Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Our Menu Has Changed

Looking back at this year and the last ten years, many important things happened in aviation in general and general aviation in particular. If that sounds confusing, it's fitting because the last decade has been a bit confusing. Here's my round-up/rant on some of the major aviation events of the last ten years.

The Cirrus SR22 received certification in 2000 and quickly became the best selling GA aircraft. Ten years later, with the economy slowly trying to crawl out of what can only be described as a slippery commode, the company is behind on their rent and co-founder Alan Klapmeier is no longer employed by Cirrus.

Very Light Jets were going to transform air transportation by utilizing smaller airports, avoiding airline delays at large airports, and essentially bypassing the airline-style security screening. The subtext here was "Those able to afford to travel by private aircraft should not be asked to remove their shoes and belts." Arguments over whether swarms of VLJs would improve air traffic delays for passengers or simply clog up our allegedly antiquated air traffic control system became moot when the market for these aircraft never really materialized and Eclipse Aviation, one of the pioneers of the VLJ, went into Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) and then ultimately into Chapter 7 (liquidation).

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has grown tremendously, though mostly for military uses. In my neck of the woods, a Temporary Flight Restriction was created around Beale Air Force Base, but it's anything but temporary: It is, in fact, in effect most of the time. There has also been a push to allow UAVs to be used for police surveillance and other security tasks. How and when UAVs will mix with civilian, manned aircraft has got to be the most under-reported story of the decade.

The best, feel-good aviation story of the decade would have to be the ditching of an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes crippled both engines. The successful outcome of this ditching involved a skilled flight crew and a lot of luck. The most disappointing story of the year is a toss up. It may be the mid-air collision between a Piper and a sightseeing helicopter over that same river where a contributing factor, and I'm going to be really blunt, was a tower controller who appeared more interested in talking on the phone about a dead cat than controlling aircraft. Or it could be the crash of a Colgan Air Dash 8 by a relatively inexperienced flight crew, both of whom were sick and tired and where a contributing factor was (and continues to be) a culture of denial about crew duty hours, rest requirements and miserably low pay.

Numerous cockpit devices were created and released in the last 10 years, some of them good, some not-so-good. The only unanswered question is "How did pilots and aircraft ever manage to fly without at least one iPhone on board loaded with a bevy of aviation apps?"

The most over-reported and over-hyped story would have to be NextGen, the FAA's answer to everything from airport delays to restless leg syndrome. There are a lot of problems that NextGen could address: Improved ATC services in remote areas, greater emphasis on satellite-based navigation, better handling of flight plans and direct routings, and enhanced collision avoidance. The hype surrounding NextGen include claims that it will solve airport delays at major hubs. It won't and if you want a really cogent explanation of why it won't, go read this series from the WWVB blog. And no, NextGen will not replace "antiquated" radar and from a national security perspective, there's no way we'd want to get rid of radar, thank you very much. As to why NextGen receives so much ink, look no further than the former head of the FAA, Marion Blakey, who has moved to greener pastures ... representing the very industry that is trying to get contracts to implement NextGen.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were related to aviation, but only in that they exploited passenger airline security flaws. There were certainly ramifications for GA and there continue to be, but issues surrounding national security ... er ... I mean Homeland Security are more far-reaching than just a private pilot's $100 hamburger privileges. What followed those attacks was intensified airport security procedures, some of which actually added some security value. A lot of the screening procedures came to be known as "Security Theater: A DHS/TSA production."

Flight instruction, particularly for foreign nationals, became more tightly regulated with flight instructors being conscripted as unpaid border guards. Airline passengers began disrobing to varying degrees and checked bags were randomly searched. I didn't travel by airline much in the last decade, but when I did I often opened my checked bag only to find a little calling card left by the TSA explaining why they'd searched my belongings. But no chocolate mint!

Returning from San Juan, Puerto Rico, after completing a ferry flight to the Caribbean, I had my first experience passing through one of the new bomb-sniffing detectors. Before entering the machine, which looks like a futuristic telephone booth, I was admonished to keep my shoes on. After exiting the machine, still somewhat dazed by being blasted by a fast sequence of air "puffs," I was admonished to remove my shoes. Reminds me of a line from the old Woody Allen movie Bananas:
... all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.

There has yet to be another successful attack using airliners but there have been two notable attempts. Richard Reed tried to light off an explosive device concealed in the sole of one of the athletic shoes he was wearing and the talking heads just couldn't seem to believe it. They all continued to repeat one phrase with head-shaking, wide-eyed astonishment; " ... in his shoe!" until he became known as the Shoe Bomber.

The packaging of news is crucial because it distracts us from important details, like those behind latest airline bombing attempt. Maybe it's just me, but this reads like something out of a Keystone Kops script: 1) The alleged perpetrator's father notified the US that he believed his son was a threat, 2) The US Department of State didn't revoke guy's visa but put him on a list that wouldn't have allowed him to renew his visa, 3) The guy shows up at Schiphol with a one-way ticket and no baggage. And that's just what we know of that went wrong. Instead of talking about those issues, let's discuss the really important stuff: Should he be called the Underpants Bomber or the Nut Cracker?

The biggest story of the last 10 years, the one with the farthest reaching implications has to be the modernization of Flight Service. It's hard to remember what Flight Service was like before Lockheed-Martin took over. Many new pilots don't know that just a few years ago there used to be 58 Flight Service Stations throughout the US. Once LM took over, those functions were privatized and modernized. In the first year and a half, LM closed 20 of those stations which resulted in hundreds of FFS specialists being "relocated" or just plain fired. If that weren't bad enough, what ensued can only be described as a $#!+ storm:

Pilots waiting on hold, calls not answered or dropped, briefers not familiar with the local area and the subtleties of the local weather patterns where the callers were based. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that AOPA came out in favor of LM's modernization efforts, presumably as a way to forestall user fees, and had to eat a significant amount of crow when their membership realized they'd been sold up the river.

With 38 of the original 58 stations remaining, LM did eventually clean up their act. Things gradually got better, calls got through, hold times were reduced, but the actual level of service never returned to what it had been: Pilots learned they had to spell out VORs, intersections and even airport identifiers to briefers, but the march toward modernization didn't stop. In the months that ensued, LM closed even more flight service stations, reducing the number to 18, then 13. Now LM has announced plans to close seven more stations leaving six stations out of the original 58 and the loss of another 160 or so jobs.

With a 90% reduction in flight service stations and probably a similar number of staff cuts (I don't know the exact numbers), pilots found other ways to get briefings and file flight plans. For a while, LM's FSS site gave the distinct impression that they were going to implement an online service where pilots could get briefings, file flight plans, and close flight plans. Then, just as mysteriously, those plans fell by the wayside and now the website simply provides information on selected topics, provides some PR-generated rah-rah phrases, and gives pilots a way to provide feedback on LMs level of service.

During the first year of LM running FSS I recall several times I sat on a remote freight ramp, with FSS as my only official link for getting weather information. The problem was I frequently couldn't get through to file a flight plan or get a briefing. Some say that those days are behind us and to an extent they are right: Pilots can generally get through by phone to get a briefing and file, open, or close a flight plan. Trying to raise FSS by radio while on the ground or in the air is still proving problematic in some areas. Should the weather be worse than expected at your destination, Flight Watch can tell you while you are still en route, but they don't accept new flight plans - you have to call a Flight Service Station to do that. And if pilots can't contact FSS by radio, they have no choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of the ARTCC or TRACON controllers and ask for a pop-up IFR clearance. Understandably, many controllers are not thrilled with the prospect of having to provide a function that FSS used to provide. Another alternative would be to always file an IFR flight plan and always pick up a clearance, but that's seldom the most fuel-efficient way to fly.

LM just announced that even more closures are needed because of a 13% reduction in call volume. Hello? When you decimate a service, give it a black eye by firing a talented and trained work force, and take away most of the value-added features, pilots will find other ways to get the information they need. In my personal experience, the majority of pilots are getting their weather briefings online using a desktop computer, laptop, or smart phone. I still teach student pilots how to contact FSS by phone and by radio, but I tend to emphasize online briefings because it saves time and provides more value-added features than talking to FSS. There are several ways to to get online briefings and some sources provide complete, QCIP-approved briefings that meet the requirements of 14 CFR 91.103. Others online sources, while not official briefings because they do not provide NOTAMs or TFR information, are nevertheless quite useful.

The shift to on-line briefing might sound like progress, but much has been lost. The idea of having someone read you a description of the weather never seemed that efficient, but there were advantages to talking to a real person who had local expertise. Student pilots and less experienced pilots no longer have a local briefer who can give them the official weather, then use their years of experience with local weather patterns to help the pilot read between the lines. More responsibility is being placed on the individual pilot and without much weather experience, some pilots will make mistakes. They may interpret the online briefing incorrectly, their knowledge of weather may be incomplete, they may get an incomplete briefing, or the forecast may be turn out to just be plain wrong. With weather being one of the primary causes of GA accidents, the result could be more weather-related crashes and incidents. But rest assured that LMs balance sheet is safe and they continue to meet their performance goals ... rah, rah, rah!

So there you have my round-up of some of the important events of the last ten years. You may have your own list of high and low points, so let me just add that if you'd like to hear my holiday greeting, please press 1 ... All joking aside, I'd like to express my appreciation to all my loyal readers out there and wish everyone a Happy, Prosperous, Safe, and Fun-filled New Year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Think Responsibly

Having just watched the twelfth and final episode of Justice with Michael Sandel, I find myself wanting more. For those not familiar with the series, it was a broadcast version of Professor Sandel's lively and interactive lectures on the meaning of justice and the skills involved in moral reflection. Drawing from the writings of Bentham, Mills, Locke, Kant, and Aristotle as well as several recent court decisions, Sandel artfully led his students and TV viewers in fascinating discussions about the good life, natural law, utilitarianism, communitarianism, and more.

If there is any doubt that Sandel is an accomplished lecturer and teacher, you need only watch one of the episodes on line. I even recommended that my current flight instructor candidates watch the series as a way to augment their understanding of classroom teaching methods related to lecture, effective questioning and especially how to lead a productive guided discussion. After a while you'll forget the striking resemblance Sandel has to Montgomery Burns, the morally bankrupt capitalist captain-of-industry on the animated TV series The Simpsons. It turns out that several of the writers for that series were, at one time, sitting in Sandel's classroom studying moral reasoning and justice. But as others have pointed out, Sandel, who has dedicated his life to studying and teaching political philosophy, is in fact the antithesis of Burns.

I think the main reason I found this series so engaging and satisfying has to do with the reasoned nature of the discourse. Instead of emotional verisimilitude, ad hominem attacks, begging the question, and the myriad of other problems that plague the way political debate is portrayed in the media, this was a group of young people who were challenged to think critically and justify their reasoning. Watching this series was, for me, a breath of fresh air when contrasted to the level of popular debate that is so often bereft of reason, emotionally charged, and intellectually challenged. There is no mystery here because thinking critically is a difficult and uncomfortable process. This series is still available to watch on-line and if you haven't already, I recommend you check it out.

Since he is much more eloquent, I'll let Professor Sandel have the last word.
" … When we first came together some thirteen weeks ago, I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers. About how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our unsettled assumptions. And I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance, it's never quite the same again. I hope by now you have experienced at least a little of this unease, because this is the tension than animates critical reflection and political improvement and maybe even the moral life as well.
… The aim of this course has been to awaken the restlessness of reason and to see where it might lead. And if we have done at least that, and if the restlessness continues to afflict you in the days and years to come, then we together have achieved no small thing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ForeFlight Mobile v3

Today marks the release of the latest refresh to one of the more popular iPhone aviation applications - ForeFlight Mobile version 3. The new version provides some significant new features, including the ability to download, store, and view airport data, VFR and IFR charts, and instrument approach charts. The flight planning features have been significantly enhanced, allowing you to enter routes containing VORs and intersections as well as departure and arrival procedures. And lastly, there are some nice refinements to the user interface you'll use to access these features. I found a lot to like in version three, so let's dive in and look at some details.

Who's got the Button?
Launch ForeFlight Mobile version 3 (FFM v3) and you'll immediately see the newly designed user interface. Instead of a row of five buttons at the bottom of the screen, FFM v3 provides a high-level interface that groups the functions into nine areas. You access the area you want by tapping on the corresponding icon. "But I liked the old interface!" you say? I wouldn't worry too much because this is a thoughtful reorganization. The ForeFlight team artfully added a bunch of new features while keeping the older features that worked well. Previous users should feel right at home with v3.

First things First
One of the first things I recommend doing with FFM v3 is tap on the Accounts button where you'll set up some basic information like your ForeFlight and DUATS account login. You don't have to enter any DUATS information and if you don't, FFM v3 will use its own account information to retrieve weather data and file your flight plans.

This is also where you choose your subscription plan. Until January 1, 2010 you can buy a 3-month plan for $24.99 or a whole year for $69.99. If you are upgrading from FFM v2, a year's subscription will cost you just $39.99. Again, that's just until January 1. Is it worth the price? More on that later ...

It seemed odd to me that the Accounts section was NOT the place for a user to enter their personal information like name, address, and phone number. That sort of stuff gets entered and remembered when you create a flight plan, which I'll cover below.

I recommend your next stop be the Download area, where you'll select what data you want stored on your iPhone. You can select just the areas your interested in for airport diagrams, terminal procedures, and IFR and VFR charts. Now I have a lowly iPhone 3G (not the 3GS) with a mere 8Gb of storage, so I did some careful picking and choosing. Even so, the downloading via WiFi took quite some time. Depending on the configuration of your iPhone and how much storage you have available, you may need to carefully consider just what airport and chart data you need to keep on your iPhone.

In the future, storage space limitations may become less of a problem since Toshiba has just announced the availability of 64 Gb NAND Flash Memory. Unlike the iPod Touch, iPhones have less available hardware space due to the phone hardware, hence they can only hold one Flash chip. With the larger NAND flash memory on a single chip, we should start to see iPhones with more storage space. Of course this is small comfort if you have an older device with limited storage and a slower processor.

A Brief Pause
As an aside, if anything gives me pause about iPhone apps it's that those that require a lot of data are currently limited to WiFi as the primary method of getting that data onto the phone. You may recall that in my review of GoodReader I described the method of transferring data using USB. Turns out that this feature had to be removed as third-party apps transferring data to an iPhone via USB is not approved by Apple. Obviously Apple has concerns about security and preserving the stability of their interfaces, but it seems to me that over time this cannot stand.

Remember that these are my perceptions and, in the words of the Big Lebowski:
That's like ... just your opinion, man!

Will iPhone apps that require tons of transferrable data continue to flourish and function properly? Time will tell.

Maps or Charts?
A popular distinction made by aviators about maps and charts is that a chart is something designed to be drawn or written on. FFM v3 uses the term Maps and since you can't (yet) drawn on these representation, who am I to argue? I found the VFR and low-altitude en route IFR charts to be reasonably useful considering the iPhone's small screen. This sort of app just cries out for a larger screen, like the much-rumored iTablet device that Apple is allegedly poised to release sometime in 2010.

I'm not sure I'd rely on these charts in flight, even though you can access them with your phone in airplane mode. For preflight planning and armchair flying, they're reasonable. Until a reliable iTablet-like color reader becomes available, I'm still carrying paper VFR and IFR charts, thank you very much.

Playing Favorites
The Favorites area is very similar to the feature of the same name in FFM v2. You can store favorite airports here and get a quick overview of the weather. My only gripe here is that if you go to Favorites and decide you want to add a new airport, you must first close Favorites and open Airports. While I understand this might have been a "purity of user interface" design choice, it's still tedious. I'd like to be able to tap on Edit and have the option of adding a new favorite airport. Again, just my opinion, man ...

Image is Everything
The Imagery area where you can get a high-level view of the current US Radar, surface analysis charts, and freezing levels, to name just a few. You can also get a high-level view of TFRs as well as international weather products for Mexico, NAV Canada, Europe, and South Africa.

... But not Forgotten
Tap the Recents icon and you can access the airports, imagery, and routes that you've been playing with. I found the most useful part of this to be the recent routes. In fact, when I was flying freight and had to file my own flight plans for ad hoc and repositioning flights, this would have saved me a lot of time. If you fly regularly to a variety of airport, I think you'll find this to be a great feature.

Some Familiar Bits
Tap on the Airports icon and you're confronted with an alphabetical list of states or countries, depending on which option you choose at the bottom. Narrow your search by selecting the state or country, then drill down to the city name and choose the airport. This could be somewhat problematic given the odd fact that many airports (especially in the US) are known by several different names, like KSNA/Santa Ana/John Wayne/Orange County or KSTS/Santa Rosa/Sonoma County/Charles M. Schulz. Don't get me started on how the FAA still mixes ICAO and non-ICAO airport IDs in their various publications ...

Hmm ... notice how Anguilla is listed as being part of the US? It's most definitely not!

Wouldn't it be cool to have the same search function available in FFM v2, just in case you're not sure the city name of the airport in which you are interested? Well that feature is still available at the top of the main FFM v3 screen - so obvious that you may have missed it. Here you can enter an airport, route, tail number, city name or ZIP code, just like before.

This is a cool feature and I just used it yesterday when a student asked me "What kind of jet is that?" Unsure of the aircraft's type given the odd paint scheme and the fact that I was looking at it from the rear, I surreptitiously entered the aircraft's tail number in FFM's search field and then confidently replied "Well that's a Citation X, of course!"

Flight Plans
I found the best way to create a new flight plan was to use the Routes feature (described below), but you'll use the Flight Plans feature if you have a bunch of flight plans already stored and want to file one. Simply select the flight plan you want from the list, edit any items that you need to change like departure time or people on board, then tap File. You'll need to specify an EDT at least 5 minutes in the future in order to file.

Full Route Clearance
My favorite feature in FFM v3 has to be Routes because it understands VORs and intersections as well as departure and arrival procedures. Secondly, you can leave the route blank and then ask FFM v3 to tell you what routes ATC has been assigning between the two airports. This is handy in Northern California where you seldom hear "Cleared as filed ..." One limitation is that if you are flying between two airports that no one else is using, FFM v3 won't be able to provide you any ATC assigned routings.

One feature request regarding Routes is to allow an altitude to be specified as 9000FT, 9000FEET or (even better) 9000'.

Cost of Admission
There's no doubt that FFM v3 is thoughtfully designed, well-crafted software that packs a huge raft of features into a very small package. It's hard to remember that just a couple of years ago it took a laptop or a phone conversation with Flight Service to do all of the things that FFM v3 can do. This brings us to what Pee Wee Herman once said: "Everyone I know has a big but." My misgivings about FFM v3 center around two main issues.

Just how much can a lowly iPhone be expected to do? Apparently, quite a bit. But if these full-featured apps continue to grow in complexity and in the amount of data they must manage, something's gotta give. I may be proven wrong about this, but I used to develop software many years ago and my spidey senses are tingling. As iPhones do more and more, I get more and more nervous and start thinking about my back-up plans. Maybe that's just me?

I'm all for people getting paid for their work (Hey, you're gonna click on that donate button on my blog, just as soon as you finish reading this, right?). FFM v3 is certainly well-designed software that is chock full of features. As to whether or not the subscription cost for FFM v3 is cost effective depends a lot on you, the individual pilot. I don't think the costs are unreasonable, but for pilots who fly infrequently there are cheaper ways to do what FFM does. Remember that there's a tension between cost-effective and cool/convenient/hip/sexy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Not Much to Say

Well, it's been a long time ...

For those readers who might have assumed that I've finally gotten my hypergraphia under control, I've actually been working on a variety of other writing projects, instructing, and flying a fair amount. I think it was W. Somerset Maugham who said "Having nothing to say, I said nothing." In that vein, here are some photos of a recent flight that highlight the recent snowfall in the Bay Area mountains and the weird behavior of the iPhone camera's shutter with regard to spinning propellers.

I'm sure I'll have something substantive to say soon, but until then ...