NexRad Pleasures

from guest blogger Thomas Hoving

I am seventy-five years of age and got my private in 1985 when I was fifty four. I have single engine land instrument and commercial ratings and have logged over 5700 hours since 1985 with 2500 in actual IFR. For the past twelve years I have owned a 1979 Cessna 182 RG Turbo with Robertson STOL. I built a Falcon XP kit plane and flew it for 16 years and have also owned a Piper cub and a Husky.

I fly an average of 300 hours a year all over the nation and to places like Belize, Anguilla, the Caymans and the Bahamas. I am a writer and travel across the country plugging my books. Since 9-11 I have never taken a domestic commercial carrier.

I wouldn’t fly without NexRad. I shake my head wondering how I managed through all that scag and around those enveloping t-storms or avoiding Convective Sigmets before the happy advent of NexRad. I remember vividly trying to draw where some Convective Sigmet was out near Dubuque with the plane bucking five hundred feet up and down while the 122.00 recording intoned, "From 40 miles south of BAR to thirty-five miles northwest of GRD, to . . . " Having no idea where those VORs were – being weather stations. Fearful, too, of blundering into the core of the Sigmet. Sure, I had one of those primitive 3M Storm Scopes, but I never knew if the storms were sneaking up behind me.

I started with Low Earth Orbiting weather when the system was first introduced six years or so ago. I switched out of that slow-as-molasses rig as soon as Airgator-Navair advertised a turn-key PDA operation. I flew for two years using Airgator-Navair’s iPaq PDA and navigated my way around plenty of dangerous cells. Once the controllers heard I wanted an amendment to this or that intersection and must be doing it to avoid cells, they’d ask me what I had. When they found out, they’d ask me if it was okay to vector me to a certain area to check out a clear route for commercial jets. I could tell them the width of the hole and the speed and direction of the cells. I got a kick when I heard one Continental heavy growl to the controller, "You mean I’m getting this from a Cessna?" I kept quiet.

A couple of summers ago in Iowa I asked Center to let me go left and then more left and then right and then left again as I wended my way twenty-five miles from several red-purplish cells (meaning possible tornados.) When I was clear, the controller said, "We just had a vote here in Center." I was confused – was this some nutty Iowa political caucus and, if so, what did it have to do with me? He clarified the statement by saying, "A vote, that is, on what weather equipment you have." When I told him, he said, "We figured."

I have tried several larger Navair-Airgator computers after the PDA, which I still keep as a complete back-up with current approach plates and enroute data. One was a Motion tablet with Windows XP. I would not recommend it because above 10,000 feet it turns off – the air is too thin for the cooling motors.

I now have a solid state NavPad computer which is not affected by altitude. It has a 5" by 6" screen and comes loaded with Windows XP.

The internal hard disk is only 4 Gigs but the machine takes a standard flash disk and I find that a 2 Gig disk handles everything I need (even a 450-page book I’m now writing.) Sandisk now offers a 8 Gig flashdisk.

Navair-Airgator supplies me the following: the NavPad computer with a keyboard, an XM satellite receiver, a GPS (which is so sensitive it will get seven satellites if you put it under the plane’s seat – or almost), a power source for 12 or 28 volts which runs everything on the plane from the cigarette lighter (Bluetooth is also there and the GPS has an 8-hour battery) and a nifty 4-hour battery for the XM satellite receiver. The latter is key, for you can receive all weather data while you’re packing the plane and doing the pre-fight. The NavPad comes loaded with a small-footprint virus detector which is free, has frequent automatic updates and which has never been hacked since it covers such a tiny segment of the market.

I subscribe to the top XM pilot weather, the full USA approach plate up-dates and Navair software package which comes every 28 days.

Navair AirgatorNavair-Airgator has a website from which I download all updates. You won’t forget because they send you an email reminder a day or two before the new data. That web site, which shows all the gear and prices, is: www.flynavair.com and the phone number is 914-666-5656. Amir Tirosch is the boss and he knows everything. Technical assistance is excellent and Matt Leonard will straighten out most glitches.

I use my NavPad as my kneeboard flight director. It has PhatPad (so I can use the stylus to write my clearances,) approach plates and a moving map with full weather programs. The XM weather is superior, including frontal systems and something called SCITS which shows the location, direction and speed of impending bad weather. Radar-Clouds and Cloud-Tops are useful. I find the METARS exceptionally valuable. I get the METARS on the back side of a frontal system I’m flying through to be sure of the conditions.

Recently I flew a Cessna 172 from East Hampton to Myrtle Beach, SC and we had my NavPad and a Garmin 396 on board. We had to navigate around several tough cells and then land long before our destination because of a Convective Sigmet. The pilot in command prefers the Garmin 396 because its small and portable and he can take it into a hotel and see what gives before taking off.

But on our flight he asked me several times if I could show him the NavPad weather closing in on us because of the large screen and the ability to scroll rapidly with the stylus. To me the NavPad was clearly the better system. Plus, I can’t write the next chapter of my new book – or these comments – on a Garmin 396. As for using the Garmen 396, in a hotel, I far prefer my AOPA Real-Time Flight Planner with weather overlay. I get it on my NavPad and can see all weather en route, all fixes and airports in Jeppeson charts and I can file, too.

NexRad got me into, not OUT of trouble once. I was flying from Chicago to Poughkeepsie and had to divert to Maryland and then proceed north because of a fast-moving West-East killer front with tornados inside it. I was some hundred miles from my destination at 11 thousand when I saw the symbol on NexRad that I thought meant an old lightning strike within light rain. I asked for 7,000 and when I got to the old strike, BLAMMO! I was hit by lightning. Blinded. Totally. A "Snow storm" of everything not tied down in the cockpit and back seat – more freaking kids’ water bottles than I knew existed. Then, SLAM! straight up for a good five hundred feet.

I groped for the Nearest button on my Garmin 430 and manufactured my voice into a casual, fear-free heavy-jockey’s drawl, and asked for an amendment to East Stroudsberg. Landed. Searched for the strike scar. Nothing. A few days later we found the needle-point pin prick on top of the cockpit. Oddly, I lost no avionics.

When I got home I read the NexRad manual and learned that what I thought was an old strike was one likely to happen.

Moral: read the manual, dummy.

Thomas Hoving