Monday, February 21, 2011

Troubling Times

I don't post political stuff on this blog, but this isn't a democrat versus republican versus independent issue. The questions at hand are more basic that political wrangling. "What kind of country do we want to live in? What kind of country is ours becoming? Are the rich and powerful the only ones who can affect and influence governmental policy?"

(NATIONAL) -- Could it be the U.S. government thinks peaceful, civilian protest against government is fine on the streets of Cairo, Egypt but not on U.S. soil?

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at George Washington University yesterday condemning governments that arrest protestors and do not allow free expression - and lauding freedom of speech on the Internet - 71-year-old military veteran Ray McGovern was grabbed from the audience in plain view of her by police and an unidentified official in plain clothes and hustled out of the building and, according to McGovern and his supporters, was “brutalized and left bleeding in jail.” 

What McGovern did was simply remain standing silently in the audience and turned his back on her as Secretary Clinton began her speech.

That was it. 

McGovern, a veteran Army officer who also worked as a C.I.A. analyst for 27 years, was wearing a Veterans for Peace t-shirt ...

We live in troubling times.

Friday, February 18, 2011


My usual goal is avoid anything to do with aviation on my day off, but I feel compelled to help out today because I’ve learned something important over the years: Everything in aviation is connected - people, planes, airports, weather. Today’s short flight is to ferry an aircraft to a nearby airport for it’s 50-hour oil change and to have some squawks (minor problems) addressed. I haven’t flown this aircraft in a while, but things can change in a heartbeat. I never know when my teaching schedule could make me dependent on this particular plane. Obviously others are flying this plane, otherwise it wouldn’t need an oil change and the best time to wrench on a plane is when the weather prevents it from flying anyway. Unnecessary down time causes everyone to lose and the simple act of ferrying this plane will help the owner, the operator, other instructors, other pilots, and ultimately myself. The way I look at it, aviation is just a really big family.

For the last six weeks the weather has been nothing short of spectacular, better than many summer days. Today the conditions just turned decidedly winter-like with the first of what promises to be a series of cold fronts. The surface winds are out of the Southeast in the vicinity of 15 knots with gusts up to 30 knots, the ceilings and visibility near my house are low with light rain and mist, but the departure and arrival airports are still reporting weather consistent with visual flight rules (VFR). Experience tells me the conditions near my house will eventually spread to the Southeast, engulfing both airports, making them switch to the more complicated and time-consuming instrument flight rules (IFR). It only takes a little imagination to see that if I begin the flight soon, it will be a short, simple affair under VFR. A later departure will make the flight more complicated and time-consuming. I hope for the simple version, but because I know life is complicated I also file an IFR flight plan before leaving the house.

With traffic, I’ll need about 40 minutes to complete the 15 mile drive to the airport. There are a bunch of non-aviation chores to be done on my day off that I’m hoping to do first. And since the ferry flight will be a one way trip, I coordinate a ride back to my car with a friend. Glancing at the time, I do the mental math, consider time to dispatch and preflight the plane, add an extra 30 minutes, and decide on a departure time of noon. On the way, Google maps on my iPhone shows slow freeway traffic. Only after experiencing the slow-and-go firsthand does the cause become clear: Two blocked lanes where CalTrans is sweeping the median. 20 minutes of my 30 minute fudge factor are now gone.

During the dispatch and preflight, I take note of the minor discrepancies other pilots have reported. More delays slowly eat into the remaining 10 minutes of my fudge factor before I have the engine started. Then I discover a minor problem with the number two radio that was previously unreported. Hey, it’s not my fault! As a freight dog friend of mine used to say, “I don’t break ‘em, I just fly ‘em.”

The delays have compounded and the weather is deteriorating rapidly. Low ceilings and rain are creeping in from the Northwest, but the Bay Area is on the Southeast plan and that will help my cause: I’ll be headed directly to my destination right after takeoff. What doesn’t help is that the ground control frequency is busy and the controller seems distracted. I call for taxi and am told to hold my position. I hear two landing bizjets inform the tower they broke out on the approach at 500 feet. The current Automated Terminal Information Service (the airport’s weather report) was reporting an overcast ceiling at 2500 feet. The ATIS obviously need to be updated and that may explain the distracted controller. As I sit and wait, I can see my VFR plans fading rapidly. After another two minutes of waiting I throw in the towel, switch to clearance delivery and request an IFR clearance. I’m glad I filed that IFR flight plan. Calling ground control again with an IFR clearance, I get immediate taxi instructions.

The last card I may be able to play is to depart IFR and hope to remain out of the clouds long enough to see the nearby destination airport. That could allow me to call the field in sight and still proceed visually to the airport. That plan looks doubtful as I hit the clouds at 500 feet after takeoff and aside from brief glimpses of the ground, I can’t see the destination airport.

Looking on the bright side, I’ll get a rare, solo IFR flight in a nice, steam gauge aircraft. A change of pace is always good. The ride gets a bit bumpy, then I break out between cloud layers for a few moments. Further to the East the conditions are still VFR. I can see the Livermore airport for a few minutes before I’m turned back into the clouds toward my destination.

All the instrument approaches to my destination are to the West-facing runways. The strong, gusty surface winds dictate a circle to the opposite, East-facing runway once I enter visual conditions. In essence, the entire flight has been a very large U-turn in the sky, followed by another U-turn before landing. This flight is a good illustration of how IFR flights can be much more complicated and time-consuming that a short VFR hop. Southeast, three miles out on the approach I see the destination airport and the slow-moving wall of precipitation closing in from the Northwest.

The tower controller’s instructions are to circle to the South and I’m cleared to land on the East-facing runway. Flying the downwind leg, parallel to the runway, requires about a 20 degree wind correction angle to the left to keep the wind from pushing me over the runway. Though I’m in visual conditions, I’m careful to not descend below the minimum circling altitude until I’m on final approach to the runway. My base turn is just clear of the rainy goo that is about to engulf the airport.

Completing the final U-turn and aligned with runway, the 20 degree wind correction angle is now to the left. Unprompted, the tower controller informs me the surface winds are out of the South, gusting to around 25 knots. Flaps 30 and this will be a good crosswind component. The little gray cells are fully engaged as I focus on the white paint on the runway pavement. The aiming point on the runway appears to move up the windshield and the plane is bounced about. A little wind shear, but my left hand has unconsciously moved the throttle in to increase engine power. A few seconds later, the aiming point is moving down the windshield and I reduce power. This dance continues until the aircraft is right over the runway pavement.

Tracking right over the centerline, the nose is still pointed to the right to compensate for the wind. Slowly move the throttle toward idle, the plane sinks to the pavement, just ease in left rudder to align the nose with the centerline, simultaneously turning the yoke to the right to offset the wind. The right main wheel touches first, lightly, and time seems to stop with the plane balanced on one wheel. Gradually the left main wheel touches down, the nose wheel follows, and it’s time to turn the yoke all the way to the right, retract the flaps and gently start braking.

Taxing clear of the runway, the ground controller clears me to taxi and there’s a moment to reflect. Few things in life as satisfying as a well-executed crosswind landing, but that’s just icing on the cake. I’ve hit the trifecta - a nice solo flight, an instrument approach, and I’ve done my part to keep my aviation community running smoothly. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but today the shortest distance between two points consisted of two U-turns.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

GNS 5870 Bluetooth GPS for iPad

When the iPad was first released, the only way to use it with a bluetooth GPS appeared to involve jailbreaking and that wasn't something I was keen on doing. Ten months later there are at least two GPS devices for use with the iPad, both claim to be Apple-approved, and neither require jailbreaking. One is the Bad Elf GPS receiver and another is the GNS 5870. Both sell for around $100USD and both are said to work with the two electronic flight bag (EFB) apps that I use most often - ForeFlight Mobile HD (FFM) and Skycharts Pro (SCP). Saving my pennies and skipping soy lattes at Peet's Coffee finally paid off in the form of a new bluetooth GPS receiver for use with my non-3G iPad.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: The combination of any GPS receiver with an iPad or any other off-the-shelf computer hardware is no substitute for a TSO C125 or C145/146 IFR-certified GPS receiver. Anyone who claims otherwise needs professional help.

I decided against Bad Elf since it plugs into the iPad's 30-pin connector, a location that would seem to be a disadvantage in two respects. A small unit plugged into the iPad would seem to be susceptible damage for an iPad kneeboard arrangement. And with the iPad on one's lap or knee while seated in an aircraft, I can't imagine the Bad Elf is going to offer optimal GPS satellite reception. Siting outside, walking, or hiking, Bad Elf would probably perform just fine. Inside an aluminum, quasi-Faraday cage, not so much.

Satellites in Sight

The GNS 5870 is a small 32 channel bluetooth GPS receiver made by Global Navigation Systems GmbH. Physically it is a little bigger than a box of matches and weighs less than a set of car keys. Since it connects to the iPad via bluetooth, you can mount the receiver where satellite reception is likely to be best, such as near the windscreen. The unit is powered by a Li-Ion battery that is purported to last at least 10 hours. It comes with a mini-USB cable and USB cigarette power adapter. I wondered if routing the cable in an aircraft might be a bit of a challenge, but it turned out to be workable. The size of the cigarette adapter means it protrudes quite a bit, making Cessna's design decision to put the cabin power plug right above the fuel selector seem dubious, at best.

One issue some users have with the GNS 5870 has to do with the power switch, which is an unconventional touch sensor. Holding the unit with the display on on your left, turn it on by swiping your finger upward across the face of the display. To turn it off, swipe your finger downward. At first I had a bit of trouble turning the unit off, but discovered that a light touch and a relatively slow swiping motion was all that was required. It's easy to inadvertently turn the unit on and drain the battery, though I found a simple solution which I'll describe later. I'll second the observation others have made: A conventional power switch would have been a wiser choice, though not nearly as cool.

Developing Attachments

Once the unit is turned on, go to the iPad's Settings, ensure that bluetooth is enabled, and connect to the device. After putting my iPad to sleep during a fuel stop, I found that the bluetooth connection had been lost. I had to access the bluetooth Settings again to reconect the GNS 5870. This wasn't a repeatable problem. Hmm ... Otherwise, I found I could switch between apps on the iPad without disturbing the bluetooth connection.

There are several options for mounting the GNS 5870, but to avoid running afoul of FAA STC requirements you'll probably want something temporary like velcro. Since I fly in a variety of aircraft, my mounting solution is museum putty. Just a small bit of putty on the unit will temporarily and securely adhere it to most any surface. I used to recommend a putty product that Garmin marketed, but they seem to have discontinued it. No worries because the museum putty is less expensive that what Garmin used to sell - surprise!

To keep the putty from sticking to the inside of my flight bag, a wrapper of baking parchment (not to be confused with wax paper) works nicely. The putty doesn't stick to the parchment and it also acts as a wrapper that helps keep the device from being turned on by accident while it's stored in my flight bag.

Useful and Reasonably Accurate

I tried the GNS 5870 with both FFM and SCP with good results. Headed down SF Bay on a flight from Oakland to Monterey, the FFM display showed 10 meter accuracy and both apps displayed ground speed and current track readouts that closely or exactly matched the values shown on the G1000 multi-function display (MFD) and primary flight display (PFD).

In the examples below, we were being vectored and then were told to proceed direct KNUQ which is why the G1000 course line and the FFM course line are not coincident.

G1000 MFD, Track Up
ForeFlight Mobile HD, North Up
Skycharts Pro offers the ability to display either North Up or Track Up and also provides the distance and bearing to the airport nearest to your current position, though bigger numbers would be easier on my aging eyes.

Skycharts Pro, North Up
Skycharts Pro, Track Up

The main advantage of the GNS 5870 is keeping your place on an en route chart displayed on an iPad. Neither FFM or SCP provide geo-referenced terminal procedures or airport diagrams, but both apps provide a subset of features you'd expect from a hand-held GPS receiver. SCP goes the extra mile and provides both desired track and current track as well as distance and time to the next waypoint. Neither app provides turn anticipation, a way to suspend waypoint sequencing, nor a way to define and display holding patterns.

Just as an experiment, I entered some of the waypoints that define the SCK RNAV (GPS) RWY 29R approach and found the GNS 5870's positional accuracy was quite good. The distance to the current waypoint actually matched the G1000 exactly, there was just a time lag between my taking the photo of the MFD and the iPad screen shot.

Both of these EFB apps display the GPS navigation data at the bottom of the iPad's screen and with the iPad in your lap you'll need to be vigilant about increased head-down time. Though the ground speed, track and GPS-derived altitude seem pretty accurate, I can't imagine using these displays to actually control an aircraft and I'm sure the developers (and their lawyers) would concur.


The GNS 5870 works well enough to make me consider trying one of the newer, lightweight RAM yoke mounts for the iPad to help ameliorate head-down tendencies. Guess I'll have to save more pennies and forego more soy lattes. The bottom line is that while this sort of GPS solution could help you avoid class bravo or visually acquire a unfamiliar airport, finding a runway at the end of an instrument approach is still the job for an IFR-certified GPS.

Friday, February 11, 2011

iPro Aviator Kneeboard for iPad

After some unexpected manufacturing delays, the iPro Aviator kneeboard is now available and shipping. You may remember the metal construction iPro kneeboard, but the iPro Aviator is the second generation: It's a more affordable version constructed of plastic and it also offers some new features.

The iPro Aviator is an iPad case that you can strap to your leg, just like a regular kneeboard. The iPad fits in the iPro Aviator snugly, but it can be easily removed, too. The molded plastic construction is well-made and sturdy without being too bulky or heavy. The hinged cover closes over the iPad and provides a clip for holding a pad of paper. While I've become accustomed to writing on the iPad using the app Penultimate, I recognize that this is not a natural arrangement for eveyone: Some pilots still find tired-and-true pen and paper to be the most convenient.

The hinged cover is designed so that it does not entirely cover the iPad's screen, and that allows you to open and close the cover without interfering with the aircraft's control yoke. If you don't like the cover or let's say you fly an aircraft that has a stick, the plastic hinge design allows the cover to be removed entirely. In some cockpits you may find the open cover can interfere with the other pilot or passenger.

One new feature is the built-in kickstand that folds out and allows the iPad to stand up on a flat surface. The kickstand is handy for those times when you want to use a bluetooth keyboard. It works as advertised, but its construction includes two white plastic rivets. Beware that the back side of these rivets are fairly sharp and not exactly recessed. I managed to scrape my knuckles on one of them. Good thing I carry some band-aids in my flight bag. ***Update*** The manufacturer has recognized the problem and is now polishing the sharp rivets so they are no longer pointed and sharp. ***

Like its metal predecessor, the iPro Aviator has a relatively thin elastic strap that attaches around your leg with velcro. I'd like to see the strap have longer velcro attach points since the strap was a bit too long from my legs. Perhaps pilots with a higher BMI or who have more muscle mass won't find this a problem, but I did.

***Update*** There is a loop sewn into the leg strap that is meant to be a pen/pencil holder, I just missed it. ***

I think a pen or pencil holder would be a nice addition, right about here ...

At $79.95US the iPad Aviator isn't the cheapest solution, but it is well-constructed, fits the iPad well, provides a kickstand for table top use, and offers a convenient solution for those hi-tech pilots who still prefer to take notes using pen (or pencil) and paper.

Monday, February 07, 2011

World on a String

I'm working on a couple of new product review posts, but they're still in the oven. In the mean time, here are some recent photos.

Another day over the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza
Lake Merrit
One of the cleanest Metroliners I've seen.

Somewhere near Modesto

Vicinity of Tracy

Pt. Reyes National Seashore

Over Rocky Ridge (aka Danville Towers)

Steep Turns near Scaggs Island

Skywagon at Rest
Sittin' on a Rainbow