Monday, April 18, 2011

Sleepless in America

It seems that hypoxia, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcohol intoxication, and sleep deprivation all have something in common, but it's hard to explain the tough talk from Secretary of Transportation LaHood and FAA Administrator Babbitt on the subject of air traffic controllers falling asleep. Both men have said that air traffic controllers sleeping on the job is unacceptable and each has promised to get to the bottom of the problem. Some controllers who have fallen asleep have reportedly been suspended, some may face disciplinary action, and the head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization has resigned, but there hasn't been much recognition of how the FAA's status quo, set by the folks at the very top, has helped create the problem.

The FAA has announced new duty time rules that, among other things, will ensure controllers get at least 9 hours of rest between shifts as opposed to 8 hours. While this is, in principle, a step in the right direction, it's not what experts recommend. Sleep researchers have a simple solution - allow workers to take naps during their shift. For his part, LaHood has dug in his heels and said that controllers will not be "paid to sleep." This is a curious stance.

Sleep researchers tell us that on average, Americans are getting under just 7 hours of sleep per weeknight. While there is a small percentage of the population that can function well on 5 hours or less of sleep per night, researchers believe this is a genetic trait and not a matter of adaptation. Most of us need 8 hours to function at our best and all folks those getting 7 hours of sleep go through their days with measurable decreases in ability to concentrate and reduced reaction time. The thing is, a person under the influence of sleep deprivation is likely to think that everything is just fine even though their cognitive skills are impaired.

Let's not pick on just Secretary LaHood and Administrator Babbitt because most of the country is in denial about sleep. Sleep deprivation is worn by many as a sort of badge of honor from medical residents and interns to commercial pilots. The difference would seem to be that hospitals, maritime sailors, fire departments, medivac crews, even a few international airlines allow employees to take a nap or sleep during their shifts. A pilot who flew for an air ambulance company once told me that EMS actually stands for "Earn Money Sleeping." So why should the FAA be any different if the research shows an improvement in job performance on a graveyard shift comes from simply taking a nap?

The health consequences and the associated health care costs of long-term sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption are well-documented: Hypertension, weight gain, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, increased risk of "sudden death," and shorter lifespan. My personal experience? Four days after I quit my freight-flying job I woke up feeling great, but with the sobering realization that I had been impaired by sleep disruption for months without fully realizing it.

As Phil Zimbardo once observed, you'll never get to the bottom of a dysfunctional organization unless you first go to the top. There may be an explanation for the loss of objectivity when someone is short on sleep, but it's hard to support LaHood's hard-line stance against napping. The Roman Empire's punishment for sleeping on duty may have been death, but we live in more informed, and scientifically enlightened times. Perhaps Secretary LaHood should sit down, read the research, and sleep on it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Skirting the Issue

The night before I caught myself talking back to the TV: “Hey, look at that!” Mixed in with weather reporter's usual, fast-paced, banter there was something interesting. With just a brief look at the animated doppler radar and animated visual satellite view from across the room, it was easy to see the classic counter-clockwise rotation of the low pressure system. The diameter of the low pressure circulation was so large it was easy to spot.

The early morning forecast the next day called for overcast skies, light rain, and occasional thunderstorms but the kitchen window view showed blue skies. For several days the forecasters had been having a hard time predicting exactly what the atmosphere was going to do next. With a lesson to teach in a few hours, digging deeper seemed prudent. The doppler radar painted some scattered precipitation and several nearby airports showed a similar disconnect between the forecast and reality. The lifted index chart and K index charts showed the atmosphere was pretty unstable and a couple of hours later the forecast thunderstorms began to materialize.

Weather theory may be boring to read, but actually seeing the atmosphere folding and unfolding can be fascinating, even awe-inspiring. A last-minute review of the weather radar showed that our proposed route out and back should be clear of the convective activity by several miles. The surface winds were strong and numerous lightning strikes were showing around the periphery of the storm.

Staying South and West of the action seemed to offer VFR conditions that were well clear of the serious action. Over the Pacific the skies were mostly clear, but to the East and Northeast, the atmosphere was boiling.

Westbound over Carquinez Straits

Heading Northwest, LUSEE inbound

Southeast bound view to the right

Southeast bound view to the left

Carquinez Straits, Eastbound

Back on terra firma with thunder and hailstorms moving closer ...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Few New Apps

I do my best to keep up with all the new stuff that keeps coming out and I owe debt of gratitude to the folks who send me pointers and suggestions. Here's a round-up of a few new iPad/iPhone apps.


For those times when you want to get a quick view of the area weather before getting an official weather briefing, AirWx is a very handy app. For a low $10 purchase price you can look up an airport and add it to a list of favorites that can offer a quick snapshot of the weather. There is no recurring subscription costs. As the developer says on his web site - "buy once, use forever."

Favorite Airports Wx
In addition to surface weather and terminal area forecasts for a particular airport, AirWx also offers winds aloft, NOTAMs, PIREPs, terminal procedures, and (for an extra charge) aircraft arrival and departure information. You can save terminal procedures to your iPad for use when network access is not available, but this requires manually opening and saving each chart you want to cache.

Terminal Procedures List

Under the Maps & Charts tabs you'll find VFR sectionals, NEXRAD radar, and a variety of weather charts. There currently isn't any way to cache VFR sectionals for use when you have no network access.

The last tab provides access to a variety of E6B calculations.

CFITools Preflight Wx

If you're looking for an integrated app for getting your pre-flight planning ducks in a row, it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive app than CFITools. The acronym NWKRAFT is sometimes used by pilots to remember the requirements of 14 CFR 91.103 "Preflight Action" - Notams, Weather, Known delays, Runway lengths, Alternate airports, Fuel requirements, and Takeoff/landing performance. CFITools helps you with several of these requirements - weather, runway lengths, and takeoff/landing performance for selected types of aircraft. All for a $30 investment.

Using the Current WX tab, enter a departure airport and you'll see a graphic representation of the winds and the airport's runways along with the headwind and crosswind component for those runways. You'll also see a historical plotting of the winds, visibility, ceiling, altimeter and dew point. If you're a student pilot, this is a quick way to see if the crosswind component is within the limits of your solo endorsement.

You can also create a weight and balance specification using one of the existing templates or you can create your own. If you want a record of your calculations or want to send the results to your instructor, just tap on Email.

Next comes takeoff and landing performance. Select one of the 16 available types, select the departure or destination airport, tap on Get Wx, then enter the aircraft's weight and you'll see takeoff and landing performance for the specified conditions. You get performance info for clearing a 50 foot obstacle. There isn't a way to add performance data for your own aircraft, so hopefully the type you fly is one of the supported types. For the one multi-engine aircraft supported (the Cessna 310), it would be nice to also see accelerate/stop distance, single-engine climb rate, and single-engine service ceiling. Easy for me to say, but much harder for an app developer to code!

Radio Navigation Trainer

Whether you're a student pilot still trying to master VOR and NDB navigation or a pilot who has been spending too much time flying glass panels, the RadioNav Sim could be just the ticket. This $2 app lets you display two navaid of your choice - RBI, RMI, VOR or HSI. You can drag the aircraft shown on the display and drag the OBS on both displays.

Help lines let you see the selected radial or bearing. You can turn these on or off. You can also choose to hide the aircraft if you want to test your orientation skills.

And if you want to test your VOR abilities, just tap on the Quiz Me button.

All That's Fit to Print

For iPad users who don't happen to have one of the HP printers supported by iOS 4.3.1, there's an inexpensive MacOS application that will let you print from your iPad to the printer(s) you have using your Mac. You can download Printopia for free, try it out, and if you like it, purchase it for just $10. You'll need a desktop or laptop machine running Mac OS X 10.5 or 10.6 and iOS 4.2 on your iPhone/iPod/iPad, and a printer, but this is still more affordable than buying a dedicated printer for your iPad.

Playing Favorites

Got a favorite aviation app? Shoot me an email or post a comment.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Funny Business

To students and low-time pilots, aviation may seem busy, business-like and serious. But the truth is there's often plenty of room to have a bit of fun on the radio. Here's a sampling of a few things I've heard on frequency over the past few years that I've been saving up. In some cases, I was personally involved, but in other cases I was just listening and chuckling.

Gulfstream: Oakland Tower, Gulfstream 123, ILS 27 Right, request 27 Left. 

Tower: Gulfstream 123, Oakland Tower, Howdy! I can offer you 27 Left, but expect about an 8 hour delay. Right now it's occupied by a bunch of service vehicles. 

Gulfstream: Okay, we'll take 27 Right

Ground: Duchess 123, Oakland ground, taxi 27 right via delta and charlie, maintain VFR at our below 2000', standby for a transponder code

Me: Delta, charlie, 27 right, VFR at or below 2000, Duchess 123.

Ground: Ah, Duchess 123, where did you say you were parked?

Me: Well we actually park in the Bat Cave, but we tell everyone the Port-a-Ports.

SFO Tower: Stationair 456, I have several heavies I need to depart runways 28, do you have to take photos right there?

Me: Everyone has to be somewhere.

Delta: Ground, Delta 123, ready to push gate 18.

Ground: Delta 123, Howdy, Oakland North Ground, contact South ground on 121.75

Me: Oakland Ground, Cessna 456, ready to push at the Port-a-Ports, VFR Ukiah with Foxtrot.

Ground: Cessna 456, Oakland Ground, push at your discretion, runway 33 taxi via delta, juliet, ...

JetBlue: Norcal, JetBlue 1122, one two thousand descending eight thousand with Foxtrot, How ya doin'?

Norcal: JetBlue 1122, Norcal Approach, when able proceed direct GILRO, How YOU doin'?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Enabling iPad Multi-tasking Gestures

Multi-tasking was made available in iOS last November, but I was surprised to learn that there is a hidden feature known as multi-tasking gestures that allows you to quickly switch between applications. Though Apple hasn't officially made multi-tasking gestures available for the masses, there is a way to turn on this iPad feature and it doesn't involve jail-breaking. You'll need an Apple computer capable of running the latest version of Xcode and you'll need to purchase and download Xcode, which will cost you $4.99. The download and installation of Xcode will take 10 or 15 minutes, but once you have all these pieces enabling multi-tasking gestures takes about 10 seconds.

Connect your iPad to Xcode and click on Use for development. Xcode will ask for your iOS developer credentials, but just click on cancel. You'll see an error message which you can ignore. Disconnect your iPad and you'll see a new option in Settings->General.

The new gestures made a big difference for me when using the iPad in the cockpit. I use Penultimate to write down clearances or record the surface weather, but then I switch to an approach chart viewed in SkyCharts Pro or some other chart viewer. Problem is, I often forget something that I've written down and before multi-tasking gestures I found myself fumbling to get back to the notes I'd written. Now I simply swipe four fingers horizontally and voila! There are my notes. Rather than having to swipe left or right, I do wish that the scrolling between the apps was implemented with a circularly linked list. That way one could just keep scrolling left or right and cycle continuously through the apps.

Apple is bound to enable this feature for everyone eventually, so you can always wait for the next release of iOS if you don't want to go through this process. Overall, I find this hack dramatically improves the iPad's usability in the cockpit.  Check it out!