Meet the newest member of the family

Now there are nine of us. I count the New Mexico branch of the family like this:

The nuclear family is three—Debs, Rio, and me.

The extended family is two—Grandma Jean and Lisa.

Then there are the two cats—Khaki and Cougar.

And the airplane—Tessie.

So that made a total of 8 of us before the newest member of the clan showed up. Smaller than Tessie and smarter than the cats is D-drone. Yes, I’m now the proud adoptive father of an intelligent flying camera. Here are my two sons together:

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It all started out, as many things around here do, with an article. I was writing an article on drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs for short. No shit, there are now more UAVs in the sky than there are honest-to-God aircraft.

Actually… that’s really not fair, because I learned—and you are about to—that a modern drone is truly an aircraft in every sense. So more correctly, I should have said: No shit, there are now more aircraft in the sky without pilots in them than with pilots.

Anyway, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Anyone who wants to make money flying one also needs to get a drone pilot’s license (people who fly them for fun don’t need the license), and the Feds made it easy for existing pilots to get the new license. How easy? It actually took me less time to get the drone license than it did to get the drone registered, but that’s a story for another day.

Getting my license was a simple matter of taking an online class and passing a test. I did that for my article with no intention of going out and getting a drone. That was actually the irony I was writing about: That you could get a drone pilot license without ever having flown a drone.

But then… well, I’m not sure how things got this out of hand…

It probably started when Rio and Lisa bought a toy drone before Christmas. It had a very sad little camera, but it got us thinking about the possibility of getting some shots of Tess from above for our Air Racing series in GA News, which is coming back next season. Then a few weeks later at BestBuy, when I was looking for some computer stuff, I saw a handsome rescue-orange drone that was drool worthy.

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In particular, I was entranced with its camera. It was sporting a camera that looked like it was capable of taking quality images. A few weeks later Rio and I were in Santa Fe with some extra time to kill, so I took him to see Orange Drone.

He didn’t think much of it, but was drawn to the next drone over (BestBuy had a whole isle full of drones). This drone had six motors, a huge camera slung under its belly, and pair of sensors on the front that looked like eyes. It was called a Yuneec Typhoon. It was more Star Wars droid than traditional flying machine, and it was “only” eight hundred bucks.

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Rio pressed a button on the drone’s sales display and a large flat-screen TV above the drone came to life. Bathed in the light of stunning high-def, Rio and I stood transfixed as on the video the wicked-looking black drone rose up off the ground, its landing gear rising smoothly up and out of the way. Then it whisked off into action, its camera able to turn unobstructed through 360 degrees.

I was sold.

We couldn’t wait to share the video with the rest of the family.

When we got home we booted up the computer, but could not find the promo piece online. Instead we found a YouTube review that ended up convincing us that the retractable gear Typhoon was not the right piece of gear for us after all. The review started out as death by a thousand pinpricks. The reviewer was comparing the wicked black beast to a boring-looking white drone from some company I’d never heard of: DJI. More on them in a minute. In every test he devised to compare the two flying machines, the Typhoon under-performed. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot. I kept rooting for the Typhoon, but it kept falling short.

But the killing blow was the tree.

Both the drones are supposed to have sensors and intelligent software that lets them follow moving objects (people, cars, boats) while avoiding stationary objects (mountains, houses, telephone poles). In this part of the review our host walked though a small grove of trees. He hadn’t gone even ten feet before the Typhoon drone smacked head-on into the first tree, shattering propellers and collapsing to the ground in a pile of twisted broken plastic and metal, its camera severed from it’s body.

Rio and I sat in depressed silence.

Then I booted up Google to learn more about the other drone, the DJI one. As it turns out, DJI is the world’s drone leader, and has been for years. In list after list of top drones, DJI products dominate. The more I read, the more impressed I got. And, sadly, the more I compared DJI’s various models, the clearer it became that the newest—and most expensive—models had clear advantages over the older, cheaper models. I decided to start at the top, rather than buy cheap and have to upgrade in six months.

How expensive was it? One penny under eighteen hundred bucks.

But consider that it’s (1) an excellent camera, capable of taking 20 megapixel stills and high def video; (2) it’s a computer; and (3) it’s a flying machine. You’d expect to pay nearly that much, or more, for any one of the three. So all three together for that price is a real bargain.

Or at least that’s the argument I made to my wife.

I don’t think she bought it, but she let me buy the drone anyway.

We originally planned to test it on the tarmac at the Plane Tales airport, but the day after it arrived we woke to a dead-still morning, so Rio and I took D-drone out into the front yard before he had to go to school and pressed the auto takeoff button. The four motors came to life, and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, the little white machine rose smoothly into the air about three feet and stayed there, as if frozen in place.

I don’t know about other drones, but I have to say, D-drone is one of the best-handling flying machines I’ve ever gotten my paws on. It’s well behaved and rock solid in a wide range of conditions and winds. It’s responsive to the controls without being hyper. The camera is easy to deploy and takes great video and stills.

But surely it’s not a real aircraft, you say. Well consider one spec alone. Its service ceiling is 19,685 feet. Quite a bit better than Tessie, and of course, illegally high in US airspace for a drone.

Still, it’s an impressive statistic.

And while it can only fly at speeds up to 45 mph, it has a climb rate of 1,180 feet per minute, better than most manned airplanes. Of course a battery will keep it airborne for only half an hour, and it would be hard pressed to carry any cargo. After all, this is a photo drone, not a pizza delivery drone.

But like my fellow humans, my cats, and the family airplane; I’m quickly learning that D-drone has a personality. And probably a soul to go along with it.

And that’s why we are now a family of nine.

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Slow flight

Ah. So this is what it’s like to fly a hot air balloon. The view is fine, but our movement over the ground is so slow that it feels like we’re standing still. Nearby mesa tops remain stationary. Or nearly so. The minute hand sweeps across the face of my pilot’s watch and no landmark appears any nearer. Distant roads stay distant.

Frankly, it’s eerie. Having air race blood in my veins, I think I’d make a poor balloon pilot. Of course balloon pilots are immune from my current worry.

Rio consults the chart, “We’re still inside the VOR ring.”

The compass rose ring on the chart around Anton Chico VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) radio station is 25 miles across. We’ve been flying over this one for half an hour. Our ground speed indicator shows 36 miles per hour. This is ridiculous. And I’m starting to think about all those pilots who run out of gas and crash ten miles from their destinations.

I run the math again. In my head. Because my navigation system apparently can’t deal with speeds this slow. Normally my Garmin Pilot App displays a constantly updated ETE, or Estimated Time Enroute, telling me how much time it will take to get to my destination. Using it, I can quickly compare this remaining flight time estimate with my elapsed flight time, and know if I’ve got the gas to get where I’m going. But on this flight, anytime our ground speed drops below 45 miles per hour, the ETE screen goes blank—right when I need it the most.

Usually gas isn’t much of a worry for me, even though Ercoupes don’t have what most people would consider functional gas gauges. Instead, I know that if I put six-and-one-half inches of fuel in each wing tank I can fly for two hours. I measure the fuel depth with a clear plastic straw marked with a scale. That gives me a 200-mile range, more or less. For reserve, regulations require me to have an additional 30 minutes of fuel onboard, but my personal minimums are greater because we have a lot of open spaces between airports out here in the West. I consider my header tank to be my reserve: A full hour of fuel.

Today’s flight is only ninety miles. We’re ferrying Tess from her home base in Santa Rosa over Rowe Mesa to Santa Fe for her annual inspection. An annual inspection is a religious ritual in which you take your plane to the Maintenance Temple and make a sacrifice of a big pile of money so that the Maintenance Gods will grant you another year’s safe flying.

Yes, plane ownership is a religion.

Our speed drops. Again. We are at full power, in level flight, and our speed over the ground is—I kid you not—31 miles per hour.

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Luckily we’re half way to Santa Fe, because if we’d had to go this speed the whole way, the trip would have taken 2 hours and 54 minutes, leaving us with only six minutes of fuel on landing. Of course, I’d never fly the tanks that dry. I’d have aborted the attempt long before.

Still, I’ve burned through an hour of fuel already. I’ve got another hour in the wings, plus my reserve. At this speed we’ll just be tapping into the reserve on arrival. That’s OK. That’s what a reserve is for. But I confess, I’ve never bucked a headwind like this one, and I never thought I’d be worrying about fuel on a ninety-mile flight.

So what’s up with that? We’re flying into the teeth of an eighty-mile per hour gale, that’s what. A silent gale. An invisible gale. It’s sunny and the air is calm with only the occasional jolt to remind us we are passing through a fluid medium rather than sitting on a mountaintop taking in the view.

More bizarrely, Santa Fe is reporting calm winds. And even though my nav system is on strike about our arrival time, it still shows my altitude above the ground: We’re only 1,600 feet up. I consider dropping lower to try and get out of the winds but there are two problems. First, the terrain is rising and with both Rio and I aboard we’re close to our upper weight limit. That means Tess doesn’t climb well. Actually, even lightly loaded she’s not a fast climber. She’s not the kind of plane you want to barnstorm rising terrain in.

And the second problem is wind shear.

Wind shear is a violent difference in wind between two altitudes. And if you’re in 80 mile per hour winds at only 1,600 feet and it’s calm at the surface, it’s very likely that there will be a wind shear boundary between you and the surface. Wind shear can affect aircraft lift, so passing through it can cause a plane to momentarily stop flying and start falling. As I didn’t know how close to the surface the wind shear would be, I didn’t want to chance it. So we kept crawling over the ground up in the wind.

Rio jerks forward in his seat three times, like a jockey trying to urge a stubborn horse onwards. “Come on,” he growls.

I laugh. Then I run the numbers in my head again and start considering my options if our speed drops into the twenties. Can the head wind get so strong that we’d be moving forward through the air at 110 miles per hour but moving backwards over the ground?

Yes. Yes it can, but rarely this low. Winds that strong are usually high up in the atmosphere where airliners roam. Still if it gets much worse we won’t have the fuel to continue.

What then?

Plan A is to turn tails and run for home. As soon as I reverse course I know my 31 mph ground speed will jump to 190 mph as the headwind becomes a tailwind.

We can get home quickly. Very quickly.

Plan B is to turn south and strike out for the nearest airport for refueling, then climb back into the wind and slug it out again. But I comfort myself that even at 31 miles per hour, we can make it to Santa Fe.

Then our ground speed drops to 29 miles per hour.

But only for an instant. Then it increases to a blazing 35 miles per hour. I stay the course.

And we make it. Two-point-one hours on the Hobbs for a ninety-mile trip. Average time for the course: 42.86 miles per hour.

A most un-airplane like speed.

The Flight of the Phoenix

The final installment of Air Racing From the Cockpit just hit the streets. It’s part twenty. Can you believe it? I can’t. I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 40 years and I can assure you I’ve never had a gig like this! Aside from regular columns, I think the largest series I’ve ever written on one subject was four-part series.

Plus, each was given generous space and was lavishly illustrated.

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That’s over with now, but don’t be sad: I have good news. Air Racing From the Cockpit is coming back next season! Each story will be slightly shorter–web stats show modern readers don’t finish longer articles anymore–but every single issue from March until the end of the year will feature a new race adventure.

There are 18 races scheduled so far this year, and three more in the works. It will be a long and tough season. Will we score the Gold? Follow me on the pages of GA News to find out. The second season of the series starts March 23!