We need two kinds of permission to have ZU-TAF “released” from her grounding so that we can go on to California and beyond. The first is the “TSA” (Transportation Security Administration) waiver letter which relates to the protection of US security. Although we received this document some weeks ago, it expired just after our arrival. Although application for a renewal had already been made, we had to wait for the renewed document to be issued.
The second is an aviation related document known as an “SFA” or Special Flight Permit. The SFA couldn’t be issued until the TSA waiver was in place, which, as of this afternoon, it once again is. The SFA is the document which confirms that the FAA has satisfied itself that the aircraft in question is a reasonably airworthy aircraft on a reasonable mission with a reasonable crew. Obtaining that documentation required the fitment of the HF radio, so as to meet legal requirements. That has been duly fitted and is now fully operational. Supporting documentation has been submitted to the FAA and we hope and expect to receive the SFA tomorrow morning. Since the Sling 4 is an “experimental aircraft” (in US lingo), and one about which the authorities here do not know a great deal, they wish to keep it away from large, busy passenger airports. We have accordingly proposed to do a short hop from Honolulu (on Honolulu Island) to Kahului (on Maui Island) and depart from there direct to Santa Maria airport, which is about 200km north of Los Angeles. There we’ll be met by Mike, Matt Liknaitsky and, we hope, some other friends and interested people. The relevance is that they will escort us through the complex and busy LA airspace, thereby ensuring that we don’t interfere with any traffic, primarily at LAX.
So after a few quite frustrating days of waiting, it does look like tomorrow we’ll be legally free to fly again. One problem, however, is that the weather apparently has other plans. Current predictions are headwinds of between 15 and 30 knots, on the nose, pretty much the whole way, as well as quite a bit of cloud. That shows on vfrplanner as “Low cloud”, but of course we fly low and find it directly in our path. The thought of again banging into that wind for 22 to 26 hours, non-stop, is quite debilitating and, as loathe as we are to delay, it MAY lead to us waiting another day. My personal worst is flying on these moonless, pitch dark nights and just whamming into clouds which have violent turbulence, especially in an aircraft which is so heavily loaded. The daytime is one thing, but it’s really quite a different proposition when the flight takes all night as well as a good 5 to 6 hours before and after!
There are so many thoughts that I’d like to write about, but as usual there’s not a lot of time. Here’re a couple though –
On flying over the sea in moonless conditions at night with embedded storms – I’ve no doubt that we did the right thing on the Taiwan to Guam and Guam to Majuro (Marhsall Islands) legs – just get really low over the water, check altimeter against GPS altitude on three independent GPS’s, and stay there. The turbulence low down over the ocean is infinitely less than in a vertically developed cloud, most decent aircraft can handle lots of rain, and there’s always a dispersal of descending air near the sea.
On the question regarding the contribution to safety of an HF radio, a working satellite tracking device and a stormscope (and whether we were irresponsible not to have those devices) – When we left SA we genuinely understood that provided we flew in VFR airspace we did not require an HF radio as a matter of law. We have discovered, however, that over the Pacific Ocean all airspace above 5 500 feet is class A IFR only airspace and, in any event, one is not entitled to fly even under that without an HF radio. Out of Majuro we actually filed a flightplan which had us at 5 000 feet. The weather, however, required that we climb and we accordingly relayed our position via aircraft overhead whenever possible. (It is a pretty empty quarter of the Pacific Ocean, though). Our transponder was on and I seriously doubt we posed a threat to any other aircraft, all of which would have been at least 30 000 feet above us! (Incidentally, we saw the Continental Airlines flight and they saw us around midnight as we spoke to each other – just blinking lights somewhere near Johnston Atoll). Our safety was really entirely in our own hands, and would have been so regardless of communications. The only real purpose of communications would have been for rescue purposes and our PLB’s would have in any event directed rescue efforts directly to us. In real terms I don’t believe that we would have been much “safer” with tracking and an HF, though of course that’s no excuse for breaking the laws of your hosts – that’s just pure bad manners and we’ll do our best to avoid doing that again!
I see I was reported as saying that I wouldn’t again do a trip like this without an HF radio. That’s actually not quite right! What I think I said (and certainly meant to say), was that once we’re home safe and sound I personally may choose to do future trips like this in a slightly different way. I’ve loved the isolation, the need to make a plan as we go, the re-routing and the re-scheming that involves, the (relative) risk-taking, the uncertainty and the surprises along the way. But I do feel as if, for now anyway, I’ve done enough flying at night in rather iffy weather to last for a while. In my past I’ve rock-climbed quite hard and loved every minute of it, but since my kids were born I do feel that I may have lost my “edge”. I still love to climb, but I’m not as driven as I once was. I wonder whether perhaps I’m not about to go through the same process with cross-country flying! (Hhhmm, then again, I’m sure that once home I may forget those moments of terror in favour only of the moments of pure freedom and beauty!). Anyhow, I can say with absolute certainty that for me it’s got nothing to do with comms, particularly HF comms, it has only to do with the inherent risks once you’ve done absolutely everything that you can do!
A stormscope, incidentally, Mike and I found ultimately to be of only limited use on our last trip around the world. It just seemed too inconsistently accurate and it only helped to avoid actual established lightning, not huge convective clouds.
Anyhow, I think it’s important that these kinds of issues are debated. Paradoxically the (probably necessary) conservatism associated with aviation means that often, especially at our end of the scale, it’s not the legally required stuff that makes it safe, but legally irrelevant devices like GPS’s and highly effective EFIS instruments. But it’s always good sense and a bit of experience that actually keeps you alive, and that’s also not easy to legislate for (or perhaps come by!).
Ok, that’s it for tonight. Jean’s just returned from what appears to be a bit of a “night on the town” and we’re going to turn in. We’ll do a weather assessment tomorrow morning (about 1800Z on 1 September) with the help of Sias Dreyer, Tim Parsonson and the Exeter gurus, and make a decision about whether to head for California. Probably either way we’ll head for Maui just after we receive the FAA’s go ahead. At worst we’ll camp out in Maui tomorrow night in preparation for optimum weather. Every which way, we’ll endeavour to keep you more up to date than over the past few days.
Finally, take look at these Google Earth screenshots of the now entirely uninhabited Johnston Atoll which Jean and I passed DIRECTLY over at about 3am three nights back. We bitterly regretted that it wasn’t early evening and that we couldn’t manufacture a good reason for landing there, camping out on our own, overnight, before continuing in the morning. An HF radio of course would have made it possible to explain that we’d merely stopped for technical reasons pending the sunlight and that no rescue would be necessary! Perhaps the doggone thing would have been useful after all!