Navigating by XM Weather


When the first satellite weather receiver was installed in my Baron several years ago the local FAA inspectors insisted that the radio shop put a placard near the display commanding that "Satellite Weather Information Not To Be Used For IFR Navigation" before they would approve the system. I thought that was about the stupidest placard I had seen in an airplane. That early system delivered by low, Earth-orbiting satellites was not reliable enough to use for weather information, much less navigation. Plus, how do you navigate using weather information sent by satellite anyway?

Well, maybe that FAA inspector was prescient. Not long ago I did use the Nexrad radar image sent to my airplane by XM Weather to navigate my way back home to New York from Wichita. At least I used the XM information to know where not to go, which may be the opposite of navigation, which, I think, is knowing where you are, where you want to go and how to get there.

I had been in Wichita the week after Thanksgiving to fly the 500th King Air 350. The weather was weird even by Wichita standards with the wind blowing 30 knots plus from the south-that's not abnormal for Wichita-but the temperature was in the 70s, not normal for the end of November. All the forecasters were watching an extreme cold front marching down from the northwest and promised a big change for the next day.

Change it did with temperatures dropping into the mid 20s, low clouds, a forecast of several inches of snow and wind howling at 30 knots plus from the north. The front had passed. The problem for me and my plans to fly east was that the front was generating a near solid line of strong to severe thunderstorms stretching from north Texas to Chicago. The national Nexrad picture didn't show any gaps or even soft spots in the line that I would want to try to fly through. To add interest it was starting to precipitate some sort of drizzle that would soon be freezing. My flight plan was on file for a fuel stop in Columbus, Ohio, my normal route home, and I had to either get going or get frozen in at Wichita. The Wichita controller who gave me the clearance said he had very recent reports of tops at 4,100 feet-just 2,800 feet agl over Wichita-clear above, and only a trace of light ice in the clouds.

So, I had five hours and 20 minutes of fuel, a reliable report of good conditions aloft, several airports with conditions above ILS minimums, and a current display of the severe weather and current surface conditions that I could count on XM to update every five minutes. I decided to take off and see where the weather allowed me to go. The reports were accurate and I was quickly in clear air on top, having found only a trace of ice in the clouds. The line of thunderstorms was 80 to 100 miles to the east, and the wind aloft was screaming at 50 to 60 knots from the southwest at 7,000 feet. I asked Kansas City Center if I could fly northeast to Ottumwa, Iowa, before turning east toward Columbus. That looked like the first place the line of storms on the XM map of Nexrad radars would allow a turn to the east.

I was in perfectly smooth air, clear of clouds and enjoying a huge tailwind, secure in the knowledge XM provided that no severe weather lurked ahead of my nose, though the picture off the right wing tip was nothing but a solid line. The tailwind was also blowing the cells northeast so it became clear Ottumwa wasn't going to be far enough north to miss the weather. The next target became Dubuque.

Every five minutes a new radar picture came in, and the storms were building as well as moving toward the northeast. Dubuque would no longer work, but Madison, Wisconsin, looked okay. The Madison approach controller was great and let me pick my way through some broken buildups that were starting to pop and then turn east toward Muskegon, Michigan. My new plan, and clearance, was to land at Muskegon for fuel. But, again, the XM picture changed that. Cells were moving up Lake Michigan fast, and they would be over Muskegon before I could get gas and depart. The new plan was Flint, Michigan, well to the east of the cold front where it was 60º F, with drizzle so light that it didn't show on the Nexrad picture. A VOR approach into Flint, top the tanks, and I had an uneventful second leg home to New York with absolutely nothing to look at ahead on the Nexrad.

When I got home I plugged the route I flew into the flight planner and found the total distance home via Madison and Flint was 1,238 nm, versus 1,123 nm over the normal route stopping in Columbus. Because of the strong tailwinds on the first leg, total trip time was actually a little less than typical. It's amazing how little distance a seemingly big dogleg route adds to a long trip, particularly when you consider a more or less direct route was impossible, or at least unwise.

I would never have attempted the flight before XM because the available en route reports of the thunderstorms just aren't precise enough to make avoidance decisions. The other option is to turn the nose toward the storms and look at them with my onboard radar, but that provides only a small picture laterally, and the ship's radar cannot penetrate all the way through a wide line of storms to show you that it's clear all the way through.

Many of you alarmists will no doubt think I was taking unreasonable chances. But that's just not true. Sure, I wouldn't have bet two bucks that I would get all the way to New York that day when I took off, but I never flew near the thunderstorms and always had airports above approach minimums within range. I may have had to wait it out in Wisconsin or Iowa if the storms had moved and built more quickly, but I could always turn west away from them because I knew where they were. I didn't use the satellite weather for navigation as the placard forbids, but I sure did use it to make a smooth, quick and safe flight that would not have been possible without it.

ETOPS for a Baron?

The FAA has some pretty strict rules for airlines that fly extended twin-engine overwater operations (ETOPS) on routes as much as four hours of engine-out flying time away from an alternate airport. I know of no twin-engine airliner that has ditched because of engine failure, though a Canadian crew came close when they mistakenly pumped fuel from one wing out through a big break in a fuel line on the other side. So far, ETOPS is working, even though some wonder about the wisdom of huge twins like the Boeing 777 being so far from a suitable airport.

One of the fundamental tenets of ETOPS is that each engine be segregated from the other to the greatest extent possible. No mechanic, inspector, tools, parts and so on can be used on both engines. If a procedure or a part is defective on one engine, this segregation helps prevent it from spreading to the other engine.

Even though I have known about ETOPS and its procedure for years, I had never considered its application to a piston twin like my Baron. But maybe I should have.

Last November Stancie and I had just returned from Elbow Cay in the Bahamas and landed to clear customs at Ft. Pierce, Florida. I have flown thousands of hours in singles, including many over open water, particularly over the Great Lakes because I lived near those shores for many years. Even with that experience, I still feel more comfortable with a second engine as soon as land goes out of gliding distance, even though the risk of power loss is tiny, and I have life jackets and a raft. But in this case my confidence in that second engine was misplaced because of a double maintenance error.

When I walked out of the customs building I noticed oil running out of the bottom of the cowling of the right engine. I opened the side of the cowling and there was a lot of oil inside. I wiped it up as best I could and started the engine to see if I could find the leak. As soon as the engine was running and the oil pressure up, the oil started to run out from somewhere near the front at a good rate.

The excellent mechanics at Navtech Aviation quickly found that the oil was leaking out of a return line from the propeller governor to the unfeathering accumulator. And here was the rub-the leak was caused by a fuel drain that had been hooked over the line and had chafed through the line from vibration.

There are two drains on a Baron engine that pipe any excess fuel out the bottom of the cowling. Flexible hoses link the engine to the metal fittings that protrude from the cowling. Some mechanics-I can't be sure who-apparently hooked the drains over any convenient part on the engine to get them out of the way while they installed the lower cowling. I'm sure they intended to unhook the drains and locate them properly as soon as the cowling was in place. Now here's the scary part. When we looked at the left engine the drains were hooked in the same way. The misplaced drain could have chafed through the oil line on the left engine just as it had on the right side. And it could have happened to both engines on the same flight.

I could have noticed that the drains were not protruding from the lower cowling during preflight inspection, but I didn't. However, I now know that ETOPS procedures almost certainly would have worked here because it is extremely unlikely that two independent sets of mechanics and inspectors would have made identical mistakes.

Turning Green?

I know that I'm not the only pilot who has seen his life's work as eating all the cows, drinking all the whisky and burning all the petroleum. After all, aviation is about speed and power, not feeling soft and fuzzy. And when it comes to saving the place for my kids, I always wonder what they have done for me lately.

But even the most ardent cowboys among us are starting to change at least a little and have become more sensitive to environmental concerns. Just as aging convinces one that life is not the unlimited opportunities of youth, observing the condition of the world around us makes it obvious that we can in fact use it all up, or at least ruin what remains.

But can environmental concern actually help sell airplanes? Many think so, and the evidence is growing, particularly in Europe where the greens are a powerful force at all levels of society.

I began to think about this after a conversation with Nicolas Chabbert, who is head of sales and marketing for Socata and the speedy TBM turboprop singles. Nicolas and I were talking about the success of turbine singles such as the TBM 850, the development of single-engine jets and the large interest in small business jets, and he credited much of that to environmental concerns.

Nicolas told me that pilots are specifically telling Socata that the fuel efficiency and its reduced impact on the environment of the TBM with its lone engine is a very important reason they are buying and flying it. And these are pilots who could easily afford to buy much larger multi-engine turbine airplanes. Higher fuel prices in Europe, the result of tax policies that encourage fuel efficiency, are certainly part of the equation, but Nicolas is convinced many pilots have a genuine concern about minimizing environmental impact on the atmosphere. You can also see the European concern for efficiency and environmentalism in the Falcons, which are the most fuel efficient of the large cabin business jets.

Nicolas knows the U.S. aviation industry very well because he was head of marketing for Mooney just a few years ago and he expects to see the same greening of pilots here. I think he's right. There are certainly loads of monetary reasons to buy the most efficient airplane, but it also comes with a good feeling that we're leaving the smallest possible footprints in the atmosphere we all fly through. Maybe those kids do deserve to have something left after