Over and out

Now we can really consider this trip to completed successfully. Our Cessna is well and back in its home hangar and both pilots are alive. Who would have thought that? When we could not complete the approach into Heubach with visual flight rules (there is no instrument approach unfortunately) and decided against landing in Stuttgart, we had to park the Cessna in Friedrichshafen at the Lake of Constance. Today it was time to bring back the bird. When the mission is to get up early on a Sunday and take responsibility for an important task, it is clear that Achim has to step in. Markus was still trying to sober up from yesterday's binge drinking before getting up for his kebap breakfast at 12 o'clock in Stuttgart. Achim boarded the metro at 08:34 and arrived at Friedrichshafen Airport around 11 o'clock where it was still cloudy, unlike in sunny Stuttgart. To great surprise, the airport was vibrating as it recently has become the hub of ski fanatic Brits: three airplanes from London all arriving within one hour!

The flight back was just a short hop of 30 minutes and after takeoff lead us south west over the Lake of Constance, climbing through the clouds to blue skies and on direct course to Heubach. After landing, the Cessna was stored in the hangar and tidied up a bit. The real interesting question is how we are going to get rid of the Sahara sand which was pressed into every corner and wrinkle when we flew back to Greece. 

Showdown at the Lake of Constance

This trip went way too smooth. Neither technical nor any other problems lead to the desasters that our scandal loving readership expected. After an additional day of spa wellness in Dubrovnik, the stars promised luck for today's leg home. Few clouds enroute, mostly blue skies north of the Alps and a broken layer of clouds at our destination. The icing on the cake was a strong tailwind so we were convinced our last leg was going to be a home run.

The first two hours were just like we expected, maybe a few clouds more than forecast but 30 knots of free thrust from behind. North of the Alps no clouds, just a bit of mist. Starting at the Danube Valley the situation changed completely: an overcast cloud layer at about 8000 feet and a bit later another layer of clouds on top. We continued to our destination Heubach (50km east of Stuttgart) at 10 000 feet, hoping to find a hole in the clouds allowing us to change from IFR to VFR (visual flight rules). Our backup strategy was to continue north to Schwäbisch Hall, slide down the ILS (instrument landing system) through the clouds and continue visually to Heubach.

Overhead Heubach we had a short discussion with Jörg Lohmann on the tower and it was clear that we would not land there today. So we continued to Schwäbisch Hall. The colleague there just told us "forget it, 400 feet cloud cover, no way to make it to Heubach". Not great either.

So on we go to Stuttgart, still reporting a broken cloud layer 1200 feet above the runway. Stuttgart Airport is not cheap but from there we can take the metro. Air traffic control was very supportive and allowed us to continue at 8000 feet (outside clouds) to the instrument landing system of runway 25 in Stuttgart. When it was time to descend, we saw once again an overcast cloud layer which appeared to be rather thick. We could descend through the cloud layer but would pick up some ice and might have a problem if we have to go around. We were allowed to hover around the airport looking for the reported holes and the controller asked airplanes in the vicinity for holes but nothing. The controller on the tower of Stuttgart also reported an overcast layer. The weather report for Stuttgart was definitely wrong which is quite scandalous as pilots have to rely on it.

Now we were out of preplanned options and had to look for something else. We had good weather coming from the south and it was getting worse the more north we got so we had to return south. The DFS controller was extremely professional and first asked for our endurance to judge the options and urgency. 3.5h so no problem at all. We discussed possible aerodromes, contacted Mengen but were told there is the same overcast cloud layer. While discussing other options, the controller contacted us and told us he spent some time phoning airports and recommends Friedrichshafen (EDNY, Lake of Contance) with blue skies. This was the perfect solution: only 20 minutes away, fully equipped with an instrument landing system, excellent infrastructure, customs and reasonable prices. So we continued to the beautiful Lake of Constance, were put on the ILS runway 24 by Swiss Air Traffic Control and landed with excellent weather. The aircraft was tied down, we passed immigration, had a little snack and reevaluated our options.

We did not expect conditions in Heubach to improve today and the short jump to Stuttgart would help much (other than increasing the cost). So we got a rental car and took off to Heubach where Markus's car is waiting in the hangar.

The real final of this journey will be in a few days when Achim takes the train to Friedrichshafen and brings the Cessna home to its hangar in Heubach. By this time, Markus will be sitting in his cube farm working on support tickets.

The worst case has happened

The worst case that everybody feared has happened: we are stuck in Croatia. Markus determined that the weather is a no go and is looking forward to the excellent weather forecast for Monday. In reality, the weather is definitely doable without taking risk.

An important role in this decision played the fantastic spa of the hotel and the view from our hotel room. Achim is now forced to look at Markus’s wobbly body for a whole day and find a way to get the work schedule for Monday done on a Sunday in a hotel room.

Insha’Allah

Everybody has heard the Arabic expression Insha'Allah which is ubiquitous around here. It means something along the lines of "hopefully God agrees" and alludes to the fact that while man might plan and wish for certain results, the ultimate decision for everything is with Allah. While Europeans don't like to admit this obvious fact, the Arabs are well aware of whom the decision is with and openly communicate it. In radio communication between airplanes and air traffic controllers, it is an indispensable component and part of every request and permission. In the Middle East, you have to forget about your standard phraseology that you learned when doing your pilot license in Europe and adapt to the local customs. One of the biggest surprises of this journey was the excellent quality of air traffic control in Egypt — controllers with fluent English, a relaxed atmosphere and people supportive of our needs. For the benefit of European pilots and air traffic controllers, we have collected a few examples:

  • "Cairo RADAR, Cairo, Cairo, D-EDGK, salam aleikum, request shortcut direct El Gouna, insha'allah"
  • "D-EDGK, approved, direct El Gouna, isha'allah"
  • "El Gouna Tower, D-EDGK, salam aleikum, request landing information, insha'allah"
  • "D-EDGK cleared to land runway 34, insha'allah"

El Gouna to Marsa Alam at 8 knots

When two pros like Markus and Achim are in town, it doesn’t take long for difficult jobs to emerge. Yesterday it was about bringing Ocean Diva II, a 74 foot catamaran, from its previous harbor El Gouna to Port Ghalib (Marsa Alam), 120 nautical miles south.

Due to the revolution and the subsequent decline in tourism, OD II (as friends like to call her) spent some time alone in the harbor and therefore the trip was also a sea trial. 30 knots of tailwind and arrival at an unknown marina in the middle of the night promised an interesting trip.

Another goal was to try out Achim’s newly acquired trolling equipment. The latter was fully achieved: after about 15 minutes a 10kg thuna, two monster fish that first bent the rod and then went off with an aching jaw and last but not least a marvellous 20 kg dorade. Both were expertly cut by Khaled and served as the traditional welcome gift for the harbor employees. Achim — economist by profession — immediately determined the return on investment for his fishing gear (4 more fish) and we are currently working on our business plan as fishermen in Egypt.

This trip was not for sissys (which is why Markus didn’t fully enjoy it) and there were a few challenges that made it more interesting:

  • The crew had to improvise on several occasions, this was clearly not an everyday’s cruise
  • Sea maps and especially harbor entrance maps were considered as non necessary payload
  • The main sail couldn’t be hoisted due to incorrect reefing and correcting the problem at 30 knots of wind and 3.5m waves was deemed too risky
  • The starboard engine broke down due to a problem with the propellor shaft bearing (not the first time, bad workmanship by Volvo)
  • Continuing the trip on one engine and only the jib was slow and impossible with the fuel reserves we had
  • It was then decided to hoist the main sail which did not complete without putting the ship and crew at risk
  • The marina entry at Port Ghalib (no maps!) was quite interesting due to broken and invisible marker beacons. Markus was constantly mumbling something about life vests and dying.

All in all a successful trip. Today we are heading back to El Gouna in a car.

Solid impact on Crete

What a day! Splendid weather in Dubrovnik and everything turned out just like we had planned it. Our destination Sitia on Crete only opened at 12:30 UTC (14:30 Greek time) and only for a few hours. Nobody knows why, this is Africa… aehm no it's actually not. We didn't want to limit our options and planned our departure so that we would arrive exactly at the time of opening. We were prepared for quite a lot, having read all those horror stories by other pilots visiting Greece. Air traffic controllers that don't speak English, incompetence everywhere, less than optimal routing etc.

First we had to pass Albania and FYROM. We wouldn't want to park our aircraft in Albania but at 15 000 feet we felt quite safe. The Albanian controllers where top notch, just like at home. After that FYROM — Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia — so the official name of this country. One could just say Macedonia but the Greek don't agree and like to veto in the EU because they have a little province with the same name. FYROM was a positive experience in every way: beautiful landscape and excellent air traffic control. They cared very well for us, suggesting shortcuts without being asked and asking more than once whether there's anything they can do for us.

Then we entered Greece and the suspension rose. One thing was very positive: all controllers had a good level of English, were friendly and supportive. However, this was in no way comparable to what we had so far on this trip. Our filed routing was — like always in Europe — rather indirect and none of the Greek controllers ever thought about suggesting shortcuts to optimize our flight. When asked for it, they (as with every request) said "standby, I call you back". After what felt like 10 minutes, we got our shortcut, hoorray! We had just burned 20 liters of fuel for no reason. Then it got bizarre: "D-EDGK, direct ATV VOR, maintain heading 140". Every IFR pilot will be perplexed: one should fly directly to the beacon ATV (Athens) while pointing the nose at 140°? What if a crosswind changes our course? Should we still fly 140° or correct so that we're still flying inbound the beacon? Three attempts for clarification did not present a solution: we were supposed to fly heading 140° while going directly to the beacon ATV. Maybe they move the beacon so that it matches? We then agreed that we let her talk and continued to fly inbound ATV.

Then the weather got interesting. We knew there would be clouds with large vertical extent and that we would have to steer left and right. However, it clearly looked like a good day to fly and this was true. We were scheduled for flight level 150 (5 kilometers) and then later had to climb until flight level 180 (6 km) to stay on top of most of the clouds and not have to constantly avoid them. We are instrument pilots and allowed to penetrate any sort of cloud on this planet (besides ash clouds) but those so called towering cumulus are quite wild, giving you a roller coaster ride and shaking up the contents of the cabin. Also I didn't want to hear Markus's constant whining. At flight level 180 one has to constantly monitor blood oxygen saturation and have a good plan of what to do should the oxygen system fail. Despite years of chain smoking (Markus), our saturation was constantly between 95-98%. That's truly excellent!

As we came closer to Sitia, we started calling the airfield to get a confirmation that it's really open. We were not successful even though we were flying very high. We started to get worried. Iraklion (our alternate) costs hundreds of Euros and does not have any fuel for us. When we asked the controllers, they told us the field is open and we shouldn't worry. Then we started to descend from 18 000 feet to 2 400 feet in rather short time and were lucky to get permission to do this as a visual maneuver so we could curve around as we pleased and avoid the nastiest clouds — by now we all know that Markus is a sissy. This was very nice of the controller as such a permission shouldn't be taken for granted thing when flying IFR.

Now it was time for the approach into Sitia, VOR DME 23 for experts. The wind was horrible: 30 knots and at a 90 degree angle to the runway — it couldn't get worse! This is far beyond the airplane's certification and my experience as a pilot. We were expecting strong winds but nothing close to this and definitely not as a crosswind. Until a few years ago, Sitia had the perfect runway for this kind of wind but then they got hold of some EU funds and started building a new runway rotated by 90°. This definitely makes for interesting landings! We decided to land, given that our options were not much better with the same wind and we were convinced we would be able to do it, at least try. The landing was hard (2 jumps), I was very much afraid of the crosswind lifting one of the wings which would be disaster and therefore I used a so called crab approach (do not mix it up with the with the very frequent "crap approach") instead of the usually preferred low wing approach. In addition, I decided to perform the landing at a higher speed than normal because of the gusts and with 20° of flaps (instead of 40° as normal) to be less of a victim of the wind — especially with 120 liters of fuel in the cabin! The GoPro camera witnessed the landing. Until seeing that video, I was embarrassed by the landing and wanted to delete the video (so Markus won't be able to use it against me) but now that I've seen it I am rather proud.

We got refueled at a bargain price of 3.20 € per liter, tied down the aircraft and entered Schengen again. The airport of Sitia is — interesting. A ramshackle hut but one could see that they were busy building a new terminal. They deserve it.

A taxi brought us to the best hotel in Stitia, at this time of the year very cheap. Very nice place here. Now we feel a strong urge for a beer and gyros, then we will make plans for Egypt.

By the way: Ahmed informed us today that he got the entry permissions for us just in time after a lot of problems. Hoorray and a million thanks to Ahmed!

Arrival in Dubrovnik

We’ve successfully completed the first leg! After an uneventful flight we landed on the deserted airport of Dubrovnik on time. Due to nothing else going on, a whole brigade took care of us. Two guys focused on filling our tanks and jerry cans and others organized the 200m drive to the terminal.

We could have performed the whole leg under visual flight rules (VFR) — at no time did we have to enter clouds.

The weather for tomorrow doesn’t look all that good but probably still good enough to continue our trip. After a great dinner in the gorgeous historical town of Dubrovnik, we went to the hotel’s splendid spa area and are now ready for bed. It’s Valentine’s day but in the bed next to me there is Markus. Isn’t that sad?

Weather — go or no go?

We've already talked a bit about it — the weather is what pilots fear more than anything else. We are allowed to fly through clouds (IFR, instrument flying) but there are limits to this, as below 0°C ice forms on our aircraft which can quickly become a major problem. We can fly below, above, beside and through the clouds, provided they don't cause icing. Before taking off, we would like to know the odds of reaching our destination as planned. It would be unfortunate if we came to realize en route that we have to turn around due to icing or make a major detour. In general, we will only take off if we know that we can land safely, i.e. there are a few inches of clear air between the cloud base and the landing strip. Our certification only requires us to have 400 meters of visibility and 200 feet (60m) between the clouds and and the runway but we don't want to get even close to such conditions — this is only for pilots that fly frequently and are well trained in such conditions.

There are regular weather reports for pilots, those report actual conditions at the weather stations and therefore are very reliable. Larger aerodrome have a system which every 30 minutes determines visibility, cloud coverage, temperature, dew point, pressure, etc. The weather of the future is an entirely different animal. Meteorologists (similar to fortune tellers) specialize in asking their crystal balls (read: expensive computer models) for aviation weather which not only covers the surface weather but also conditions at higher altitudes. Everybody knows that predictions are hard, especially about the future. Some weather conditions are easy and reliable to predict, others almost impossible. Fog formation is an example of a weather phenomenon that until today, meteorologists don't grasp as it depends a lot on local conditions which are not accurately represented in the computer models. Our start aerodrome is ideally situated and only very rarely a victim of fog. Another aerodrome just a few miles away is basically covered in fog throughout the winter.

A private pilot knows a few basic things about weather. There are lows and highs. In low pressure areas, air ascends, condensates and forms clouds with rain or snow. In high pressure areas, air descends, stabilizes and we get clear skies. High is good, low is bad (incidentally, that's also Markus's attitude towards life). Even worse are fronts, those are the boundaries of air masses with different characteristics. There are cold and warm fronts. Especially cold fronts are evil as they produce thunderstorms, strong rain and reach up very high with severe icing. We definitely don't want to fly through a cold front, that's for cowboys. In the above map from the French Met Office (yes, smart pilots collect data from all over the world because instead of having one decent European Met Office, we have a zillion of mediocre national weather services doing exactly the same thing) we see the weather from today 16:00 UTC (Greenwich Mean Time or Universal Coordinate Time, used by pilots all around the world). Over Croatia, there is a cold front (blue line with teeth), moving east with 15 knots and northwest of it a small warm front (red with semi circles), moving to Italy. In the area of the cold front we expect thunderstorms, let's check this with the current lightning chart (sferics) shown above.

Indeed, there are thunderstorms (the yellow and red dots) and this is a no-go zone for us. However, the front is moving and by tomorrow it will be a Greek problem (don't they have enough already?). Let's have a look at the forecast for our destination aerodrome Dubrovnik, the Terminal Aerea Forecast (TAF):

LDDU 131125Z 1312/1412 12017KT 9999 BKN040 TX10/1412Z TN04/1405Z TEMPO 1312/1321 RA BECMG 1322/1324 04015KT BECMG 1409/1411 18007KT

A bit cryptic but in order to be able to read that, pilots attend ground school. We can see that today (Feb 13) between 12:00 UTC and 21:00 UTC there is supposed to be rain (RA). Yes, that fits to what we've seen earlier. The rain is going to stop at 22:00 and only a feeble wind (7 knots) coming from south (180°) will remain. Everything that could be bad for us like thunderstorms, rain, snow, storms would be listed here.

Now let's look at the TAF of our start aerodrome Heubach (EDTH). Unfortunately Heubach does not provide its own weather but we have the large airport of Stuttgart (EDDS) just around the corner and can use its forecast:

EDDS 131100Z 1312/1412 VRB03KT 9999 SCT040 PROB40 TEMPO 1312/1321 4000 -SN BR BKN014

Also looking good. Very little wind (3 knots) from variable directions (VRB), good visibility, scattered clouds 4000 feet above the airfield, a little bit of snow with 40% probability and some fog between 12:00 UTC and 22:00 UTC combined with low clouds. After that until the end of the forecast period on Feb 14 at 13:00 UTC only good weather. Fantastic.

So it's looking good in A (Stuttgart) and in B (Dubrovnik), but what about the weather between A and B, that's a full 1000km? Here, we resort to a larger scale forecast model based on the Global Forecasting System (GFS), the weather model of the USA which, in contrast to the semi-capable European systems, is freely accessible (in the USA, all data produced with tax money is generally freely available, something the Europeans should take a closer look at). Here a very nice rendering of our flight profile from GFS for the planned time of flight.

This is really good. The yellow line is us at flight level 150 (15 000 feet, ca. 5km). Below you see the topography with the Alps and Dubrovnik at sea level. The dashed red line is the zero degree line which is currently at the surface in Germany and 5000 feet in Dubrovnik. In the middle you can see areas with a green shading meaning moderate icing (which in reality is quite serious with our little plane), however well below our planned altitude. There you also find clouds but they are broken, i.e. we will find our way around them. The temperature at the planned altitude is forecast between -19°C and -22°C so we hope our heater will work and we won't regret boarding the aircraft in our Egyptian beach wear.

Another interesting image is the infrared satellite photo. Using a color scale it shows the temperature of the cloud tops. Given that we have temperature data for many places on the surface and a rough idea about how air cools with altitude (the standard model assumes 2°C per 1000 feet), we can roughly estimate the top of the clouds and know which clouds we will be able fly over, fly through or (as we prefer) circumnavigate. This is a current picture, by tomorrow the nasty stuff will be gone because it's directly related to the high reaching cold front.

In summary: gorgeous weather. Markus can return his $19 Easyjet ticket that he purchased earlier. Oh, there are no refunds with Easyjet!

Airplane batteries

With the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its exploding lithium batteries in the news, everybody is now aware of how important batteries are in aircraft. The Cessna is no exception but it relies on conventional lead acid batteries, just like cars. However, aircraft batteries are of higher quality and most importantly higher price. About 400-500 € for one battery so every aircraft owner wants to know when is the right time to swap batteries. The manufacturer's manual is of no help here as he's only interested in selling batteries and the mechanic also makes money in the whole process. However, one doesn't want to stretch it too far and risk getting stuck in a remote place with an aircraft that won't start. Lead acid batteries have the mean trait of suddenly breaking down when the internal chemistry goes belly up.

In principle, it is possible to hand prop an aircraft by turning the propellor. In the good old times airplanes were started like this. A few years ago, I went with Markus and his girlfriend (now: fiancée) to the beautiful Lake of Constance with a broken starter in a Cessna 172 and hand propping was the only option to make it back home. Quite expectedly, Markus immediately shitted his pants and protested that this was too dangerous, not allowed, we should leave the aircraft there, he will not participate in this, etc. In the back of the airplane sat his girlfriend who at this time was pondering whether this guy could be a worthy husband one day. I eventually prevailed and in the meantime a whole crowd of spectators had formed. An expert for oldtimer aircraft had instructed me just a few days earlier and explained the technique to increase the odds of keeping one's fingers and arms (a very interesting video by the FAA and for medical students this anamnesis). Markus sat in the safe cockpit and operated the ignition and power lever. After a few attempts, the engine started and Mirna realized the stark contrast between Markus and a real man. It took over 2 years for her to recover from this event and announce the engagement.

After this little digression (and the usual appreciation of Markus's strengths), back to our Cessna. When test flying it a week ago in the cold winter after a few weeks of not having flown her (but always connected to a trickle charger) I got the impression that the battery was a little weak. The engine did eventually start but it surely took some convincing. The battery is already 7 years old and most owners swap it after 5 years at the latest. Being a Swabian (we despise the Scots for being wasteful) I don't just dispose perfectly workable batteries but I also wouldn't want to end up without a working battery as the 540 cubic inch (9 liter) 6-cylinder is a bit difficult to hand prop. So I need to determine how strong the battery still is. The manufacturer offers guidance and special test equipment which causes a predefined load and after one hour measures the remaining voltage. A tester costs between $1000-$2000 — that's aviation! For my battery the load according to the manual is 200 watts and after one hour the voltage is supposed to be 20 volts. If less than 80% (i.e. 16V), the battery is to be swapped. Off we go to Home Depot to get 4 12V halogen bulbs, car battery clamps and some wire. Twice 2 bulbs in parallel and both units daisy chained and ready is the 24V/200W battery tester which set me back by 4.50 €.

The test has to be conducted at 20°C ambient temperature, therefore I had to remove the battery from the aircraft and take it back home. 200W is quite a lot so I put the apparatus on the balcony (perfect 0°C there) and left the battery in the apartment. I started at 25.2V and after one hour measured exactly 15V. After all I was right in my suspicion, this battery is finished! Luckily I had a new battery on the shelf and plenty of sulfuric acid to activate it (I normally use it to spray on the faces of random people in the subway). Now Markus will of course claim that I could have skipped all that rubbish and just replaced the battery after 5 years like everyone else. Well, as always he's talking about other people's money and I got a full 7 years out of this battery and thus saved 114 €. What was the company slogan of my former employer IBM: We have to save money — at any cost!

Miles High Music Club

Friends of Markus know very well that he wouldn't go anywhere without his favorite music performed by Engelbert Humperdinck. The airplane cockpit is no exception to that rule. Therefore I have undertaken the task of coming up with a technical solution to Markus' musical needs. Of course there's something in it for me, too: when you're listening to music, you can't make your copilot's ear bleed and I can focus on more pleasant conversations (with air traffic control) and just relax and enjoy the view.

All modern planes have a so called "audio panel", a sort of mixer. In smaller aircraft with poor sound insulation (well, you're really damn close to the engine), everbody usually wears a headset and the modern ones even come with active noise cancelling. The headsets are connected to the audio panel which provides a plethora of options.

You can set it up to have all people on board communicate with each other, separate the passengers from the pilots, make passenger announcements from the cockpit to the passengers (yes, just like in a big airplane!), select different radios (even separate ones for each pilot tuned to different frequencies) and last but not least isolate the pilots from each other — a feature surely designed with Markus in mind. When having my audio panel installed, I had them put in a connector for an external music planer. The audio panel is very smart in that it will playback the music but automatically mute it when a radio call comes in or the pilot pushes his microphone button. Nobody has to be afraid to miss important radio calls when rocking one's socks off above the clouds.

The audio connector is a cable with a headphone plug (just like an iPod earphone) but that's really oldfashioned and not something I would dare to offer to Markus. Imagine the iPhone connected with a long cable which gets in the way and leaves the pilot bonded. A recently released audio panel includes a Bluetooth receiver for wireless music and that feature only costs 1000 € extra.

Luckily there is a chaper option, more precisely a 16,56 € option. This little Bluetooth receiver box with an integrated rechargeable battery gets hooked up to the earphone plug and stowed away with the cable in the side pocket. Now the mobile phone needs to etablish a Bluetooth connection and Engelbert starts singing for Markus. This works so well that I just ordered another box for my car. When I complained with my BMW dealer that my car wouldn't allow me to use Bluetooth for music, he recommended purchasing the 2012 model. I was not convinced.