Thursday, March 27, 2008

Going Solo

I've always been attached to dogs, especially my own dog Hunter, who passed away this morning. My memories of him are many and fond. For each of us who live with or have lived with dogs know the strength of the bond between us and our animals. Others may not understand, may say we are anthropomorphizing, being sentimental, irrational.

It seems that since the beginning, we humans have ascribed thoughts and emotions to animals and the elements as a way to make sense of the world. This is the basis of metaphor and to my mind, serves as the moral foundation of all the arts if not our daily lives. Joseph Campbell explained metaphor succinctly as saying not that "Bill runs like a deer" but that "Bill is a deer." This transference of meaning from our minds to the world around us not only helps us live, it puts us in touch with life, forming the basis of empathy.

Hunter was, like many dogs, a special being. He had a proud carriage and, unlike many Basenji, was intensely interested in people. He would often trot up to a stranger, look up at them, and if they knelt down to meet his gaze, he would stare at them intently, taking in their scent. I have no idea what was going through his mind at times like these, but I often imagined him saying to the stranger "My name is Hunter, perhaps you've heard of me?"

Hunter had little time for people who praised him for being handsome, though he was a handsome dog. He seemed to be able to sense insincerity and would avoid people who didn't understand or respect the human-dog bond. With people like this, he would snort briskly and simply trot away as if to say "I'm not interested in having you touch my head or pet me, thank you very much."

Hunter's full name was Ch. Arubmec's Red October, though I was not into the show dog scene. Hunter stood tall for a Basenji and had a deep brisket. Though he was a champion, he didn't conform exactly to the perfect breed standard. In point of fact, he was more handsome than most of his breed. Seldom could we complete a walk around our neighborhood without someone stopping us and asking "What breed is your dog?" Some people knew the breed and some didn't. He was sometimes mistaken as a Jack Russell terrier and one person even asked me "Is he one of those Jack Daniels dogs?"

Hunter was born in December of 1990. He lived a long predominantly healthy, happy life. He died this morning in my lap at the age of 17 years and a few months. Life without him is going to be lonely, but I like to imagine him flying solo now. And as his spirit approaches its final destination, I imagine him greeting those who are there to meet him with "Hello, my name is Hunter. Perhaps you have heard of me?"

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Approach Planning

The morning fog and stratus pulled back to the center of Monterey Bay, there were only few aircraft in the area, and that gave me time to ponder all the flights I made through this area in my freight hauling days. It brought back a lot of memories - some good, some not so good. But we weren't hauling freight. Our purpose was to provide a little variety during instrument training by mixing some VFR flying across San Francisco Bay with a couple of instrument approaches into Watsonville.

There was initial confusion on the part of a ground controller who sounded like one of many new arrivals to Oakland's North Tower. We'd briefed the VFR transition over the San Mateo Bridge mid-span prior to starting the engine. The briefing included the transition from Oakland's North Field over the South Field, the importance of staying well clear of San Francisco's Class B surface area as well as underneath the overlying Class B, and the existence of a defined VFR waypoint (VPMID) for the San Mateo Bridge mid-span. I'd said to plan for an initial altitude restriction of 1400 feet, but the new ground controller (who was also working tower) gave us a 2000 foot restriction. When handed off to the South Tower at 900 feet, the South Tower controller (a seasoned veteran) queried "Were you given an altitude restriction?" When we told her 2000 feet, she corrected that to 1400 feet.

A few minutes later, we were handed off to the first of several Norcal sectors and were gradually allowed to climb higher as we motored over the Sunken Ship, past Palo Alto and over Moffett Federal Air Field (a former Naval Air Station). A few minutes later, the Lexington Reservoir was beneath us and a bit later, just clear of the Santa Cruz Mountains, we began the descent just to the east of Capitola.

My student had told Norcal that we were "direct NALLS for a practice Localizer 2 approach into Watsonville, with the one-minute weather." The plan was to do the procedure turn on our own navigation, fly the approach to as close to minima as the VFR traffic at Watsonville would allow, then fly the published missed approach and hold over Salinas (a holding pattern I know all too well). After the holding pattern, we planned to fly the GPS A approach because it offers a DME arc and there are precious few of those in Northern California that are also close to the Bay Area.

As we were outbound in the procedure turn, I remembered why the LOC RWY 2 approach sets off my spidey senses: We were beyond gliding distance from the shoreline, over waters frequented by great white sharks, in a single-engine piston aircraft. So I distracted myself by looking for traffic and pondering the other instrument approaches into Watsonville.

If the coastal stratus has blown in, the Localizer RWY 2 approach may be your only real hope of getting into Watsonville because it is the only approach that will probably get you below the clouds - 680' MSL. There is an NDB or GPS B approach that is lined up with runway 2 that gets you almost as low as the Localizer approach - 900' MSL. The VOR/DME or GPS A approach from the southeast that only gets you down to 1300 feet, which is often just above the tops of the stratus layer.

When flying an aircraft with a WAAS-enabled GPS receiver, the WVI GPS B approach is in some ways more attractive than the Localizer RWY 2 approach. One reason is that the G1000 will provide you with a vertical track on the GPS B approach down to the final approach fix (FAF). After the FAF there's no descent guidance on the GPS B, but you don't get any descent guidance whatsoever with the localizer approach. The other advantage of the GPS B approach is you needn't end up as far out to sea when you make your procedure turn as you probably will with the LOC RWY 2 approach.

There are probably many other cases where a RNAV (or GPS) approach gets you lower or offers advantages over a localizer approach - South Lake Tahoe comes to mind. So when you are considering which approach to fly into an airport, don't forget to examine all your options. The advantages of one approach over another is not always as simple as it seems.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

G1000 Wishlist

Having spent several hundreds of hours providing instruction in G1000-equipped aircraft, I've identified some enhancements that could really improve the unit's usability. Some of the features (or were they bugs?) that I've mentioned in earlier posts have actually been addressed by Garmin in software upgrades. I'm not taking credit for inspiring these fixes, but maybe Garmin is listening? With that in mind ...

Disappearing Flight Plan Screen
In a recent software upgrade, Garmin fixed the G1000 behavior of jumping to the end of the flight plan any time you entered cursor mode on the Primary Flight Display (PFD) with the flight plan inset window. It's soooo nice to have it fixed. Now they need to fix the problem of the disappearing flight plan window.

Here's the setup. ATC tells you "When able, proceed direct Linden," so you press the FPL button and scroll with the big knob to select LIN.

Next, you press DIRECT.

Press ENT two times to confirm and you're in business. Unfortunately, the very act of proceeding direct to a waypoint makes the inset flight plan window disappear.

You can press FPL again, but why should you have to?

Hidden Baro Minima
In new G1000 units, you can set the minimum descent altitude or decision height for your approach. When you reach that altitude, you'll hear an aural annunciation "Minimums, Minimums!" (sic). This is a very cool feature, but guess where you access this feature? Press the TMR/REF (timer/reference) softkey and you'll see this inset window.

The TMR/REF window is quite the catch-all because this is where you can change the V-Speeds that are bugged on the speed tape, access a count-up timer, and set the minimum descent altitude. Forget for a moment that changing the bugged V-speed in most light GA aircraft is stupid. How is a pilot supposed to know that he or she can set their minimum descent altitude with this softkey? You need to memorize and remember it's location. If your minimum descent altitude is several thousand feet (like at South Lake Tahoe), you're going to have to twirl that little knob quite a bit to dial in the desired altitude. Actually, the altitude setting is probably optimized for the most frequently occurring altitudes and isn't so bad. Some of the other G1000 altitude inputs make you select one digit at a time, starting with tens of thousands of feet.

Inset Window Amnesia
A related behavior with all the PFD inset windows is that the G1000 does not remember what you were last doing. Press the FPL button to display your flight plan. Then press the TMR/REF softkey to set your Baro Minima. Press the TMR/REF softkey again to dismiss that inset window and ... voila! Instead of displaying the flight plan inset window, there's no inset window displayed at all. The same thing happens if you press NRST, PROC, MENU or any button that displays an inset window. Being able to preserve the last window (or windows) should be child's play for programmers who understand linked lists and the basic concept of LIFO.

XPDR Code, Where Art Thou?
A frequent occurrence when calling ATC to get into the system is being told "Standby for a transponder code." So you press XPDR softkey, the CODE softkey, and wait, ready to punch in the four-digit code.

The problem is that after a few seconds, the G1000 assumes you're done and helpfully dumps you out of the transponder code mode. Gee, thanks ...

Reversionary Mode
As an instructor, I use the reversionary mode a fair amount to simulate the failure of one of the displays for training - the equivalent of partial panel in a steam gauge aircraft. To do this, you press the RED button at the bottom of the audio panel to make both screens display the same basic data - Attitude, Speed, Altitude, engine gauges, and so on. Then press the MENU key and the fun begins.

Using the big knob, you select the brightness setting for the display you wish to make dark and change it from AUTO to MANUAL. Then you select the percentage brightness field and twist the small knob to lower that value to 0%. You must twist, and twist, and twist, and twist, because one complete revolution of the small knob reduces the brightness only about 5%. I'm certain that one day that knob will come off in my hand or just quit working altogether.

One solution would be to have three basic settings: AUTO, MANUAL, OFF. Without some improvement in this interface, Garmin will eventually get sued by some enterprising instructor claiming the G1000 caused repetitive strain injury to their wrist!

Nav Source Change
This is a biggie. The G1000 will automatically (and silently) change navigation source for the HSI (and consequently the autopilot) from GPS to Nav 1 when a ILS approach is loaded. This behavior is generally a good thing, but with the Cessna 172's KAP 140 autopilot in NAV mode, it can be treacherous.

If the KAP 140 autopilot senses the NAV source has been changed, it reverts to the wings level, ROL mode. There's no beep, no chime, no aural alert of any kind. The KAP 140 just flashes ROL for several seconds on the autopilot control panel, but that panel is too low and out of the pilot's primary field of view to be of much help. If the pilot doesn't catch what has happened, the autopilot might just fly him or her into oblivion. One fix for this would be for the G1000 to provide an aural warning "Nav source change" or some other helpful phrase.

Of course, aural alerts can be distracting. A pilot I fly with showed me how to enable aural alerts on an older Garmin GNS480 unit. Unbeknownst to me, this unit was set to a female voice and as I was turning final I heard a very sultry voice say "Five hundred." For a second, all I could think was "Tell me more!"

Friday, March 07, 2008

Speak Up

On February 1, 2008, about 1748 eastern standard time, a Cessna Citation 525, N102PT, crashed in a wooded area in West Gardiner, Maine. The private/instrument-rated pilot and one passenger received fatal injuries; the airplane was destroyed. The flight was operated by a private individual under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed for a flight from Augusta, Maine to Lincoln, Nebraska. The flight had originated from the Augusta State Airport about 1745.

When I heard the news about this crash and learned the pilot hailed from the Bay Area, I was fairly certain I had seen the pilot and her aircraft. And it turns out I was right.

A Citation piloted by a woman regularly departed Oakland on runway 33 and every time I saw her depart, I shook my head and wondered "Why?" Not only is Runway 33 only 3,372 feet long, a jet departing that runway violates the airport's noise abatement procedure which requests that all jet aircraft depart runway 29. But runway 29 is a much longer taxi from the North Field and one can only assume that this pilot wanted as little delay as possible. Runway 27R or 27L would require only a minute more of taxiing, they are significantly longer, and they would have been better, slightly more quiet, and certainly safer choices.

Since this pilot departed runway 33 regularly, more than once I thought about saying something to her over the ground frequency. But I regret to say I never did.
Representatives of the fixed base operator (FBO) at Augusta State Airport stated that the airplane was fueled and moved from the ramp into the FBO's hangar earlier that morning at the pilot's request. However, the hanger is utilized by a part 121 operator that provides service for that area. The operator canceled its 1630 flight due to the weather conditions and needed the hangar to house its airplane. The Citation was taken out of the hangar and moved back to the ramp area about that time. The pilot was informed of this possibility at time of the request and she stated that she understood that the other customer had priority over the hangar space.

Freezing rain and a cold-soaked aircraft are a deadly combination that pilots need to take seriously. It seems like departing without any ground de-icing in weather conditions that have resulted in a part 121 flight being cancelled would be unthinkable.
A person identifying herself as the pilot of N102PT called a flight service station at 1701 to file an instrument flight plan from Augusta, Maine to Lincoln, Nebraska, The pilot received a standard weather briefing for the flight at that time. Witnesses stated that the pilot arrived at the airport about 1715, at which time she and the passenger loaded their personnel effects into the airplane, returned a rental car, and paid for the fuel. She and the passenger then boarded the airplane. Shortly after, about 1730, the airplane's engines were started and the airplane was observed taxing. The FBO representative heard the pilot's announcements over the radio in the FBO. He also noticed the airplane was not on the taxiway, but on the grass area on the south side of the asphalt taxiway. At that time the ground was covered with snow and ice.

For the past hour and a half, the weather condition had turned from light snow to freezing rain, and ice was observed covering the cars in the parking lot. The FBO representative noted the pilot did not activate the airport's taxi and runways lights via the common airport frequency radio channel. It was observed that the airplane taxied through a ditch, which was covered with ice and snow. The airplane's engines were heard at a high rate of power about this time. It was later discovered that the airplane's left main tire broke through the ice and became stuck in the ditch. The airplane continued on the grass area after the high engine power was heard. The FBO representative heard the pilot announce the wrong runway (runway 35) that she was planning to depart from. The FBO representative turned on the runway and taxi lights after hearing the incorrect runway announcement. The pilot later announced a change of departure from runway 35 to runway 17, while the airplane was observed back taxing on runway 26 onto taxiway "C" Charlie. About 1745 the announcement for departure from runway 17 was heard; the FBO representative observed the departure at that time.

Any pilot who has flown for very long has experienced a bad day and some pilots have a three strikes rule. It goes something like this: You arrive to find something wrong, say your aircraft has a dead battery. Strike one. You have a mechanic replace the battery, but now you find that the weather is worse than forecast. In fact, the forecast seems to be way off. Strike two.You're ready to call Clearance Delivery when you realize that the GPS database in your plane is out of date. Strike three. You choose to cancel the flight.
After takeoff, the pilot contacted the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and reported that she was at 1,000 feet, climbing to 10,000 feet. ATC requested the pilot to squawk ident on the transponder. Radar contact was made with the airplane when it was about 2 miles southwest of the Augusta State Airport. About one minute later, the pilot declared an emergency and stated, "We've got an attitude indicator failure". About seven seconds later, the pilot announced over the frequency they were not certain which way they were turning. Radar contact was lost shortly after that.

About 1749, local authorities received several 911 calls from residents reporting a possible airplane crash. A short time later, the airplane wreckage was located about 6 miles south-southwest of the Augusta State Airport. One witness stated to local law enforcement authorities that he saw an airplane fly overhead at a low altitude and moments later observed a large explosion off in the distance.

Let's say you are about to take flight, but you find yourself deep in the count. Maybe you are so committed, so determined to go, that you can't stop yourself. Maybe there's another pilot who's observed your situation, they key the mic and suggest "It looks like it's not your day. Why don't you delay your departure until the weather improves?"
Maybe that other pilot is you.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Know Your Friends

Should you ever find yourself in Point Reyes Station, pick up a copy of the local newspaper, the Point Reyes Light. One of my favorite parts of this paper is the Sheriff Calls which describes law enforcement activity for this rural community. It is written in such a ambiguous yet droll, Joe Friday, sort of way that it's often quite entertaining. Years ago, I read this item:
A man arrived home to find another man inside his house. When he asked the stranger who he was, the man replied "I'm one of your brother's friends." The man told the stranger "I know my brother's friends and you're not one of them." The other man left. When police arrived, they could not locate the man.
A pilot I fly with pointed me to the video below, I watched it and got that slightly sick feeling. An unintentional gear-up landing is a shame because the root cause is pilot error. Forgetting to put the gear down happens regularly and can be traced to several common causes, but like all accidents, gear-up landings are usually the result of a chain of events.

My intent is not to defame or ridicule the people shown in this video, but rather to learn from their mistakes. And the video illustrates at least three broken links in the safety chain: Failure to acknowledge the audible gear warning, failure to follow accepted checklist procedures, and failure to enforce a sterile cockpit during a critical phase of flight.

You can view the video here.

Virtually all aircraft with a retractable landing gear have some sort of gear warning system meant to prevent an unintentional gear-up landing. Gear warning systems typically associate certain aircraft configuration changes with the pilot's intention to land and if the gear handle is up, an audible (and sometimes a visual) warning is provided. Configurations that produce a gear warning usually involve reducing power below a certain threshold or configuring flaps beyond an approach setting while the gear handle is in the UP position.

If you routinely configure your aircraft such that the gear warning is activated, you are conditioning yourself to ignore the warning and this means good checklist procedures and cockpit discipline are the only thing between you and a gear-up landing. So one thing that pilots, instructors, and examiners can do is to avoid intentionally configuring the aircraft in a way that activates the gear warning. There are some training situations where the gear warning will be unavoidable, but that's not usually the case in day-to-day flight operations.

Many pilots who transition to a complex aircraft are not used to the aircraft's increased speed and the extra planning required when descending for an approach to landing. These pilots typically effect a descent by just yanking the throttle back, which activates the gear warning system. Do this on a regular basis and, well ... If you find you need to reduce the power such that the gear horn sounds, why not just consider extending the gear at that point to help the descent? Of course you need to be certain you are at or below the gear extension speed.

You can make routine work to your advantage by performing your Gear Down/Before Landing checklist in a consistent manner, thereby making it a habit. On a visual approach to landing in the traffic pattern, I encourage pilots to perform their Gear Down/Before Landing checklist when they are abeam their intended touchdown point on the downwind leg of the pattern, then again on the base leg of the pattern. Follow this up with a "Three Green and Stabilized" check at 400 feet AGL or so on final. If you are on an instrument approach, perform the Gear Down/Before Landing checklist at or just prior to the final approach fix, repeat it at 1000' AGL and follow it up with a "Three Green and Stabilized" check at 400 feet AGL or just before the minimum descent altitude.

Here's another thing that I find helps pilots verify the three green gear lights are illuminated - Keep your hand on the gear handle until the three green lights illuminate. Don't go any further in your checklist, don't do any other task, just keep your hand on the gear handle and wait. If there is an instructor, another pilot, or a passenger on board, use accepted cockpit resource management techniques by involving them in the process: When you have extended the gear, say to them "Three Green, no red lights, do you agree?" If you involve the front seat passenger or the other pilot or instructor in the process, you'll probably find it easier to enforce a sterile cockpit rule - no conversation that is not directly related to the flight.

Any time you get a gear warning, verbally announce it, especially if your aircraft has a mute switch that allows you to disable the audible warning. And if you know who your friends are - good habits, checklist discipline, and a sterile cockpit - you've made it highly unlikely that you'll ever land gear-up unintentionally.