Test Flight

Usually I have some destination in mind before I depart on a flight, which is pretty much required for proper flight planning, but today I took off with only the objective of testing my headsets. Along the way I ended up landing at an airport I had never visited before and flying higher than I ever had in a light plane.

Cardinal RG

Cessna Cardinal RG on the ramp at Meacham

As a result of a burglary back at the beginning of the year, I have an odd collection of aviation headsets: an original Lightspeed Zulu, a Lightspeed Zulu.2, and a Lightspeed Sierra. I use the Zulu.2 all the time, but I have not really checked out its Bluetooth connectivity with my iPhone, which can be used to listen to music and to make phone calls. The original Zulu and Sierra are used by passengers, and both were reportedly having problems.

Even though I did not have a particular destination in mind, I knew I would probably head west from Fort Worth since the winds aloft were out of the west, and I prefer to fight headwinds on the way out instead of the way back. So I did my flight planning with that in mind. No TFRs and no bad weather anywhere close, so it looked OK.

After takeoff from Meacham, I headed west and started playing with the Bluetooth connection on the Zulu.2. The headset and iPhone had been previously coupled, and turning on the Bluetooth radio on each was it all it took to get them talking again. After that, all it took to get music to stream from the iPhone to the Zulu.2 was to play it on the iPhone. The iPhone shows a menu that lets you select where the audio should go: Bluetooth device, iPhone speakers, or iPhone headset output.  With that, the sounds of  Mele O Hawaii accompanied the rest of my flight.

The sound quality was very good, but at first the music seemed to cut out at random intervals. Thinking it might be a connectivity problem, I placed the iPhone in various places around the cockpit to see if it made a difference. Nope. The Zulu.2 automatically interrupts the music whenever there is a transmission over the radio so the music does not interfere with important communications. That is a good thing.

Today was a nice day for flying and many people were out enjoying the day. My radio was tuned to a Unicom frequency used by many airports, so every time someone would transmit at one of these airports it would interrupt the music. Some of the transmitting planes were so far away I could not hear them, but the radio was picking up some signal, causing the music to be interrupted. So, if you are on a busy frequency listening to music would be a problem. Again, that is a good thing.

Next up, let’s make a phone call. That turned out to be easy as well. Just dial the number on the iPhone, then listen and talk on the headset just as if you are on the phone. (But make sure not to hold down the radio transmit button while you are doing it or you will be talking to everyone on the frequency.)

The Zulu.2 Bluetooth connectivity was working fine, so it was time to test the other headsets, starting with the original Zulu. This was my old headset. It was stolen from my home during the Christmas holiday and then recovered by the police in February. When I got it back it had been drawn on with some sort of red marker and it reeked of cigarette smoke, but it seemed to work fine. However, the last time a passenger used it they said they thought the microphone only worked intermittently.

I plugged the old Zulu into the passenger headset jacks and put it on my head. Noise canceling was working fine and transmitting worked fine too. The passenger problem was probably not keeping the microphone close enough to their mouth. It has to stay right next to the mouth to overcome all the ambient noise in the cockpit. So the result was good. No problem with the old Zulu.

However, it seemed like the old Zulu was actually a little quieter than the new Zulu.2. Could that be? I tried switching them back and forth several times, but the cockpit is so loud without headphones, and the brief blast of noise when changing headsets made it hard to make a direct comparison. (How did we fly in the old days without headsets? Seems crazy now.) The Zulu.2 has different ear seals with a reduced padding area to let eyeglass temples pass through without putting additional pressure on the side of your head. Makes them more comfortable, but maybe it is letting a little more noise in too.

I could not tell if the old Zulus were really quieter than the Zulu.2s, but I did find that pushing the Zulu.2s against my head made them quieter and they stayed more quiet even after I released the pressure. I’ll have to start doing that now every time I put them on.

The last test was the Sierra headset. It was purchased as a replacement for the two Telex headsets I had stolen, so it is new. When I first brought it home it would make a loud squealing noise whenever the noise-canceling was turned on. I sent it back to Lightspeed for repair, and it worked great when it came back from them. However, a passenger had reported hearing a loud noise when the noise-canceling was turned on again, so it was time to check it out.

I unplugged the old Zulu headset and plugged the Sierra in to the passenger jacks. I put it on and at first left off the active noise reduction (ANR). The Sierra is lighter than either of the Zulus, but its passive noise reduction was not as good either. It is noticeably louder than the Zulu when both are in passive mode. I turned on the ANR, and as expected it got a lot quieter – and no squealing. I tried various ways to make it squeal, lift off one ear and then the other, push on both sides, push on one side and then on the other, but it would not squeal. It is working fine now, and I hope it stays that way.

By this time I was approaching Jacksboro.


Jacksboro, Texas. Its airport is just on the other side of the lake on the right side of the picture.

I looked at my chart to see what was interesting around here and saw that Olney, Texas was not too far away. Olney is home to Air Tractor, the world’s largest manufacturer of agricultural and firefighting aircraft. I met the president of Air Tractor, Jim Hirsch, at Texas A&M University’s aerospace engineering senior design review last week, and it sounded like a very interesting company. You don’t expect a world leading company to be located in a small west Texas town, but there they are. So off to Olney I went.

Olney is not hard to find from the air. Just look for the windmills.

Olney on sectional chart

Olney on an aviation sectional chart. Note the caution about windmills. The upside down V’s and W’s are windmills.

Windmills near Olney

Wind farm located just east of Olney.

Olney was pretty quiet on this Sunday afternoon, so I did a touch and go and headed back to Fort Worth. I was not in a particular rush to get back to Fort Worth, so I decided to see how high the Cardinal could climb.

There are various limits on how high an airplane can fly. Its service ceiling is defined as the altitude at which its climb rate drops off to 100 feet per minute (fpm), but there are other limitations. All flights above 18,000 feet have to be on instrument flight plans, so an airplane needs to be IFR capable to fly above that and there are other limitations related to aircraft instrumentation and equipment at other altitudes above that.

The service ceiling on the Cardinal I was flying is 17,100 feet. No way was I going to be able to go that high. First, federal aviation regulations require pilots to use oxygen above 14,000 feet or when above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes. So, I could go to 14,000 feet as long as I get from 12,500 feet up to 14,000 feet and back down in less than 30 minutes.

In the end, I got bored with climbing and stopped when I reached 12,500 feet. at that point my climb rate was about 250 fpm so going up to 14,000 feet and back down to 12,500 feet could have been completed in well less than 30 minutes. I think 17,100 feet would have been possible too, if I had an oxygen system, even though the temperature was much warmer than standard. Of course, I was well below gross weight too.

12,500 feet

Altimeter showing the Cardinal at 12,500 feet.

The top of the climb was just north of Mineral Wells, so it was a nice long descent back into Fort Worth from there. No particular place to go, but still a good time.

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