Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Flying Across America - Part II

Because of operational limitations on this aircraft, we had to find a route that would avoid the need to climb over any high mountains.  This is particularly true in the summer when air that is hot, moist and high robs the helicopter of a chunk of even the limited performance it starts off with. In practice, this meant trying to avoid flying at anything more than 6,000 above MSL, and preferably even a little less than that would be good. Consequently, we opted for what's known as the "southern route", a way of crossing the USA that limits the need to cross substantial areas of terrain above 2,000 feet; indeed, the highest we saw was around 4,500 MSL, and even then only on two specific legs.

We finally got underway from MYR around 1:30 pm local time, and with the sort of luck that would follow us along the entire journey we found ourselves with no convective warnings, just a few low level, widely-spaced cumulus clouds for company (see above). Despite the later-than-ideal start, we nevertheless managed to see-off three states on the first day: South Carolina (MYR to 88J), Georgia (ACJ) and Alabama, ending up for the night in Eufaula (EUF).

In order to leave ourselves the appropriate margin mandated for helicopters (20 minutes fuel remaining on landing) we gave ourselves a maximum range of around 2.5 hours in the air, and planned our legs with alternate fuel stops if head winds or weather meant we needed to land short. That basic calculation factored in a high-end fuel consumption of 10 gallons per hour and a maximum R22 capacity of 29 gallons. On day one we did legs of 2.0, 2.2 and 0.9 hours respectively, for a flying time total of 5.1 hours.

Eufaula wasn't very large but had a decent airfield (runway 36 above!) and, something we love to see, an open hanger in which we could leave the aircraft overnight.  Especially this time of year, it's good to avoid any risk of the blades suffering hail damage because that would basically be game over, and rather  expensively so to boot.  However, it turned out that Eufaula did lack one key thing - a taxi service! Fortunately, a very kind gentleman working on his plane at the airfield took us into town that evening, and the hotel manager where we stayed just as kindly brought us back early in the morning.

Day one over and we had covered a decent amount of ground, especially given the shortened day.  Good stuff!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Flying Across America - In A Robinson R22

Earlier this year I completed my private pilot training, and hence now have a licence allowing me to fly helicopters (up to a certain weight, at least).  The aircraft I trained in - the Robinson R22 - is one of the most common training helicopters in the USA today, despite it being a bit, er, challenging to learn in, thanks in large part to its highly sensitive controls, decent amount of power & overall light weight.

The school where I trained, Specialized Aviation, in Watsonville, CA, recently acquired an additional R22 for its fleet, but one that was based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Therefore, volunteers were need to ferry it back to Watsonville, a journey of some 2,400 nautical miles.  "Oh, and BTW, please could we get our hands on it ASAP?"  How could I resist??

Fortunately for Specialized - and for me :-) - my co-pilot, Wendy, was one of their most experienced instructors, with more than 1,000 hours in Robinson helicopters and qualified to teach up IFR standards.  Phew!  Having this kind of back-up capability in the cockpit is a huge plus, turning something that could otherwise be deeply challenging into a more of a fun road-trip, though minus the arguments about what you listen to on the radio of course!

Getting to Myrtle Beach was fairly uneventful, even if Delta made me take a somewhat bizarre route. To get an even half-way decent fare meant me flying to Atlanta, which was fine and itself only about an hour from KMYR, but then I had another leg of 2 hours up to Detroit, followed by 2 hours back from Detroit to Myrtle Beach.

2SA, the aircraft we were collecting, was being bought through Huffman Helicopters, a great operation who really put in a ton of hours bringing this particular ship back up to top-notch standards (they'd bought it back from one of their clients who was trading-up, and the aircraft had been sitting outside for a while so therefore needed quite some TLC in order to get back to being fully airworthy.)

After a test flight and some final fettling, we were ready to start work on the first significant challenge - packing!  We calculated that, with full fuel tanks in this particular R22, we had a max payload, including ourselves, of 317 lbs.  Bearing in mind we had to at least bring along a set of wheels so we could move the thing, spare oil (for the heli) and water (for us), plus all the necessary paperwork, maps, FBO guides, spare GPS, small tool kit, etc. then I hope it's obvious that having two 160 lb pilots wouldn't have been optimal!  Fortunately, (i) neither of us fell into that class, and (ii) there isn't a ton of luggage space in these things anyway so apart from the essentials then we were packing very lightly (see above);fortunately, we weighed in at exactly 317 lbs and I then threw away a duplicate airport guide for the West coast which dropped a further pound off the total - job done!  We were ready for the off! (Parts II through VI follow ...)