Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Friend or Foe?

"Aliens, remember that February is the month to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service ..."

This was the tag line for a short TV spot I used to see regularly when I was a kid. The announcement had that odd, governmental feel - cheesy, hand-drawn illustrations and an announcer with a subdued, Don Pardoe-like voice. A high school chum of mine came up with this parody:

"Aliens, remember that February is the month to register with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If you have difficulty materializing, suitable forms are available at your local post office ..."

Speaking of NASA, I just finished participating in a study of pilots funded by NASA. I'm not entirely sure what it was all about, but I was paid to fly a bunch of instrument approaches and holds. All in all, a fun project.

There's something foreign in the photo above - actually two things. One is the aircraft - a beautifully maintained Yak-9, I believe. The other is the fuel price. The cost of fuel at my home airport has been rising steadily, increasing nearly $0.50 in the last two months. Yikes!

Every two years, September and October are a busy time from me because I need to renew my flight instructor certificate and my airport SIDA badge. I also need to renew my medical by the end of October. This time around, I did an on-line Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic rather than renewing based on my activity. Part of that decision was that I've never taken a FIRC before, renewing instead on the basis of my instructor activity with an 80% first time pass rate for candidates I recommended. The FIRC was a generally good experience, reminding me of stuff I'd forgotten. I learned some new things and it was relatively painless, though a bit time-consuming. There were some silly, if not incorrectly worded questions, but it's behind me now.

Renewing my SIDA badge has always been a hassle in the past, but this year it was not quite as onerous. My badge confers driving privileges on the airport's non-movement areas, so I am required to take a driving class each and every time I renew my badge. The class is a good review and probably a good way to keep people from doing bonehead things on the ramp, but it's 15 minutes of information spread out over 2-plus hours. There are dozens of others who show up to renew at the same time, only so many staff to handle them, and waiting is inevitable.

This time, the 3 hour process was made easier because I found the staff to be in a surprisingly good mood: They were polite, friendly, and as accommodating as the situation would allow. Being treated in a friendly manner goes a long way toward making a difficult process seem tolerable. So to the folks at the badging office, thank you!

My belief is that the quality of service provided by an organization is a direct reflection of the management of that organization. If the managers are heavy-handed control freaks, you can pretty much be assured that you'll get surly, indifferent, or hostile treatment from the people they manage. I heard there was a changing of the guard at NorCal management recently and perhaps that explains why I experience the controllers as generally more friendly and agreeable.

If only there was something that could be done about these avgas prices ...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Being ... Where?

Many pilots yearn to fly bigger, more complex and more sophisticated aircraft. I'm one of those pilots. Perhaps it's because a bigger plane means more responsibility and the ability to travel long distances. A bigger plane most often means more performance, two or more crew members, and the ability to fly above most weather: Enhanced safety, in other words.

Could it be that many pilots are looking to upgrade to a bigger aircraft for another reason? As a professional flight instructor I often feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield - "I don't get any respect around here." Bigger planes are a higher priority to ATC, both on the ground and in the air. Smaller aircraft are often seen by ATC as an annoyance.

Every now and again, I have a dream that I'm back at my old freight job. It's usually not a particularly pleasant dream. The weather is usually in the toilet, there's some schedule pressure, or I'm scheduled to fly a type of aircraft I've never seen before. This is the stuff of the classic anxiety dream. Non-pilots may dream that they have an important test to take or that they just got on the subway in their pajamas, or some other tense situation. Interestingly, I've never had an anxiety dream about giving flight instruction.

Last night, I had a dream that I had gone to work for a new carrier. I was about to start indoc training and was handed a stack of binders - company policies and procedures, aircraft manuals, op spec, hazmat data, and the like. The feeling in the dream was not a good one until I opened the binder on the aircraft and realized it's not a Caravan, but something much different - a pressurized, twin engine, turbo-prop with a takeoff weight over 12,500 pounds. The uneasy feeling eased, a bit.

What precipitated that dream was probably my mulling over just such a job. I'm probably a shoe-in, I wouldn't have to move, or at least not move very far. The schedule could be a bit hard - lots of late nights and early mornings. And I'm no spring chicken, either. For those younger readers, sleepless nights and time zone shifting only gets harder to handle as you approach your 4th or 5th decade on the planet. And I have no idea if the new job would allow me to give flight instruction.

So where do I want to be? Where does any of us want to be, really? What matters most? Quality of life? Being pretty much assured of a good night's sleep? Or having the thrill and sense of accomplishment of flying something bigger, faster, and more complicated with the added possibility of getting more respect? Or is the grass always greener on the other side, the side we're not occupying?

Ah, there's the rub.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Long Goodbye

If you've flown into or out of the Oakland Airport's North Field in the last 8 years or so, you're probably familiar with the old, drab green Navy P3 Orion that sat parked for many years just off Taxiway Quebec. It was there for many years and there was a time I taxied past it most every day. I only remember seeing it move under its own power once and that was over 6 years ago. There used to be a DC-6 parked next to it, but that airplane was refurbished and flown out about 4 years ago. I heard that the DC6 was flown to South America or Africa (can't remember which) where it was to be used as a passenger and cargo aircraft. I've marked the parking location of the old P3 and DC-6 on this taxiway diagram.

The story I heard was that the Navy had donated the P3 to the Western Aerospace Museum, but the museum either didn't have space for it or they were unable to come to terms with the Port of Oakland about how to move it to their facility (which was adjacent to what was then the Alaska Airlines maintenance hangar). So she sat there and quickly became covered with bird droppings. On many occasions I saw a red-tailed hawk perched atop her vertical stabilizer, looking for an unsuspecting ground squirrel or rabbit to nab for lunch. Three years ago, there was an eagle hanging out on the North Field and I saw it installed in the same position, adding a regal flair to the otherwise dilapidated, four-engine Orion.

Whatever the real story was for why it sat there for so many years, the old P3 became a landmark that kept many a student pilot from getting lost while taxiing out from the Old Tee Hangars to Runway 33 or Runway 9L. The ground controllers even used it as a landmark to give lost pilots directions. And getting lost in that area is easy because several taxiway signs there are incorrect: Taxiway N splits into Taxiways K, L, M, and Q, but all the first signs used off that intersection are black on yellow direction signs, not yellow on black location signs. The screwed-up signs led to many a discussion between instructor and student pilot. I'm told that the airport has received waivers every year from the FAA to allow those signs to remain.

So imagine my surprise when I saw crews working around the old P3 last week as I taxied out to Runway 33. I asked the ground controller what they were doing and he replied "My understanding is that they're dismantling it." Not taking it apart, mind you. Tearing it apart and scrapping it. I searched and searched to see if I had a photo of the P3 intact, but I don't seem to have one. Last Saturday, I saw the empennage had been torn off. Today, I took this picture and you can see nothing remains but the tarps that were put down underneath, presumably to catch any potentially toxic material.

I'm sad the old girl is gone (I always thought of her as a girl, don't ask me why). It's even more sad to think that she was just torn apart for scrap. And woe unto those unfamiliar pilots who taxi out in the far, northwest corner of the North Field: You're on your own now.

Monday, September 10, 2007

New Publications

Visit the FAA's website and you'll find a revised version of the Instrument Flying Handbook that has finally caught up with modern avionics. The new handbook shows instrument attitude flying techniques for glass panel aircraft, discusses autopilots and flight directors, and terrain and weather systems. The book contains a lot of new, four-color illustrations. They even have color representation of ALSF-I and ALSF-II approach lighting systems. And best of all, you can download it for free.

There's also a document I had not seen before - Powered Parachute Flying Handbook.

Check it out!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

One More Jerk

Just heard about this recent story of a pilot who made three (count 'em) emergency landings in one day to due smoke in the cockpit. After the first landing, it seems the pilot discovered an exhaust hose clamp or the hose itself was to blame. The pilot reportedly tried to fix the aircraft himself, at one point using parts from a local Wal-Mart. Each time he took off, smoke filled the passenger compartment. After his last landing, his passenger jumped out and was injured. The plane caught fire and was substantially damaged. One wonders if the pilot was still convinced he could fix the problem himself. In addition to his questionable aeronautical decision-making, the pilot did not hold an A&P certificate. Oh, and it was his passenger's first ride in a small aircraft.

I'm not sure if this is still the case, but when I was a high school student, girls had to take home economics and boys had to take shop class. Girls presumably learned how to cook and sew and boys learned how to use tools and curse. Talk about social engineering!

A cartoon I saw in shop class stuck with me, probably because I like puns and the play on words. The cartoon showed two mechanics trying to loosen a pipe fitting with a large wrench. If you know much of anything about pipes and wrenches, you quickly realized that these guys were having difficulties because they'd slipped a length of pipe over the handle of the wrench to provide more leverage.

Of course they were drawn in such a way as to reveal they were straining mightily - faces swollen, sweat spilling off their arms. In the right edge of the frame was another mechanic, wiping off his hands as we walked toward them. He's the only one speaking and his words were "Did somebody say all it would take was one more jerk?"

My shop teacher used this an as example of how to disrespect tools, use them incorrectly, and create a dangerous situation in the process. He was trying to teach us to think rather than use brute force. He warned us to avoid becoming what is sometimes called a hammer mechanic (someone who bangs on things to fix them) or a pliers mechanic (someone who uses tools inappropriately and ends up damaging the very thing they are trying to repair).

I've been thinking about that shop class because lately I've been seeing a lot of aircraft maintenance problems. In fact, I've had too many flights cancelled recently because a plane was broken and my income has suffered mightily. Some of the maintenance problems resulted because a part just wore out from use. Some of the problems were because the aircraft had been repaired, but the logbook entries were not taken care of properly or because the incorrect parts were used. Some aircraft were damaged because the pilot operated the plane is such a way as to cause the damage.

My observation is that pilots and aircraft owner/operators tend to be far too optimistic when it comes to mechanical things. I can understand the owner/operator being in denial because they want to make money or (more realistically) minimize their losses. I think pilots tend to be optimistic for one simple reason - we want to go flying, dammit! Pilots are the ones most at risk for being overly optimistic, especially when you stop to think that their wallet, their pilot certificate, and or their life could hang in the balance. It's an old saw, but I'll repeat it: A good pilot is a pessimist.

Notwithstanding this story about goats being sacrificed to fix an electrical problem with a Nepalese 757, seldom is there much mystery about what is broken on a plane. This brings up an important point for all concerned to remember: Things wear out. Anything made by the hand of humans has a useful life and we need to make peace with that fact. More often than not, there is some warning that a part or device on an aircraft is failing or on its last legs, so the first weak link in the maintenance chain is the pilot who doesn't report the problem after their flight or who takes flight in spite of a significant discrepancy. Some examples include:

Heading indicators that begin spinning after just a couple of steep turns.

Attitude indicators that become lazy and don't agree with the pilot's view of the outside world.

ATC regularly complaining that a transponder's mode C altitude reporting is intermittent.

Avionics frequency displays that don't function in dim light.

Engine starters that only engage after the fifth attempt.

Tires with no tread left or with flat spots.

Loose alternator belts.

Multiple, missing cowling screws.

Landing gear struts that appear partially collapsed or are leaking fluid.

Out-of-date GPS databases.

There's really not a lot of mystery to aircraft maintenance, aside from where the money will come from to pay for it. Pilots need to be careful with planes they fly and operate them skillfully, carefully and conservatively. And above all, a good pilot is a pessimist.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Study in Contrasts

One benefit of taking a vacation, especially going to a foreign country, is that it gives you a new perspective on where you live. I've been pretty busy since my return, but wanted to share a few observations resulting from my trip. I thought I'd get over these thoughts, but they persist. Perhaps the problem was that I shouldn't have waited nearly 10 years since our last, full-fledged vacation. Well the die is cast ...

Americans drive huge cars. I know: This just in. One explanation is that Americans pay relatively little for fuel, but there's something else at work here. I see individual drivers getting into and out of 5000 pound SUVs. I see them on the freeway - one person in a vehicle that might get 20 MPG (11 liters/100 KM) on the highway. As if this actually needs to be said, let me point out that one person commuting to work in a vehicle with 300+ horsepower, capable of towing a 6000 pound load, with four-wheel drive is just plain kooky. I wish I knew how this could be corrected, but I don't. If you haven't seen it yet, rent Who Killed the Electric Car to get a perspective on how PR, marketing and corporate influence can affect this sort of debate.

I saw many well-designed, fuel efficient vehicles in Europe and I only saw a handful of SUVs. There were so few SUV it was always a shock when I did see one. My conclusion is the reason more fuel-efficient vehicles are not available here is that U.S automakers do not know how to market them and, more importantly, they think U.S. consumers do not want to buy them. Every time I go out for a walk or drive to the airport and encounter these beasts on the road, I feel like I'm living in a strange dream. I just cannot accept that as a people we are that clueless and selfish.

The widespread availability of mass transit in most U.S. cities doesn't compare to what's available in Europe. One reason is that the U.S. is a big place except in some parts of the Eastern Seaboard, we don't have the overall population density that Europe does. Still, the long distance trains I took in France were quiet, fast, comfortable, and affordable. There is a proposal to create a TGV-style express train between San Francisco and L.A., but I wonder, do we have the political will to make it happen?

Deciding to walk my talk and lower the carbon load associated with moving my own carcass between home and the airport, I've been commuting to work two or three times a week using my Brompton folding bike and the Bay Area Rapit Transit, or BART. The difference between say, the Paris Metro and BART has mainly to due with the patrons. On my BART trips I am saddened to see so many riders acting aggressively, creating noise and squalor, making other patrons nervous. To be honest, many of these people seem to need help with psychological or drug problems.

Another big problem with BART is that the train itself is incredibly noisy, especially during some of the underground routes. I've read several on-line articles about why this is so, but the screeching sounds the train makes while taking turns, especially in underground tunnels and the Trans-Bay tube is unbearable. I've begun wearing ear plugs when I ride BART. I intend to continue my bicycle commutes at least two or three times a week, more if my schedule permits, but the fact remains that riding BART is decidedly unpleasant.

Something you just don't see much of on U.S. roads is the roundabout - a traffic control feature at intersections. There are two roundabouts in my neighborhood, but the entrance from each road has a stop sign: That kind of negates the whole point of letting the stream of traffic flow through the intersection. And speaking of flow, I've theorized that roundabouts have an interesting side effect - they train drivers to go with the flow, think ahead, and (most importantly) pay attention. A stop sign or stop light effectively breaks the flow, interrupts the driver's rhythm, and provides an opportunity for drivers to do dumb things like put on makeup, read the paper, send a text message, look for something in the bottom of their flight bag, or the countless other ways we become distracted and space out.

Coming back through U.S. Customs was a rude awakening, and I'm a U.S. citizen! I can only imagine what non-citizens must think. No one could argue that any country needs security at its borders, but being out of the U.S. and returning really clarified to me just how militarized the American people have let our society become. Of course we need security, but the TSA has decided we're all guilty until proven innocent. I saw toddlers break into tears after TSA employees wrenched their stuffed animals from them so they could be x-rayed. I see senior citizens being frisked. I myself was singled out for additional security and the TSA employee actually started yelling at me when I set off a metal detector and it too me more than three seconds to find the offending coin that was still in my pocket. We shouldn't be sacrificing the very freedoms upon which our country was based. What we often have at our airports is paranoia masquerading as security. If we let terrorists alter our commitment to basic freedoms and respect for human dignity, they will have won the battle.

While in France, I saw very little general aviation. In fact, I saw exactly six light aircraft flying in the air. Two were banner tow aircraft near a Mediterranean beach, one was a Robinson helicopter, one was a Diamond Katana or Eclipse, and the last looked to be a Piper Warrior. Americans are blessed with a tremendous GA community and we have much more opportunity to fly small aircraft. Think about that the next time you're complaining about the cost of maintenance or 100 low lead after a flight.