Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Denver - Aspen / Beechcraft Baron 58 / IFR

Tonight (Mountain Daylight Time) I took up the challenge of a night flight from Denver to Aspen. I flew offline because Aspen doesn't allow arrivals after 2300Z, and I didn't want to be fined by the airport. I had three volunteer passengers to accompany me, persuaded to come along because it was a free, quick ride to Aspen.

The weather was poor in Denver, with lots of scary-looking clouds and distant thunder. In real life, this would have been reason enough to cancel the flight, but Danger is my middle name in simulation, so I laughed at the nearby thunderstorms and taxied out to 17R for my departure. It was a long taxi, since everything in Denver seems to be ten miles long, and since I got a bit lost on the taxiways trying to find my way to 17R. This did not inspire confidence in my passengers, who were already a bit nervous about the thunder and lightning that they could see in the distance. But eventually I—we—got there.

This flight was IFR, and the MEAs are somewhat challenging for a small prop aircraft. The Baron is up to the challenge, however, and additionally I have a lovely suite of fancy avionics in the cockpit to keep me safe during the flight. Dreamfleet's Baron model (which I adore) already includes a Sandel SN3308 EHSI, but I've also installed other stuff, such as Sandel's ST3400 TAWS/RMI. I have just about everything I could want, except weather radar (oddly enough, my Bonanza has that).

This flight requires a mighty climb out of Denver to 16000 feet, and I just barely squeaked up to that altitude a bit after the waypoint where it was required (but well before the mountains). Lots of turbulence during the climb and east of the mountains, promptly my gutless passengers to question the wisdom of making this trip. It wasn't particularly cold but with all that moisture I turned on all the deicing gadgets, just to be safe (without telling my passengers, of course). I was able to maintain 1000 fpm for most of the climb.

Soon after, I was over the mountains. There are lots of mountains in Colorado, especially around these parts. At night all I could see was a bit of light in the sky, just enough to outline some looming dark shapes, some of which projected rather ominously above my horizon (but I'd be flying well clear of those). With my fancy avionics, navigation wasn't particularly difficult; I had the GPS filled with my route, and the TAWS to warn me of terrain (although there shouldn't be any of note along my route), and I set the EHSI to show lightning strikes just for good measure.

The weather improved as I reached the mountains, with a solid overcast just above me and clear skies below, and less turbulence. I could just barely make out dangerous, dark shapes around me; there was no way to actually see any terrain, though. Although I was IFR, I did have my VFR charts with me in the cockpit, and I periodically checked to see if everything looked okay (to the extent that I could see anything at all below). I spotted state route 9 and the Green Mountain Reservoir, right where they were supposed to be. I flew almost directly over Vail, after crossing some high peaks beyond DOBEE, but I couldn't see many lights. Interstate 70 turned up exactly where expected. Progress was really slow, though, as I had a wicked headwind to deal with. Thank goodness I always depart with full main tanks (I leave the tip tanks empty, though). That gives me a good 4.5 hours at least of fuel.

I finally reached Red Table. There was no visual way to confirm this, but all my instruments swore to me that I was passing right over it. At that point I started a steep descent to try to get to 13000 by JARGU (which is only a few miles further on). I set my ILS frequency and let the autopilot capture and turn, but I noticed that I could already see the field from my position in the clear air, so I disengaged the AP and flew the approach by hand. Seeing the field seemed to reassure my passengers.

The approach was delicate but not really scary, apart from the general spookiness of flying around big mountains at night. I've flown into Aspen many times, so I know the terrain moderately well. I had to listen to constant GPWS warnings as I worked my way down to the field, but I knew I was clear (barely). The highway had little traffic, but enough to help. I was a bit below the glide slope at some points and sweated over that a bit (very bad to be low in the mountains), but things worked out. Touchdown was pretty smooth.

A quick taxi to the ramp, shut everything down, and it was time for a yogurt drink.

Sooner or later I'll probably try this in the Cessna 182. I'm still thinking about that. The safety margins are a lot smaller.