Monday, October 30, 2006

Time Flies

I've been quite busy the last few weeks, even though one week saw my teaching schedule fall off dramatically. At first I wondered if it was a trend, but then my phone started ringing off the hook and I realized it was just a welcome break. So how did I spend that slow week? Relaxing? Blogging? Playing the slots in Vegas?

Actually, I spent the better part working on some home repair projects - mostly hanging sheetrock, then taping, mudding, sanding, and painting. It was kinda fun to be working on a construction project, until my muscles started to ache and my back began to bother me. Oh, yeah. Now I remember why I hate home projects.

Still, there was a bit of flying done recently.

Different types of aircraft flown - nine.

Landings observed/taught -39.

Landings performed - 9 (in six different aircraft types).

Instrument approaches observed/taught - 23.

Instrument approached performed - 6.

Holding patterns observed/taught - 12.

Holding patterns performed - 2.

Moderate to severe turbulence encounters - 3.

Pilot candidates recommended for a practical test - 2 (one CFI, one commercial ASEL add-on).

Number of pilot candidates who passed - 2 (congrats to Greg and Andy).

But now, if you'll excuse me, I have some painting to do on a window I just installed. Oy! My aching back!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

How to Scud Run

When told that it is dangerous to fly at a low altitude under an overcast or broken sky, some pilots go out and fly at a low altitude under a ceiling of clouds with marginal visibility. I did it myself just the other day with a CFI candidate, pretty much right after the GA accident in New York. No, I'm not crazy and I'm not big on taking risks. And I decided it was time to reveal my personal tips on How to Scud Run Without Killing Yourself.

If you are going to scud run (fly at a low altitude under an overcast or broken sky), there are several things you need to do.

First, know that you have chosen to do something inherently dangerous and, this part is important, admit it to yourself. Bravado and braggadocio are for nut jobs and pilots soon to be selected out of the gene pool. Now that you have accepted that you are heading into the danger zone, it's time to start evaluating and planning.

Scud running requires a clear idea of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Let's say you have both a surface weather observation and a terminal area forecast for your departure and arrival airports. That's great, but what about the area in between, the area that is most crucial, the area where you may come close to terrain, the area where there is no controller, no radar contact, and no runway? This is where you need to use all available information - satellite photos, pilot reports, and your knowledge of local weather patterns - to decide how best to get from point A to point B.

Once you have a planned route to fly under the overcast, come up with Plan B - where you will go if the route you want to fly is not passable. And while you're at it, how about a Plan C? The easiest Plan B is to just turn around and return, assuming the weather conditions haven't deteriorated, and it's the plan many pilots never seem to consider. Truth be told, some pilots seem so intent on continuing along their planned route that it's almost like they want to come to grief.

Don't let your Plan B consist of hoping to find a hole in the ceiling and climb through it to VFR conditions unless you have some really good evidence that this is indeed a possibility. Wishing doesn't make it so.

It's also foolish to assume that Plan B will be to ask for and receive an IFR clearance to climb to VFR on top if you get in a jam. ATC may be able to grant this request, but then again they might be too busy or you might be below radar or radio coverage. If ATC does agree to help you out, they may ask you "Can you maintain your own terrain and obstacle clearance until reaching some altitude?" The bottom line is never assume that an IFR clearance will be available for you.

Speaking of weather, who is? But if I were, you should be interested in the overall weather pattern. If the weather is marginal VFR, are things going to get better or worse, and how quickly? If you're going to scud run, it's best to be headed toward better weather conditions or, at the very least, to have a stable weather pattern. If the weather isn't going to cooperate, file an IFR flight plan or stay on the ground.

One you are airborne, pick an altitude that will give you adequate terrain clearance and legal visibility and cloud clearance. Then fly that altitude! Your eyes are going to be outside a good part of the time while scud running, so being able to accurately fly a predetermined altitude is an important skill. If your predetermined altitude starts to take you into the clouds, don't be overly optimistic. Instead, reevaluate the situation and consider turning around or implementing Plan B.

If you have terrain awareness features on your panel-mounted or handheld GPS, by all means use it. But don't fixate on it.

Don't scud run in areas where you don't know the terrain and where you don't have an understanding of the local weather patterns.

In busy terminal areas you should keep in mind that if you have chosen to scud run, there are probably a bunch of other pilots who have made the same choice. You and your scud-running brethren will be squeezed in to a thin layer of usable airspace and face the chance of coming into close physical contact.

If you find yourself maneuvering in tight quarters, slow the plane down to a slow cruise. Slowing the plane down makes things unfold more slowly, giving you time to think, make decisions, or at least react to what's happening. A slower airspeed gives you the ability to keep your radius of turn small. A 30 degree bank angle at 90 knots is going give you a higher rate of turn and a smaller radius of turn that blasting along at 130 knots.

Oh, and I don't scud run at night.

Finally, scud running can be a seductive experience. Do it successfully a few times and you might start thinking it's a piece of cake. Just remember that like airframe icing encounters, no two scud running adventures are the same. What worked one time, might not work the second time.

And if you have your tips or advice for reducing the risks of flying in marginal VFR, please chime in.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Killing Zone

In my spare time, I've been reading a book entitled The Killing Zone by Paul Craig. The book's thesis is that pilots whose number of flight hours fall within a particular range are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents that other pilots with more or less experience. The book draws heavily on NTSB reports and statistics, presenting a compelling argument for several types of flying that pilots should treat with a great deal of respect and care, given their level of experience.

According to the Nall Report, an analysis of GA accident data published each year by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation, the popular ways to get into trouble in a small plane are to run out of fuel, attempt to continue VFR flight into deteriorating weather conditions, and low-level maneuvering flight. The highest risk last year was low-level maneuvering flight and the most likely to lead to a fatality was continued flight into deteriorating weather. While it's early in the accident investigation process, it seems that the crash of an SR20 yesterday into a high-rise building on New York's Upper East Side involved the intersection of at least two of these risk factors - low level flight and marginal VFR weather conditions.

Several other factors have been cited that should have helped mitigate the risks of that flight. News stories have latched onto the fact that the SR20 was equipped with an aircraft parachute that could have saved the day. Even if the 'cute had been deployed, it's unclear whether or not the aircraft would have avoided damage or injury to people on the ground during the descent. I think many Cirrus pilots are hesitant to consider pulling that parachute handle because doing so is guaranteed to total the airframe. The parachute is really a last resort when you can no longer fly the plane. Based on witness reports, it appears the pilot and instructor were still trying to fly the plane.

This brings up the second factor that should have made the flight less risky - the report that there was a flight instructor on board. According to the Nall Report, flying with a flight instructor is statistically the safest GA flying you can do. I haven't yet seen an attempt to quantify the instructor's level of experience with the level of safety, but it is my experience is that younger, low-time instructors are hungry. Many of these instructors seem willing to fly in marginal weather since flying is how they earn their meager income and build the flight time required to move on to better paying, more respectable flying. Add to this equation a client who really wants to fly that day and you have the potential for some risky decision making.

The last factor that has been mentioned is the advanced avionics found in Cirrus aircraft, which some say should have prevented the crash. I don't know the vintage of the SR20 involved in the accident, but some of the older SR20s are steam gauge planes and lack many of the advanced features of the later models. And this just in - a glass panel cannot keep a pilot from hitting an obstruction. Used properly, terrain awareness can increase the safety of flight, but it is no guarantee.

After learning of the accident, I did a quick check of the surface weather observations for Tereboro Airport, where the flight originated, for the time period before and after the accident.

KTEB 111551Z 10007KT 060V120 7SM OVC015 17/12 A2994 RMK AO2 SLP139 T01670117
KTEB 111651Z 11007KT 7SM OVC015 17/12 A2993 RMK AO2 SLP133 T01670122
KTEB 111751Z 09007KT 7SM OVC017 17/12 A2990 RMK AO2 SLP125 T01670122 10172 20150 58017
KTEB 111851Z 08007KT 7SM OVC019 17/13 A2987 RMK AO2 SLP115 T01720128
KTEB 111951Z COR 09008KT 3SM DZ OVC019 17/13 A2986 RMK AO2 DZB48 SLP109 P0000 T01720128
KTEB 112031Z 07004KT 2SM RA OVC017 17/13 A2985 RMK AO2 DZE02RAB02 P0005
KTEB 112051Z VRB05KT 2SM -RA OVC019 16/13 A2984 RMK AO2 DZE02RAB02 SLP106 P0010 60010 T01610133 56020

It's too early to know all the details of this particular crash, but it clearly was not a good day to be flying VFR. While the visibly at times was more than 5 miles, the cloud ceiling was never above 2000 feet.

The probability of a technically advanced aircraft with a qualified and appropriately rated flight instructor on board flying into a building at a low altitude in marginal VFR conditions is very, very low, but that probability is not zero. If you think it can't happen to you, think again.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Let the Good Times Roll!

Two excellent experiences have been visited on me, one aviation related, the other not.

As part of a belated birthday celebration, I was treated an authentic German dinner at the historic Schoeder's restaurant followed by a viewing of One Six Right on the big screen, in amazing digital clarity at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The big screen always helps ambitious films and this documentary about the Van Nuys Airport is no exception. In addition to the big screen, the high definition Sony 4K digital projection system is simply breathtaking. I had not seen this film before, but even if you have seen it on DVD I strongly recommend you see it again during the theatrical tour. There will be a limited number of screening around the country with the Sony 4K system and you'll get the opportunity to meet Brian Terwilliger, the film's director/producer, hear some great stories about the making of the film, and even the chance to ask him some questions.

I also had the good fortune to get a wonderful and unexpected gift: an iTunes download of the new Concord Records Ray Sings, Basie Swings. The idea behind this recording project didn't appeal to me in the least: Pairing Ray Charles' voice after the fact with the incredible musicianship of the Count Basie Orchestra. As the liner notes point out, Ray never sang with Basie's band, but he should have. So Ray's voice was electronically separated from some of his most popular songs, then re-mastered with new back-up recordings by The Count Basie Orchestra, including a talented group of new Raelettes.

I've always had a soft spot for Ray Charles and as a trumpet player in college, I gained a keen appreciation for Count Basie. But talk about simulacrum! Ray Charles and Count Basie are both deceased, though the Count Basie Orchestra has continued to tour and perform all the Basie favorites. If the description of this project sounds hokey, rest assured that the end result is simply astounding. This is the way Ray should have been heard all the time, with a swingin' group of excellent musicians and singers, playing arrangements by the likes of Quincy Jones, Roger Neumann, Tom Scott, Gregg Field, Patti Austin, and Shelly Berg.

My new anthem as I drive to the airport? "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!"

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The iLiad & The Oddessy

After dry flying the iLiad Reader/eFlyBook combo for a couple of days, I decided to continue the testing in the real-world, unforgiving environment of ... instrument flight instruction!

I decided, right off the bat, that I wouldn't make myself or my students dependent on the eFlyBook. In the words of Judge Judy - "I am not a stupid person!" So I had paper approach plates handy, a regular pen and paper, and a current A/FD. I also had my VFR charts, since the eFlyBook doesn't provide these.

The first issue I ran into is that the eFlyBook kneeboard, such as it is, doesn't provide a way to physically store some of my frequently used junk, like instrument covers or a way to stow my VFR charts. I thought about strapping the eFlyBook on one leg and my regular kneeboard on the other, like a gunslinger, so I tried it. The problem was that in small cockpits, there wasn't much space and I found myself saying "This here cockpit ain't big enough fer the two of us." So I stowed my regular kneeboard under the seat, when the aircraft I was flying made this possible (i.e. not a Cessna 150).

As I suspected from my dry flying, the iLiad reader's notepad feature was of limited use since I couldn't hot swap between the note pad and an approach plate. So I tried to be clever. I'd write down the starting tachometer and hobbs times, the date, the tail number, pilot's name, date, and departure ATIS, then switch to the airport diagram for the departure airport. One small problem. As soon as I switched to the airport diagram, I forgot the letter assigned to the current ATIS. D'oh! Wait, I might still be able to make this work ... Think, dammit! Okay, I'll write the ATIS identifier on my hand. Riiiiight. Or how about I start taking ginkgo biloba to improve my short term memory?

Real World 1, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 0

Holding short of the runway, ready for departure, I had the departure procedure displayed and everything seemed alright. Then I heard the words coming out of my mouth - "Underneath your departure chart, I recommend having an instrument approach chart for a possible emergency return to your departure airport." I looked at the iLiad Reader and it looked so cool, but it had, once again, fallen short.

Real World 2, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 0

After departure, we broke out on top and the pilot I was flying with donned his foggles. My two brown eyes were the only ones looking for traffic, so I cautiously divided my attention between monitoring the flight and trying to display the next approach chart. Without looking, I reached down and extracted the stylus from the back of the iLiad reader. A bit later I looked down to begin tapping in the next airport ID on the touch screen keyboard. That's when I discovered that I had inadvertently pressed the round download button, located on the upper right hand corner of the unit. The eFlyBook search screen was gone, the Download Status screen was displayed, and it was going to take quite a bit of attention and stylus tapping to get back to where I was. Grrrr!

Real World 3, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 0

On another occasion, I tried to back up a level to load a different approach chart, but the screen seemed hung. After tapping with the stylus and pushing some buttons, I decided to do a hard reset by powering off and powering back on. On another occasion when the thing hung up, I found pressing the DOCS or NOTES button got things unstuck.

Real World 4, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 0

With my student flying a GPS Alpha approach in VFR conditions, there was too much VFR traffic in the pattern to safely circle. So I tell my student to execute the missed approach. I glance briefly at the iLiad and realize that scrolling to the bottom of the approach plate has obscured the missed approach procedure. Of course, there's the small, graphic symbols that tell you how to fly the missed approach.

Real World 5, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 0

On the ground, I quiz one student about LDA approaches, asking "Can an LDA have a glideslope?" He answers "no" and I recall an example from memory - the Roanoke, Virginia LDA RWY 6 approach. And guess what? I can call it up with eFlyBook! Next we discuss circling approaches and I again recall a good example from memory - the Gillespie (San Diego, CA) LOC D approach, including its rare use of a fan marker. I can call up that approach, too.

Real World 5, iLiad Reader/eFlyBook 1

On the ground, the iLiad Reader/eFlyBook is a pretty cool package. The next release of the OS is supposed to provide a button lock feature, which should help with the inadvertent button pushes. This release should also allow the user to write on approach plates with the stylus. When the Airport/Facility Directory is made available, eFlyBook should be even more useful.

I want to believe. Really, I do.