Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Royal Trouncing

Anyone involved in general aviation should already know that the FAA has announced a proposal to change the way in which air traffic control functions are funded in the U.S. The short version is that they want to eliminate taxes that airline passengers pay, replacing that source of funding with a near quadrupling of taxes on aviation gasoline and jet fuel as well as user fees for GA aircraft that request ATC services around large airports.

The strange thing is that the Office of Management and Budget projections show that the current funding scheme is adequate to meet the needs of the FAA and the flying public. So what's the big deal, you ask?

Many pilots to whom I have spoken don't seem to be too worried, resting assured that "they don't have the votes in congress" to implement such a radical shift in funding. While this may be true, it is still important that all GA pilots let their voices be heard. I believe that this privatization debate needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.

Here's what you can do to stop the FAA's proposal:

1) Join AOPA, EAA, or both.

2) Fax a letter to your senators and your member of congress asking that this proposal be stopped. If you're not sure what to say, here are some suggestions.

3) In addition to faxing your letters, mail them as hardcopies, too.

As one of the pilots I fly with so eloquently put it:
We need to kick their butts so badly that they won't come back with another such proposal for at least 10 years.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Visualizing a Different Plane

My instructor candidate had demonstrated a few spin entries when it happened: His window popped open unexpectedly. We thought it was a benign fluke, but it happened again. After the third unexpected opening, the window became difficult to keep closed. I flew the plane for a bit while he fiddled with the latch. The sudden rush of air and noise when the window opened was annoying, but I started asking myself "What's the worst that could happen?"

It's been said that good pilots are pessimists: They don't assume everything will be okay. Instead, they look for potential problems, holes in their own theories. I think good pilots are also able to simultaneously hold conflicting theories in their head. All of this leads a good, safe pilot to make conservative decisions and to imagine worst-case scenarios.

Each time the window popped open we were climbing back to altitude for the next spin entry. I figured the window opening unexpectedly during the descent portion of the spin recovery would be the worst. I had visions of the rickety window hinge and stay arm being ripped loose, the detached window traveling backward and hitting an important part of the plane, perhaps a control surface. That would be bad. So what were the options?

I thought about demonstrating a spin recovery technique for this particular plane that allows you to keep the airspeed within the greed arc during the recovery, but decided against it. My instructor candidate was now having to hold the window shut with one hand and that made it pretty difficult to fly the plane and talk on the radio. So we headed back to the airport. Once on the ground, he discovered a simple way to fix the latch. I think we both felt regret and I wondered if I'd made the best decision.

A few days later, I happened to read about an instrument rating candidate and an instructor in Florida who flew into some heavy weather. They had asked ATC if the radar showed any cell of precipitation and ATC had said "no." But soon they found themselves in heavy rain with lots of turbulence. The turbulence became so bad that one of the cockpit doors came out of its hinges. In the process, the cabin window popped open, was ripped loose, and struck the horizontal stabilizer on its way into oblivion. The aircraft landed safely and during the post-flight inspection the pilots discovered that the free-wheeling window had struck and bent the horizontal stabilizer downward about 30 degrees.

Less than two weeks after doing spins with the above-mentioned instructor candidate, I found myself with another instructor candidate in the same plane, making our way to the same practice area to do spin training. The spins were going to be a bit of a formality since this candidate, until about six months ago, had been flying F14s for the Navy. Here was a pilot who had flown 1.4 times the speed of sound, flown 500 feet over deserts and mountains at high speed, and performed countless carrier landings. Spin entry and recovery were not the issue. The task at hand was learning techniques for teaching GA pilots about spins while flying a small airplane.

I demonstrated an intentional spin entry and recovery first to the right, then to the left. This candidate learned very quickly and judging by the look on his face, this was the most fun he'd had in over a dozen hours of flight and ground instruction with me. I think he was happy to finally be pulling 2 or 3 Gs, even if for just a few seconds. For my part, I like to see people I instruct feeling happy. I also like it when the window stays shut.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Going Dutch

It looks like GA pilots and flight instructors are going to be very busy in the coming months because of two changes being proposed. The first change(s) is(are) included the latest federal budget proposal that adds a hike in fuel taxes and introduces user fees for GA aircraft opperating in congested airspace. The second proposal is a revamping of siginficant part of title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, including proposed new rulemaking for parts 1, 21, 43, 45, 61, 65, 91, 135, and 141. Call me a cynic, but the timing of these two activities seems to have been to create maximum confusion, especially in the GA community.

Regardless of whether you are in favor of or against user fees and tax increases, the one thing that is certain is that this will increase the cost of learning to fly, maintaining currency, or persuing a new certificate or rating. It may be possible to avoid the user fees (if they are implemented) by avoiding congested airspace (the proposal appears to target the use of Class B airspace), but I fear fuel tax increases alone could drive away GA pilots seeking training. These proposals also promise reduced revenues for FBOs operating in metropolitan areas and should succeed in making it even harder for flight instructors trying to earn a living.

Let's face it, no one is making a fortune in aviation, but the main reason that professional flight instruction provides such a low income is the overall high cost of flying. High cost understandably creates pressure to lower costs. Given the high cost of aircraft acquisition (and the attendent aging fleet of training aircraft), the expense of regular aircraft maintenance, and the cost of fuel, most FBOs that provide flight instruction already run on razor thin magins. The only way to control costs is to delay the purchase of new aircraft, scrimp on maintenance on existing aircraft, and restrict the amount paid to flight instructors. The last two tactics are the most frequently employed in my experience.

The costs of being in business as a professional flight instructor are many, including liability insurance, continuing education, chart subscriptions, new aircraft checkouts, flight review, and instructor certificate renewal. Only once have I had a person complain about the fee I charge for instruction. Just in case anyone out there needs a reminder, the cost of instruction is less than half the cost of any instructional flight.

If you are so inclined, I recommend reading AOPA's position on the proposed user fees and tax hikes here. I hope that the user fee proposal is DOA, but ensuring that it dies will take involvement by all GA pilots. The FAA runs out of money in September of this year, so stay tuned for more details in the coming months as the battle is joined.

Now on to the revamping of some of regulations that govern aviation. I have yet to review all of the proposed rule making in detail, but some of what is being suggested is good. One change is expanding the allowed use of PCATDs and simulators for private, commercial, and instrument rating training as well as instrument currency. One of my favorite changes to part 61 is extending the duration of student pilot certificates for pilots under 40 years of age to three years so that it matches the duration of their medical certificate. Another favorite is allowing the day and night cross country flights required for the commercial certificate to be conducted under VFR or IFR. Sometimes even the FAA gets it right.

Some of the proposed changes involve semantics that trouble the lawyers among us. One is the addition language that pilots must carry a "current and valid" pilot certificate when exercising their privileges of pilot-in-command. This has led some to interpret this wording to mean that we must carry our logbooks with us, since it shows our currency. I don't think this is what was intended, but the lawyers will have to slug it out on this one.

If you are interested in reading the proposed rule making, you can find it here.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Losing It, Finding It

This is great! Not only am I not learning anything new, I'm forgetting stuff I used to know!

Millhouse, from "The Simpsons"

A realization has been creeping up on me over the past few weeks and months. Like many GA pilots and instructors, it's something I have been denying for a while. Recent events have forced me to face reality: A fair number of pilots out there not only lack proficiency, they are a risk to themselves and others.

Here are just a few, choice excerpts from what I've heard or witnessed in my daily teaching experience over the last month or so.

Cirrus: Oakland Ground, Cirrus 123, ready to taxi.
Tower: Cirrus 123, Oakland Tower, confirm you are holding short of runway 9 left?
Cirrus: Ah, Cirrus 123, sorry 'bout that. We're at runway 9 left, ready for takeoff.
Tower: Cirrus 123, hold short 9 left for landing traffic. (That traffic was me and my student in a Duchess on final)
Cirrus: Okay, ah, and we're IFR ... (Cirrus starts to creep forward toward the runway)
Tower: Cirrus 123, hold short runway 9 left and read back hold short instructions
Cirrus: (a different voice) Hold short 9 left, Cirrus 123

Bonanza: Bonanza 123 ready to go, request a right turn out
Tower: Bonanza 123, say your position on the field.
Bonanza: 7 Right, position and hold.
Tower: Negative! Bonanza, hold short of all runways and say your position on the field!
Bonanza: Sorry, we're holding short of 7 right.
Tower Bonanza 123, continue holding short 7 right, landing traffic.

Tower: Socata 123, runway 19 right, cleared for takeoff, simulated KANAN TWO departure approved, Cessna traffic on left base is for the parallel runway.
Socata 123: Cleared for takeoff 19 right, simulated KANAN TWO departure approved, traffic in sight, Socata 123.

( I was in the Socata and the pilot I was flying with hesitated taking the runway because it looked like the Cessna was lining up to land on the wrong runway. After a brief pause ...)

Tower: Socata 123, thank you for holding short, the Cessna landed on the wrong runway ... Cessna 345, is there an instructor on board? ...

And there's more, much more, but I won't bore you with it.

Now I'm not singling out the pilots of a particular brand of aircraft, I'm singling out a particular type of pilot behavior. I'm not sure why this behavior has become so prevalent, but I have some theories. This might sound harsh, but here goes.

I understand that many GA pilots cannot afford to fly more than a few times per month and this can lead to a lack of recency of experience - you get rusty. And if you're smart, you know it and arrive at the airport prepared. By that I mean you don't get in a plane after not flying for 4 or 5 weeks and proceed to fly a long trip to Vegas in marginal weather. A good pilot allows some time to fly around the pattern and get back in the groove, perhaps taking an instructor along who is current and can help accelerate the process. And you avoid flying in marginal weather.

Well-run FBOs and flying clubs recognize the potential liability associated with pilots who aren't current and they put safeguards in place to reduce the liability. These might include a requirement that any pilot who has not flown in the last 60 days must fly with an instructor. Other safeguards include a Birthday Ride - an annual flight with an instructor. At the very least, a good FBO or club will require pilots to provide proof of completion of a flight review and that they have a current medical. Pilots who aren't in compliance are grounded from flying aircraft. For these safeguards to work, someone at the FBO or flying club has to be paying attention.

Aircraft owners have much less oversight, except for the training requirements placed on them by their insurance company. I've heard many an aircraft owner, especially owners of high-performance aircraft, bemoan these requirements. Most complain about the cost and inconvenience, which I can understand. However, insurance company-mandated training is an investment in the pilot's own safety as well as the safety of their passengers. If you don't like spending money (often in large quantities), then I recommend avoiding aircraft ownership.

For their part, instructors should not be pencil-whipping flight reviews - giving an easy pass to pilots they have flown with, or like, or who pay them well or buy them lunch. Instructors need to require proficiency from the pilots they train or sign-off for a flight review. Good pilots should accept, even welcome the challenge of a thorough flight review or instrument proficiency check. If you don't like having your skills and performance evaluated and critiqued, I recommend avoiding getting involved in aviation. If you don't like the difficult job of evaluating and critiquing other pilots' performance and skills, I recommend avoiding becoming a flight instructor.

To help encourage pilots to maintain proficiency, the FAA created the Wings Program. The idea is pretty simple: Attend an FAA-approved seminar or complete an approved on-line training course, then get three hours of instruction - one hour of landing practice, one hour of maneuvers, and one hour of instrument flight. When you complete the winsg phase, the instructor gives you an endorsement, you send the endorsed card to the FAA, and they send you a Wings lapel pin.

The problem with the Wings Program is that a pilot may do up to 20 phases of Wings and if you do one phase every two years, that's 40 years of flying without ever being required to review the AIM or 14 CFR part 91. I doubt this is what the FAA intended and in fact it's a practice that might actually be creating a dangerous environment for GA pilots.

Flying, even for fun, is a potentially hazardous activity. GA pilots out there need to take personal responsibility for maintaining proficiency and that means getting regular instruction and evaluation, especially if you aren't able to fly very often. Flight instructors need to take their role seriously and that often means facing the difficult and uncomfortable task of confronting pilots who lack the requisite skills to pass a flight review or a phase of the Wings program, or make sound pre-flight decisions.

And if you are one of those conscientious pilot who spends a few hours each week reading, thinking, and practicing to be safe and proficient, you have my utmost respect.

Friday, February 02, 2007

More on (Moron?) Departures

Jim sent me an interesting notice he found about departure procedures in the Fort Worth, Texas area. Rather than have it buried in a comment on the previous post, it seemed better to highlight the issues it raises here.
Fort Worth Meacham (FTW) Departure Procedures Notice Number: NOTC0768

There have been several instances of aircraft deviating from their ATC clearance when departing Fort Worth Meacham airport (FTW) over the last few months.

The pilots involved have generally been experienced instrument pilots flying technically advanced aircraft. In these instances, all of the aircraft have been cleared to fly runway heading for radar vectors to a published departure procedure in their clearance from departure control. Each of the aircraft has made an inappropriate turn after takeoff either to join the course for the departure they were assigned or in following a procedure that is printed on the chart.

When ATC issues a clearance to fly a heading for vectors to a departure, the vectors will supersede any other navigation related instructions printed on the chart. You are not authorized to fly the departure until ATC either issues a heading to join a published course or clears you direct to a fix on your routes and issues instructions to "resume own navigation." Pilots are reminded to be vigilant in following ATC issued clearances and urged to ask to have the clearance clarified if the instructions are not fully understood.

Having never flown out of Fort Worth Meacham, I went to the NACO site and discovered that all of the departure procedures there are vectored procedures and they all have the same, two-page format. The first page of each FTW SID has a graphical depiction of the procedure (the Worth Five departure is shown here).

The second page contains a narrative description of the procedure, including a clear statement at the top that this is a vectored procedure.

It seems reasonable to assume that a fair number of pilots have made the mistake of looking at the first page, but not reading through the entire procedure. For their part, the FAA might help reduce confusion by putting the phrase "... fly assigned heading and altitude to appropriate route" somewhere on the first page of the procedure. That could help some pilots avoid making the mistake of reaching 800' AGL and then, as Jim put it, just allowing the autopilot's GPS steer to put them in harm's way. I don't have access to the Jeppesen versions of the procedures, so I don't know if they do a better job or not.

Even a departure chart isn't clear, 5-2-6(a) of the Aeronautical Information Manual is:
When a departure is to be vectored immediately following takeoff, the pilot will be advised prior to takeoff of the initial heading to be flown but may not be advised of the purpose of the heading. Pilots operating in a radar environment are expected to associate departure headings with vectors to their planned route or flight. When given a vector taking the aircraft off a previously assigned nonradar route, the pilot will be advised briefly what the vector is to achieve. Thereafter, radar service will be provided until the aircraft has been reestablished "on-course" using an appropriate navigation aid ...

When a departure procedure's graphical depiction just shows a bunch of VORs without much (if any) any routing, it's pretty easy to realize that it is a vectored procedure. Another tip is that when you try to load one of the departures in your Garmin G1000 or 430/530, you won't find it in the database.

But sometimes a routing is shown that is either the initial path after takeoff or the route to be flown if radio communication is lost. Consider this SID, which I flew countless times as a freight dog. The dotted line is the course to fly in the event of lost communication and should not be mistaken for a depiction of a course a pilot could fly on his or her own navigation. Once you are vectored to the Sausalito 168 radial or some other routing, only then you can resume your own navigation.

The clearance usually sounded like this: "... Nuevo 5 departure, SHOEY transition ... Climb and maintain 7000 feet ..." In addition to the vectored routing, notice the restriction to remain at or below 2000 feet until beyond 4NM of the Oakland VORTAC. Some pilots mistakenly think they can climb to their assigned altitude after reaching the Oakland 4DME, but that would be incorrect. Since departure controllers have to know a bunch of departure procedures, I found the best way to avoid confusion was to remind them of the altitude restriction when I checked in:
NorCal, Barnburner 123, eight hundred, climbing seven thousand, with restriction.
This reminded the controller that my altitude was restricted and the usual reply was:
Barnburner 123, NorCal approach, radar contact, climb and maintain seven thousand, unrestricted.

Even on a pilot nav departure procedure (like an RNAV SID), ATC can assign you altitudes or headings to fly and those instructions trump the depicted procedure. When ATC assigns headings and altitudes, they assume legal responsibility for terrain and obstacle clearance. When this happens and you're flying an aircraft equipped with terrain awareness features, use those features to maintain situational awareness and don't be bashful about asking for a higher altitude or a different heading if you don't like what you see.