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. 

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!

Flight planning

AirwaysWhile the little excursion around the home aerodrome only requires a quick look at the map and the weather report, planning our adventure is a tad more complex: during our flight to Egypt we will be crossing several borders and there thus required to file a “flight plan”. This plan contains the exact route, time, details on the aircraft and crew and a few additional things and has to be submitted with the authorities before takeoff. This is not an issue as flight plans can also be used for domestic flights and every pilot should be familiar with them. Customs clearance which has to be requested upfront (we are going to leave the EU and Schengen) is a no brainer and free of charge.

Several other factors make it more complex: while Germany is a private pilot’s paradise with excellent maps, a large number of public airfields, a reliable weather service and excellent air traffic control, things are rather different south of the Alps. In Greece, flying according to visual flight rules (VFR, the most common way of flying for private pilots) is possible but there are no official maps. One has to be creative. In Egypt, self controlled VFR isn’t possible at all, only controlled VFR (CVFR) and instrument flight (IFR) as used by airliners. IFR allows penetrating clouds and therefore reaching the destination when the weather is less than great but one is bound by the instructions of air traffic control (ATC) who will issue course and altitudes and any deviations like circling overhead your friend’s house and greeting are not possible (our route will lead us directly overhead the Pyramids of Cairo so it’s a pity).

We will be flying “IFR”, i.e. under Instrument Flight Rules but still have to be prepared for safety (weather) or emergency (technical problem) landings at any other aerodrome on the way. This requires maps for both visual and instrument flying and landing charts for all airports that are close to our route. All this information has to be up to date. Luckily we didn’t plan this trip 5 years ago as we would have had to reserve half of our useable load for the paper binders with the maps. Not just impractical for logistics but also an issue when a chart is needed due to a diversion and there is limited time to go through books and find the right paper. Today one can fly truly paperless. The GPS devices come with a “moving map” and on two iPads, we will be carrying all required checklists, landing charts, IFR and VFR maps. As we have two devices, there is sufficient redundancy.

We’ve already determined our preferred routing. It will lead us from our home base Heubach (near Stuttgart) in southeasterly direction to the Alps, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Greece and the open sea to Egypt. Due to the aircraft’s endurance, customs (we’re not just leaving the EU but also Schengen) and cost (aircraft fuel is extremely expensive in Egypt and we want to buy as little as possible there) we need several stopovers. The first one in Dubrovnik (Croatia), the second in Sitia (on Crete in Greece), the third in Port Said (Egypt) as the port of entry and then onward to our destination El Gouna at the Red Sea.

We’ve prepared all maps, opening hours, fuel prices for this route and taken a first look at the landing procedures. Next we will have to come up with a list of alternate airports in case we have to divert, due to bad weather, revolution in Port Said, strikes in Greece, a technical problem, etc.

Flight Planning with Mursi

You can read it in the press: the Egyptians like to celebrate their revolution in a rather extrovert manner. President Mursi has enacted martial law for 3 Egyptian cities for 30 days, including a curfew at night. Well, our planned date of arrival is about two weeks from now and apart from the fact that one of the martial law cities is on our planned route, our local helper Ahmed, who is responsible for securing the necessary landing and overflight permissions, appears to have disappeared. We surely hope that all is well for him and that he will manage to get us the permissions.

Apart from this little issue, we are making good progress in our preparations. Today our pilot uniforms arrived, which make Achim look like a cheap callboy. Achim did a few traffic patterns yesterday and refreshed his memory of the basic functionality of the Cessna 182. In the meantime, I am reading the user manuals of the autopilot, glass cockpit and FLARM (anti collision monitor) and our feeling is that we are well prepared. Now it's up to Mursi and the weather and of course Ahmed our friendly helper to decide whether we can take off as planned on February 14th.