Monday, December 26, 2011

Top 10 GA Stories of 2011

As the year draws to a close, pilot/pundits inevitably review what's happened and theorize about what's to come. Here are my picks for the top ten GA stories of 2011.

iPad Takes Off

Early in 2011 AOPA produced a iPad spoof video that made fun of the new-fangled device, but barely a month later several charter operators had received OpSpec approval for the iPad EFB. Hot on the heels of that news, the iPad 2 was released with a smaller form factor and an improved screen. By year's end, Apple made multi-tasking gestures standard, virtually every EFB app had introduced more and more features, and Sporty's declared 2011 "The year of the iPad." And that AOPA iPad spoof video? Funny, but it can no longer be found on-line.

Shrinking Pilot Population?

Speaking of AOPA, the powers that be in Fredrick, Maryland concluded that someone had to be blamed for the decline in the US pilot population and what better scapegoat than the lowly, overworked/underpaid flight instructor. Citing an alleged 75 to 85% dropout rate for new pilots, AOPA pledged to reverse the trend. What followed was 12 months of banging the drum without much change in what student pilots and certificated pilots alike have told me is the number one impediment to flying - The Cost. The folks in Frederick must have more disposable income than the rest of GA because they claimed that cost wasn't a factor. Aside from all the big talk, the world of professional flight instructors remains largely unchanged.

Block Aircraft Registration Request

AOPA and NBAA appeared to expend significant time and resources to lobby congress for the restoration of BARR - the Block Aircraft Registration Request program that was abandoned by the FAA in the face of legal challenges. Previously the program had allowed aircraft owners to prevent their aircraft from being tracked by the general public. Imagine how embarassing it is to have journalists and shareholders discover how often your G5 is being used to fly to Vail instead of to conduct business? Those efforts paid off and legislation was introduced and passed that mandated the reinstatement of BARR. The next time you go through a backscatter x-ray scanner at the airport, console yourself that at least the privacy of the wealthy and influential is being protected.

NextGen, Someday

The new air traffic control system, NextGen, is slowly crawling toward implementation, though the only evidence of this seems to be the plethora of new ADS-B NOTAMs pilots must wade through before getting to the important NOTAMs. ERAM, the FAAs new en route management software, has been put into service in a couple of ARTCCs and appears to have received sitting ovations. Someday ...

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The underreported GA news story of the last decade continues - the eventual integration of UAVs into the national airspace. It wasn't enough that in 2010 a Navy drone went AWOL for the better part of an hour and made its way toward the DCA area. This year we learned that military UAVs were (are?) infected with a virus and no one knows how it happened or what the virus does. Hopefully their transponders and anti-collisions lights stay on while in US airspace.

Kindler, Gentler Temporary Flight Restrictions

Those of us flying in larger metropolitan areas found that VIP flight restrictions put into place for presidential visits became a bit more manageable. Instead of a 30 mile no-fly zone, VIP TFRs are divided into an inner and outer area. GA aircraft are allowed to operate in the outer ring as long as they adhere to certain procedures. There's some progress!

Get the Lead Out

In 1975, unleaded gasoline was mandated for cars and by1986 tetraethyl lead was outlawed for use in automobile gasoline in the US. Aviation piston engine manufacturers have had at least three decades to solve the problem of reliance on low-lead gasoline, but perhaps they didn't have enough encouragement. In April of 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on lead emissions from piston-engine aircraft. Then in May of 2011, producers and some retail suppliers of aviation low-lead fuel became the target of a class action lawsuit in California. It's unclear whether California law or federal regulations of aviation fuel take precedence and the case is still working its way through the courts.

Say what you will about class action lawsuits, it's clear that lead is dangerous in the air we breathe and in the water we drink. Many aircraft engines can and do run just fine on unleaded automobile gasoline. Lycoming, Continental, fuel refiners/retailers and other stakeholders need to come up with a replacement for 100LL fuel. It's not like they haven't had time or advance warning.

LightSquared Fiasco

First, the FCC gave wireless broadband developer LightSquared permission to use part of the spectrum close to that used for GPS. Then testing showed that most any GPS equipment, including those used in aircraft, became unusable when operating anywhere near a LightSquared transmitter. With no other options other than shutting down, LightSquared's recent filing with the FCC claims "... commercial GPS receivers are not licensed, do not operate under any service rules, and thus are not entitled to any interference protection whatsoever ..." Riight!

Aeronav Chart Costs

Given the aggressive acceptance of EFBs, it's understandable that sales of Aeronav's paper chart products would plummet. But remember, a few years ago, Aeronav became a HPO - high-peforming organization? That means that they are dedicated to the proposition that they can recoup most, if not all, of their operating costs through the sale of their products. That's why they gave up supporting small-time paper chart retailers a few years ago and that's why they are now making noises about charging each user of their digital products about $150 per year. The dust hasn't settled yet on this one, but the days of free or low-cost digital aviation charts are numbered.

Farewell, Babbitt

Saying he didn't want his DUI arrest to be a distraction for the FAA, administrator Randy Babbitt resigned on December 6, 2011. I, for one, think he should have been allowed to stick around. After all, we claim to be a nation that embraces a religion based on forgiveness, right? The irony is that Babbitt, who fought tooth and nail against nap breaks for air traffic controllers working the graveyard shift (in spite of research showing that it would improve their performance) is now leaving for allegedly driving while intoxicated. Perhaps time does wound all heels.

But Seriously ...

In spite of my sometimes snarky comments, 2011 was a very good year for me. I flew more hours than in years past, my health has been excellent, I've had the privilege of working with a bunch of sharp, dedicated student and certificated pilots, and as of December 2011 I'm no longer flying on a special issuance medical certificate. Not too shabby.

To my loyal readers (and even to those folks who post their own snarky comments), here's to a Happy and Prosperous 2012!

LogTen Pro, Version 6

Paper logbooks have a certain charm for both seasoned and neophyte pilots alike. Thumbing through a paper logbook is an experience that an electronic logbook has a hard time matching, but the more hours you have recorded the more difficult it is to manage and track currency and aeronautical experience. That's why I encourage pilots I train to duplicate the times recorded in their paper logbook in some sort of electronic format. Many pilots resist migrating to an electronic logbook because training flights require an instructor's signature, or because they need a place to record endorsements, or simply because they have amassed a fair amount of flight time and the thought of entering all that data is just too daunting. The latest release of LogTen Pro, a popular electronic logbook program for the Mac, iPhone, and the iPad has added features that move the electronic logbook closer to completely replacing hardcopy logbooks, including the ability to store digital signatures and endorsements.

Readin', 'Rightin', & 'Rithmetic

Most brands of paper logbooks provide precious little space for pilots and instructors to document each flight. That's why instructors either learn to write in very small letters or they end up taking multiple lines on a page to describe a single flight. Even when instructors succeed in writing in tiny letters, they still have to appropriate some blank space to record their signature, certificate number, and expiration date as required by 14 CFR 61.51.

By far the biggest disadvantage of paper logbooks is that mistakes, omissions and arithmetic errors invariably creep in. Even if you are incredibly circumspect in your math, there will be times when you'll be asked to provide statistics from you logbooks that can be time consuming to compile. For example, student pilots filling out an airman's application Form 8710 will need to provide some numbers like night cross country instruction received. Form 8710-10 (National Examiner Board-Designated Pilot Examiner Candidate Application) asks for very specific flight times, like multi-engine instrument flight instruction given. Ferreting out obscure flight times from a paper logbook can be time-consuming and error prone.

'Lectronic Solution

Several features make electronic logbook applications like LogTen Pro (LTP) appealing. You have more space to enter a description of the flight, track day and night landings, and the times for various categories will be totaled for you - a good job for a computer. Most electronic logbooks let you print out a hardcopy of your flight times, too.

LTP runs on MacOS, the iPhone, and the iPad, though you'll have to purchase separate versions of the app for each device. LTP lets you synchronize the logbooks on any and all devices that you have, just be sure you're backing up the logbook file somewhere safe. You can configure LTP so that certain hours, like PIC, are automatically populated when you enter a new flight.

You can record Hobbs and tach times as well as block-out/off/on/block-in times. Accurately record block times and LTP will automatically calculate how much of your flight was officially night time. You can also track night takeoffs and landings in a meaningful way, something that is missing from many brands of paper logbooks. Virtually all of the fields are configurable, so you can adjust LTP to be as simple or as detailed as you like.

For pilots who fly professionally, LTP can track your duty times and inform you when you've reached or are about to reach duty limits. As a flight instructor, I use this feature to track how long I've spent with each student.

Previous versions of LTP let you track things like instrument and type-specific currency, but one shortcoming was it was difficult to record multiple instrument approaches for a single flight. Version 6 lets you configure up to ten instrument approach fields for a single flight.

When an insurance company or flight club wants to know how much time you have in a specific aircraft type in the last 90 days, LTP makes it relatively easy to provide an answer. You can create your own Smart Groups that use multiple criteria to extract pretty much any flight time you might be able to imagine.

Signature Required

The coolest feature in LTP version 6 is the ability to sign a logbook entry for a specific flight. Before signing, fill in the flight details completely and correctly because once the entry is signed, it's locked. It can be unlocked to be corrected, but the instructor's signature will be removed, which makes sense. Assuming you've filled in the flight details, the signing process is relatively simple.

1. Tap on the signature button

2. Select instructor by name

3. Enter the instructor's certificate number
4. Enter expiration date of instructor's certificate
5. Instructor signs in the white box using their fingertip
I Certify ...

LTP lets instructors enter endorsements directly into a pilot's electronic logbook, but this feature is found in the Certificates section. This may be a matter of semantics, but I found that odd. It seems Endorsements should be a separate category, but I digress ...

Tap on the Certificates tab, then add a certificate, select Endorsement as the type, and the instructor can enter whatever text and limitations they desire. Instructors can also specify an expiration date which is very handy for student pilot solo endorsements.

The bad news is that instructors must manually enter the text for each endorsement. Sure, you can cut-and-paste from AC 61-65E, but your student must have that AC stored on his or her device.

Once you've signed an endorsement, it will be locked and you can store the "certificate" (endorsement) on by tapping Share and specifying an email address. MyLogTen will send an email to the specified address which will contain a link where you can view and print-out the endorsement. This data will be stored on their server for one week and will then be automatically deleted. Not the best arrangement, but it's workable.

Hardcopy, Too

If you want to print out a copy of your LTP logbook, a dizzying array of report and summary formats are provided. In addition to doing a backup of your electronic logbook file, it's probably wise to maintain a printed version, too.

Warts and Requests

LTP offers a lot of features for a lot of different pilots, from students to instructors to airline pilots. Their instructional videos on their various products are good, but each one begins with the hyperbolic claim that logging your flight time with LTP "... couldn't be easier." The truth is that with all these features and options, configuring LTP can be a bit daunting. LTP eases things a bit by asking you what your role is when you first install the app, but there are a lot of bells and whistles. If you have questions, customer support for LTP is pretty darn good.

The biggest drag with LTP version 6 is that the app start-up time on the iPad and the iPhone is noticeably longer than the previous version: It takes anywhere from 15 to 20 seconds for the app to initialize and that's a bummer if you woke your iPad up simply to record a block-out or off time. I'm not sure what LTP is doing during that delay, perhaps it's busy calculating currency or duty times? The developers have been releasing updates on a regular basis (at least two have updates to version 6 have already been released), so one hopes this will be addressed.

The mechanism for entering instructor certificate expiration dates could be better. All certificates expire at the end of the calendar month: One should only have to select the month and year of the expiration without scrolling through the day to find the end of the month. This is likely a limitation of the iOS programming interface, but still ...

If both pilot and instructor are using LTP, there should be a way to record the flight once and have it be distributed to the pilot's and the instructor's logbook. Since I already log flight times and descriptions on my iPad, it's tedious to have to enter the details twice. I'd like to see a way to enter the flight, sign the entry, and then transmit it (perhaps via email) so the student can import it into their logbook.

Instructors are required to keep records of any endorsements they have given for three years (five years for TSA-mandated endorsements). Flight schools and flying clubs often want copies of those endorsements. With the ability to sign-off flights and give electronic endorsements, LTP is just crying out for a better way share this info. An email facility with a data attachment that could be imported into LTP might do the trick.

Which brings us to iCloud support. The lack of iCloud integration is more a reflection of Apple's iCloud not being ready for prime time than it is a lack of will on the part of LTP developers. Assuming iCloud app support does become generally available, some of the sharing issues mentioned above may find a solution. Until then, LTP has limited ways to share flights and endorsements.

Out With the Old?

Will electronic logbooks replace paper logs? Will most NDBs be decommissioned? The answer to both of these questions would appear to be "yes, eventually." You may have resisted switching to an electronic logbook because you don't want to enter all the flights recorded in your paper logbook. That's certainly understandable and you may want to consider this service for converting your logbook to digital format. Given LTP's ability to record signatures and endorsements, it may finally be time for pilots to consider converting from a paper logbook to an all digital version.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Wishes

Here's a modest holiday gift: A few photos that I've been saving. Wishing everyone a Happy Holiday Season and a Prosperous New Year.

Missed Approach, near Healdsburg

Wine Country Winter

A piece of history

Lake Chabot

Bay Area Winter

STS ILS 32, past LUCEE

Livermore Valley

Wine Country, again

STS ILS, approaching minima

Monterey Bay

Between Layers

Near Mt. Toro

Near San Rafael

Near Watsonville

On Top, mostly ...

Final into Palo Alto

Pt. Reyes

Sacramento Deep Water Channel

Sacramento Fall

On Top

Mooney at Sunset

Downwind, Oakland

Sonoma Valley Winter

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Early Christmas

To my surprise, I received an unexpected letter from the FAA in Tuesday's mail. I nervously opened the envelope and was surprised to read:

Our review of your medical records has established that you are eligible for a second-class medical certificate ... Your Authorization for Special Issuance is no longer necessary ...

It may sound odd, but having a 2nd class medical without any restrictions makes me feel like a real pilot again. Best Christmas present I've received in long time.