plenty for one day. Rest and get refreshed. It is not worth it to even try. That bed never felt better that night and I got to the airport mid morning refreshed and ready. I did not worry about leaving early, the flight to Houston would only be about 2 hours. Less if I had a tailwind. So I get to the airport and guess what? Houston is a mess, and a storm system is barreling through the state. Go now and guaranteed IFR, turbulence, and possible icing aloft. Conditions would worsen as the day went by and even though it was nice in Abilene, I could not get to Houston until after the storm had passed. The decision was obvious- sit tight in Abilene, until it cleared in Houston. So I sat. And sat. I watched the news and car channels all day, waiting for the weather to break. I wasn’t alone either, the ramp was full of planes waiting out the weather- there were a couple King Air’s, a 172, 6 military trainers, a Kodiak, a corporate jet, and a few others. All were waiting for the weather to finish. I fell asleep in the pilot lounge and woke at 2 am. I should have gone back to the hotel, but a 2, there’s no real point. I look out the window and all the planes were covered in snow. Great. Now what? I check the weather in Houston, and it had cleared off. Well, there is nothing to do right then so I went back to the lazy boy and slept until morning. When I got up, everything was white. As beautiful as it is, snow is only wonderful as you look at it through your own living room window with no where to go. Well, I am not going anywhere any time soon, so I take a courtesy car and go find some good breakfast. While I am eating, the sun comes out, melts everything, and it starts to warm up. That is good news! I get back to the airport, and all the Air Force guys are gone. The ramp is about half empty and I check the weather- it is possible to have some IFR, maybe some turbulence, but the wind is a tailwind all the way to Houston! What good news. I get ready to go, file IFR, and take off, flying at 7000. I look at the groundspeed and guess what? 190 knots! I am doing a dance in my seat as I rip across Texas. Filing IFR kept me from having to deal with airspace, and I went through a layer on the way. So, a little actual, and a chance to shoot the approach at home. It was a good day. I fly direct to the initial fix on the approach to runway 32, cleared for the approach. Halfway down, Approach calls and I cancel IFR at that time, and switch over to Pearland Traffic. “Pearland traffic, 92P on final for 32, Pearland”. Wheels down with 2 gumps checks and one red blue green- the landing was nice although it was gusty, and a sense of accomplishment filled me. Unknowns were met, challenges conquered, and oh yeah, I got to fly a little.

The whole trip was chocked full of great experiences, and I hope it will give you some insights into what it is like to take a long trip across country. Go. Have fun! Make good decisions, and when you get stuck somewhere, make friends with the Net Jets pilots. Happy and safe flying.