Saturday, June 23, 2012

Flight Test Follies: The cross country

With N614EF's proving its engine is feeling fine in limited runs near Airlake Airport, it was time last evening to take her out for a walk around the test area, both to prove to me she's durable and also for me to get a sense of the flight test area.

And so we launched last night on roughly a 165-mile cross country trek to some of the larger airports on the southern and eastern borders of the test area. The GPS suggested I could do this in about an hour, but I planned to land at those airports and generally take my time.

I also need to check the calibration of both the Electronic Instruments' fuel gauge and the one that is included in the Grand Rapids Technologies EIS 4000 engine monitor. And I need to begin to focus on flying the ship a little more precisely than I have been. I haven't been concerning myself too much with headings and altitudes while I shake out the engine. That needs to change. I'm also weaning myself depending on two steam gauges -- altimeter and airspeed -- and onto the D100 electronic flight information system (EFIS).

With winds calm, and no pressure of a day-job blog to prepare for the next morning, it was a good evening to fly.

The first stop of all of our test flights is to get to the test area 16 miles away. The inspector (DAR) carved out a corridor to take me out of the Airlake Airport area, which spills into the test area somewhat east of Northfield, home of Carleton College, St. Olaf College, and Malt O Meal. The plane accelerated fine, the RPMs were good on the takeoff roll (2450) and the exhaust gas temperatures and cylinder head temperatures were below 400 on the climb. The #1 cylinder is still the one that is a little hotter than the others, but occasionally so is the #2. Those are both the front cylinders and both have the air dams in front of them called for in the Van's plans for the baffling. It's on my list to cut those down a little bit and see if it makes a difference. I must admit, though, I'm not embracing the chore of taking the baffles apart to make that happen.

Once in the test area, I headed southwest, toward Owatonna. It's a huge airport with one ridiculously long runway. There are some big manufacturers there, which accounts for the attention to its airport. I'm always mindful in flying into Owatonna, that a few years ago, eight people on a business jet from New Jersey lost their lives when they aborted a landing and stalled on the go-around.

One interesting thing as I approached the airport, which you can see in the picture below. The aft edge of the cowling seems to rise up above the top skin. I guess this seems typical what with all of the air pressure inside the cowling, although I do wonder if I lose some cooling ability in the situation.

I flew 2500' over the airport, flew out four miles or so, dumped 500 feet of altitude, then circled back for the standard 45-degree entry into the downwind leg of runway 30. There was a smaller runway in my direction of travel, but I don't like straight-in approaches and I enjoy practicing proper entries to traffic patterns.

As I circled back in, a Mooney took off, reported heading eastbound. We chatted for a second or two to establish he'd be no factor, as he was climbing to 3,000 feet. He was probably going over to Red Wing.

As usual, I set N614EF to blaze, making sure all the lights were on and the wig-wag function (thanks, Vertical Power, wish you'd kept producing the VP-50 and adding more goodies!) established to aid others in seeing my plane.

The landing was fine although it was a reminder that big wide, long runways make you feel you're lower than you really are. I didn't "plop" it onto the runway, but it wasn't my best landing. I heard a noise I hadn't heard before. Was it a nosewheel shimmy? Seems unlikely as I didn't hit the nosegear on landing, but maybe.

If you miss the first turnoff to the taxiway at Owatonna (which is the intersecting runway), you have a long trip to the next one. I missed the turnoff. It seemed like a mile and a half taxi (uphill) back to take off. Taxiing is a waste of fuel and money, and a reminder that it's time to step my landing approach speed down from 70 knots to 65 knots to lessen the ground roll distance after landing.

I was down to about 20 gallons or so -- half tanks -- but I had planned to fuel up in Dodge Center, the next stop. Most of the fuel at the airports on my route are much higher than what's being charged now at my home airport -- South Saint Paul ($5.12 a gallon). But I can't go there. I've been hauling fuel in portable cans from there, but that's not practical on this flight. Still, I brought some extra gas cans with me. At airport pumps, you prebuy either a fixed dollar amount, or a fixed number of gallons. There's no you-buy-only-what-you-need function in airport fuel pumps as with your local gas station.

The takeoff from Owatonna was fine, although I noticed -- as I did at Airlake -- that I drifted pretty far left on the takeoff roll. That's no mystery. An RV needs a lot of right rudder on takeoff to counter for the torque produced by the prop. I learned this when doing transition training in Tom Berge's RV, where I was executing flawless takeoffs. But up until recently, I was flying behind an under-powered airplane, and I'd let the skill deteriorate because the pull to the left was nowhere near as pronounced. Now I had something else to work on for this flight.

The cylinders hit 407 on climbout, still a little higher than I like, but nothing particularly serious. I lowered the nose a bit to level and they cooled to the 380 range as we crossed over downtown Owatonna, heading for Dodge Center.

Without wheel pants, gear leg and intersection fairings, the speed settled in around 130 knots, with me not wanting to push the engine more than 2450 RPM and about 23 inches of manifold pressure. I could comfortably lean the engine out to about 8 gallons of fuel per hour, though I mostly kept it full rich to help the engine break in.

On that front, I'm pretty sure this engine is broken in and the rings are seated. It still is using very little oil, and with no indication of oil consumption, there's no indication the rings aren't seated against the cylinder walls. So I'm pretty sure I can lean this thing out more at altitude and maybe spend less money on fuel.

Dodge Center, which sits southeast of Owatonna, is the southern boundary of my test area. I've never flown in there, but the airport sits on the prairie, surrounded by wind turbines. These are easily spied as I leveled off at 3200 feet (I'm using goofy altitudes for flying until that ZAON traffic alert system arrives). So is Rochester, which lies southeast of Dodge Center, and is in Class D (or maybe it's Class C) airspace.

You can barely see the turbines to the upper right left of the prop in this photo (click the image for a bigger view).

I approached the airport a little from the southwest so I could make a 45-degree entry to runway 34. There was no traffic in the area and landing was uneventful except that the runway dips down and then goes up a hill. When it dips down, it takes some work to figure out where civilization -- and the fuel tanks -- are. It's a very steep grade to the top of the runway -- at least as runways go. But I found the tanks.

It was pretty darned quiet in Dodge Center.

Now it was time to do my calibration test, and pay for the privilege of doing so. Gas was $5.45 a gallon. The Electronic Instruments gauge said I had 17.5 gallons of fuel combined in tanks that hold a total of 42 gallons fuel. The Grand Rapids engine monitor said I had 11. I had previously calibrated the EI when I installed it, but I was still surprised to see how well it worked. I took on 24.5 gallons, and put the extra half gallon in one of the fuel jugs I'd taken along.

The engine monitor's FloScan unit has a configuration setting that you can use to adjust for the inaccuracies and I'll calculate how far off it was sometime this weekend and compensate for it in the unit. But it's good to know that when it was telling me I was using 12 gallons of fuel an hour, or leaning to 8 GPH, I was actually using less. Not a lot less, but less. Of the many things they don't tell you about this stage of building an airplane, this is one of the big ones: It takes a lot of gas -- and hence, a lot of money -- to haul a plane around the sky for 40 hours at high-power settings.

I taxied back down the hill, which they call a runway in Dodge Center, and then up another hill, which they call the other end of the runway in Dodge Center, and took off with full tanks (250 or so pounds of fuel) -- switching one to the other soon after takeoff so that no fuel would puke out of the fuel vents. At $5.45 a gallon, it's liquid gold.

I followed the GPS in the direction of Red Wing. Another thing I notice, the HSI function in the Dynon D100, which gets its information from my little portable Garmin 296, has quite a lag to it, so when you turn to a heading it indicates, you really have to let it catch up. I would like the GPS to be a little more visible to me (I have to lean over to see it, and it's a small screen for old eyes). I have an AirGizmo dock which turns it toward me, but it doesn't fit the standard cutout for the AirGizmo dock that simply installs it into the panel. That was a wasted $95. Anyone want it? For you, $75.

Evening was setting on the prairie of Minnesota...

Slowly, the prairie starts to give way to rolling hills. We're heading for bluff country along the Mississippi River...

and Red Wing...

The Red Wing airport is actually in Wisconsin, just over a beautiful river, running a little faster with recent rains, and soon to run a lot faster as the flash floods in Duluth this week make their way to this area sometime next week.

The winds were calm in Red Wing, so I made a crosswind entry to the pattern for runway 9 and landed perfectly, of course, taxiing back and immediately taking off again (a perfect takeoff, by the way, with lots of right rudder). I would have liked to have gotten out and stretched my legs a bit -- they have a nice pilot lounge in Red Wing -- but I thought I saw some weather moving in from the west and I didn't want to get caught there.

As it turned out, it wasn't weather so much as haze. A marine-type layer seemed to be forming over the city, so as I headed back west to the test-area entry point, I battled -- that might be too strong a word -- the visibility and the sun in my eyes to the northwest.

The cylinders were, again, a little hot -- 406 -- but nothing serious. I leaned out to 9 GPH but decided to go full rich. It's only money and it's not like N614EF didn't deserve a few luxuries, given the way she's treated me this week.

It took only 8 minutes to reach the test area entry corridor to Airlake. The problem is you can't follow the boundaries of the corridor and make a proper and safe 45-degree pattern entry for runway 30 at the airport, and it sounded like there was a little traffic in the area, and safety trumps rules, in my book.

So I headed over the top of Northfield, in order to put the airport more off my right wing, to turn and make a proper pattern entry, while losing altitude and speed.

Down below, I noticed, they were playing baseball under the lights on a delightful night.

I was five miles out on the 45 degree entry for runway 30, when I heard a Cessna report he was on an "eight mile final" on an instrument approach. Could I sneak in before him? Should I try? I lost more speed, did a couple of small "S" turns and dropped to pattern altitude just before I turned for the downwind. He was three miles out and, of course, traveling much slower than I was.

He was also, more than likely, renting that plane and was a student. It was a nice night, so I got on the radio and said I'd extend my downwind to allow the Cessna to land, even though I heard another plane a few miles behind me, heading our way for landing.

"I appreciate that," he said. "And we have you in sight," a testament to the beauty of two landing lights and a wig-wag system.

"No problem," I responded, "it's a beautiful night to fly."

Momentarily, I spied him on his final approach, passing off my left wing, so I turned "base" (perpendicular) to the runway, put out the rest of my flaps, reduced engine power and headed for a nice two-chirp landing just after the Cessna cleared the runway.

As I was approaching to land, I saw the Cardinal up above me and to the left, traversing the sky on which I'd just traveled. Everything was in order. The world, roiling at that moment if you were listening to the news, was perfect if you were flying an airplane.

Then the pilot of the Cardinal announced his position on downwind, paused for a moment, and then said with a bit of a sigh, "... you're right. It's a beautiful night to fly."


  1. It's all very complicated, isn't it?

  2. Not really. You know if you were to describe to somebody how to walk down the street, it, too, would sound more complicated than it really is.

  3. You can hear the joy in this story.

  4. The fuel pump value is a pre authorization up to the requested dollar or gallon... you can dispense anything up to that authorization... the pump will shut off at the total pre authorized but you are only charged for what you pump...

  5. Nice write up Bob. Sounds like your test area is identical to the one that I got. I got very familiar with Faribault, Owatonna, Dodge Center, Red Wing, and Stanton.

    What Stephen says above about fuel pumps is correct. If you think you are going to need about 20 gallons, just specify 25 or so on the pump. It will shut off at 25, but if you only get 21 in the tanks, that is all you will be charged for.

  6. Ditto what Stephen said, unless the pumps are really weird in Minnesota. I always select Gallons, overestimating the quantity a little, and am always charged what I actually pump.

    I know what you mean about the VP-50. They also should have kept making the -100 and -200. I got a refurbished -200, the last one I guess before they quit selling all prior models (except for the VP-X) and started peddling the very expensive -300 and -400 models.

    1. I was really bummed I heard that the VP-200 was no longer being offered. I have one in my airplane and absolutely love it. I would say that was probably the best decision I made on the whole project.

  7. Doing good Bob. I have been tuned in and enjoy reading about your journey

  8. I had no idea VP has stopped making the VP-200. So now all of their legacy products have been discontinued? That's really a pity for builders like me who don't have the fancy EFIS into which VPX is integrated.

    I guess a lot of the VP-200 system was integrated into the VP-400, but it sure seems like every avionics company out there is taking a Swiss Army Knife approach to things.

    I don't need a backup EFIS if I had to cash in life insurance policies to fund the primary EFIS. I viewed by VP-50 as basically an electrical system. I'm not sure, really, what to describe the remaining products VP is selling, but it sure ain't an electrical system.

    But beyond all that is the relative insecurity I would have now in buying a VP product. No matter what you buy, there's a pretty good chance, if history holds, that it will be an orphan within a few years.

    Nice folks, though, and the products they do sell seem to work fine.

    1. Bob
      Good write-up.
      I learned to fly out of Neenah many long years ago and I well remember the wonders of summer nights....
      Jim F

  9. Nice, Bob. I myself sighed at the end, what a pretty account of a flight and landing.


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