Tuesday, October 30, 2007

G1000 Update

I have the luxury of flying a new C172 with a G1000 that regularly returns to a Cessna Service Center for 100 hour inspections and sundry maintenance. As a result, the software on the G1000 has gone through some changes as the service technicians applied the latest updates. I'm talking about updates to the G1000 software itself, not just the various Jepp, terrain/obstacle, electronic charts, and electronic checklist databases. In particular, two of the changes were most welcome.

The first is that when the Multi-Function Display (MFD) is power up, you no longer have to wait for the expiration dates of the various databases to scroll by in the Star Wars fashion. You know, the scrolling text "Long ago, in a galaxy far away ..." It literally used to take several minutes for this stuff to be displayed. Now you just see this screen:

The other cool feature of note is that should either the Primary Flight Display (PFD) or the MFD fail, you will now still have the inset map displayed on whichever screen is left. This is a huge improvement to situational awareness and makes the G1000 reversionary mode practice (nee "partial panel") pretty easy to perform. In fact, you have so much information compared to a steam gauge partial panel scenario that it's almost obscene. So easy that I found myself saying to one of my instrument students "In the old days, we just had the CDI, turn coordinator, altimeter, and the compass ..."

Too bad Garmin doesn't display the ground speed on the remaining display. It's kind of amazing that they don't, given that ground speed on a partial panel, non-precision approach is one of the most useful things you can have. There's plenty of screen real estate there, so maybe they'll add it in a future update?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Worthy of Respect

A phrase I often quote is "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." As an instrument instructor, I do my best to expose instrument rating candidates to real-world IFR for a variety of reasons. One reason is to reset the expectations that many pilots have about the utility of getting an instrument rating.

There is no question that instrument training makes GA pilots safer and the accident statistics back that up. Part of this increased safety is the increased skills that you must gain to earn an instrument rating. I suspect that instrument-rated pilots are safer when the weather is marginal because they are more likely to file IFR than to try to scud run and remain VFR underneath the clouds.

The FAA doesn't require an instrument rating applicant to have flown in actual instrument meteorological conditions. I suspect that many pilots get their instrument training in simulated instrument conditions (with a view-limiting device), without ever seeing the inside of a cloud or only seeing real weather for a few minutes at a time. While I try to get the pilots I train into real IMC, I often have to point out that there is weather that just isn't safe to fly in a small aircraft. I like my instrument candidates to see everything from marginal VFR to real instrument conditions with low visibility, but this isn't always possible. You can't order up rain and low visibility when you want it, though it always seems bad weather arrives when you don't want it or least expect it.

The three main deal-breakers to flying IFR in small aircraft include thunderstorms, icing, and widespread low visibility. Flying at night in instrument conditions, especially in single-engine aircraft or over mountainous terrain, needs to be scrutinized very carefully as it is inherently more dangerous and statistically more likely to be fatal if something goes wrong. When all of these factors are considered, it's obvious that instrument instructors walk a fine line between teaching how to make a no-go decision and when to decide to launch into possibly challenging weather conditions.

My decision to launch on an IFR training flight from Redding back to Oakland late last week was based on the best available information at the time. We reviewed PIREPs that were available, the forecasts, the surface weather reports, and the latest NEXRAD radar images. Thunderstorms were not forecast and the freezing level was about five thousand feet higher than we'd need to fly. The radar showed that a plume of moisture from the northwest was beginning to arrive over Redding and conditions were probably only going to deteriorate if we waited. The plane we were flying was G1000-equipped with XM weather capability, so we'd have a bit more information in flight than most small GA aircraft have.

We received our clearance and checked the XM radar. The three minute old radar image showed a band of green echoes we'd have to fly through to the south. South of Red Bluff, there were no echoes at all. We departed in moderate precipitation with visibility in the 1.5 mile range. The surface winds had decreased a bit since our arrival a few hours earlier, but were still in the 20 knot range.

Once airborne and above 1500' the winds increased to a direct headwind of 41 knots. As we checked in with Oakland Center rains became heavy and our climb rate deteriorated. Center reminded us that we were below the minimum safe altitude for that area, adding that he had an amendment to our clearance and we should advise when ready to copy. At that point the new XM radar image showed yellow to dark yellow echoes. I had to disconnect the autopilot and hand-fly in an attempt to get some sort of climb rate and told Center to standby with the new clearance.

In moderate turbulence and pitching for Vx we saw a momentary climb followed by a 300'/minute descent. I contemplated the options: Press on toward better weather and assume we'd be able to climb higher, turn around and fly back into deteriorating weather, or land at Red Bluff. Just then, we reached a break in the action and the five minute-old XM radar image indeed showed us in an area of lighter precipitation. There was still another yellow band of radar returns that we'd need to penetrate and the strong headwind had reduced our ground speed in the climb to as low as 45 knots. The turbulence had subsided a bit so I turned the controls over to my student and we clawed our way above 3000' before hitting the next band of rain. The turbulence worsened so using the autopilot still wasn't an option.

I wrote down the new clearance, then took the controls and asked my student to enter just the first new waypoint into the GPS. He could barely get his fingers to stay on the knobs, but managed to get it entered. In the meantime, I asked to divert slightly to the right where my eyes and the newly received XM radar image showed lighter precipitation. After another 10 minutes of bumping along with the stall warning occasionally sounding, we cleared the precipitation. The ride smoothed out, we could climb normally, and soon entered visual conditions. We heard another small aircraft approaching Redding from the south that told Center they wanted the ILS approach. I felt it only fair to tell them what we'd just flown through and leave it up to them to decide whether or not to try it. It had taken over 20 minutes to fly the short distance from Redding to just south of Red Bluff, but in that short time my student learned several important lessons:

1) Flying underpowered aircraft in bad weather can be both time-consuming, exhausting, maybe even impossible.
2) There are weather conditions in which you can't rely on the autopilot to fly the plane.
3) NEXRAD radar images, whether received in the air or on the ground, only provide a rough idea of what to expect.

Later in the flight our route was going to take us over a small mountain range near Lake Berryessa and the tops of the clouds suggested that slight mountain wave activity might be present. I suspected the controller was eventually going to have us climb to 8000 feet, so I asked if we could start sooner rather than later. Even with the head start, we found the plane just wouldn't climb above 7,200 feet at Vy. There was a clear break in the clouds beneath us and perpendicular to our assigned route, so I looked at the map to see what VOR was in that direction.

I told the controller we couldn't climb and that we'd likely encounter turbulence on our current course. but suggested that we could proceed south, direct to the Travis VOR, then back on course direct to SABLO intersection if that would work for him. He agreed and this provided another lesson:

4) If you can't do something ATC has asked you to do, be ready to offer one or two alternatives that you could do instead.

Approaching Oakland, the temptation was to cancel IFR and get underneath the clouds for a VFR arrival. I suggested we delay that decision until we got a closer look at the clouds over the hills between our current position and Oakland. Sure enough, the cloud cover was thick and it wasn't at all clear if the bases of the clouds would give us enough terrain separation to get into Oakland VFR. We asked for vectors to the ILS and broke out on the other side of the hills at 2500 feet with plenty of visibility. Looking to the north, it appeared that we could have flown VFR under the clouds if we approached from San Pablo Bay, but that wasn't obvious to us while we were above the clouds. This drove home another important lesson.

5) Never cancel IFR unless you are absolutely sure that VFR will work.

Relating this story to acquaintance of mine, he offered this observation: This single flight was likely all my student needed to develop a respect for flying a small plane in bad weather, but as an instructor I must re-experience that situation over and over with each new student.

I guess that's why I make the big bucks.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New Wings

The FAA has implemented significant changes to the Wings Pilot Proficiency Program and the updates seem like a great idea. In the new Wings program, pilots still undergo recurrent training that counts as flight review under 14 CFR 61.56, but that training now defines performance standards like those found in the Practical Test Standards. The new program provides credit to pilots who attend seminars, just like the old program, but the new program now provides on-line courses. You can complete an on-line course at your convenience. When the knowledge portions are combined with the necessary flight portions, you'll receive credit toward a phase of the wings program.

The best news is that the on-line courses and performance standards are all designed to target areas of operation that most often lead to accidents. One of my complaints about the old Wings Program was that pilots could go for years without ever completing an official flight review and, in the process, fall hopelessly out of date with regard to changes in regulations and recommended procedures. What's more, the old wings program didn't specify any completion standards for the flight portion or provide any guidance on how to conduct the flight portion. By targeting areas of operation most closely related to accidents, this new wings program has got to be one of the smartest things I've ever seen the FAA do with regard to GA.

If you haven't already done so, go to the FAASafety website. There you can register, specify your preferences for seminar notification, and define your Wings Program preferences. There even a thorough, animated introduction to the new wings program. Once you've registered, you'll receive occasional email notices about programs in your area.

When you set your Wings Program preferences, you specify your level of pilot interest (private, commercial, ATP or all three) as well as the aircraft category and class (ASEL, AMEL, etc). Then you can locate seminars to attend and on-line knowledge courses that you can complete to begin meeting a phase of the wings program. You can also lookup the flight portions and the PTS tolerances they reference. As you complete knowledge and flight portions, you can track your progress on-line.

Check it out!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I Certify ...

Logbook endorsements that an authorized instructor can make are quite varied, but most endorsements confer or continue some sort of pilot privilege. An instructor's endorsement saying you have completed a flight review, that you are competent to fly a tailwheel aircraft, that you've completed an instrument proficiency check, or that you are proficient to fly solo in a particular make and model are just a few examples.

I've made thousands of endorsements and I often get the impression that many pilots don't really give much thought to what the instructor is putting on the line when they sign their name and write down their certificate number. Many pilots just want the endorsement and think that going through the motions and writing a few checks will suffice. Pilots with this attitude who also fail to meet the required standards are usually not very happy with me. So whether you are a pilot who needs to complete a flight review, a student who is itching to solo, or you want to become instrument current, here are some suggestions.

The recommended format for the various endorsements can be found in the FAA's publication AC 61-65: Certification of Pilots and Flight and Ground Instructors. The instructor may add restrictions or other words as they see fit, but that is usually reserved for student pilot endorsements. NAFI, the National Association of Flight Instructors, has their own recommended format. AOPA sends endorsement stickers to me every now and then as an enticement to support them, not unlike charitable or political organizations who send me return address stickers with my name and address.

My first suggestion is to take some time and actually read the text of the endorsement you are seeking.

The first thing you'll notice is that almost every endorsement that a flight instructor makes begins with the words "I certify that ..." Many students and pilots don't seem to understand or care about the legal weight those words carry. If an instructor provides a pilot with an endorsement and that pilot later gets into trouble or comes to grief, the record of training the instructor provided may come under the scrutiny of the FAA. If the pilot is involved in an incident or accident, insurance companies may try to lay the liability at the feet of the instructor who most recently gave that pilot instruction. Most full-time, professional instructors I know carry liability insurance and, let me add, it ain't cheap and it can't cover all the possible losses that may occur.

One sure-fire way for an instructor to get into trouble is to just sign a pilot's logbook without providing the required training or ensuring that the pilot meets the required standards. Instructors are required to keep a copy of the training they provide and any endorsements they make. Logbooks provide precious little space for instructors to provide a description of the training. In fact, the space is so small that I usually find some other unused space to sign my name, provide my certificate, and my certificate's expiration date. And don't me started on the poor wording of the pre-printed endorsements provided in some logbooks.

My second suggestion is always ensure that your instructor has correctly endorsed your logbook and described any training that they provided to you.

Once you've read the endorsement for the privilege you are pursuing, check out any regulatory references. Consider the student solo endorsement:
I certify that (First name, MI, Last name) has received the required training to qualify for solo flying. I have determined he/she meets the applicable requirements of section 61.87(n) and is proficient to make solo flights in (make and model).
Check out 14 CFR 61.87(n) and you'll find all the requirements you must meet before your instructor can give you this endorsement, including a written pre-solo knowledge test as well as ground and flight operations. Note that there are no specific performance standards, just the assessment by your instructor that you are "proficient."

Another example,:
I certify that (First name, MI, Last name), (pilot certificate), (certificate number), has satisfactorily completed the instrument proficiency check of section 61.57(d) in a (list make and model of aircraft) on (date).
references 14 CFR 61.57(d). Read that section of the regulations and you'll find the instrument proficiency check must be in the appropriate category of aircraft, administered by an authorized flight instructor (or designated examiner or check airman), and include the tasks referenced in the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards. Check out the Instrument Rating PTS, you'll find a table of all the tasks required for an instrument proficiency check, and you'll know what you must demonstrate and the standards you must meet to complete the IPC. Granted, there are a lot of references that you have to chase down, but this is the regulatory world in which pilots live and fly.

This leads to my third suggestion: Don't assume that just because you've paid your instructor, you've logged some time, or that you've held your certificate for some period of time that you're entitled to an endorsement.

Realize that proficiency and currency are fleeting. Remember that should you run afoul of the FAA in some manner, you can be asked at any time to demonstrate your proficiency with an FAA inspector. Meeting performance standards can be tough and if you don't like being evaluated on a regular basis, you should stay away from aviation.

My last suggestion is more of a request: If you don't meet the standards, you won't get the endorsement you want and it is counterproductive and pointless to blame the instructor you've selected for your training. If the training takes longer that you'd like and cost you more than you want to pay, remember that it's an investment in your safety and the safety of those who fly with you.

Many endorsements that a flight instructor can give you do not reference any flight performance standards. However, that is soon going to change. More on that in the next installment.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Western Edge

Engine break-in flights on a Duchess I fly are continuing and the other day saw a flight with another instructor to Shelter Cove. A cold front had just passed and it looked as if we might not get out of Oakland under VFR, but most of the clouds had cleared by the time we were ready to go.

There were some lingering clouds over the Sonoma Valley and the hills to the west, but the coast was clear. We headed toward Ocean Ridge, one of my favorite scary airports. The flight up the coast would take about 1.3 hours, mainly due to a 19 knot headwind, and that afforded a lot of time to chat. As we headed toward Ocean Ridge, we passed over a paved landing strip that I had identified several years ago as a private airport. The field was once known as Potterton and then later appeared on a CalTran Aeronautical chart as Sonoma Coast. Trees have grown up along the northwest end of the runway, but it still looks usable for smaller aircraft. There's even a hangar-like building that appears to be in very good shape. This photo is over two years old and I didn't have time to take a new photo on this trip.

As we approached the Ocean Ridge Airport I was a bit shocked to see that many of the redwood trees that used to surround the runway have been cleared, making the field seem more ... normal.

Twelve mile final to runway 30 at Shelter Cove.

On the way back, we passed over this old Union Lumber Company landing strip. Long since closed, it looks like an ideal site for an airport.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A Preview of NextGen

Over the last year or so an aerial survey company has been threatening to use me as a backup pilot. I had some meetings with a manager, I know one of their pilots and one of their photographers, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. The last news was that I would need 25 hours in the type of aircraft they use or their insurance wouldn't cover me. The implication being that I should get 25 hours in a Cessna 206 somewhere else and then let them know. I thought about explaining to the them that aviation underwriters, when presented with a detailed snapshot of a pilot's experience, will often relent on the popular 25 hours in type requirement. While I appreciate that low time-in-type is a good predictor of possible trouble, it is only one facet and must be considered with overall experience, currency, and level of experience With the pay working out to be tens of dollars an hour and a full teaching schedule that pays better on a busy day, I decided to just let the whole thing slip into the background.

Late last week the weather was marginal in the morning and it was obvious that the forecast was out of alignment with reality. A fairly thick stratus layer was covering the Bay Area and though the forecasters were adamant that the clouds would mix out by midday, I was fairly certain the clearing was going to happen closer to sunset, if at all. I was surprised to get a call from the pilot with the aforementioned company asking me if I wanted to do a check out flight in their aircraft. The weather was not going to allow them to fly their mission and I had no lessons scheduled until the end of the day, so I decided to give it a shot.

After checking the weather, it appeared we could cross the Oakland Hills to the east while remaining VFR under the clouds. The plan would be to get to the Livermore Valley where we'd find high enough ceilings to allow some basic air work. After departing and heading to Lake Chabot, the wisdom of this plan seemed dubious: The cloud ceilings were lower than the surface observations had led us to believe. The result was that this check out flight was high workload since I had to remain VFR under the clouds, look for other aircraft doing exactly what we were doing, constantly evaluate my altitude and terrain clearance, and talk to NorCal. As we made our way east we discovered the cloud ceiling over the Livermore Valley was also lower than anticipated, but it appeared to get better in the next valley to the east. Ah, clearer skies ahead! The siren song heard by all pilots who engage in scud-running.

My newly formed plan was to skirt Livermore's class D airspace to the north, but the ceilings were lower to the north and the terrain clearance was not to my liking. I asked NorCal to terminate flight following with the intention of talking to the Livermore tower to get permission to transition their airspace. So imagine my surprise when NorCal told me "You're below my radar coverage so contact NorCal on 125.35 and ask him for a frequency change." What's up with that! I quickly changed frequency, checked in, and immediately asked to terminate flight following, all the while creeping closer to the lateral limit of class D. The new NorCal controller went through the "Radar services terminated, squawk 1200, frequency change approved" mantra in a slow and leisurely fashion, adding "you should contact Livermore tower, you're pretty close to their airspace." Tell me something I don't know ...

The Livermore tower was helpful, obliquely indicating I was in their airspace at the time I called, but my transition was approved. We finally made it across the Altamont Pass where we could climb a bit higher. Next we discovered the winds were howling at all the nearby airports. I settled on Stockton to do a few touch and goes. My landings were not exactly up to my standards. The crosswind component and gusting certainly didn't help, but no animals or airplanes were harmed.

Returning to Oakland, I found the ceilings north of Livermore were high enough and I skirted their airspace. The twist here was that NorCal hadn't given me a frequency change to the next controller. I queried them about this and was told "You're below radar coverage so expect a hand off in 5 miles. If you lose radio contact, try NorCal on 125.35." Then the controller got very busy with a bunch of pilots doing practice approaches and I couldn't get a word in edgewise. As I approached 5 miles from Lake Chabot, I made an executive decision, changed to 125.35, and checked in. The new controller seemed to be expecting me and after just a few moments, handed me off to Oakland Tower.

Talk about do-it-yourself ATC! Is this what we'll get when the Home Depot business model is ultimately applied to ATC?