Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bermuda Triangle

Pilots often think the real work surrounding flying begins once they are airborne, probably because taxiing for takeoff or after landing usually doesn't seem very demanding, interesting, or dangerous. Some of my more harrowing moments in airplanes have occurred during ground operations and the years have taught me that planning, organization, and situational awareness on the ground during single pilot operations can be just as critical as when you're airborne.

The FAA, recognizing the importance of safe ground operations, has published AC 91-73A: Part 91 and Part 135 Single-Pilot Procedures During Taxi Operations, which divides single-pilot ground operations into planning, situational awareness, written taxi instructions, radio communication, and finally taxiing itself. It's a pretty good read, especially for seasoned pilots who may have become a little complacent, and it got me thinking of some of the more memorable experiences I've had while I was just taxiing.


The AC suggests that pilots use SOPs (standard operating procedures) which should be introduced during initial training, applied during each flight, and evaluated during recurrent training. The problem is that GA pilots whose initial training was accomplished under part 61 often have little exposure to SOPs, other than their instructor's biases and what they see other pilots do. My wife says that dogs mostly learn bad habits from other dogs and the same could be said for pilots, so here are some recommended practices for single pilot ground operations.
  • Get a briefing and check for NOTAMs
  • Write down taxi instructions
  • Have the airport diagram out and refer to it
  • Avoid distractions during taxi, like programming the GPS
  • If reading a checklist, hold it up so your peripheral vision is outside
  • If confused about your taxi clearance, get clarification
  • Don't be bashful about asking for progressive taxi instructions
  • Expect the unexpected at non-towered airports, even on the ground
Have a Plan

Before calling for taxi, especially at an unfamiliar airport, it's good to review the airport diagram and mark any NOTAMs for taxiway or runway closures or other changes. Listen to the surface weather (ATIS, ASOS, or AWOS) to determine which runways are in use and look at the airport diagram and estimate the best route to the departure runway. That way when you get your taxi clearance, you'll more likely actually understand it. Jeppesen, for their part, marks hot spots on their airport diagrams and even includes some description of why the areas require special attention.

At larger towered airports, the airport diagram will list all the various clearance delivery, ground, and tower frequencies that you'll need to use. If I had a dollar for every time a pilot asked me what a particular frequency was, I might be sitting on a warm beach, sipping a cool beverage.

Becoming a Literate Pilot

As pilots gain experience I've noticed that many tend to skip the step of writing down the taxi instructions they receive, mistakenly thinking that this is what experienced pilots do. Writing down taxi clearances is easy, especially if you always do it as part of your own personal SOPs.

One morning I called for taxi and got a much more complicated clearance than I had expected. I was used to hearing "taxi runway 28 left via Alpha" but instead was given "taxi 28 left via Delta, Zulu, and Zulu One, hold short 28 right."

A recent change to ATC procedures requires ground controllers to specify the taxiways leading to your departure runway. I heard a pilot recently ask a controller if they had to read back the route, as if it were really that much trouble to do so. I often marvel at how some pilots expend considerable energy in seeing how much they can get away without doing rather than just doing what they know they should.

Be careful that you don't mistakenly hear, write, and read-back the taxi clearance you expect to get. If you read back the incorrect clearance, the controller may not catch your error, hearing what they expected you to say (sometimes called a hear-back error).

Mental Picture

Referring to your airport diagram during taxi can help keep you from making a wrong turn, but it's not foolproof. And don't rely on the ground controller to keep you out of trouble, as witnessed by this takeoff accident where a combination of factors led to the crew taking off on the wrong runway with disastrous results.

I've learned to be especially alert when I hear one controller working both the tower and ground frequencies, which is routinely done at my home airport later in the evening. While I understand that staffing considerations may drive these practices, it carries additional risks for pilots operating on the ground.

One night I called for taxi from the fuel island to parking. I received and read back my clearance. As I began taxiing, I noticed a Lear rolling out on the runway adjacent to my taxiway, both of us approaching a particularly confusing intersection of taxiways locally known as "The Bermuda Triangle." As the Lear taxied off the runway, I heard only the tower's side of the conversation as he was working both tower and ground while the Lear crew was still on the tower frequency. Keep in mind that the Lear and I were the only two aircraft on the field.

I heard the tower say "Lear 123, taxi to parking." After a pause, I heard the tower say "You can take either route" and I knew it wasn't good. Sure enough, the Lear crew chose the route that brought them straight at me - at a high rate of speed I might add. The controller had not said a word to either of us about the other. Sensing a collision was imminent, I turned on my strobes, added power, and sped past just as the Lear's wingtip missed the end of my plane by what I estimate was less than 10 feet. There wasn't any time to say anything on frequency and since the Lear was still on tower and I was on ground, it wouldn't have helped anyway. I have no idea if the Lear crew even saw me.

Eyes Peeled

Several years ago another pilot and I narrowly avoided being hit by another aircraft while doing our engine run-up. The preflight and taxi had been uneventful, but during the engine runup we noticed an anomaly in one of the cylinder head temperature indications. This led us to stay in the runup area longer than usual as we tried to figure out what was causing the high reading. The longer the engine ran, the more the cylinder head temperatures normalized. To fly or not to fly?

We had just resolved to stay in the pattern and watch the engine closely when I caught a glimpse of the aircraft that was headed straight for us. It was a home-built, tailwheel aircraft and I found myself asking aloud "Why is he taxiing so damn fast?" followed by "Jesus, he's not going to stop!" I was certain he would hit us, but at the last moment he jammed on his brakes. This raised the tail of his plane into the air, buried his prop in the pavement, and his craft slid to a stop on it's nose just short of our propeller. We told the ground controller we'd had a near collision in the runup area, that we'd be exiting our aircraft, and that we'd remain clear of the taxiway. The other pilot apologized and confessed he was headed into the sun and hadn't see us.

Speak Up

If you see a conflict unfolding that the ground controller is not aware of, it's critical to say something on the frequency. I frequently see pilots seem to just freeze in these circumstances and wonder why this is so. Perhaps it's because pilots feel intimidated by controllers or mistakenly believe they must always follow their instructions, even if those instructions are going to put their aircraft in harm's way.

Taxiing out for takeoff a few weeks ago, I heard a Gulfstream call for taxi, too. We got our clearance, joined the taxiway and headed to the run-up area. The Gulfstream got their clearance to the South Field and ended up behind us, taxiing in the same direction. That's when we heard a 727 taxiing from the South Field switch to the North Ground frequency. The 727 was ultimately going to be headed in the opposite direction. I knew there was time for us to get into the run-up area and get out of the way, but the ground controller now had a conflict between the Gulfstream and the 727. The controller ended up having the Gulfstream do a 180 degree turn on the taxiway, then taxi onto an adjacent runway so the 727 could pass. And I was glad that we had gotten our little plane well downwind of all the jet blast!

On another occasion, I was taxiing with a student to a local FBO's ramp as a Global Express on the same ramp called for taxi. Ground told him to wait and pass behind us, but I didn't like how that was going to unfold: We'd end up parked right where his jet blast was going to be as he powered up to taxi out. So I suggested to ground that we hold our position on the taxiway a hundred or so yards away and let the bigger guy taxi out, which worked out to be a much better solution for everyone.

Approach Briefing

When you brief your approach to an airport, don't forget to think about where you're going to head once you're clear of the runway. This is a good time to get your airport diagram ready and review what your desired taxi route will be. Don't forget to consider any NOTAMs included on the ATIS you recorded. You did listen to the entire ATIS, right?

Post-Flight & Good Night

You can make your ground operations safer by developing your own SOPs, writing down your taxi clearances, having the appropriate charts available, and thinking ahead. And if something doesn't look right, speak up. You just might prevent some bent metal, cracked composite, or worse.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Going Mod

After using my newly converted Modbook quite a bit, there is some news to report. Overall I think the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) paradigm is definitely where things are headed, especially considering the plans NACO has in store for their system for distributing aeronautical charts. Until Garmin and others wake up and realize that $500 (not $3000) is a reasonable price point for an EFB and $500 per year for chart subscriptions ain't gonna fly with many pilots, it's up to us to roll our own EFB solution. The Modbook is just one possible solution. So let me expatiate on the good, the non-so-good, and the ugly aspects of using one in the cockpit.

The Good
First off, the Modbook just works, pretty much as advertised. With a little practice I've found the pen interface to be workable and, in some cases, even preferable to using a keyboard. I haven't taken any cockpit notes on paper since I got the Modbook. I'm happy to report that I haven't had any serious problems using the Modbook in flight. While the Modbook has become my EFB, it also continues to function as my primary desktop machine, using a bluetooth keyboard, mouse, along with a document stand to hold it in a normal screen-like position. So I haven't really lost any function by going Mod.

I find the screen readable in most lighting situations (the photos don't do it justice), though there are some light conditions where I have to change its orientation. Then again, I have to do the same thing with paper charts in bright sunlight, too. I had the opportunity to compare the Modbook with a Lenovo tablet and the screen readability was about the same. The Modbook screen might be a bit brighter, but it was essentially a tie.

ReadyProcs™ works really well for downloading and displaying terminal procedures. You can queue up needed procedures in advance, in the desired sequence, or you can locate them on the fly. My beef with the tap-to-enlarge feature doing undesirable things when I am just tapping to wake my machine up from a sleep has been fixed in the latest release. The new release also provides support for displaying Airport/Facility Directory information, but just for airports that have instrument procedures. The bottom line for me is that when trying to locate a procedure, ReadyProcs on the Modbook beats finding a paper chart in a Jepp binder or NACO book every time.

Using Acrobat Reader to access the Airport/Facility directory in PDF format (downloadable for free from either PDFPlates or NACOmatic) is also quite usable. Acrobat Reader is not really optimized for a pen-based environment, but it works and the price is certainly right. And my complaints about the bookmark layout for terminal procedures from NACOmatic have been addressed in the lastest release of procedure volumes (but not yet in the by-state packages).

MacGPSPro works well for viewing VFR sectionals and terminal area charts and offers some cool features. Last night I asked a commercial pilot candidate to plan a diversion to a nearby airport and while he skillfully juggled control of the aircraft with a plotter, pencil, and sectional, I just selected the distance measuring tool and drew a line between our current position and said airport. Voila! In about three seconds had the distance and the true course for the diversion (note that I enhanced the course line to make it stand out).

During use the Modbook gets hot, but then again, so did the Lenovo tablet computer I mentioned earlier. And if something is generating heat, it's using power and the Modbook is no exception. Without an external power source, a fully charged battery seems to last about 2.5 hours of continuous use.

Apple introduced a good feature with the Macbook - the Magsafe™ power cord connection, but they did a not-so-convenient thing by not licensing this to third-party manufacturers. But you can buy an auto-style power adapter at a reasonable price from Mikegyver. Apparently they have gotten around the licensing issue by recycling Magsafe connectors rather than by trying to manufacture them. Below are two photos of the Mikegyver unit and a close up of the Magsafe connector.

The Not-So-Good
Given that the Modbook gets hot during use, it can become a bit uncomfortable without an empty right seat on which to set the computer.

MacGPSPro is not really optimized for aviation use: The current position indicator needs to be bigger (or better yet, configurable), the scrolling interface is clumsy, and the buttons and icons need to be bigger (or configurable). And at the risk of starting a debate, I wish I could select a view other than North Up.

PFD viewing with Acrobat Reader is okay, but Reader is really not optimized for pen-based users and bookmarks are a clumsy way to access data. Trying to use the search feature to located airport data is both ambiguous and abysmally slow, so fagetaboutit!

The Ugly

At just over 5 pounds, the Modbook is heavy. The only time I notice the weight is when I have to lift my backpack. And because I use the Lightspeed Mach1 headset, I don't have the added weight of a normal headset or the weight of my flight bag would be even heavier. Most of the time I don't mind the Modbook sitting in my lap, but I recently did my flight review with an instructor friend of mine and during instrument approaches I did notice that approaching decision height with a landing being imminent, I felt a bit uncomfortable. This was made better by switching the Modbook from a portrait position to a landscape orientation.

Modbook won't fit under the seat of Cessnas or Pipers: The seat rails are just too close together or is the Modbook too big?

There are some glitches with the Modbook's WAAS GPS receiver and MacGPSPro. Once you turn off the the GPS receiver and turn it back on, MacGPSPro is unable to initialize the interface and the only fix I've found is to reboot Mac OS.

And the really bad news is that NACO has pretty much crippled the downloadable versions of IFR low altitude en route charts by releasing them only in non-georeferenced format as PDFs. This makes them pretty much useless. A real same, that.

Mod Conclusions

Overall, the good outweighs the not-so-good and the ugly for me. While I look forward to a possible tablet machine release from Apple or someone else that will really fit the bill, I've gone paperless and I don't plan on going back.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Details, Details, Details ...

The National Aeronautical Charting Office recently announced planned changes to their business model that will affect smaller retailers who sell charts to pilots. The new plan requires yearly sales of US$5000 for a retailer to be an authorized chart agent and if smaller agents can't meet the new projected annual sales figure by October 1, 2009, they'll have to buy their charts from a bigger authorized chart agent. AOPA, for their part, says that they were involved in this decision and claims that we shouldn't worry because pilots will continue to be able to buy charts. Some say that AOPA is more concerned with their Jet-A burning contingent than the average private pilot or flight instructor, so let's investigate some of the history of aeronautical charting, what's behind the change in chart distribution, and why I think these changes may be a greater concern for GA pilots than AOPA and others are leading us to believe.

Charting History
According to NACO's web site, the US charting process had its start in the early 1800s, surveying and producing charts for marine navigation. These early charts were available to governmental agencies for free and to the public for a nominal cost, which helped recoup some of the production costs. The number of charts produced gradually increased from 10,000 or so per year in the mid-1800s to 330,000 in 1916, which was made possible by the adoption of copper and then aluminum printing plates. For the fiscal year 2007, over 10 million charts were produced.

The first aeronautical charts were produced by the Aeronautical Branch of the Department of Commerce in 1926 with the stated goal of promoting air commerce. The name was later changed to the Bureau of Air Commerce, then the Civil Aeronautics Administration, and finally to the Federal Aviation Administration that we all know and love. The first series of sectional charts were completed in 1937, they were smaller than today's VFR sectionals, and sold for 40 cents - equivalent to US$5.27 in today's dollars. Today's sectionals sell for just under US$10.

Who's Charts Are They Anyway?
Here are some fascinating facts about NACO products: Members of the US Congress are entitled to 100 free chart products a year. I wonder if they have to pay shipping or if we taxpayers foot the bill for that, too? The main consumers for the NACO chart products are, in order of greatest to least percentage:

Department of Defense - 50.7%
Authorized Chart Agent Sales to Public - 27.9%
NACO Direct Sales to the Public - 11.5%
FAA - 6.9%
Other Government Agencies - 3.0%

Who Pays?

NACO does not allow their charts to be sold below the published retail prices, with some exceptions. You and I pay full price, but the DoD (the largest consumer of chart products) receives a weighted-average discount of 86% off retail. Authorized chart agents get a 40% discount and the FAA gets all their charts for free.

The New Course

There are currently around 2,000 authorized NACO aeronautical chart agents and about 500 nautical chart agents. That number will certainly go down under the new chart retailer policy because $5000 worth of chart sales per year is a lot of charts - about 500 sectionals or about 1000 terminal area charts or 1000 terminal procedures books or 1000 low-altitude en route IFR charts or 1000 Airport/Facility Directories, or some combination of the above.

You can read about forces driving this change in this whitepaper but let me save you some time: It's about money. You see, NACO wants to become an HPO (High-Performing Organization). Translation? They want to cut their operational funding by 20 to 28% while increasing the quality of their products and services. This reminds me of an advertising agency I read about years ago in Communication Arts that had an elaborate plaque on the wall of their reception area that read:

Schedule. Pick two.

I guess it all depends on how you define "performance." Still, the whitepaper does contain some laudable goals, namely to move from expensive negative-to-plate printing process to a computer-to-plate process that should reduce production costs. And there are some very reasonable organizational changes as well as some very intelligent changes to charting design processes and procedures.

Known Charting
In our current culture of perjury and PR bafflegab it can be hard to read between the lines, but I'll go out on a limb here: It seems clear that fewer chart retailers means that pilots will have fewer options for purchasing charts, especially on short notice. The best option seems to be to have a subscription with one of the big on-line ChartMart retailers. It's great to have your charts shipped to you in advance, but what about when you lose a chart or need to buy charts for an area that you are just visiting? Well you may, could - oh let's just get it over with - you're screwed.

On the bright side, if the FAA can't make charts readily available perhaps it could be argued that even without current charts a pilot could still claim compliance under the wording of 14 CFR 91.103 "Preflight Action: Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." If charts aren't available locally, they aren't available and perhaps that implies that having current charts will become a concept similar to "known icing conditions."

Digital Charts
Another option is to use electronic charts (a topic near and dear to my heart lately). Many of the products I've mentioned in recent posts provide real value to the average pilot in a way that NACO seems unable or unwilling to undertake. Many of those products are available at no cost, unless you consider the time it takes to download the data, yet the NACO white paper has some interesting things to say about possible goals for the digital charting products (emphasis mine).
If NACO were to expand its digital product offering, without copyright protection, to meet changing technology and customer needs, it is possible that NACO would experience a decline in retained receipts as revenue from the sale of digital products may not compensate NACO for the decrease in the sale of paper products. If NACO is not able to secure copyright protection, other strategies for maintaining this revenue stream will have to be examined. If NACO is not able to maintain this revenue stream, it will experience a decrease in retained receipts and become more dependent on operations funding.

Moving NACO charts from the public domain to copyright status, if that's what's being implied, would really stifle independent and cost-effective EFB development. This is the most vague part of the white paper, which is fascinating because digital charting is the wave of the future. If NACO is planning on copywriting their products, I'd like to see some proposals on how licensing fees would be handled.

Skeptical Conclusion
The NACO white paper has precious little to say about how a big agent will sell to smaller retailers who cannot meet the US$5000 per year minimum sales, but still want to offer charts. It doesn't take much imagination to see the inefficiencies in such a system, what with the additional time and cost of shipping charts from the big agent to the small agent. It's not at all clear how or even if this will work. Without some sort of oversight, it's unclear what the small retailer might be charged by the big agent (who is getting charts at a 40% discount off retail price).

So the next time you need a replacement chart or a chart on short notice, be forewarned that you will probably be out of luck. And that is what the new, High Performing Organization known as NACO will be offering us. AOPA doesn't seem to have any problem with arrangement, but as with all grand schemes, the devil is in the details.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Future is Here

I enjoy experimenting and playing with new approaches, which probably explains how the idea of converting my 2-year old Macbook to a Modbook took ahold of me. The Modbook conversion was developed by Axiotron and was first announced about a year ago. This meant there were several reviews I could read and even a few on-line videos I could watch. After some creative financing, some scrimping and saving, I was able to take the leap. And it really is a leap because once you go Modbook, you can't really go back - literally and figuratively - as you'll see below. Now that I've fallen down the rabbit hole and come back, here are my observations on just how mod the Modbook really is.

I'd had my Intel Macbook for over two years and had used it for 4 or more hours a day easily, everyday. That's a lot of use and while the machine did (and still does) run fine, the track pad and some of the keys were starting to occasionally act up. This was my first rationalization for going Modbook: I was faced with replacing the keyboard and the trackpad soon anyway, why not go whole hog? Some other rationalizations I came up with include the fact that I use my Macbook for giving PowerPoint presentations to pilots during ground instruction and I sometimes need to draw pictures when teaching concepts like holding pattern entries and the like. So why not have a tablt computer I could draw on? Lastly, I use Photoshop and Illustrator for my writing work and trying to do some tasks with a mouse is not ideal. All of these factors, combined with my EFB dreams, pushed me over the edge.

My first step in tumbling down the rabbit hole was to locate an Axiotron-authorized service center to do the work. I chose TechRestore in nearby Concord, CA. TechRestore offers overnight Modbook service and they mean overnight. After calling and verifying I could drop-off and pick-up the unit myself, I purchased the conversion on their web site. Then I drove to Concord (I had some errands to run there anyway) and found my way to their shop, just off CA HWY 4 about midway between Buchanan Field and the Concord VOR. Here's a time-lapse video of a Modbook conversion put together by TechRestore.

I dropped my unit off around noon on a Monday and by 9:30am the next morning I received a call saying I could pick it up. Once I opened the box and saw my transformed Modbook, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I heartily recommend TechRestore if you are considering this service. They do excellent and fast work.

My first task was to test out the bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I planned to use when sitting at my desk. You can use a VESA style monitor mount to hold the Modbook, but my simple, low-cost solution was to use a document stand I had purchased quite a while back from Anthro. It works great. The Apple wireless keyboard and mouse were given to me by a friend a few months back who no longer used or needed them and they also work just fine. In fact, the keyboard is a big improvement over the tired Macbook keyboard I had grown accustomed to.

Next, I spent some time playing with the pen configuration and the various electronic ink features. When performing input on the screen surface, you have to use the pen that comes with the unit. The pen is stored in a slot at the bottom edge of the Modbook and when not in use is held is place by a small magnet. It comes with several different nibs and I will probably buy a second pen to keep in my pocket. The pen has a nib on one end and a virtual eraser on the other. It also has a two position switch that you can configure using one of the two new system preferences; Pen Tablet and Ink. You use the Pen Tablet preference to set the pen options, calibrate the screen, and customize the pop-up menu pen options.

The Ink preferences let you specify options for how your handwriting will be recognized and whether or not you want to "write" input into any application. I found my handwriting was too sloppy and inconsistent for handwriting recognition to be useful in the cockpit. Instead, I decided on using the write anywhere feature for taking notes and writing down ATC clearances. More on that later.

There's a menu bar item called Axiotron QuickClicks that lets you configure how and when a pop-up keyboard will appear for you to tap on to provide pen input to applications. This pop-up keyboard is activated using the upper button on the pen. Axiotron did a great job implementing the pop-up keyboard because it will mimic whatever keyboard layout and language you have chosen. Rather than the standard QWERTY layout, I happen to use a Dvorak keyboard layout. Did I mention I like to try new things? I think I did ...

Before long I was itching to try ReadyProcs™ and let me tell you it works great. In fact, I came up with a set up that involves rotating the chart view 90 degrees counter-clockwise, resizing the window to about 70% of the screen, and using the Ink window in the remaining space to take notes and write clearances. I hold the Modbook in my lap in "portrait" mode and it looks something like this.

ReadyProcs does not yet provide Airport/Facility Directory support, so I'm using Adobe Reader to access a PDF version that I download from the excellent Nacomatic site.

Last, but not least, I wanted to try out NACO raster sectional charts displayed with MacGPSPro using the built-in WAAS GPS receiver that comes with the Modbook conversion. That's right, a WAAS GPS receiver is included in the conversion. MacGPSPro will import VFR sectionals and Terminal Area Charts without a hitch and it also recognized the new, built-in WAAS GPS receiver. In the short flights I've done so far, the GPS satellite reception and positional accuracy seems to be quite good. Here's what the screen displayed during a recent flight (the little red circle on the screen is the aircraft's current position).

To manage the display of all these applications in flight, I decided to take advantage of the Spaces feature in Mac OS. I defined four spaces; one space for general use, another for ReadyProcs, another for Acrobat Reader displaying the A/FD, and the last one for MacGPSPro. I can quickly access any of these spaces by tapping the pen on the Spaces icon on the menu bar.

I plan to post another, more in-depth report of how it is to use the Modbook in flight, but so far it seems to work fairly well. There are some disadvantages and issues, which I'll cover then. Overall, I'm extremely pleased with the setup.

If you prefer Windows, I'm sure a similar approach could be taken with one of the new, mini Tablet PCs.

The bottom line is that we often resist change, even though there's almost always something fascinating to learn from trying a new approach. Only once you have gone down the rabbit hole do you realize that change is what life is all about.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ready for Prime Time

Funny how the internet works. You're just surfing along, minding your own business, wishing for a convenient way to download and display approach charts when you suddenly discover a cool product like ReadyProcs™. If you've been following my series on Electronic Flight Bags then you already know there are several options for displaying terminal procedures on various computer platforms. I've been using ReadyProcs for several days now and have found many things to like and not much to complain about. What makes ReadyProcs stand out is that it not only displays terminal procedures, it also manages the downloading/updating process. All at an affordable price. Anyone looking for a paperless solution for terminal procedures should test drive ReadyProcs.

Cross-Platform ... Really!
Right out of the gate ReadyProcs does something that few chart readers can do - it runs on multiple platforms. ReadyProcs is implemented in Java and should run on any Mac or PC that supports Java Runtime Environment version 1.6. Note that not all Macs have JRE 1.6 support, most notably those with 32 bit processors and those running older versions of MacOS. Sadly, ReadyProcs won't (as of this writing) run on my hacked Dell Mini 9 due to the 32 bit Intel Atom N270 CPU. Mac users should check out this list to determine if ReadyProcs will work with their machine. I'm happy to say ReadyProcs runs just fine on my Macbook and this should be a wake-up call for NACO: If you're going to use Java then fer cryin' out loud make you product run on multiple platforms. Okay, I feel better now ...

Start by downloading the trial version version of ReadyProcs. Next, you'll need to enter some information about yourself and supply your email address to get a authorization code to activate the trial. The installation process on my Macbook was simple and fast, always a good sign when trying out a new piece of software.

Downloading and Managing Procedures
When you first launch ReadyProcs, you'll see it has two modes: Select Procedures and Manage Volumes. Click on the Manage Volumes button and you'll see all the available volumes of NACO terminal procedures. Simply highlight the volume or volumes you want to use in the list on the left and click on the arrow key to add the selected volume to your list of downloads. You download only those volumes you need.

To remove one or more volumes, select from the list on the right side and use the arrow key to remove. No fuss, no muss. My one suggestion would be to somehow implement a map-style graphic that intuitively shows which volume is associated with which geographic area, but the current set up works fine.

On the lower left side of the window is an option for optimizing the charts for downloading, which reduces the download time by reducing the size of the downloaded files. This also reduces the resolution and clarity of the charts, so you might want to turn this option off if your screen is small or if you want the best possible image. If you turn off this option, you'll need more disk space and the download process will take longer. In either case, you'll want a broadband internet connection.

Once you've downloaded the volumes you want to use, ReadyProcs makes updating your terminal procedures pretty darn easy. Since NACO provides the next cycle of procedures a week or so in advance of the effective date, you can download the next cycle when it becomes available and at your convenience. ReadyProcs will make the new charts available when they become effective and automatically delete the old charts. Simple and slick!

Chart Viewing
Once you've downloaded the volumes of terminal procedures you plan to use, click on the Select Procedures button to start viewing. You can select an airport by entering its 3-character identifier, by its 4-character ICAO identifier, or by a portion of the airport facility name or city name. If there is more than one match, just select the one you want from the list of possible choices.

At the bottom of the selection window are two nifty options that control the display of procedures related to arrival (STARs, CVFPs, and IAPs) or departure (SIDs and takeoff minima). These two options can really simplify your life when the airport you've selected has a ton of different procedures and you don't want to wade through them all.

Other selection options include a favorites list, a history list, and pop-up keyboard for tablet computer users who are using a pen to tap in their airport selection. To be more useful for pen-based computer users, the pop-up keyboard really needs bigger buttons with bigger letters. Maybe it could be resizable, too?

Viewing Procedures
To select a procedure for viewing from the list, simply click or tap on it. I like to rotate the view 90 degrees counter-clockwise to get more screen real estate and a larger image, so that's what I'll show here. To return to the selection screen, just click on the Select tab.

If you open more than one procedure, you'll see a tab for each one you've opened. This makes it easy to create a sequence of charts. Let's say you're departing San Jose for Santa Monica. Start by selecting KSJC and opening the airport diagram, then the San Jose Nine departure. Next. select KSMO and open the KIMO TWO arrival followed by the VOR or GPS-A approach and the airport diagram. Another way would be to add these charts to your list of favorites. All in all, it's a simple design that isn't cluttered and just works.

You can access some other useful options using the Tools-Options menu.

Bang for Buck
You can download the ReadyProcs trial and use it for free until the current chart cycle expires. If you want up-to-date procedures after the cycle expires, you can subscribe or US$6.95 per month or US$70 per year. You can use ReadyProcs on multiple computers and a subscription lets you download as many or as few volumes as you want. By comparison, NACO's d-TPP product costs significantly more, is only delivered on DVD, and is significantly less usable. All in all, I think ReadyProcs is a darn good deal and definitely ready for prime time.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

This 'n That

The past couple of weeks have been uncharacteristically busy for a flight instructor without a medical certificate, but here's a grab bag of items that some readers might find interesting.

Villa of the Basking Hounds

It's been four months since Rio and Taz came to live with us and there's lots of progress to report. At first, Taz was distant and enigmatic while Rio was fearful, underweight and, frankly, more than a bit neurotic. With patience, a regular exercise routine, obedience training, and some TLC these two have begun to blossom. Taz has revealed her playful and mischievous side. Rio, while still a bit thin, has slowly begun to put on weight. He's also become much calmer and no longer shakes at the slightest sound. In fact, he barely reacted to last night's fireworks.

Part of their transformation is due, in part, to regular romps at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline. Situated on the Northeastern shore of San Francisco Bay and just a few minutes drive from our house, Point Isabel is the nation's largest off-leash dog park with 23 acres of space. Here's a photo of Rio and Taz sitting atop a picnic table with the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline in the distance.

We've very glad to have these two basenji in our lives and it wouldn't have been possible without Basenji Rescue and Transport and their dedicated volunteers. If you ever have an urge to donate to a non-profit, BRAT would be an excellent choice.

Lights On, Nobody Home?

For many years there have been two navaids at the Oakland Airport that have not been part of any instrument approach, yet they have been maintained and continued to operate. I'm talking about the CASES outer marker and the RORAY (AK) locator middle marker. I regularly flew with pilots who, while on the ILS RWY 27R, would announce the final approach fix when they saw the blue light flash on their marker beacon receiver. I'd point out, often to their amazement, that the outer marker was no longer part of the ILS and, in fact, wasn't part of any approach into Oakland.

CASES (5 DME from the OAK VORTAC) used to be the FAF for the ILS, but that was changed several years ago. The first change was to move the FAF to 5.5 DME from the OAK VORTAC, add the requirement for DME when flying the localizer-only version of the approach, and call the new final approach fix FITKI. If memory serves me correctly, that was about five years ago. A few months later, the FAF was renamed to CUVSA. The new FAF was located at 5.5 DME, yet the CASES OM at 5 DME continued to function. A few months ago, the FAA even issued a NOTAM telling pilots that the CASES OM would be out of service. Did they not know that it wasn't being used or is it part of some procedure not known to me and which is not published on the NACO web site? Or maybe they just forgot? Beats me!

The RORAY LOM also continued to function, something I'd periodically verify whenever I flew an aircraft that had a functioning ADF (which isn't often these days). I'd dial in 341 on the ADF, watch the needle swing toward the approach end of 27R, and hear the Morse code "AK."

Not wanting to rush to a decision or do something rash, the FAA has finally decided to decommission these two navaids.

Runway Re-Numbering

Astute readers know that the earth's magnetic field is constantly and (usually) subtly shifting. This can and has affected runway numbering schemes, which are supposed to be based on the magnetic direction of the centerline, rounded up or down to the nearest 10 degrees. At Tracy, runways 7/25 recently were changed to 8/26. And runways 16/34 at Davis University just became 17/35.

Now Oakland's RWY 27L and 27R centerlines have been 276 degrees for quite a while and I often had instrument students ask why they weren't 28L and 28R. I had to confess that I didn't know. Now it appears the process to renumber those runways may have finally begun. Again, you don't want to rush into anything ...

Draggin, in a good way

The two questions I answer most often are "Have you gotten your medical certificate back?" and "When will you get your medical certificate back?" I've toyed with the idea of having a button made that simply says "October." That way I could wear the button and when asked either of these questions, I could just point to button. I'm trying to not be impatient and mostly have taken my respite from PIC duties in stride, but I will be glad when this is resolved. It is a reminder to all pilots out there, young and old, to relish all of your flights because we are all just a medical exam away from losing our privileges.

So I decided that resuming the Citbria check-out I started over a year ago might be just what was needed to lift my spirits.

All of my previous tailwheel time was in a 152 Aerobat Texas-Taildragger conversion and I was fortunate to have Ben Freelove as my inital tailwheel instructor. Ben liked to refer to the 152 Texas-Taildragger as the "Scare-o-bat" because of it's occasionally hair-raising takeoff and landing characteristics. By comparison, the Citbria is well-mannered and stable with plenty of rudder and aileron authority.

My instructor for the recent Citbria flights was Jeff Reeder, a seasoned banner-tow pilot who's flown a variety of tailwheel aircraft. Jeff put me through the paces, which culminated in the trifecta: Multiple successive landings on Oakland's 27L - the first a wheel landing on the left side of the centerline, the second a wheel landing on the right side of the centerline, and a three-point landing to a full stop with 2000' of pavement still remaining.

Mountain High

Lastly, here are some photos from a recent mountain check-out flight I did for a former student to Reno-Stead. The winds aloft were fairly calm and we only saw some light turbulence over the Sierra Nevada.

Later this week I'll post a review of ReadyProcs, a slick application for downloading and viewing terminal procedure charts. Until then, here's wishing you a pleasant summer and safe flying.