Monday, December 17, 2007

The Hard Way

Continuing my review of "enhancements" to the G1000, here's a review of the checklist feature. The checklists are airframe specific and I know of no way to edit their content to add your own items - you get the manufacturer's checklist, period. To access aircraft checklists on the Cessna airframe version of the G1000, press the CHECKLIST softkey on the lower right side of the Multi-Function Display (MFD). Then you'll notice something I found startling - virtually none of the nine unassigned softkeys at the bottom of the display have any function. More on this later.

The first time you press the CHECKLIST softkey on the Multi-Function Display (MFD), the emergency checklists are displayed by default. While this may be a laudable design goal, the first emergency checklist displayed is ENGINE FAILURE DURING TAKEOFF ROLL followed by ENGINE FAILURE IMMEDIATELY AFTER TAKEOFF. Who's going to have time to access these during either of those flight regimes, even with two crew members on board? Maybe the lawyers made them do this, but it's a pretty inconvenient arrangement.

The checklist categories are:


To change to one of the other categories of checklists, you need be sure the unit is in cursor mode, then turn the small FMS knob. There's no indication of that being in cursor mode and turning the small knob are required, you just have to remember that this is how the checklist interface works. So if EMERGENCY PROCEDURES is the default category, why didn't the Garmin designer simply assign a softkey to the remaining five categories? I wish I knew, but the Garmin engineers often seem to favor complex knob twisting sequences to simple key presses. I wonder how many of their designers are pilots and, if so, how often they fly single-pilot with Garmin hardware.

To get out of the emergency checklist, be sure you are in cursor mode (the checklist category is highlighted), then turn the small FMS knob to get a drop-down list of checklist categories, then scroll to the desired category, then press Enter.

Once you have selected the checklist category, you press Enter to check-off each item as you complete it. Note that there are still plenty of softkeys available, but only three are being used.

Once you have reached the end of the checklist and want to go to the next checklist category, near as I have determined, you have to spin the big FMS knob to get back to the top, turn the small FMS knob to get the drop-down list, then select the next category.

While I like the idea of electronic checklists, methinks this particular implementation might be a bit a bit too convoluted. I'll probably continue to play around with it, but a paper checklist is probably a lot easier to use.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Everyone Has to Be Somewhere

Here's a fascinating exchange I heard while flying an aerial survey mission a while back.
Norcal: Mooney 123, use caution, several aircraft have reported numerous hang gliders in the vicinity of Mission Peak.

Mooney: Ah, what altitude are those hang gliders?

Norcal: Mooney 123, they don't show up on my radar, I have no idea.

Mooney: Ah, where is Mission Peak?

Norcal: Mooney 123 your current location is Mission Peak.

Several improvements have been made to the G1000 and to the G1000 simulator software. At this writing, the most recent Cessna airframe G1000 simulator is version 8.01 and it contains some very useful features. One is the new dual mode operation that allows you to display both the Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Multi-Function Display (MFD) simultaneously on your computer screen. You can also resize the screens, just in case you don't have a dual monitor setup. It seemed like just a matter of time for this to be offered.

Since the real G1000 has two computers (PFD and MFD) connected by ethernet, it was natural to assume that two simulator processes could be launched on one computer and interconnected using a local socket. This appears to be what Garmin did, but be advised that the computer horsepower to run this setup is not trivial. Choosing the TAWS option before starting up the simulator basically brought my machine to its knees: Red Xs appeared and disappeared on the PFD indicators and a voice would say "TAWS not available," then a few seconds later "TAWS available," then a few seconds later "TAWS not available" ... over and over. I'd recommend against selecting TAWS unless you have a seriously fast computer with a good deal of memory.

While shortcuts for the standard simulator are automatically created, you have to dig a bit to locate the BAT file that allows you to launch the dual-mode version.

The new version of the G1000 simulator allows you to experiment with the Garmin autopilot/flight director that Cessna chose to not make available on the lowly C172. It also lets you try out the new Victor airway-based flight planning. I'll provide an overview of this feature using the flight planning interface provided on the MFD. A similar, but simplified flight plan interface is provided on the PFD.

Assume you receive the following clearance:
Cessna 12345 is cleared to Reno, on departure, fly heading 310, radar vectors to V6, Squaw Valley, direct. Climb and maintain 5000 ..."

Start by entering the OAK VORTAC after the departure airport. This is important because you can't load an airway unless the preceding waypoint is either a VOR or an intersection on an airway. Then position the cursor on the empty line following the OAK VORTAC and press the Menu key.

A menu appears and you'll need to scroll (I recommend always scrolling with the big FMS knob by default) to the Load Airway menu item and press the Enter key.

Another menu will appear listing all the Victor airways and Jet routes associated with the OAK VORTAC. Select V6 and press Enter.

Yet another menu appears listing all the terminating waypoints for Victor 6. Select SWR (Squaw Valley) and press Enter.

One last dialog appears asking you to confirm that you want to load the airway. Like you'd go to all this trouble by mistake and not want to load the airway? Press Enter to confirm and the airway, along with all the changeover points on that airway, will be added to your flight plan. To help you decide which terminating waypoint to use, the map view next to the flight plan window changes to display the location of the terminating waypoint that you've highlighted.

Changeover points on an airway are often explicitly marked, but just as often they must be identified on a chart by subtle bends in an airway or by a halfway point between two VORs. The big time savings in the G1000's airway-based flight planning feature is that you don't have to stop to figure out changeover points using a paper chart, which is quite useful indeed.

Unfortunately, you can't select an airway, then select another intersecting airway: You must select the waypoint those two airways haven in common, load the first airway, then go through the whole process again for the next airway.

An aside, I find Garmin's use of confirmation dialogs to be both tedious and inconsistent. Frankly, when you're consumed in a classic, heat-of-battle-single-pilot-IFR crisis moment, these dialogs are real time wasters. You go through a bunch of knob twisting to load an airport or a waypoint and it asks you are you sure? But inadvertently press the small FMS knob instead of Enter (which I have seen pilots do countless times) and you're unceremoniously dumped out of whatever you were doing and all the letters you've painstakingly entered are destroyed. Garmin's whole large knob, small knob selection interface has to be one of the worst designs I've ever seen and they continue to propagate it forward when they implement new features, like checklists (which I'll talk about in a future post). But since it's what they provide, I guess we pilots have to hold our noses and just use it. Lucky for us, many of the G1000's other cool features makes it easier to take Garmin's silly user interface faux pas.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Affordable Flying

The price of 100 low-lead is approaching $6US per gallon. A newer Cessna 172 (one that was made in this century) rents for $90 to $120 per hour, sans fuel. The going rate for flight instruction in my area is anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. I used to estimate that the total cost of earning a private pilot certificate was between $7000 and $9000, but now the cost seems to be more in the neighborhood of $8000 to $11,000.

Now if you decide to step up to the plate, the price of earning a private pilot certificate and, say, an instrument rating is equal to the price of a new car. Afterward, how can you maintain your currency without breaking the bank? Here are some suggestions and feel free to comment with your own ideas, too.

Many FBOs offer a block rate which allows you to put a larger block of your money into an account. In exchange for carrying a balance at the FBO, they offer you a discount on aircraft rental. This works to your advantage if you fly at least a couple of times a month.

Consider becoming involved with Angel Flight or a similar charitable organization. You can put your piloting skills toward a good cause and your expenses for each flight may be tax-deductable, too. If that's not your speed, perhaps the Civil Air Patrol might be the ticket.

Find a flying buddy and split flying costs. You can take turns being PIC, you get an extra set of eyes, and even when you're not manipulating the controls you still can look, listen, and learn. It's a great way to keep your head in the game while sharing your flying experience with someone who probably shares your passion for aviation. This can be a great way for instrument-rated pilots to maintain proficiency while splitting flying costs and duties.

Many pilots who have the work space, the skills and the interest take on the project of building their own aircraft. The experimental aircraft market is not for everyone, but it is a way to reduce the cost of acquiring an aircraft while keeping maintenance costs down.

The light sport pilot and aircraft initiatives have touted lower costs, both for the aircraft themselves and for pilot training. I'm still undecided on what to think of the light sport aircraft and the training of sport pilots, but some pilots have told me it's helped them keep flying affordable.

One way, and I'm not kidding here, is to buy your own aircraft. If you purchase an aircraft, by yourself or with a few partners, you may very well be able to reduce your hourly flying costs. Of course you and your partners will be saddled with all the responsibilities of aircraft ownership, but your overall costs may be lower than renting. And you'll learn a ton about aircraft maintenance in the process.

If owning an aircraft seems too expensive, there are organizations out where you really are in a club that shares ownership of one or more aircraft. The cost of entry varies with some clubs only charging a modest initiation fee while others charge hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to scare off less serious pilots. One advantage of a flying club is that since all members own a part of the aircraft, the aircraft is probably exempt from the 100 hour inspection requirement. This is a two-edged sword: The 100 hour inspection exemption can reduce hourly maintenance costs, but it may also provide an opportunity for cost-cutting and sloppily maintained aircraft. If this sort of arrangement interests you, one litmus test is to ask to see the aircraft logbooks. If the club balks, you should walk. If they allow you to look over the logs, what you read can reveal a lot about how the aircraft are cared for.

The cost of fuel has been rising at an alarming rate. While many FBOs charge close to $6US or more, there are some good deals out there and several web sites that can help you locate the good prices. Find the reasonable deals that are reasonably close and give those FBOs your business. You'll save some money and, perhaps, send a message to the larger airports. Unlike automobiles, it often makes sense and takes little extra time to fly somewhere else and buy fuel.

The bottom line is that flying takes money and if you love it, you can find a way to keep at it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Three Kinds of Lies

Much has been written about the pre-Thanksgiving announcement by the White House of their amazing strategy to reduce holiday flight delays, but one of the best has to be the piece by James Fallows. The astounding thing is that virtually no professionals in the news media dug into this story to see if what the White House press release said had any value or basis in fact. Without a competent Fourth Estate it seems the public (flying and otherwise) will believe anything that's put into print.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that it's time to update Samuel Clemens' quote: "There are lies, damn lies, and PR/Marketing."

The fundamental problem with air traffic delays has to do with too little pavement (taxiways and runways), too few gates at the airports, and too many airlines trying to use that pavement and those gates at the same time of day. One contributing factor to this mess is the flying public's unrealistic expectations about how much it should cost to ship their carcasses across the country in pressurized, climate-controlled comfort: In 1955, airfare from New York to London was about $450, which in 2006 dollars would be approximately $3250.

Another contributing factor is the airline industry's unwillingness to face facts, choosing instead to lose money on most every flight and (as the old joke goes) make up for it on volume. Poor service by weary cabin crew who have seen their wages shrink and their pension plans sacked is just the icing on the cake.

So some seemingly smart people did some thinking and decided that light jet aircraft could be created that could take passengers into and out of smaller airports, thereby bypassing the bigger, clogged up airports. On the surface this sounds like a good idea - We need more pavement and these smaller airports are paved - bingo! Let's leverage the underused infrastructure of smaller GA airports. But if Americans have learned anything, it should be to have a healthy distrust when it comes to simple solutions.

I recently accompanied an aircraft owner on an IFR flight to a Class Delta airport just north of San Francisco to have his aircraft serviced at a factory maintenance facility. We were on top of the clouds at 1500 feet, but our destination was reporting overcast skies at 1200 feet and since there were no holes in the clouds, we'd need an instrument approach to get on the ground. Checking in with Center we were told that we were number five for the approach, which was somewhat surprising to me since it was 11 AM on a Thursday morning. After many delay vectors, we finally were cleared for the approach and as we circled for a landing on a different runway I noticed six (maybe more) business jets waiting in line to depart IFR. So I did the polite thing and told the tower we were canceling IFR. The response was "I already did that for you." Fascinating ...

So it seems that not all airport pavement is created equal. And while the light jet/air taxi scheme sounds promising, there are problems with relying on the infrastructure at smaller airports that few seem to be talking about.

In bad weather, the approach control facilities may only be able to handle one IFR arrival or departure at a time and that can create back-ups on the ground and in the air. This is certainly the case when arriving IFR or departing IFR at a non-towered airport since ATC will treat the airspace as a serially reusable resource - only one IFR aircraft can use the airspace at a time. So while a big city airport may be able to depart one aircraft every two minutes or 30 aircraft per hour per runway, a smaller airport may only be able to manage one departure every 10 minutes for just 6 aircraft per runway per hour.

Another problem often overlooked is that many small, non-towered airports don't have surface weather reporting. Under 14 CFR part 135, you can't fly an instrument approach procedure under IFR to a destination airport that doesn't have surface weather reporting. Even fractional operations have similar weather reporting requirements under 14 CFR part 91 Subpart K.

Departing IFR from a smaller airport, pilots operating under 14 CFR part 91 can ignore the takeoff minima published for that airport but commercial operators cannot so you may still end up waiting for the weather to improve. Other things than can delay your departure include difficulty in obtaining your IFR clearance and a departure path that conflicts with air traffic flying on nearby airways or flying instrument approaches into a nearby airport. During bad weather there may be several other aircraft trying to do exactly what you want to do. As the I Ching says, "The way is groovy."

Over the years I've witnessed housing developments growing by leaps and bounds with many developers drawn to the land surrounding a small airport, like a moth to a flame. People who choose to live close to the approach course for that airport may tolerate a Piper Cherokee flying over their houses for years, but most will not tolerate a Gulfstream coming over their house on a regular basis. So new air taxi operations had better plan for noise abatement curfews and the like.

As I waited with the aircraft owner for a simple repair to be made, I kept an eye on the weather at this busy class D airport. The forecast called for VFR conditions, eventually, but the ceilings had barely risen by the time we were ready to depart. The ATIS for our departure notified us that a ground stop program was in effect for IFR aircraft and there was still a line of small jets waiting to take off. We checked the weather and decided we would go VFR under the overcast that had risen to 1800 feet at our departure and was overcast 2500 feet at our destination. After a discussion about there not being any surface observations along our route, it was resolved we'd need a Plan B. Our Plan B, should the ceilings in between get too low around Golden Gate Fields due to strong on-shore flow, would be to return to our departure airport, file IFR, and wait in line.

As we taxied for take off and passed the line of jets waiting for their IFR release, I actually felt lucky to be in a little Cessna.