Ernesto and the Hot Section

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With tense trepidation, I watched the path of Hurricane Ernesto. For days prior to my son's wedding in New England the storm lingered over Cuba. It was projected to get loose in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening our home in Tampa. Then the computer model shifted course eastward, away from home but towards the Atlantic coast and, ultimately, the Northeast. The guys and girls on The Weather Channel were whooping it up in anticipation.

Meanwhile, in Bartow, Florida, another potential hurricane was on the loose. I had taken our Cheyenne to Bill Turley of Aircraft Engineering for a hot section inspection on the right engine. The cost of the inspection was as unpredictable as the hurricane and potentially, for me at least, just as dangerous. Naturally, the right engine was the one that had traditionally started cooler, ran cooler, burned less fuel and was the epitome of a good running, mature PT-6. But it was time.

It felt as if the engine and the storm were alternating threats and I had no choice but to wait and watch and listen. Then came a call. New turbine blades were needed. There were 58 of them. At $226.11 a piece. "You can make a necklace out of one of the discarded ones," said Turley. "A $13,000 necklace." Ouch. I had been saving for this event, but this was going to be more than I had saved. (A note to readers who feel I am too rich and have too much fun: You are correct. Still, this would be an unpleasant surprise even to a Rockefeller.)

Next question: Would the engine be ready in time for us to take the airplane to the wedding? What about the path of the storm? If the engine were ready and the airplane back in service, would the weather make flying a newly reassembled engine unwise? How do I know everything has been bolted back together properly? Just in case, backup airline reservations were made.

By the Thursday before the wedding the airplane was back in the hangar in Tampa, but the projected path of the now downgraded tropical storm was squarely in our way. Tops to 450, hail and heavy rain were some of the distinguishing niceties of the system. I spent much of Thursday night trying to figure out a way to take the airplane and eschew the airlines.

Friday morning. There are many thunderstorms surrounding Tampa, despite the fact that Ernesto is now coasting in at the Virginia-North Carolina border, miles and miles away. A trip up the East Coast isn't going to happen. Believe it or not, I decide that Louisville will be a good fuel stop for the trip from Tampa to Lebanon, New Hampshire. This is only 260 miles out of the way. I am determined to go and to go safely. What's an extra hour or so? The winds in the mid-20s appear light. There are rain showers in Ohio and more are predicted. We'll deal with them when we see them, I think.

Towering cumulus are visible on the drive to the airport, mostly out over the Gulf of Mexico, but there is definitely more activity than usual for a summer morning. As I load the airplane I can feel the wind shifting uncomfortably, first from the north, then the south, then the west. By the time I fill the thermos with coffee and walk back out to the airplane, there is an obvious thunderstorm just south of the airport and it is already raining. Jets are departing to the north, which looks clear-sort of. I urge my wife to hurry. "Let's get out of here," I say. She doesn't like this. I feel the rain hitting the side of my face.

Strapped in and buttoned up, I start the "new" engine first. It starts hotter than it used to, but well within limits. The rain has picked up. The ATIS is old, still reporting clear skies with surrounding towering cumulus. I pick up our clearance to Louisville. I got my instrument ticket there in 1972-it will be fun to see Bowman Field again. By the time I get onto ground control I hear the controller tell another aircraft that the airport is closed to departures. "We've got a ground stop and we're very likely going to turn the airport around," he said.

Our backup scheduled airline departure time is an hour away. I sit tight. A regional airline turboprop shuts down and asks for an estimate of the delay. Thirty minutes, she is told. I sit, calculating. I just really want to go in our airplane.

After 20 minutes airliners are starting to get approved for push back. We're instructed to taxi to 18L. There are clear skies to the east. The Nexrad picture on the Avidyne MFD shows red along the west coast of Florida, but little beyond Cross City and nothing else all the way to Louisville. There's rain in Ohio and Ernesto, of course, stretches his arm of mayhem inland from Norfolk all the way to the Alleghenies.

We're cleared for takeoff; maintain 6,000, heading 180 degrees, the opposite of our destinations. A harried controller speaks sharply to an errant VFR light airplane. "Turn right to 270 degrees," he instructs. The pilot wails, "That's right into the storm." The controller barks, "You've got converging traffic at one mile. I will not put you in the weather." I decide to remain quiet.

Finally vectored to the east, I see the problem for the controllers. Arrivals and departures at Orlando and Tampa are being squeezed into narrow confines by big thunderstorms. We step climb to Flight Level 200 and are instructed to go direct to Cross City when able. Forty minutes later we're in the clear, but my mind has already turned to the storm in the Northeast. The Florida weather was supposed to be the least of our problems.

Soon Jacksonville Center calls with a new routing that takes us east of Atlanta before heading to Louisville. This gets me to thinking. I see the swirl of Ernesto and to the west another fling of rain arcing through Ohio. There's a gap on the Nexrad of over a hundred miles. Just because there's no significant precip, does that mean there's no ice? No turbulence? Another call from Jax cements my decision. They want us to go further east, over Alma, Georgia, before heading west. I dial up Spartanburg, South Carolina, weather on the Avidyne, see that it is acceptable and change our destination. We can get fuel there and climb out to higher altitudes before reaching the worst of the weather. I've been to Spartanburg before. The people were nice and jet A price reasonable. The ILS to 5 at Spartanburg airport is easy, the turn is quick and we're soon climbing out towards Beckley (BKW), about where the weather starts. I note that the right engine is running fine, a condition that pleases me. I can deal with mechanical or weather challenges, but I'm disinclined to the combination of the two. I don't know a lot about hot sections except for their pricey reputation. I have known owners who have ignored overhaul or hot section recommendations, but I've concluded that I'm a chicken when it comes to tempting the gods with inattention to engine manufacturer suggestions.

I know that the hot section is just that; it's where the jet A gets burned and turns the turbine blades that make the power that does two things: It turns the compressor section blades that pack more air into the hot section and it makes the Cheyenne's props go. I hear our blades were victims of sulfidation, whatever that is. How, I wonder, do I know this isn't a big problem on the left engine? I didn't get much of report about the repair, just the bill to prove it was done.

I see the clouds ahead. I think we can top them at 23,000, so I ask for and get FL 230. Ten minutes later I think maybe 25,000 will do it. Even at 250 we're soon in the soup. It is -14º C. A small amount of rime shows up on the windshield and the wipers, one of my most trusted and habitual sites for ice estimation. Airliners are reporting tops of 320, far above our service ceiling of 29,000.

Any trip that goes from Spartanburg to Lebanon, New Hampshire, via Pittsburgh is a deviation, but that's what we're doing. I hope. I note that AGC (Allegheny County's VOR) is only 45 minutes ahead. After that it looks like improving weather across New York State to our destination. More wet snow makes me uneasy, but I know it is above freezing below 14,000 feet, well above the minimum safe altitude over the mountains below. If worse comes to worse, we can descend. Time slows in bad weather. We inch towards Pittsburgh, it seems, though our ground speed is in the 240s. I cycle the boots, watch the airspeed indicator closely. Soon it drops almost 20 knots. That's way more than I've ever seen ice. I look at the copilot's airspeed indicator. It indicates a normal airspeed for altitude. I check the groundspeeds and they agree with the copilot's assessment of things. Something to keep an eye on, I think to myself. Why is it that scheduled maintenance always seems to reward the conscientious owner with additional squawks?

Once past the weather on the screen, we're still in IMC. The ride is smooth, but I am ready for things to get better. As we turn further east our groundspeed deteriorates; we're finally encountering the counterclockwise flow around the top of Ernesto. The copilot-pilot airspeed discrepancy persists, but I have accommodated to the discordance.

Suddenly we're not in cloud but in thick summer haze. I can see the ground. I become more contemplative. Those below are looking at a buttermilk sky, unaware of a small, 26-year-old turboprop on its way to celebrate a wedding.

We're soon instructed to descend and we do, in three to four thousand-foot increments, until the familiar outline of KLEB nestled in hills and just east of the Connecticut River comes into view. At lower altitudes the airspeed indicators start to agree. Once cleared for the straight in, I am roused from my flight reverie. Flaps 15, gear down, three green, flaps 40, on speed; the grass on the approach end of Runway 7 is a spectacularly lush, verdant carpet. It looks so bright it could be Astroturf. A soft touchdown leaves me with nothing more to do than taxi in, shut down, unload and pack my memories of the day away for later enjoyment. We made it.