Monday, March 28, 2011

Might As Well Be Spring

Northern California got lucky in January with weather as good as (maybe even better) than what we see in the summer months, but that's all a distant memory because for the last few weeks, we've been hammered. Last week saw the worst thunderstorm I've seen in my 25+ years in the Bay Area, including a hail storm that lasted nearly 10 minutes. A thick layer of pea-sized ice made it look as if snow had fallen and my hope is the dymondia margaretae we just planted survives the shock. Much of this weather just hasn't been flyable in a small airplane, but there have been a few exceptions.

Awaiting IFR Release

Near the Old Hamilton AFB

Over Honker Bay

Passing Mt. Diablo

Sac Deep Water Channel

Parade of Clouds, Pt. Pinole

Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

Southeast Plan

On Top, Briefly

Vectors, VOR 19R
Angel Island

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sound of Ten Thousand "D'ohs!"

NORCAL: Cessna 123, verify you're direct ALTAM at this time?
Cessna 123: Not yet, we're still wrestling with our GPS ...

Never shy to point out the shortcomings in Garmin's 430/530/G1000 user interfaces, I'll admit I'm all excited to see the announcement of the GTN 650 (MSRP $11,495) and GTN 750 (MSRP $16,995) products. The 430/530/G1000 were, in a sense, a victim of their own success. So many units were sold that the user interface, as bad as it was, became something of a standard. Not unlike Microsoft Word, many of us got used to the dance of cursor-mode-big-knob-little-knob-enter and tended to forget how bad the user interface (UI) really was. To their credit, Garmin has done the sensible thing: Confronted with a bad UI that suffers from the Tyranny of the Installed Base, they started over from scratch with a touch-screen interface. While I've yet to actually handle one of these units, a lot can be gleaned from the videos that have been released and the information at Garmin's website.

Same Market, New Interface

The GTN 750 and 650 clearly target the aging GNS 530W and 430W, both in size and features. The new units provide the same basic stuff for aircraft owners and operators who want to freshen up their panels: Communication transceiver along with a WAAS GPS and VOR receiver as well as a moving map with some additional features.

Both units can provide an interface to remotely control a Garmin GTX mode C or mode S transponder. The GTN 750 can also control a remote audio panel. These interfaces to remote devices have the advantage of reducing the panel footprint, but the downside is that they can increase the complexity of the user interface. When a GTN unit becomes the single lens through which you access other important functions, the advantage of a smaller panel footprint doesn't look quite as attractive.

Why a different keypad? Why not one style of keypad with the 8 & 9 disabled for transponder use?

Out with the Old

A recurring problem with avionics designs is that, in an effort to reduce production costs, manufacturers are motivated to limit the number of buttons and knobs. With fewer knob and buttons, the UI designers must overload the function of those knobs and buttons: Depending on the state of the device (which is not always obvious), a knob or button will do different things. Overloading creates user interface complexity because the user must be cognizant of the device's state (which is not always obvious). One only has to witness a 100 different pilots experience the same UI frustration at high workload moments to know that overloading and convoluted, deep menu structures are B A D.

Manufacturers next tried to overcome the shortcomings in overloading by using softkeys - physical buttons whose displayed function changed depending on state of the device. The success of this was limited in the G1000, as an example, because different modes take control of different softkeys and the precedence is seldom clear. Try adjusting the flight plan on the MFD while the other pilot is using the lean-assist function and you'll get the feeling that there were different groups of programmers working on the different G1000 areas: They don't seem to have worked that closely with one another.

No Place like HOME

At the center of the new GTN units is a capacitive, touch-sensitive screen. There are just two knobs, two physical buttons, and an SD card slot (presumably for terrain and aviation databases). Grip points are provided on the sides and bottom of each unit so you can steady your hand in turbulence. And there are suggestions (but no details yet) on voice control features in the future, but for now the UI flexibility comes from having a touch-screen.

Both units clearly display the com and nav frequencies at the top of the screen. The active frequencies are at the top with the standby frequencies underneath. From the demonstrations it appears you swap the active and standby frequencies by tapping on the active frequency, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Tapping on either standby frequency causes a pop-up a keypad to appear in the middle of the screen and you just tap in the new frequency. I hope there's an option for eliminating having to enter the leading "1" since all VHF nav and com frequencies are in the 1##.### range.

Different number keypad than for the transponder. Why?

The HOME button allows you to return to the main screen which is the starting point for a refreshingly simple and relatively flat menu structure. Unlike the subtle context indications in the 430/530/G1000, the HOME screen gives you a clear idea of the top level of functions. To access a function, just tap on the icon.

A dedicated Direct-To button is provided and this is a really, really good design choice because pilots, depending on your perspective, become creatures of habit or slaves to their devices.  In a high workload moment, there are few things worse than having an important button buried in a row of not-so-important buttons.

The knob in the upper left corner adjusts the volume and squelch for the com radio while the knob at the bottom allows you to change either the Nav or Com frequency. This a shame because the location of the bottom knob violates a basic UI concept: Whenever possible, physical knobs and buttons should be located directly adjacent to the display item they affect. If you need proof, witness someone trying to adjust the barometric pressure setting on a G1000 at a high workload moment.

Having a physical frequency selection knob means there are multiple ways to change frequencies. Alternate ways to accomplish the same task isn't necessarily bad, but it is something that earlier Garmin interfaces suffered from because some of the methods were Easter Eggs. Examples in Garmin's older interface designs? Pressing Direct-To once provides one feature while pressing it twice provides another feature. Or being transported into a hidden set of options when turning the small knob counter-clockwise (instead of clockwise) while in insert mode. If describing a user interface in words is this complicated, something in the design isn't right.

At the bottom of the screen are some icons for displaying system messages as well as a relatively small status line that tells you the GPS course sensitivity as well as which NAV source (GPS or VOR) is being displayed on the CDI or HSI.

Map View

The map view is similar to what we've become used to with the G1000 and one suspects it will offer similar options for North- or Track-Up, a compass rose ring around the aircraft, a fuel endurance ring. In one of the demonstration videos, the refresh rate of the map looked a bit slow. Not sure if this was an issue of the screen refresh rate interacting with the video camera's sampling rate or a limitation of the GTN's processor speed. I hope it's the former and not the latter.

Terrain, Traffic, Weather, Music, Intercom

The terrain features look pretty nice. And with the appropriate remote hardware installed, both units give you access to traffic and XM weather. Presumably TIS traffic data is available from a mode S transponder (for as long as the FAA radar sites continue to support it), from a dedicated transponder-based TAS system, or from the much vaunted (but yet-to-be-widespread) ADS-B facility that NextGen is supposed to have. If you choose the XM subscription that includes entertainment radio, you can access that, too.

One of the shortcomings of using the GTN 750 to provide an audio panel or other interface is that you lose the moving map when you access one of these features. The simple act of adjusting the pilot or co-pilot intercom volume will temporarily hide other features, like the moving map display with traffic, weather, or terrain data. It also appears to be a single point of failure: Lose the touch screen and you'll be hard pressed to change your transponder code, adjust your intercom volume, and so on.

One assumes that if there's an imminent traffic or terrain threat, that display will override any trivial function you might be performing. Hard to say without actually handling one of these units in flight.

Terminal Procedures and Taxiway Diagrams

Aeronav and Jeppesen charts can be displayed on the GTN 750, but the size is pretty small and requires scrolling around. Geo-referencing is offered, though the subscription costs tend to be high and much more cost-effective options are available on the iPad or other off-the-shelf consumer devices.

Crux of the Matter

With all GPS designs, the ease with which one can enter and modify a flight plan is what makes or breaks a user interface design. While there are many pilots out there who just fly VFR and only use Direct-To, there are IFR pilots who'll need to enter a sequence of waypoints that match the clearance they just got from ATC.

Assuming you have a steady flight path, the GTN 750 lets you enter waypoints into your flight plan by simply tapping on their representation on the moving map. You can also enter waypoint using a pop-up keypad. No more singing the alphabet as you scroll through adding a waypoint with the big-knob-small-knob interface. Last but not least, you can drag an existing flight plan course line on the map to add a new waypoint to the flight plan. I'll have to use this in person before I can say whether it rocks or is just more usable than the old big-knob-little-knob interface, but these flight plan features alone may be worth the price of admission.

With the GTN 650's small screen, there's an odd kludgey selection process. Bummer about that ...

Grace Under Pressure?

My initial research hasn't turned up any examples of  loading procedures and I'm particularly curious to see if the vectors-to-final behavior has been improved.

Simulator, Please!

One of the really smart things that Garmin did with the 430/530 was they made a PC-based simulator available to download at no charge. It is my contention that having a simulator to practice with was one of the driving forces behind pilots' and aircraft owners' widespread acceptance of the 430/530 series. As of this writing there is no such simulator available for the GTN series. Surely Garmin will see that it is in everyone's best interest to provide one. Soon.

A New Leaf

As to whether or not these units are a good deal or attractively priced, I'll leave that assessment to the aircraft owners and other pundits out there. After all, I'm but a humble, professional flight instructor and freelance writer who rarely has more than a couple of coins to rub together and the mere prospect of owning an aircraft is beyond my ken. Garmin doesn't invite me to their media events, so I've taken an academic yet honest approach in this review because I hope this is what my readers have come to expect. I'd certainly like to fly one of these units in the near future, perhaps even train the next wave of instrument pilots to use them. Who knows, maybe the introduction of the GTN series will transform the sound of 10,000 pilots crying D'oh! to the sound of a single Ommmmm ...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Night Regulations

Flying at night is one of the more enjoyable experiences a pilot can have. There tend to be less aircraft flying, controllers tend to be more relaxed, and once the sun goes down the weather tends to calm down. Nighttime is a great time to learn or practice simulated instrument flying because a view-limiting device is more effective in the dark and it's easier for your instructor or safety pilot to see other traffic. Unlike most ICAO countries, US regulations generally permit private pilots and above to fly at night without the need of a special rating, but the regulations on logging night flight and maintaining night recency of experience are a bit complicated. So break out your flashlight and take a somewhat circuitous journey through night flight regulations. Along the way, I'll point out some different resources pilots can use to determine when, depending on the situation, nighttime begins and ends.

Definitions of Night

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (aka 14 CFR) contains several definitions of, and references to, night and nighttime. It would be nice if all these definitions were found all in one place, but they aren't. So start at the beginning, 14 CFR part 1, where many (but not all) definitions used in title 14 are found.

14 CFR - 1: Night means the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the American Air Almanac, converted to local time.

Any flight time between the beginning and end of civil twilight can be logged as night time, but not so for night landings and takeoffs (more on that later). Finding out when civil twilight begins and ends is a bit more involved. If you know when sunset has occurred or if you can see the sunset while on the ground, you can approximate the beginning of civil twilight as being about 30 minutes after sunset. I say approximate because there are locations where, depending on the time of year, the sun just barely sets and this rule of thumb won't work.

Anytime sunset is imminent or has occurred, remember that 14 CFR 91.209 requires you to turn on your aircraft's position lights (sometimes called "nav lights"). When it comes to anti-collision light, the pilot-in-command may elect to turn them off if it's in the interest of safety. So don't taxi around other pilots on the ramp with your strobes needlessly blazing. For aircraft operating in Alaska, the rules are different because ... well ... Alaska is different.

Most of us don't have internet access while in flight, but IFR-certified and handheld GPS receivers can tell you the time of sunset and sunrise for your current location. Finding that information isn't always easy, but it's there.

If you have internet access, the US Naval Observatory web site is a good place to find out when civil twilight ends and begins. You can enter the day, month, year, city and state or enter latitude and longitude to see the details. Note that the date you specify may today or it can in the past or in the future.

free iPad/iPhone app, Skyclock Lite, lets you easily determine sunset, sunrise, and the beginning and end of civil twilight based on your location. The nice thing about Skyclock Lite is that you can configure it to show sunset and the various types of twilight (civil, nautical, and astronomical) on an analog clock face or as a block of text. And did I mention it was free?

Night Landing Currency

Another important night regulation has to do with recency of experience for pilots who want to carry passengers, found in 14 CFR 61.57 (b) (emphasis added).
... no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise ..."
So if you haven't done at least three night takeoffs and three night landings to a full stop in an aircraft of the same category and class, you can only carry passengers up to 1 hour after sunset. It's hard to imagine a scenario where you'd not be current for night landings, have passengers on board, and need to land 1 hour before sunrise. I guess you could have departed the previous day around sunset and flown all night ...

When it comes logging flight time and tracking night takeoffs and landings, an app like LogTen Pro makes it easy. Once you've entered your departure and destination, you need only note your out/in times and LogTen Pro will figure out how much of the flight occurred at night and whether your landings and takeoffs count toward your day or night currency. For PC users out there, I suspect that Logbook Pro has a similar capability. Otherwise, you'll need to track these times manually.

More Fine Print

Also found in 14 CFR 61 is a night flying restriction on commercial pilots who don't hold an instrument rating. These guys and gals must make up a very small minority of the commercial pilot population in the US, but they may not carry passengers for hire at night.

Other pilots restricted from flying at night include sport pilots, recreational pilots, and student pilots (unless they have a separate night flying endorsement from their instructor). Alaskan pilots who earned their private pilot certificate during the summer may not have been able to experience nighttime conditions and can be issued a certificate with a night flying restriction, but that restriction has to be removed within 12 calendar months.

The FAA recently published a letter of interpretation that states an instructor who is not current for night landings may be provide instruction to a pilot who is also not current for night landings. The reasoning is that for the purposes of night recency of experience only, the instructor is not considered to be a passenger. Maybe it's just me, but this seems like some convoluted logic.

Pilots who fail the color vision portion of their medical examination will normally be issued a medical certificates that states that they are prohibited from flying at night. Depending on the severity of their impairment, a color blind pilot may be able to obtain a letter of authorization (referred to as a Statement of Demonstrated Ability or SODA) by passing an examination with an FAA inspector. The pilot must demonstrate they can correctly identify light gun signals from a control tower as well as other types of runway and obstruction lights. The details on this process can be found in the FAA's FSIMS, Volume 5, Chapter 8.

NTSB, SODA, and Nighttime

One night accident involving a pilot with color blindness occurred in 2002 when a Federal Express 727-232 descended prematurely into trees on final approach to runway 9. The first officer was the pilot flying and had a first class medical and was issued a SODA for color blindness based on his military service record. A video recreation of the accident can be found here.
In the November 2003 letter, the Chief of the USAFSAM Aerospace Ophthalmology Branch stated that the first officer's color vision discrimination was impaired to an extent that would ìlimit him to very nearly a gray-blue-yellow world, we believe that he would definitely have had problems discriminating the PAPIs as they were designed because the red lights would not appear to be red at all, but some other wavelength that would make them more indistinguishable from white. The letter also stated that it might be possible for someone with this type of [color vision] deficiency to use brightness differences between the white and red PAPI lights to help differentiate between them.

The entire report is available here and NTSB's probable cause included this statement (emphasis added).
Contributing to the accident was a combination of the captain's and first officer's fatigue, the captainís and first officer's failure to adhere to company flight procedures, the captainís and flight engineers failure to monitor the approach, and the first officer's color vision deficiency.
The NTSB has also taken issue with the FAA's definition of night in mountainous areas. In 2001 a Gulfstream III on an instrument approach into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport descended into terrain just 2400 feet shy of the runway threshold. A contributing factor was that the instrument approach being used was not authorized at night, nighttime had not technically arrived. The NTSB recommended that the FAA review the definition of nighttime in mountainous areas because in this case, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains a full 25 minutes before official sunset. In this situation, nighttime-like conditions, low visibility, unlighted terrain and a flight crew intent on landing proved to be a deadly combination.

Regs, Theory, and Practice

There's a lot more that goes into safe and successful night flying, including physiology, equipment, planning, and risk assessment, but that's the skinny on FAA night regs and civil twilight. And while the regulations surrounding night flight may be convoluted, actually flying at night can be enjoyable, contemplative, even peaceful. So as a tower controller who worked the night shift in Las Vegas used to say when handing an aircraft off to the departure controller, "Good Flight and Good Night."

Friday, March 18, 2011

iPad2 Takes Flight

Between weather and aircraft maintenance, getting the iPad2 into the air has proven more difficult than anticipated. Yesterday's afternoon flight was scrubbed due to a dead battery, but I did manage one flight in the morning. The iPad2 performed just fine during the 1.9 hour flight, leaving me confident enough to box up the original iPad for shipment to its new owner. Here are my impressions of the iPad2 in flight along with some thoughts for current iPad owners on the relative advantages of upgrading.

Size and Weight

The iPad2's slightly smaller size and thinner profile not only makes the iPad2 lighter, cases like the semi-rigid one that I'm using are also smaller and lighter. This means my minimalist flight bag is noticeably more minimal when I pick it up. The iPad2 feels lighter when you hold it and it's definitely lighter when strapped to my leg. The thinner profile makes the 30-pin connector look a bit precarious when inserted. Same for the audio port. This could be a consideration for folks who use the Bad Elf GPS Receiver with a 30pin extention cable.

Thin profile means plug connections could be more fragile?
The new size means some of the iPad1 kneeboard solutions may require modification. For more details, see my previous post on this topic.

Lights, Camera ...

The iPad2 has two built-in cameras, one rear-facing and one front-facing. If you are familiar with the iPhone4, it's a similar set-up. I say similar because the quality of the rear-facing is not very good at all (actually, it sucks). One would assume that a lower quality camera kept the iPad2 unit cost down, but it makes one wonder why Apple bothered at all.

Here are some photos I took and while the quality is not great, using the iPad2 camera did provide a déjà vu moment. The iPad2's screen is so large and bright that while framing a photo I was reminded of bygone days (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) when I regularly used a large format view camera, except the iPad2 image is right side up. Oh, and you don't need a mammoth tripod and dark cloth. Of course the iPad2 camera can't provide view camera features like swing, shift, and tilt that architectural photographers rely on.

I haven't tried the iPad2 video capability, but the front-facing camera lets you make video calls using FaceTime and one imagines that eventually Skype will provide video support for the iPad. The addition of these cameras doesn't really add much value for pilots. I guess when trying to electronically copy a large sheet of paper it could be easier to frame with the iPad2 as opposed to an iPhone4. The image quality is undoubtedly better with the iPhone4's camera.

Speed & Clarity

The faster graphics performance of the iPad2 is evident when loading a terminal procedure in ForeFlight, SkyCharts Pro or Jeppesen's app. Scrolling around on charts is also faster. Downloading chart updates seems quite a bit faster, too.

The iPad2 screen is not terribly different from the original iPad except that it offers a wider range of brightness. You can make it much dimmer and a tad brighter than the original. Note these images have been adjusted to try to capture the relative brightness settings.

Brightest setting ...

Dimmest setting ...

Certify This

Some have observed that operators who just received OpSpec authorization for using the iPad1 as an electronic flight bag (EFB) may now be faced with certifying a new device if they wish to upgrade. I'm not certain of the particulars, but it does seem incredibly inefficient and expensive for the FAA to require individual operators to replicate decompression and electromagnetic testing on the self-same device. At least they won't have to change the approved training programs since it will be the same software, just running on a slightly different device.

Other Features

The GNS 5870 Bluetooth GPS Receiver worked just as well with the iPad2 as it did with the old iPad1. As before, ForeFlight showed my position on approach charts and airport diagrams. With both SkyCharts Pro and ForeFlight the groundspeed and heading readouts closely (often exactly) matched the KLN 94 GPS displayed values. The GPS-derived altitude was within 50 feet of the altimeter most of the time. The GNS 5870 achieves satellite lock so quickly that I don't really know how long it's taking. My only complaint continues to be the touchiness of the swipe-style on/off switch. It's just too easy to inadvertently turn the thing on when stowing it in your flight bag.

For non-aviation use, there are some other features of interest. Using a HDMI connector (available separately), you can mirror your iPad2's screen on a larger monitor.

Battery life of the iPad2 seems on par with the earlier model; about 10 hours.

The new magnetic cover looks cool, but it isn't designed to work with a case and than makes it a non-starter for me. It's interesting to note that the iPad2 itself contains 10 magnets and the cover contains 21 magnets. Call me old-fashioned, but lot of magnets seems like a bad idea in a cockpit. I haven't done any testing with the magnetic cover in the cockpit since I don't plan on using it, but my anecdotal observations are that with the iPad2 strapped to my leg there didn't seem to be any adverse effects on the compass in the Piper I was teaching in yesterday. I observed the aircraft compass on the ground through 360 degrees of heading change and it seemed to accurately indicate known headings. The aircraft compass aligned correctly with three different runways at two different airports. This is something I'll continue to watch in the coming weeks.

Preliminary investigation of the iPad2 accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass features seems to indicate that there isn't an app at the moment that can provide accurate Attitude Heading and Reference (AHARs) features. The idea of using an iPad in flight as a back-up attitude indicator may seem ridiculous, but keep in mind that only a year ago a lot of things seemed farfetched.

Apps 'n Stuff

People new to the iPad game always ask what apps I recommend. Here are the apps I've used on the iPad2 so far:

SkyCharts Pro - Limited wx features, but best chart-based EFB app around.

ForeFlight Mobile HD - Interface is a bit cumbersome, but this EFB app does it all from weather to approach plates.

ForeFlight Checklist Pro - Fly a lot of different aircraft? With a bit of effort on your part, this app can help you keep it all straight.

Jeppesen Mobile TC - Limited features right now, but if you must have Jepp charts ...

AvCharts - Low cost way to carry and access terminal procedures. Only app that allows you to make notes on a chart.

LogTen Mobile - This logbook app may actually have too many bells and whistles, but if you have a special logging requirement, this app can probably do it.

DUAT - Simplified way to access your DUAT account, get weather briefings, file flight plans, etc.

Square - Cost-effective way for self-employed professionals to accept credit card payments.

Penultimate - My favorite note taking app.

PFMA - Easiest-to-use electronic E6B I've found.

GoodReader - Not just good, this is a great PFD reader. Use it to read all those FAA handbooks you're carrying inside your iPad.

Atomic Web Browser - Does a few things the built-in Safari browser can't do.

 Numbers - Not exactly like Excel, but if you need spreadsheet capability on the iPad then this is a good choice.

 Pages - Solid word processing app, though a bluetooth keyboard makes it more usable.

 Keynote - Let's you give PowerPoint presentations with your iPad. Add this app and you'll have your audience yawning in no time!

 EverNote - Great way to take, save, and distribute notes across multiple platforms.

As for accessories I'm using or have used and recommend:

GNS 5870 MFI Bluetooth GPS Receiver
Tietco Kneeboard
Square Credit Card Reader

Upgrade or Wait

More speed is always better, but for frugal pilots I'm not sure the iPad2's speed bump and lighter weight are worth the cost and trouble of upgrading. Pilots who already have an iPad1 or who are considering acquiring a used iPad1 may actually get more bang for the buck. If you do decide to purchase a new iPad2, I personally don't see a need for more than 32Mb of memory. I chose the 16Mb version. I don't store music or videos on my device, but with several chart apps and associated data, lots of FAA handbooks, a PDF version of the AIM, and so on, I still have 8Gb of free space out of 14Gb. So why did I upgrade, you ask? Well it's obvious! Nerds like me must do whatever we can to preserve what little blogosphere cachet we possess. We must!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The iPad 2 Cometh

After some toing and froing with FedEx, I was able to get my grubby hands on the new 16GB Wifi iPad 2 I'd ordered. Here are some first impressions from un-boxing to running a few of my favorite EFB apps.


I decided on the non-3G version and the smaller size, based on my iPad 1 experience. I loaded a bunch of aviation charts and assorted junk (although no music files or videos) on my 32Gb iPad 1 and found that barely used 7Gb of space. And since I have the GNS 5870 MFI Bluetooth GPS Receiver, there was no need for the self-contained GPS in the 3G models. I know some readers have the 3G iPad 1 and like the built-in GPS, but for me the extra $130 for that option wasn't in my budget.

Necessity is the ...

Physically, the iPad 2 is noticeably thinner and lighter. This creates some issues with the currently available kneeboard solutions. I found the iPad 2 is just enough smaller and thinner that it slides around inside the iPro Aviator. I believe it could be made to work with some strategically placed padding, such as foam weatherstripping. Adding a semi-rigid case adds some bulk and helps reduce the looseness, though sadly these don't come with a screen protector like the iPad 1 cases did.

Foam Addition to iPro Aviator Kneeboard

The thinner and smaller size creates the same problems with for the Tietco kneeboard, which is what I tend to use due to it's lighter weight. Again, some creative modifications with weatherstripping and zip-ties seems to create adequate holding power. Again, the semi-ridgid gel case helps reduce the looseness.

Custom Foam Spacer (secured with zip-tie)
While the new screen may not be the retina display everyone was hoping for, it seems a bit brighter than the iPad 1 screen. Or maybe that's because I have a screen protector on my iPad 1 and not on the iPad 2 (they are currently backordered).

Semi-rigid Clear Case
Setting Up

Say what you will about Apple being the new evil empire (and there is evidence this is becoming the case), but the iPad 2 setup was the height of simplicity. I just plugged it into my Macbook, registered the unit with iTunes, and then selected to restore a backup of my iPad 1 contents. In under 4 minutes, everything was complete and ready to rock.

ForeFlight required me to re-download charts, but was noticeably faster than the old iPad: 39 charts took under 8 minutes (I didn't actually time it). Downloading charts into SkyCharts Pro also seemed much faster.

Data for all my other apps appeared as they did on the iPad 1. No muss, no fuss.

Speed Impressions

Everything seems to happen a lot faster on the iPad 2, probably due to twice the amount CPU cache and a faster graphics chipset. A simple example is the auto-screen rotation: Turn the iPad 2 and the screen just snaps into the new orientation instead of the slight delay seen with the iPad 1. Scrolling around in a VFR chart with either ForeFlight or SkyCharts Pro is very, very fast. The real litmus test for me was scrolling through PDF documents in GoodReader. Open a big document like the FAA's Advanced Avionics Handbook and the pages are rendered almost as fast as you can scroll. There's a slight delay rendering pages with lots of graphics, but the overall speed increase is a big step forward.

More to Come

The weather here has not be very conducive to flying, but as soon as I can get airborne I'll post my impressions of the iPad 2 in flight. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All in a Week's Work

Two Bridge View
Scaggs Island Transition
Over the USS Hornet
Fisherman's Wharf
Between Layers

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rules of the Game

I tell pilot candidates I train that if they score 100% on their knowledge test, I will buy them a margarita, assuming they are of legal drinking age, or a Peet's cappuccino if they aren't. You see the current FAA's knowledge testing procedures have all the characteristics of a game. I'm not being flippant, I'm being honest. The tests are expensive to take ($150 on average), a bank of representative questions for each test is published in advance, you're only offered a quick review of any questions you missed, you won't be told the correct answers to any questions you missed, and the tests have historically contained trick questions and misleading graphics. And there's a whole test preparation industry that produces books, weekend study courses, and computer-based training all designed to help applicants get a good score. The only thing missing is popcorn and liquid refreshment.

All was generally well with the FAA knowledge tests until, without any notice, the FAA decided to change the rules of the game by changing the test question bank for the Airline Transport Pilot, Flight Engineer, and the Fundamental of Instruction knowledge tests without modifying their own publications. The predictable result was a sharp increase in the failure rate and that has led many to observe with shock and horror that what had heretofore been occurring was not learning at all! To better understand the situation, you'll need to set aside some popularly held misconceptions about the FAA's knowledge test procedures.

Learning is ...

The instructional theory and concepts that flight and ground instructors are taught can be found in the FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook. I'll be blunt and say that the handbook contains a hodgepodge of educational theory, some of it germane and useful, some of it ... not so much. It has been edited and changed over the years and in the process has been somewhat improved. One of the core concepts presented is the four levels of learning: Rote, Understanding, Application, and Correlation. Rote knowledge is the memorization of facts while correlative knowledge is the ability to combine new experiences and information with what you've learned in the past. Most FAA practical test standards contain this boilerplate (emphasis added):

Examiner’s shall test to the greatest extent practicable the applicant’s correlative abilities rather than mere rote enumeration of facts throughout the practical test.

While a practical test is dynamic and interactive affair, the knowledge test is anything but. An examiner can ask questions selectively and in a sequence so as to uncover the level of knowledge the applicant possesses. The knowledge test is static (okay, the groups of questions are randomly selected at the time your test is generated) and a much more difficult affair since the test must provide valid results across a diverse population. It's good to have goals with regard to testing and examining pilots, but the truth seems to be that both the knowledge test and the oral portion of the practical tend to rely heavily on rote knowledge for the simple reason that it is easiest to test. I know one flight instructor candidate who was pink-slipped because he could not recite, verbatim, the definition of instructional level of knowledge.

Multiple Choice

A knowledge test should measure what the candidate has learned in an objective and effective manner. The easiest type of assessment to administer and grade is a selection style (aka multiple choice) test. Selection questions must be designed so that there is only one correct answer or one best answer. The Aviation Instructor's Handbook provides guidance to instructors on how to avoid using puzzle, trick, or bewilderment questions. Apparently in an effort to discriminate between levels of learning, the FAA often resorts to the very types of questions they caution against.

Some of the more egregious examples that come to mind include the graphics used in the Instrument Rating knowledge test where an RMI needle was depicted as slightly bent or the arrow head of the needle was depicted so subtly that one might mistake it for the tail of the needle. Then there were the flight planning questions where the en route time or fuel burn or magnetic heading that you calculated didn't exactly match any of the answers, but was somewhat close to one of the supplied answers. What was actually being testing here? No one seems to know, but a whole industry began to grow up around these tests.

In the past, when you missed a question on a knowledge test the only feedback your test results showed was the knowledge codes indicating the general subject area for incorrectly answered questions. The FAA changed this system somewhat and now publishes the Learning Statement Reference Guide for Airman Knowledge Testing. How they arrived at the term "learning statement" is beyond me, but I'm sure it involved hours, if not weeks, of meetings.

Preparation, Memorization, Commercialization

When suggesting to a student how to best prepare for the knowledge test, I ask them a bit about their individual learning style. Some people like doing computer-based training, others prefer a printed study guide, while others prefer the group learning environment provided by a weekend seminar. One size does not fit all. The advantage of a computer-based study system is that you can take sample tests in a format that closely resembles what you'll see at the testing center and that helps to reduce test anxiety for most people. I know of no students who receive their knowledge test preparation from their individual instructor one-on-one because the cost would be prohibitive.

Ideally, test preparation should help the candidate ensure that they are adequately prepared to pass the test and uncover areas they need to work on. What often happened in the past was that some candidates tried to memorize the answers and the tests end up measuring rote knowledge instead of correlative knowledge. To combat this, the FAA made some changes. First, the actual test questions are no longer published. Instead, a bank of representative questions is available for each knowledge test. Many people mistakenly believe that all the actual test questions are published in advance, but this has not been the case for several years.

The National Association of Flight Instructors has raised some important questions about the FAA's unannounced test changes, pointing out that some questions may have been added without first being validated. It also seems that the FAA reference materials no longer adequately represent the knowledge tests that applicants are taking and some subject matter areas may now carry more weight than they did in the past. As an aside, NAFI seems to be doing a commendable job of representing the interests of flight instructors and their students.

Cost of Learning

For quite some time now, the FAA knowledge tests have been computed-based and administered through testing centers affiliated with LaserGrade (now PSI) and CATS. The testing centers must adhere to proctoring rules, including having a closed-circuit surveillance system installed in the testing area. While there is a certain overhead to providing these facilities, it seems hard to justify the 100% increase testing fees that has occurred over the last few years. No one seems to have talked about this increase, probably because the test-takers are a captive audience and have no recourse but to pay the piper. It baffles me why some keep saying over and over that cost is not a significant impediment to learning to fly. With avgas pushing $6/gallon in many areas and knowledge tests costing $150, cost most certainly is a factor.

The FAA has tried to create a valid and reliable knowledge test for each rating or certificate and though the whole thing may seem to be a bit of a mess, historically, the FAA's testing set-up appears to be adequate. Applicants must expend some amount of effort studying and even if they are just memorizing answers, some learning is bound to occur during this activity. Secondly, the knowledge test is just one part of the learning equation. The last line of defense in ensuring that adequate learning has occurred is the oral portion of the practical test, where the applicant must stand and deliver. While problems are occasionally reported with the manner in which some examiners have administered practical tests, by and large the system, as a whole, works. So while aviation testing may appear to be a mess, it has been a mess that everyone understood and accepted. At least we thought we understood.