Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Airplane

When we last left our intrepid and foolish protagonist, he was searching for someone willing to loan him a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar vehicle and to set up these arrangements from half the world away.

Internet searching paid off again. I found a place that I'd looked at earlier, when considering setting up the trip solo. A flight school and rental firm, they had aircraft to rent! They had 172s. I got in touch. They said sure, they were used to renting out aircraft for tours! On the other hand, they too strongly recommended that given my weight, I not rent a 172. But - hurrah - they had a Cessna 182T available! The 182 is a slightly larger airplane - a utility airplane to the 172's trainer. It has a more powerful, six-cylinder engine rather than a 4-cylinder. Most important, it has a higher gross weight, which allows it to not only carry more cargo and pax weight but to carry nearly twice the amount of fuel of a 172. Since it only burns around 40% more, its range is commensurately longer.

Emails flew. I called both Stawell Aviation Services and the rental firm - Airborne Aviation in Camden NSW (YSCN), a bit west of Sydney - several times. Although the rental was going to be expensive, what the hell - this was my once-in-a-lifetime trip. Plus, I hadn't been on a serious vacation in - gulp - over 5 years.

The 182, while similar, is a higher-performance airplane. It has a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit - an excellent feature to have when navigating over unfamiliar trackless wastes, but I'd never flown with one before. I had never flown a glass cockpit airplane, in fact - my training was done on a 'steam gauge' six-pack panel, nary an LCD or VFD in sight, not even a G430 or similar small GPS unit. It differs in two more important ways as well. For one, it has a constant-speed propeller, which is another setting to manage and juggle depending on flight conditions. And finally, it has over 200 HP - 230 I believe - which, in the US, makes it a 'High Performance' airplane and requires an endorsement from a CFI to operate solo.

This led to more frantic research, but much closer to home. To my joy and relief, I discovered that a local airport - Long Island Macarthur (KISP) housed a flight school which had a 182 for instruction rental. Heritage Flight Academy, in addition to the standard fleet of 172s, has a 182T. In fact, it's the same model as the one in Camden! I quickly made arrangements to troop out to KISP and take some lessons with their chief instructor pilot, Rick Malik.

By this point, it was mid 2013. It was clear that the Outback Overflight would be happening in Summer 2014. I had a whole year to finish prep! I can hear you wincing - yep, that's right, I got distracted. Notably, I left the job I'd been having issues with and found a new one - one where they actually had useful things that needed doing, and one where they turned out to be willing to dump as much responsibility on my habitually-solo shoulders that I ended up going heads down in the gig. I went out to KISP and flew with Rick in October; rather than fly the 182 right off, we took a 172 up for a tour of New York City - the Skyline Tour in the Class B. Rick handled the radio work that first run, since I was unfamiliar with handling New York area ATC.

Rick and I got on well together - so I reserved some time in the 182. What with weather, and the job, and so forth, I didn't actually get to fly it until spring 2014. While I was handling all these various obstacles, I got stuck in to the other big problem - that of the paperwork. But I finally managed to get a few hours in in the 182, and I was relieved to find that while it is a heavier airplane, making landing it a bit more finicky, it's more stable than the 172, has way more power, climbs faster, and (best of all) has more room in the cabin. Although the rental hourly rate was signficantly higher, I paid it without a qualm.

I began working on getting competent with the Garmin G1000 system, as well. Learning to fly without gauge needles wasn't too hard - I've been a flight simulator user for long enough that the visuals weren't distracting or unexpected, but I found that I had internalized 'gauge pictures' of the 172 I normally flew to the point where I found myself studying the displays because I couldn't interpret the current status of the airplane from a quick static glance. Rick agreed that the biggest thing to learn about using glass cockpits is the ability to not spend too much time looking at things inside the airplane. The G1000 is like crack-flavored candy to a computer gamer and flight/space sim enthusiast - it looks a lot like the games we grew up on, but it's even cooler because it's real! However, after a few hours flight, I learned to just treat it as another version of the six-pack and to let the cool factor go - at least while piloting. My landings continued to improve. We did stalls, unusual attitude recoveries, emergency procedures. Along the way I slowly got more comfortable talking to the very 'Noo Yawk' air traffic controllers I had to work with to fly in the NY area. I also got used to sharing an airport with Southwest 737 traffic. Overflying KISP at 3000 feet while one of them goes around due to student traffic in the pattern, as well as taking turns with them for taxiways and runway slots, I began to feel like a Real Pilot(tm) - one who breathes the same air as the big boys.

Satisfied that I'd be able to be current in a 182, I got back in touch with Airborne Aviation and made arrangements to reserve one of their two 182s - VH-SDN.

After a couple of months, the plan was settled. We would fly to Sydney, rent VH-SDN, and join up with the Stawell tour. We would have a few days after the tour ended to self-fly around southern Australia before having to bring the airplane home.

Naturally, things got complicated. N1929Y (the 182 I was flying at Heritage) had to go in for its annual inspection when I had around 5 hours in it. I waited eagerly for it to emerge so I could reserve it again - and it didn't. For over a month. I have no idea why. At the end, an accident at Republic (KFRG) caused the shop working its way to 1929Y to get inundated with damaged Pipers and Cessnas from the ground mishaps.

So fast forward to today. I'm leaving for the west coast, and thence Australia a few days later, in two days. I have managed to fly 29Y - although just to confuse me they changed the tail number while it was in for inspection, and now it's N182HF - once more, and do some more 172 work in the area. Fortunately, I'll be training with Airborne when I arrive - but after being off the airplane for a month, I was relieved and ecstatic at how natural it felt. I did six landings (low clouds forced us to stay near the airport) as well as demonstrated that I knew how to use the G1000 for non-instrument flight - basic flight and engine instrumentation, engine leaning, flight plan management, traffic alerts via ADS-B. Of those six landings, one was a complete greaser - ten out of ten, according to Rick - and the others were at least sevens, mostly eights. I'm ready to fly VH-SDN - or rather, to demonstrate to her owners that I can be trusted with her.

While all this was going on, I worked on paperwork and cursed Kafka, governments, and bureaucracies in general.

Next: The Paperwork

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