Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Falling Leaves

Summer never really seemed to come to my neighborhood this year and though there were a few truly hot days, they've been quickly forgotten. Walking the dogs this afternoon, the air was thick was the unmistakable feeling of autumn. Undeterred by the cold, onshore sea breeze, I have defiantly worn, and continue to wear, shorts. I'll admit I usually find the need of a sweater, too. This year saw more overcast skies than I can remember since moving to Berkeley over 13 years ago and to the Bay Area nearly 25 years ago. We had rainfall in June - a rare event - and so I don't think it's just me.

Impending change has been borne out by our vegetable gardens. Tomatoes and strawberries never really came into their own. The kale and eggplant, thriving in cool weather, are growing like weeds. Even the kids playing in the park know that summer has begun to lay down. Their hoots and hollers, not entirely drained of enthusiasm, are noticeably tinged with melancholy. Still savoring freedom and green grass, knowing it will soon give way to fidgeting under fluorescent light, constrained by rules, rain, and the teacher's droning.

Maybe my perception of the seasons is what has changed. Without an FAA medical certificate for over 10 months, I've done a lot less flying and teaching, spending more time on the ground looking up. This time last year, the opposite was true: I was often on top of those clouds. I tell myself it's been interesting, a growth experience, that I did the right thing, made the complex choice by telling the FAA about my medical issue. We Americans are in love with easy and you can usually tell you've done the right thing because the consequences are seldom simple or easy.

In October I expect to be found qualified to once again hold an FAA medical certificate, having fulfilled the one-year "recovery" period mandated by the folks in Oklahoma City. October is also when I renew my flight instructor certificate. Since I've done a lot less teaching and recommended few pilots for practical tests, I can't renew my instructor certificate based on my activity as an instructor. So while the kids outside play tug-of-war with the last scraps of summer, I lead the way to the classroom, fidgeting in front of my computer, completing an on-line Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic.

The forecasters predict an El Nino year where warmer than usual waters in the Pacific Ocean feed large amounts of moisture into the atmosphere. The jet stream will find its wandering way down from the North and if the weather forecasters are correct, the winds will well up from the Southwest, scoop up moisture from the warm Pacific, and pelt us Californians with steady, unrelenting rain, maybe some snow. And at some point, in October or November, I plan to glimpse the inside of one of those rain clouds, inside a fragile aluminum cocoon, hand resting lightly on the yoke. With a student or perhaps by myself, but once again pilot-in-command because autumn is coming.

Monday, August 24, 2009


After reading about the Great, Failed Modbook experiment, a kind reader offered to lend me their Kindle DX so I could form some opinions based on firsthand use. After using the Kindle for several days, I have some observations to make - some good, some not so good.

Like the eFlyBook that was released about three years ago, the Kindle's electronic paper display is excellent. The print might be a bit small for aging eyes without reading glasses when viewing an entire approach chart on the display, but the contrast and readability in bright light is unquestionably very, very good. The Kindle's size and weight are also excellent, as is the battery life and the quality of construction. The weight is less than most kneeboards and the Kindle can easily fit into a flight bag or rest under your seat when you don't need it. The cost of acquiring a Kindle is just outside what I'd call reasonable, but it's not prohibitively expensive like some other vendor's solutions and with time the price could come down. Lastly, the Kindle has an uncluttered interface and it is capable of storing a lot of data - enough for a ton of terminal procedures and Airport/Facility Directories.

Yet if the Kindle hardware is willing, the software is weak. I had read of the Kindle's PFD handling being crippled by the lack of bookmark/hyperlink support, but actually using the Kindle drove home the point. Without bookmark/hyperlink support or some other way to organize and access information, the Kindle is just an electronic book reader best suited for paging through text one page at a time. That's just not going to cut it for an Electronic Flight Bag where the name of the game is to 1) provide a way to carry a lot of data and 2) provide a way to quickly sift through all that data to locate the chart or data that is needed in flight.

A former NASA researcher friend of mine fiercely (and I think correctly) maintains that devices for cockpit use should be designed so that it takes no more than three or four steps to perform a task. Here is a series of photos showing how long and how many steps it took me to turn on the Kindle, locate the appropriate terminal procedures volume, and display the airport diagram for the Oakland Airport.

You turn on the Kindle by pressing and releasing a switch on the top edge of the unit. When the Kindle I was using was at rest, it randomly displayed one of several illustrations of a famous writer. The illustrations have an odd, almost menacing feel, especially the one of Edgar Allen Poe. The intent seems to be to give the Kindle a bookish, academic feel - probably to make it more appealing to people who are bookish, academic types. I'm told the screen saver can be disabled by a hack. I'll be generous and not count turning on the unit as one of the steps.

PDFs can be downloaded to the Kindle DX using a USB connection to a desktop computer and I'll assume you've already downloaded a PFD file of the terminal procedures or Airport/Facility directory you want to use from Nacomatic or PDFPlates. Now the first step is to locate the appropriate file and this is where the irritating levels of user interface indirection starts. If you're not on the Home screen, you press the HOME button to get there.

I was using a file from PDFPlates and the Oakland Airport diagram is found in a file named SW-2 0909, which stands for the ninth edition of the Southwest Volume 2 for 2009. I think my first ease-of-use suggestion would be to rename this file to something more intelligible because a good user interface never forces a user to maintain context in their head and never assumes that you will always be opening the same volumes and use the same charts. Using the little joystick button called a 5-way, I moved the dark highlighting line down until it was under SW-2 0909 and then pressed down on the 5-way to select that file.

Now if you're using a file from PDFPlates, the first page of the file is an index. If you're using NACOmatic files, the index is on the third page, though it's important that I point out I didn't actually test the NACOmatic version. The index page is where the fun starts. Since the Kindle DX software does not support PDF links, you must locate the three letter identifier of the airport you're interested in, find the associated page number, press the MENU button, cursor with the 5-way to the Go To Page ... item, press down on the 5-way, and prepare to enter the page number. You'll invest many seconds to initiate this procedure, we're up to about seven steps so far, and woe unto him or her who mistakenly enters the wrong page number because it will take several button pushes and more head-down time to start over.

To enter the page number, you use the teeny-tiny keyboard on the bottom edge of the Kindle. To enter numbers, you must hold down the ALT key as you press the numbers and presupposes you can read the labels on the teeny-tiny keys. Your head is really going to be down since you're looking at the lower edge of a unit sitting on your lap or strapped to your leg. With practice, one might be able to do this accurately and repeatably with one hand, but it's probably a two-handed operation.

After you've entered the page number, press the return key and wait for the Kindle to find that page. At this point I'm about halfway through the process and it's been 60 seconds and at least eight steps so far since I started the process of just trying to locate the airport diagram.

Finally I saw the COMO ONE arrival displayed and this is where I needed to page through the section of procedures for Oakland using the NEXT PAGE button to find the airport diagram (which is about mid-way in the stack). If the amount of brain power and mental cross-indexing weren't enough, the Kindle takes anywhere from a second to several seconds to change to next page. It appears the Kindle might do some caching of a page once it has been displayed because paging back seems to go a bit faster. After 2 minutes (I lost count of the button pushes), I've finally located the airport diagram I wanted to display.

What about using the Search This Document feature? Well it all depends on how much time you have or how long you're willing to wait. I found the search to be glacially slow and not even worth the trouble. The procedure for using the A/FD is similar and presupposes you already know quite a bit about the airport you're trying to look up (either it's location within the A/FD or it's three-character identifier).

One way around some of this hassle is that you can create bookmarks to frequently used procedures, but the worst case scenario for usability is having to quickly locate a chart because you need to divert. For this type of use, the Kindle is really not at all usable. This isn't the fault of PDFplates or NACOmatic, by the way: It's the crippled nature of the Kindle software.

Unlike a tablet computer, you can't use the Kindle to take notes, but what about displaying a IFR low-altitude en route chart? I connected the Kindle to my MacBook using the USB cable and copied a NACO L1 PDF. Opening that PDF took over 2 minutes, the resulting image was too small to read, and I couldn't for the life of me get the thing to zoom so using the Kindle to display charts seems like a bust.

Like the Illiad/eFlyBook, I really wanted to like the Kindle. Really, I did, but the bottom line for me is that in its current state, the Kindle misses the (book)mark and is not yet the missing (hyper)link. It may be fine for displaying charts in onesy-twosey fashion, but when it comes to the rapid-fire world of real IFR, it' just ain't ready.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Eschew Obfuscation

I always get a kick out of the government's Federal Rulemaking process, a procedural system for changing regulations that has had far-reaching consequences on US citizens. When a decision is made to change a regulation, there is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and that's supposed to give the general public a chance to comment. If enough comments are received, the proposed changes may be modified or abandoned altogether. This is just what happened a few months ago when there was an NPR to restrict public access to bird-strike data, there was a significant and negative public reaction, and the proposed change was abandoned. This makes the NPR seems like a good process, but sometimes the notices are so arcane that it can be nearly impossible to determine just what is being proposed without being a subject matter expert or hiring an attorney.

I wrote a while ago about proposed T-routes that were submitted to the public simply as a series of latitude and longitude coordinates. Well it's happened again. There is a NPR to create a new restricted area in Southern California in the vicinity of Fort Irwin that would extend from the surface to 16,000 feet and would change the boundaries of an existing Military Operations Area. I don't fly in that area too often, but my curiosity was piqued because of how the area was described.
R-2502A Fort Irwin, CA [New]

Boundaries. Beginning at lat. 35[deg]25'48'' N., long.
116[deg]18'48'' W.; to lat. 35[deg]25'30'' N., long. 116[deg]09'46''
W.; to lat. 35[deg]23'15'' N., long. 116[deg]09'47'' W.; to lat.
35[deg]06'54'' N., long. 116[deg]30'17'' W.; to lat. 35[deg]07'00'' N.,
long. 116[deg]34'03'' W.; to lat. 35[deg]18'45'' N., long.
116[deg]18'48'' W. to point of beginning.
Designated altitudes. Surface to 16,000 feet MSL.
Time of designation. Continuous.
Controlling agency. FAA, Hi-Desert TRACON, Edwards, CA.
Using agency. Commander, Fort Irwin, CA.

Riiight ...

For their part, AOPA announced the NPR and provided a teeny tiny graphic of what was being proposed. So being a good citizen, I used MacGPS Pro and dutifully entered the six lat/long coordinates onto a downloaded LA VFR sectional. This should give you a better idea of the new restricted area being proposed.

The area is just West of the Baker airport and North of the Barstow-Daggett airport and the Daggett VOR. I don't have a problem with the new restricted airspace since it doesn't seem to eat into the narrow corridor of available airspace that pilots use when transitioning over the Mojave Desert, I do have a problem with the area not being described in a way that the average person can understand, thereby preventing or limiting the amount of comments.

Perhaps I've missed something and this proposed restricted area is a bad idea. Or maybe the idea of further carving up the national airspace system for military use rubs you the wrong way. In any event, if you'd like to comment on this NPR I'll make it very easy: Click here and fire away. You have until August 27, 2009.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Big Sky

On August 8, 2009, at 11:53 a.m. EDT, a Eurocopter AS 350 BA (N401LH) operated by Liberty Helicopters and a Piper PA-32R- 300 (N71MC) operated by a private pilot, collided in midair over the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. The certificated commercial pilot and five passengers onboard the helicopter were killed. The certificated private pilot and two passengers onboard the airplane were also killed. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plans were filed for either flight. The local sightseeing helicopter flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 136. The personal airplane flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

Following this very prominent midair collision, the media have been talking about procedures, policies, and regulations with which most reporters have little experience or expertise. This is nothing new. Every time I read a news story on a topic about which I'm not familiar, I wonder how accurate that story really is. But I digress ...

One news report seemed to imply that the pilot of the Piper (being a private plane) was at fault because it had run into the Eurocopter. The author of another story focused on the shocking fact that aircraft operating in the thin sliver of airspace over the Hudson River do so without talking to air traffic control and without a flight plan. Other reports tried to compare and contrast the water ditching of a US Airways Airbus with this accident. This compels me to comment on what is known about this accident, provide a pilot's perspective on operating in airspace that has little or no ATC intervention, and talk about just how well the see-and-avoid approach to preventing midair collisions really works. I'll attempt to address these issues so that non-pilots can develop a better understanding of just what pilots of smaller aircraft who fly at lower altitudes have to deal with on a regular basis.

Apples and Oranges
First off, the only thing this midair accident has in common with the ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 is that in both cases, the aircraft ended up in the Hudson River. The US Airways accident involved a bird strike (which I guess is kind of like a midair collision) that resulted in a loss of power to both engines: The Airbus was still be flyable, it just didn't have any thrust to keep it from losing altitude. The fact that the plane was still flyable, combined with the skilled flight crew and a lot of luck, resulted in an amazingly successful water ditching. In contrast, the midair collision between the Piper and the Eurocopter caused catastrophic damage, both aircraft departed controlled flight, and the impact with the water was not survivable. The only thing these two accidents had in common was their location.

ATC's Role
The Piper departed Teterboro Airport and was, in fact, communicating with the tower controller until he was over the Hudson, when he was handed off to the Newark control tower. Talking to an airport's tower controller is mandatory when an aircraft is within that airport's airspace. In these situations, ATC will point out other potentially conflicting air traffic, but this is done on a workload permitting basis. Here's just a bit of what the Aeronautical Information Manual has to say on the subject:

4-1-15. Radar Traffic Information Service

This is a service provided by radar ATC facilities. Pilots receiving this service are advised of any radar target observed on the radar display which may be in such proximity to the position of their aircraft or its intended route of flight that it warrants their attention. This service is not intended to relieve the pilot of the responsibility for continual vigilance to see and avoid other aircraft ...
Many factors, such as limitations of the radar, volume of traffic, controller workload and communications frequency congestion, could prevent the controller from providing this service. Controllers possess complete discretion for determining whether they are able to provide or continue to provide this service in a specific case. The controller's reason against providing or continuing to provide the service in a particular case is not subject to question nor need it be communicated to the pilot. In other words, the provision of this service is entirely dependent upon whether controllers believe they are in a position to provide it.

Some questions have arisen about the Teterboro Tower's handling of the flight. Reportedly the controller was making a "non-business" phone call to the Newark tower which may have contributed to coordination problems with the handoff of the Piper from Tereboro to Newark. A conflict alert indication was shown on the radar displays at both towers as the Piper and the Eurocopter began to converge. Though these alerts usually produce both a visual and audio warning, neither controller recalled seeing or hearing the alert.

Several initial news reports made a big deal of the fact that the Piper's pilot never contacted the Newark tower after being handed off by the Teterboro tower. It's hard to know why that was, but it's also important to point out that a delay checking in after a handoff is quite common. Radio communication in aircraft is somewhat primitive - only one person can talk at a time. Perhaps the Piper's pilot was busy tuning his radio to the new frequency so he could check in, but we don't really know. It does appear that the frequency change came at a very inopportune time and the collision occurred shortly afterward. Remember all those studies that show distractions (like cell phone use while driving) reduce reaction time and situational awareness? The same thing can happen in aircraft and, apparently, in control towers.

Different Frequencies
Aircraft operating over the Hudson usually communicate using a CTAF - common traffic advisory frequency - which is like a party line where only one person can talk at a time. The CTAF is different from the frequencies used by Teterboro and Newark towers. The idea with the CTAF is that each aircraft announces their position, altitude, and intentions so that other pilots can put together a mental picture of where other traffic might be and avoid them. If this sounds primitive, it is! Yet in areas where there is no ATC service (usually at rural airports) and when there's not too much traffic, the CTAF set-up is pretty workable. The thing is that CTAF areas are usually not swarming with the volume of traffic that is seen on a daily basis over the Hudson River corridor. The important point here is that the Eurocopter was probably monitoring and transmitting on the CTAF while the Piper was monitoring and transmitting on the Teterboro Tower frequency.

Big Sky, Little Planes
This brings up the big sky theory of preventing midair collisions: The sky is big when compared to the size of aircraft, so the probability of a collision is reduced by the simple fact that the sky is so much bigger than the aircraft. This is a good theory if you assume that aircraft are randomly or evenly distributed throughout the big sky. Unfortunately, aircraft tend to congregate around certain locations (like around airports, helipads, and land-based navigation transmitters) like bees around a hive and that dramatically increases the probability of a collision.

The situation over the Hudson River adds another wrinkle since the area of airspace used by the sightseeing helicopters and other light aircraft is underneath and physically constrained by an overlying area of controlled airspace called Class Bravo. Entering Class Bravo requires a clearance from ATC precisely because this airspace was created primarily to keep small, slower aircraft away from larger, faster aircraft. When aircraft are cleared to enter Class B, ATC will guarantee separation between aircraft: This separation is not done on a workload permitting basis, it is guaranteed. This dramatically enhances the safety of aircraft operating in Class B, but ironically creates a thin layer of airspace for the smaller aircraft to share, which makes the Big Sky quite a bit smaller, and increases the probability that these smaller aircraft who are not in Class B will come close to one another.

Invisible Hands
So how about separating aircraft with a controller using radar? Air traffic control (ATC) can and does provide many valuable services to pilots by providing traffic advisories when aircraft get close or appear to be converging, but they are not an invisible hand that holds the aircraft and keeps them completely safe. Just because the pilot or flight crew of an aircraft is talking to a controller does not mean they are immune to mechanical problems, bird strikes, or midair collisions. The idea that ATC keeps aircraft safe, while not entirely a fantasy, is a belief that non-pilots may find comforting. Non-pilots need to remember that it's the pilot that is flying the aircraft and there is no invisible shield provided to aircraft that just happen to be talking to ATC.

Another misconception held by non-pilots has to do with flight plans. The idea that an aircraft is operating with an open flight plan is somehow safer than one operating without a flight plan may or may not be true. There basically are two types of flight plans: Instrument Flight Rules and Visual Flight Rules. Non-pilots need to know that the primary purpose of VFR flight plans is so that the appropriate authorities will be notified if you don't call in and close your flight plan when you arrive. In short, filing VFR flight plan helps ensure that if you crash and no one sees the crash, someone will eventually come looking for you.

Rules, Rules, Rules
Some reporters have claimed that aircraft which are not under ATC control are completely unregulated and not following any rules, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The aircraft that fly in any airspace must meet FAA airworthiness requirements including regular maintenance inspections with specific criteria.

The pilots that fly these aircraft must be certificated (we don't call them licenses in the US, but the media can't get that right either), they must hold a medical certificate, and they must meet recency experience to be able to act as pilot-in-command and to carry passengers.

The airspace in which these aircraft are operated have specific flight visibility and cloud clearance requirements. And there are specific right-of-way rules that pilots follow when they see they are getting too close to one another.

To equate these areas of airspace not under air traffic control to the Wild West is uninformed and stupid.

Technology to the Rescue, sort of

Without radar, isn't there someway that technology can keep two aircraft from trying to occupy the same airspace? It's not as if no one has tried to create technology to do this, but the success has been mixed.

Large aircraft are required to have traffic collision and avoidance systems (TCAS), but even with TCAS these planes can run into one another.

Several similar systems are available for smaller aircraft, but they can be expensive and not every aircraft has them. One system is the FAA's Traffic Information System (TIS) where appropriately configured ground radar facilities upload traffic information to appropriately equipped aircraft. This is a common system in many newer general aviation aircraft, but many ATC radar facilities do not support TIS. Oh, and the FAA is planning to phase out TIS. Yes, you read that correctly. The reason is that another system is supposed to replace TIS, even though virtually no small aircraft out there are currently equipped to support the new system. Call me a curmudgeon, but that sounds about right for the FAA ...

Another system for smaller aircraft (that is also expensive) is an Traffic Advisory System (TAS) that actively interrogates other aircrafts' transponders, just like ATC's radar. These systems can be quite helpful, but with some aircraft (like the Cirrus) there is no way to mute the aural warnings and keep them from barking "Traffic! Traffic!" when you're trying to talk to or listen to ATC.

The last system for small aircraft that I'll mention is a class of portable devices that warn of nearby aircraft and are sometimes referred to as Portable Collision Avoidance Systems (PCAS). These devices are not perfect, but they help pilots have an idea when other aircraft are nearby, even if they don't tell you exactly where those aircraft are. As a side note, I always fly with a PCAS unit.

What's a Pilot to Do?

First, scroll back to the top and watch the YouTube video of the Hudson midair. I know it's scary, heartbreaking, and painful, but watch it nevertheless.

Hopefully that video has you in a mood to listen.

Remember that accident statistics indicate that midair collisions tend to occur on clear, sunny days and usually in the vicinity of airports of navigational transmitting stations.

Keep your head on a swivel when operating in crowded airspace.

Fly at an appropriate VFR altitude for your direction of flight. I see at least one pilot violating this simple safety rule every time I fly.

Avoid distractions, like unnecessary conversations or fiddling with your GPS or MP3 player.

Listen up! Poor radio phraseology and technique not only wastes everyone's time, it can actually threaten your life, the lives of your passengers, the lives of other pilots, and the lives of people on the ground.

If you have a traffic detection device, use it.

If you think this sort of collision can't happen to you, watch the video a few more times.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Two steps forward, three steps back

Some disappointing news to report. After three weeks of use, my Modbook started acting up with uncommanded pointer/cursor movements. Application windows that were open would spontaneously close and "About This Mac" windows would magically appear. In case you're wondering if the problem was due to RF from avionics, the problem acutally started happening while I was at home. I took the machine back to the folks at TechRestore, they did some tweaking, I tried it again, but the problem persisted.

While I'm not sure exactly what the problem was or is, TechRestore assured me they had done their best to work out a solution with Axiotron. TechRestore stood behind their service, refunded the entire purchase price, and restored my Macbook to it's original state. For their part, Axiotron apparently doesn't want me as their customer. It appears the Modbook conversion is not compatible with all revisions of the Macbook logic board, several revisions are out there, and Axiotron doesn't seem to want to identify which ones are compatible. I'm told that there are reports of many Modbook users having this "jumping" cursor problem and it's all very discouraging because my unit was working fine for the first few weeks.

Here's how the technician who did the work described the situation:
The Modbook was assembled using Axiotron's instructions with ALL shielding provided in place. Also, the unit exhibited the jumping cursor problem just sitting here in our shop. After we swapped the logic board for another of the same type, the problems continued. When the unit came in we eliminated the theory of software problems by booting the machine from a squeaky clean version of Mac OS X 10.5.4 and Axiotrons installed software. PERIOD. No updates, no add-ons, nothing other than a factory fresh install. Just for the record this was NOT the first unit we have put together. It is disappointing when a product we were excited about does not perform as it should. It is more disappointing when a reseller does not have a solution for a known problem and the only recourse is to refund the customer.

The latest scuttlebutt on the Mac tablet is that it might not appear until early 2010, so I'm compelled to come up with a Plan B. That might be an inexpensive (gulp) Windoze tablet computer like an Asus T91 or a refurbished Lenovo X61, or ... dare I say it? ... a Kindle DX.

For now, it's back to the Electronic Flight Bag drawing board.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Winds Aloft with PFMA

Internet search engines have quickly become something few of us can live without and it's because of an internet search that the developer of PFMA (an iPhone aviation calculator) contacted me. PFMA stands for Pocket Flight Management Assistant and after a test-drive, I found it to be a useful tool with a nice balance between simplicity and frequently-used features. Plus it has a user interface that resembles a Flight Management System - how cool is that?

One thing I've found missing from many iPhone E6B apps is the ability to calculate winds aloft, so that was the first thing I attempted with PFMA. I just located and tapped on the WIND item and just started entering the stuff one usually knows when trying to calculate winds aloft in flight - ground speed, true airspeed, heading and course (or track). You enter data into each of the fields by first typing in the value using the keypad (you'll see the value appear in the lower left side of the display) and then pressing the field you want to fill with that value. There's currently no user's guide (one should be available soon), but I was able to figure out how to calculate winds aloft in under 20 seconds. I find this to be a pretty good indicator of just how easy-to-use an interface is. PFMA passed my initial test with flying colors. (N.B.: Most of the enhancements I suggest in this post have been favorably received by the developer and should be addressed in an upcoming version.) You can use the WIND screen to determine landing crosswind components, too.

There's also an ALTITUDE-AIRSPEED screen that has the same simple design philosophy - fill in the fields you know and PFMA will calculate the fields you don't know. This prevents having a plethora of appropriately-name menu items for each function and really contributes to the ease-of-use. One design enhancement would be to have PFMA remember any field that was calculated in a previous screen and populate that field by default whenever it occurs in another screen. For example, if the ALTITUDE-AIRSPEED screen were used to calculate true airspeed, it would be cool to have that calculated value automatically appear by default in the WIND screen.

In the meantime, you can do a sort of cut-n-paste operation by tapping on a field displaying a value, which copies the value to the input field in the lower left side of the screen. Next, select the function screen where you want to enter that data and tap on the appropriate field - this will copy the value for, say, ground speed on one screen into the ground speed field on the next screen.

There's a dirt-simple SETUP screen that allows you to specify the units you plan to use most often for distance, altitude, speed, temperature weight, and volume.

The NAVIGATION screen is provided mostly for completeness, but I didn't find it terribly useful (maybe that's just me). Here I've entered the Origin Lat/Long for KAVL (Asheville, North Carolina) as N35:26.1/W82:32.5 and the Dest Lat/Long for KTRI (Tri-Cities Regional in Tennessee) as N36:28.5/W82:24.4. You can then solve either for time or for ground speed by supplying the appropriate field. PFMA will calculate the other field, providing the distance and bearing. I'm not a big fan of entering Lat/Long, but it works.

The FUEL screen is equally simple, allowing you to enter any two fields to obtain a solution for the third field. While the FUEL FLOW and FUEL QTY both indicate Gallons (since I selected that in the SETUP screen), you can really enter a value representing any volume or weight in your desired units and calculate the desired answer. In this example I entered a common Caravan fuel flow of 310 pounds/hour and a total fuel on board of 1300 pounds to obtain an endurance of just under four hours.

The CONVERSION screen lets you convert common values and has a nice, logical grouping. DISTANCE lets you convert a distance or speed from one unit to another. METEOROLOGICAL lets you convert barometric pressure to different values (this would have come in handy when I was flying in the Caribbean last summer) and Fahrenheit to Celcius. In the WEIGHT screen shown below, I've entered 600 pounds to determine the equivalent value in kilograms.

The VOLUME screen lets you convert a volume of your choosing into a weight (using a fuel density constant), but it's curious that the only weight you can solve for is KILOGRAMS. It would be nice if this screen defaulted to the weight unit you selected in the UNITS screen or, better yet, if pounds were just shown as another possible value along side kilograms.

In my example I've copied 272 kilograms (or 600 pounds) of Jet-A required from the WEIGHT screen to obtain a volume of 89 gallons since the guys and gals who do fueling usually dispense in gallons, not pounds. Of course you can calculate this conversion pretty easily in your head by dividing the desired weight of fuel in pounds by 10 and then multiply the result by 1.5 to get the approximate number of US gallons, but there can be times (say at the end of a very long duty day) when mental math becomes error prone and it's nice to have a way to verify your results.

The TIMER screen contains separate timers for block and air time as well as three elapsed timers for whatever use you might want. One suggestion here is a simple count-down timer: Let's say you enter a time value for one of the elapse timers and that would make it countdown rather than up and would also provide an vibrating alarm. Another idea would be a counter one could tap to count touch-and-go landings, but that's more of a gee whiz sort of feature.

In a nutshell, PFMA is a nice aviation calculator that works well and is easy to use. If you are new to aviation and need a product that will lead you by the hand with explicitly-named functions and features, then PFMA might not be for you. For experienced aviators who want a fast and simple-to-use app, PFMA is a good choice. And in a world of $400/year database subscriptions, US$4.00 for a full-featured calculator looks like a pretty good value to me.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Straw Man

Listen and you'll hear the voices of folks who say they have the solution to the shrinking GA pilot population. Some voices say we need initiatives that will encourage people to learn to fly. Others say that sport pilot training and low-cost sport aircraft are just the ticket. My belief is that we need more career instructors, flying late-model aircraft that are up to the task.

The soon-to-be-released Cessna Skycatcher would have been great, were it not for the marketeers who messed it up. Instead of a viable replacement for the aging fleet of versatile 150s and 152s, what is being offered is a glass panel two-seat aircraft that isn't even certified for IFR. Kinda makes the plane's glass panel seem silly, doesn't it? I don't think anyone honestly cares that the Skycatcher is in the sport aircraft category, though that seems to have been Cessna's primary goal.

Adding insult to injury, which new plane probably cannot be used for intentional spin training? Why the Skycatcher, of course. And which certificate is the only one that requires instructional training in spin recovery? That'd be the flight instructor certificate. And which aircraft are the subject of an Airworthiness Directive (which I think was necessary, by the way) that has resulted in many of them being placarded "Intentional Spins Prohibited"? That'd be the Cessna 150 and 152, the very aircraft that the Skycatcher is supposed to replace.

I've written before about the shortage of complex single-engine training aircraft suitable for initial flight instructor practical tests, so I won't belabor that point. The question remains: Who will teach all of the new GA pilots (not to mention the next wave of future airline pilots) and help the current pilot population stay current and proficient? Well that'd be flight instructors - the very group that has been mostly ignored in these solutions to growing the GA pilot population.

One of many reasons that GA is in this mess is that the people in a position to make things better, the people who could have made the right product choices, the people who could affect and change policy ... well, they did something no pilot should ever do: They lost situational awareness. They lost the big picture.

So here's my dream - a conscious and cooperative effort between the various alphabet pilot groups, the aircraft manufacturers, and the FAA to help grow the population of competent, career flight instructors.

Until something happens, those of us who are trying to teach the next generation of flight instructors can sing this song, with apologies to the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

We could while away the hours
while you teach us pitch and power
and why right rudder is germane.
You'd be ready for your check ride
Before the ink on your last check's dried
If we only had a plane.

We were teaching folks in Pipers
while you were still in diapers
To us instructing's not a game.
If your right seat landings are iffy,
We could fix that in a jiffy
If we only had a plane.

Oh, we would tell you about
stalls and spins galore.
And why our clothes are so tattered
and we're so poor.

Regarding our friends at the FSDO
You'd learn to do it 'cause they said so
Even if it seemed inane.
With every logbook you'd be signing
For the airlines you'd be pining,
If we only had a plane.