Monday, April 28, 2008

Where Have all the Pilots Gone?

Learning to fly is a great way to get a new perspective on the world around you. It's also an opportunity to challenge yourself, to focus, to escape your daily grind, visit places you'd otherwise not see, and to make new friends. If you want to be one of a select few, becoming a pilot will put you in a pretty special group: One of 600,000 or so out of a total U.S. population of about 300,000,000. Yet the U.S. pilot population is shrinking and AOPA wants to know why. That's why they are asking pilots to contribute their ideas through this on-line survey. It doesn't take long to complete the survey and offer your suggestions. I got on my soapbox and here are some of the topics I brought up.

Pick an area in aviation and you'll find needless complexity: Aircraft procedures, maintenance, air space, visibility/cloud clearances, regulations on currency, VFR charts. Busy, successful professionals who have the money to learn to fly are put off by the endless stream of details. We certificated pilots take for granted all the messed-up stuff we have to use because we've used it for so long: We've been indoctrinated and we've lost perspective. An overhaul of the regulations and products used by student pilots wouldn't hurt.

Take a look at 14 CFR parts 61 and 91, for example. Three different definitions of "night?" Give us a break. A multitude of cloud clearance and visibility requirements? Most airspace above 10,000 feet has consistent cloud clearance and visibility requirements (5 miles, 1000' above and below, and 1 mile laterally). So for all airspace below 10,000 feet, why not just make the rule 3 miles, 1000 above, 500 below, and 2000 feet horizontal clearance from clouds. Let the requirements for class B remain at 3 miles visibility and clear of clouds. You've just removed a bunch of special cases that most pilots don't remember anyway. If some pilots and operators want to fly VFR in class G in crummy conditions, let them get special training and a rating or logbook endorsement that would cover the reduced VFR visibility and cloud clearance requirements. Right now it seems like pilots need a degree in law to understand the regulations and I'd like to see AOPA lobby for simpler and easier-to-understand regulations.

Here's some more heresy for you: VFR charts and the Airport/Facility Directory are a mess. The AF/D relies on presenting information in a positional format that the user has to memorize. Sure there's a legend at the front, but it contains another level of indirection that requires a bunch of page turning. VFR charts use basically two colors and various types of shading to depict all possible airspace. And if you don't think pilots are confused, just sit in on one of the many flight reviews I give and you'll have more than enough evidence. Sure I complain, but here's just one constructive suggestion. For MOAs, Prohibited, Restricted, and Alert areas, NACO could just put the altitude depictions and the frequency of the controlling agency right next to the airspace depiction. That way, pilots won't have to remember an identifying number, unfold their sectional in flight, and look it up on another part of the chart. Who cares about the hours of operation for an area when you can just talk to the controlling agency and ask them if the area is hot?

The FAA's NOTAM system (notices to airmen) is a mess, as anyone who has waded through an on-line briefing can attest. I understand that an overhaul of this system is in progress and let's hope the end result is an improvement.

The official weather information available to pilots is an obscure system of abbreviations and contractions that owes its existence to the historic limitations of teletypes and mainframe computers. If you need any more evidence, consider how winds aloft are encoded. It's a credit to systems like DUAT, DUATS, and others that they offer plain-language versions of area forecasts, terminal forecasts, and surface observations.

Virtually all of the questions and answers for the various FAA knowledge test are available in advance of the test and you can purchase test preparation software to help you practices for a good score. The FAA, in their attempt to create discriminator-type questions, actually has created some stellar trick questions - the very thing they tell flight instructor candidates to not do when they create tests of their own! The instrument knowledge test has a bunch of question on the automatic direction finder, NDBs, and calculating relative bearing and distance from a station based on degrees of bearing change while NDBs are being phased out faster than you can say "peak oil." For crying out loud, I don't even have access to a plane with a functioning automatic direction finder. And where are the questions on GPS, WAAS, RNAV approach minima, RAIM, or FDE?

Add up all this and the knowledge tests are a game, pure and simple. I tell my students to buy some software, practice over and over, and they'll get a score in the 90% range. The real preparation is in getting them ready for the oral portion of the practical test, where hopefully they will be able to demonstrate their level of knowledge.

Some things the FAA has done well include the publication of the Instrument Procedures Handbook and the recent updates to the Instrument Flying Handbook. These are two excellent examples of what the good folks at the FAA are capable of. And the ability to access instrument procedures on-line was a huge step forward.

It's well known that FAA inspectors have an impressive 70 to 90% first time fail rate for initial flight instructor candidates. I've recommended many CFI candidates and all of them were well prepared. Most of the candidates who passed on their first try were either airline pilots, retired military, or both. So here's a news flash: The initial CFI check ride can often be more of a hazing ritual than a practical test. There's a tremendous emphasis on rote learning and a hodge-podge of learning theory when the stated goal of instruction is to teach pilots to the correlative level of knowledge. Again, the FAA's out-of-touch culture seems to be to blame and recommending instructors are afraid to call them on it, for obvious reasons. I'm all for setting the bar high for would-be flight instructors, but initial flight instructor candidates should pass or fail based on the merits of their knowledge and performance. If we don't have a steady influx of new flight instructors, make no mistake about it, GA will die.

I could go on, but I won't. Instead, I encourage you to visit AOPA's website, get on your soapbox, and let them know what you think will stop the shrinking GA pilot population.

Friday, April 25, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

Continuing with the IFR minutiae of my last few posts, a regular reader asked a question about the new GNSS MEA (Global Navigation Satellite System Minimum En route Altitudes) that are starting to be depicted on low altitude en route charts. So what are these new MEAs, why do they exist, and when would you use them?

Traditionally, a minimum en route altitude on an airway was the lowest altitude at which an aircraft could be operated under IFR and still have adequate ground-based radio navigation reception and two-way radio communication with ATC. There sometimes is a lower altitude published that can be used - the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude - but you need to be within 22 miles of the ground-based navigation station that defines the route segment and no guarantee of two-way radio communication with ATC is provided.

"Special MEAs" were first developed in Alaska under the Capstone project (the precursor to the NextGen system that will supposedly change the National Airspace System). The purpose of these Special MEAs was to allow aircraft to fly at lower altitudes on an airway to stay out of icing conditions while still providing two-way communication with ATC and adequate obstruction clearance. The new GNSS MEAs seem to be an extension of this concept to the lower 48 states in the U.S.

You may be wondering why these new MEAs are called "GNSS MEAs" (Jeppesen uses the term "GPS MEA"). GNSS is an international standard and the U.S. GPS/WAAS is just one implementation of that standard, or at least it will be when all the international requirements are met. As we used to say in the software world - "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them." One reason this distinction is important is that WAAS coverage in the U.S. GPS system, which depends on ground-based reference stations, is not designed to provide world-wide coverage. So while you may be able to use your GPS in Nepal, don't expect to have the additional accuracy that differential GPS (WAAS) would provide if you were located within its service volume.

To use these new, lower GNSS MEAs, it's not clear if your aircraft must be equipped with an appropriate, IFR-certified GPS/WAAS receiver (TSO C145a and TSO C146a), which would include the Garmin WAAS-enabled G1000, GNS 530W/430W. Older, non-WAAS GPS receivers with RAIM capability (TSO C-129), including the non-WAAS G1000 and the GNS 530/430 may also be okay since there are no regs I can find saying they aren't okay for this lower MEA. The latest version of the Instrument Procedures Handbook doesn't provide any information or guidance on GNSS MEAs. Jeppesen airway manuals use different terminology and contain only a brief description.
GPS MEAs are supplemental to and lower than the regular MEA. GPS MEAs are not established for every route, or for every route segment. The absence of a GPS MEA means one has not been provided and the regular route MEA applies. A GPS MEA may be higher than, equivalent to, but not lower than a Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) associated with a given route segment.

GNSS MEAs are depicted in blue with a G suffix, such as 4000G for a 4000 foot MEA for GPS/WAAS-equipped aircraft. The IFR Chart User's Guide published by NACO offers a brief description.

For their part, AOPA is lobbying for GNSS MEAs on one T-route in Oregon that would only provide adequate obstruction clearance without two-way radio communication with ATC. The idea is to provide the absolute lowest altitudes in an area where airframe icing is particularly prevalent, but doing so would introduce a new-to-me concept: An airway MEA that could only be used by one aircraft at a time, similar to the way class E airspace around a non-towered airport is reserved for one IFR aircraft at a time.

While there is a WAAS service model for the U.S. that is used to predict degradations in WAAS service that may affect RNAV approaches, only the larger airports have WAAS NOTAM service. This means that if you plan to fly an RNAV approach into an airport without WAAS NOTAM service or if you plan to use a GNSS MEA, you'd best be using an approved Fault Detection/Exclusion program during your preflight planning. And you best have a plan B, too. Right now, how WAAS outages might affect the use of GNSS MEAs during en route navigation does not seem to be very well thought out.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Messin' with Mr. T

If there was any doubt in your mind that this is the most obscure aviation blog around, this post should put the issue to rest once and for all. After my last post that included some information about T-routes, I got curious about the routes that have been proposed for the San Francisco and Sacramento areas. A little searching uncovered Federal Aviation Administration 14 CFR Part 71 Docket No. FAA-2008-0037; Airspace Docket No. 07-AWP-6, Proposed Establishment of Low Altitude Area Navigation Routes (T-Routes); Sacramento and San Francisco, CA.

A couple of things about this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. First, the public comment period has expired so it seems doubtful that there will be any further public input. If you feel left out, keep in mind that most pilots to whom I've spoken hadn't heard of these proposed T-routes either. Another fascinating aspect of this proposal is that I could find no depiction of the routes, just the waypoints that define the routes and their Lat/Long coordinates.

Using a Mac-based mapping program and a San Francisco Sectional raster map that I purchased and downloaded from NACO, I entered the waypoints and created some maps of these routes. I couldn't find any reference to the proposed minimum en route altitudes for these routes, which would be really good to know about since the smaller aircraft that will probably use these routes tend to be susceptible to airframe icing.


Here's T-257, which routes you from the Big Sur VORTAC to the Point Reyes VORTAC. I'd previously thought the waypoint SUTRO was just west of the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and that the route was quite a distance from the shore which would entail more risk for single-engine aircraft. However an astute reader pointed out an error in the lat/long that as specified in the NPR. This route is very close to a direct route between Point Reyes and Big Sur.

Here's T-259, which gets you between the SAC VORTAC and the San Jose VOR. This route looks pretty good to me, but again I have no idea what the MEA is for this proposed route.

Here's T-261, which could be handy for getting from Half Moon Bay to points east, across the SFO and Oakland arrivals. Again, no MEA seems to be available.

Here's T-263 which gets you from SUNOL to the Scaggs Island VORTAC and points northwest and vice versa. This route is basically the radar vectored route you get when you are arriving into Oakland or Hayward on an IFR flight plan from the northwest. When the Bay Area is on the Southeast Plan, this route might allow you to get on top of the arrivals to Oakland and SFO, rather than being sent to the northeast side of Mt. Diablo and then up the Carquinez Strait. Keep in mind that all of this is pure conjecture at this point.

This all seem reminicent of the NPR for the Leemore MOA that was recently created, a process that was only slightly more publicized. Of course the difference is that these T-routes will provide something that the average pilot might use rather than defining airspace that pilots should avoid.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

T for Two

Continuing on my last post about seldom used G1000 features, here are some uses for the parallel track feature. To keep things interesting, I'll show two examples with one that incorporates T-routes.

T-routes are RNAV routings that have been (or are being) developed for GPS-equipped light aircraft. Many T-routes are designed to help smaller aircraft avoid convoluted ATC routings around arrival and departure paths for large aircraft in Class B airspace. The T-routes I'll use in my example are for the navigating through the Caribbean. T-routes are meant to be used at least 1,200 feet AGL and below 18,000 MSL. Designs for T-routes for the Sacarmento and the San Francisco Bay Area regions are currently making their way through the federal rule-making process. You can read more about RNAV T-routes and Q-routes in the section 5-3-4 of the Aeronautical Information Manual.

A parallel track is simply a GPS computed track that parallels the current leg in the flight plan, either on the right side or the left side, by some number of miles. Once you have created a parallel track, it becomes the active leg and your autopilot can fly it in NAV mode just like it would the original leg. When I first saw this feature described in Garmin G1000 documentation, I thought to myself "Okay, I understand the concept, but why would I ever need it?"

On the aforementioned flight from Petaluma to Oakland, there was another aircraft that appeared near us and it was also headed to Oakland. Since the other plane was about 20 knots faster, Norcal told us to follow them to the airport. We were pretty close to the traffic and though they were 500 feet below us, I thought it a good idea to offset to the left. That's when it hit me that this was the perfect application of parallel track!

You can create a parallel track using either the PFD or MFD flight plan interface, but I'll show the MFD interface. Press the FPL button and note the active leg is shown within the magenta bracket. Press MENU, scroll with the big FMS knob, highlight the Parallel Track option, then press ENT to begin specifying a parallel track for the current leg in the flight plan.

The next dialog that appears lets you select a track that is left or right of the current leg as well as the distance to offset from the current leg. Use the large and small FMS knobs in the usual, Garminesque fashion and then press ENT to activate the track.

Once your parallel track has been activated, you'll see it displayed on the moving map. If your autopilot was engaged in NAV mode, it will intercept and track the parallel track just like it would a normal flight plan leg.

One limitation of parallel tracks is that VNAV (vertical navigation) will be disabled and you won't hear the aural alert "Vertical Track."

Another application of parallel track might be to avoid weather, terrain, or obstacles. Assume you're headed from Ft. Lauderdale Executive to Exuma, Bahamas and you've decided to file IFR, specifying one of the T-routes available in the area. From the airport, you're cleared to SKIPS intersection to join T137, so the first order of business is to put SKIPS into your flight plan.

Make sure you have highlighted the line just after SKIPS in your flight plan, then press the MENU button, select Load Airway, and press ENT. Scroll with the big FMS knob until you see T137 and press ENT.

A convenient intersection to exit T137 for Exuma is FORKK, so select that as the termination.

Now for the application of parallel track. Let's say you're cruising along and you see some nasty cumulus build-ups a few miles to the right of your current track.

You tell ATC you like to offset to the left a few miles and they approve. You create a parallel track 4 miles to the left of your current track and voila!

To delete a parallel track, just enter the flight plan, press the MENU key, then select the Cancel Parallel Track item, press ENT, and you'll be back to the flight plan leg you originally entered.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Covering Your Tracks

Whenever someone asks me why I'm not working for an airline, charter, or fractional operator, I often wonder the same thing. Then I think about the advantages of being a professional flight instructor and contract commercial pilot. I'm fortunate that my work offers plenty of variety and I get a lot of say in when and what I choose to do. I most often fly out of a busy Class C airport, but frequently go to small, non-towered airports. Many of these airports are off the beaten path. Some are exotic (like Ocean Ridge) while some (like Los Banos) seem more boring and deserted. Variety also comes in the form of the different aircraft I get to fly.

It's not uncommon for me to fly five to six different aircraft types in a week and this past week offered exceptional variety. One day I flew an aerial survey job in turbo 206 - lumbering along at 7000 feet over a dozen survey lines, 8 to 10 miles long, while maintaining a mind-numbing lateral course of +/- 10 meters and altitude within +/- 20 feet. A day later, I got a chance to test my G tolerance with a former CFI student of mine in an Extra 300. The Extra, a lightweight two-place aerobatic aircraft with a 300 horsepower engine, is what you might call a solution in search of a problem. It's pretty much the antithesis of a turbo 206 loaded with expensive digital camera equipment. So one day I'm flying tracks through the sky as absolutely straight and level as possible, then the next day I'm making different sorts of tracks - doing aileron rolls, loops and hammerhead turns.

This was my first time in an Extra and while I'm not drawn to aerobatic flying, I still appreciate the precision, skill, and physical conditioning it requires. The Extra 300 gives one the feeling that the plane could handle much more stress than most pilots can handle. This lead to a sense of confidence and trust in the plane along with, ideally, a healthy respect for your own physical limitations. I got too slow at the top of the second loop I attempted and I realized we were going to "fall out," I was very comfortable in letting the nose drop, gaining some airspeed, and just trying again. In normal and utility category aircraft I'm conservative, but in the Extra invites you to wring things out. A wise pilot remembers which aircraft he or she is flying and adapts accordingly - doing this stuff in a normal or utility category aircraft is just stupid.

I also spend a lot of time making IFR tracks with the G1000, which contains so many features that one could make a career out of knowing them all. Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to get creative and try some features that I hadn't used before during an VFR flight. I try my best to know all about the equipment I use, but many of the G1000 features fall into the category of "nice to know." You may never need to use them, but they can be handy in the right setting.

The Along Track Offset feature is pretty simple to grasp - it allows you to create an unnamed waypoint that is a certain number of miles before or after a waypoint in your flight plan. On the flight in question, we'd created a simple flight plan for a return flight from Petaluma Municipal Airport to Oakland. Since NORCAL usually instructs pilots inbound to Oakland from the Northwest to "cross the Mormon Temple at or above 2500, make right traffic runway 27 right," I'd entered the GPS waypoint for the temple - VPMOR.

Cruising at 5500 feet, we'd penetrate class B airspace if we didn't manage our descent, so I created an Along Track Offset that was several miles before the temple. To do this, I went into the Multi-Function Display's flight plan interface, pushed the small FMS knob to enter cursor mode, and scrolled with the big knob until VPMOR was highlighted, then I pressed the ATK OFST softkey.

I then used the small FMS knob to specify a point 7 miles before VPMOR. You press the ENT key to accept commit any changes you make.

Lastly, I assigned an altitude (you can only do this in the MFD's flight plan interface) of 3500 feet at VPMOR-7 and 2500 feet at VPMOR, again using the ENT key to confirm any field inputs.

A few miles later, we heard the aural alert "Vertical Track" and if you have a G1000 with the Garmin AFC autopilot, you can dial in the next altitude using the ALT knobs and use the VNAV button to instruct the autopilot to intercept and track the advisory descent. Our plane had the KAP 140 autopilot, but we were still able to track the advisory descent path.

Another handy feature is Parallel Track, which I'll cover in my next post. For now, I've got to rest my left arm which has some tracks of its own from several inoculations I received yesterday in preparation for an upcoming trip. More details on that trip as they become available.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Very Demanding

When users have trouble with a technology product, they often blame themselves instead of recognizing the problem is in the design of the product they are using. A popular assumption is "If only I were better trained, more diligent, or smarter then I wouldn't have a problem." Hardware and software designers are notorious for creating hard-to-use systems, though there are some notable exceptions. So extending an earlier post on G1000 enhancements I'd like to see, here is another list of improvements. After all, it's only software, right?

HSI, VOR, and Distance
While it is possible to acquire a G1000 installation with DME (and even an ADF), I've only seen such an installation in the Garmin G1000 simulator. In the G1000 installations I've flown, the only time you'll see a GPS-derived distance to a VOR is when that VOR is your current GPS waypoint or when you have the VOR tuned in and have a bearing pointer enabled for on the PFD. It sure would be nice to have the distance to a VOR automatically displayed somewhere on the PFD when the HSI is set to ... (gasp) ... a VOR instead of the GPS.

Engine Instrumentation
The engine indications on the Multi-Function Display (MFD) include Fuel flow, EGT and CHT. These are displayed as small, horizontal bar graphs that allow you to instantly see if the a gauge is not in the normal, green operating range. To access more detailed information, you must press the ENGINE softkey, then press then the  SYSTEM softkey or the LEAN softkey. While hiding complexity is generally a good user interface policy, I'd like to see a numerical fuel flow display in gallons per hours right next to the bar graph instead of having to go to the SYSTEM page to see it. There's plenty of room to show it and the additional visual clutter would be minimal.

PFD Ground Speed
Not showing ground speed near the TAS on the PFD is mind-numbingly dumb. Sure, ground speed is displayed the top of the MFD, but it's not in the pilot's primary field of view and you lose the display in reversionary mode. Ground speed can be a very important piece of information during an instrument approach, especially when performing a circle to land. While the PFD can display the wind speed and direction, the pilot shouldn't have to perform mental math during an instrument approach.

Bearing Pointers
I wish Garmin wouldn't bury the bearing pointer softkeys under the PFD softkey. By that I mean, always have BRG1 and BRG2 softkeys displayed at the top of the PFD's softkey hierarchy. If I had a dollar for every time I watched a pilot pause while they remembered how to access the bearing pointers ...

When you press the PROC button, there is a menu item called Activate Missed Approach, but it seldom seems to be selectable. In fact, reading the Garmin documentation for Cessna piston airframes (which contains several errors by the way), experimenting with the G1000 simulator and the actual units, it's not at all clear to me how this feature is supposed to work. Some G1000 installations have a TOGA (Takeoff/Go around) button for the autopilot, but Activate Missed Approach should be selectable any time an approach is active and the pilot needs to start the missed approach prior to reaching the missed approach point.

Here's just one example that occurs frequently during practice approaches to Sacramento Executive. The ILS is for runway 2, but runway 20 is almost always in use. While the tower will allow you pilots to fly a practice ILS to runway 2, they will always tell you "at minimums [sic], begin your missed approach, start your left turn prior to the end of the runway." In some cases, they'll tell you to start the missed approach even earlier.

The G1000 sees the MAP as a fly-over waypoint and once you fly over it, the unit will suspend waypoint sequencing and display a SUSP softkey. To start navigating on the missed approach course, you press SUSP (and change the HSI source back to GPS if you were flying a localizer). This means you have one to three button pushes to get the party started. Not ideal, but not too bad for single pilot operations.

If you must execute the missed approach prior to reaching the MAP, there is a lot more button pushing and knob twisting to do: Press FPL, press the small FMS knob, scroll to the appropriate leg in the missed approach procedure, press MENU, Activate Leg will be selected by default, press ENT two times (and change the HSI source back to GPS if you were flying a localizer). That's at least six steps during a critical phase of flight.

A more reasonable design would be to press PROC, scroll to Activate Missed Approach, and press ENT. Three button pushes instead of six or more. Even better would be a dedicated softkey that would appear on the PFD once the aircraft is inside the FAF on an approach.

If I worked for Garmin as a user interface consultant, I wonder how much my few last suggestions would be worth?

It would work something like this: Press the Direct button and a HOLD option would be displayed in the dialog that appears. Select the hold option and you'd see another dialog where you could enter the inbound course, the direction of turns, and an optional leg length. Then the G1000 would display the hold and prompt you on how to enter the hold, just like it does for holds contained in defined procedures.

Alternate Airport
The flight plan feature should implement the concept of an alternate airport. By default, anytime you load an approach or arrival procedure, the last airport in your flight plan is the default target. Currently you can edit or add waypoints to the flight plan after a missed approach. If you then clean up the flight plan by deleting the approach, you'll also delete anything you added after the missed approach. D'oh!

Garmin needs to implement a consistent scheme of indentation in the flight plan that clearly indicates waypoints that are associated with an approach (and will be deleted if the approach is deleted) and those that aren't. And if you enter multiple airports in your flight plan, pressing PROC and using Select Approach should provide you with a list of airports, based on what is in your flight plan, from which to select.

While the improvements I've suggested might not increase sales or impress shareholders, they are the right thing to do: A concept that many U.S. companies have lost sight of. Apparently the DoD recognizes that military personnel need an empathetic user interface to be more effective in stressful situations.