Friday, May 30, 2008

Blast Off!

After nearly ten full days of delay, the planets align and we're able to depart Frank Zappa's ancestral haunts and resume the ferry flight.
Goin' back home
To the Village of the Sun
Out in back of Palmdale
Where the turkey farmers run, I done
Made up my mind
And I know I'm gonna go to Sun
Village, good God I hope the
Wind don't blow

It take the paint off your car
And wreck your windshield too,
I don't know how the people stand it,
But I guess they do
Cause they're all still there,
Even Johnny Franklin too
In the Village of the Sun ...

Yes, the late Frank Zappa hailed from (or at least attended high school) in the Antelope Valley.

Ten days is not that long when you consider that we effectively lost four days to the Memorial Day weekend. Again, a big debt of gratitude to Juan, Bruce, and the entire staff at Exodus Air for helping us solve a very nagging problem with the engine gauge cluster. And thanks to Jeff at High Desert Avionics for handling some needed changes to the gauge's wiring harness in a timely and elegant fashion.

During the days of delay, we found time to explore the AV and I have two recommendations for dining: Karen's Kitchen Too in Palmdale makes a great breakfast (cash only, no credit cards). Tina's Ristorante Italiano in Lancaster has some of the best pasta, chicken, and fish dishes I've ever had, which is saying something when you consider I practically live on top of the Berkeley "Gourmet Ghetto."

We also took time to visit the Medfly Basenji Rescue in Acton. After the death of our basenji Hunter a few months ago, we can't help but miss the presence of toenails clicking across the floor and we had the pleasure of meeting not only Karen and Chuck, but several wonderful basenji who could be available for adoption by just the right people. It's seldom I meet people with hearts so big. The Medfly Basenji Rescue is a qualified non-profit and donations are needed and greatly appreciated. Think about it ...

Returning to Frank Zappa:
Little Mary, and Teddy, and Thelma too, now
Where Palmdale Boulevard, wo!
Cuts on through
Past the Village Inn, well, & Barbecue now, yeah
(I heard it ain't there . . .
Well I hope it ain't true)
Where the stumblers gonna go
To watch the lights turn blue?

Try as we might, we couldn't find the Village Inn on Palmdale Boulevard, so maybe it isn't there any more after all. But after four plus hours of flying (with a stop for fuel in Tucson), we did find a Village Inn in the West Texas town where we landed tonight. We wanted to get an early start tomorrow, but we lost an hour with the time zone shift and endured over two hours of continuous light chop and occasional moderate turbulence. We might need to sleep in a bit.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Waiting Game

The fascinating thing about maintenance delays in aviation is how so many other things can be affected. I'm waiting for a replacement part that was due to arrive today, but should now arrive tomorrow. If the part arrives and the replacement goes as planned, we'll launch tomorrow at mid-day. If ...

This gives me plenty of time to ponder some other issues. With all the delays, one of my VFR sectional charts has expired. All of the Airport/Facility Directories and Terminal Procedures will expire in a 6 days or so. And the Jepp databases in the two GPS units will expire by then, too. One would think that I'll be through those areas before these things expire. As they say in the world of investing "past performance is no guarantee of future results."

I pass some of the time by looking at the current weather and the forecast charts. The thunderstorm potential is much higher traveling through the southern and southeastern states. There are prog features that California pilots seldom have to concern themselves with, like the dry line that has been dancing back and forth, east then west, in west Texas for the last few days. I've watched the Nexrad images for the Gulf Coast states, seeing light precipitation build into a full-blown thunderstorm in little more that an hour. We may get stuck on the ground as we transit some of the territory ahead and one can only hope we'll be able to find a hangar (if necessary) and maybe some barbeque.

Other, more mundane parts of our planning have begun to be affected. The fresh fruit that we brought for the trip has either been consumed or has spoiled. We're going to need to do some laundry soon. And pilots to whom I give instruction have begun emailing me asking when I'll be back.

If only we knew ...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Who's got The Button

With all the activity surrounding my ferry flight, I've had precious little time to keep up with happenings in aviation. As I made my way through the backlog of reading over the last few days, I noticed that Cirrus has released a version of their SR22 aircraft with a G1000 system instead of the usual Avidyne system. And in classic Cirrus fashion, their marketing team assures us that they are not just jumping on the G1000 bandwagon, no sir. This G1000 has been Cirrusized. The main differences between the usual G1000 and the Cirrusized G1000 are fairly limited, but in addition to the SVS option (Cirrus refers to it as "Perspective") there are some are big improvements.

First, the screens are 12" instead of 10" because bigger is better, right? Well at least there will be room for more fingerprints on the screen surface. The second difference is that this G1000 installation provides a keypad, something that has heretofore been limited to a few aircraft like the Columbia, Mooney, Bonanza, and Baron. If you ask me, all G1000 installations cry out for a simpler way to enter waypoints and limiting the keypad installation seems like more of a marketing gimmick that anything else. But look closely at the keypad and autopilot interface, because there is something revolutionary here.

One of my biggest gripes with the G1000 has been the design of the BARO knob (used to set the barometric pressure for the altimeter) and the CRS knob (used to set the HSI course when in VOR mode or in GPS with OBS mode engaged). In the traditional G1000, these two knobs are concentric with the large outer knob being the BARO setting and the smaller, inner knob being the CRS knob. If I had five dollars for every time I saw a pilot inadvertently change the BARO setting when they meant to adjust the HSI course, well I could have already retired and be sitting on the porch of my beach house, sipping rum from a glass with a little umbrella.

Next to the Cirrus keypad are heading, course, and altitude select knobs. These knobs no longer appear on the G1000 PFD or MFD. That's right, the combined CRS/BARO knobs are no more in the Cirrus. What's more, the frequently used heading and altitude select knobs are in a separate, easy to remember location. Pretty cool.

The other Cirrus difference is an additional button on the autopilot interface labeled LVL, which is being referred to as the Blue Button or the Panic Button. The idea is that if you enter an unusual attitude that does not exceed 75˚ of bank and/or 50˚ of pitch, pressing the LVL button will engage the autopilot and should bring you back to straight and level. I think having a single button to level the aircraft could be a handy thing during high workload moments, but a button for unusual attitude recovery?

One of the most basic skills an instrument pilot learns is to recover from an unusual attitude, especially when they are experiencing spatial disorientation - their inner ear is telling them something that is at odds with what their instruments are telling them. There are two basic unusual attitude scenarios: Nose up and nose down. A common mistake when trying to recover from an unusual attitude is failing to control airspeed, so the first thing to do is look at the airspeed indication. A fast or increasing airspeed means the nose of the plane is pointed down. A slow or decreasing airspeed means the plane is pointed up. I train my instrument students to initiate recovery by adjusting power first.

When recovering from a nose-up unusual attitude, I teach instrument candidates to think "stall recovery": Full power, reduce the pitch attitude, then level the wings. Nose-up unusual attitudes are often caused by a malfunctioning, runaway pitch trim. If that's the case, I can't imagine that the LVL button is going to be of any use since it relies on pitch trim which has malfunctioned.

The nose-down pitch recovery requires that the pilot initiate a spiral dive recovery, just like you learned when you first tried steep turns as a student pilot: Reduce power to idle, level the wings to reduce load on the airframe, then pitch up. If you don't level the wings before pitching up, you not only risk over-stressing the airframe, you may only succeed in steepening the bank angle with the resultant altitude loss and increase in airspeed - referred to by some as the JFK Jr. syndrome.

Assuming the Cirrus autopilot doesn't have autothrottle capability, I can't imagine how the level button can level the aircraft without potentially overstressing the airframe. Perhaps the designers are relying on the rigidity of the Cirrus composite airframe and its hugely effective ailerons. One would assume that they have tested this system and found it works satisfactorily, but I'm still curious.

More importantly, I wonder if this kind of system is going to breed a new kind of instrument pilot with questionable instrument flying skills. It seems doubtful that designated examiners will allow pilots to use the LVL button when demonstrating unusual attitude recovery during an instrument rating check ride, so maybe we're safe for now.

The one thing I wish Cirrus would fix is their own button design. Cirrus needs to protect important bolster switches from being inadvertently turned off. I actually had a student do this during an ILS in actual conditions. Reaching for the heading bug knob, we hit a big bump, his hand came down squarely on the avionics switch, the switch went off, and all the screens and G430s went dark. In Cirrus' G1000 design, the PFD softkeys are very close to the bolster switches and it's easy to imagine bumping one while trying to access a softkey in turbulent conditions. Perhaps they can Cirrusize that problem away ...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cluster's Last Stand

Turns out my previous post was too optimistic. The engine gauge cluster, after being bench tested, failed again once it was installed in the aircraft with new, shorter mounting screws. So we're waiting for another cluster to arrive and with the Memorial Day weekend upon us, the wait will be longer that we'd like.

But this all may have been a blessing in disguise. The weather in SoCal has been unusual for late May, to say the least. With thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes, snow and high winds, I wouldn't have departed with the weather being reported along our proposed route and our alternate routes.

We've made a short detour to San Diego to visit relatives for a couple of days, hoping we'll be able to continue the trip the middle of next week.

With fingers crossed, we wait ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Screw Loose

After several maintenance-related delays I was able to complete a couple of shakedown flights and we departed Oakland under foggy skies early in the morning on the first of many legs of a trip to ferry an aircraft. Though I have never owned an aircraft and probably never will, I think biggest problem aircraft owners face is maintenance. Sure fuel is expensive and it can be tough to find time to fly and maintain proficency, but it's the nagging maintenance issues that eventually lead most aircraft owners and airplanes to divorce. "You can make anything fly if you have enough money," or so the old saw says, but money alone won't cut it.

Finding a great aircraft mechanic can be tough, but once you find one you should consider yourself blessed. There are a lot of good mechanics out there, but one of the differences between a good mechanic and a great mechanic is that you have to hold the good mechanic's hand, cajole them, remind them, and double-check that what you asked to be done has indeed been done. A good mechanic will keep your plane safe to fly and a great mechanic will treat your plane like it was their own. And I think there are many good mechanics out there who could be or would be great mechanics, but they've been beaten down by too many cheapskate aircraft owners and 30 year old aircraft. Harsh words, I know, but true. Yet even with a great mechanic and plenty of money you'll find that unexpected things happen. Expensive things.

Oakland was reporting instrument conditions for our departure, but the skies were clear just to the east. Some pilots file an IFR-to-VFR-on-top flight plan in these situations. Non-instrument rated pilots either wait for the conditions to improve or attempt to fly just under the clouds in hopes of reaching VFR conditions. If you're not instrument-rated, I recommend waiting rather than scud-running. Not wanting to delay our departure and not being interested in scud-running, I filed an IFR flight plan to Tracy, just to the east.

We departed Oakland, punched into the clouds at 1,000 feet, broke out at 2,200 feet, and were given a turn to the east and a climb to 4000 feet. Reaching 3,000 feet, we were in Class Bravo and being clear of the clouds, I cancelled IFR and changed our VFR destination to an airport over 250 miles to the southeast. We had a nice tailwind, blue skies, and an early start.

Since I'll eventually be acting as pilot-in-command outside the U.S. for part of the trip, I needed a new pilot certificate (pilots in the U.S. are not licensed, they're certificated) with the ICAO-required "English Proficient" designation. This is something I decided to take care of well before I knew that I'd be doing this trip. My first attempt resulted in the FAA sending me a certificate that listed the wrong date for my birthday. It took some doing, but I finally got a corrected version.

I had never held an FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit because I've never piloted an aircraft outside the U.S. So I navigated the FCC's website and eventually figured out how to get the permit. Once I knew what I was looking for, it was surprisingly easy to obtain and everything was handled on line. In less than 10 days, I had my permit in hand. The aircraft's owner obtained the FCC radio station license for the aircraft and two more things were checked off my list.

A quick bit of internet shopping before our departure and I was the proud owner of about 30 pounds of navigation charts, terminal procedures, and airport facility directories - enough to cover my route and then some, just in case a diversion is required.

A few days before our departure, the aircraft's owner shipped all the necessary survival equipment for the over-water flights: Life jackets, life raft, GPS personal locator beacon, waterproof hand-held radio, signal flares, and emergency rations. This entailed a bunch more reading and research to be prepared for the unlikely event of a water ditching. Here are some amusing tidbits.

Maintain protection from the elements as much as possible. Keep your clothing on even if it's hot. Rest as much as you can, especially in the hot part of the day. Exercise daily in your limited space by isotonically flexing muscles and wiggling fingers and toes. Be optimistic and keep a sense of humor.

Normally, sharks may investigate your raft and go away without bothering you. Do not dangle hands and/or feet in the water or dispose of raw vomit or body wastes in the water since these may attract and excite sharks. Plastic bag (if possible) vomit and/or body wastes and throw them away from the raft.

But it will be a while before we're "feet wet" - flying over water - because shortly after our first fuel stop, some engine gauges quit working. We'd been flying straight and level for about 5 minutes when I noticed the gauges said the left fuel tank was empty, we had no fuel pressure, no oil pressure, no oil temperature, ...

I glanced out the window at the left engine and it was right where we'd left it, it wasn't on fire, and it was running as smoothly as ever. However, the circuit breaker for the left engine gauges had tripped. We continued on course while I waited for the breaker to cool off, then I tried resetting it. It wouldn't reset and immediately popped back out as soon as I let go.

The best choice was to return to our last stop and hope it would be an easy fix. The mechanics determined the likely cause of the electrical short. I discussed the situation with the aircraft's owner, we devised a repair strategy and everything should be airworthy by tomorrow. Sure we lost a day and a half with this problem, but it would have been a lot longer were it not for Juan and Bruce at Exodus Air Service, who basically dropped what they were doing to troubleshoot my problem.

Ah, the glamour of flying!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Straighten Up and Fly Right

U.S. airport identifiers start with a K, so we enter KOAK in the GPS for Oakland.

But on the chart it just says OAK.

I know, but the GPS thinks that is the ID for the Oakland VOR, so we use the ICAO standard KOAK to refer to the airport.

Okay, so Tyler Municipal Airport is listed on the chart as T74, but we enter it in the GPS as KT74, right?

Oh, I forgot to mention that when a U.S. airport ID contains numbers, you don't prefix it with a K.

That's ridiculous! Why is there such an inconsistent convention for something so basic as an aiport's ID?

I don't know, these conventions grew up over time and now it's just the way it is.

This was just one of many exchanges between me and my wife as I prepared her to be my pinch-hitter on an upcoming cross-country flight. She's flown with me before on long trips, but it's been a while. And though she's not a pilot, she's a fast learner and is eager to assist. Helping her understand the basics of VFR charts has really underscored in my mind how hard-to-use these charts can be. At least U.S. charts are consistently hard-to-use. When we got to the charts that covered the area outside the U.S., things got really interesting.

This upcoming cross-country flight will be the longest one I've ever done and the primary purpose is to ferry an aircraft to its owner. My wife is coming along for the adventure and because she doesn't like the idea of me flying alone and without an autopilot for several days in a row. I'll be relying on her occasionally to keep the plane straight and level while I attend to some in-flight chores, to help locate the appropriate charts, to keep an eye on the handheld GPS with it's XM weather display, and to help program the panel-mounted Garmin 530 and 430 GPS receivers. We also cover in-flight emergencies, the aircraft checklist, and what she'll need to do in the unlikely event that I become incapacitated.

We covered the Garmin 530/430 knobology and while she made the usual beginner's missteps she became adept at the basics of setting communication and navigation frequencies, locating information on the nearest airports, and entering and modifying a flight plan. "Why do they make this stuff so hard to use?" she asked and I again I don't have a good answer.

How to use the supplemental oxygen system was next on the list, so we covered how to connect the cannula, and how to turn on and adjust the flow. We practiced donning our life jackets and discussed when we will wear them while inside the plane. We agreed that we'll put them before taking off for an over-water route, not take them off until we're above 5000 feet, and put them back on when beginning our descent. I'll have the waterproof, handheld radio attached to my vest and she'll have the personal GPS locator beacon attached to her vest. The life raft will be secured behind her seat, where I can reach it should be have to ditch in the ocean.

I'm always extra careful when flying an aircraft that has just been approved for return to service by the mechanics. It's not that I don't trust mechanics, I just know that aircraft maintenance is complicated and mistakes can happen. So I'll use an aircraft acceptance checklist that I created, do a very thorough preflight inspection, look for loose screws, check all the inspection plates, and I'll be the only person on board for the first flight.

On subsequent shake-down flights, I'll cover the basic aircraft engine and flight controls with my pinch hitter. But first the plane has to come back from it's annual inspection. The propellers just came back from the prop shop and have been installed, but the engine ground runs must still be completed and the aircraft logbook updated. I feel like I'm helping create a mosaic out of hundreds of tiny tiles while trying to maintain a normal teaching schedule up to our departure date. All the planning and preparation is tedious and time-consuming, but the big picture is gradually taking shape.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Almost Like Being ...

Musicians and dancers tend to make good pilots, in my experience. For all I know, actors might make good pilots, I've just never had the opportunity to provide instruction to a famous actor or actress and I can't draw any conclusions. I have no idea why Angelina Jolie didn't contact me for flight instruction when she bought her Grand Caravan ... (sigh) ... Moving on, I find that programmers tend to make good pilots, too. What all these folks have in common is that they are practiced at performing a sequence of tasks in time and space.

Several people have asked me what I think of the new $10,000 synthetic vision option for the G1000, called SVS. I've seen the video but I have yet to see the actual unit in person and so my comments are fairly limited. Even so, some fairly obvious observations come to mind.

The "Highway in the Sky" display, something that Chelton Flight Systems has offered for several years on smaller displays, is a great addition to the G1000. The thing I like about "Highway in the Sky" is that is helps instrument pilots visualize, in three dimensions, what they are doing when they fly en route or are flying a departure, arrival or approach procedure. Notice I emphasized instrument pilots. Pilots flying under visual flight rules should be spending the majority of their time looking outside the aircraft, not at pretty colors on the primary flight display. For pilots flying in instrument conditions, the sequence of boxes that appear give the pilot a sense of what is happening and, more importantly, what should happen next. That is very useful indeed.

When it comes to the synthetic vision feature that shows terrain and obstacles, I'm a bit more skeptical. The demonstration videos and screens shots show how the primary flight display renders terrain and obstacles, how the representations change color and provide aural warnings when you get too close to something, and how airport identifiers and runway numbers are displayed.

The first question that comes to mind is "Under what circumstances would the average pilot need to see this sort of obstacle and terrain display?" If you are flying a fixed wing aircraft so close to the ground that towers and power lines are an issue, you're either a military pilot, a crop duster, doing aerial survey work, or you are doing some seriously crazy scud running. In all those cases, you'd better be in VFR conditions and have your eyes outside the cockpit. I guess there are some nightmare scenarios where it could be useful.

Let's say you are in instrument conditions, but you got so confused and so far off the rails that you unwittingly flew close to terrain while in the clouds. This seems unlikely unless you mis-programmed your flight plan because the highway-in-the-sky boxes should keep you out of trouble. Or maybe a controller was vectoring you and mistakenly gave you the wrong heading or altitude, which has happened to me (and others) and seems more within the realm of possibility. On the other hand, having this display might just scare the pants of you while flying the MRY LOC/DME RWY 28L approach because you'll be able to see just how close you come to the mountains on the intermediate approach course!

While the synthetic terrain seems more like a gee-whiz feature, displaying the runway numbers and airport identifiers is a stroke of genius. Any pilot who flies long enough will make a visual approach and line up with the wrong runway by mistake. The NASA database is full of these sorts of reports by all kinds of pilots, including airline pilots. It's even possible to line up on the wrong airport. A good example is mistaking the Hayward Airport for the Oakland Airport when approaching from the East at sunset, something I've seen numerous times with student pilots all the way up to bizjets flight crews who were not familiar with the area.

With the SVS option, the traffic feature has been enhanced to display the traffic on the primary flight display as a yellow ball with an altitude that is in relation to your aircraft's altitude and heading. While I like traffic displays and would rather all aircraft that I fly have them, I also recognize their limitations. The position of traffic shown by a G1000 traffic display is location of where the target was, not necessarily where it is now. While the goal of this new traffic display is admirable, the best way to spot traffic is with your eyes once ATC or your traffic system has alerted you to the general position of the other aircraft.

Too many pilots seem to think that telling ATC they can see the target on their traffic display actually means something to the controller. Unless you have a full-blown TCAS II system and are responding to a resolution advisory, the controller just wants to know if you can see the other aircraft or not. I worry that this type of display will only further some pilot's confusion about their responsibility to see (with their own eyes) and avoid other aircraft.

Overall, I give the SVS option a thumbs up. Of course I'm just a lowly flight instructor and part-time journalist, so the cost of this option is beyond my ken. I do hope to fly a G1000-equipped aircraft that has this option at some point. I understand that the new Grand Caravan's come with the G1000, so maybe one of these days a famous actor (or actress) will contact me for training.

You just gotta believe.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Muddy Boots

Rubber Boots + Muddy Holes = Muddy Boots

So goes the memory device used to remember the formula for calculating the magnetic bearing to an NDB station. The formula is: Relative Bearing + Magnetic Heading = Magnetic Bearing to the station. Let's forget for a moment that no one actually uses this formula in the air while performing Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) navigation. We're talking about a sacred aviation tradition here!

My recent comments about non-directional beacons (NDBs) and the FAA's test questions about them drew some emails from a several readers. Yes, there are still a few pilots out there who actually like using NDBs. For all we know there may even be a few pilots still alive who have fond memories of the A-N range system, though it's hard to carry on a conversation with them since they all went deaf listening to the static and the A-N tone while trying to stay "on the beam."

Let's set sentimentality aside: NDBs and the ADF receivers that use their signals are not terribly accurate and we have significantly easier-to-use navigation systems, namely GPS. With all the emphasis on GPS/WAAS, many pilots seem to have forgotten (or they never learned) that GPS also relies on ground-based facilities. WAAS requires a series of ground stations to calculate the correction messages that provide the 3 meter accuracy offered by differential GPS. In fact, the GPS satellites themselves depend on ground-based support in order to function properly.

The possibility of a GPS failure at a systems level, however remote that might be, is something that many pilots simply don't want to consider. And many pilots don't understand that GPS receivers can and do fail. So while I'm not sentimental about NDBs and LORAN, on more than one occasion it was a lowly ground-based VOR, NDB or marker beacon that saved my bacon when my GPS receiver failed. So the big deal with ground-based navigational aids like NDBs, marker beacons, and LORAN is that they provide something that should be of interest to all pilots - redundancy.

Every few years, the FAA insists that VOR stations will eventually be phased out. Many NDBs have been or are slated to be decommissioned. I don't have access to an aircraft with a functioning LORAN receiver, but I know at least one pilot who does and uses it regularly as a backup. Even marker beacons are being eliminated, presumably to save money, though strangely the old CASES outer marker (which used to be part of the Oakland ILS RWY 27R) still continues to function even though it is no longer associated with any instrument approach or departure procedure. Think about that for a minute - the real estate is still being used, the antenna is still there, and the marker beacon transmitter is still functioning, it's getting electrical power, the electric bill is being paid by someone (probably taxpayers): Talk about the lights being on and no one being home!

Personally, I like the situational awareness that an NDB provides when it is associated with an ILS approach because the ADF needle points in the general direction of the final approach fix. Unlike other radio navigation systems, the ADF provides instant situational awareness once you accept that the needle usually-kinda-sorta points to the station. Virtually all of the planes I fly do not have an ADF or the ADF is broken, so what's a G1000 pilot to do if they want to maintain proficiency in using ADF-style navigation?

If you're getting vectors to intercept an ILS and you've selected the Activate Vectors to Final option, you can get the G1000 to emulate the behavior of an ADF by pressing the PFD softkey, then selecting one of the bearing pointers to use the GPS.

With vectors-to-final selected, the current GPS waypoint is the final approach fix and the bearing pointer will act just like an ADF needle, albeit much more accurately. In the example below, it's pretty easy to see that you are on a left base vector to the localizer.

The ADF-style pointer is also a great way to see when the controller has forgotten about you and you are about to go through the localizer.

A big advantage with the G1000's bearing pointer is that it is superimposed over a slaved heading indicator. Most of the older ADFs in GA aircraft have a fixed card or moveable card that is not slaved. It's even possible to practice NDB-style navigation to any waypoint you choose, so enterprising instructors can still expose instrument students and pilots to a bit of aviation tradition. You can practice wind correction angles, tracking bearings to and from the waypoint, the whole enchilada. You won't even have to get your boots muddy.