Monday, January 31, 2011

School of Hard Knocks

Just back from a flight, Mal Raff warned me ominously, "It's very turbulent up there." To which I replied dryly, "Good, it will keep me awake." This developed into a sort of tradition where Mal would provide me a pilot report (PIREP) for turbulence and I would play the part of the brave pilot who never admits to being bothered by turbulence. This was all an act. While I've become somewhat inured to turbulence, I'll be the first to admit that I've encountered turbulent conditions that scared the daylights out of me. Pilots and passengers universally dislike turbulence and the ones that say otherwise are either fibbing or are in need of some serious couch time. Thankfully there are several strategies for avoiding turbulence, handling it when it is unavoidable, and making PIREPs that accurately describe the character and degree of turbulence you just encountered. (Note that I won't be delving into clear air turbulence or CAT, since few GA pilots are flying at altitudes where it is a factor).

Get Briefed

Student pilots learn early on that weather reports and forecasts can provide plenty of clues about the likelihood of encountering turbulence. Getting a briefing not only fulfills the regulatory preflight action requirement, it can help you anticipate turbulence well before the PIREPs start flooding in. Sure there are pilots out there who skip the pre-flight briefing or don't examine the information carefully. Some of them even brag about it, but you're not like those pilots, right? The National Weather Service has several products that address turbulence that I'll illustrate using the Aviation Digital Data Service site, which now offers a Qualified Internet Content Provider login.

AIRMET tango (think "T" for Turbulence) is of interest primarily to pilots of smaller aircraft and should be released when conditions are ripe for moderate turbulence over a large area (3000 square miles or more). There are also AIRMETs sierra for IFR conditions and zulu for icing. Problem is that AIRMETs describe the area being affected in a sort of connect-the-dots fashion using three letter identifiers for VOR stations and distances to define the dots: Not very user-friendly. Even if you are familiar with all the VORs, assembling a mental map of the affected area can be challenging.

ADDS has a product called G-AIRMET that provides a map-like depiction of areas affected by AIRMETs and SIGMETs. You can even look at an animated representation of how the conditions will unfold over time. Graphical AIRMETs are also depicted on sites like Even ForeFight and cockpit XM weather displays will depict AIRMETs on a map, though you'll have to dig a bit to access them.

Forecast winds aloft will also give you an idea whether or not turbulence and wind shear are on today's menu. Combine strong winds aloft with rough terrain and the ride gets bumpy at lower altitudes, downwind of the terrain (an area known as the lee side). If the wind direction and velocity is forecast to change abruptly as altitude increases, expect wind shear - a sudden change is wind velocity or direction over a short distance. Wind shear can occur over a horizontal distance across the ground or over a vertical distance as you climb or descend. If you plan to fly over rough terrain or mountains, forecasts winds aloft in excess of 20 to 25 knots should give you pause. ADDs lets you access winds aloft forecasts in textual or graphical format.

PIREPs (pilot reports) are like AIRMETs in that decoding text versions requires knowledge and practice. My favorite tool for PIREPs is the ADDS Java PIREPS Tool. Launch most any browser that supports Java (this excludes the iPad), select part of the continental US, and choose the types of reports you're interested in. Symbols for turbulence will appear at locations on the map where the PIREPS were reported and you only need to mouse-over those symbols to access the details. You can access PIREPs on and other sites, but they are strangely missing from the mobile versions of ForeFlight.

While pilots of smaller aircraft are more susceptible to and tend to over-report the intensity of turbulence, pay particular attention to PIREPs from transport category aircraft since they are flown by flight crews who have a lot of experience with turbulence. More on this later.

If the weather forecast is waaay behind what is actually happening, a Center Weather Advisory or CWA can be issued. The Aeronautical Information Manual strays into neologism by calling the CWA a nowcast: "By nature of its short lead time, the CWA is not a flight planning product." To which I say, "Horse feathers!" If you get a pre-flight briefing and it contains a CWA, you most certainly can use it for pre-flight planning purposes. If you are already airborne, CWAs are available over the Hazardous In-flight Weather Advisory Service (or HIWAS) that is broadcast over the voice component of many VOR stations. Just tune in the VOR and listen.

Studying Turbulence

While much of the country has been enduring snow and cold, unseasonably warm weather settled over coastal areas of Northern California last week. This January weather gift was due to a stationary area of high pressure that kept the jet stream and the wet weather well to the North. The downside was it also generated persistent Northeasterly winds aloft that created a lot of turbulence and low-level wind shear in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Strong winds flowing over terrain is much like fast-moving water flowing over rocks in a stream: You may not be able to see the air boiling and swirling on the lee side of terrain, but rest assured it is there. You should only have to experience this once to know the lee side is not a pleasant place to be when the winds are howling, yet the lee side is exactly where several pilots reported encountering turbulence. Duh!

My student had planned a dual cross-country flight from Oakland to Columbia and a Center Weather Advisory was in effect for moderate to severe turbulence. The first part of the route would start with a climb-out on the lee side of the Oakland/Berkeley hills - the heart of the action. The surface winds were calm, but the winds at 3000 feet were forecast to be 050˚ at nearly 30 knots, so our plan was to avoid or minimize the turbulence by climbing as high as possible as quickly as possible. We discussed what we'd do if we encountered turbulence (more on that later).

Contacting the tower for takeoff, my student requested an early hand-off to Norcal so we could ask for a climb into class bravo. Reaching 800', the tower handed us off and Norcal approved our climb into bravo. The result was occasional light chop while climbing and a smooth ride all the way to Columbia. Cruising comfortably at 5,500 feet, we made a detailed PIREP to Flight Watch. Opening the VFR flight plan on the way back, the Flight Service specialist warned us of even more PIREPs of moderate to severe turbulence.

Our strategy for the descent back into Oakland was similar to what we'd used on departure: Stay above 3,500 feet for as long as possible and be prepared for turbulence during the descent. We requested a bravo clearance from Norcal, explaining it was to avoid turbulence. They were fine with us crossing Lake Chabot at about 3,500 feet, then we started our descent. We encountered continuous light chop, occasional moderate chop, and a bit of an updraft. Nothing to write home about.

I've witnessed pilots who were reluctant to make special requests for things like an early turn or a climb into bravo airspace. I'm not sure what causes this reluctance, but I encourage pilots to speak up. If you have a special request and a reason for that request, most controllers will do what they can to accommodate you. Ask and ye shall likely receive.

Back on the ground, we went online to see the PIREP we'd filed, but lo and behold, it wasn't there! Perhaps it wasn't disseminated because our PIREP for mostly light chop was at odds the dire warnings contained in the CWA. Who knows, but my student was not impressed by the results of all our PIREP efforts.

Riding the Beast

It may seem obvious, but ensure your seat belt is snug and tight when you know or suspect you're going to encounter turbulence. Beware of newer seat belts that contain airbags because they can feel like they are tight when they aren't. Old, worn seat belts may be difficult to tighten, but it's worth the effort: You don't want to bang your head on the ceiling when the action starts.

Slow down to at least the published maneuvering speed (Va) for your aircraft at your estimated weight. If you don't know your estimated weight, take a moment to appreciate the advantage of calculating weight and balance before each flight. Once you are flying at or below maneuvering speed, it's highly unlikely your aircraft will experience structural damage from turbulence.

If you have loose items in the cockpit, now is the time to secure them. If the turbulence rises to the level of moderate or greater, you'll know when your ham sandwich takes flight inside the cockpit.

I avoid using flaps in turbulence because in most GA aircraft, the addition of any flaps reduces the aircraft's maximum design load factors. For many GA aircraft, the positive load limit of 3.8G will drop to around 2G and the -1.5G negative limit may drop to 0G. Bottom line: Delay extending flaps until you are preparing to land.

Most GA aircraft are designed to be stable and they tend recover from upsets in pitch and roll without much assistance from you, so let the plane to ride the bumps. You do not need to respond on the controls to each and every bump that you encounter, but when you do use the controls, think of dampening out the variations rather than trying to overcome them. Over-controlling will increase the load on the aircraft and make the ride feel more uncomfortable for you and your passengers. Autopilots tend to over-control in turbulence and they are designed to spontaneously disconnect in moderate or greater turbulence. You may as well disconnect George and hand fly since you'll undoubtedly do a better job. If the turbulence is moderate or greater, do your best to maintain a level pitch attitude and accept variations in altitude as you just let the plane ride.

Updrafts and downdrafts can be difficult to perceive until you have more experience, but a good way to learn is to keep the airspeed indicator in your scan. Increases in indicated airspeed without changes in power or pitch mean you're in an updraft. Decreases in airspeed mean you're in a downdraft. It's not uncommon to need to make dramatic and frequent adjustments in engine power to compensate for updrafts and downdrafts.

If you expect turbulence while descending, remember that altitude is energy: You'll have to reduce the throttle to be able to descend and stay at or below maneuvering speed. If you're one of those pilots who usually descends by just pushing the nose over and trimming, you'll want to rethink that strategy in turbulence.

Your reward for reading this far is that I'm now going to reveal my secret for flying through turbulence: Be patient, stay as relaxed as possible, have a mental image of how you want the plane to be flying, then do your best to make reality match that mental image. Without a concept of how you want the aircraft to be flying, you'll simply be reacting to the conditions. Developing a piloting concept is a deep topic, perhaps for another day.

Making the Call

Do your fellow pilots a favor and make a PIREP when you've encountered turbulence. Less experienced pilots flying smaller aircraft frequently over-report the intensity of turbulence they encountered. Pilots in more rigid, composite airframe aircraft (like Diamond and Cirrus) tend to experience and report a rougher ride that their aluminum-flying brethren. In any case, you can avoid over-reporting turbulence intensity by doing your best to set aside your emotional reaction and using as objectively as possible the following criteria (Aeronautical Information Manual, section 7-1-23, emphasis added).

Light Turbulence - momentarily causes slight, erratic changes in altitude and/or attitude (pitch, roll, yaw). Occupants may feel a slight strain against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects may be displaced slightly.

Light Chopcauses slight, rapid and somewhat rhythmic bumpiness without appreciable changes in altitude or attitude.

Moderate Turbulence - similar to Light Turbulence but of greater intensity. Changes in altitude and/or attitude occur but the aircraft remains in positive control at all times. It usually causes variations in indicated airspeed. Occupants feel definite strains against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are dislodged.

Moderate Chop - similar to Light Chop but of greater intensity. Rapid bumps or jolts without appreciable changes in aircraft altitude or attitude.

Severe - Large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude. Large variations in indicated airspeed. Aircraft may be momentarily out of controlOccupants are forced violently against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are tossed about.

Extremeaircraft is violently tossed about and is practically impossible to control, structural damage to aircraft is possible.

Whenever you are startled or frightened by turbulence, stop and take a breath, then do your best to assess what has happened or is currently happening. On numerous occasions I've talked to pilots who said they encountered moderate-to-severe turbulence, but when I ask them some basic questions it seems they probably encountered light-to-moderate turbulence. One tip-off: If the head on your Barry Bonds bobblehead doll is bobbling, but the doll itself is staying put, it's probably light turbulence.

Brave vs Smart

Turbulence can become a serious risk factor; it is distracting, it adds to your workload, and it's tiring. Combine turbulence with instrument meteorological conditions and/or night time and the risks for single-pilot operations only get worse. If you find turbulence scary and uncomfortable, join the club! There's no shame in being afraid, but there's seldom any excuse for not anticipating or expecting turbulence. With some planning and a little strategy, turbulence can often be managed, but there's nothing wrong with canceling or delaying a flight to avoid turbulence. I'll take a smart and thoughtful pilot over brave and risky pilot any day of the week.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Flying, Wiki-style

Having been in the blogging world for nearly six years, I get a fair number of comments, requests, and suggestions every week. And while authoring a blog can make one a target for vitriol and drive-by comments, you can also be introduced to some wonderful people and learn about new, cool stuff. For a good example of something new and cool, look no further than Keith West's new wiki-style aviation site How It Flies.

If you've ever wondered about a particular aircraft's V-speeds, weights, performance, specifications, or history then How It Flies is just the site for you. If you have knowledge and experience in a particular aircraft type that you'd like to share, you can create a login and that will give you the ability to edit and add information. This a great site for dark, cold nights when you just want to curl up with your laptop in a comfy chair and do some armchair flying.

Some features I'd like to see added? It would be cool to see the addition of some missing aircraft types (okay, some are oddball aircraft that I just happen to have flown). Right now there is no ability to add a new type, just the ability to edit existing types (provided you have created a login). The turbo-prop category could be divided into separate single- and multi-engine categories, but overall the site already contains a treasure trove of information.

Given it's wiki style one assumes it will only get better with time. So go and check out what Keith has put together. And if you have some specific aircraft type information and expertise, well roll up your sleeves, get to work, and share what you know!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flying Right Seat

A freight pilot friend once astutely observed, "From the right seat, it may as well be a completely different airplane." His comment sprang from a discussion we had about the wisdom of non-instructor pilots offering to fly with student pilots, allowing the student to sit in the left seat and practice. The pilot would act as PIC, the cost of the flight would be shared, and there would be no need to pay for a flight instructor. When examining the relative wisdom of such an arrangement, pilots need to consider that when they move to the right seat they've entered bizzaro world. Without some training and experience in right seat flying, specifically landings, you've significantly increased the risk of something bad (read expensive) happening. If you've ever thought about getting instruction in right seat flying, here are some of the challenges in store for you and a few suggestions on how to cope with them.

Understand the Limits

Though most GA aircraft have dual flight controls, they are certificated for, and primarily set-up for the pilot-in-command occupying the left seat. With the lion's share of the flight instruments positioned for the left seat, the pilot in the right seat can feel left out. The altimeter, airspeed indicator, and turn coordinator can be mighty hard to see. Even if you can see the instruments, there's the problem of parallax: You aren't looking straight at the instrument so you have to learn to judge what a needle is indicating or when the ball in the slip indicator is centered. And you can forget the attitude indicator in many aircraft. Instructors in the right seat usually learn to visualize bank angles and use outside references for estimating pitch.

The ignition key or magneto switches and virtually all other switches may be beyond your normal reach when you're sitting right seat and a clear view of these switches is often not available. The left yoke may be in the way or the left seat pilot's hands or arms may block your view. The throttle quadrant often blocks the right seat pilot's view of the landing gear lever and the gear position indicator lights. About the only things you may have close at hand from the right seat are the circuit breakers, flap switch and cabin heat controls.

When sitting right seat, you're going to be operating the throttle, prop, and mixture controls with your left hand. Virtually every pilot finds this arrangement awkward at first. You may even experience the thrill of leaning the mixture when you meant to retard the throttle, though most pilots rarely make this mistake more than once! I've even seen a few pilots grab the correct control, but in a fit of confusion, move that control the wrong way - advancing the throttle when they meant to retard the throttle.

The best radio push-to-talk (PTT) switch set-up for the right seat is to have the switch located on the right horn of the right seat control yoke. This makes sense because the right-seat flyer needs to have their left hand free for adjusting the throttle, prop, mixture or to set the radios and GPS. So naturally many aircraft manufacturers put the right seat PTT switch on the left horn of the control yoke. This means the pilot must momentarily switch hands or reach across their body with the opposite hand anytime they need to talk to ATC. One plane I occasionally instruct in has the right seat PTT switch mounted on the far right edge of the instrument panel, which can make for some interesting contortions.

Aircraft insurance policies and flying club rules often specify that all flying is to be done from the left seat unless the pilot holds a current flight instructor certificate or has specific authorization. Some aircraft have equipment limitations, like the often overlooked limit on the KAP 140 autopilot that a pilot must occupy the left seat when the autopilot is engaged. With all these limitations in mind, it's clear that flying from the right seat is not as simple as sliding over.

Illusive Landings

For most pilots, the biggest challenge with right seat flying is landing the aircraft. I've lost count of the number of pilots I've trained to fly right seat, but most have been flight instructor candidates. A few have been private pilots who simply wanted to see what it was like to fly from the other seat. I've known several instructors who became so comfortable flying right seat that they actually avoided ever flying from the left seat, even when flying solo. Switching back and forth can be a humbling experience, but flight instructors should be flexible and practiced in flying from either seat. If you aren't an instructor and you don't get much practice in the right seat, factor that into your personal minima and currency requirements. Like most anything else in life, right seat flying is a skill that must be practiced to be maintained.

The majority of learning right seat landing problems are difficulty aligning the longitudinal axis (yaw) and maintaining centerline alignment during the landing flare. Pilots who are new to the right seat frequently apply too much right rudder during the flare and the result is side loading on the landing gear at touchdown. The most effective teaching technique seems to be briefing the pilot on the common errors and solutions, then coaching them with real-time feedback about their rudder input. After 5 to 10 hours of practice, most pilots find right seat landings start to improve.

Double Vision

Ocular dominance, in my experience, plays an important role in a pilot's ability to maintain centerline and longitudinal alignment during the first few hours of landing from the right seat. For most people, their dominant eye is the same as their dominant hand: Right handed people tend to right eyed and left handed people are left eyed. Here's a simple test to determine your dominate eye:

With one of your arms extended and with both eyes open, align your thumb with some object that is more than 20 feet (6 meters) away. Close your left eye and if you see the object appears to remain aligned with your thumb, then your right eye is dominant. If the object no longer appears aligned with your right eye closed, your left eye is dominant.

I've taught right seat flying to at least three pilots who were right-handed, but who were left-eye dominant and these pilots seems to initially report more difficulty and feelings of awkwardness when transitioning to the right seat. Consider my unscientific representations of how ocular dominance might affect one's perspective from the cockpit. These photos have been exaggerated for effect, but illustrate the idea that significant re-learning is required when transitioning to the right seat. Pilots are often encouraged to look at the end of the runway during the landing flare and I suspect the reason this technique helps is because it reduces the parallax introduced by ocular dominance.

Left Seat, Left Eye Dominant

Left Seat, Right Eye Dominant

Right Seat, Left Eye Dominant

Right Seat, Right Eye Dominant
I move back and forth from the right seat to the left seat in a variety of aircraft, but this wasn't always the case. My first few years of instructing provided few opportunities to fly from the left seat, but when I did it always felt more natural. After thousands of hours of dual instruction given and years of flying regularly, I no longer think that much about which seat I'm occupying. Without significant experience and regular flying, switching back and forth would probably not be as easy.

Right-Brain, Left-Brain

There are popular beliefs about right or left brain dominance, also known as brain function lateralization. The usual claims are that right-brain people tend perceive and think in a more global, holistic, and creative manner. Left-brain dominance purportedly helps one excel at procedures and rational thought. There are numerous on-line tests you can take that claim to tell you whether you are left- or right-brain dominant, though I'm not sure how much use this knowledge will be if you decide to try flying from the right seat.

Barring physical injury or disease, we each use of both halves of our brains every day. While parts of the right hemisphere provide motor control to the left side of the body and vice-versa, aside from obvious processes like speech (which is usually localized in the left temporal lobe for right-handed individuals and somewhat distributed between the left and right temporal lobes for left-handed people), there isn't always a clear pattern of specialization between brain hemispheres for global thought processes. It does seem safe to say that learning to fly from the right seat will require you to use your brain in ways you normally wouldn't, that's why it's difficult, and it's probably a good thing.

The key to safe and successful right seat flying is to get training from an authorized instructor familiar with aircraft you'll be using. Remember that when you reach for a control or switch using either hand, focus on your intention, not on how awkward it may feel. Expect to become fatigued more easily during your first few hours of right seat flying for the simple reason you'll have to concentrate on things you'd normally do unconsciously. Exercising your brain by thinking and coordinating in a different way can be challenging. Don't be surprised if you feel a bit like a student pilot at first, but don't worry. Right seat flying gets easier with practice.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Foggy Inland, Clear at the Coast

Known for it's microclimates, the San Francisco Bay Area weather is a year-round marvel. In the summertime, with little moisture in the Central Valley, the sun often beats down mercilessly on the earth, that in turn heats the air near the surface, the air expands and rises, resulting in an area of thermal low pressure. The summertime pressure gradients between cool, moist coastal areas and the hot, dry Central Valley can be dramatic: It's not uncommon to see a barometric pressure difference of 0.1" Hg or greater between Oakland and Byron, a mere 29 miles away. With the Santa Cruz and Diablo Mountain ranges acting as low altitude barriers, the strong on-shore pressure gradient draws the famous San Francisco fog Eastward, through the Golden Gate and into the bay and other low lying areas.

Winter in The Valley
In the winter months, the effect can be just the opposite. Surface moisture from heavy rainfall combines with low surface temperatures and light winds to form Tule fog in the Central Valley (this is really just a regional term for radiation fog). Add a high-pressure system like the one currently ensconced over North Central California, and you get a temperature inversion that makes the Tule fog persist for days, even weeks. Winter months can often provide an off-shore surface pressure gradient that is just the opposite of the summer pattern. The result is the Tule fog in the Central Valley can be drawn Westward into the Livermore Valley and even into San Francisco Bay.

One benefit of this winter fog pattern is that instrument pilots can depart under visual flight rules (VFR) from Bay Area airports, fly just a few miles to one of several Central Valley airports, and experience instrument approaches to minima - often less than 1/2 mile visibility with indefinite ceilings of 200 feet or less with calm winds. With widespread low IFR, wise pilots and instructors carefully weighs the risks associated with practicing instrument approaches under these conditions.

Seeing an ocean of Tule fog sitting in the Central Valley, but with warm temperatures and clear blue skies aloft is a great way to teach pilots and non-pilots that this type of fog does not burn off. Tule fog will mix into the upper atmosphere and dissipate once the surface winds increase. I still cringe when I hear pilots and weather forecasters (folks who should know better) talk about radiation fog burning off. D'oh!

Here are some recent photographs of Tule fog from above. Having grown up in the Midwest, I'll take Tule fog over sub-zero temperatures and snow shovels, thank you very much.

East of Lake Berryessa

Widespread Low IFR

Tule Fog pilled up behind the Devil's Mountain

Procedure Turn Inbound at KEDU.

Ripples near Rio Vista
There's an airport down there ... somewhere

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Different is not The Same

Having logged waaay more than six approaches and several holding patterns in the last six months, I was current and legal to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). The problem is that current & legal does not guarantee a pilot is proficient. 14 CFR 61.51(g)(2) permits an instrument instructor to log instrument time, holding patterns, and instrument approaches flown by their students in instrument meteorological conditions and that helps instructors stay current at a low cost. Unfortunately, there's a big difference between watching someone fly an aircraft and actually flying the aircraft yourself. When it comes to maintaining proficiency, instructors are in the same boat as any other pilot: It takes time, effort, practice and money to maintain your flying chops.

Pressure Cooker

For a professional pilot, recurrent simulator training and proficiency checks are an opportunity to learn, practice, and be evaluated. Or to become unemployed! Recurrent training and proficiency checks create a pressure to perform and a certain level of stress is a good thing. For GA pilots and flight instructors, the only pressure to perform that we may experience is usually self-imposed. To keep myself in the game and feeling challenged, I hire another instructor to give me an instrument proficiency check every six months. During those flights I am just like any other pilot: I pay for the aircraft, the fuel, and the instructor. I feel the stress, make some mistakes (hopefully not too many), and listen to a post-flight critique. And as Dr. ATP recently wrote, I'm not looking for an easy pass.

The tasks for an instrument proficiency check are defined in the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards, along with the tolerances for satisfactory performance. The FAA has produced a nice document called Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) Guidance to help focus the mind of pilot and instructor. Most any instrument instructor worth his or her salt can recite the tasks to be demonstracted for an IPC from memory, but actually performing these tasks to the stated tolerances is a different story.
  • Holding procedures
  • Recovery from Unusual Flight Attitudes
  • Intercepting & Tracking Navigational Systems & DME Arcs
  • Nonprecision Approach (NPA)
  • Precision Approach (PA)
  • Missed Approach
  • Circling Approach
  • Landing from a Straight-in or Circling Approach
  • Loss of Primary Flight Instrument Indicators
Change is Good

Back in January 2010, the FAA made some welcome changes to the Instrument Rating Practical Test Standards. For one, RNAV approaches with LPV minima and a DH of 300' or less now meet the requirements of a precision approach. This clears up some of the problems with earlier versions of the PTS that specified an RNAV approach with LPV minima as a non-precision approach. And the old concept of partial panel has been reworked to better account for glass panel aircraft - what Garmin calls reversionary mode.

Last week, I scheduled time with Jim (a currently furloughed airline pilot who is also a flight instructor) to put me through the paces and evaluate my performance. We came up with a plan of action that included all of the tasks, but left some room for spontaneity: I wasn't sure exactly what routings I'd get, when I might be instructed to hold, when we'd do unusual attitude recoveries, and so on.

"Cross JUPAP at or above three thousand seven hundred, cleared RNAV Y 27L ..."

During the flight I did my best to stay ahead and relaxed, something I encourage pilots I train to strive for. Hey, everyone performs better when they are relaxed. I used the bits of onboard automation when it made sense, but I also did a lot of hand flying, too. Also had a chance to show to Jim a trick I discovered for quickly setting up reversionary mode. Afterward, I was relishing the brutally honest debriefing. I'd made a couple of gaffes, but Jim thought things looked pretty good. This made we wonder if he was going easy on me, but he insisted he wasn't, offering "I could make some stuff up, if you want."

Proficiency on a Budget

If you think it's expensive to mimic part 121 or 135 recurrent training, it is. It's also an investment in your safety as well as the safety of those who fly with you. And there are ways to reduce the expense. In 2009, changes were made to 14 CFR 61.57(c)(1)(i), (ii), and (iii): An authorized instructor is no longer required to be present when an instrument pilot uses an approved flight training device (FTD) or flight simulator to log instrument approaches and holding procedures for currency. The pilot using the FTD must have not exceeded the 6 calendar month currency limit, but this is good news for pilots who want to stay current without breaking the bank: An hour in an FTD is probably one-third the cost of a flight in an actual aircraft.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that without an authorized instructor present to create realistic scenarios and provide the voice of air traffic control, this type of FTD activity is more likely to keep you legal than proficient. Still, many FTDs allow you to program random equipment malfunctions, which can make the training more spontaneous and challenging. Alternate the non-instructional use of a FTD with proficiency flights in an actual aircraft (with a safety pilot or instructor) and you've got the best of both worlds: A plan to stay proficient that is also cost-effective.

If you've been feeling stale or uninspired, you can always hook up with another pilot and split some flight time. It may take some time to find another pilot with whom you feel simpatico, but you can save some money and get another perspective by critiquing one another's performance. There are pilots who pass the check ride and then do the minimum required to stay legal, but we should all bristle at the suggestion that piloting skills will inevitably deteriorate after the check ride. Sure you have to be up for the challenge and ready to spend some cash, but you can't put a price on the rewarding feeling you get when you know you've done your best.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

What's New with You?

The past year brought some interesting changes to general aviation and here are just a few of the items I found interesting.

Pilot Fatigue and Rest Rules

Though many (including high-ranking members of the NTSB) have tried to keep pilot fatigue out of the spotlight, efforts have been afoot to change duty-time regulations for Part 121 and 135 pilots. Many pilots say the proposed rulemaking the FAA announced is actually a step in the wrong direction because it would allow, under some circumstances, for pilots to fly more hours in a 24 hour period that under the old regs. Though I currently do not fly under Part 121 or 135, I believe that all those concerned with aviation safety (pilots, passenger, operators, and the FAA) need to give fatigue the serious consideration it is due. Find a way to ensure that pilots and flight attendents have time to eat, sleep, and tend to the daily chores that the rest of us take for granted. Increasing the required rest period for all crew members to 10 hours per 24 hour period seems reasonable and the flight time rules should be left alone.

Line Up and Wait

After much to-ing and fro-ing, the FAA finally implemented new phraseology for telling pilots to get on the runway and wait for their takeoff clearance. Actually, the phraseology isn't new at all, it's been the ICAO standard for many years. Most pilots and controllers seemed to stumble with the new phrase a bit, but most quickly adapted. I did hear a pilot complain the other day "Line up and wait just doesn't sound right." As a character in a Faulkner story once said "Thems that's goin', get on the g**d*** wagon ..."

iPad and Aviation

Having tried a bunch of affordable electronic flight bag solutions over the years, including the Iliad Reader/eFlybook, the Modbook, the Dell Mini, and the iPhone, I was as alert as a Basenji hunting squirrels when the iPad was released and had mine from day one. Looking back, there was good reason to be hopeful that the iPad would be a reasonably good cockpit companion. There was a lot of aviation software available for the iPhone when the iPad was launched and Apple did a good job of greasing the works for developers adapting their apps to the iPad.

The two standout iPad EFB apps are ForeFlight Mobile HD and SkyCharts Pro. The latest release of ForeFlight has fixed a few nagging bugs and made it the go-to app for preflight weather briefings. In the cockpit, I find ForeFlight requires a few more taps than I would like for accessing charts and terminal procedures. This is where SkyCharts Pro shines: Just a couple of taps and you've got the approach or SID that you need.

Some of the other essential iPad apps for me include LogTenPenultimateGoodReaderNumbers, and Square. Of course as a MobileMe user, it goes without saying that the built-in Mail and Calendar apps see a lot of use, too.

Register This

The aircraft registration process was changed in 2010 from one where an aircraft only had to be re-registered when it was sold to a three year affair. The stated goals, according to FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, are to provide "... more up-to-date registration data and better information about the state of the aviation industry” and to respond "… to calls from law enforcement and other government agencies for more accurate, up-to-date registration data." No worries, the FAA will send aircraft owners a renewal notice on a staggered schedule based on the month in which each aircraft was originally registered. The costs will reportedly increase from the old one-time $5 fee to $45 every three years. Owners who don't respond to the registration requests will have their aircraft's N-number revoked.

2010 also saw renewed efforts to get photographs on pilot certificates. The FAA appears to be supporting this effort but as of this writing there's not much detail about how the photographs will be taken. Given that most FAA Flight Standard District Offices barely have the staff they needed to provide the limited oversight they currently offer, it's unclear how all this will work. With all this additional workload related to aircraft registration and pilot photographs, the likelihood for administrative mayhem seems high. But perhaps the FAA (with the help of the redoubtable Lockheed-Martin) will be able to pull a rabbit out of their hat.

Unmanned Flight

Last year I opined that the integration of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) into the national airspace system was the underreported story of the past decade. Now it seems that awareness of UAVs has begun to increase, with some stories even making it into the mainstream media. Last August, an MQ-8B Fire Scout drone on a test flight from Patuxent River NAS had a "software problem" that caused the operator to lose the control link to the aircraft. The 31 foot long drone, which looks like helicopter, continued flying on its own for twenty-some miles and penetrated the restricted airspace around Washington D.C. before control was re-established. The fleet was then grounded until the cause could be identified. Good idea ...

Just last month, a small UAV operated by the Mexican government (presumably for drug interdiction) crashed into the backyard of an El Paso house. No one was reported to have been injured and the police declined to identify the exact location where the UAV crashed. The US Border Patrol transported the wreckage back to Mexico before the NTSB could investigate, which all pilots will remember is a violation of 14 CFR 49.830(10)(b). It's unclear exactly what type of UAV crashed, but it was reported to have a wingspan between 8 and 15 feet and was light enough to be carried away from the accident scene. If there was any doubt in your mind that 2010 is the year that privacy died, this should put that doubt to rest. Not to worry, NextGen will solve all life's ills.


This isn't really related to aviation, but ... Speaking of  privacy and Americans not seeming to care that they have none, WikiLeaks and it's editor Julian Assange are probably the biggest story of the year. I have to confess to a feeling of schadenfreude when various governmental officials expressed outrage at their private and not-so-diplomatic dirty laundry being aired without their permission. Heck, since the introduction of Carnivore (and now Narus) and warrantless wiretaps, the average American has virtually no privacy. Of course we are all assured that we have nothing to worry about as long as we haven't done anything wrong. Right or wrong, thanks to WikiLeaks, governmental officials know how it feels to have no privacy.

What a year it's been! Here's hoping your New Year is productive, peaceful, and as private as is possible.