Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Generation D

It was Douglas Coupland, the Canadian novelist who thrust the term "Generation X" into popular use with his ground-breaking novel of the same name. Gen X was shorthand for the generation born after the postwar baby boom of the 1950's, a generation that allegedly didn't respect their parents and (gasp!) tended to not believe in God. In his follow-on book "Shampoo Planet," Coupland then wrote about Generation Y (aka Generation Next or Generation Net), the folks born in the mid-1970s who some claim have a pronounced tendency exhibit the so-called "Peter Pan Syndrome:" They don't want to grow up or want to delay it as long as possible.

A lot has happened since Coupland first put pen to paper in the Mojave desert and started the idea of "Generation X." For one, the number of US cell phone subscribers has increased from 340,000 in 1985 to 180 million in 2004, a factual tidbit that comes from the US Geological Survey's analysis of the cellphone recycling problem. That's right, PDAs, "smart" phones, and other portable devices have become so widespread that they have created their own recycling problem. Perhaps even worse, portable electronic devices have created another, possibly more immediate risk: A nation of drivers (and pilots) so distracted that at times we barely seem able to function. Consider just the aspect of text messaging while driving, examined in this New Zealand experiment.



Turns out that trying to dial a cellphone or just talk on one (even with a hands-free device) makes you 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident than if you have your head in the game and your eyes on the road. Using a cellphone while driving is equivalent to having a 0.08% blood alcohol reading. Using a cellphone while driving is equivalent to driving drunk. In California (and many other states) it is illegal to text message or use a phone without a hands-free device while driving, unless you are a law enforcement officer or, apparently, if you are the Governor's wife. Actually, there are so many people violating the hands-free driving law in California that giving Maria Schriver a hard time is just scapegoating. Virtually all of us are doing it.

Distracted driving has become of particular interest to me since I recently purchased a second hand scooter and am using it to commute to and from the airport. Since I sit higher than most drivers and am unemcumbered by a steel cage, I am at once more vulnerable and more able to see what drivers are doing. Let me tell you, it ain't pretty. Here are just a few things people try to do while driving:
  • Read or send text messages/email
  • Dial or talk on the phone
  • Eat and/or drink
  • Put on makeup
  • Make out
  • Read legal briefs, newspapers, books ...
  • Watch videos on their hand-held device
  • Balance a checkbook
  • And so on ...
While riding my scooter the other day, I narrowly avoided a bicyclist who blindly strayed into my path because he was talking on his cell phone and simultaneously eating a sandwich. Hands-free cycling! A ground-breaking, new concept!

In this NY Times video, participants in a driving simulator were asked to use a cell phone and to make an exit for a rest stop. More than half of them missed the exit and many didn't realize it until well past the exit. It appears the flight crew of NWA 188 have shown that it can happen to pilots, too. Surprise, surprise. If you think this isn't serious business, consider that the FAA revoked their pilot certificates for their transgressions. They can appeal to the NTSB, but for now they've lost their livelihood and probably their jobs.

The hard fact to face is that all of us continue to vastly overestimate our ability to multi-task even when faced with conclusive evidence to the contrary. Captain Dave startled me with his recent blog post, a commentary littered with the logical fallacies a) the flying public doesn't understand, b) that this has happened before, c) it will happen again, and d) the end result of NWA 188 will just be more regulations and restrictions to stifle flight crews.

So what of NWA 188 flight crew's performance? They became so fixated on whatever it was they were doing that they missed repeated radio calls and messages from their dispatcher. The "hero" of that flight (hey, we need a hero for every story, right?) was the cabin attendant who called the flight deck to ask for an ETA, thereby breaking the chain of distraction.

Drivers and pilots out there, it's time to face facts: Distractions severely reduce our performance and the results can be expensive, deadly, or both. This isn't about political correctness or totalitarianism or over-regulation, it's about the bigger picture. It's about thinking of someone other than ourselves. The growing epidemic of distraction can be solved on an individual level through self-control and sound decision-making. It's easy: Resist the urge to pull out your phone when you hear it ring or feel it vibrate or believe you just got an email or text message. Heck, if you're going to drive (or fly, or work air traffic), just put your phone into airplane mode. If you want to eat, or put on your face, or conduct business, do everyone a favor - pull over and park. And if you're flying, don't become so infatuated with technology and pretty colors that you lose situational awareness.

We've become a nation of gadget addicts and if we don't break the chain, we will be one nation, united by distraction. So you want to really be a rugged individualist, someone who doesn't run with herd? Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills and increase your performance at the same time: Put down your damn portable electronic device and just drive ... or fly.


Monday, October 26, 2009

ForeFlight Mobile


Several readers suggested I review the iPhone app ForeFlight Mobile and recently folks at ForeFlight contacted me. Again, in the interest of transparency, I'll say up front that I was provided with complimentary versions of their iPhone apps: ForeFlight Mobile, ForeFlight Charts, Checklist Pro, and ForeFlight File. In general, I like what I see: Stable software with excellent user interfaces suggest thoughtful design and implementation along with thorough quality assurance. I mainly cover ForeFlight Mobile in this post and plan to review the others in a future post.

ForeFlight before Flight
As its name implies, ForeFlight Mobile is primarily a preflight planning tool and I wish I'd had it few years ago. Lockheed-Martin had just taken over FSS, I was still flying freight, and I would have given my eyeteeth for a product like ForeFlight. On more than one occasion I found myself delayed on the ramp for over an hour before departing into rapidly deteriorating weather. With no internet access, I had no way to get an updated weather briefing other than call FSS on my cell phone. So I sat inside the plane, watched the pouring rain, the poor rampers getting drenched to the bone, and waited on hold for a FSS briefer. After over 15 minutes, I had to hang up. The ramp agent was pushing release paperwork at me and explaining a 727 was inbound and needed to park right where I was sitting. So I called a fellow pilot who was sitting standby and asked him to use his laptop to give me a picture of the weather. If I'd had ForeFlight Mobile, I'd have been better prepared and a lot calmer when I departed. Of course, this was several years before the iPhone had even been created.

Search and Yee Shall Find


The ForeFlight Mobile interface is centered primarily around airports, which I found very logical. You can also enter a ZIP code. If you enter an aircraft tail number, the aircraft registration information is returned. If you enter a route, you can see recently assigned ATC routings and file a flight plan.

Entering the airport in which you're interested will display information on the runways and airport facilities. You can view an airport diagram and even add the airport to your list of favorites. If you want, ForeFlight mobile will open Google Maps and display the area in road map, satellite, or hybrid view.





By scrolling down you can access even more information on the runways, terminal procedures, sunrise and sunset, and fuel service. When you access terminal procedures (where available), you can choose to save the procedure which will allow you to display the chart when your iPhone is in airplane mode or when a data connection is otherwise unavailable.



A row of buttons at the bottom of the airport window lets you access information on nearby airports, NOTAMs, and see the airport displayed on a VFR or IFR chart, though you can't zoom out or scroll around on the chart. That's where ForeFlight Charts comes in. You can also get FBO information and find a hotel.





Weather the Storm
Tap on the WX button in the upper right corner and you can access current and forecast weather for that airport and the surrounding area. This brings up one of the best ForeFlight Mobile features - animated color radar images. Here's a snap of a particularly nasty rain storm that rolled through the Bay Area last Monday, which by the way the forecasters totally blew. No I wasn't flying that day, but I did need to walk my dogs!



If you select an airport that has no weather reporting, ForeFlight Mobile will automatically display the current and forecast weather for the nearest airport or airports. Note the convenient color-coding for VFR, IFR, and low IFR.







Get the Big Picture
Back on the main screen, you can also access national or international weather imagery.





Staying in the Loop
When the data that ForeFlight uses needs to be updated, you'll see a red number superimposed over the app's icon. You access the download feature from the "More ..." button. You best have a WiFi connection (not 3G) when you choose to update ForeFlight data.



So is it a "Real" Briefing?
Pilots often ask me when a preflight briefing is considered "official" and does a ForeFlight Mobile briefing put them in compliance with 14 CFR 91.103; Namely, becoming "... familiar with all available information ..." That's a tough question, only made tougher by all the excellent sources of aviation weather information out there.

For their part, the folks at ForeFlight have announced that parts of ForeFlight Mobile have received Qualified Internet Communications Provider (or QCIP) approval from the FAA. Apparently the advisory circular that describes QCIP approval is a bit vague. It also appears this AC hasn't been updated in 8 years.

So the best advice I can offer to pilots out there is to get the most complete picture of the weather that you can using all available sources, then cover your fundament and get a briefing from FSS, DUAT, DUATS, or FltPlan. Doing this last step will ensure that there is a record of your briefing, should something not work out the way you wanted or planned.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hv u seen my "vo"?

It occurs to me that one use of a blog might be to make lame posts that document things that occurred at a specific time, kinda like sending yourself something in the mail as a proof of copyright. Okay, maybe a blog posting doesn't carry the same legal weight, but that's how I'm going to use it today.

At dinner the other night, a friend mentioned that he thought there should be a short, two letter placeholder that could be used to substitute for any noun that should be obvious from context. His idea was to have a shorthand for text messaging a noun using just one or two key presses.

I found this interesting because a few years ago my wife and I had taken to using the word "schnitzel" during conversation for just such a purpose: "Honey, have you seen my schnitzel? I left it right by the front door and now I can't find it." You see, as you get older it can often be difficult to produce certain words from the depths of one's brain on the spur of the moment. If you're younger than age 50, this probably won't make any sense and you'll have to indulge me.

Back to the dinner conversation, I heard my friend's lament and immediately thought of a unique consonant and vowel combination and blurted out "Well, how about vo?" You know, rhymes with snow?" Another friend immediately chimed in: "VO could stand for 'very obvious.'" I was there. I saw it happen. Perhaps this will turn out to be as momentous an occasion as the completion of the East-West Railroad, or Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, or some other ... vo.

So my question to you, gentle reader, is can you think of some uses of vo for a noun that should be obvious from context? Or is this just a further degradation of language brought on by technology and sloth?

And here's another question: Should it be permissible to use vo as an adjective that should be obvious from context, or is that just too ... vo?

In any event, just remember when vo starts appearing in text messages, in emails, and on your local news programs, you heard it here first.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

LogTen Pro Update

A recent, major upgrade to the Mac-based electronic logbook LogTen Pro has added some nifty features. For airline pilots, LogTen Pro 5 on the Mac allows you to import flight schedules from a wide variety of airline scheduling systems.



A feature that all pilots can appreciate is the ability to download data on more than 27,000 "landing places" and have that data automatically filled in when you log your flights. They aren't called airports because "places" include things like heliports, sea ports, even oil rigs.



LogTen Pro 5 is said to be significantly faster than the previous version, though I haven't noticed that much difference. The new version offers ways to track currency and duty limits that are simple to figure out and use. On the downside, some users (including me) have experienced occasional, yet nagging syncing problems between LogTen Pro and LogTen Mobile.

In spite of some minor gripes, LogTen Pro and LogTen Mobile have become staple applications for many pilots. Both products have certainly changed the way I track my flight times. And in the interest of transparency let me add that I received my upgrade to version 5 at no cost in consideration for my reviews of LogTen, past and present.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TFR Musings



For the first time in quite a while, my teaching schedule will be affected by a presidential TFR and I feel the urge to get on my soapbox. I accept the government's authority to use airspace restrictions to protect VIPs, that I will lose a day's worth of income, and that I will not be compensated for my loss. To add insult to injury, the way the TFRs are defined and disseminated is, quite simply, ridiculous.

Now in fairness, the TFR system has improved in the last few years. For one thing, the FAA now actually charts the restricted areas on a map, but there is still room for considerable improvement. You can go to the FAA's website to look up TFRs, though the site contains a disclaimer saying that the descriptions may be incomplete.

The TFR that will affect the Bay Area has four - count 'em! - components covering two different areas and four different effective times.
FDC 9/4760 ZOA PART 1 OF 4 FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS SAN FRANCISCO, CA, OCTOBER 15-16, 2009 LOCAL. PURSUANT TO 49 USC 40103(B), THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (FAA) CLASSIFIES THE AIRSPACE DEFINED IN THIS NOTAM AS 'NATIONAL DEFENSE AIRSPACE'. PILOTS WHO DO NOT ADHERE TO THE FOLLOWING PROCEDURES MAY BE INTERCEPTED, DETAINED AND INTERVIEWED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT/SECURITY PERSONNEL. ANY OF THE FOLLOWING ADDITIONAL ACTIONS MAY ALSO BE TAKEN AGAINST A PILOT WHO DOES NOT COMPLY WITH THE REQUIREMENTS OR ANY SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS OR PROCEDURES ANNOUNCED IN THIS NOTAM:

A) THE FAA MAY TAKE ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION, INCLUDING IMPOSING CIVIL PENALTIES AND THE SUSPENSION OR REVOCATION OF AIRMEN CERTIFICATES; OR

B) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY PURSUE CRIMINAL CHARGES, INCLUDING CHARGES UNDER TITLE 49 OF THE UNITED STATES CODE, SECTION 46307; OR

C) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY USE DEADLY FORCE AGAINST THE AIRBORNE AIRCRAFT, IF IT IS DETERMINED THAT THE AIRCRAFT POSES AN IMMINENT SECURITY THREAT.

PURSUANT TO TITLE 14, SECTION 91.141 OF THE CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS, AIRCRAFT FLIGHT OPERATIONS ARE PROHIBITED:
END PART 1 OF 4


Okay, okay, we get it. Don't violate the TFR or bad things will happen, up to and including being shot out of the sky, but does this actually need to be stated each and every time a restriction is posted? At least put it at the end of the NOTAM, because the effect of having it appear at the beginning of each and every TFR is, well, mind-numbing. So skip over the obvious stuff and then we get to the meat of the TFR that describes the affected areas and the effective times of the TFR:
FDC 9/4760 ZOA PART 2 OF 4 FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS SAN FRANCISCO, CA, WITHIN A 30 NMR OF 374600N/1222320W OR THE OAK270008.2 UP TO BUT NOT INCLUDING 18000 FT MSL.
EFFECTIVE 0910152350 UTC (1650 LOCAL 10/15/09) UNTIL 0910161705 UTC (1005 LOCAL 10/16/09). WITHIN A 10 NMR OF 373720N/1222131W OR THE SFO060000.7 UP TO BUT NOT INCLUDING 18000 FT MSL.
EFFECTIVE 0910152350 UTC (1650 LOCAL 10/15/09) UNTIL 0910160055 UTC (1755 LOCAL 10/15/09). WITHIN A 10 NMR OF 374600N/1222320W OR THE OAK270008.2 UP TO BUT NOT INCLUDING 18000 FT MSL.
EFFECTIVE 0910160020 UTC (1720 LOCAL 10/15/09) UNTIL 0910161640 UTC (0940 LOCAL 10/16/09). WITHIN A 10 NMR OF 373720N/1222131W OR THE SFO060000.7 UP TO BUT NOT INCLUDING 18000 FT MSL.
EFFECTIVE 0910161600 UTC (0900 LOCAL 10/16/09) UNTIL 0910161705 UTC (1005 LOCAL 10/16/09). EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BELOW AND/OR UNLESS AUTHORIZED BY ATC IN CONSULTATION WITH THE AIR TRAFFIC SECURITY COORDINATOR VIA THE DOMESTIC EVENTS NETWORK (DEN):
END PART 2 OF 4


Okay, is it just me or does specifying the 0.7 DME distance from the SFO VOR seem just a wee bit precious? And why do they specify the upper limit as 18,000 feet at the beginning and the state it again, four times? Much of the complication comes from the unimaginative idea that the inner ring of the TFR must follow the VIP and be centered on their every move. When a VIP lands at an airport and then travels 10 or 15 miles to a fundraising event, having the TFR explicitly move with them needlessly complicates the restriction and probably just increases the likelihood that someone might mistakenly violate the restriction.

For crying out loud, just create one outer ring and one inner ring, centered on an easily identified landmark (like the SFO VOR), and make it big enough to account for the VIP's movements. In other words, KISS - Keep It Simple. I'll get off my soapbox now, as if anyone is listening.

I won't bore you by posting the remaining two components of the TFR. If you're going to fly on Thursday or Friday of this week in the SF Bay Area, get a preflight briefing - don't rely on my observations. And if you are a self-employed pilot or flight instructor who loses income due to these TFR, I'll leave you with the words of the late John Ciardi "May you stay solvent by whatever means are available to you."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Crystal Ball



Persusing the Internet can lead to some interesting virtual destinations, like the NACO's Instrument Flight Procedures Coordination search facility. This is where IFR geeks can peer into the future and see what changes or entirely new instrument procedures the FAA has in store. You can search by state or by airport name or airport ID (just don't enter an ICAO ID). This is where I first learned of the now-published RNAV (GPS) RWY 14 approach into Yuba County Airport, one of the new approaches in the FAA's LPV-200 initiative, offering a 200 foot decision altitude comparable to an ILS.

I wrote a while back about hearing a pilot get a contact approach clearance he shouldn't have asked for and shouldn't have been given into Little River, situated on a fairly remote portion of the Northern California coast. Well if things go as planned, come December of this year pilots operating into and out of Little River will have a brand spanking new RNAV approach and SID.





You can also get some insight into the significant amount of effort that goes into creating an approach procedure.



Come October of this year, it appears the venerable Tracy VOR or GPS A approach will be no more. Many a time I've watched instrument candidates struggle with this fast-paced, challenging approach, especially with the missed approach holding pattern that is very close to the airport.



This approach will be replaced by the existing RNAV (GPS) RWY 26 approach and a new VOR/DME RWY 26 approach.



Other changes for Northern California include the cancellation of the Ukiah VOR/DME RNAV or GPS B approach, one of the few remaining VOR/DME RNAV approaches left.



If you're wondering what's in store for your neck of the woods, wait for a dark, cold, rainy night and then curl up with the Instrument Flight Procedures Coordination search page and start browsing.