This website was about voyages on various boats and then a plane owned by John and Laura Lee Samford of Birmingham, Alabama. The last boat and plane have been sold, so the blog has turned to other travels and comments on life events. It also contains other blather user-generated content. Check out what you like and ignore the rest. Thanks for stopping by.



Operation Munchkin

Yesterday the lovely Laura Lee and I had the privilege of carrying out what we called Operation Munchkin, to get two cute grandchildren from Birmingham over to The Ford Plantation in Georgia. We have a family reunion coming up this weekend so we wanted the two oldest munchkins, Stella and Pierce, here early to spend a little time with “Pops” and “WuWu” without their parents in the way. As I’ve always said, children and grandparents get along so well because they have a common enemy.

We took off from the airport in Hinesville at around 10 am Eastern time and arrived Birmingham just after 11 am Central. The skies were fairly clear early in the morning, but typical summer clouds and showers were already starting to build on the trip west. I knew it was likely to be a bumpy ride back with the girls, but the real storms were scattered out enough to dodge everything serious.

Stella will be five years old in August and Pierce will be four in November. Stella has only flown once in her life on an airline when she was an infant (although the claims to remember it). Pierce has never flown before. So we wanted the experience to be fun, and it was. You can see from the giggling in the picture above that they seemed to enjoy themselves. Laura Lee sat with them in the back and they all giggled whenever we hit bumpy air. They are convinced that the clouds had the hiccups, and said their favorite part of the flight was the bumps. There were buildups on the return trip, but we dodged the worst of it and laughed our way through the clouds.

I’m convinced that people’s attitudes about flying can be formed early by conveying confidence and humor to them. If children spend time with adults who are afraid of flying, they will end up afraid of flying. If they grow up giggling at every bump in the clouds, you might spot them giggling on a business trip 30 years from now.

Pilots often claim that flying is safer than driving even though this has largely been disproved by statistics. However, what is true for a pilot is that safety is much more in your own hands flying than it is driving. There is no question that most flying accidents begin with pilot error or pilot misjudgement. If there is an accident, it is much more likely to be your own fault flying, as opposed to being blindsided by a drunk driver. So for me, I feel much safer flying than I do driving, and I’m happy to play a part in conveying my confidence to a new generation of passengers. 

Operation Munchkin was a great success, and we’re having fun with Stella and Pierce visiting us.


Zig-Zag Approved

I flew today with my friends Chick Preston and his wife Tricia, giving them a ride from the Savannah area back to Birmingham after they borrowed the plane for the weekend. It’s a fair trade. Chick is the most experienced and capable professional pilot I’ve ever known. He needed a ride and I needed some time with him in the right seat looking over my shoulder. A large part of what I still need at this point is simply confidence, and I got a kick out of Chick’s take on today’s weather compared to mine. I woke up this morning concerned about low ceilings and IFR conditions, with forecasts for thunderstorms building all day. I called Chick for his thoughts on the weather and he said “It looks great!”

We left the Midcoast Regional Airport in Hinesville around 1 pm for a 2 1/2 hour trip to Birmingham against a strong headwind, dodging bumpy cumulus buildups and going around more serious thunderstorms. It is expected that you will ask the air traffic controller to deviate around weather and a typical exchange would request permission to turn 10 or 20 degrees one way or the other to avoid weather. The controller will almost always approve the deviation and ask you to let him know when you are back on course. Today Chick handled it in a more casual way and told the controller we were going to need to zig and zag a little around some weather. He responded “N881RJ zig and zag approved.”

After dropping Tricia and Chick in Birmingham, I was looking forward to a strong tailwind to give me a quick flight back. However, that was not to be. As you can see from the FlightAware track, some lofty cloud buildups and a group of thunderstorms forced me to deviate south almost to Eufala, Alabama before finally turning due east towards home. While the tailwind helped after I turned east, I had gone so far out of the way that the return trip took 2 1/2 hours as well.

But it was a good day of flying, and just the thing I needed to get ready for typical summer flying in the south. Thanks for the help Chick. Zig and zag approved.


Out of the shop

I flew back from Birmingham to Charlotte last night and picked up the plane this morning from Skytech, the Piper repair facility in Rock Hill, SC. After a quick 1 hour 20 minute flight, I am back in Savannah.

The plane is flying great. I got 12 all new “fine wire” spark plugs, whatever that means. (The engine is a six-cylinder, but airplanes have two spark plugs per cylinder for redundancy.) The engine had been running rough and the plugs were fouling easily when idling on the ground at full rich. Since I had been told to change out the plugs soon anyway, we hoped this higher quality plug might solve some of the problems, and it appears to have worked as the engine is running very nicely right now.  I also replaced a few of the exhaust gas temperature sensors which were an old type, so that I am now using the recommended sensors on all cylinders. I hope this will solve some of the “gremlins” with the EGT readouts, and so far it is working well. A few other things were checked and fixed including a magneto inspection and adjusting the idle fuel mixture.

Skytech is a great facility and very knowledgeable about this plane and its required maintenance. I had discovered a few things in the engine log that should have been done earlier and these have all now been completed. Everything worked perfectly on the flight back to Georgia, and I will be returning to Skytech for my annual inspection due in November.

The flight back was uneventful. It was  beautiful and fairly smooth, with scattered clouds, but no storms.



I’ve been using an iPad app called CloudAhoy which allows me to record the GPS information throughout a flight and play it all back on a computer. The most fun is to choose the “cockpit view” which uses Google Earth to re-create what I would have seen out the window (without clouds or darkness). I then play back the entire flight at 10X real speed so that a 90 minute flight can be watced in nine minutes. Click here for a link to replay today’s flight from Hinesville, GA up to the Piper repair station in Rock Hill, SC. Try playing with the different views and speeds. It’s fun!



We are back to the Savannah area after a trip to Destin, Florida for a wedding this past weekend. The lovely Laura Lee flew with me for her first trip in the new plane. As when we flew together often in the past, she is an excellent co-pilot, and I am considering ordering the uniform at left for her that I found online.

We had a good flight down but the return Sunday was a little challenging due to low ceilings and fog in Destin Sunday morning, and a stationary front bringing low ceilings and rain showers to Georgia all day. But we made it home OK flying through bumpy clouds all the way back. Flying in the clouds and bumps is not always fun, but is good experience for me as I regain the confidence needed to fly in weather.

So I am making good progress with flying skills, but there are what my friend Sean (who bought Steel Magnolia) calls “gremlins” with the plane at the moment that need to be resolved. Wikipedia defines “gremlins” as follows: gremlin is an imaginary creature commonly depicted as mischievous and mechanically oriented, with a specific interest in aircraft. Gremlins’ mischievous natures are similar to those of English folkloric imps, while their inclination to damage or dismantle machinery is more modern.”  The good luck gremlin mascot at right flew with 482nd Bomb Group (Heavy) from 1942 to 1945.

First, I have written about how leaning is done using exhaust gas temperature readings for each cylinder. I have had a repeating issue with the sensor for Cylinder 4 EGT. A few weeks ago, I suddenly had no reading from that sensor and a local mechanic here in Hinesville, GA replaced the EGT probe for me. It worked fine for about 30 hours of flying and then failed again so last Wednesday, the EGT probe for cylinder #4 was replaced again. Sunday, I looked over during the flight and again had no reading for cylinder #4 EGT, the third failure for this probe in about six weeks. A few minutes later, I suddenly had no readout from any of the EGT sensors. This is a very strange failure from a bunch of basic temperature sensors, but I have discovered we were supposed to use a specific sensor made by Piper, and that is no doubt part of the problem.

The other issue is that after installing GAMI injectors for all of my cylinders, my engine has begun to run a little rough. I can’t necessarly blame the GAMI injectors as they are supposed to make the engine run more smoothly, but no other work has been done on the engine, and we cannot figure out why it is running rough. With all of this going on, I have spoken to Avidyne which makes the display showing engine readings to figure out the best all-around place to take the plane for diagnosis and repair. It was recommended that I take it up to the Piper Service Center near Charlotte, and I have an appointment there next week. I am hopeful they can sort out the issues and get things running smoothly and displaying properly for me.

Conveniently, I need to be in Birmingham late next week for about a week, and Charlotte is a great place to leave the plane and catch a US Air flight to Birmingham. A week later, I can reverse the process and pick the plane up to return to Savannah. As with boats, much of private plane flying involves travelling to new places to work on the plane.


Crosswind Landings

One of the things you learn when getting a pilot’s license is the technique for doing a “crosswind landing”. Obviously, the best way to land a plane is into the wind. It allows you to maintain an appropriate airspeed while having the slowest possible speed over the ground. So you keep the airplane under control without using up too much runway, and you touch down at a ground speed that allows you to stop quickly before running out of runway. When picking a runway, a pilot always seeks to land, and take off, as close to into the wind as possible.

The problem comes when an airport only has one runway available for your use and the wind happens to be blowing accross rather than down the runway. Every airplane has a “demonstrated crosswind velocity” which simply means it has been landed by a professional pilot in that amount of crosswind in test flights. It is not a limitation, but simply a crosswind speed the manufacturer could certify as safe to land with. Nearly every pilot has landed with crosswinds higher than the demonstrated crosswind speed for his or her plane. I would personally not be alarmed at crosswinds in the 20 knot range, but my skills would be tested.

So let us say you are landing to the north using Runway 36, which means it has a heading close to 360 degrees or due north, and assume the winds are from the west 270 degrees at 20 knots. As you make the approach (at 90 knots in my plane), you would be “crabbing” into the wind and the plane would be aimed at about 347 degrees to maintain your course of 360 toward the runway. You can actually calculate the wind by using something called the Rule of 60. Divide your speed of 90 knots by 60 to get 1.5. Multiply this times your crab angle of 13 degrees and you get roughly a 20 knot crosswind.

The trick on a crosswind landing is to keep this crab angle until right above the runway, at which time you use cross controls to line up with the runway. In our example of a crosswind from the left, you would do this by using right rudder to line up  the plane with the runway while maintaining your course by banking to the left. You land with the left wing low and on the left wheel first, but keep the plane straight with right rudder. The final trick, since my rudder also controls my nose wheel as well as the rudder, is to let off the rudder pressure just before the nose wheel touches the ground, but to keep the left wing low with left aileron throughout the landing roll so the wind doesn’t pick up your left wing and blow you to the right or worst case flip you over.

A perfect crosswind landing in this situation would be on the left main wheel first, then the right wheel, and then on the nose wheel just as you release pressure on the right rudder. The yoke (steering wheel) would be to the left and would stay hard left during the landing roll. It sounds tricky, and it is the first few times you try it, but with practice it becomes almost second nature to a pilot.

So the next time you land with someone, or on an airline flight, don’t be too quick to criticize a landing one wheel at a time. The pilot might be executing a perfect crosswind landing with grace and style.


The Lean Machine

I promised awhile back to bore you with a description of engine leaning procedures in airplanes. This is a good time for those yawning to move on to another topic. But if you are interested, stick with me.

The concept is pretty simple. In an engine, the mixture of fuel and air is just as important as it is in your fireplace. The engine leaning control adjusts the mixture, or the ratio of fuel to air going into the cylinders, and it is particularly important in airplanes because as you increase altitude, there is less barometric pressure to push air into the engine, and the air is less dense (or thinner) so it has less oxygen to burn. So as you increase in altitude, leaning is needed to adjust the amount of fuel in the mixture to match the reduced air pressure and oxygen to give you the desired mixture.

The point is to lower the ratio of fuel to air in the mixture to get to the best setting for your engine at the density altitude and temperature at which you are flying. Pulling the mixture back to full lean will cut off all fuel and stop the engine. As a matter of fact this is exactly how you shut down your engine after you have landed. Pushing the mixture lever to full rich typically gives it a mixture of something like six parts air to one part fuel, and this is set for the particular engine to give a mixture as rich as possible without much loss of power, and to provide enough fuel to cool the engine the most when it is at full takeoff power.

If you climb up to altitude in a plane, level off, and begin to pull the mixture lever back from full rich toward lean, the temperature of the exhaust gas coming out of each cylinder will begin to increase as the fire gets hotter. If you continue leaning, the exhaust gas temperature (EGT) will peak, and then will begin to decline as the mixture moves toward being too lean. Modern planes often have guages that allow you to see the EGT for each cylinder and watch this process unfold, and without specially tuned fuel injectors, the point where each cylinder will hit peak EGT will be different.

Everything I’ve told you so far is factually correct, I think, but when you move on to the question of how to lean an engine at altitude, you enter the realm of superstition and strongly held beliefs among pilots and mechanics, and it is very hard to sort out what is the best setting, and the best method of achieving it. I’m going to start by telling you about the three methods of leaning in order of age, from oldest to newest, and then delve a little into the arguments about exactly how to lean using the newest methods, which are based on instruments not available until late in the 20th century.

The oldest method of leaning is based on the simple proposition that when the mixture gets too lean, it will start to run rough. So the pilot would level off at altitude and then pull back the mixture lever until the engine started running rough. When that occurred, he would push the lever back toward rich until it was smooth again, and that was it. For a long, long time in aviation, this was how engines were leaned, and there are certainly still advocates of this method flying today. It was simple, and it seemed to work, although I find it a little harrowing up there in the sky to be intentionally making my engine run rough.

The second method of leaning came about when instruments were developed which could measure fuel flow. The Pilot’s Operating Handbook for my plane has a guide for such a leaning method, and it amounts to this: If you set the throttle and RPM by the book for 75% power at a certain density altitude, and lean correctly, your fuel flow should be 18.5 gallons Per hour; at 65& power, 16.5 gallons per hour; and at 55% power, 14.5 gallons per hour. Using this method, if you were at 65% power, you would simply lean until you had a fuel flow of 16.5 gallons per hour, and be done with it.

And finally, with probes to measure exhaust gas temperature and cylinder head temperature, first for just one cylinder and now for every cylinder, leaning has truly become an art. We can see the effect on exhaust gas temperatures (EGT’s) within each cylinder and fuel consumption, giving us information that was never available in the past. Oddly, as instruments and measurements have become more precise, there are more arguments today than ever before about how to lean an engine.

When an exhaust gas temperature readout became available, based on one cylinder, the standard leaning method became leaning the mixture until the exhaust gas temperature peaked, and then moving the lever back in the rich direction to somewhere like 100 degrees rich of peak. Later, these guages were replaced by readouts giving the exhaust gas temperatures for every cylinder and the same thing was done with the first cylinder to peak in exhaust gas temperature.

So, what’s the problem? Well, a Company named General Aviation Modifications, Inc., or GAMI, figured out from these modern instruments that cylinders in an aircraft engine, because of how they are placed, get different amounts of air flow. So they invented something called GAMI Injectors which vary the fuel injected into each cylinder to match the air available to the cylinder. The result is that cylinders in one engine behave much more closely alike, and reach peak EGT’s at roughly the same time. With GAMI injectors installed, leaning done the traditional way results in all of the cylinders running pretty much alike.

As the Company says on its website: 

GAMIjector® fuel injectors and TurboGAMIjector® fuel injectors are fuel injection nozzles designed to deliver specific amounts of fuel to each individual cylinder that will compensate for the fuel/air imbalance inherent in the fundamental design of the engine fuel/air systems.

Each GAMIjector® fuel injector is carefully calibrated to much tighter tolerances than standard fuel injectors available for your engine. Our award winning GAMIjector® fuel injectors alter the fuel/air ratio in each cylinder so that each cylinder operates with a much more nearly uniform fuel/air ratio than occurs with any standard factory set of injectors. 

But GAMI went much further than simply making it possible to get the cylinders all working alike, and began to advocate running engines “lean of peak”, to get better efficiency and cooler cylinder temperatures. A lot of long-time pilots and mechanics scoff at this notion, but over time GAMI has pretty much won the war of convincing everyone that there is a better way to run their aircraft engine. It is now widely accepted that, unless you are operating at very high power settings (higher than 60% to 65% power), it will not hurt an engine to run it at any reasonable leaning position. With GAMI injectors, engines should no longer run rough when somewhere like 50 degrees lean of peak, because all of the cylinders will be behaving close to alike. If you can find a method that keeps the engine cooler and provides best efficiency, that’s what you should use if efficiency and cool cylinders are your goal. 

So now I have installed these GAMI’s on my engine, but I have been a little to rattled to go all the way lean of peak so far. The engine is running smoothly, but when I lean back to where most of the cylinders have peaked in exhaust gas temperature, the leaning knob is alarmingly close to the idle shut-off position, and I have been too nervous to pull it back any further. I have been running it about 100 degrees rich of peak at 65% power and burning about 16.5 gallons per hour. I believe my next step will be to try this with an airport below, and an experienced instructor on board, just to make sure I do not kill the engine with nowhere to land while screwing around with the mixture. I’ll keep you posted next time I get a chance to try this out.

The curious thing is that I have had these GAMI injectors in my last two airplanes, and have flown many hours lean of peak. I suppose I am just still getting used to this plane and still a little nervous about trying out new things in it. Meanwhile, I’m probably burning a couple of gallons an hour more than I need to be. I’ll get there though, and I’ll have myself a lean machine soon. 


Safe Pilot/Ace Pilot

I knew a guy in college who was an “ace pilot”. He got his pilot’s license about when I did and had every skill needed. I wouldn’t go up in a plane with him though, because he thought it was really cool to smoke marijuana while he flew. I didn’t really think that was the best idea. He ended up flying helicopters in Viet Nam. After the war, he flew helicopters for banks, zooming around the southeast at night picking up cancelled checks. He could land on a dime or swoop down over the roof of a bank and grab the bag of checks off a pole. He loved nothing more than to get up in a helicopter and enjoy smoking a joint as he darted around the southeast on his appointed rounds. As far as I know, he survived it all.

So here is the thing that you need to understand if you fly with a friend who is a pilot. Being a safe pilot requires some good skills, good judgement, and an awareness of one’s own limitations. Being an ace pilot means flawless execution of things like landings and instrument approaches, or even flying aerobatics or Top Gun fighter jets. My own thought is that you can be either, neither, or both of these. If you are both, I would call you a great pilot.

I have always been a safe pilot. I do not fly in weather or circumstances beyond my capabilities. I don’t drink much the night before a flight. I don’t run risks like overloading a plane, landing on too short a runway, or buzzing my friends on the beach. I don’t take needless risks to make a planned trip. If the weather turns bad or there is a problem with the plane, we don’t go, or we rent a car. The rules are absolute, and I never make what I call “the first bad decision”. I also used to be perhaps a near-great pilot, at least for the planes I flew and the type of flying I did. I was no fighter jet Top Gun, but I could make perfect landings and execute instrument approaches in daunting situations where engines had quit or electrical power had failed (in a simulator).

Today, I’m still a safe pilot. My approaches are a little rusty, but getting better every day. My landings are a little bumpy. But the flight is safe. I will become a near-great pilot again, but I’m still practicing to get those skills back. This week I went out Wednesday and practiced landings with an old friend and very experienced corporate pilot. Today, I flew again with an instructor and did practice instrument approaches in Montgomery, Auburn, Sylacauga, and Birmingham. The instructor is ready to sign me off for my Instrument Proficiency Check after we complete a couple of more procedures tomorrow. So I will be legal to file Instrument flight plans again, and to fly in some instrument weather within my own limitations. I’m getting all of this back, one step at a time.

So what you need to understand is this. Don’t make a decision about flying with someone based on how smooth their landings are or some other ace-pilot abilities they have. That would be like choosing a spouse based solely on how good they look. Go with a pilot who has good judgement and an awareness of his or her own limitations. The pilot may cancel a trip because of weather, or the landing may not be perfect, but you will arrive safely, and you will be in good hands.

Here’s a view of my instrument approach into Montgomery today, done while I was wearing “Foggles” so I could only see the instruments, and recorded using the “CloudAhoy” Ipad App. It is shown at 4X actual speed with a Google Earth simulated cockpit view. We didn’t land, but flew down to 200 feet above the runway and executed a “missed approach” as you would do if the weather was so bad you never spotted the runway. The 4X speed makes things look a little more abrupt than they really were. We ended up right where we were supposed to be.


A Perfect Day of Flying

My son Daniel was in Savannah for the weekend with a crowd of golf buddies. He wanted to get from Savannah to Augusta today without making his whole crowd divert there on their drive back to Birmingham. A perfect opportunity for Sky King to fly to the rescue.

Because I need some more instruction in this plane, I arranged for an instructor to do the flight with me beginning at about 8:45 this morning. The plan was two hours to Savannah, about 45 minutes to Augusta, a quick lunch, and then about two hours back to Birmingham. And that’s pretty much what it turned out to be. A fabulous day of flying.

It was a beautiful morning when we departed Birmngham. We flew part of the trp at 7,000 feet and went up to 9,000 about half way there to get over some clouds and above the bumpy air. Daniel was waiting for us and we bounced our way at 4,000 feet on the short trip to Augusta. After looking for some lunch and finding only crackers and candy, we departed Augusta and arrived back in Birmingham around 4 pm.

My engine seemed to run a little rough right after takeoff. I just had an oil change and had new GAMI Injuectors installed to even out fuel flow among the cylinders. I have no idea why any of this would cause roughness, but the plane seemed to be vibrating a little more than usual on the climbout. However, it seemed to get better as the day wore on and, truthfully, it’s hard to tell how much of this is real and how much imagined. I’ll keep an eye on it.


07-Apr-2013 N881RJ Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Intl (KBHM) to Savannah/Hilton Head Intl (KSAV) 08:50AM CDT to 12:01PM EDT, 2:11

07-Apr-2013 N881RJ Savannah/Hilton Head Intl (KSAV) to Augusta Regional (KAGS) 12:34PM EDT to 01:18PM EDT,  0:44

07-Apr-2013 N881RJ Augusta Regional (KAGS) to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Intl (KBHM) 02:39PM EDT to 03:50PM CDT, 2:11

My instructor was a young man named Steven Bromberg, who is a full-time corporate pilot in Birmingham. We did exactly what I needed. We spent a good bit of time at first just flying VFR (visually) and going over how to work the avionics on my plane. For part of the trip over to Savannah, I donned the “Foggles”, which are glasses that only allow you to see the instruments so that I was flying “Simulated Instrument”. Then, when we arrived at Savannah, we executed an ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach using the autopilot and without the Foggles. Heading up to Augusta, I spent a little more time with the Foggles and did another approach flying by hand with the Foggles on. When we returned to Birmingham, I did a GPS instrument approach, again flying by hand with the Foggles. Steven turned out to be an excellent instructor, pointing out things to watch and keeping me pretty much on track. I’m not really there yet but this was excellent practice, and things are coming back to me with good instruction.
My experience in Orlando was not a good one, but at least it showed me where I need work. A great instructor as I had today and a leisurely cross-country flight can make all the difference. Things need to start out in a methodical way without jumping into too much excitement at once. My instrument scan is coming back, slowly, and I believe with a little practice, I’ll get my instrument proficiency back pretty quickly.
Onward and Upward!



Safely Home

Safely returned from Orlando to Birmingham today, arriving just on the edge of some rain to the Northwest. It was an uneventful trip, but scattered to broken clouds from 4,000 to 6,000 feet along the way forced me to fly lower than I would prefer, and in the bumpy air caused by heat rising off the earth. So after bouncing around for about three hours, I’m back on the ground. 

For any of you who might have clicked the “Track the Plane” link at the top of this page, the reports are not always accurate. If I was able to file an instrument flight plan, the whole trip would be “in the system” of the FAA and the results would be better. As it is, I always request “flight following” which means you are asking to be watched on radar, but sometimes the entire trip is not really in the computer correctly. A good example is today, where the Flight Aware report shows the following:

Executive (KORL – info)
Orlando, FL
Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Intl (KBHM – info)
Birmingham, AL
12:58PM EDT
01:22PM CDT
Scheduled: 12:58PM EDT
Scheduled: 04:28PM CDT
Duration: 1 hour 24 minutes
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Status Landed over an hour ago. (track log & graph)
Aircraft Piper Saratoga (piston-single) (PA32/T – photos)
Speed Filed: 91 kts (graph)
Altitude (graph)
Distance Direct: 411 nm    Planned: 411 nm    Flown: 702 nm
Route n/a

First off you will notice that it says I took off at 12:58 EDT and arrived at 1:22 CDT and the flight time was ! hour 24 minutes. I wish that were true, but I would have had to be going around 290 knots to acomplish that. I actually took off two hours earlier at 10:58 EDT and arrived at 1:22 CDT, so it was actually 3 hours 24 minutes rather than 1:24. It says that I filed for a speed of 91 knots. I actually told them 145 knots air speed, but the headwinds slowed me down and my actual ground speed was only 120 knots. Finally, they show the direct route as 411 nautical miles which is roughly correct, but they say that I actually flew 702 nautical miles. That’s very strange and I have no idea where that came from. I must have flown around in a lot of circles along the way.

At any rate, they show the plane on the ground in Birmingham, and it is. Glad to be home.



Not Exactly Top Gun

After all the miscues of avionics issues and bad weather, I finally returned to Orlando Wednesday to begin again my training school at SimCom. The airplane was in Sarasota having had the GPS units upgraded, so SimCom and my instructor were kind enough to let me fly in to Orlando commercial, pick up a one-way rental car, and drive the instructor and myself 2 1/2 hours to Sarasota to pick up the plane. We successfully pulled this off and were in the air at around 4 pm for our short flight back to Orlando during which some of the training began.

Incidentally, this was the first time I have ever driven three different rental cars in one day. Enterprise, with their laid back drop arrangements, had allowed me to rent a car in Orlando which I turned in Wednesday morning when leaving Birmingham. Then I arrived Orlando and rented a car for about three hours to drive over to Sarasota to get the plane. When we got the plane back to Orlando, I rented a third car to use while I was here in Orlando.

Yesterday morning, Thursday, the training got back going in earnest. I met my instructor at SimCom and we spent a couple of hours going through things in the classroom. We then had an early lunch and headed out for what turned into four full hours of flying with a couple of short stops at different airports. We did five instrument approaches at Leesburg, Gainsville and Palatka and returned to Orlando to close out an 11-hour day.

My instrument flying was, to say the least, sloppy. I couldn’t believe that after 12 years of not flying a plane I couldn’t simply nail the approaches, but I was “behind the plane” all day. I had nowhere near the performance necessary for an instructor to certify that I have completed an Instrument Profeciancy Check.

This morning, I awoke determined to do a better job, and initially I did, flying a straightforward trip to Palatka and executing a decent, but not perfect, instrument approach. After that, the day fell apart and I executed sloppy approaches at Gainsville and Orlando Executive to complete the training course with no demonstration of instrument “proficiency”. We finished up at around 6 pm after a 10-hour day and I am, to say the least, exhausted.

My instructor was excellent and I learned a lot and made serious progress, but I had to completely agree with him that I am not quite yet ready for prime time in the instrument flying world. I have a ways to go. He did a good job, and I agreed with the conclusion, but I was certainly disappointed that I was performing so poorly. I didn’t come to this school specifically to get the instrument check, but I fully expected to easily do so while I was here.

Now, let me explain the differences between this kind of flying, which I need to be able to do, and normal flying, which requires nowhere near these skill levels. First, on a normal trip, pilots do a lot of planning ahead during the long boring enroute portion of the trip. They normally turn on the autopilot and relax, look up all the information on the arrival airport, preset the communication frequencies, check the weather at the arrival airport, set up the GPS or other navigation to execute an approach, and arrive at their destination fully knowing what to expect and having all the gadgets set up to do their thing.

Flying in training is something else again. You wear something called “Foggles” which blank out the upper half of the glasses so you can only see inside the plane. Down here in central Florida, you are in very high traffic areas where approach controls for Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville all run together. There is an enormous amount of radio chatter, making it difficult to hear a call and also talk with your instructor. Additionally, because of the heavy traffic, there are always sudden unexpected changes from the controllers, as if your instructor’s surprises are not enough. You are normally asked to make minimum use of the autopilot, because they want to be able to judge your hand-flying skills. Worst of all, there is no long enroute time to get set up, and often you are asked when you are completing one approach to circle around and do a different one at the same airport, with little time to think it through and get set up.

All of this is hard enough when you are flying a plane which is very familiar, where you can quickly set up an approach on the instruments or shift frequencies as one controller hands you off to another. In my case, I’m trying to learn how to operate new GPS/radios, a new “glass cockpit” of instruments and other needed information, and a new autopilot/flight director. The result is often like texting while driving, as my attention is diverted by the avionics, I tend to run off the road.

While I am disappointed at how hard this has been for me, it’s all good training, and I will get back to the competency levels I had a decade ago. Meanwhile, I am restricted to flying in good weather, and I need a lot more time with good flight instructors to get me up to speed. I’m not exactly Top Gun yet, but I will get there.

Now, if the weather will only cooperate to let me fly home tomorrow.


Saratoga in Sarasota

My plane is technically a Piper 6X, but it is part of the Saratoga series of planes and most people know it as a version of a Piper Saratoga. I now have a Saratoga in Sarasota. I kept getting confused today flying telling controllers my plane was a Sarasota and I was flying VFR to Saratoga.

Well, nothing more has been heard from Avidyne, and I don’t really expect to hear more. My friend Sean who bought my boat is an expert on Windows software used in embedded systems, and I flagrantly plagiarized his email to me in my last post on the Avidyne forums (his explanation was just perfectly clear), but I have yet to hear the kind of technical response I have been requesting. I will just have to hope they are right that this kind of failure is rare, and that there is nothing I can do differently to avoid it.

I finally got a clear day in central Florida and flew the plane over to Sarasota to have Sarasota Avionics replace my two Garmin GPS’s with more modern ones that utilize the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). It should be ready to pick up when I head back down there next Wednesday to try to complete my flight training.

This has become an obsessive effort to overcome electronic failures and bad weather, along with my crazy meeting schedule, to get both the plane and me up to speed and ready to fly. I’m back in Georgia in a different rental car which I will turn in in Birmingham early next week. I will fly back to Orlando on Southwest and try to pick up the plane and complete my training by the end of next week. I still have cars and planes and keys all over the place, but I am making progress. 

Sarasota Saratoga 881 Romeo Juliet out.


For the avionics nuts out there

Here is my exchange so far with Avidyne about how the software became “corrupted” on my multi-functon display bringing my flight training to a halt last week:

Topic: MFD Failure
    Posted: Yesterday at 5:02pm
I have recently purchased a 2005 Piper 6X with the Avidyne system and the latest version of Release 8. Last Thursday, as I was preparing to begin a three-day school in the plane at SimCom, we started up the MFD and it locked up and would not operate. Fortunately, there was a capable avionics shop on the field in Orlando, but the fix required new software or firmware to be shipped out Friday and installed in the plane today, so the school had to be rescheduled and I had to come home, leaving the plane in Orlando. It will be a couple of weeks before I can go back to do the school.
I understand from the avionics shop today that the problem has been fixed “so far”. I am informed that sometimes the reinstall of software permanently fixes the issue or that there may be something else wrong that will corrupt the software again. So I was greatly inconvenienced and I am a little nervous now that this problem may be repeated.
Can you explain what would cause the software or firmware in the unit to become corrupted, and let me know any experience the company has with such issues repeating themselves? I’m curious if there might be some hardware issue that would cause the software issue to repeat.
Thanks very much,
John Samford
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Joined: Jan 30 2013 
Location: Savannah, GA
Status: Online 
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Post Options Post Options    Thanks (0) Thanks(0)    Quote jsamford Quote  Post ReplyReplyDirect Link To This Post Posted: 24 minutes ago at 10:53pm
I haven’t gotten any response on the forum, but I have been emailing with a couple of people at Avidyne regarding this issue. The first response was as follows:
The problem with corruption has to do with a fundamental flaw in Windows SW.  When the system is powered off, if it was in the middle of writing to the CF (generally writing engine data), sometimes the write is not completed and the CF is corrupted.  This is very infrequent with MFD R8 and was more prevalent with earlier versions.  I am not sure how often it occurs in R8, but I would think it should be fine for a long time.  I am not aware of a hardware problem that is typically linked to CF corruption.

My next questions and the answers were as follows:
Thanks. The instructor and I did turn on the Avidyne for about five minutes to go through some things, and then shut it off while we went inside to gather weather, etc. Is that a bad practice? Is there some minimum time it should be on to finish writing data or some minimum time it should be off before restarting?

We do not really find much of a need to have the system operate for any specific time, nor do we specify a specific shutdown time.  However, I do recommend that when multiple databases are updated on the same day to make sure that the MFD completes at least one full boot sequence in between each update attempt - even if an attempt fails.  stacking updates immediately after each other often causes software corruption. 


Thanks for getting back to me. We were not updating any databases. We started up the system for about five minutes, shut it down for 20-30 minutes, and when we tried to start up again there was total failure on the MFD. I’m just curious if there is anything I can do to prevent this again. As I mentioned in the forum post, it forced me to cancel a three-day training school on a Thursday, await new software which arrived Monday, and leave the plane in Orlando awaiting reinstall of the software for the MFD. This has been an expensive and inconvenient failure on a plane I just bought, so I want to know what might cause it and how to prevent it happening again.

I understand your concerns with the system.  It is uncommon to have a software failure in any situation and extremely rare to have a software failure that is not involving a database update. I do not have any suggestions to avoid software failures other than what I have already suggested.  In my opinion and experience it is not something to worry about too badly.

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Location: Savannah, GA
Status: Online 
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I’m not really feeling like I have a great answer to this so far.I’ve pretty much been told that “I would think it should be fine for a long time” and that it is extremely rare and “not something to worry about too badly.” I really want to know what would cause the software that runs the MFD to become corrupted, and whether there is anything I can do to prevent a reoccurance. 

Edited by jsamford - 16 minutes ago at 11:01pm


Laura Lee’s 1990 Jeep Wrangler is in a hangar in Georgia from when I departed by plane a week ago to go to Birmingham for a meeting. My car is in a hangar in Birmingham from when I departed there by plane to go to Orlando, Florida last Wednesday for a three-day flight school. The plane is in Orlando because it had an avionics malfunction requiring me to cancel flight school last Thursday. I am in Richmond Hill, GA with the rental car I got for the school in Orlando, but ended up driving back here to Georgia. The Jeep keys are in the Jeep locked in the hangar. My car keys are with me in my backpack. The plane keys are at the desk at the airport in Orlando so the avionics guy could get into the plane to fix it, which he did today. I’m reduced to going over this several times a day to remember where I am.

But I’ll try to start getting all the pieces back where they belong tomorrow. I’ll drive the rental car back to Orlando where I got it. If the weather’s OK one of the next few days, I’ll turn in the rental car and fly the plane to Sarasota to get the avionics upgrades I had planned. I’ll rent another car there and drive back to Georgia for a meeting Saturday, then to Birmingham for a meeting Monday, and then back to Sarasota to turn in the car and pick up the plane, then fly back to Orlando to finish the school, then fly back to Birmingham. The plane will be in the hangar in Birmingham, I’ll have my own car, and when I fly back to Georgia, the Jeep will still be waiting.

Got it?


C'est La Vie . . . I guess

Had it all planned. Fly to Orlando Wednesday, flight school today, Friday, and Saturday, fly to Sarasota Sunday, have GPS units upgraded Monday and Tuesday, fly back to Savannah Wednesday.

Spent some time this morning in the classroom, went to lunch, and got out to the airport to fly around 1:30 pm. Turned on the power and the magic “glass cockpit” multi-function display (MFD) would not start up. Gave us strange messages, and it would never come on correctly.

Taxied over to an avionics shop. Avidyne (the manufacturer) says the software is “corrupted”. They will send new software but it will not be here until Monday. Flight school is cancelled to be rescheduled. GPS upgrade is cancelled to be rescheduled. Can’t fly anywhere near Savannah from Orlando commercial without going through Atlanta or Charlotte and spending $600 to $800 and five or six hours. Driving a rental car four hours to Savannah tomorrow. Leaving the plane here to get fixed. Will probably be three to four weeks before my schedule will allow me to set this up again.

Even if the new software works, there may be some hardware problem that “corrupted” the software, so this first step may not really solve the problem for long.

Only good news, the previous owners had some kind of extended warranty on the Avidyne that runs to 2016, and transferred to me when I bought the plane. Priceless.

I won’t be writing about flying for three or four weeks, but I’ll be back.


Cap'n Ron

As a boat person, one of my favorite movies is “Cap’n Ron” starring Kurt Russell as an irresponsible mostly drunk boat captain. Turns out Kurt is an accomplished pilot in real life. Check it out here.


Just Another Pilot

Harrison Ford. See the video here.


Human Element Range Extender

Long long ago, when I was 23 years old and in my first year of law school, I flew to the beach for a weekend with another couple. Our female guest spent the day Sunday by the pool, drinking beer (or was it wine?). So as we flew back at around 9pm Sunday evening, at 8,000 feet and an hour out of Birmingham, the young lady announced that she positively desperately needed a pit stop. I tried to see if she could hold out for another hour, but the answer was clearly no. So we descended to an airport somewhere in Georgia and landed. There was no tower, no traffic, no one there, and no open building, so we just stopped right at the end of the runway and let her take care of her business in the grass. She hopped back in, and off we went to continue our journey home.

So getting into the real nitty gritty of flying in small planes, this brings us to the question of what to do when nature calls, since there is no bathroom on N881RJ. First off, it is useful to schedule legs of only two to three hours between stops on any trip. It’s nice to walk around, stretch your legs, buy some fuel, and yes, use the facilities. But for those times when you just gotta go, someone years ago invented what pilots call the “Human Element Range Extender”. Here’s a photo of one that is marketed today by online pilot shops under the clever name of “Little John” (forget the snide remarks concerning my name). It is a useful gadget to have in the plane and there have been times when I have needed one and used it. I’m sure I have one packed away with old aviation stuff, but I’m not sure where it has ended up, and I’ll be ordering one for the plane.

As for the ladies, someone cleverly invented an adapter that goes on the top of the bottle to make life a little easier for women, and it is called the “Lady J Adapter”. You go girl. I assume that “Lady J” means a ladies John, but it should have been named for my guest on that trip years ago, who required our unscheduled stop at the remote airfield in Georgia. Her name was Patsy, and if it was named for her, it would have been called the “Lady P” adapter, a far more appropriate name for the device.

And so what about privacy when using one of these range extenders? Well, there is none unless you just get under a blanket or something. Travel in small planes only with good friends. Put the women in the back seats. There’s no curtain, but there’s also no rear-view mirror. Best real advice: don’t drink anything for about an hour before the flight and until you only have an hour to go before landing.

And now that this is covered, we can go back to discussing the more interesting aspects of flying, which I promise to get into in the next installment.


Another Flight

I’m beginning to get comfortable with the plane now, and completed another flight of about 2 1/2 hours today from Savannah to Birmingham. If you havent noticed, I’ve put a menu item at the top of the blog entitled “Track the Plane”, and you can click on it to see the path of whatever my latest flight was. I’ve also got a new IPad app called CloudAhoy which I will be using soon to let readers reconstruct a flight in detail with a virtual view of the trip using Google Earth. The reconstructed trip can be sped up as much as 10 times so that a 120 minute flight can be viewed in 12 minutes.

Here is a link to a YouTube ad for my plane posted by the broker I bought it through. The music is absolutely horrible, so I would suggest you mute the speaker before watching, but it does give a fairly dull overview of what N881RJ looks like.

In Birmingham now for a couple of days before heading down to Orlando Tuesday or Wednesday, weather permitting, for a little flight training at SimCom, followed by an upgrade of the GPS’s on the plane in Venice, Florida which I hope will occur the following Monday and Tuesday.


Flight Training and Avionics Upgrade

This is all moving pretty fast, but I need to go to a basic school dedicated to my specific airplane, to learn the systems and get really familiar with how everything works. And I need to get some instrument (IFR) work so that I can fly when there are clouds in the sky. Finally, I need to upgrade the two GPS units in the plane to what is called WAAS, which stands for Wide Area Augmentation System.

According to Garmin, WAAS is “a system of satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal corrections, giving you even better position accuracy… an average of up to five times better. A WAAS-capable receiver can give you a position accuracy of better than three meters 95 percent of the time.” This kind of system permits instrument approaches as good as a full ILS (Instrument Landing System) at almost any airport, and is a tremendous boost to safety. 

I plan to fly to Birmingham Friday or Saturday for a Tuesday meeting there. I’ve been trying to figure how to schedule the school and the avionics upgrade and it came together today more quickly than I had thought possible. To get me and the airplane up to speed quickly and ready to fly, I’m planning to head down to Orlando to a flight training facility called “SimCom” next Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on weather, for a three-day “initial” school for the Piper 6X. I should also be able to complete an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) during this training to make me legal to fly IFR.

The school runs Thursday through Saturday, and then I will head over to Venice, Florida to the Sarasota Avionics facility to spend two days having my two Garmin GPS’s upgraded to WAAS. Sarasota Avionics, which is really in Venice, is the largest installing Garmin dealer in the world for the last 7+ years, and promises to upgrade my plane in a mere two days by trading in my GPS units for new ones, at a slightly higher cost than upgrading my units, but with a full new unit and warranty. This upgrade can be done in two days rather than the 7 to 10 days required to upgrade my units.

If all goes well, both the plane and I will be up to speed in a little over a week from now. It will be good to get all of this out of the way, and be ready for the next adventure.