Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Easily Lost

Things easily found are easily lost.

Japanese Proverb

Two commonly questions asked when embarking on flight training are "How much will it cost?" and "How long will it take?" A good instructor anticipates these questions and most of us have an estimate of the time and money required. My answer is pretty conservative (read more expensive) and lately has varied with the price of avgas, which last I checked was hovering around $4.70 per gallon in Oakland.

It's perfectly reasonable to want to know how much time and money you'll need to spend to become a pilot, get an instrument rating, or learn to fly a multi-engine aircraft. What some people fail to appreciate is that the answer depends to a large extent on them. An exact figure and schedule can't be given because teaching a person the skills required to fly an aircraft is not an exact, scientific, or repeatable process.

Some instructors are more skilled than others and some teaching approaches work better than others. Good instructors try to create a logical progression of learning opportunities and tailor how they present the information based on the student's learning style. But how people actually internalize and retain the knowledge and skill is a bit of a mystery.

The FAA sets a minimum number of hours of flight experience and instruction that pilots must log before being eligible to take a check ride for a certificate or rating, but the figures are far too low. The regulations may require a minimum of 40 hours of experience for a private pilot, but the national average is more like 60 to 80. The minimum number of hours for a sport pilot certificate are even more ridiculous, but don't get me started on sport pilots.

A bunch of variables can throw a wrench into even the most carefully crafted flight training plans. These include bad weather, unexpected aircraft maintenance, competition with other pilots for training aircraft, and either the student, the instructor, or the designated examiner getting sick. Add a few other variables like the student's work schedule, family obligations, and vacation plans and it's a miracle that anyone ever learns how to fly. Oh, and don't forget Temporary Flight Restrictions that can crop up unexpectedly and ruin an otherwise productive day of flight instructing.

If there is a secret to successful, efficient, and economical flight training, then it starts and ends with the student's desire and dedication to learn. It's not about outside factors, though they can certainly hold you back. It really is about applying yourself. Most anyone who wants to fly and can find a way to make the time and make or borrow the money, then read, study, prepare, observe, and practice, can learn to fly an aircraft. I said almost anyone. There is about 20 to 25% of the population that, for various reasons, is not cut out to safely fly an aircraft, but that's a topic for another day.

It's inviting for a potential student to think "Gee, Acme Flight Academy can teach me how to be an instrument pilot in 10 days. If I could just get away from the office and concentrate on flying all day without interruption, I could get my instrument rating and then I could fly whenever I want." I've flown with pilots who have undergone accelerated training programs. I myself have done some accelerated training and it can be useful if you approach it correctly. The downside to these programs is summed up by a Woody Allen joke that I'll paraphrase.
I took one of those speed reading courses and I read War and Peace in four hours.

It's a book about Russia.

While the promise of intense immersion training is attractive, my experience is that over time this approach is often ineffective. Quite simply, you may learn enough to pass the check ride, but have you acquired the experience you need to fly safely? If you return to a busy work schedule, fly infrequently, and don't apply what you learned, all that knowledge you crammed into your head will evaporate faster than a puddle of avgas. The FAA calls the tendency to forget what you have learned a lack of currency. Simply put, "If you don't use it, you lose it." Currency is particularly relevant to the world of single pilot instrument flying, which I liken to riding a mountain bike and playing chess at the same time.

My focus is on training pilots to fly safely and work efficiently with ATC. My opinion, based on experience, is that learning to fly takes time and there are no lasting answers available in 10 days. I don't begrudge the schools that offer accelerated training. I often end up flying with the people they have trained, a few months down the line.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Vectors to Final

After watching numerous pilots fly instrument approach procedures with Garmin 430/530 and G1000 GPS units, I've come to a few conclusions. One is that while the Garmin manuals provide a description of most features and functions, other features (or are they bugs?) remain undocumented. Another conclusion is that the manuals provide precious little about how to use these units in the real world. Maybe that's why the FAA came up with the concept of scenario-based training: To encourage instructors to help pilots use their equipment in realistic situations.

In the Garmin 430/530 and G1000 world, preparing to fly an instrument approach procedure requires careful planning if you want to avoid fancy knob twisting and button pushing during a high workload phase of flight. The easiest way to select an instrument approach with these units is to have your destination airport selected as the current waypoint (the one to which you're currently headed) or as the last waypoint in your GPS flight plan. Here's an example of using the DIRECT-TO button on the G1000 Multi-Function Display (MFD), then selecting Oakland (KOAK) from the list of nearest airports. You'd use similar steps with the 430 or 530.



Once you have designated a destination airport, press the PROC button and a list of approaches for that airport is displayed.



After selecting an approach, you'll see a list of initial approach fixes (IAF) from which you plan to start the approach or the option of vectors-to-final or VTF.

VTF was meant to be handy for pilots and with some approaches it is a useful option. Just as often, it's a pain in the fundament because someone at Garmin or the FAA decided that when the VTF option is selected, all approach waypoints in the initial and intermediate approach segments should disappear from the moving map! VFT leaves you with just an extended magenta course line leading to the final approach fix.



Not displaying the intermediate approach course waypoints in VFT mode is the dumbest idea since ballot initiatives. When the approach you are flying is in hilly or mountainous terrain and ATC vectors you outside one of those intermediate approach fixes, it can be difficult or impossible to know when you can safely descend if you selected VTF.



Here's an example of an approach that works well with the vectors-to-final option. The surrounding terrain is flat and the profile view shows no step-down fixes outside the final approach fix. VTF is great for approaches like this.



The Oakland ILS 27R approach is one of many approaches not well suited to the vectors-to-final option. There are three step-down fixes (NAGVY, GROVE, and URZAF) outside the final approach fix FITKI. More than one unfortunate pilot has descended too soon, only to crash into the hilly terrain outside FITKI.



The only alternative to VTF is to activate the approach using one of the initial approach fixes.



After you've activated the approach in this manner, the GPS thinks you want to go to the IAF (SUNOL in this case). If that's not where ATC is vectoring you, waypoint sequencing will not occur and you'll need to do some knob twisting and button pushing.



One strategy is to try to take control of the debate and tell ATC "Barnburner 123 requests direct GROVE" so that you know where you're going. If ATC is cooperative, press DIRECT, select GROVE, press ENT twice and you're golden.

If ATC is uncooperative, another strategy is to activate the waypoint where ATC seems to be vectoring you. In this example, the assigned heading seems to be taking us to NAGVY. On the Primary Flight Display, press the FPL button and you'll see a magenta arrow or bracket showing the currently active leg or waypoint in the flight plan.



To select a different waypoint, press the small FMS knob and guess what? The cursor position jumps to the end of the flight plan. If anyone from Garmin is reading this, please change this behavior. When an approach is active, the flight plan cursor should stay put.



Use the large knob to scroll back up, select NAGVY, press Direct, then press ENT twice.



Now the GPS thinks you want to go direct to NAGVY. If you don't pass fairly close to NAGVY, automatic waypoint sequencing to the next approach waypoints will still not occur. This is not that big a deal since the approach is an ILS, right?



It's true that you'll be flying the localizer and the glideslope, so being able to see these approach waypoints on the moving map is just to let you know when you can descend to the glideslope intercept altitude. Unless you need to fly the missed approach, in which case you want the waypoint sequencing to occur as it should or the GPS can't be used to fly the missed approach.

I'm guessing that right about now you're thinking this GPS stuff is more trouble than it's worth, but take heart. I discovered a technique that consistently handles the vectors-to-final quandary with the 430/530 and G1000 with a minimum of button pushing. This technique works great when being vectored for an ILS, VOR, GPS, or any other non-precision approach. Here's the deal.

Select the approach and activate it with an initial approach fix. Press the FPL button, press the small FMS knob to enter cursor mode, and select the first waypoint after the IAF.



Now press the MENU button and select the ACTIVATE LEG option to activate the flight plan leg between the IAF and the first waypoint after the IAF.





The cool thing about this technique is that even if you get vectored well inside the leg you activated, waypoint sequencing will happen automatically.



The question on everyone's mind is Why isn't this the default VTF behavior? Maybe someone at Garmin is listening and will fix this mess in a future release. Until then, this is the best bullet-proof technique I know of for handling vectors to final with a 430, 530, or G1000.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Little Voice

I was instructing in a G1000-equipped C182 recently and was headed through a local practice area. I had noticed that we hadn't seen any other traffic appear on the G1000's moving map, so I diverted my attention to finding out if the traffic feature had been disabled by the last pilot who flew the plane. Before I got deep in the G1000 menus, I told the pilot I was instructing that my attention would be diverted and that he should keep his eyes outside. Sure enough, the traffic feature had been disabled and when I re-enabled it, a few diamond-shaped targets appeared around us on the moving map. I felt better.

I've flown off and on the last 3 years in various aircraft equipped with TIS (Traffic Information System) or TAS (Traffic Advisory System), but the majority of my flight time has been in aircraft without any such system. What I've learned is that there's a lot more aircraft sharing the sky with you than you'd think if you're just using your eyes. I've also seen aircraft that didn't appear on the TIS or TAS system even though they were clearly visible to the naked eye, so these systems are by no means foolproof.

Most non-pilots don't realize that without an operating transponder, small aircraft don't show up very well on ATC radar. And without a functioning transponder, an aircraft won't show up at all on a TIS, TAS, or airline TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance Detection) units. Without going into a lot of details, a transponder receives the radar sweep from ATC's radar, and responds with a signal of its own. Transponders will also respond to the interrogation signal from a TAS or TCAD system. The transponder reply can contain a unique, ATC-assigned 4-digit code or the standard Visual Flight Rules code of 1200. If the transponder is set to squawk altitude, the signal will also contain the aircraft's altitude. That's right - neither ATC radar nor traffic detection systems can determine an aircraft's altitude on their own: They rely on the aircraft's transponder to tell it the altitude.

I've seen aircraft appear on a TIS or TCAD system with no altitude readout, probably the result of the pilot having the transponder turned on, but not set to squawk altitude. I've even seen this within the San Francisco mode C veil, where all aircraft are required to have an altitude-encoding transponder, to have that transponder turned on, and to be squawking altitude.

Back to my story. A few minutes after re-enabling the G1000's traffic feature, we were passing just east of Mt. Diablo when I saw a target appear on the G1000's moving map, three miles ahead and at our altitude. Then poof! The target disappeared. The pilot I was instructing saw it too and commented "That was strange." We both looked ahead, but saw nothing. After a few seconds, I heard a little voice in my head say "turn 20 degrees left." I made this suggestion aloud and the pilot turned 20 degrees left. That's when we saw the other aircraft, at our altitude, less than a half a mile away, heading directly to where we would have been had we not turned.

Following the regulations, we were east bound at 3500', an odd altitude plus 500'. The other plane was westbound and should have been at an even altitude plus 500', like 4500', but he was WAFDOF - wrong altitude for direction of flight.

My conclusions?
Technology can be a great thing, but it's not always reliable.

Pilots should fly at an appropriate altitude for their direction of flight, but they don't always do so.

With a G1000, you have to fight the urge to stare at the pretty colors on the screen and keep scanning for traffic outside.
And if you hear a little voice in your head, you best listen to it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Unlucky day for the C210

I occasionally visit the FAA web site and review the preliminary accident and incident information, which can be instructive, interesting, and sometimes fascinating.

The data for May 19th included over 22 accidents and incidents, but seven of them involved Cessna C210 aircraft. While none of the C210 accidents involved fatalities, four of the seven accidents involved gear-up or partial gear-up landings.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM C210 - AIRCRAFT LANDED RUNWAY 3 AND EXITED AT TAXIWAY F3. AIRCRAFT WAS CLEAR OF RUNWAY BUT HAD NOT CONTACTED GROUND CONTROL FOR TAXI INSTRUCTIONS WHEN IT FLIPPED OVER.

BATTLE GROUND, WA C210 - AIRCRAFT LANDED LONG AND FAST AT THE BUZZARDS FLAT ARPT, 2009PDT. THE PILOT ATTEMPTED A GO-AROUND. THE AIRCRAFT STRUCK SEVERAL TREES, CRASHED AND CAUGHT FIRE.

REDDING, CA C210 - TO BENTON FIELD, REDDING, CA, LOST ENGINE POWER AND LANDED INTO KESWICK RESERVOIR ON THE SACRAMENTO RIVER. THE AIRCRAFT SUNK. THE SOLE OCCUPANT SWAM TO SHORE. NO INJURIES.

LAS VEGAS, NV C210 - ACFT LANDED NORTH LAS VEGAS AIRPORT WITH THE NOSE LANDING GEAR EXTENDED BUT THE MAIN LANDING GEAR RETRACTED.

CHICO, CA C210 - ACFT DEPARTED RWY 13L AND CLIMBED TO ABOUT 200-300 FT AND REPORTED ENGINE MISFIRE. ACFT WAS CLEARED TO LAND ANY RWY. ACFT LANDED GEAR UP.

RIO VISTA, CA C210 - ACFT LANDED GEAR UP.

ANDERSON, SC C210 - ACFT LANDED GEAR UP.

What are the odds?

Tabla Rassa

While not exactly a clean slate, this marks my first post as my freight dog job ends and I return to full-time flight instructing. I'll be transitioning from my freight dog blog to my new blog - Aviation Mentor. Watch for more updates soon.