Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cleared for ...

The recent accident involving a Comair regional jet emphasizes the importance of situational awareness - knowing where you are and the implications to your phase of flight. Situational awareness is most often emphasized while airborne, particularly on instrument approaches and departures, but it can be just as critical on the ground. Several people have asked me how the Comair accident could have happened and all I can tell them is that taking off or landing on the wrong runway (sometimes at the wrong airport) by mistake is not that uncommon.

The Aeronautical Information Manual provides a section on ground operations, but it's not in the chapter on Air Traffic Procedures. Instead, ground operations are covered in the previous chapter, buried between information about radio phraseology and a section on ATC clearances and separation. I'm not suggesting that the layout of the AIM is what creates confusion on the ground, but it does make one wonder if, historically, ground operations have been given their due during training.

For many years, runway incursions have been a problem, with the majority (but not all) of incursions involving GA aircraft. A runway incursion is when an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object creates a collision hazard or loss of separation for an aircraft taking off, landing, or intending to land. A surface incident is an unauthorized movement of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on either a taxiway or runway that affects, or could affect, the safety of flight. The distinction between incursion and incident is important. If you taxi across a runway without a clearance and cause a loss of separation for a landing aircraft (an incursion), you can expect to be given a phone number to call. Surface incidents usually result in a just stern scolding on the frequency.

When you've taxied from the same spot for takeoff on the same runway hundreds of times, it's easy to get complacent, casual, maybe even sloppy. You may even think the controller told you what you expected to hear, what's known as a hear back error, and not hear what the controller really said. For taxi, it's critical that your read back all runway assignments and any hold short instructions. Saying "roger" or clicking the mic switch twice is not good enough. In fact, it's dangerous. Clear, concise, and standardized phraseology when talking to a ground or tower controller can go a long way toward preventing confusion during ground operations.

There are some GPS products that purport to display an aircraft's position on an airport taxiway diagram in a moving-map fashion. My experience is that these products can be useful, but they have limitations. Both the CMax system in the Cirrus and the new Garmin 496 suffer from the same problem: They aren't terribly accurate. I've seen both show my aircraft being between a runway and a taxiway, even though I was right on the centerline of the taxiway. They do show your general location and the direction you are headed, but you'll need to rely on you eyes, too. Even pilots whose budget doesn't allow sophisticated equipment can have the taxiway diagram for the airport out and ready to reference during taxi operations. Even if you have one of these GPS systems, I recommend having a airport taxiway diagram out so you can refer to it should the ground controller ask you to do something out of the ordinary. Have it out even if you think you know the airport like the back of your hand.

GA pilots usually operate with just one required crewmember, but we can still use some simple Cockpit Resource Management techniques when another person is on board. If I'm instructing a pilot or have another pilot flying with me, I always verify ATC clearances with that person. After the pilot-in-command has been given a taxi clearance and read it back, I'll make an observation like "I heard 'taxi runway 19 right'" and wait for the pilot in command to verify. The same goes for landing clearances- "I heard 'cleared for the option 29 left.'" If we don't agree on what we heard, the PIC asks the controller to repeat the clearance. If we are both unsure of a controller's instructions or intent, we'll ask the controller to clarify, not just repeat, the clearance.

Being in a rush to beat incoming weather, or make a release time, or for any other reason creates a dangerous distraction that can cloud your judgement and affect your perception. When I get in a hurry, I start thinking ahead and anticipating what will happen next in hopes I can make things go more quickly. This is precisely what can lead a pilot to think they heard what they wanted to hear instead of what the controller actually said. I've seen controllers affected in a similar way, telling an aircraft to do something out of habit without realizing they gave the wrong instructions. Many a time I've heard a controller accept an incorrect read-back from a pilot without correcting the pilot, probably because the controller was distracted or in a hurry.

Pilots, controllers and mechanics are only human and unfortunately, humans make mistakes. As a friend who files for a major airline observed: Professional pilots make mistakes every day, but they usually catch their mistakes before they become a danger to the flight. Some interesting reading on these topics is available in the Callback newsletter published by the Aviation Safety Reporting System, administered by NASA. ASRS allows pilots, controllers, and mechanics to anonymously describe incidents, to provide insight into the factors that contributed to the problem, and to offer ways to prevent the situation from happening again. Here's one example:
So if you're thinking this sort of thing can't happen to you, think again.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


These days, there is a lot of fear floating around. The media talks about things that can kill or maim us. The government talks about terrorists and deadly plots. I have talked to many people, relatives and close friends, who confess to feeling afraid and that all this talk of fear only makes them feel more afraid. There is a lot of talk about safety, making people feel safe, making people do things that are supposed to make us safer. This obsession with fear and safety is enough to make one wonder, what has become of us?

I'll be the first one to admit that life is scary and that fear is a part of being alive. That's just the way it is. I also think there's nothing wrong with admitting to being afraid or to having been afraid. I've been scared many times in my life and there is certainly more ahead for me to fear. Most of the times I've been afraid, I was fortunate to not be immobilized by my fear. I usually found that when I was afraid, I became more focused on the task at hand. But there have been times. Times when I doubted myself, just froze, couldn't think, couldn't act. I don't believe the inability to think and act in the face of fear makes one a coward any more than taking action in the face of fear makes one a hero. I believe that to take full measure of a person, you have to see the full arc of their life, or at least a good portion of it. Only then can you draw any useful conclusions.

There is a lot of talk in the media about courage and heroism, usually involving the men and women serving in the armed forces, police, and fire fighters. While I have tremendous respect for people who put their lives on the line everyday to protect and defend others, I think we've compartmentalized the concept of heroism. So much that we fail to see average people who show courage by going about their everyday lives, facing trials that every living person faces, the sadness of illness and death, the countless slings and arrows. We've come to expect others will keep us safe and in the process, we've lost touch with our own individual, everyday courage.

What if we had the courage to not give into paranoia? What if we had the courage to accept that others see things differently than us? What if we had the courage to not demand that everyone look, act, feel, love, worship, or vote exactly the way we do? What if we had the courage to realize that we are not perfect, that we have dark thoughts, yes, that we are sometimes afraid?

Let's call terrorists what they really are - saboteurs. People who want to hurt us can only evoke terror if we give them permission to do so. Think about that the next time you have the courage, yes the everyday courage, to fly on an airliner, or ride the subway, or report a crime, or help a loved one retain some tiny particle of dignity in the face of a hideous, terminal illness. Remember that and find your courage.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lots of Hot Air

On more than one occasion, I sat in a Caravan, just clear of the taxiway, waiting for a large jet aircraft to move because it was too close for me safely taxi behind it. How did I know this? Because I once carelessly taxied behind an MD11 that was just sitting there with its engines running. In my defense, I was tired, it was night, it was raining, the freight ramp was just ahead of me, and I was only thinking of getting some sleep. Lucky for me, the engines on the MD11 were at low idle and I just got buffeted around. I made a note to self: Don't do that again! Some of the other company pilots and I ended up discussing the situation the next day.

I was never taught how closely to taxi a Caravan behind a jet when following it to the runway for takeoff. I learned through careful and very conservative experimentation. The rule of thumb I came up with was that a minimum safe following distance for a heavily loaded (greater than 8000 lbs) Caravan was at least one wing span's length behind a jet aircraft. And I mean the wing span of the aircraft being followed, not a Caravan's wing span. If I was lightly loaded, I'd stay at least one and one half wing spans behind. And I'd stay even further back if the jet in front came to a stop and then needed to apply break-away power, which can really rock your world.

Taxiing behind some types of jets was more problematic than others. Following a B737, A320, B757, or B767 was not as bad because the wing-mounted engines were far apart, hence the jet blast was more spread out. I discovered I needed more following distance behind tri-engine jets because the jet blast was concentrated right on the taxiway centerline. I found the B727 was the worst in this regard.

Propeller aircraft can also create quite a stir. Many pilots, oblivious to this fact, simply push the throttle in without considering what might be located behind them. I've seen some biz-jet drivers do this when taxiing out from a GA ramp, too. Since it can be very difficult to see behind you in most aircraft, here are a few suggestions for courteous operation. You may have guidelines of your own, too.

Look behind the aircraft during preflight. If there are other aircraft parked behind you or there are hangars with open doors, consider repositioning the aircraft by hand (if practical) before beginning the engine start procedures.

Before starting engine(s), clear the area again. If it's practical to do so, yell "Clear!" out the window.

When ready to taxi, apply power in a smooth and gradual manner. This is especially important if there is debris or loose dirt around the ramp.

If you need to use a run-up area prior to takeoff, think about where other aircraft will taxi by. Especially consider where larger jet aircraft might turn or maneuver and try to visualize the best place to be so that you are far enough away to be unaffected by their jet blast.

Avoid taxing behind large aircraft that appear to be ready to start their engines. At many airports, the presence of ramp personnel standing in front of an aircraft, preparing to marshal the aircraft out of the parking spot, can be a good indicator of what is about to happen.

If ATC asks you to move closer than you are comfortable with toward a big aircraft, don't hesitate to say "unable."

When possible, tie your aircraft down when you're going to leave it unattended. A while back, I did a cross country flight with a pilot to a rural airport. When we arrived, I began attaching the tie-down chains and the pilot asked me why. The winds were calm, after all. I said that I just felt more comfortable if the wheels were chocked and the tie-downs secured. I think he thought I was full of hot air. As we ate lunch in the airport restaurant, looking out on the ramp where our aircraft was parked, we were both surprised to see a CDF Huey helicopter descend on a nearby taxiway to drop off some fire fighting personnel. As the Huey hovered closer and closer to the ground, all of the planes on the ramp began shaking and bouncing in their parking spots, creating an unexpected, teachable moment.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Well, Your Honor ...

Pilots, mechanics, and operators have to tread through a labyrinth of regulations. Most sections of title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations read like one, long, run-on sentence: You have to read all the dependent clauses before you actually know what is being said. By the time you get to the end of a section, it can be hard to remember what in the hell you were trying to understand in the first place. The situation is not helped by the fact that the regulations almost always say what you can't do and you must read everything, and sometimes read between the lines, to determine what you're actually allowed to do.

Frustration with hard-to-understand regulations has led more than one pilot to interpret the words in a way that supports what they want or need to do. Live and work long enough in a tightly regulated environment and you will find yourself tempted to do this. None of us is immune. I've learned to be skeptical of attempts to broadly interpret a rule to fit one's own argument, especially when I hear the words coming out of my own mouth. Like it or not, we're all in a partnership with the FAA.

I heard an aviation insurance broker give a good technique for testing whether or not your interpretation of a regulation is any good: Simply try prefacing your argument with the words "Your Honor, ..." This is a remarkably effective approach to making a pilot think twice about the soundness of their reasoning.
Well, your honor, before the engine failure after takeoff, I asked three other people who were standing on the ramp if they thought the plane was okay to fly. They all said yes, so ...
The regulations say that no person may operate an aircraft that is not in an airworthy condition. They also say that the pilot in command is responsible for determining if the aircraft is in a condition for safe flight. One of my favorite questions to ask a pilot during a flight review is "Just what is the difference between airworthy and in a condition for safe flight? Airworthiness is a legal concept while in a condition for safe flight is a practical concept. Here's what I mean.

To be airworthy, the aircraft must comply with its type certificate. This means that all airworthiness directives that affect the aircraft type have been complied with. It also means that all of the required inspections have been performed within the specified interval. This includes the annual inspection, 100 hour inspection (if applicable), altimeter/transponder/pitot-static system tests (every 24 calendar months), and the Emergency Locator Transmitter test (every 12 months). The ELT battery must also be within it's acceptable life limit. If the aircraft is going to be flown under instrument flight rules, the VOR receivers must have been tested within the last 30 days and the results logged.

To be airworthy, the required aircraft documents must be on board, too. Some people use the acronym AROW to remember what these documents are: Airworthiness certificate, Registration, Operating Limits, Weight and Balance data. And here's a bit of trivia: If the aircraft is operating with fuel tanks that are located inside the cockpit (such as ferry tanks), the Form 337 for that alteration must be on board, too. Note that an aircraft radio station license is not required unless you are flying outside the U.S.

An airworthiness consideration that pilots tend to overlook is whether or not an aircraft has been returned to service after maintenance was performed. 14 CFR 43 says that anytime maintenance is performed on an aircraft, the mechanic must log the date, the number of hours on the aircraft, a description of the work performed, their certificate number, their name, and their signature. This entry shows the aircraft was returned to service. Some mechanics will add the words "... returned to service only for the work performed." If a certificated mechanic performs maintenance, but does not make the logbook entry, the plane has not been returned to service and is not airworthy. And should you get into some sort of trouble, you can be sure the FAA will be looking at the aircraft logs.

A lot of aircraft owners don't realize that every time they update the database in their IFR-certified GPS, according to 14 CFR 43 appendix A, they must log it.
Updating self-contained, front instrument panel-mounted Air Traffic Control (ATC) navigational software data bases (excluding those of automatic flight control systems, transponders, and microwave frequency distance measuring equipment (DME)) provided no disassembly of the unit is required and pertinent instructions are provided. Prior to the unit's intended use, an operational check must be performed in accordance with applicable sections of part 91 of this chapter.

Inoperative equipment is one area where many pilots have a hard time facing facts. You're all set to go flying and everything looks good until you see the something is not working. What to do, what to do? One popular approach is to go flying anyway and if you run into the FAA, just claim that the beacon failed during flight. Then you find out that someone squawked the problem before your flight, your little lie is uncovered, and you might just be spending more time with the FAA before you get your flying privileges back.

You can find the required equipment for your type of operation (day or night VFR, or IFR) in 14 CFR 91.205. If something is not working, see if the thing that is broken is listed in 91.205. If it is, the aircraft ain't airworthy. Otherwise, the next step is to check the equipment list or limitations section in the aircraft's POH or approved flight manual. The older Cessna POH list equipment required for certification with an item number that ends with an R suffix. Other POH or AFM use a minimum equipment list format. If the thing that is broken on your plane appears in the POH or AFM as required, the aircraft ain't airworthy. If the thing that is broken isn't in any of those places, you can fly provided you placard the item as "INOPERATIVE" and either deactivate it or remove it. Removing the item is usually not an option unless you also hold an A&P certificate.

An aircraft can be airworthy, but still not be in a condition for safe flight. An aircraft's inspections and documents may all be in order, but there could be a mechanical discrepancy that would preclude safe flight. These discrepancies are usually related to things that wear out - what the FAA calls life-limited parts. During your preflight, you could find a pool of oil under the engine, or brake fluid leaking from a caliper, or a huge gouge in the propeller, or that a fuel truck backed into the horizontal stabilizer, or that one of the tires is so worn that chord is showing. The plane is technically airworthy, but you'd have to be crazy to fly a plane with one of these problems.

When I was flying freight, I had only a couple of occasions where I had to tell maintenance that something was a no-go item. It didn't make me very popular, so I took some advice from another captain: Anytime you suspect something might be amiss or about to become a problem, let maintenance know immediately. The sooner you let them know, the more time they have to prepare to work on the issue. You also have covered your butt since there will be a record that you reported an issue. Most 135 operators are pretty good at managing maintenance and their procedures for inoperative equipment are well-defined. I didn't have many problems in the Caravan, but heard plenty of stories about some 135 operations flying pretty ratty equipment. Even if you are renting aircraft, my advice is don't be bashful about bringing discrepancies to the attention of the operator.

Now if you got this far without throwing up your hands, giving up, and saying "Flying is too much damned trouble," here are my last thoughts. Life is full of risks and if you choose to go flying, you have increased the number of life-threatening risks you might face. All of these regulations and procedures are meant to reduce or mitigate most of the risks associated with flying. In short, following the regulations and best practices could just save your life, the lives of your passengers, the lives of people on the ground, and that shiny aircraft you're flying.

Follow the rules and you'll reduce your chances of having to stand in front of a judge and say, "Well, your honor ..."

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Yesterday was a first for me as an instructor. As fate would have it, two of my students had check rides on the same day - one for private pilot and one for an instrument rating. Both worked hard, faced their share of adversity and hassles, and .... drum roll please ...

Both passed without a hitch!

Congrats guys!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Currency, Proficiency, Poverty

One of the biggest challenges facing pilots and flight instructors alike is maintaining currency and proficiency. As any experienced pilot knows, these two concepts are quite distinct: Currency is an objective, regulatory requirement while proficiency has both subjective and objective elements. Pursuing currency is usually neither hard nor terribly expensive because it is the lowest water mark of flying skill. Obtaining and maintaining proficiency, well that's another story.

Yesterday, my day off, I set aside to actually rent a plane and go fly some approaches with a safety pilot. A friend, who's a former Navy flight instructor, a CFI, and an Airbus FO, agreed to ride shotgun and keep me out of trouble. I decided that I'd pull out the stops, use an account balance I had saved up, and fly at least 5 instrument approaches in the Duchess. At first it was an odd feeling to be the one performing the engine start flow checks, calling clearance delivery, actually taxiing the aircraft, programming the GPS, and setting up the navigation radios. There's a big difference between observing and doing, which is part of what my proficiency flight was all about and soon I was in the groove.

FAA-issued pilot certificates never expire and a pilot certificate cannot be surrendered unless the pilot him or herself does so in writing. Pilots who are involved in alcohol or drug related infractions can have their certificates suspended or revoked, but there is a legal process for appeal. A fairly new, post 9/11 regulation allows the FAA to revoke a pilot's certificate(s) if the TSA deems them to be a threat to national security. There is a legal appeal process - to the very agency that revoked the certificate in the first place! Sometimes, I worry about my country. Lately, I worry a lot, but that's a different topic.

The majority of pilots haven't run afoul of alcohol/drug laws or the TSA, but they need to do a few things to maintain their pilot privileges. They need to maintain a current medical certificate, unless they are flying under the new sport pilot regulations. Sport pilots just need to maintain a current driver's license. I won't go into whether or not this is a good idea, it just is. Next, you'll need to accomplish a flight review or otherwise meet the requirements of 14 CFR 61.56.

14 CFR 61.57 says to carry passengers, you'll need to log three takeoffs and landings every 90 days (these must be to a full stop for tailwheel aircraft). To carry passengers at night (I won't go into the intricacies of how night is defined), you need to log three takeoffs and landings to a full stop every 90 days. Most FBOs and flying clubs require pilots to fly at least once every 90 days and some require a birthday ride - an annual proficiency ride with a flight instructor.

VFR pilots usually don't have to spend too much time or money to maintain currency. How proficient they remain depends on the individual. Some people can go months without flying, then get in a plane and within 30 minutes they're flying pretty well. Most people require regular flights - twice a month is probably the minimum - to maintain proficiency. Flying a simulator at home can be a good way to keep procedures fresh in your mind, even if the simulator itself is lacking in flight dynamics and ATC realism.

As an instructor, I get my required landings over the course of the various lessons I teach. I invariably demonstrate a few landings each week and I always make a point of getting a few night landings in every month. Most students don't mind me flying a lap around the pattern, but a small minority seem to resent it. An instructor demonstrating is often the most time efficient way to get a point across. Having the instructor fly provides the pilot receiving the instruction an added benefit - the chance to catch their breath.

One of the goals of my proficiency flight yesterday was to concentrate on landings as much as approaches and holding patterns. I fly a variety of aircraft each week and so my landing demonstrations can be as much about what not to do as about correct technique. It's frustrating to land with just a bit of side loading, just a bit too firmly, just a bit before the designated target and then not have a chance to correct the problem until a flight the next day. And the flight the next day may be in a completely different aircraft. Today a DiamondStar followed by a Cirrus, tomorrow a Cessna 150 followed by a Seminole. The variety is challenging, but the lack of consistency can be frustrating, too.

Instrument-rated pilots have a more expensive challenge in maintaining instrument currency since they must log, every 6 months, six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems. If you go more than 6 months without logging the required procedures, you have a 6 month grace period to regain currency. This can be done in simulated or actual instrument conditions and you can do this with a safety pilot or an instructor.

Let the 6 month grace period expire and you'll have to do an instrument proficiency check with an authorized instructor, a designated pilot examiner, or an FAA inspector. An IPC used to consist of "a representative number of tasks" from the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards, but the latest Instrument PTS now explicitly defines all the tasks and areas of operations required for an IPC. Let your instrument currency expire and you'll basically have to do an instrument rating check ride all over again. Do the minimum approaches, holding, and tracking every six months and you'll be current and legal to hand-fly an ILS down to the minimum altitude and visibility. Current - yes. Proficient - doubtful.

Instrument instructors get to log the approaches flown by pilots who they are teaching if the approach was flown in instrument meteorological conditions. That's right, the instructor's hands never touch the controls, but they can log the approach toward their own instrument currency. This isn't all bad since most CFII would quickly go out of currency if they had to rely on their own finances.

I was indeed depending on my own finances as we departed Oakland in the Duchess through a 1700 foot overcast ceiling. By 2800 feet we were on top, where I donned my view limiting device and the fun began. Heading to Stockton, tracking the Oakland VORTAC and monitoring the course on the Garmin 530, I noticed the usual course roughness out of Oakland. A bit later, I asked to proceed direct to JOTLEY for the SCK ILS 29R and began tracking the GPS. I had already loaded the approach with SC (JOTLEY) as the initial approach fix so I could do the holding as a course reversal. You can see from the Flight Aware track exactly where I started navigating with the GPS.

Norcal approved my request to fly the approach on my own navigation, saying "proceed direct JOTLEY, report procedure turn inbound." All I needed to do was activate the approach, then set course and source - adjust the HSI to the Desired TracK (DTK) shown on the GPS, then press the CDI button to select GPS as the navigation source for the HSI.

Descent planning is an energy management puzzle, and one I always enjoy solving. I like staying ahead of the game, anticipating or, in some cases, asking for a lower altitude, all the while keeping the engines' cylinder head temperatures stable. No sudden power changes, no diving descents, nothing rushed or hurried. Even though I enjoy this process, I've yet to find an efficient way to teach this to my students. I come up with heuristics and procedures, but I guess there is no substitude for experience and intuition.

The first ILS went well and at the DH, the needles were centered. The landing felt good, then we were off for another approach - the SCK GSP 29R. This approach involved another holding pattern course reversal. It, too, went well and was followed by another good landing - what a great feeling. Next, Norcal gave me vectors to the SCK VOR 29R and I asked my safety pilot to pull one of the throttles at some point to simulate an engine failure. This single-engine approach was okay, but my course on final wandered a bit more than I would have liked. Another landing and it was back to Oakland for one last ILS.

Oakland was still reporting overcast at 1600 and Norcal sent me direct to GROVE, but kept me at 6000 feet a bit longer than I would have liked due to VFR traffic. Anticipating, I began gradually reducing the throttles and slowing in anticiptation of the airspeed I would gain when told to descend. Soon I had a descent to 4000 and was only 12 miles from GROVE with a ground speed over 150 knots. Systematically reducing power (ATC just doesn't understand shock cooling, do they?), I arrived at 4000 feet and slowed to 125 knots, still ahead of the energy management game.

Then came the approach clearance - "Four miles from GROVE, cross GROVE at or above 3400, cleared ILS 27R." It became clear that the gear would have to come down prior to the FAF if I was to reach glideslope intercept. This is where some pilots would just catch the glideslope early and ride it down. For me, intecepting the glideslope at the appropriate altitude is a matter of professional pride. I reached 1500 feet two miles from the FAF (which also happens to be glideslope intercept on this approach) and had to bump the power back up maintain altitude and airspeed.

At the decision height, I found myself a dot left of the localizer, but otherwise stabilized. The landing was okay, but not a crowd pleaser. Nearly 2 hours later, after five approaches, and two holding patterns I was tired and a few hundred dollars poorer. I was also current for another six months and, more importantly, I had that pleasant, satisfied feeling that pilots get after a job well done.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Faking It

KRAMER: You know, I faked it.

JERRY: (confused) What?!


JERRY: You faked it? Why would you do that?

KRAMER: Well you know, if it's enough already and I just wanna get some sleep.
Instrument trainees spend a lot of time executing instrument approach procedures. In fact, it's safe to say that most soon-to-be or newly-minted instrument pilots become a little fixated on flying approaches. This is normal since 1) you want to keep your skills sharp and 2) you need to fly a certain number of approaches to maintain your instrument currency. So it's easy to see why GA pilots may not use the visual approach that often. And when a procedure is not used very often, important details behind the procedure can be forgotten.

A visual approach is not faking it exactly, but it can certainly save you time by providing a more direct route to the airport. This can be a big help if you're running late, the weather is deteriorating, or it's enough already and you just wanna get some sleep. That's why I always try to facilitate at least a few visual approaches for instrument rating candidates during their training. So what is a visual approach, when can you ask for it, when can ATC assign it, and what are the requirements and responsibilities?

First, let's start with the weather conditions. To be cleared for a visual approach, your destination airport must be reporting at least 3 statute miles visibility and a ceiling of 1000 feet or greater. A visual approach is an IFR procedure, conducted under IFR in visual meteorological conditions. A visual approach authorizes you to proceed visually to the airport, but you must remain clear of clouds and the cloud clearance requirements of 14 CFR 91.155 do not apply.

The AIM says that "ATC may authorize this type approach when it will be operationally beneficial". Translation? Visual approaches speed things up because if you report both the airport and any preceding traffic in sight, you become responsible for maintaining a safe approach interval and for avoiding wake turbulence once you are cleared for a visual approach.

Since a visual approach is not an instrument approach procedure, there is no missed approach procedure. If you lose sight of the airport or the traffic you're to follow and have to abandon the visual approach, ATC will give you instructions and an additional clearance. If you're flying into a non-towered airport and you have to go around, stay clear of clouds and contact the approach controller as soon as possible.

When the appropriate weather conditions are reported, ATC will often tell you "expect a visual approach." When a controller is ready to give you a visual approach clearance, they will usually say something like:
Barnburner 123, the San Jose airport is 12 o'clock and 15 miles, report the field in sight."
Barnburner 123, traffic you are following is an Airbus 320 at your 10 o'clock and 5 miles, report the traffic in sight."

Remember that most controllers (tower controllers excepted) do not have windows and cannot see the weather conditions. If you are not comfortable with a visual approach and want a full-blown instrument approach procedure, it is your right and you should inform ATC as early as possible of your preference. If you're in a hurry and the weather is good, you can usually expedite a visual approach clearance by reporting the field in sight:
Barnburner 123 has Oakland in sight, when it helps.
Barnburner 123, cross the Oakland 6 DME at or above 2000 feet, cleared visual approach 27 left.

A visual approach clearance can be given in some pretty crummy weather conditions, so don't report the field in sight until you are sure you see it. Once you are cleared, you basically fly on your own navigation to the airport. Unless ATC has given you crossing restrictions, you determine what altitudes you want to fly and when you want to start your descent. If it is night and the weather is not so good, the risks increase. But there are things you can do to reduce the risks.

When flying into an unfamiliar airport, especially at night, it's easier and safer to just ask for an instrument approach procedure. Fly the procedure as published and you'll have obstruction clearance.

If you're familiar with the airport and you know the unpublished Minimum Vectoring Altitudes that the controllers use, don't go below those altitudes. If you don't know the MVA for the area you're flying through on a visual approach, you can always ask ATC.

Many GA aircraft are now equipped with GPS units that provide terrain and obstacle data. Most all of the newer hand-held aviation GPS receivers also have terrain and obstacle features. Either way you slice it, this can be valuable information. In G1000-equipped aircraft, I recommend configuring the inset map on the primary flight display to display terrain. That way, if you fly too close to something solid, you'll start to see yellow and red displayed in that little inset map.

If there is an instrument approach to the runway, have it out and refer to it. Tune the appropriate navigational aids or, if it is a GPS approach, load and activate the approach. This is especially important if you're not that familiar with the airport. Even if you are familiar with the area, the longer you fly the more all runways start to look the same. More than one pilot has inadvertently landed at the right airport on the wrong runway or at the wrong airport altogether.

Don't forget the visual approach. It's an important and handy tool to have and can get you home faster if you manage the risks.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Night Flights, Hearing Voices, & Small Arms Fire

The weather in Northern California the past two weeks has been excellent for flying. Warm, but not too warm. Calm winds and a pressure gradient pattern that has kept the marine layer mostly off the coast. Add to this equation a full moon and you have the perfect setting for a couple of excellent, instructional night flights.

The first was a night flight with an instrument candidate. It was warm and mostly dry with light and variable winds all the way to 6000 feet MSL. With a slight haze, we made our way toward Susin Bay for an LDA practice approach as the sun set over the Pacific. Outbound on the procedure turn was were I caught the first glimpse of the nearly full moon - an unbelievably large Mandarin orange crescent rising from behind the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of course my student couldn't see this, being under what Hamish calls the cone of stupidity. So I did the decent thing and asked my student to look up. He took a few moments to appreciate the sight and, after the requisite oouuhaa, it was back to the salt mines. During the flight, the moon rose higher and higher, bathing the sleeping countryside in a soft, silver light.

The next night involved an hour in the traffic pattern at Oakland so my student pilot could log the necessary night landings. The tower controller was most accommodating, demonstrating light gun signals twice upon request. I usually point out a good landmark like the Hayward Civic Center to help pilots line up on downwind. Last night, the full moon rose from behind the Sunol Ridge and provided the best target imaginable. We did all the landings available on the menu - normal, short field, power off, and the always popular no-flaps landing without cockpit or landing lights.

Yesterday was a flight in the Cirrus to Reno, part of a warm up for the pilot who will be taking a trip over some mountainous terrain. We succeeded in getting the SR22 doors to latch and we were on our way, climbing to 9,500 feet for the trip over the Sierra Nevada. The winds aloft forecast called for 20 knot winds out of the south and as suspected, the ride turned decidedly bumpy as we passed over the Hangtown VOR at Placerville. I find it amusing that the VOR is actually called Hangtown, which was Placerville's infamous moniker during the mid-1800s gold rush, presumably because of the frequent dispensing of hanging as a form of justice.

This was the view as we slipped just northwest of Lake Tahoe.

We climbed to 11,500 feet and things smoothed out a bit, but the winds aloft were higher that what was forecast and pushed our ground speed to just under 200 knots. You can see that pesky ALT2 light is on, indicating it has failed. This has been a recurring problem and the shop just can't seem to get to the bottom of it.

The descent into Reno got bumpy, but close to the surface the winds were calm and the temperature a moderate 30 degrees Celsius. Approach gave us a right base entry to runway 16 left, which gave us time to slow down and descend. On the ground, I made a quick call home. Surprised to learn that I was in Reno, my wife mentioned that she felt lucky and encouraged me to find a slot machine. Alas, I couldn't find a single one-armed bandit in the FBO. So after a short stop for lunch and some very expensive fuel (which reduced the ramp and airport fee), we were on our way back.

With the midday sun shining through clear skies, the climb out of Reno was decidedly more bumpy that when we arrived. During the climb out, following I-80 through the pass, the VSI alternated between 200 feet per minute and 1200 feet per minute - a good indication of the updrafts and downdrafts we were flying through. Now fighting a 28 knot quartering head wind, our ground speed slowed to 145 knots and provided a nice opportunity to discuss strategies for recognizing and avoiding mountain waves as well as other way to maximize passenger comfort. One simple rule is to avoid flights over mountainous terrain when the winds aloft forecast exceed 25 knots. Another guideline is to avoid flying at midday and fly early in the morning or late in the day, when solar heating of the earth's surface is reduced.

We originally planned to cruise back at 10,500, but the ride was so rough we decided to climb to 12,500 for the brief 15 minute ride across the Sierra Nevada. At the pilot's request, we diverted south a bit and descended to get a view of a lake just to the east of Ice House Reservoir. I was surprised to see several aircraft below us appear as targets on the Cirrus' traffic watch. We did a few orbits around the lake, staying above 10,000', as much to avoid the other aircraft as to avoid the turbulence below.

Here's a view of the Sierra Nevada while we were gently banking.

One thing that didn't happen on the entire flight was the annoying terrain warnings I mentioned earlier. Why no "Terrain, pull up!" scoldings? I discovered that a Garmin 396 that was added to this plane as a backup system was actually wired into the audio panel. This fact came to light quite by accident. Seems the other partner in the aircraft was listening to the built-in XM radio on the trip before ours and I immediately heard music when the avionics switch was turned on. I had not realized that the 396 was connected to the audio panel. That's when it occurred to us that the aural terrain warnings must have been coming from the 396. So we turned it off and that simple solution provided a peaceful flight. An interesting lesson on the complicated interactions that are possible when different equipment is connected to the aircraft by different people.

Back at the home base, we were putting the aircraft back in the hangar when I heard what sounded like gunfire. I stuck my head out of the hangar door and saw an airport vehicle involved in bird hazing - trying to scare birds away by shooting firecracker-like ordinance in their direction. I have no idea what sort of equipment is used to do this hazing, but I could see a puff of smoke in the air each time I heard the report from a small explosion. I returned to helping get the plane secured and when I went back out of the hangar, I saw the unintended consequences of the bird hazing. Somehow one of the rounds being shot had sparked a grass fire. Luckily, this airport has fire fighting trucks on the field and the small blaze was quickly extinguished. Bet the birds were scared away, too.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Keep Your Head in the Game

While giving instruction about airspace to an airline pilot a while back, he asked me "How on earth do you keep all the different airspace stuff straight in your head?" As a pilot for a part 121 carrier, his flying on the job was always under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and that made the finer points of the National Airspace System mostly irrelevant for his day to day flying. I'll be the first to admit that the NAS is very complex. Most non-pilots don't realize that GA pilots flying VFR need to have a much deeper understanding of airspace than most professional pilots flying IFR. Still the answer to his question about how I keep it all straight was easy: "I give flight reviews to about two dozen pilots a year so I'm constantly going over this stuff."

Yet this didn't really answer his underlying question - How does someone remember all these details when you are not an instructor and you're not using this knowledge every week? Many pilots, myself included, cannot afford to rent an aircraft once a week, so I want to separate the concept of currency in flying an aircraft from being able to remember and apply rules, regulations, and procedures. There are several ways to stay current on rules and regulations, but the only universal answer is to read and study a little bit every month.

Most pilots have a subscription to at least one flying magazine and these magazines publish articles on learning to fly, pilot trip reports, new equipment, and accident reports. These articles are a great way to keep the little gray cells active and thinking about the ins and outs of flying. A few of the magazines I recommend are AOPA Pilot, Plane & Pilot, and IFR Refresher. There are others, of course. And remember that just looking at the pretty pictures is not enough - you need to actually read the articles.

Unless you are training for a new certificate or rating, your copy of the Code of Federal Regulations related to aviation and the Aeronautical Information Manual (popularly known as the FAR/AIM) is probably several years out of date. By the way, FAR supposedly stands for Federal Aviation Regulations but, in fact, neither the FAA nor the federal government use this abbreviation to refer to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. In fact, FAR stands for something completely different. Ah, acronyms!

The FAR/AIM is often described as the kind of book that, once you put it down, you just can't pick it up again. Still, as a certificated pilot you need to stay abreast of changes in regulations and to review the ones that haven't changed but that you might not remember. I recommend that every week you pick a different section of the regulations or another chapter of the AIM and read it. The FAR/AIM is not terribly expensive (less than US$15), but you can also access the regulations and the AIM on line for free.

An excellent on line resource is the publications page at the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting web site. You can subscribe to the Callback newsletter, which contains some very interesting reading, or you can read all the issues in HTML or PDF format.

If you aren't able to fly as often as you like, you can't really learn from your mistakes because you aren't able to make any. So learn from the mistakes of others by visiting the NTSB Accident Synopsis and FAA Preliminary Accident & Incident Reports web sites.

Even pilots who are not AOPA members can access free on-line courses provided by the Air Safety Foundation. These courses provide excellent training, they are free, and they also qualify for the FAA's Pilot Proficiency Program.

Every two years, pilots certificated in the U.S. must undergo a flight review or otherwise satisfy the requirement for a flight review. To be precise, the review must be completed every 24 calendar months. 14 CFR 61.56 gives all the details on the flight review, but the short answer is that you must complete at least one hour of ground instruction (covering the relevant sections of 14 CFR 91) and one hour of flight instruction with an authorized flight instructor, designated examiner, or FAA inspector.

The ground portion must cover the relevant portions of 14 CFR 91 and most pilots have trouble with, you guessed it, airspace. I often find that pilots are not terribly well-prepared for a flight review and so the ground portion takes about one and a half hours to complete. If you want to save some money, study for your flight review!

For the flight portion, I like to ask the pilot what kind of flying they do and where they feel they need work. Most pilots readily admit to the areas where they need polishing and relish the chance to get a workout. Some pilots expect a free ride and I go pretty hard on these folks. If that sounds harsh, remember that the endorsement that the instructor gives you for the flight review begins with the words "I certify ..." Heavy words carry a heavy responsibility.

Another way to meet the requirements of a flight review is to earn a new pilot certificate or add a rating to your pilot certificate. You can also complete a phase of the FAA's Pilot Proficiency Program, commonly referred to as the Wings Program. You attend an authorized safety seminar or complete an authorized training course, then schedule three hours of instruction with an authorized instructor covering one hour of takeoffs and landings, one hour of maneuvers, and one hour of instrument flight.

I think the humane way to do this is to do three one hour flights consisting of 20 minutes on each area. Once you're done, the instructor signs the card you received at the seminar and gives you a logbook endorsement. You send the card in to the FAA and they send you a certificate and a set of lapel pin wings.

On the next cold, cloudy and rainy day, try curling up with with some good aviation material. It will make your next flight review go more smoothly (and cheaply) and it will do a lot more to keep your head in the game than, say, watching re-runs of Survivor.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Learning to fly is a difficult process. Teaching someone to fly is difficult, too. Having been through the former and being currently engaged in the latter, I'm still not sure which is more challenging or rewarding. One thing is for sure, each journey is fraught with difficulties. If you need any evidence, check out Aviatrix Logbook for some poignant, real life stories about the hard times a person can face while trying to earn a flight instructor's certificate.

As a college student, I got into classical studies and one of my favorite subjects was mythology. In particular, I became fascinated by the writings of the late Joseph Campbell. His Hero With a Thousand Faces is a must read for anyone embarking on a quest because it provides a road map of sorts. No one can provide an exact road map for every single person's life, but Campbell provides insights into the symbolic challenges we all face. Yes, that's right - we're all heros, of one sort or another.

One distinction I need to make is that I'm using the term myth to refer to a story with universal, symbolic elements. This is not to be confused with the popular (and incorrect) use of myth as a label for a story that isn't true. A myth, while not factually true, contains symbols and metaphors meant to illuminate our daily existence.

The hero's journey begins with the call. You're going about your life, everything seems boringly normal, and then you are suddenly transported to somewhere strange and foreign. The Call is an element common to virtually all popular myths from a variety of cultures, regardless of when or where the story was created. In the stories, the hero is usually magically transported to a foreign place or their life is changed is some dramatic and fundamental way. But this is just symbolic of how each of our lives can be changed by a simple, everyday event when it is seen with fresh eyes. Call it epiphany if you like, but your life changes from that point forward. For some of us, our lives change when we take our first flight in a light aircraft. If we hear the call and respond, we embark on the journey of becoming a pilot.

In addition to the archetypal hero, there is also the opposite - the anti-hero. A person becomes an anti-hero by hearing the call and choosing, for whatever reason, to actually ignore it. This is a fundamentally bad thing to do and in the mythical stories, ultimately leads to the anti-hero's dismal and depressing life. The anti-hero still provides a useful function by providing a negative example to others.

For those who heed the call, the challenges begin almost immediately. Read The Odyssey and you'll see all manner of road blocks - monsters, siren songs, storms - all manner of hardships that the hero must face. Interestingly, the hero is provided with tools or assistance from a mentor. The mentor is not always benevolent and, in fact, may seem menacing and cruel. By using the tools and the assistance provided by magical forces, the hero can prevail if they remain true to their calling. The monster could be that chief instructor who no one liked. The siren song could be the steady job with the good income that is so boring that it sucks the life out of you. The storms, being lost at sea? Well, here are some examples.

I had a flight instructor candidate last autumn who was good to go until the aircraft he was planning to use for his check ride went down for maintenance and stayed down through the beginning of the new year. It may sound hard to believe, but we couldn't locate an airworthy Cessna 172RG within a 50 nautical mile radius. So what did this gentleman do? He waited, studied, visualized, and read some more - in short, he patiently focused on everything he could do to keep from rotting on the vine. When the time came and the aircraft finally became available, we did a few flights and then he passed his check ride with flying colors.

Almost immediately after earning my flight instructor certificate, I injured my back had to undergo surgery. After the surgery, I was unable to sit (the very thing that flight instructors need to do a lot of) for more than a few minutes at a time. This went on for 4 months and I was, needless to say, demoralized and depressed. So I focused on physical therapy and methodically, step by step, getting stronger. After 6 months, I could teach one lesson per day, followed by laying on an ice pack for several hours. After a year, I was teaching two or three lessons per day. To this day I'm grateful to the neurosurgeon who operated on my back.

So when you can't schedule an aircraft for training, or your instructor just took a real flying job, or you haven't seen VFR conditions for 3 weeks, or the cost of 100 low lead is over $5 a gallon, just remember that the path you are traveling has been trod before. Maybe not the exact path you are on, but one very much like yours. And take heart that your journey is not in vain.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Times they are a Changin'?

The two vendors that supply free, on-line briefing services to U.S. pilots have warned the flying public that there could be efforts a foot to terminate the services they offer within the a year or two. What would replace these two services? Well the new, Lockheed Martin FSS web site, of course!

The jury is still out for me regarding Lockheed Martin's takeover and day-to-day operation of the Flight Service Stations in the U.S. On one hand, they have done some good things - changed their phone interface so that calling from a cell phone connects you to the FSS for the area where you are located instead of the area associated with your cell phone's area code. It was always a bit disconcerting for me to dial 1-800-WXBRIEF in San Diego and hear "Welcome to the Oakland Flight Service Station." The briefers to whom I have spoken are still very professional and knowledgeable. They are mostly friendly - perhaps a bit more friendly than before Lockheed Martin took over, but that's hard to quantify.

I give Lockheed Martin poor marks in the amount of time one can spend waiting to talk to a briefer. On several occasions last winter, I sat on the south field at Oakland for over an hour waiting for freight. Before I made my way from the north field, I would get a DUAT briefing using my laptop. There was no internet access on the south field freight ramp. By the time the freight was available and the loading began, I needed an updated briefing and my only option was to call FSS on my cell phone.

On at least four occasions last winter I sat on hold for over 15 minutes waiting to talk to a briefer before hanging up. At these time I would either call another company pilot who I knew was still waiting at the north field or my dispatcher and ask them to tell me what the NEXRAD images looked like for my route. Launching into potential thunderstorms and icing without being able to talk to FSS really irked me. And there continue to be times when I sit on hold for several minutes. I wouldn't be making such a big deal of this were it not for the fact that Lockheed Martin made a big deal of how time spent waiting would be reduced once they took over. I just don't see much truth in that claim.

I use both DUAT and DUATS regularly, since I never know what my students will prefer. I personally have a soft spot for DUAT, but both companies offer excellent service. When I was a freight dog, I relied heavily on DUAT for briefings and for filing IFR flight plans when I was dispatched for unscheduled, ad hoc flights. In all the years I've used it, DUAT was unavailable on only a handful of occasions. When it was, I used DUATS.

The Lockheed Martin FSS web site is pretty basic right now, though it does offer good instructional information on pre-flight briefings and a few weather products. You can register yourself and get a userid and password, but the pre-flight briefing features are just stubs at the moment. Still, you can see that they plan to offer the same features as DUAT and DUATS at some point in the future.

The potential demise of DUAT and DUATS is bad for general aviation because I foresee both a single point of failure and a convenient choke hold on non-commercial pilots. The single point of failure issue is pretty easy to see - Lockheed Martin's servers go down, no on-line briefings. The choke hold is not as easy to see coming, but my crystal ball shows that once the FAA has reduced the options for pre-flight briefings to one source - Lockheed Martin - being charged for a briefing will not be far away.

And apparently the Lockheed Martin arrangement would have none of the current contractual obligations for features and level of service that were put into place for DUAT and DUATS. Nothing like competition and privatization, eh?

If you are a faithful user of DUAT or DUATS, I recommend that you write you congressional representative as well as your senators and voice your opposition to the cancellation of these important services. With high fuel costs and threats of ATC and FSS pay-for-service, GA is on a slippery slope and it just keeps getting more slippery.

We may be witnessing the end of the Golden Age of GA, but I hope not.