Monday, November 24, 2008

Needs Work

Merced Castle Airport used to be a base for B52 bombers and the ramp area was (is) huge. I haven't been there in a while, but the bomber parking area used to be lined with large blast fences. The 11,000 feet of runway is longer than most, with overrun areas on each end. I flew there several years ago with a student pilot for a cross-country instructional flight. My student did a nice landing, but missed the first turn off. The next turn off was several thousand feet down the runway and the taxi back to the air museum was excruciatingly long.

When it was time to leave, I jokingly observed "Heck, the ramp is deserted. We could just point to the west and takeoff right here!" We got a good laugh out of that one. Taking off or landing on a taxiway or ramp is something helicopters do regularly, but not fixed-wing aircraft. In an emergency, you can of course land anywhere, but this knowledge didn't prepare me for what I saw a week ago at a nearby, non-towered airport.

I'd arrived with a pilot doing a high-performance checkout with the intention of practicing landings. There was one other airplane in the pattern, so we joined them and the first two times through the pattern provided just the training opportunities that we needed. Then things got busy. Two other aircraft joined the traffic pattern. The common traffic advisory frequency was busy, but everything was going smoothly and I had a good mental picture of who was where. That's when ... it happened.

We'd just started our crosswind turn when we heard a new aircraft announce that they were on short final for the runway exactly opposite what the rest of us were using. Now in theory, all runways are active at a non-towered airport, but going against the flow can be dangerous and needs to be carefully considered and coordinated with other aircraft operating at the airport. I turned and saw the aircraft on short final and was shocked to see an aircraft departing the opposite direction. Each aircraft made a comment on frequency and Mr. Wrong Way said something about how they were "just practicing emergencies." This led me to the conclusion that an instructor was on board, but where did they come from? They seemed to just appear in the pattern out of nowhere.

Mr. Wrong Way made another comment that they saw the opposite direction airplane and that everything was fine. We'd turned downwind and were paralleling the errant aircraft as it offset away from the runway. Mr. Wrong Way passed within 100 feet of the departing aircraft as it climbed out. Mr. Wrong Way continued, overflew the ramp, touched down momentarily on the ramp, and then took off. As he became airborne, he overflew the fuel island and numerous parked aircraft. He continued his opposite direction upwind, overflying houses in violation of the local noise abatement procedures. After his first two radio calls, I never heard another. He departed the pattern and disappeared.

Two days ago, while in the run-up area, I witnessed a Lancair that was told to hold short of the runway by the tower. The pilot actually crossed the hold short line and held between the hold short line and the edge of the active runway. An aircraft passed right by the Lanceair and landed, so I turned to my student and commented "You just witnessed a runway incursion." As the landing aircraft continued its rollout, the Lancair must have really been chomping at the bit because he began to creep onto the runway, a full 10 seconds before the tower told him to position and hold. The tower controller never said anything and, due to the distance between the tower cab and the hold short line, he may have not realized that the Lancair was on the wrong side of the hold short.

On another flight, in the traffic pattern at a nearby towered airport, we were told to extend downwind and follow an experimental aircraft that was inbound on a base entry. My trusty PCAS was mounted on the dash and it alerted us to an aircraft well below. That's when we saw the experimental, inbound on a base entry at about 200 feet AGL, overflying a refinery and, from my perspective, it just barely cleared the tops of the cracking towers.

I recently witnessed several other stupid pilot tricks, but I won't belabor the point. As an instructor, I've never claimed that I've seen it all, but I used to see these sorts of antics once or twice a month. My perception is that this behavior seems to be on the rise and it makes me wonder.

The GA community is, by and large, self-regulated. There aren't many FAA "cops" out there, giving tickets and keeping us honest, Most of the time, self-regulation works just fine. Pilots tend to avoid dangerous behavior because they don't want to get hurt, or worse. When their aircraft gets into a dicey position, a healthy pilot feels uneasy, they may even feel fear. These feelings are good because they tend to keep us from doing dumb ass things. That keeps us from bending planes and it keeps us alive.

More than a few pilots out there seem to lack this healthy perspective. I've given instruction to a few pilots who never seemed to feel fear and their inappropriate reactions to risk scared me. Instructors and experienced pilots need to continue to set a good example, but that might not be enough. Keep your eyes peeled because Mr. Wrong Way and his bretheren are still out there and they seem intent on being selected out of the gene pool. Don't let them take you with them.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Here's a great blog for pilots out there to read, especially this post. The Flying Penguine is written by an ATC trainee working in the Florida panhandle. The author works some pretty complicated airspace and does a nice job of conveying what it's like to deal with a mix of military and civilian aircraft while learning the ropes. Check it out!

A friend who works for a freight operator told of a controller interaction he had recently that highlights a problem for pilots flying technically advanced aircraft. Flying on an IFR flight plan, he was told by one controller to expect a particular approach. He pulled out the chart, briefed the approach, and loaded it into his GPS.

Handed off to the next sector, he was given a heading to fly that didn't make sense and was told to join the approach course. Confused, he asked for which approach the vector was intended. When the controller told him it was for a different approach than he had been told to expect, he realized all his careful preparation was for naught. He asked for a delay so he could reset his equipment, the controller dismissively told him he didn't have time for that. What he got instead is something pilots refer to as a punishment vector away from the airport. This resulted in a considerable delay - certainly more time than he needed. All of this occurred with the pilot flying single-pilot, at the end of his duty day, in IMC.

I'd been flying earlier that day and knew that, at some point, the winds changed and the Bay Area airports switched from the Southeast Plan to the more common West Plan. Something wasn't communicated between the two ATC sectors and the result was that my friend was set-up for a potentially serious problem. This illustrates that many controllers do not understand how important a pilot's set-up can be, especially if the pilot is flying alone. So what's a pilot to do when this sort of thing happens?

Non-standard phraseology is sometimes the best way to get a controller's attention and convey your current workload. Here's an exchange I had departing a holding pattern near Sacramento Mather:
"Cirrus 123, ready for the Rio Vista GPS 25 approach, Travis information delta."

"Cirrus 123, roger, fly heading 240, when able, proceed direct EPPES"

"Heading 240, direct EPPES when able, Cirrus 123"

And 30 seconds later ...
"Cirrus 123, are you direct EPPES at this time?"

"I will be as soon as I finish twisting some knobs and pushing a few buttons, Cirrus 123"

First, don't be bashful about explicitly telling the controller that a clearance is unacceptable. Be polite, but be clear. You may be at too high an altitude, going too fast, or you might need to avoid some unsafe weather. By immediately telling ATC that a clearance won't work, you actually save everyone some time, especially if you can offer an alternative or two. Few things are more dangerous in single-pilot IFR than pressing on, trying to make a bad situation work.

When setting up for an approach, it's a good practice to have all the relevant approach charts readily available. The last thing you want is to be searching for an approach chart at a high workload moment. When I flew freight, my standard procedure was to have these approach charts available before arriving at Oakland.
  • OAK ILS RWY 29
  • OAK VOR 9R
In my case, having the Oakland VORTAC tuned and identified was useful in maintaining situational awareness regardless of which approach I was anticipating. If you think this is overkill, remember that even when the Bay Area is on the Southeast Plan and Oakland is landing runways 11 and 9 left/right, it is often possible (and expedient) for light aircraft to fly the ILS RWY 27R approach and circle to another runway. Having RNAV, VOR, and ILS approaches ensures that you're prepared, even if a navaid goes out of service unexpectedly.

The same principle applies when departing an airport. You may have the SID or departure procedure out, but if your aircraft develops an unexpected problem it sure would be nice to have one or more approach charts ready for an unexpected return. Yet I seldom see pilots prepared for an emergency return to their departure airport.

To handle the unexpected in a technically advanced aircraft, you must be adept with the knob twists and button pushes required to:
  • Select an approach
  • Activate a leg on the intermediate approach course
  • Proceed direct to a fix on the intermediate approach course
  • Activate vectors-to-final
  • Recognize where you are on the approach
  • Quickly select and load another approach, perhaps to a different airport

We tend to assume that a moving map display makes it child's play to know your position on an approach, yet I often see instrument pilots make the crucial mistake of descending below a minimum altitude because they thought they'd passed a fix. So here are some suggestions on ways to improving situational awareness with the G1000 when flying an approach with a lot of stepdown fixes, like the Jackson Hole RNAV (GPS) X RWY 1 approach.

Some pilots keep their situational awareness by displaying the flight plan on the G1000's MFD, which provides a lot of details, like crossing altitudes. Unless you are flying with another pilot in the right seat, this requires more head turning since the MFD is not in your primary field of view. I prefer displaying the flight plan in the inset window on the PFD, which shows the active waypoint and the distance to that waypoint.

You can also set one of the bearing pointers to the GPS. This will display the name of the current waypoint and the distance to that waypoint in your primary field of view. If you've activated a leg of the approach to intercept, the bearing pointer will show the distance to the waypoint closest to the airport. Setting a bearing pointer to the GPS also works well if you have activated the approach with the Vectors-To-Final option. While you're being vectored, the bearing pointer will point to the current waypoint, the final approach fix, just like an ADF would if the FAF was a locator outer marker.

The GPS bearing pointer trick is also helpful when you need to display something that will make the flight plan inset window go away, like the timer window.

If you are practiced at using your GPS, have all the necessary charts at the ready, and aren't bashful about what clearances will and won't work, you'll be better prepared to handle the occasional unexpected curveball.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Many pilots compare a trip to an aviation trade show as like being a kid in a candy store. I know at least one pilot who consciously leaves his credit cards at home so he won't buy something on impluse. This past weekend was the first AOPA Expo event I attended. Held at the San Jose Convention Center, with a static display of aircraft at nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport, I heard around 6,000 people attended the event. After a hour or so in the exhibit hall, I got that geeked-out feeling, like when I've done too much holiday shopping. That's when things start to look like this.

The exhibit hall contained a dizzying array of gadgets, accessories, aircraft, and simulators, but I had a plan: I had identified a few things I definitely wanted to see. And along the way, I ran into some unexpected discoveries.

The first stop for me was the Jeppesen booth where I wanted to look at and purchase the recently released VFR+GPS area charts for San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as the sectional-scale charts for Northern and Southern California. I tried to buy these on-line earlier the previous week at Jeppesen's web site, but their site has been recently redesigned and has plenty of kinks that need to be worked out. I struggled with it for 15 minutes, then decided I'd just buy the charts at Expo and save on the shipping costs.

Overall, I like these charts. I received belated permission from Jeppesen to show excerpts of these charts after my previous post. These charts are easier to read than FAA sectionals and area charts, but there are some minor annoyances. To their credit, the representatives at Jeppesen seemed receptive to the suggestions they were receiving, they seem intent on improving these charts, and they plan to eventually provide coverage for the entire US.

Next stop was the Garmin booth. I played with a G1000 with synthetic vision that was designed as a King Air retrofit. The simulator was running, the closest airport was Ely, Neveda, so I proceeded to the initial approach fix for the RNAV RWY 18 approach. I mostly wanted to play with the flight director/autopilot, but the synthetic vision features were interesting, too.

I definitely like the magenta boxes - the highway in the sky feature - but none of the fixes were highlighted. In the Chelton version of highway-in-the-sky, each fix or waypoint appears on the display as a "tethered balloon" through which you fly. That's a great way to help the pilot keep 3D situational awareness.

There was a big crowd around the new 696, but I found this new unit mostly disappointing. The 696 and 695 seem to me to be electronic flight bags, first and foremost, with XM weather thrown in. I could imagine many corporate flight departments lining up to by them so their flight crews would not have to haul around 40 pounds of approach chart binders. The price point for this unit (over US$3000) puts it out of reach for most GA pilots, who are probably going to purchase a 396 or 496 and carry paper charts. Add the XM weather subscription and the US$400+ annual subscription for NACO charts and you have a hefty price tag that keeps on tugging at your wallet.

Though the 69X form factor is larger than the 396 and 496, I didn't find the approach chart display to be very easy to read - even with my reading glasses on. The Garmin folks told me there weren't any plans to support Jepp charts while the Jepp representatives told me the opposite. Either way, the current approach chart display does not provide a geo-referenced display of the aircraft's position on the approach. I understand that there are technical reasons that make a geo-referenced display difficult, but that is a feature that pilots expect from an electronic chart display and it's something that should be addressed.

Garmin had a chance to replicate the knobs and button used in the G1000 flight plan feature, or at least keep a similar user interface policy. Instead, the designers chose to create a similar looking interface that is actually very different: You use the joystick on the G1000 to move around the map display and to zoom in or out. On the 69X, you use the joystick to make menu selections and there is a separate range rocker switch.

While I don't see many GA pilots having interest in the 69X series, Garmin should nevertheless be commended for getting into the EFB market. Unlike most other EFB implementations currently available, Garmin has a reputation for creating stable hardware and software. I'd expect the 69X series to be just as reliable. Time will tell.

The Cessna Skycatcher looked too uncomfortable to crawl into, but eventually I did contort my average five foot eleven inch frame into the right seat. I'm still amazed the plane won't be IFR certified nor will it be certified for spins. I discussed this with a Cessna representative and he seemed interested in my comments and observations. The ballistic parachute will be located in part of the baggage compartment. I assume the solid motor rocket will eject the parachute package through the plastic window that makes up the roof of the baggage compartment. I bet deploying the cute will create enough noise to really get the pilots' attention! The cockpit doors hinge from the top and if they can be opened in flight, it should allow for some nice aerial photo possibilities.

The Cessna representative assured me that the aircraft has recovered from spins in all sorts of center-of-gravity loadings, but I was struck by the small surface area of the rudder when compared to a C150 or C152.

I eventually sat in the Diamond, Cirrus and Piper Jet mock-ups - yawn! I chatted with the Cirrus rep and he was receptive to my comments about the way they have structured CSIP, so I let him play with the X-Plane Cirrus jet model on my iPhone.

The Bendix/King booth had a nice display of their new Av8tor hand-held GPS and their soon-to-be-released GPS/Com/Nav units. I chatted with them about the Av8tor user interface, which one of the pilots I fly with purchased a few months ago. Though the Av8tor may not be as sexy as the equivalent Garmin hand-held GPS, at least Bendix-King has gotten the price-point right. You can purchase an Av8tor without XM weather for a fraction of the cost of a comparable Garmin unit. And you can add XM weather capability later and still save a wad of dough. Kudos to Bendix-King for thinking of the GA pilot's wallet: Few other manufacturers seem to be doing so.

Many of my readers know that I'm a fan of diesel engines, so I just had to visit the Thielert booth to see their Centurion 2.0 and 4.0 engines on display. The representative was deftly fielding constant questions about the company's recent emergence from bankruptcy and the status of their relationship with Diamond Aircraft and Cessna. But what struck me was the sheer size and weight of these engines. They looked massive and though they offer outstanding fuel economy, the acquisition and maintenance costs seemed quite high.

The Rolls Royce booth provided a real contrast to the Thielert. Their RR500 direct-drive turboprop engine is being marketed as a retrofit for high performance single-engine aircraft. I'm not sure how the cost compares with a comparable Centurion engine, but the 2000 hour interval before hot section inspection seems more reasonable than replacing a diesel engine's gear box every 300 hours. If the Thielert Centurion engines looked heavy, complicated and massive, the Rolls Royce turbo-prop looked small, elegant, simple, powerful, and bullet-proof. I'm not that fond of direct-drive turbo-props, but if I had my jet-A druthers and my wallet was big enough, I'd fly behind a Rolls Royce RR500 any day of the week.

I left this year's Expo with my wallet intact, having only spent money on parking and a bite to eat. I ran into dozens of Bay Area pilots as well as several friends who flew in from points far away. I got to see lots of cool toys and it was certainly worth the freeway traffic and the cost of entry.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Making History

"Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. ... We - even we here - hold the power, and bear the responsibility ..."

From Lincoln's annual address to Congress, December 1, 1862

A screen shot from my iPhone, on November 4, 2008 at 8:01pm PST, when Barack Hussein Obama was predicted the winner of the presidential election.