Lost Lambs–Chapter 4

Weather Lesson: It’s not the size of the cloud that matters; it’s where it lives.

Today was supposed to be the day to search for, and hopefully locate, Adrian’s lost snapping turtles. We all watched the weather for a full week. The early forecasts called for morning thunderstorms–bad news for low-level turtle search and rescue–but I told everyone to chill out. Forecasts a week in advance are worthless. Reading the old farmer’s almanac or gazing into a crystal ball is just as effective as reading a long-range weather forecast.

And sure enough, as the scheduled flight day approached, the risk of T-Storms dwindled to nil, and everyone’s mood improved. Everyone’s but mine, that is. Because I was watching a little-understood part of the forecast: The Dew Point Spread.

The Dew Point is simply the temperature at which clouds will form if there’s enough water vapor in the air. As you may or may not know, the higher you go in the sky, the colder it gets. If you know the dew point, the ground temperature, and a few other stray facts, you can predict the altitude at which clouds will form, what’s called the cloud base. I’ll teach you how to do that on another day, but for today all you need to know is that the Dew Point Spread is the difference between the temperature on the ground and the temperature where the clouds will form. The lower the value of the spread, the lower the clouds will be; the higher the spread, the higher the clouds will be.

This matters for us because we fly under what are called Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, and the rules generally require a “ceiling” of at least 1,000 feet above the ground and a visibility of 3 miles. If the clouds are lower than 1,000 feet it is illegal–and foolhardy–to fly.

Check out the forecast Spread for our intended take-off time of 6 a.m.:

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Yes. That would be a zero. Uh… Wait a sec. If it’s zero, that means there’s no difference between the air temp on the ground and the temperature at which clouds form. Right?

Right. A Dew Point Spread of zero means that the cloud base is on the surface:

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When the Tale Continues: We hope for a better day we deploy in search of the missing Chelydra serpentinea

Help from above

I’m chatting with an American Airlines Captain. Not a normal circumstance as he’s (presumably) busy flying his heavy metal at 30,000 feet and I’m busy piloting the Plane Tales Plane 300 feet over the Rio Grande River Valley.

But this is what comes from trying to do the “right thing.”

Recently, after visiting the Albuquerque Center and spending half a day with the en-route air traffic controllers, we decided to try our hand at “Flight Following.” Following is a voluntary—as time allows—service provided by Centers for pilots flying under Visual Flight Rules, or VFR. Sorry about all the new vocabulary words today. VFR has rules, of course, but it’s as close as you can come in the modern world of going out and doing whatever you want to do in an airplane. You can legally fly VFR without talking to anyone. In fact you’re not even required to have a radio. How’s that for back to basics?

But if you want to, you can call up Center, just like the American Captain was required to do (as are all planes way up there at the “jet levels”) and tell Center who you are and what you are doing. They’ll assign you a transponder code so they can more easily keep track of you, and then give you calls when they see other air traffic in your area. Or weather. Or terrain. Sometimes they can even give you shortcuts through military operations areas. But it’s all advice. They aren’t “controlling” a VFR airplane that’s getting flight following. The pilot retains total control and has the benefit of an extra set of eyes on his or her plane and airspace.

So what’s not to love?

Well, for one thing, you have to listen to a lot of radio chatter, being constantly alert for your tail number, instead of jamming to your flying mix on your iPod. And for another thing, you have new opportunities to make a fool of yourself.

I learned to fly a at busy uncontrolled airport, which is like driving through a crowded mall parking lot at Christmas time, only three dimensional, and at 100 miles per hour. Because of my training, I’m pretty darn good at keeping aware, spotting other planes, understanding where people are from their calls, and talking to other pilots.

But when I have to talk to an air traffic control tower, I always stumble over my words, say my call sign backwards, get frequencies wrong, put my foot in my mouth, and just generally embarrass myself.

When I plan trips, I always opt for refueling at uncontrolled airports. They are more in my comfort zone. (Interestingly, Rio’s godfather trained at a controlled airport. He’s very happy talking to towers but gets all sweaty-palmed when having to fly into uncontrolled fields. I guess it’s true what they say about initial training molding the pilot to come.)

Naturally, given my track record with rude controllers caustically saying, “Seven-Six Hotel, did you actually mean to say __________?” that I had not been inclined to set myself up for unnecessary abuse and embarrassment by using Flight Following. I’m actually a good pilot, I just never sound like one when talking to a controller. But the controllers at the Center Rio and I visited were all so nice, and so sincere, and really made their case about how it’s actually less work for them to be able to talk to every radar blip rather than wonder who we are and where we are going, that Rio and I committed to try it on our next flight to somewhere, which looked to be a journey to a busy fly-in in the center of the State.

My first challenge when planning this first cross-country flight using Flight Following turned out to be finding the right frequency for the Center. Each center has dozens of frequencies. I spread my paper chart out on Tessie’s wing in the Plane Tales Hanger and searched in vain for a listing. I checked the area of the state I fly in. I checked the margins. I checked the back. I checked my memory of flight school 30 years ago and came up blank.

I finally had to Google it, and even then it took a while to get the answer.

It turns out center frequencies aren’t on the VFR sectional charts we uncontrolled pilots use. The frequencies are on the low altitude IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules charts, which makes sense, as IFR pilots are required to stay in touch with Center. The frequencies for each area, according to the World Wide Web, would appear on the IFR chart in a little box with scalloped edges, resembling a postage stamp.

Well, shoot. I don’t have an IFR chart, as my instrument rating is way out of date and the Plane Tales Plane isn’t even equipped for instrument flight. On the verge of giving up and throwing in the towel, it suddenly occurred to me that my iPad has every chart in the world. I booted up the Garmin Pilot App, switched my view from Sectional to IFR and bingo:

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There it was. So now I had no excuse not to try it.

How did it work out? Well, I didn’t make too bad a fool out of myself, but I didn’t enjoy my trip as much as I could have because I was constantly worried about making a fool of myself, and the extra work load from all the radio traffic was taxing. Plus, we never got one word of advice from our controller. He only called once, to tell us he’d lost radar contact with us as we approached our mountain pass through the Sandias that separates the North East Highlands from the Rio Grande River Valley. I assured him we hadn’t crashed, and he assured us he’d be able to see us again on the other side.

See? Yes. Hear? Apparently not.

As we scooted out of the mountains and into the wide-open valley, our controller called us. We tried to reply, but apparently he was unable to hear our calls. I radioed several times over the next ten minutes, as did the controller. We could hear him plain as day, but he couldn’t hear us. And that’s how I got to chat with the American Airlines Captain.

Apparently the controller looked for a plane high above our radar blip, and like that game in which each person in a row whispers a message to the next person, we had a conversation chain.

“Center wants me to tell you that…” Roger that, American 305, please tell the center that… Via proxy, we were assigned a new frequency. And just as I was getting into some heavy traffic closing in on the fly-in, and looking forward to an extra set of eyes, the controller terminated the service, told me there was a ton of traffic ahead, and to have a nice day.

It was Christmas at the mall again.

But at least I was in my own element. So did we use Flight Following on the way home that afternoon?

No we didn’t.

Lost Lambs–Chapter 3

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour. Tessie will fly now, if I let her.

60 miles per hour. I hold her on the runway for a bit longer.

65 miles per hour. I ease the yoke back and she slides off the runway so smoothly that for a few seconds, even I’m not sure if we’re still barreling down the centerline of the blacktop or sailing through the air.

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Then her nose angles upwards and she’s in her element. I hold her at 70 miles an hour, her best rate of climb, and the earth falls away below us. I start a mild banking turn to the right. How ya’ doing, Adrian? I ask, my own voice echoing inside my headset. This is his First Flight in a small plane.

“I think I’m going to have to take flying lessons,” he says and smiles ear to ear.

Roger that.

He’s holding the critter-tracking antenna out his window, hugging it close to the plane’s side, and reports no problems keeping it in place–but I can tell that we are paying a drag penalty. Tess is a bit sluggish, and she’s climbing more slowly than usual.

In a long, lazy 360-degree turn back the way we came, park a wing off of Highway 84 just outside the airport, and fly South along the roadway. Lisa’s brilliant idea is that we should try to search for a transmitter at a known location before we go off into the wild and try to locate one on a moving and missing turtle. It’s such an obviously scientific approach that none of the rest of us even thought of it.

Of course she is a real scientist, after all.

So today, about 15 miles on down the road, Rio, Lisa, and Jennie (Adrian’s sweetie and another field biologist whom he met while trapping Green Anacondas in South America) are waiting for us. They have two transmitters of the same kind that are on the two missing turtles, and our mission today is to learn about how far away we can “hear” the signals, what antenna angle and placement works best, and how precisely we need to be lined up with the transmitter to get that signal.

Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, I call out on the open-use air-to-ground frequency of 122.850 megahertz, We’re airborne and en route to your location. Over.

“Turtle Ground to Turtle Air,” comes back a very masculine voice over my headset. I’m shocked for a moment, before I realize that my little boy ain’t so little any more. “We read you loud and clear, over.”

Normally I might plug my iPod into the hidden port on Tessie’s panel and play our flight mix: The Theme from the Aviators, Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron, Ride of the Valkyries, Leaving on a Jet Plane, and more. But today, we need to listen for the pings of the transmitters and chat with our ground crew.

The bummer is that the smaller turtle, Leigh, is wearing a small transmitter that we can’t pick up until we are right on top of it. I can see Rio and the gang on the ground, waving their hands above their heads in greeting before we can hear the stupid transmitter.

We do a number of fly-bys, trying out different altitudes and angles. It will be a miracle if we find the small turtle. Once again, I’m grateful that Adrian chose a critter that lives in the water rather than one that roams the land. So long as I keep Tess’s nose pointed at the meandering river, I think we’ve got a chance.

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After about 45 minutes of tests, Adrian unplugs his headset from the tracking radio and plugs it into Tessie’s panel. “OK,” he says, “I’m going to try the larger transmitter now.” I’m feeling a bit gloomy about our prospects, but tell him I’ll fly south for a few miles, do a 180-degree turn and head back to the ground crew. To catch the smaller transmitter we needed to be within a few hundred yards. I’m assuming we might be able to hear the large one at a mile out.

I turn the plane using a shallow bank angle. It takes longer, but just being in a small plane for the first time is excitement enough for most people. Only a jackass does wild maneuvers with a First Flyer aboard. As we roll out on course, Adrian gives me a thumbs up. He has the signal already, and we’re a good five miles out.

I key the mike button on the yoke with my left thumb. Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, we have the signal from the large transmitter.

Rio forgets his radio protocol: “You frickin’ kidding, right? We can’t even hear your engine yet. Where the heck are you?”

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When the Tale Continues: Weather Woes delay the search.