Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pocket Protector Optional

A calculus professor once told me the only tools a real mathematician needs are a pen, a piece of paper the size of a postage stamp, and his or her brain. That may be the case if one is sitting at a desk, quietly contemplating the theoretical. Controlling an aircraft that is hurtling through the air at two miles per minute or more while simultaneously listening and talking on the radio? That endeavor has the unfortunate side effect of dropping everyone's IQ by several points, which is why pilots have adopted a few tools to help them deal with the flying world's challenging mix of theoretical and practical. One such tool is the E6B calculator.

For older, traditionalist pilots, the E6B is synonymous with "slide rule" and the mere mention of electronic E6B calculators and smartphone apps will get them on their soapbox in a heartbeat, praising the slide rule and preaching against the dangers of new-fangled electronic contraptions. Young upstart pilots, having likely never used a slide rule, may find this attachment a bit odd. Frankly I do too. But even as electronic E6Bs are becoming widespread, there is still a place for the old fashioned E6B slide rule.

Tried and True

The advantages of the E6B slide rule are many: It requires no batteries, it does a variety of calculations, and it is relatively lightweight. The "front" side of the E6B can accomplish a dizzying array of calculations and conversions: Ground speed, distance, time, fuel consumption, endurance, knots to nautical mile - provided the user has been properly initiated. The back side of the E6B, sometimes called the "wind side," is used to calculate wind correction angles and determine winds aloft.

The disadvantage of any slide rule is that in order to use it, the user must provide most of the problem-solving context. In a high-workload environment, user-supplied context is less than ideal. If you don't understand how to arrange the slide rule scales to solve your problem, you won't get very far. Even after you have a grasp on the slide rule basics, you must still use common sense to ensure that your answer is not off by an order of magnitude.

Some might argue that having to provide this sort of context and judgement is the very thing that ensures an understanding level of knowledge about the calculations be performed. That rings hollow to me because in flight what is most desirable is speed and accuracy. It's possible to go through the motions of slide rule calculations, mimicking what you've seen, arrive at an answer (correct or incorrect), and still not understand how you got there. Yet for kinesthetic and tactile learners, the E6B is an ideal tool, probably more so than an electronic calculator. Instructors who are unsure of their student's learning strengths can always have them take one of the many learning style inventory tests available on-line.

In spite of its apparent simplicity, the slide rule E6B is by no means foolproof. Tiny screws hold the main section together. With age, these screws can come loose and if that happens in flight, you'll have an interesting project on your hands. The wind side has a transparent plastic disk that is meant to be marked with a pencil, but that plastic can become cloudy, brittle, and riddled with marks. APR Industries has developed an innovative E6B design that uses a rotating windspeed cursor arm on the wind side so that you don't have to make any pencil marks. Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks?

If you are up for a challenge, grab the E6B of your choice and try tackling one of the Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON) Practice Exams

Flashy and New

There seems to be a endless supply of E6B apps out there for smart phones like the iPhone and the Android. At last count there were over 30 E6B apps at the iTunes store, some included as a feature inside an app. Perhaps creating E6B apps is a rite of passage, like writing your first "Hello world" program.

My favorite iPhone/iPad E6B app continues to be PFMA since it has a very simple, shallow menu structure. You provide the information you know and PFMA provides the missing information. No need to first locate the type of problem you're trying to solve in a complex and multi-layered menu structure. There are a few conversions that PFMA doesn't do and some obscure calculations that are missing, but it's easy to use in flight and a very good deal at $5.99.

For those of you wondering, that other calculator is an ancient HP-16C Computer Scientist that still works flawlessly. What can I say? I love RNP calculators and you never know when you might need to calculate the 2's compliment of a binary number.

Regardless which E6B app you choose, remember you won't be allowed to take your smartphone or other multi-purpose electronic device into an FAA knowledge test session.  Hmm ... Maybe there's life in that old E6B after all. Or purchase one of the dedicated E6B electronic calculators like the ones sold by Sporty's. I still have one of the Sporty's models, though the LCD display has long since given up the ghost.

Required Knowledge?

Like sailors before them, aeronautical navigators aboard airliners of yore used a sextant to plot their position. Thinking about this got me wanting to learn something about celestial navigation, even though it has been supplanted by satellite-based navigation. So in my spare time, I'll be working on building my own (very simple) sextant. When completed, I plan to try plotting my position in a few locations on the ground and compare the results to a handheld GPS or Google Maps on my iPhone. This project is for my own amusement and just because I find it interesting doesn't mean I'll soon be requiring my students to build their own sextants.

Ron wrote a cogent rejoinder to my post about digital versus paper charts, pointing out that most any pilot can blindly follow a magenta line into oblivion if they have lost (or perhaps never learned) basic flight planning and navigation skills. Many instructors might see that lack of skill and interpret it to mean that the pilot needs more training, but a deeper question seems to emerge: "What knowledge should the FAA (and, by extension, DPEs and CFIs) require pilots to demonstrate in the first place?" I believe the answer lies in thoughtfully combining the use of hand calculations, slide rule and electronic E6Bs, paper and digital charts, and paper navigation logs with computerized flight planning.

Tradition versus Progress

There's a undeniable pride student pilots feel once they have mastered basic calculations with an E6B. That's understandable because acquiring slide rule prowess is like learning a magic trick. Your friends are bound to be impressed, especially if the E6B you use is contained on the face of a flashy pilot watch. Pushing buttons on a calculator? Anyone can do that! For my part, I'll continue to teach my students how to use paper charts and a slide rule E6B, but I also won't discourage them from embracing new technology. I never tire of hearing students marvel "So pilots really used to fly this way?"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pilot's View

 It's been a busy few weeks with little time to write, but here are some recent photos ...
Getting to KSNS VFR required a climb to 9,500 feet. Odd June Wx!

Missed approach at KSTS

Darn that dream!

Base to final, East of Eden

Strange weather for late May ...

New KOAK tower, under construction

Another view of the odd "summer" Wx

Air ambulance on the ramp - gear collapsed after landing - ouch!

Sunset on the KPAO ramp

Something you don't see everyday on the KOAK North Field!
Maintaining VFR, near Mt. Hamilton

Another Bay Area Sunset

Monday, June 06, 2011

Is Cross-Country Flight Planning Passé?

The widespread availability of sophisticated GPS receivers, digitized aviation charts, and internet-based weather information is changing the way student pilots are learning cross-country flight planning. The introduction of new technology and techniques always raises questions: Should student pilots be taught to use paper charts, plotter, pencil, and a slide rule E6B or encouraged to switch entirely to electronic charts, calculators, GPS and computer-based weather briefings? Don’t throw out that plotter and slide rule just yet because the best approach to learning the complicated process of cross-country flight planning involves combining old school with waay cool. Here’s the first installment of a multi-part series on the revolution in VFR cross-country flight planning, written with student pilots and their instructors in mind.

Drawing the Line

One of the first steps in cross-country flight planning is to get a rough idea about the general direction and the distance involved. With a current paper chart, just plop your plotter down and draw a course line between your departure and destination airports with a pencil. Sounds easy enough until you need to plan a route that begins on one side of the chart and continues on the other side, which actually provides a good scenario for comparing paper and digital charts.

FAA VFR charts include instructions for extending a course line from one side of a chart to the other using a pencil and a spare sheet of paper, but it's a Catch 22: You determine the magnetic course by drawing a line between the two points, but you can’t draw the course line because the points are on opposite sides of the chart.

One solution is to purchase a World Aeronautical Chart (WAC), which covers a larger geographic area at a scale of 1 to 1,000,000 as opposed to the sectional chart scale of 1 to 500,000. Good luck finding a WAC anywhere but on-line. One could purchase two versions of the same sectional and piece them together, being careful to account for the 2 minutes of longitudinal overlap on each side. You could cut the Gordian Knot by using Victor airways or choosing a landmark that appears within the overlap on each side of the chart. Or you could use your current chart and an expired chart that you just happened to have saved, just don’t mix them up!

Or simply combine paper with plastic: Use a handheld GPS or any of a variety of web sites to determine the magnetic course between the two airports, then use your pencil and plotter to replicate that course. Which approach is best? That's really up to the pilot. The goal in teaching student pilots is not to preserve hallowed aviation traditions for their own sake. Whether a student is using paper or plastic or a combination of the two, the goal is for them to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it. Using a combinational approach with old and new products may actually end up teaching the student to a correlative level of knowledge.

Digitized charts provide a big, mostly seamless chart and you'd think that would make plotting a course line on a digitized chart easier, but plotting a digital course line can be less flexible and more abstract than doing it by hand with pencil and paper. EFB apps like Skycharts Pro and ForeFlight Mobile as well as online planners like FltPlan or FlightAware will draw a course line representation, but your choice of waypoints may be limited to the VFR reporting points, intersections, navigation aids, and airports contained in the application’s navigation database. Some products allow you to define your own waypoints using lat/long, but that's not terribly convenient.

VFR Sectional and Course line using FltPlan.com

Doing the Coursework

With the course drawn on a paper chart, you use your plotter to measure the true course, locate the nearest isogonic line and apply the magnetic variation shown (subtract Easterly variations, add Westerly variations) to determine the magnetic course. If your destination or departure airport has a VOR on the field, get the magnetic course from the compass rose surrounding that VOR. Either way, with a bit of care and attention will provide the magnetic course on a paper chart within ±1˚, though simple arithmetic errors can result if you’re in a rush.

Old school pilots and instructors rightly claim that never drawing a course line on a paper chart can rob student pilots of an important learning experience about Magnetic declination. Yet with the right input data, computers tend to do a faster and more accurate job with arithmetic and geometry than humans: Waypoints entered, the digital course line drawn, determining the magnetic course is a foregone conclusion. A good approach for student pilots is to plan first on paper, then check your results using a digital source.

Go the Distance

Plotters offer a variety of scales and if you mistakenly measure using the wrong scale ... you won’t be the first pilot to do so. So look carefully, choose the correct scale for your chart and line up the correct marks.

Getting the distance on a digitized chart is a forgone conclusion, but errors are still possible. You can enter the wrong waypoint or misspell the waypoint. One tipoff is a digital course line that makes a sudden, severe turn off the edge of the map you're viewing.

If the digital product you are using provides recently assigned ATC routes, remember that these are instrument flight rules (IFR) clearances and these routes may involve altitude requirements that are beyond capability of the average GA aircraft. If you will be flying IFR, remember that there may not be any recently assigned ATC routes for the departure and destination airport that you have chosen.

Some EFB apps are better than others at drawing a course line that is visible, yet doesn't obscure important information.

FFM course line obscures airway radial

SCP course line is more ... subtle

Overcoming Obstacles

With a preliminary course line drawn, consider the appropriate altitudes one could fly. You'd think that pilots would know and apply the hemispheric rule, but it's surprising how many pilots (intentionally or unintentionally) fly WAFDOF (wrong altitude for direction of flight).  Whether you remember "Odd birds fly East" or simply refer to the diagram etched into many kneeboards, do other pilots a favor: Fly the correct altitude for your magnetic course.

Minimum elevation figures are shown on VFR charts and these provide the lowest altitude that will clear the highest charted obstacle within a specific quadrangle by 300 to 400 feet. Depending on how close your route is to that highest obstruction, flying at or just above that altitude may be the safe thing to do or it may be hopelessly foolhardy. I don't know of any app that will make the assessment of a safe altitude for you: You're going to have to use your little gray cells.

Whether you are using paper or digital charts, a nifty course line that goes to your destination won't necessarily keep you clear of special use airspace. One cool feature in SkyCharts Pro is the ability to get information on special use airspace by tapping. Locate the red circle next to an MOA, prohibited, or restricted area and tap twice to get the effective times, altitudes and the frequency of the controlling agency.

ForeFlight offers a similar feature, but it requires more taps to get the same information. ForeFlight does offer a quick way to create or change course lines by tapping and dragging.

Acquire, Combine, Conquer

Paper chart adherents often claim that paper is foolproof because paper charts don’t require batteries, they can be folded and handled, and are less intimidating to pilots who may be less computer savvy. True, but paper charts have some serious disadvantages: They can be torn, damaged, lost, or hopelessly riddled with marks from previous flight planning efforts. Last, but not least, all paper charts eventually expire and become obsolete.

Even before the FAA changed the structure for chart retailers, it was often difficult to get a paper chart unless you planned ahead. With a reduced number of chart retailers, your odds of acquiring a current paper chart at the last minute from a local retailer is tantamount to winning the lottery. A chart subscription is obviously the best bet, but that’s not much help if you’re away from home on a longer trip, need an oddball chart, or you lost your chart a week before it was set to expire.

The chart retailers who remain have to deal with unsold, expired paper charts. Charts have to be printed and physically shipped which adds to the cost and carbon-loading. Old school pilots are familiar with the various paper chart subscription services available through Aeronav or a variety of on-line retailers, but they may not be up-to-speed on the various options for digital charts.

Digitized charts, whether viewed on-line or on an iPad, tablet, laptop or desktop computer can be acquired at a lower cost (some are available on-line for free), they are easy to update, and they can cover large geographic areas without folding, flipping, or ripping. There’s no physical shipping required and no paper to recycle. The disadvantages of electronic charts basically boil down to all the possible failures to which electronic devices are heir to, including screen readability in bright light, software/hardware failures, and drained batteries. There are also some problems with how digitized charts are stitched together, but that really just reflects the limitations with how the FAA generates the charts. Hopefully that process will continue to be modernized and soon we'll see seamless VFR and IFR charts become a reality.

FAA VFR charts can be downloaded to your computer as raster files for free, and a simple, free, and platform-independent solution for viewing them is Google Earth. Follow the instructions in this WikiHowTo  and overlay sectionals and terminal area charts in Google Earth. While this approach has limitations, it does offer pilots the ability to view charts for large geographic areas at little or no cost. You can even do some rudimentary flight planning activities, like determining the course and distance between airports.

Several products are available for the iPad that allow you to access VFR charts, including ForeFlight and Skycharts. The cost of these products varies from $20 per year to $80 per year or more. Like all cockpit resource management issues, one size does not fit all. Both of these apps allow you to create flight plans that will draw course lines on the digital charts and give you magnetic courses, but old school paper chart planning provides more flexibility and, dare I say it, precision.

If you are a Mac user, MacGPS Pro provides another option for importing FAA raster charts. MacGPS Pro lets you define user waypoints, integrate with an external GPS receiver, and measure distances and courses. Similar solutions probably exist for the Windows world, but not being a Windows user, well ...

Paper and Plastic

After a student pilot has been through the flight planning process a half dozen times using paper charts, it's not clear that any more learning is likely to take place by restricting them to old school planning. While I do believe that a students' primary experience should involve pencil, plotter, and paper chart, that doesn't mean they should be discouraged from branching out to the high-tech solutions once they understand flight planning basics. Looking at the strengths and weaknesses of paper and digitized charts it’s easy to conclude that the best approach is to understand and use both. Having a paper back-up strategy in flight is the prudent advice offered by the FAA’s AC on Electronic Flight Bags.

Some pilots may still resist using digitized charts for the understandable reason that they simply prefer holding a chart in their hands. Nothing wrong with that, but charting and flight planning is changing. Time waits for no one, not even old school pilots, so don't be afraid to explore and experiment.

In future installments, I'll discuss how technology is changing calculators, navigation log preparation, and in-flight diversions.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Cover Your Tail

A few years ago, my student was refueling the Cessna we had just flown as I turned to appreciate an old 737 converted to a business jet that was parked in the hot spot behind us. Intrigued by the classic lines and the "cigar tube" engines, I pulled out my camera to take a few digital photographs and that simple act started an odd chain of events that strikes at the heart of the recent debate on privacy, public access, and blocking access to flight plan data.

Expectation of Privacy

One doesn't need to be a lawyer or privacy expert to be aware that the concept of "expectation of privacy" seems to be fluid. Anyone who thinks that the constitution guarantees a right to privacy has not been paying attention. Exactly how we should interpret the various amendments in the Bill of Rights that appear to involve privacy depends on who you talk to. Clearly James Madison had no idea that evolving technology would provide so many opportunities to create the surveillance society we currently have. Virtually all voice and data communications can be captured and mined in an unprecedented wave of domestic surveillance. Concerns that wiretapping capabilities have been used without a court order or judicial oversight continue to be debated.

Public or Private

When I started to photograph that classic 737, I was immediately approached by a ramp worker who told me to stop. Nonplussed, I asked him what he was talking about. He explained that their clients didn't want their privacy invaded by having their aircraft photographed. I countered that I was standing on the ramp of a public use airport that was built with taxpayer money. He changed tack and said that it was the FBO's policy that photographs were not allowed. These sorts of claims to privacy in public spaces seem to be promulgated primarily by wealthy individuals and celebrities who are presumably worried about security and safety. Just to be clear, I'm not trying to start a class war. That war has already been fought and, as others have pointed out, the Middle Class lost.

The fact that aircraft flight tracking data was widely available came to the fore when that data was used to uncover extraordinary rendition flights where suspected terrorists were transported to other countries where certain rights and freedoms are not guaranteed. In several cases, the people transported were found to not be involved in terrorism after they experienced considerable ... ahem ... inconvenience. With the flight tracking cat out of the bag, the FAA eventually developed the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program where aircraft owners and operators could block access to the tracking of their aircraft.

In March, Secretary of Transportation LaHood announced the decision to no longer block aircraft tail numbers (with the exception of military aircraft and others who can prove valid security concerns), thereby providing general access to National Airspace System Status Information data. This effectively dismantles the previous arrangement provided by BARR where aircraft owners and operators could block access to the tracking of their aircraft.

Say Cheese

Arguments for privacy rights typically hinge around preventing unwarranted government intrusion, but those who claim that their privacy is being invaded by access to flight tracking data don't seem to be worried about the government. They seem concerned about the general public and what little remains of the Fourth Estate knowing what they are doing. Given all that has transpired, it would seem that AOPA and the NBAA are a little late to the party when it comes privacy rights. The lines between private and public spaces as well as individual versus corporate rights continue to be redefined. So some simple advice: If you have a classic B737 and you don't want anyone to photograph it or know its location, park it in your backyard, throw a tarp over it, and hope for the best.