Friday, April 27, 2007

ELT Redux

I recently received this very cogent comment on my earlier post on 406 MHz ELTs. Many aircraft owners have complained about the cost of replacing their old 121.5 MHz ELTs, so I thought it would be appropriate to promote this comment to a separate posting.
One respondent expressed concern over the cost of replacing the 121.5 ELT in his aircraft with a 406 system. This week, during the afternoon, an aircraft owner reinstalled his 121.5 ELT in his floatplane while it was in his boat house/hanger at his rural home. Unfortunately the ELT was activated. The owner finished up, had supper and eventually when to bed.

The signal was picked up by a commercial overflight and reported. A light aircraft flew a search pattern until dusk but could not see anything. During the evening a C130 and a helicopter were dispatched. Two ground crews were also called in. During the night the C130 was able to resolve the search area to a small general area and made many low level passes, dropping over 20 flares to illuminate the area but they could not see the source of the beacon. The noise of the aircraft plus the flares woke the aircraft owner and at approximately 3am he turned off the beacon but did not notify any authority. The C130 had to return to base as it was low on fuel, the helicopter followed after the beacon stopped transmitting. The ground crews stood down until dawn.

The hydro wires acted as an antenna for the transmitter so the signal was equally strong anywhere in the square defined by the concession roads surrounding the owner’s property. In the morning another ground crew commenced a house by house search and finally located the source.

The respondent should consider the cost the aircraft owner in the above situation is facing;
- Light aircraft plus crew for four hours
- C130 plus crew for six hours
- Helicopter plus crew for four hours
- Three trucks plus ground crews for an average of eight hours per crew.

With a 406 ELT the aircraft owner would have got a phone call and likely would have simply been told to turn the beacon off.
Thank you for your insights, George!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

My Brain on Drugs

Just returned from a long week on the other coast, fortunate to have escaped most of the heavy rains and high wings that had plagued the area for several days. We had a delay in New York, waiting for the aircraft for our connecting flight. When the aircraft finally arrived, was unloaded and serviced, we were over a hour late pushing back from the gate. We then joined what I can only describe as a long rumba line of aircraft that snaked its way through the dark around practically every square foot of taxiway space while we made our way to one of the active runways. At one point we were perpendicular to a taxiway and I saw a very long line of aircraft in front of us. The captain announced a few minutes later that we were number 22 for takeoff.

On approach to our destination, bumping and grinding through heavy precipitation, I had a ring side seat to the icing conditions. From my window seat by the leading edge of the wing root and with the landing lights turned on, the layer of mixed ice on the leading edge was easy to make out. This would have been a concern in the smaller, slower aircraft I fly, but the crud just slid off as we descended out of the clouds. Having a heated wing and 220 knots of airspeed is a good thing.

During part of our stay, a long-time friend who is a rural doctor and commercial helicopter pilot gave me my first taste of ... drum roll please ... actually flying a helicopter. While I'd ridden in helicopters in the past, I'd never occupied a pilot seat or touched the controls. The aircraft was a Schweizer 330Ci training helicopter and I found it to be solid, well-made, and very well maintained.

Prior to the flight, I perused various books on helicopters lent to me by my friend. The first one I picked up was more about aerodynamics and involved quite a lot of physics and math. I quickly switched to a book written in a more pragmatic style. My first goal was simply to understand the functions of the various controls in a helicopter and most of the books I read gave a pretty good explanation.

As an experienced flight instructor, I was struck by the assumptions made about the reader in each of these books. It was almost as if they expected that you already knew quite a bit about flying a helicopter and that you just wanted a review. My sense early on was that my understanding would be limited without some concrete examples of the topics being discussed, but I pressed on. I was both excited and a bit frustrated by being a beginner again, but I managed get a very basic handle on the flight controls in a helicopter. Here's my beginner's understanding.

The helicopter's main rotor is just a rotating wing. Unlike the fixed wing of an airplane, the pilot of a helicopter can change the pitch of the rotating wing using a flight control called the collective. Resistance is futile - you will be assimilated ... Since there are a few ways to change the rotor's angle of attack, the term "pitch" is preferred for describing the rotor's blade angle. The collective is a lever that resembles a parking brake in a car and one is situated next to the seat, under each pilot's left hand. Pulling the collective up will uniformly increase the rotor's pitch, thereby increasing the amount of downward thrust generated by the rotor. Given enough power and the correct inputs on the other controls, this means you probably will be going up straight up vertically. Lowering the collective will generally make the aircraft descend vertically.

Like a propeller, the rotor has a desirable RPM range and without sufficient RPM, you're not going to get much, if any, lift. Low rotor RPM is dangerous while you're airborne so many helicopters, like the Schweizer, have a low rotor RPM warning light and a governor that works to keep the RPM in the desired range. Even with an RPM governor, the pilot has to be careful to increase engine power during certain phases of flight, such as before you raise the collective to climb or while hovering, to keep the rotor RPM from decaying. If the RPM gets too low in flight, the rotor may stall and I'm told that is dangerous and the results are unpleasant.

In the Schweizer, the throttle is a twist grip on the end of the collective. One negative transfer of learning is that you twist the throttle grip opposite the way you would twist a motorcycle's throttle. After a bit of reflection I realized that this arrangement made sense - when you extend your arm to lower the collective, you generally need to decrease the throttle and releasing the curl in your wrist is a natural movement while extending your arm. Curling your wrist to increase the throttle goes well with bending your arm when you raise the collective.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction so many helicopters have a tail rotor that generates lateral thrust to offset the main rotor's torque. This keeps the aircraft body from rotating opposite the direction of the main rotor. The tail rotor turns at a much higher RPM and has two anti-torque pedals that increase or decrease the lateral thrust by increasing or decreasing the pitch of the tail rotor blades. For the purposes of my flight, I conceptualized the anti-torque pedals as acting in a similar fashion to rudder pedals in a fixed wing aircraft. Another negative transfer of learning from fixed wing flying is that when you increase power and/or raise the collective to takeoff, you need to add a significant amount of left anti-torque pedal pressure to offset the main rotor's increased torque.

The cyclic is the last control I needed to ... er ... get a handle on. The cyclic is a stick that resembles the control stick in a tailwheel airplane. The cyclic allows the pilot to increase or decrease the pitch of the rotor at a certain point in the plane of rotation, thereby causing the aircraft to move forward, backward, left, right, or anywhere in between. In the Schweizer the cyclic is ultra-sensitive, especially while hovering.

During my flight, I mostly experimented with the cyclic while flying at altitude. At first I was a bit flummoxed by how sensitive the cyclic was. While flying through some turbulence and trying to make cyclic inputs, I mostly succeeded in creating pilot-induced oscillations. This is where my friend made just the right observation - the body of the helicopter is like a pendulum suspended beneath the main rotor. With just those few words, I suddenly was able to visualize how to dampen out the oscillations with the cyclic. Everything fell into place and all at once I was flying smoothly and reacting to the turbulence in a productive way. I'm still amazed when I think about how quickly I stabilized the aircraft and this led to my first epiphany: Flying a helicopter is a lot like trying to walk briskly while holding a full cup of coffee without spilling any.

We flew from the airport to the small town where he lives with his family, then out over a lake covered with a layer of thawing ice. What looks to be a landing strip on the ice was actually a drag racing area created for the local snowmobile enthusiasts. Most helicopter flying is done in the 600' to 1000' AGL range, which seems a bit odd for a fixed-wing pilot, but the view is simply amazing.

The light helicopter I was flying in is not very practical for long-distance flying due to the 70 to 80 knot cruise speed. I have newfound respect for Greybeard's numerous flights ferrying R44 helicopters across the country. But during my flight, we were able to see some sights that would have been difficult, uncomfortable, or just plain impossible without the Schweizer.

When we returned to the airport, my friend did some hovering practice and demonstrated a confined area landing and takeoff. He then hovered over to an area where some orange traffic cones had been lined up and began carefully maneuvering such that he knocked over one of the cones. Then he really began showing off by hovering and using one of the landing skids to carefully nudge the cone back into an upright position. While he was flying the pattern, I managed to take a photo of two Lockheed Constellations in various stages of restoration.

With my friend handing the anti-torque pedals, the collective, and the throttle, I tried my hand at using the cyclic while hovering. Again, visualizing the helicopter as a pendulum helped me to do a credible job, though I discovered another negative transfer of learning for fixed-wing pilots. It is very counter-intuitive to pull back on the collective during hovering. I found I had a constant inner conversation with myself that this was okay to do. There's something about being close to the ground and not moving that makes a fixed-wing pilot want to push forward on the stick. Hey Greybeard, I might just be a fixed wing pilot who could learn to hover in a couple of hours!

It was great visiting with friends and family. And the cities all have a different atmosphere, given the older buildings made of bricks, of all things. Oh, and I had a job interview and an offer of employment and all too soon we crawled through traffic on our way to the airport for the flight back to the Left Coast.

Monday, April 16, 2007

You Talkin' ta Me?

I have a skill that seems to be innate. I've never practiced it, never studied with anyone, and I can't figure out how I could make a living doing it, but I'm good at identifying voices. Sitting in front of the TV, a Honda commercial comes on, I hear two words of the voice-over and I quiz my wife "Name the voice!" She listens, asks me for a clue, then gives up. "Kevin Spacey!" I announce triumphantly to no one in particular. The thing is, the voice doesn't have to belong to a famous person. If I've had an interaction with someone over the radio and hear their voice again a few days later, I most often recognize it instantly, particularly if I had some noteworthy interaction with them. Maybe this is a gift, maybe it's a curse.

Pilots and air traffic controllers are two strange and separate groups who have to deal with one another, whether they like it or not. I say separate because what pilots do and what air traffic controllers do, while intertwined, is radically different. It's like pilots and controllers live in two completely different worlds that intersect because of radio communication, radar, and regulations. About the only personal contact we have might be from recognizing one another's voice, flight number, or tail number.

If you need more evidence, consider that pilots have the Aeronautical Information Manual and controllers have something called Order 7110.65R. If more pilots read Order 7110.65R from time to time, maybe there'd be less confusion, but frankly I don't know many non-instructor pilots who regularly take the time to review the Aeronautical Information Manual.

It's no wonder that student pilots have such a hard time figuring out what to say on the radio since they don't have much in the way of context. I believe that most student pilots are continually wondering "Who is this person on the other end of the radio, what are they doing, what do they want from me, and why do they seem so frustrated and angry?" One of the most important parts of a flight instructor's job is to show pilots (students or certificated pilots) effective and efficient ways to communicate with ATC.

Though I've never witnessed in person an ATC instructor working with a new controller, I've heard it over the radio:
ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 140, descend and maintain 3000, and maximum forward speed.

Me: Heading 140, leaving 4000, descending 3000, best speed, Barnburner 123.

ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 120, join the GPS 9 Right approach course and report established.

Me: Barnburner 123 is established, you still need best forward speed?

ATC: Barnburner 123, go as fast as you can!

ATC (a different and irritated voice): Barnburner 123, disregard the last, resume normal speed, cleared GPS 9 Right approach.

I recall a new controller who sounded so bashful and intimidated while she was being trained. We empathized with her and were kind, polite, and encouraging to her as she learned the ropes, first on ground, then clearance delivery, then on tower. But lately she's feeling competent and in control and is often downright rude. Shame about that, really ...

Flying with a multiengine instructor candidate recently, he navigated to a local practice area. Rather than cutting us loose, the approach controller hung onto us and continued to provide traffic advisories. I think there's an understanding among most controllers that multi-engine training aircraft have limited visibility and given that we're often involved in complex training scenarios, they realize that we could use some help avoiding other traffic. As we did our various maneuvers, steep turns, slow flight, Vmc demonstrations, we began to drift toward another sector and the controller handed us off.

The next controller was trying to be helpful, but I got the feeling he was a newbie. He began to call out traffic for us:
ATC: Duchess 123, traffic two to three o'clock, three miles, same altitude.

Me: Negative contact, we're in a turn, request cardinal direction to the traffic.

ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 290.

Me: Heading 290, Duchess 123.

ATC: Duchess 123, additional traffic, nine moving to ten o'clock, 3900, unverified.

Me: Negative contact, we're maneuvering, can you give us a cardinal direction to the traffic?

ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 300.

Me: Heading 300, Duchess 123

ATC: Duchess 123, what are you doing out there, you appear to be changing altitude and heading?

Me: We're maneuvering, Duchess 123.

ATC: Duchess 123, traffic now at your ten o'clock, two miles, same altitude.

Me: Duchess 123, negative contact, request frequency change.

ATC: Duchess 123, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, use caution for numerous targets in your area.

Me: Squawk VFR, Duchess 123

So we headed to a different practice area, asked for traffic advisories, and worked with a controller who understood that a maneuvering aircraft needs to be told the cardinal direction to the traffic, like south, northeast, or west.

If there's one thing I've learned from instructing and flying freight, it's that many controllers have a thinly-veiled contempt for flight instructors, student pilots, and instructional flights. When I was a freight dog, I talked to the same controllers most every morning and every evening. We got to recognize each other's voices, radio mannerisms, and they knew my routing. Often there was a friendly recognition and I think much of that came from the realization that we were going to be talking to each other on a regular basis, so it would be good if we got along in a professional sort of way. And additional benefit was that I most always came on frequency at the same time of day with the same routing.

In contrast, my work as a flight instructor sees me flying an irregular schedule out of three or four different Bay Area airports, in a variety of different aircraft. I think many controllers don't recognize my voice and feel less compelled to be cordial or even helpful. I've heard many a controller become irritated when my student makes a request, the implication being that instructional flights are not important.

I'm not claiming that a 172 requesting a practice ILS approach should be given priority over a commercial freight or passenger flight, but I do think that controllers often fail to realize that I am a professional pilot. Flight instruction is how I make my living, how I pay my mortgage and my bills, no different from them, really. The strangest ATC interaction I've had so far came a few weeks ago and perhaps it's indicative of the type of treatment that is in store for GA pilots. After a night training flight, we came back to find that Oakland was reporting overcast clouds at 300 feet and 2 miles visibility.
Me: Norcal, Socata 123, Danville, 3500, request IFR clearance, Oakland ILS 27 Right, with Quebec.

Norcal: Socata 123, Norcal approach, squawk 5342, and verify you're requesting an IFR clearance.

Me: Affirm, Socata 123.

Norcal: Socata 123, I'm not sure I'll be able to get you in, fly heading 120, maintain VFR

Me: (somewhat astonished) fly heading 120, Socata 123.

A few minutes later, the controller inexplicably decides to put us on the approach in front of a Navajo and gives them delay vectors.

Norcal: Socata 123, fly heading 180, cleared to the Oakland Airport via radar vector for the ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.

Me: Heading 180, cleared to Oakland via radar vectors, ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.

Norcal: Socata 123, two miles from UPACI, fly heading 250, maintain 3000 until established, maintain maximum forward speed.

We broke out on the approach close to the decision altitude and landed in a dewy, mist. The approach controller probably had no I idea that I recognized his voice. It was the same one who didn't understand what I meant when I asked for a traffic advisory with a cardinal direction.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Airline Simulator

It's been a long while since I've posted, not so much due to my being busy. In fact, I've had more canceled flights in the last three weeks than I can recall in quite a while. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual stuff - aircraft out for maintenance, bad weather, pilots getting sick ...

As fate would have it, I should be interviewing with a couple of regional airlines in the next two weeks. Isn't everyone with a commercial pilot certificate, at least 400 hours of total time, and a pulse interviewing for an airline job? I'll have more details as they become available. Until then (in case you haven't already seen it), try this simulation created by Dennis Stricklin to see if you'd like an airline job:

Here is a home study simulator course for those who still hunger for the romance and adventure of airline and charter flying. It will all come back to you if you practice the following at home:

1. Stay out of bed all night.

2. Sit in your most uncomfortable chair, in a closet for nine or ten hours facing a four foot wide panoramic photo of a flight deck.

3. Have two or three noisy vacuum cleaners on high, out of sight but within hearing distance and operating throughout the night. If a vacuum cleaner fails, do the appropriate restart checklist.

4. Halfway through your nocturnal simulator course, arrange for a bright spotlight to shine directly into your face for two or three hours, simulating an eastbound flight into the sunrise.

5. Have bland, overcooked food served on a tray midway through the night.

6. Have cold cups of coffee delivered from time to time. Ask your spouse to slam the door frequently.

7. At the time when you must heed nature's call, force yourself to stand outside the bathroom door for a least ten minutes, transferring your weight from leg to leg, easing the discomfort. Don't forget to wear your hat.

8. Leave the closet after the prescribed nine or ten hours, turn on your sprinklers and stand out in the cold and "rain" for twenty minutes, simulating the wait for the crew car.

9. Head for your bedroom, wet and with your suitcase and flight bag. Stand outside the door till you wife gets up and leaves, simulating the wait you'd have while the maid makes up the hotel room.

10. When your spouse inquires, "Just what in the hell have you been doing?" just say "Recalling the allure of all night flying to romantic places" and collapse into bed.

11. If you are a purist, do this two nights in a row.