"This is ridiculous!"
I look across the cockpit to where Connor (my boyfriend's 17-year-old son) is attempting to set up the various navigational toys Garmin has given us to try out on our soon-to-begin transcontinental flight in the Cheetah. He's got a Garmin 696 on his lap, a Garmin 496 perched on the glareshield and a tangled mess of wires … everywhere.
"Just look at all this cordage!" he complains. "This is ri-dic-ulous!"
Well, yes, I have to grant him, it kind of is. Technology toys are wonderful, but they do come with a bit of baggage. Especially the on-loan, portable types. And at this particular moment, I have an unusually high number of portable types on board. In fact, if you count the original Pilot III GPS I still carry in my flight bag as a last-gasp emergency fallback option, my little Cheetah is temporarily equipped with an almost-complete family of Garmin portable GPS units.
In addition to the Pilot III, I have the Garmin 295 that I got about nine years ago. Garmin has also sent me two of its newer items to try out on the trip: a weather-capable 496 unit, which is almost the same size as my 295, and a larger-screen 696, which is Garmin's iPad-type approach to GPS technology. Whatever other challenges we face on our flight from San Francisco to Boston, getting lost should not be one of them. I tuck the 295 away in my flight bag, since the point is to try out the newer units.
But the real problem, as Connor is discovering, is dealing with all the power and antenna connections the units require. The 496 and 696 will have to battle over which one gets to draw from the Cheetah's cigarette-lighter power plug. But the 696 needs an external GPS antenna, and both units have external XM antennas as well. Twist-ties help, but Connor's biggest challenge is going to be not getting too tangled in the various wires to move.
For basic navigation, I found I preferred the 496, because I could perch it on the glareshield and glance at it periodically without having to go heads-down in the cockpit. But for detailed airport and weather information (and for flight planning, since it allows you to "draw" a route and simply click on waypoints), the 696 was far easier to use and view, once I got the hang of it. Connor and I decided that the ideal configuration would be a 696 in a snap-in panel mount — assuming, of course, that one has the panel space available, which I don't. A panel mount would also eliminate one of the biggest downsides of the 696, which is that the unit gets very, very warm when it's been on for a while, which is pretty uncomfortable when you're flying in shorts and it's sitting on your lap.
The other high-tech change I'd made to the Cheetah since my last cross-continental journey, nine years ago, was the addition of a JPI engine analyzer (after an intermittent stuck valve caused me 3,000 miles of heightened stress on that last trip). This time, I'd have much more information about what was going on inside the cowling.
So with all that new technology at my fingertips, this transcontinental trip should have been exponentially easier than all my previous crossings, right? Well … yes and no.
As we flew up the Sacramento and Klamath Falls valleys, it was pretty cool to be able to see the isolated thunderstorms painted to our left and right on the Garmin displays. Not that we really could have missed the towering anvil formations out the window, of course. But for all our high-tech preparations, our biggest problem that first day turned out to be a decidedly low-tech leak in the whiskey compass. As a puddle of alcohol began accumulating around the flap lever, Connor searched for something to mop it up and stop the leak. Unfortunately, the shop towels were in the baggage compartment. So I told Connor to look in my purse and see what he could find.
A few minutes later, he emerged with a few scraps of paper, an old, ratty tissue and a single, solitary Band-Aid.
"That's it?" I asked.
"Don't worry. I'll make it work," he replied.
He used the paper to soak up most of the spilled alcohol and dotted the remainder with the tissue. Then he reached into the flight bag, pulled out my Leatherman tool and proceeded to cut the Band-Aid in half lengthwise. He then used the two halves to tape the tissue around the bottom half of the compass. Voila! So much for all those who worry that today's youths are so immersed in a virtual, electronic world that they no longer have the skills to engineer creative mechanical fixes!
On the third day, we also discovered that, while information is generally a good thing, there can be such a thing as too much information (or TMI, in teenage-speak). I'd told Connor that I liked having the JPI analyzer, because if all the cylinder temperatures were steady as I headed into mountainous areas, it gave me extra confidence. So when the JPI instrument started showing a fluctuating exhaust gas temperature on my No. 1 cylinder just as we entered the mountains north of Idaho Falls, it got Connor's attention.
"Do we need to worry about that?" he asked, pointing at the gauge.
I thought about it. The oil pressure and oil temperature gauges both looked normal, and the engine sounded as if it were running OK.
"Well, we'll watch it," I said, "but it could just be a problem with the gauge."
Nevertheless, the next two hours were not exactly fun. The mountains of Wyoming and Montana are not anywhere you want to have an engine problem.
In the end, the culprit was actually the wiring for the JPI instrument, which I got repaired when I got to Billings. So all ended well. But — ironically — if I hadn't had the JPI, I would have had a far more relaxing flight through the mountains.
On the other hand, the JPI redeemed itself a few days later when we experienced an electrical failure coming out of Sioux City, Iowa.
We weren't more than 20 minutes into our flight to Peoria, Illinois, when I caught a flashing orange light out of the corner of my eye. I looked down and saw the JPI flashing "BAT" at me in a very insistent manner. I glanced over at the ammeter and saw a disturbingly negative discharge rate. If it weren't for the JPI gauge, I might not have caught the problem until much farther down the line.
An electrical failure in daylight VFR is not anywhere near as serious as it is at night, or IFR, but Sioux City was just behind us and Peoria was more than 2½ hours away. We turned around and headed back.
So score one for technology on that occasion. But a little farther down the road, we were reminded of the hazards of depending on all this great new technology. En route to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the forecast "few-to-scattered" clouds beneath us began to look more like a developing broken-to-overcast layer. Ah! A perfect application for in-the-cockpit weather information!
"Look at the 696 weather and tell me what the current and forecast conditions are at Fort Wayne," I told Connor.
He glanced down at the screen.
"It says 'waiting for data,'" he said.
Ten minutes later, it was still "waiting for data." Fortunately, there are still flight service stations you can call and get the same information. Which is to say there's a reason we all learn the basics when we learn to fly. You never know when you're going to have to revert to them, no matter how much technology you have in the cockpit.
On our final leg into Boston, in fact, I found myself reverting to some very basic elements: a plotter, a pencil and some good old precision VOR navigation. I'd called flight service for a briefing and asked for notams along the route.
"Well, let's see," the briefer mused as he scanned his data. "Ah. Here's one. From the Huguenot VOR, on the 144 radial, at 8.5 nautical miles, a three-nautical-mile radius, civilian rocket launches up to 16,000 feet."
"Rocket launches," the briefer replied.
I glanced at the sectional and did a rough estimate of the location. Our GPS course went through the launch area. And rocket launches aren't something one should sort of hope to wiggle around.
"Hold on," I told the briefer. "Give that to me again, slowly."
I dug out a plotter and a pen and carefully marked the radial, the distance and the radius of the area. There wasn't another handy waypoint to plug into the GPS that would assure that we'd miss the launch area without going significantly out of our way. The best way of avoiding it was to fly precisely to the VOR, turn smartly and fly a precise radial outbound until we were past it. Which is, in the end, what we did.
Pilots today have access to far more technology and information in the cockpit than we did even 10 years ago. And aside from the "cordage" and battery issues, it's all a good thing. But any piece of technology is fallible, and not every problem can be solved with an electronic hammer. So even with all that wonderful technology at hand, the best tool for the job can still be a plotter, a Leatherman tool, a little ingenuity … and the occasional old-fashioned Band-Aid.