Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

25 May 2009

Things That Make My Life Easier

Back when we were first talking about getting a helicopter, the Boss wanted a device called a Stormscope. This is a little gadget that detects and displays lightning strikes. Where there is lightning there is usually a thunderstorm, and conversely a thunderstorm will always have lightning. You don’t want to go there, especially in an aircraft. Sometimes there will be electrical activity in the area that shows up as lightning on the Stormscope even though no thunderstorm is present…yet. This electrical activity will almost always cause turbulence. So if you just avoid the areas of “lightning strikes” you should have a pretty decent ride. Clever device, this Stormscope.

The little clusters of green dots are lightning strikes.

However, technology has moved on a bit since the Stormscope was invented. Now, any aircraft can have tons of weather information downloaded right to the cockpit, to your portable GPS. These units are so inexpensive that there is NO EXCUSE for any pilot to go flying without one.

Instead of the Stormscope, we opted for the Garmin 496. This wonderful little gizmo sits right up on top of my instrument panel, where the Boss and I can see it clearly. Basically, a GPS utilizes signals from satellites and provides navigation information from here to there. It knows where you are, can tell you how fast you’re moving, how high you are, and how long it’ll take you to get where you’re going. It can display this information in a number of different ways.

The Garmin 496 is much like the Garmin Nuvi, Magellen, Tom Tom, or built-in GPS in your car, but the aviation model does "a bit" more. I can access the weather at any reporting station by either looking it up or scrolling the “mouse” pointer to it on the map. Early one morning I had taken off and headed northbound out of Home Base. The weather was generally good, but on the moving map an airport up ahead had a little red flag sticking off to one side. Curious, I scrolled over to it. A window automatically opened up that showed the weather: Visibility ½ mile, ceiling 100 feet. Fog! Glad I hadn’t planned using that airport as a fuel stop.

The Garmin 496 also comes equipped with a super-accurate terrain and obstruction database. It knows where all the hills and towers are – handy for low-flying helicopters! When it alerts me that there’s a tower or some other obstacle nearby, there is one and I better be looking out the windows. (In the daytime some of this is superfluous, but at night or in bad weather this information is invaluable.)

We have a subscription to XM Radio, and all of their channels are available to us through the Garmin. In addition, XM provides weather information in nearly real-time. It can display an overall satellite cloud image, a radar image, lightning strikes, or any combination thereof. The weather-radar display takes some getting used to. In the beginning I was not confident that it was very accurate. I have since changed my mind.

Recently, I had to make a flight from Gulf Shores, Alabama back to home base. As I took off and headed to the northeast, I immediately could see a bad line of storms ahead. Pensacola Approach Control warned me of their presence. They were also clearly depicted on the Garmin. I could see they were moving to the northwest. It appeared that I could scoot around the east side of the line. Which is exactly what I did.

As you can see in the above image, the pink line is my intended course. The little icon of the helicopter, which is me, is displaced somewhat to the right (east). I am at 2,071 feet, about ten miles northeast of Pensacola Regional Airport (KPNS), making 101 knots across the ground. Thirty miles and a little under 18 minutes to go. Off to my left is some very bad weather, represented by the orange and dark red colors. Had I not deviated, I would’ve flown into a thunderstorm. As it turned out, we got a few sprinkles on the bubble, but that was all. (By the way, the big green blob just inside the compass rose would appear to be light precipitation/rain, but in reality is just a bunch of wet clouds from which no rain was falling.)

Could I have gotten home without the Garmin? Sure, but I would have been “hunting and pecking.” And I may have made the wrong choice and gone around the west side of that line, which would have been a BIG mistake. Having the “big picture” made the flight so much more comfortable and easy. And safe.

I also purchased a small collision-avoidance device, a ZAON XRS, which also sits up on the dash. It detects other aircraft and displays their relative position to me.
In the example above, the plane is headed northeastbound (060 degrees) at an altitude of 700 feet ("FL007"). There is one aircraft 2.5 miles ahead to the front-right, 600 higher in level flight, and another aircraft three miles off the left wing, 700 feet above, climbing. This unit is designed to play through the Garmin GPS. When an aircraft gets close, a little window opens up on my main map with a dot representing the other traffic’s position and altitude.

I think back to when I first started flying in the 1970’s, and how “blind” we were in the sky. We had the most basic electronic navigational aids that told you very little about your exact position…there were no moving maps…no satellite radio/weather…no way of knowing if there were other aircraft in your vicinity. We were pretty dependent upon air traffic control to warn us of unseen traffic and the worst weather ahead – if they even could: the information they had was crude and incomplete.

We’ve made so many incredible advances since then. The amazing Garmin 496 combined with XM Weather and the XAON collision-avoidance device gives me unbelievable capability in a small, inexpensive package. I would never want to leave the ground without them.


Hal Johnson said...

When new guys ask me about what offshore flying was like when I began in '79, I tell them about going 120 miles out in the Gulf in the High Island area with no navaid other than an NDB receiver that didn't work anyway. It was dead reckoning, baby. Sometimes I wonder if I sound like the old guys I remember from my youth. You know, the ones who walked ten miles to school, barefoot. In the snow. Uphill both ways.

Bob Barbanes said...

Well, you know... I remember listening to my dad talk about his days of flying for the U.S. Marines in jets! that only had NDB receivers. Talk about uphill both ways! I'd never want to do that.

Honestly, I don't know how the old-timers in the Gulf of Mexico did it - flying long distances in bad weather using only a compass and a map. The compass in the JetRanger I currently fly often just swings uselessly back and forth, 45 degrees either side of the heading I'm on. Impossible to use for navigation. I flew one Bell 47 once and if you happened to have the doors off, the compass in it just used to rotate slowly, all the way around.

So I welcome all advances in technology, especially those that help with my situational awareness in the sky. And even though what we have in our helicopter is pretty "advanced," technology marches on. The new thing is "synthetic vision" which gives the pilot an even more clear and accurate presentation of the terrain ahead. Lord, wouldn't that be nice on those dark and stormy nights!

Redlefty said...

Cool peek at how today's tech is helping you guys out!

Anonymous said...

So what happened to the AIR FRANCE system! Where are you BOB! post something on this.