Thursday, January 28, 2010

The iPad's here ... almost

Note: See my latest post on the iPad here

No, I wasn't at the big soirée in San Francisco and I have yet to actually handle an iPad, but after all the rumors I, like many others, was excited to see the actual device on display. As my readers know, what I'm primarily interested in is the iPad as EFB and it looks like it could work nicely for that purpose, with some caveats. First the good, then the not-so-good.

The Good

As one might expect with Apple, the construction quality and the form factor are excellent.

Height: 9.56 inches (242.8 mm)
Width: 7.47 inches (189.7 mm)
Depth: 0.5 inch (13.4 mm)
Weight: 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg) Wi-Fi model; 1.6 pounds (0.73 kg) Wi-Fi + 3G model

Decent estimated battery life of 10 hours.

Nice looking, crisp display. Haven't seen it in daylight, but if it's like my Macbook Pro then the LED backlight display with auto contrast control is quite good.

Price seems reasonable and competitive, though I'm thinking I'd probably go for the version without 3G.

Lots of connectivity options for moving data to and from the device, though you'll have to buy the 3G version to get the SIM card tray. D'oh!

The Not-So-Good

Maximum operating altitude is 10,000 feet. The first thing everyone says when I mention this is "But it has a solid state disk drive!" Now this is pure speculation, but the altitude limit could be due to any number of components - the display, the internal switches/accelerometers that detect rotation and movement, who really knows? The altitude limit is not such a big deal for displaying approach plates as I know of few airports with a field elevation at or above 10,000 feet.

Operating temperature range could be an issue for some folks, depending on your location and the season: 32° to 95° F (0° to 35° C).

At the moment there is no support for multi-tasking, though the upcoming iPhone OS 4.0 is rumored to support multi-tasking.

The other issue with the iPhone OS is that some of my favorite applications that I'd love to see run on this device, like ReadyProcs for instance, would need to be ported. Depending on the APIs, this may not be a huge deal or it could be a lot of work. I'd speculate that Nacomatic and PDFPlates should be pretty usable with an iPhone-based PDF viewer.

iPhone applications for viewing maps, like SkyCharts and ForeFlight should be much more useful on the iPad.

Right now, this is all academic. The device won't go on sale for another 60 days and even then, one can expect shortages. But at least the cat is out of the bag.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Nothin' Special

I've never been a big fan of special VFR (or SVFR), a procedure that, simply put, allows pilots to operate without an instrument flight rules clearance in controlled airspace when the cloud ceiling and/or visibility are below basic visual flight rules minima. There are several reasons to be skeptical of special VFR and when the weather is poor, asking for this sort of clearance should not be the first solution you jump to, especially when other options might be available.

Attempting to fly VFR into deteriorating weather conditions and controlled flight into terrain continue to be two of the more popular ways to get into trouble in a small aircraft and these are exactly the kinds of risks that may be associated with SVFR. Besides these additional risks, pilots need to understand the regulations governing the use of special VFR, know when they can request and get a SVFR clearance, and then carefully and thoughtfully consider whether or not it might be appropriate to request such a clearance.

By the way, I'm not going to discuss SVFR requirements for helicopters since I'm not a qualified helicopter instructor. I will discuss some recent developments regarding SVFR at the airport I mostly call home, Oakland.

Location, Location, Location

Many pilots mistakenly think that if they are in controlled airspace, they can ask for SVFR. 14 CFR 91.157 describes the requirements and restrictions for SVFR. If you don't get anything else from reading this post, understand that a prerequisite for a SVFR clearance is that you must be below 10,000 feet MSL and within:
... airspace contained by the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport.
If you're outside the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of an airport's surface airspace, you best have 3 miles of visibility and be 500 feet below, 1000 feet above, and 2000 feet laterally from the clouds. Another option during the day is to be in uncontrolled airspace with at least 1 mile visibility and clear of clouds, also known as some scary $#[+.

SVFR is not authorized in any of the Class Bravo surface airspace listed in 14 CFR 91 Appendix d, Section 3. In some cases, a Letter of Agreement may allow certain exceptions.

If you are transiting a Class B, C, D, or E airspace surface area to an airport that is reporting VFR conditions, you may still be granted a SVFR clearance if you tell the controller you cannot maintain regular VFR while transitioning. Think about this for a moment: If you are asking for a SVFR clearance to transition in Class B (assuming it's allowed), you must have less than 3 miles of visibility since you're normally only required to remain clear clouds in Class B under VFR. In classes C through E, you'd request a SVFR clearance to transition when you were unable to remain 1000 feet above, 500 feet below, and 2000 feet horizontally from the clouds and/or you expect to encounter less than 3 miles visibility.

Don't hang all your hopes on a SVFR clearance: Just because you think you're entitled to a SVFR clearance doesn't guarantee that a controller will give you such a clearance when you ask for it. Especially at Oakland. More on that later.

Pilot Requirements

Student pilots cannot request SVFR operations since 14 CFR 61.89(a)(6) clearly states they must have at least 3 miles visibility during the day. At night 5 miles visibility is required, assuming their instructor has given them an endorsement for night solo flights.

Any other pilot who yearns to operate SVFR can request it, but if the request occurs during the period between sunset and sunrise then the pilot must be instrument-rated and their aircraft must be equipped for IFR. In Alaska, these additional requirements apply when the sun is 6˚or more below the horizon.

SVFR Procedures
The minimum visibility for SVFR is 1 statute, reported at the departure or destination airport. If there is no weather reporting at the departure or destination airport, the pilot must report at least 1 statute mile of flight visibility to the controller. If the reported visibility by you or at the airport is less than a mile, the controller will deny the request from pilots of fixed-wing aircraft.

Adding to the arcane nature of SVFR, a controller cannot initiate a SVFR clearance: Pilots must specifically request it. A controller's official phraseology should sound something like:
Cessna 123, Moose Lips airport is reporting below basic VFR minimums, say intentions.
Sometimes a controller will be more informal, saying something like:
Mooney 345, Moose Lips Tower, the field is IFR, unable VFR departure, is there something special you wanted to request?
When a pilot wants a SVFR clearance, the request might sound something like:
Moose Lips Ground, Cessna 123, transient parking, VFR Redding, request special VFR departure, information xray.

Say Altitude

When a controller gives you a SVFR clearance, they don't specify an altitude to maintain since it's assumed that you, the pilot, must choose an altitude to remain clear of clouds. So the controller will say something like:
Bonanza 567, maintain special VFR conditions while in the surface portion of the Moose Lips airport class Delta airspace, runway 12, cleared for takeoff.
Cirrus 789, maintain special VFR conditions while inside the Moose Lips class Delta surface area, make a right base entry runway 30, report turning final.

Is it Safe?

Let's say you want to depart an airport where the visibility is being reported as 10 miles, but the ceiling is being reported as 900 feet. You see a hole in the clouds about 5 miles East of the airport. You reason that if you can get a SVFR clearance, you can depart, fly toward that hole in the clouds, and climb through the hole to VFR conditions. This is where you need to think carefully about your plan.

If you ask for and get a SVFR clearance, you'll end up being just under 900 feet above the ground. If your departure path is over a populated area, you won't be in compliance with 14 CFR 91.119, which says you must be 1000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2000 feet horizontally of your course. In addition, you must maintain an altitude that will permit you to make an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the ground should your engine fail.

I've seen many pilots do just these sorts of SVFR departures and arrivals. Controllers, for their part, seem to condone it. If nothing bad happens, well ... But if something does go wrong, the pilot will probably be called on the carpet for violating the minimum safe altitude rules as well as 14 CFR 91.13 - Careless and reckless operation - endangering the life and property of others. Assuming they survive, that is.

Separate and Unequal

Order 7110.65S - Air Traffic Control, the air traffic controller's "handbook," has some interesting things to say about priority of SVFR operations as well as separation of SVFR aircraft. The priority of SVFR is summed up simply:
SVFR flights may be approved only if arriving and departing IFR aircraft are not delayed.
Then later, there's this escape clause:
The priority afforded IFR aircraft over SVFR aircraft is not intended to be so rigidly applied that inefficient use of airspace results. The controller has the prerogative of permitting completion of a SVFR operation already in progress when an IFR aircraft becomes a factor if better overall efficiency will result.
Regarding separation, ATC is required to separate SVFR aircraft from each other and SVFR aircraft from IFR aircraft. The order goes on to reference separation standards from chapters 6 and 7 of that same document.


A few weeks ago, I was returning to Oakland at night with a student pilot in deteriorating weather. We discussed the visibility and concluded we had better than 3 miles of visibility and that we were approximately 500 feet below an overcast to broker cloud layer. After contacting NORCAL, my student was given the usual instructions for a straight-in VFR approach. A few minutes later, we were advised that Oakland was reporting below basic VFR minima and to "say intentions." Being only 7 miles from the airport, with good visibility, but in deteriorating weather conditions, I asked for special VFR. This seemed to be 1) a great teaching opportunity for my student and 2) the safest way for us to get on the ground quickly before the weather deteriorated further.

The controller approved the request, but less than a minute later instructed us to remain clear of the surface class C airspace. Oakland Tower was not allowing SVFR. Once again we were asked to say intentions, so I asked for an IFR clearance. We were given a Northeast heading, told to maintain VFR and to expect a delay for the clearance. This provided another excellent teaching situation: How things can go bad when you don't have a Plan B.

The weather began to deteriorate further, so I offered to maintain our own terrain and obstruction clearance if the controller could provide an IFR clearance immediately. The controller agreed, we turned East and then South as we climbed two thousand feet. We joined the localizer, descended, and lo and behold we were back in almost the same position we were just a few minutes earlier. "What the heck was that all about?" I wondered at the time.

A few weeks later, I was departing Oakland with another pilot to fly VFR to an airport in the Sierra Mountains for a mountain check out. It was one of those weird days where Oakland's South Field (runway 29) was reporting low visibility and ceilings while the North Field (runways 27 and 33) were scattered clouds and great visibility. The official story was that Oakland was IFR, so we called ground and asked for a SVFR departure. To our surprise, we were told that SVFR was no longer allowed at Oakland. What?

Choosing the path of least resistance, we called clearance delivery, explained we weren't pre-filed, and asked for an IFR clearance to VFR. A few minutes later, we had our IFR clearance and departed. As soon as we were handed off to approach (at about 1000'), we cancelled IFR. We actually could have cancelled IFR as soon as our wheels left the runway since we were already in VFR conditions.

I have yet to hear the official story, but gather that someone at the FAA decided to interpret the regulations to mean that no aircraft can be given SVFR in Oakland's Class C surface area when there is any IFR aircraft arriving or departing, regardless of how much separation is between those aircraft. And there's been no warning, no indication on the San Francisco VFR Terminal Area Chart, not even a NOTAM to inform the unsuspecting pilot who has studied all the above regulations and is religiously completing their preflight planning.

I guess this is just another reason to be extremely careful when your plans seem to depend on SVFR.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lil' Roundup

Over the past months and years I've posted my thoughts on different products that I've found useful and interesting. In the process I've made the virtual acquaintance of a lot of hard-working folks who use their ingenuity to make flying easier and safer for the rest of us. So here is a round up of new features that have been added to products I've reviewed in the past.

Some of these products are for sale, others are offered with just the suggestion that you donate some cash to help sustain the developer's efforts. If you choose to take advantage of these products, don't be an iDeadbeat: Cough up some cash, okay?


Doug Rantz's has made some bookmark changes to the PDF files he offers at Nacomatic. The new bookmarks should help users more easily locate airports when they don't know the airport's identifier, especially for those using the Kindle DX to store and view approach charts. Your donations keep Doug's efforts going, so donate already!

Private Pilot Workbooks

Dan Dyer's Ground School Workbook for Private Pilots is a valuable product for the aspiring private pilot in search of a paper-based enhancement to self-paced study. Rather than recreate or repackage the content of the FAA's Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, this workbook provides thoughtfully written questions that test your knowledge of the material contained the PHAK. The workbook adds value by providing additional questions and exercises for selected areas of knowledge that go beyond what the FAA covers. All in all, a great way to move student pilots toward that elusive understanding level of knowledge.

SkyCharts for iPhone

Developer Heikki Julkunen has been making regular updates to SkyCharts and the latest version has some cool, new features, including support for VFR Terminal Area Charts, IFR low-altitude en route charts, METARs, rudimentary flight planning, and North-up or Track-up display options. Kudos to Heikki for getting the NACO IFR low-altitude en route charts into a georeferenced format, which is a non-trival task. All for $10!


Doug Moreland hasn't been sitting on his hands either. He continues to make user interface enhancements to ReadyProcs, the application of choice for viewing approach charts and airport facility information on almost any Java-capable computer. Though I don't yet have a suitable computer to use in flight, I use ReadyProcs for printing off a selection of approach charts in kneeboard format, double-sided. When I have a simulator session to teach and want to provide my favorite collection of charts for, say, DME arcs, ReadyProcs let's me print out charts with minimal fuss. My hope is that soon there will be a tablet device with Java support on which I can run ReadyProcs for in-flight use. Now that would be cool!

PFMA for iPhone

My favorite iPhone E6B calculator remains PFMA. It's easy to use, full-featured, and has that cool FMS-like interface. The most recent update lets you set a variety of preference items and I recommend this product to beginning and experienced alike. What more could you ask for $6?

LightSpeed Mach1
I was startled when I realized that I've been using my Mach1 headset for over 4 years now. It is still my preferred headset. The Mach1 is lightweight, has excellent sound quality, doesn't require regular battery replacement, and allows me to wear a hat or cap to protect my balding pate from sunlight. I've had a few occasions to send the unit back to LightSpeed for service, but consider that those four-plus years involved over 2600 hours of flight time. Each time I sent the unit in I received a replacement unit within just a few days.

I started out using the Mach1 with replaceable blue ear tips. This worked fine when I was making a living flying the Caravan, but they didn't provide enough sound dampening for flying noisy, GA piston aircraft. I quickly graduated to the custom ear molds and to be honest, the first few iterations of these molds were less than ideal. Once the fit of the custom molds was corrected, the only remaining issue was that oil from my ears gradually lubricated the molds, causing the ear piece holding the boom mic to occasionally pop out. Regularly cleaning the ear molds with soap and water as well as wiping off the metal stalks on the ear pieces with isopropyl alcohol kept this under control.

Custom ear molds need to be replaced every few years because ear canals change shape, especially if you lose or gain weight. After shedding nearly 30 pounds of weight over the last year, it was time to purchase the ear mold kit online at LightSpeed's website and have the impressions made by a local audiologist who'd send them to Sensaphonics. After about 5 weeks, Sensaphonics had sent the new design for these molds, which solves the problem of loose ear pieces popping out: The new molds enclose the outside of the ear pieces, making the whole package more solid and secure. I'm looking forward to many more years of use of this excellent product!

Last, but not least, if you're using a reader to view this blog then you probably don't see the Donate button in the upper right top edge of your screen. So point your browser here, find that button, click on it, and donate whatever you can afford. You'll feel better ...

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Entourage eDGe as EFB?

The just announced Entourage eDGe™ is on sale now for shipment in February and looks like it could be a serviceable approach plate reader. I have yet to touch one, but they claim that you can annotate eBooks using something called e-Ink®. Files are said to be easily transferred from a PC or Mac using a mini-USB connection.

The eDGe has an announced retail price of $490, is 8.25 inches by 10.75 inches, and weighs in under 3 pounds. You can read more details about the device here.