Wednesday, January 28, 2009

8,000 Words

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mastery of the Aircraft

My hat is off to Ron for blogging about the US Airways ditching accident. I've found it to be a surprisingly sensitive topic among many people, pilots and non-pilots alike. Here we are in a severe economic downturn, the entire country feeling pessimistic and beat-up, and then something miraculous happens like this ditching accident where everyone survives with only one person seriously injured. Anyone who plans to comment on this sort of event had better tread lightly and carefully.

While much of the credit in the US Airways accident goes to the captain, the entire flight crew did an amazing job and this is something the media has largely overlooked. Also largely forgotten are the crews of all the vessels on the Hudson who rushed to the site for the rescue. And how about all the average citizens who gave up their overcoats to the soaked and freezing passengers? And not to take anything away from the captain, the crew of Flight 1594 was incredibly lucky, too.

Engine-out approaches often don't work out well, but this one did. In 1983, the flight crew of an Air Canada 767, which came to be known as the Gimli Glider, performed what was, in many ways, an even more amazing feat: An engine-out approach from FL410 to a decommissioned runway that had been converted to drag strip. The plane was damaged, but there were only 10 people with minor injuries. The aircraft flew out on it's own power after repairs were completed, it was returned to service, and flew for another 25 years. The flight crew was treated poorly for several weeks after the incident. Only later did they get the recognition they deserved.

The captain of Flight 1594 has an impressive resume and I'm certain that all that flight experience helped shape the outcome, either directly or indirectly. Yet the most telling aspect was not what was on Captain Sullenberger's resume, but something his wife said to the press: "He's a pilot's pilot." Those few words speak volumes. This phrase doesn't just imply precise aircraft control, it embodies the hyperbolic phrase the FAA uses in all of the Practical Test Standards used for evaluating pilots during practical tests with an examiner or inspector: "Demonstrates mastery of the aircraft ..."

Mastery of the aircraft entails so much more than being able to perform accuracy landings, or grease the plane on the runway, perform aerobatics, or fly a perfect instrument approach. Mastery is not limited to stick and rudder skills or the ability to program a complex avionics system. Mastery includes judgement, decision-making, and how you conduct yourself among your peers whether your peers are among the highest ranks of the airlines, the military, or the pilots at your local flight school or FBO. This sort of mastery can be applied to any walk of life.

To my mind there is no honor as great as that of being recognized as a "pilot's pilot." If you read this blog regularly, perhaps you have been inspired to improve your flying technique, polish your skills, refine your judgement, evaluate and change your behavior. This is an ongoing process, a type of daily practice. You never know when it might pay off because you never know when you might need "the right stuff."

I believe there are many pilots out there who strive to be "pilot's pilots." They fly aircraft of all sizes and shapes. Some are professionals, some are students, some are instructors, some are recreational flyers. What they have in common is their dedication to the art of flying an aircraft, to being the best pilot they can be each time they fly. Most of these pilots will never be recognized for any single heroic act. Most will fly and toil, largely in anonymity, with only the tacit approval of their peers. You see, this is just a another kind of heroism because heroic acts occur even when no one is there to see them.

Are you master of your destiny, captain of your ship?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Simulated Flight

I spend more time instructing in simulators these days and am fortunate to have access to three very capable devices. Many pilots (myself included) complain that a simulator just doesn't fly like a real aircraft, but time spent in a simulator can save you money. First, there's no fuel bill. Simulators can also save you time because training scenarios can be set-up quickly and, here's the important part, you can pause the simulation, discuss the desired responses, and practice the scenario repeatedly to learn and ingrain the desired responses. And time is money, after all.

Time in an approved simulator with an instructor can be recorded in your logbook and in about an hour, you can knock out six approaches and a holding pattern to keep you instrument current. Depending on the type of simulator, you may log the time toward most any certificate from private to ATP as long as you are receiving instruction from an authorized instructor. The simulators I use are even qualified to be used to complete an instrument proficiency check.

Before you sit down at the controls, you and your instructor need a clear idea of what you wish to accomplish in the simulator. As with any instructional flight, there should be a plan and a pre-flight discussion of that plan. Without a plan, your simulator time will tend to be haphazard, the effectiveness of your training may fall short of your expectations, and you won't get your money's worth. At the completion of your simulator session, there should be a debrief and an objective review of your performance.

Simulator time is a great way want to get acquainted with high-performance and complex aircraft as well as for learning high-altitude operations. In the US, regulations allow you to obtain a high-performance, complex, and high-altitude endorsement from an authorized instructor based on ground instruction and time spent in an approved simulator with a flight model that is representative of the type of endorsement you seek. For each of these endorsements, training will focus on learning the appropriate procedures for normal, abnormal, and emergency operations. 14 CFR Part 61 specifically defines the areas that must be covered for a high-altitude endorsement. Interestingly, you can't earn a tailwheel endorsement in a simulator and based on my time in conventional gear aircraft and the current state of simulation devices, this seems about right.

More and more pilots learn multi-engine operations in an approved simulator prior to training in a multi-engine aircraft and the savings can be significant. Instead of spending over $230 a hour and burning a lot of fuel, you can spend about 25% of that and learn the basics in a simulator. For multi-engine training, the Practical Test Standards (private, commercial, or ATP) will spell out the maneuvers, takeoffs, landings and emergency procedures you'll need to cover. You can experience multi-engine emergencies in a simulator, like engine failure on takeoff at Vmc, that may be too risky to simulate during training in a real aircraft. For many of the maneuvers, it's best to have a simulator with a 180 degree field of view.

For pilots seeking an instrument rating, having access to a simulator has become de rigeur. For practicing instrument procedures by yourself, most any simulator (including non-approved simulators) will do, though you won't be able to log the time. And just as when using an approved simulator, it helps to have a plan or you're likely to end up just messing around.

Learning instrument procedures in a simulator with an authorized instructor allows you to pause the simulation to discuss questions. Pausing the simulation can also give you a chance to catch your breath and regroup, which increases your capacity to learn. With just a few mouse clicks you can practice almost any approach most anywhere in the world. If you've never flown a Simplified Directional Facility (SDF) or Localizer-type Directional Aid (LDA) approach, you can do it easily in a simulator.

Giving quality instruction in a simulator requires the instructor to have a thorough knowledge of the limitations of the particular simulator you'll be using. Nothing is worse than having a pilot wait while you try to work out a simulator glitch, but this sort of thing can and does happen. If it's any consolation, I even experienced such delays during recurrent training in a level D simulator.

A good simulator instructor will know how to set up weather scenarios and equipment failures in a realistic way. And for instrument training to be truly productive, your simulator instructor needs to know how to act like a controller, giving you accurate instructions and approach clearances. There's often more responsibilities for an instructor in a simulator than in a real aircraft

Autopilots are becoming standard equipment in new GA aircraft and more pilots are learning to rely on them to manage their workload when flying single-pilot, especially in instrument conditions. Autopilot usage in an important part of simulator training because it gives you time to concentrate on procedures and emergencies. Some GA pilots still tend to think of autopilot use as cheating, but it's really just a different kind of flying. To be a well-rounded and proficient pilot, you need to regularly practice hand-flying as well as managing the aircraft with the autopilot. If you practice one style of flying and exclude the other, your overall level of safety and flying skill will suffer.

My simulator training for the part 135 flying I used to do always followed a familiar pattern. The first session concentrated mostly on normal VFR maneuvers, takeoffs and landings, and instrument procedures. Of course there was always some funny business. For turbine engines, the engine never started normally the first time: A hot start and a hung start always seemed to occur as did the need for external power starts. These sorts of problems are rarely encountered in real life, if ever, which makes the simulator the perfect place to experience them. In subsequent simulator sessions, you could count on excrement hitting the oscillating device at every turn. Engine failures, blown tires, asymmetric flap extension, icing encounters, runway incursions, thunderstorms, partial panel approaches, and a variety of arcane aircraft systems failures.

When giving simulator training to GA pilots, I like to follow a similar pattern, starting with normal procedures and working up to more the more challenging stuff. One of my favorite scenarios is to have a pilot fly an instrument approach to an airport, have to execute the missed approach, and then while holding over a VOR, experience an engine failure. I choose a VOR near or right on an airport and set the weather to give the pilot a fighting chance. In such a situation, an autopilot can provide valuable assistance in maintaining a power-off descent at the best-glide speed. Another valuable scenario is engine failures and other abnormalities during the takeoff roll or just after takeoff. Pilots often comment that these scenarios really get the blood pumping, even though it's just a simulator.

So grab your PTS and/or your approach charts, find a good simulator and simulator instructor, and take your training up a notch. It's go time!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bump in the Night

At several of the holiday parties I attended, the topic of a recent small plane accident came up. Small planes crashing usually don't make too much news unless someone on board was famous (such as JFK Jr. or Steve Fossett) or the crash site was particularly spectacular and lives were lost on the ground. The crash I was being asked about seemed intriguing to non-pilots because the accident claimed the life of Michael Connell, who was scheduled to testify in an investigation regarding alleged voter fraud in Ohio. Adding to the interest were reports that Mr. Connell had cancelled some previous flights due to mechanical issues and an acquaintance of his seemed concerned that Mr. Connell's plane might have be sabotaged in order to silence him.

Non-pilots' imaginations might run wild at times like these, but most pilots don't like to speculate on the cause of a crash when little information is available. When I was first asked my opinion, the FAA had not even issued a preliminary accident report. So I listened to what people had heard and read. Based on that scant information, I tried to give an educated guess about the pilot, his aircraft, his mission, and the weather. All I knew initially was that the plane crashed somewhere Akron, Ohio, that it was a single-engine aircraft, that Connell was the sole occupant, and the aircraft crashed a few miles from the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, in a residential neighborhood. One news report quoted someone as saying that Connell was a "very experienced" pilot.

The prudent response to questions about an aircraft accident is to focus on the facts, but few were available. Even so, I opined that sabotage seemed unlikely, since the aircraft crashed at the end of a flight rather than the beginning. Another possibility suggested, suicide by airplane, seemed unlikely since the plane crashed during an instrument approach. Who would go to all that trouble if they were just planning to intentionally fly their plane into the ground or the side of a mountain? My answer at the time was that the likely cause for these sorts of accidents usually turned out to be fuel exhaustion or the pilot losing control of the aircraft for some reason. Sabotage, however intriguing, was wild speculation.

A preliminary NTSB report has now been released for this accident and the factors in this accident that are beginning to emerge could prove enlightening for other GA pilots.

45 year old Michael Connell held a private pilot Airplane Single-Engine Land certificate with Instrument Airplane privileges. His third class medical certificate was issued in October of 2007 and at that time he reported 510 hours of flight time. About a year later, one would assume that Connell probably had at least 600 hours at the time of the accident and this would have made him "somewhat experienced" in my book. As an instrument pilot, it seems unlikely that he had logged more than 100 hours of instrument time and probably little of that as pilot-in-command. According to FlightAware, the accident aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had flown at least 13 times in the four months preceding the crash and that would lead me to believe that Connell knew his aircraft fairly well.

The accident aircraft was a 1998 Piper Saratoga II, high-performance turbo-charged single-engine piston aircraft with a retractable landing gear. The internet being what it is, you can find photos of the accident aircraft when it was posted for sale in April of 2003. At that time, the aircraft reported 1055 hours on the engine and airframe since new. Also at that time, the aircraft was equipped with Garmin 530 and 430 GPS receivers, an autopilot with flight director, and a slaved HSI. The plane had a full set of co-pilot instruments but it did not appear to be equipped for, nor certified for, flight into known icing conditions.

The crash occurred in night meteorological conditions at the completion of a flight that originated at College Park Airport in Maryland. According to FlightAware, the aircraft (presumably piloted by Connell) had made flights between these two airports many times in the previous months. Even so, a single-pilot night IMC flight is inherently risky for a relatively low-time pilot and when things go wrong in these conditions, statistics show the results are very likely to be fatal.

According to the NTSB report, Connell was vectored to intercept the ILS RWY 23 localizer two miles from the outer marker and this is where things started to unravel. The controller noticed the aircraft was "well left of the localizer" and offered to vector him back to try again. Connell reportedly said he was correcting and that indicated he wanted to press on. The NTSB report doesn't mention a handoff to the Akron Tower, but at 2.5 miles from the airport, about halfway between the final approach fix and the runway threshold, Connell asked permission to perform a 360 degree turn.

A request for a 360 degree turn for aircraft on an ILS approach and inside the final approach fix is very odd, to say the least. At this point, the Akron surface weather reported 9 miles of visibility, but a broken ceiling of 500 feet and an overcast ceiling at 1000 feet. The controller (presumably the Akron Tower) instructed Connell to climb and maintain 3000 feet and I'd imagine the controller's intent was to hand him back to the approach controller. The controller asked Connell for his current heading, and the response was "due north and climbing" and he then declared an emergency. The impact occurred shortly thereafter.

A witness on the ground reported seeing "two bright lights coming almost nose first toward the ground with the engine 'roaring.'" If accurate, the nose-down attitude would indicate a loss of control due, possibly due to pilot disorientation. But icing may have been an factor, too. Earlier Connell had asked ATC if there were any pilot reports for icing. Unfortunately, there weren't any, but clearly the pilot was aware that ice could become a factor. Even if you have experience with icing encounters, seeing and appraising ice accumulation is quite difficult on an aircraft that is not equipped for known icing conditions. Seeing trace ice accumulating on black de-ice boots in the dark is difficult enough and ice just doesn't show up very well on a wing painted white.

The weather at Akron was bad and rapidly getting worse. In the fifteen minutes between 17:35 and 17:51, the ceiling dropped by 200 feet and the visibility dropped by a mile. By 18:09, 16 minutes after the crash, the visibility dropped to 2.5 miles and the ceiling dipped another 100 feet to overcast at 400 feet. The temperature and dewpoint were -1 degree C. With visible moisture present, airframe icing was to be expected. If the aircraft was accumulating ice, that would explain why the pilot tried to salvage what appears to have been a destabilized approach.

Examination of the aircraft crash site revealed that the propeller had separated, but indicated bending consistent with the engine generating power at the time of impact. The flight controls exhibited no anomalies and the landing gear was extended.

Other details that are eventually released in these sorts of accidents include toxicology reports on the pilot and a summary of radar data. But as of this writing, claims of sabotoge seem unsubstantiated by the facts. What seems apparent is that a single-pilot, night IMC flight by a relatively low-time pilot started to unravel, the pilot pressed on, and the results were tragic.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Happy New Year!
I'm not big on New Year's resolutions and no, I haven't resolved to hike Kilimanjaro, or take a gourmet cooking course, or learn a new language. I tend to resolve to do things on a daily and weekly basis rather than every year. And who really cares what my resolutions are? I think of resolutions as being a private affair between you and your conscience. If telling others what you resolve to do will help keep you on track, then by all means do it. However you make your resolutions, here are the top five things I hope pilots out there will consider adding to their resolutions.

Radio Communication
Self-critique and then clean-up your radio phaseology. Lose the commonly used, and unnecessary words and phrases, like "roger," "with you," "clear of the active," and "any traffic in the area please advise." At the very least, resolve to say "traffic in sight" and "negative contact" in response to ATC's traffic advisories. For some inspiration on how to critique and improve your own radio performance, try reading this excellent post at the Flying Penguin about a controller's quest to identify and break his own undesirable radio communication habits.

Non-Towered Airport Operations
Review this advisory circular and the AIM, then practice what they preach. One example: Entering midfield on downwind at a non-towered airport is often taught to pilots as aiming for the middle of the runway and it's dumb, dumb, dumb. This procedure usually ends up with you entering the downwind leg exactly where other aircraft will be turning crosswind to downwind. Instead, aim for the arrival end of the runway, you'll enter downwind at midfield, and we'll all breathe a little easier.

Handle Your Aircraft with Care
Okay, it might not actually be your aircraft, but you're the pilot-in-command, right? Nothing is more unprofessional than mistreating an aircraft and if you tend to be ham-handed, the first step is recognizing it. Why are you slamming the doors, man-handling the controls, and moving the throttle and mixture like you're playing a video game? None of this is necessary and breaking things will only increase your cost of flying. If the engine needs oil, add some oil. Oil is cheap, engine overhauls and forced landings are expensive. Don't leave your oily paper towel in the seat pocket! You're not doing the next pilot a favor, nobody wants your oily rag, and it's a fire hazard. Walk to the trash can and throw it away. When your flight is completed, take your stuff with you including your trash (and any trash left behind by the last pilot). Instead of hurrying away from the aircraft as if it were about to explode, clean the windshield, install the control lock, lock the doors and secure the plane. You may not think any of this matters, but other pilots are watching and assessing your behavior. Do the right thing and set a good example.

Get a Preflight Briefing
Don't just "get the weather," get an official briefing through FSS, DUAT, DUATS or another approved source. It's not easy, but carefully read the Notices to Airmen that affect your flight. Check for Temporary Flight Restrictions, too. This is an investment in your own safety as well as the safety of your passengers and everyone else.

Get Regular Recurrent Training
One of the safety factors that distinguishes commercial aircraft operations from GA is recurrent training. If it's been a while since you did some training with an instructor, it's time. You can do the Wings program, do practice approaches with another pilot or an instructor, get some instruction in a simulator, or design your own recurrent training program. Recurrent training should also include a review of relevant rules and regulations, aircraft systems, and emergency procedures. If you don't already do so, subscribe to one of the many excellent aviation publications out there. Some, like Callback and the NTSB site are free.

Best wishes to all for a safe, prosperous, and productive New Year!