Sweaty Palms Over California

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I suppose in order to really appreciate the utility of datalink weather, you have to fly 600 or 700 miles without it on a day when the weather is bad enough to be annoying, but not so bad as to get into a soiled underwear situation. And that's exactly what colleague Marc Cook and I did in his fine Glastar Sportsman last week.

We periodically strike out on weeklong photo/video safaris in the Sportsman, whose rear door can be removed affording me a perch to aim a camera and Cook the opportunity to annoy me by asking if I remembered to bracket. In a marathon of installation hours, Cook just installed a pair of Garmin G3X EFIS boxes, all nicely interfaced with the autopilot and with the new engine monitoring software. So now we're doing what you can't in a certified airplane: Flying IFR without benefit of iron gauges for backup. I'm perfectly happy with this, by the way, considering the redundancy in two G3Xs. More on that in another blog.

Unfortunately, despite this riot of EFIS excellence, the XM datalink refused to work, spitting out stingy little strings of text weather, but no NEXRAD imagery. With showers and cloud cover on the route, we needed that, although not with the same kind of desperation you'd feel flying into an Oklahoma cold front in March. (Other than icing, California "weather" matches the social climate: soft-edged, lots of warm hugs and a reluctance to offend. Sometimes, it makes you long for half-inch hail.)

Our blinded XM link produced a cockpit atmosphere composed of equal measures of tension and irritation—no, I'd say more irritation. Cook built the airplane, did a superb job of it and is understandably annoyed when things don't work. I'm amused by this because hey, it's not my airplane so I don't have to crawl under there with a multi-meter and jumpers to figure out what's wrong. If I remind Cook of this, say every five minutes, I can sort of play his bile level like a $2 harmonica.

As for the tension, it arose from not knowing what was out there. So we did it the old fashioned way. We called Flight Watch who replied with the usual from 40-miles-west-of-Deadwood Canyon-to-30-miles-east-of-Buzzards Gulch…an area of coverage…etc. Even if you know the fixes, it's hopeless to frame a useful picture of the weather. It's like someone telling you how to perform an appendectomy over the phone.

So we motored forward, following my suggestion that we just keep going until something scary loomed, then turn. Other than a few whiskers of ice, it never did. On our last trip or maybe the one before that, the XM's soothing stream of negative PIREPs and freeze levels lured us into enough icing to end the day in a diversion. That doesn't happen much these days.

But it did to Cook again on the homeward bound leg, again XM-less. He had dropped me off at Boise for an airline flight home and called a little later to say he had diverted into Fallon, Nevada to duck out of icing. When I called up the track on FlightAware, the weather was still plotted and there it was, plain as day: With XM aboard, he could have circumnavigated the showers and maybe flown past the diversion point into clearer air to the south. Without it, blunder on and hope you chicken out before the #$@% gets too deep.

If you're beginning to sense that I think datalink earns its keep, you're right. Just on this one trip, it could have saved both one diversion and a little agita. You can't necessarily say that about every product pitched as the greatest thing since lift.

I'm not quite there yet, but I can envision the day when I'll cancel a trip entirely because the datalink isn't working. At that point, I will have fully matriculated into the school of wimphood.

Comments (20)

The more I read of contemporary aviation, the more I admire Ernest K. Gann.

Posted by: Jonathan Harger | October 13, 2010 5:01 PM    Report this comment

Paul you actually can certify an airplane with no iron gyros so far as the faa cares. See regulation 23.1311(b) and the associated advisory circular:

23.1311(b) to paraphrase says you have to have information essential for safe flight and landing after any glass failure, or probable combination.

The guidance says "This can be accomplished by using dedicated standby instruments, dual PFDs, or through reversionary diplays that display indpendent attitude"

My guess the reason you don't see this has to do with some combination of oem's internal policies, that some significant percentage of customers won't accept no iron gyros (even if it's actually more reliable) and the fact that steam gauge backups are currently cheaper than a second ahrs and emergency battery.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | October 13, 2010 5:25 PM    Report this comment

The OEM part is the main driver. I have been told this by several manufacturers, noting that they couldn't satisfy the ACOs on backup that was reasonably priced. Bottom line: no certified light pistons without iron gyro backups.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 14, 2010 5:46 AM    Report this comment

On a recent trip from southern Indiana to west of Kansas City and back, we wound around several storms watching the weather on my 496... zero anxiety and it felt completely safe. I'm not sure how we ever did it with VOR and ADF.

Posted by: martin dixon | October 14, 2010 6:19 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you're not a wimp. You're feeling a very healthy level of "Been There, Done That, Bought the T-Shirt and Don't Want to Go There Again" that comes only with experience. XM weather is a God-send to the GA pilot. If you'd like, I can send you a picture of what the front of a Mooney looks like after a 45-second encounter with hail in flight. Then you may understand why I say that.

Posted by: William Kight | October 14, 2010 6:39 AM    Report this comment

I can't afford to upgrade my panel to EFIS no matter how much the whiz-bang displays tempt me. But the addition of a 496 provided more practical utility dollar for dollar than anything I've ever installed in an airplane. The enhancement to situational awareness by being able to see and avoid dangerous weather and the resulting safety impact cannot be overestimated. Now if I could just figure out why my XM connection keeps requiring me to refresh the darn thing . . .

Posted by: Tosh McIntosh | October 14, 2010 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Paul,if your a wimp, I'm an outright chicken! Been flying for over 40 years (26 with USAF). I have installed two data link weather systems in my MU2 'cause I have become so dependant on that information and it is surprising how often one does not function correctly, or at all. It's costly, but I feel it's worth it. They are two different systems, and at times I get better information on one than the other, but not always on the same system?

Posted by: RICHARD SHINE | October 14, 2010 7:32 AM    Report this comment

What is clearly evident to anyone in aviation who has been around for a while and who is willing to be open and honest is that aviators, the group as a whole, have become rather pathetic when it comes to weather. Now you can react to this, stomp your feet, and pout "NO WE AREN'T" but this is the reality. Today, pilots look for excuses TO NOT fly instead of pilots looking for excuses TO fly. They don't know how to read radar and when they see light to medium green on the weather channel they scatter. News Flash: Modern radar is so powerful those colors represent moisture that isn't even hitting the ground. And when they see a general green area titled "chance of rain," well then the flying day is over. And I haven't even mentioned wind. My goodness, if the pilots of yesterday (pre GPS) had been as scared of their shadows as today's pilots, aviation would already be nothing but a memory. But I guess this is typical of Americans as a whole. Thought, reason, and skill have been replaced with "will I be safe" or "can you guarantee there is zero risk" and the traits that made our country great, risk and a passion for pushing personal boundaries, have thus also vanished. If you want to fix aviation, fix the American.

If you want to make an omelet, you’re going to have to break some eggs.

Posted by: Rich Davidson | October 14, 2010 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Over the past couple of years I have had multiple in-flight failures: Total electrical failure in hard IFR; AI gyro failure on an ILS to near-minimums; loss of all relevant data from my Aspen PFD when a connection failed. What saved my bacon in each case? Garmin 496. Simply the best backup ever invented and so far it has NEVER failed (famous last words). I won't fly IFR without it, and that includes the NEXRAD weather.

Posted by: Richard Wechsler | October 14, 2010 8:46 AM    Report this comment

As a postscript to our adventure, it turns out that a new GDU 375 (display module) simply had its XM go crazy. An older unit, which we suspected of other maladies, plugged in and started grabbing XM weather right away. Go figure.

And on the diversion into Fallon, it was because I started picking up a trace of ice at 16,000 feet (the practical ceiling of the airplane) at 27F, while IFR, and I knew from the preflight briefing that there would be layers right down to the MEA. ATC offered the weather at Fallon, which sounded like good VFR below the last layer. It seemed reasonable to have a stop there and get a better look at the showers circling the low-pressure area. I probably would have altered course sooner had I been able to see the line of showers, or had the rapidly developing big picture in front of me, but the cold, hard fact is that small aircraft and icing don't mix. When it happens that high, and the freezing level is at or close to the MEA, there aren't many more decisions to be made.

This trip was a great example of how certain skills deteriorate with lack of use. I used to bring the entire weather briefing into the cockpit and try to guess what the weather was doing as the trip progressed. I'd call Flight Watch often to update, and I was actually pretty good at painting a mental picture from the verbal description of the weather. It's fair to say that in-flight weather information has improved the safety of flight, but it also made me lazy.

Posted by: Marc Cook | October 14, 2010 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Last night, with XM on board, I flew from Columbus, OH to Cincinnati, with a strong cold front moving west to east about half way between Columbus and Cincinnati. Isolated, big thunderstorms and a line of light to moderate precip. No thunderstorms showing in flight path and I've flown through moderate precip many times before. The flight's only 25 to 30 minutes and, about 15 minutes in, on an IFR flight plan, but in the clear at 3000 feet, I entered the moderate precip and have never been bounced around so much. A quick U-turn back to Columbus, two hours of fast food and coffee watching the front on my I-Phone and I flew home at 10pm mostly in the clear and free of turbulence except for an approach through a thin layer into Lunken. I might be a wimp too, but as William Kight said above, "Been there, done that, don't need to do it again." I learned to fly in 1976 and cannot imagine doing the trips I did then without the equipment we have today. I commented to my wife upon my return about my amazement at the nerve of aviators throughout history. What a leap of faith it took to fly into IFR weather, with a simple Sperry gyro, at night, in basic airplanes without any real knowledge of the weather ahead. Hats off, but I'll keep my XM weather and I-phone Nexrad.

Posted by: JOHN WARRINGTON | October 14, 2010 9:59 AM    Report this comment

Gawrsh Mr. Davidson...When I grow up I wanna be brave just like you! Didn't you used to walk to school with snow up to your knees...up hill...both ways!

Posted by: Steve Jackson | October 14, 2010 10:05 AM    Report this comment

I got an instrument rating in 1967 with a single Nav/Com and METARS/TAFS from yellow teletype machine paper on clip boards at the local FSS. I now fly a TBM850 with a G1000 and am both amazed and elated with the logarithmic increase in available information in the cockpit and the related improvement in safety when the information is used properly.

Depending on the weather issues involved, I would cancel a trip (or borrow a 396 to use) now if the datalink is down. This isn’t “wimphood.” It comes from years of getting inaccurate forecasts (horoscopes with numbers) and “40-miles-west-of-Deadwood Canyon-to-30-miles-east-of-Buzzards Gulch” type warnings instead of close to real time accurate information. Have I done it the old way – sure? Is it safer the new way – absolutely? Safer is better!

Posted by: Leo Breckenridge | October 14, 2010 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Hi Marc - fancy meeting you here! Yes, the motorcycle industry is faring about as well as the aviation industry. (Marc C. has done a lot of motorcycle journalism, too - a truly multi-disciplined individual).
Weather (haha) older pilots like it or not, the "kids" will grab the easier to use technology and run (fly) with it. Luckily, XM is both easier and more informative (when it works).
I learned to fly with VOR's etc. and avoided the easy GPS way (sounds just like me, huh).
My, pretty much, "follow the purple line" GPS flying partner says that if the Chinese take out too many of our GPS satellites, I'm going to have to go flying with him all the time as PIC.
I liked Paul's description "Other than icing, California "weather" matches the social climate: soft-edged, lots of warm hugs and a reluctance to offend." So true. Well, except for the rest of us.
From balmy northern California -
Marc Salvisberg

Posted by: MARC SALVISBERG | October 14, 2010 2:58 PM    Report this comment

I kinda got off track - (after rereading my post)

A working XM system wins hands down, as compared to only a weather briefing and Flight Watch.

Posted by: MARC SALVISBERG | October 14, 2010 3:03 PM    Report this comment

I fear a significant danger with relatively inexperienced pilots depending too heavily on satellite weather for flight decisions. The danger is that such pilots might be lulled into complacency with the belief that their downloaded weather feed will give them all the critical weather info they need. If, mid-flight, their magic satellite wx goes south, they might not know how to best determine the best prognostication of the wx in their flight path.

I've always been amazed at how well ATC can assist in such situations. Of course, official PIREPS are very helpful but unfortunately sparse, but my experience is that the ATC folk I work with are always querring their flock as to flight conditions and generously supplying their findings to others.

Sure, use the new tech when available, but be ready, willing, and able to fly safely without it.

Posted by: Charles Clark | October 14, 2010 3:11 PM    Report this comment

Way to go Rich Davidson. I'm glad I'm not the only one taking notice. I will say that I doubt seriously that Paul Bertorelli or Marc Cook are of the ilk you describe. In fact many Of Paul's articles eloquently describe the woes of the American Idiot. The cause of this soft behavior is too much easy living.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | October 14, 2010 8:22 PM    Report this comment

Two comments: Sitting in a motel room about 6 years back getting ready to flight plan and file, internet goes down. Uhooh, now what. Oh yeah call Flight Service like I did for years and years before. My wife who is a relatively new pilot is deidcated to the XM on our G 1000 to the extent that several years ago when they had a saturation problem with lightening strikes that caused the system to go out she was livid and irate. Truly upset. Well says I, we do have a storm scope and lets talk to Flight Service tell them where we are and they can give us some suggestions. We did, they did. However, we do become dependent on stuff when we get used to it. A friend said once, "a luxury once enjoyed becomes a necessity."

Posted by: Paul Hollowell | October 14, 2010 9:45 PM    Report this comment

I lost my XM weather on my 496 a few weeks ago. I called XM to "re-activate" and was told my subscription had expired. I never received a subscription ending notification and when I asked why not I was told "that as an adult it was my responsibility to keep track of the subscription expiration date." Duh! When I asked for a supervisor I was just hung-up on. The next service representative gladly took my credit card info and re-activated my unit a few minutes later. Caution... XM doesn't seem to believe it will be in business much longer with their poor business model. Has anyone else had this problem? Caveat emptor.

Posted by: Roger Elowitz | October 15, 2010 10:59 PM    Report this comment

Personally, I like the weather info my Cirrus gives me since the weather information obtained from flight service is nearly useless. They give you a 500 square mile wind forecast and tell you about thunderstorms in Oklahoma when you're 350 miles or more away. I'll take my own DUATS briefing and on board weather any day.

Posted by: paul marx | October 18, 2010 10:20 AM    Report this comment

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