Monday, September 25, 2006

Paperless Cockpit

... Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane.
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Bob Dylan

Years ago, when I did system programming on IBM mainframe computers (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I was introduced to a very thorough, cost-effective, and tedious process for updating what we affectionately called the System 370 POO (or Principles of Operation). IBM would send out new pages to the user and let them do the manual labor. It often took a half an hour of opening and closing my 3-ring binders, adding, deleting, and inserting pages. I felt like I was providing free labor to IBM.

Every time updates arrive for my Jeppesen instrument approach procedures, I feel the same sense of dread. Now I use both Jepp charts and NACO charts and I find the NACO product to be painless - just buy an new bound volume every 56 days and throw the old one in the recycle bin. No fuss, no muss. Since I still teach pilots who prefer Jepp charts, I need to use them too.

I'm sure Jeppesen would love to get out of the paper chart business. It's incredibly labor intensive and tedious to prepare all those updates and most of the work is done by hand. Imagine a work environment straight out of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener and you get the idea. In fact, when my Jepp updates arrive, I often quote Bartleby to myself: "I would prefer not to." This instrument procedure update process is definitely a good job for a computer. Granted, the CMax system on the new Cirrus aircraft and others provides the pilots with electronic version of Jepp charts, what about the rest of us who rent planes and move from aircraft to aircraft?

Over the past few days, I've been fortunate to test drive the new eFlyBook, an electronic system for displaying FAA terminal procedures. Let me say first off that I'm very impressed with this unit. Even with it's current flaws I think eFlyBook is very useful and has tremendous potential. Imagine a device the size and weight of your average kneeboard that contains all the terminal procedures, high- and low-altitude enroute charts, and the AFD for the entire U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. And imagine updates to these charts being done electronically.

The eFlyBook is an application that runs on the iRex iLiad reader. The iLiad reader is the brain child of iRex Technologies BV, a spin-off from Royal Philips Electronics. The eFlyBook application that runs on the iLiad reader is produced by ARINC and marketed by MyAirplane. The result is a promising, very basic sort of electronic flight bag, although I'm uncertain what the actual status of the unit is with regard to the FAA EFB classification system. The unit is currently selling at a discount for about $1200, including the first year's chart subscription and all updates, but the list price will probably increase to $1500 in the near future. Annual subscription renewal is about $250, which is very competitive considering what that buys you.

My cursory research revealed that the iLiad reader seems to be using a Linux-variant core operating system running on an 400MHz Intel X-Scale Processor with just 64MB Ram. Additional storage is provided through USB memory sticks, a CF type II slot, and an SD card. The core operating system apparently has no multi-tasking capability or support for threads. This makes the reader simple and it also creates some annoying limitations. More on this later. The unit provides a 10BaseT ethernet connection as well as 802.11g wireless LAN support, but understand this is not a tablet PC. It is a device for display electronic documents so it doesn't provide general purpose features like a web browser or text editing in the conventional sense. The network connections are there to provide a seamless way to update the content stored on the reader. The USB and ethernet hardwire connections are provided on the AC power supply, shown attached in the above photograph. It's a cumbersome arrangement, but luckily one that you don't need to use in the cockpit.

You power up by holding a small slider switch at the bottom right edge of the iLiad reader for a couple of seconds. A progress bar at the bottom indicates the unit is working and my tests indicate that the power-up sequence takes about 50 seconds. The batteries are advertised to last for many hours, but I've found they get low in about 3 hours if you are displaying and changing pages a lot. The iLiad form factor is comfortable and the weight is very reasonable - about 14 ounces (390 grams) - especially when you consider all the stuff stored in this unit. In addition to all the terminal procedures it also contains relevant sections of the so-called FARs - Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Unfortunately, there are some limitations. The AF/D is yet to be released and the enroute charts are pretty much unusable in their current state - too hard to display, pan, and zoom, though the developers are working on fixes for all this. The AIM is also of limited use in its current state since it has no index and no way to jump to a specific chapter. Still, for the weight and rough size of one bound volume of NACO approach plates, you get IAPs for the whole country.

After the unit powers up, you'll see a configuration screen. To get to the eFlyBook application, which contains all the aviation goodies, just press the DOCS button at the bottom of the display.

You can use the Previous, Confirm, and Next keys on the lower left to select some features, but for some things you'll need to use the stylus (stored in the back of the unit). You can't just tap on the screen with your finger or a pen; you must use the stylus in some situations. Above these buttons is a long Flipbar you use as though you were turning pages in a real book, but again, the user interface policy for the use of most of these buttons is not consistent - something the developers have promised to correct in a soon-to-be-released update. In the meantime, there needs to be a way to tether the stylus to the unit so it doesn't get lost during flight.

Once you have selected Terminal Procedures, a search page appears with a QWERTY keyboard you can tap on with the stylus. The search feature needs to be fleshed out since as it stands now, you need to know the 3-character identifier of the airport whose procedures you wish to display. What is needed is the same features provided in the NACO web site search page. Namely to be able to search by state, city, or airport identifier. There is also potential for a recently used list of airport IDs as well as a flight folder where you could store procedures for your departure, destination, and alternate. As it stands now, you must use the stylus to enter the airport ID and for almost all input while accessing a particular airport's procedures, but the developers are promising an update to allow you to display a procedure without using the stylus.

Once you have selected an airport, a list of procedures is displayed, but the name of the airport is not displayed on this list! Imagine getting to this page, getting interrupted, and then looking back at this page and wondering "Now what the hell was I doing?" Another annoyance is that if you tap on the STARs or DPs and there are no such procedures for the selected airport, you don't really get any feedback; the unit just accepts your stylus tap and ignores it. This can make you wonder if your input was even detected and leads to frustration.

From a list of procedures (not shown), you use the stylus to select the one you want to display. Here is the OAK ILS 29 approach and notice that the entire procedure cannot be displayed at once. This is not as bad as it seems. You display the top half, complete your approach briefing, then use the Next key to display the plan and profile view. The quality of the display is excellent, much better than the NACO charts printed on that crappy paper they use. The display uses a technology called electronic ink and it looks just like a black-and-white image printed on paper. The display has no backlighting, so you need some sort of ambient light to read the display - just like paper.

Some SIDs and STARs are multi-page affairs and the eFlyBook doesn't handle them very well. You'd think it would treat a multi-page procedure as one document and let you use the Flipbar to page back and forth, but that's not the way it's currently implemented. Each page is a separate document and you must back out of one before you can select the other page to display. Hopefully a fix is in the offing because the way it currently works is just dumb, dumb, dumb.

Some SIDs and STARs are printed in landscape format and the way you handle those procedures is to physically remove the iLiad reader from the kneeboard (it's attached with velcro) and physically rotate it to a landscape orientation. Not terribly elegant, but it works.

Press the NOTES button and you can write on a notepad or flight plan form. Here I've recorded the ATIS and clearance, then the ATIS for my destination. Pretty cool, but here's the bad news. Since the core OS doesn't support threaded operations, you can't just swap back and forth between displaying a procedure and taking notes. One proposed solution is to provide a PDF display on which you can draw. Not sure if this really solves the problem since most procedures have scant white space on which to doodle, but it would be better than the current arrangement.

All in all, this is a pretty slick unit with loads of potential. The developers seem attentive to feature requests and there are regular updates. Best of all, an electronic chart update procedure is something all pilots need and deserve.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Buddha is a Rat

This is not at all about aviation, but explains why I haven't been posting much lately.

The sleep deprivation started Tuesday around 3am with a distinct, scratching, chewing sound. It seemed that after 10 quiet years in our house, a rodent had found a way in. While you can manage rats by trapping and poisoning, it's better to keep them outside. Hey, even a rat has to be somewhere. I just didn't want one in my house, inside the wall, chewing away incessantly. My new part time job was to find out where the rodent had gained entrance and seal up that entrance.

At first I suspected a somewhat defective roof vent had allowed a rat to fall into a space between an inside wall. While this line of inquiry proved to be in error, it seemed compelling at the time. I even felt sorry for the rat, assuming it was trapped after its fall and unable to climb up the smooth sides of the galvanized steel vent back to the roof. I didn't want it to die inside the wall and stink up our house, but mostly I didn't want it to die a horrible death. Call me sentimental, but there you go. Early Wednesday morning, It became clear that I was wrong about the rat's location.

Last year, I had opened up the ceiling in the downstairs to replace the last remaining, 80 year old galvanized steel pipe with copper pipe. The old pipes had become so scaled with rust and minerals, that bits were periodically breaking off and jamming the insides of various water faucets. Now I knew the layout of the area where the rat was located, I knew the orientation of the floor joists, and I knew the rat was essentially isolated to one area. But the two questions on my mind where how in the hell did it get in there and when was I going to be able to get some sleep?

My next theory centered around a wall vent for an overhead bathroom fan. Some plants had grown up that could have allowed an enterprising rat to enter through the vent, get past the fan, and gain access to the area where I had heard the noise. There's a small metal flapper on the vent that had been blocked open, so this seemed plausible. I put some peanut butter on the outside of the vent and decided to come back the next day to see if it was gone. Again, my goal was to get the rat out, then seal things up.

Wednesday evening, I got down on the floor upstairs, near where I was hearing the rat chewing away, and I had a talk with the rat. "Look, it's nothing personal. I'm sure you're a fine rat with many good rat friends. You may even have some fine rat sons and daughters, but you're not welcome here and we'd like you to leave." Nothing wrong with trying the Buddhist approach, I thought. You know, respect for all living things.

Early Thursday morning, I was awaken by the chewing and scurrying and I became certain that this was not a Buddhist rat. This time, I knelt down and threatened the rat - "Get out of our house or I will kill you!" What can I say, I was sleep deprived and feeling more than a bit hostile. I returned to bed, frustrated and tired. As I lay there, alternating between sympathy for the trapped rat and revulsion at the thought of the bugger being inside our house, a new theory occurred to me.

I was too busy to act on my theory until Friday afternoon, when I cut a section of sheet rock out of the downstairs wall. My theory was that there was some sort of breech between the concrete foundation and the sewer drain pipe and that would have allowed the rat to burrow in to access the wall and the area of the ceiling where we had heard the noises. The sewer pipe comes down through a chase - a chimney like structure of wood and sheet rock built around the pipe. I carefully pried off the baseboards and cut out a 14" by 14" section of the sheet rock, starting right at the floor. As I pulled out bits of insulation to reveal the base of the sewer pipe, I knew I was on the right track. I found rat droppings, leaves, and bits of shiny plastic and foil that rats like to put in their nests. I also found a dead rat and a new problem.

The design of the sewer pipe's junction with the foundation was not what I expected. There was actually a bit of space between the pipe, the outer wall, and the ground! It seemed likely that the rat was coming and going pretty much as he or she pleased - go outside for a rat get together, eat some trash, visit with your rat friends, then head back to the space between the ceiling and floor at John's house for some late night gnawing and a warm place to sleep. I had no idea why would anyone construct a sewer pipe junction like this and decided to consult with a contractor who lives on our street. He graciously agreed to stop by and offer some advice. He, too, was baffled and suggested the solution that I had come upon, given the tight quarters where the pipe was located - backfill the empty space with concrete.

So with my lovely wife's help, I began mixing quick-setting concrete into a thin slurry and carefully pouring it into the space through a makeshift sluice we constructed from aluminum pie plates. 90 pounds of concrete later (about 5 gallons in volume), the area was filled. "Take that you rat bastard!" I cut a makeshift piece of sheet rock and temporarily screwed it in place to seal the hole. We were both pretty tired and decided to walk around the corner for dinner, hopeful that we would finally be getting some sleep that night.

When we came back home, I walked in the house and heard a scurrying sound. This was not the "rat in the wall" sound, but a "rat loose in the house" sound. We were both nervous as I headed downstairs where I hoped the rat was still isolated inside the wall. That's when I saw a perfectly round hole in the sheet rock, freshly gnawed, right at the area when we had poured the concrete. I had assumed the rat was out when we sealed the area, but I was wrong. I scolded myself for being so stupid, then closed the downstairs door and tried to decide what to do next. I decided to put out a rat trap, baited with peanut butter, next to the freshly gnawed hole. So much for Buddhist mind.

I grabbed my flashlight and walked around the back door in hopes of opening the door and letting the rat out. I had left the downstairs light on, which allowed me to see the rat, hanging by the window shade cord on the french door. It was much cleaner looking than I expected it to be and I found the rat to be an oddly elegant, graceful, even beautiful creature. It was obviously scared and looking for a way out of the house, so I opened the door from the outside. The rat immediately hid under the furniture when it heard me so I propped the door open and stepped back into the darkness to wait.

After standing motionless for nearly 10 minutes, I saw the rat slowly come out of hiding and carefully make its way to the door, sniffing cautiously. If ever I needed evidence that rats are intelligent and resourceful, this was it. Then I saw a second rat. It had never occurred to me that there could be more than one. They both came to the threshold of the door and stopped. They must have caught scent of me and scurried back to hiding under the furniture.

I made my way to another entrance, through the garage, in hopes of flushing the rats out the back door. It took some creative herding, but in the end it worked. There were a total of four rats - two smaller, light gray ones; a larger gray one, and one much larger black rat. One by one, I succeeded in getting the rats out the back door with the large black one being the last, most reluctant to exit. We carefully checked under all the furniture for any stragglers. Satisfied that the coast was clear, went upstairs to bed.

Before I left, I picked up the rat trap and held it in my hands. A rat's lifetime is seldom longer than about 300 days. Say what you want about rats, but I was glad that Buddhist nature had prevailed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Room with a View

Some readers have been grousing that I don't post enough photographs, so here are a few of the Grand Caravan I've been instructing in. I could get used to this.

It was a bit odd at first, climbing up the ladder on the right side. And there's no cargo barrier net to grab a hold of and pull myself up.

This is where the cargo goes ...

We were in search of Instrument Meteorological Conditions today and we were in luck.

A partial partial panel ILS and it's looking GOOD!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Intuition and Intellect

If I could know what to do
and know when to do it.
When to lay back
and when to get to it,
Mama I'd be a true blue guru man ...

Eric Bibb
from "Guru Man Blues"
I often observe pilots as they fly and think "why are they doing that?" Sometimes I think, "why aren't they doing this?" I'm not trying to be vague, it's just that the "this" and "that" of flying an airplane is so wide ranging, I'm not sure where to start.

I'll be the first to admit that there are at least a dozen ways to do most anything in an aircraft. As long as the desired effect is achieved and the aircraft is operated within the manufacturer's limits, I'm pretty accepting of any technique a pilot wants to use. Some flying tasks lend themselves to procedures and methods while others require creativity and intuition. The problem is that many pilots are methodical when they should be creative and vice-a-versa. I've come to the conclusion that people who fly airplanes fall into two broad categories.

The first is people who say "These are the recommended procedures? I'll learn them, use them, and improvise when I have to." The second group of people say "These are the recommended procedures? I bet I can fly and not use any of them!" Pilots don't usually say these things out loud, but actions speak louder than words. Giving instruction to the latter group is more challenging and tiring than the former.

A few areas where I think a step-by-step procedural approach is best include takeoff and landing performance, weight and balance calculations, and aircraft maintenance. Some pilots don't give takeoff performance or the possibility of a rejected takeoff a second thought, relying instead on intuition and induction - "I've always been able to takeoff on runway 15 before without any problem, so why should a takeoff today be any different?" This approach to performance planning can be remarkably successful and repeatable, until you forget that you're at gross weight and don't notice the temperature is 38˚C and you have a slight tailwind.

Weight and balance is another area where many pilots apply what can only be described as a "don't ask, don't calculate" policy, sometimes with tragic results. Weight and balance calculations are tiresome, so I've developed some electronic spreadsheets that I provide, free of charge, to those I instruct. There really isn't a good reason for not doing a weight and balance if you're carrying more than one person in the typical 4-seat GA airplane.

Many pilots, owners, and operators take an imaginative approach to inoperative equipment and maintenance. Most of the time this involves denial, if not outright lying. Inoperative equipment and maintenance is the number one area for making people head to the anti-authority roundhouse, where they are promptly cornered.

And yet I know that creativity and intuition play a crucial role in flying an airplane. Consider a visual approach to landing. You have a procedure for configuration, airspeed, and power settings at various points through the traffic pattern. Intuition is what takes over when the tower asks you to extend your downwind leg or make a short approach. You have to throw your recipe out the window and rely on your feel for flying.

To develop intuition, you need to be patient, and you need to have experience. You also need to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. Patience is what I most often see lacking in pilots. They seem to forget that the plane they are flying is moving through a fluid and that nothing happens instantaneously in the air. Airspeed changes are gradual, power changes take time to have an effect, flaps extend gradually. That's why you have to think ahead. The plane will not respond immediately, so you have to have faith born of experience. You have to imagine (as the old saw goes) where you want the plane to be in the next few minutes instead of passively waiting to see what will happen next.

Put another way, with apologies to Mr. Bibb:
If I could know when to descend
And when to reduce throttle
When to make tracks,
when to add flaps and dawdle,
Momma I'd be a true blue pilot man

Sunday, September 10, 2006

What are the odds?

Over the last few months, I've been flying more types of aircraft than I can remember. Almost. But the one type I flew the most in the previous year was the Caravan and people keep asking if I miss flying the 'Van. My answer is always an immediate "sure I do," followed quickly by "but I don't miss the schedule or the pay." Still, there's something about the smell of jet-a, the sound of a PT6, and the preferential treatment that ATC gives you.

So imagine my surprise when I was offered the opportunity to provide instrument instruction in ... an almost new Grand Caravan.

If someone had told me that there would be a demand for the intersection of my Caravan flying experience and my holding a flight instructor certificate with instrument airplane rating, I would have told them they were crazy. And I would have been wrong.

So what's it like to give instruction in a Grand Caravan as opposed to flying freight in a Caravan Super Cargomaster? The procedures in the two planes are virtually identical, with the exception of the air conditioning in the Grand Caravan. The air conditioning makes a huge difference on longer flights in warm weather; You just don't get as fatigued as quickly when you're cool and comfortable. Another thing that's certainly better is the pay. And the windshield on the Grand Caravan is so clean and clear compared to the freight aircraft it's hard to believe the view.

It was a bit odd to be in the right seat, at first. It's also weird to give instruction in slow flight, stalls, and unusual attitude recovery in a Caravan, but hey, I'm adapting. I've demonstrated a couple of landings from the right seat and that was unremarkable aside from the fact that I couldn't get used to where the torque meter was located. Also disorienting was demonstrating an ILS from the right seat - it almost felt like a different plane. Almost.

What feels the same is the stability and predictability of the Caravan. It's a sweet flying airplane with few bad habits. Fly it by the numbers and you'll seldom be disappointed. And I've seldom seen an aircraft type that is so fascinating to other pilots and to controllers alike.

If you need any proof that life is full of pleasant surprises, strokes of luck, and wonderful opportunities, then consider my good fortune. And I've been around aviation long enough to not ask how long something good will last. I'm just enjoying my incredible good fortune.

I still can't believe what I see when I look over my left shoulder - not a bunch of boxes under a cargo net, but carpet and rows of leather seats. What are the odds?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Teach a Pilot to Fish ...

An increasing number of GA aircraft have some sort of traffic awareness equipment, be it installed in the panel or of the hand-held variety. As I've said in the past, this equipment can do a lot to enhance safety when used properly. Thing is, a lot of pilots don't use the equipment very effectively nor do they understand the equipment's limitations.

The idea behind traffic awareness systems is pretty simple: Warn the pilot when another aircraft is getting too close. All of the systems I know of rely on the intruder aircraft having an operable altitude-encoding transponder. Traffic warning systems come in several flavors, the first being ATC's radar. When targets begin to get too close together on a controller's screen, an alarm sounds to alert the controller. I don't know if the controller is also given some sort of visual alert, but many a time I've heard the aural alarm sounding in the background while a controller was transmitting. When I hear that alarm, I get my head on a swivel.

Traffic alerting systems for aircraft fall into four broad categories: personal collision avoidance systems (aka PCAS), Traffic Information System (TIS), Traffic Alert System (TAS), and Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). There are actually two flavors of TCAS, but I won't go into it since it's rare to find TCAS installed in smaller GA aircraft.

Personal collision avoidance detectors passively listen to transponder replies from other aircraft and, based on signal strength and the altitude encoded in the signal, warn you when an intruder aircraft is nearby. Most of these units let you set the warning envelope - the radius and altitude above and below - so you're not deluged with warnings in a busy airspace. The early versions couldn't tell you where the aircraft was exactly, just that one was near. One newer unit actually gives you the relative location of the traffic. These units are helpful, but remember that if an intruder aircraft doesn't have an operating transponder that is replying to an ATC radar sweep or some other form of transponder interrogation, a PCAS unit won't help you.

TIS depends on ground-based ATC equipment to feed it information about traffic in your area. Not all areas that have radar coverage support TIS, hence the warning you'll hear from many TIS systems: "Traffic unavailable." The Bendix-King systems actually say "TIS not available." Even if TIS is available, there can be interruptions in the uploading of traffic data. In these cases, you'll see a message that indicates a nearby target is in coast mode - it's no longer being observed for some reason. Maybe the pilot of that aircraft turned their transponder off, maybe their transponder has failed, or maybe they just went below radar coverage.

Oh, and the FAA will be phasing out TIS so enjoy it while you can. ADB-S (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) is the service that many think will replace TIS and provide even more features and functions. ADB-S has dramatically improved aircraft safety in Alaska, where it was introduced and tested. The skeptic in me suspects that the reason ADB-S has not become widespread is that they haven't figured out how to charge pilots subscriptions fees for this service. For those of us spending hundreds of dollars each year in GPS, terrain, and obstacle database updates, another subscription fee is just what we need.

Active TAS, like the equipment installed in Cirrus aircraft, will actually interrogate transponder-equipped aircraft. This means that you theoretically have traffic detection even when an intruder aircraft is below ATC radar coverage. A couple of years ago, I flew a Cirrus from Texas to California and was fascinated to see a tethered balloon in New Mexico actually show up on the MFD as a target. Seems this balloon is a downward looking radar unit and apparently it has its own transponder, too. I've also seen targets below the Cirrus I was flying come and go on TAS equipment. My guess is that the intruder aircraft's belly-mounted transponder antenna was being shaded.

And if an intruder aircraft has no transponder, then PCAS, TIS, TAS, or TCAS won't be of any use. This was recently illustrated by the mid-air collision of a Hawker jet and a glider at 16,000 feet near Carson City, Nevada.

My first exposure to high-flying gliders as potential collision hazards came when I was flying from the Black Rock Desert (aka Burning Man) to Reno a few years ago. Cruising at 11,500' in a Cessna and talking to Reno approach, the controller called traffic for me that was a primary target only (no transponder) at an unknown altitude. When I called the traffic in sight, ATC asked if I could estimate the glider's altitude. I said it looked to be about 12,000 feet and added that it appeared to be climbing like a stripped monkey.

One of my new pet peeves is how some pilots respond to an ATC traffic advisory.
Norcal: "Cirrus 123, traffic, 12 o'clock, 4 miles, 3000 feet, right to left, is a Diamond Star"

Cirrus: "We got him on the fish-finder"
What these pilots fail to realize is identifying a target with traffic detection equipment like TIS (Traffic Information System) or TAS (Traffic Advisory System) is not what a controller is concerned with when they issue a traffic advisory. Read Order 7110.65R Air Traffic Control and you'll see that the controller only wants to know whether or not you have the traffic in sight with your eyes. If an aircraft is operating under IFR or in class B airspace, ATC can allow you to maintain visual separation, but again, you must have the other aircraft in sight with your eyes.

A mistake pilots make when using a traffic detection system is they may be hesitant to react to a target that appears to be a threat. If your traffic detection system warns you of an aircraft that you have not been able to acquire with you eyes, then by all means climb or descend or turn to avoid that target. Except for operations in Class B airspace, ATC will provide traffic advisories on a workload permitting basis. If the controller is busy, there's a lot of aircraft to service, or if the controller is being trained by another controller, they may not warn you of traffic that is near you. Even when you are operating under IFR, you are expected to see and avoid other traffic when you have sufficient visibility to do so. So don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands, if necessary, then tell ATC what you're doing and why.

And don't forget to use your eyes, which are often more effective than the so-called "fish-finder."

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Carrier, No Voice

I regularly fly a variety of aircraft, some new, some old, and some really old. They are all well-maintained and safe, else I wouldn't fly them. The older ones have aged with grace, something I've learned to appreciate as I approach my 5th decade. Most of the radios in the older planes have been replaced at least once. Some older planes have new paint with tired interiors. One newer plane I've taught in looks great inside and out, but for some reason it flies crooked - something is just not rigged right. The more hours I fly, the more sensitive I've become to how a plane is rigged.

I once flew an almost brand new Seminole that refused to be trimmed for level flight. Later that same day, I flew a 25 year old Seminole that didn't look nearly as nice and had a right alternator that liked to spontaneously go off-line, but it was one of the most harmoniously rigged aircraft I've ever flown. It didn't have digital engine gauges or a glass panel, but in the air the plane was a joy to fly. Interestingly, when I commented on the plane's excellent handling characteristics, the pilot with whom I was flying looked bewildered, bored, and blank while replying "I hadn't noticed." I was astounded because to me, flying a well-rigged plane is like having a relaxed, pleasant, and engaging conversation. You say "Let's turn right" and the plane says "Good idea." Nothing seems rushed, no ragged edges, no brute force. Piloting a poorly rigged aircraft is like a continuous, onerous, exhausting tug of war.

The award for the most ill-mannered plane I've flown would have to be a tie between a C152 Aerobat taildragger conversion and a two-seat Gruman Trainer. The Aerobat taildragger flew fine once it was off the ground, while the Trainer was easy to control as long as it wasn't in the air.

One thing that seldom ages well is radio equipment, even though the quality of the radios and intercom is another factor that determines whether or not a airplane is pleasant to fly. And how tired you will feel after flying it. This is especially true of intecoms. A noisy intercom is a real impediment to teaching and to learning. It makes everything harder because you can't communicate as clearly. A bad radio is just as bad, maybe worse.

I flew a 150 with a radio that began to generate a side-tone squeal when transmitting. We couldn't hear the squeal, but everyone else could. At first the squeal was not too bad, but with time it got worse. Almost overnight this plane became well-known to ATC, who understandably was reluctant to deal with us. One day my student called for taxi and was met with several seconds of silence, then the ground controller said "I sure hope that was two aircraft transmitting at once." My student tried again and the controller said they could just barely make out out tail number and asked if we had another radio we could use. I got on the frequency and told them this particular plane had just one radio. The controller's response was "I understand you have just one radio and please don't use that radio again."

It took a while to figure this out, but someone discovered that with the intercom turned off, the radio wouldn't squeal while transmitting. So for a week or so, instructing in this plane involved turning the intercom on and off during flight - off before talking to ATC, on before trying to communicate with the student. Finally, the owner got the plane into the avionics shop and the problem was fixed.

Even ATC is not immune to radio problems. On one occasion I was taxiing a Caravan from Oakland's North Field to the freight ramp on the south field. I was told to change ground control frequencies and checked on with the new controller. What I heard in response was someone transmitting, but only transmitting silence - what is known as carrier wave only, no voice. A variety of problems can cause this, but it's most often due to the microphone coming unplugged or otherwise disconnected. Next, a Southwest jet called ground to push from their gate and again the response was carrier only. Then a FedEx jet called for taxi and got the same response. The Southwest jet called again, and got the same response. At that point, I jumped in and said "The last transmission was carrier, no voice." After a brief pause, we all heard the ground controller clear his throat and then ask the FedEx pilot if he could hear him.