Monday, February 27, 2012

Flying the DC-7

I wrote a while ago about two vintage aircraft that used to sit between the taxiways on Oakland's North Field: A P3 Orion that was cut up for scrap and a DC-6 that was refurbished and flew out on its own power. I've never flown on either aircraft types, but seeing the DC-6 do a last low-pass over 27 left before departing to the East was like going back in time.

Here's a video about Sully and Skiles getting their SIC type ratings in the Historical Flight Foundation's DC-7. It's fun to watch guys who flew a lot of hours in modern jet airliners flying with a flight engineer and talking about carb heat, cowl flaps, and mixture settings. Check it out!

The Historical Flight Foundation's web site says this aircraft suffered an engine failure and is in maintenance indefinitely for repairs. Should you feel like making a donation to help out, contact the Historical Flight Foundation at,, or by calling 305-883-2012.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Power, Prestige, Dogs and Wolves

A popular use of the word "myth" is to dismiss or discredit an idea by casting it as fantastic, factually false, or just an outright deception. Unfortunately this usage ignores what a myth actually is: Myths tell stories that illuminate basic values that connect us to one another and to the natural world. Myths aren't meant to be factually true or to be taken literally, but they do transmit the beliefs of a society from one generation to the next in a way that can't be accomplished by a talk show or a PowerPoint presentation. A society without meaningful myths is a culture without a bigger picture of the shared human condition. Without myth, a country becomes a wasteland of literal interpretation, lacking imagination. Without myth, a society may well consume itself in drone-like greed, gluttony, and self-interest.

A friend who used to fly freight under part 121 opined that the freight dog myth mixes the cowboy and a high-tech version of the Pony Express into an odd sort of stew. Few threads run deeper in American culture than the "don't fence me in" ideal - the proud, independent cowboy roaming the frontier - even if it isn't factually true. My friend, being a purist, didn't consider himself to have been a "freight dog" because he was flying in a two-crew environment. To use his phrase, "Freight dogs are not plural."

I often meet pilots who aspire to become freight pilots. I understand the desire, but it still baffles me. If these pilots don't understand bad pay for a long day's work, they soon will. They'll come to appreciate the term "cloud plow." They'll devise ways to stay awake during 14-hour duty days and to endure flying that is 95% boring-as-hell, 5% why-did-I-ever-sign-up-for-this. Pilots who aspire to fly bigger and faster aircraft usually view a freight dog stint as a stepping stone to the flying job they really want. Perhaps they imagine a future where they can sit in the left seat, in two-pilot air conditioned comfort, earning a half-decent wage, and look back fondly on when they were paying their dues. There's a myth for you!

I ran into a former commercial multi-engine student who expressed regret that his short-lived freight dog experience had not offered more nasty weather before he moved on to flying regional jets. I suggested he should be glad he was now flying an aircraft that spends most of the time above the weather, but I think he felt he missed a rite of passage (in the mythical sense): Crazy thunderstorms, nasty icing encounters, equipment malfunctions. Instead, his freight flying job just provided a few lines on his resume that got him his next job.

My flight instructor musing are inherently less interesting than when I used to write about flying freight precisely because the instructional world lacks a mythic quality. It is easy to romanticize "flying God knows what to God knows where in the middle of the night" or the glamorous life of an airline pilot, striding through the airport, the envy of young and old alike. But learning to fly and maintaining proficiency? Well that just sounds like a lot of work. So I'm going to do my part to change that situation by introducing the myth of the independent flight instructor.

Part ronin and part peripatetic philosopher, the independent instructor has few guarantees. They may instruct at several airports. They may teach people in their own aircraft as well as through one or more flying clubs. The variety in the flying is the best part; you get to fly a bunch of different types, doing a variety of maneuvers and procedures, at a variety of airports from big city to non-towered.

Flying several different types of aircraft, and doing it well, is a daunting task. You have to be an expert in each type (or least appear to be an expert). You have to develop strategies for remembering all the various V-speeds, systems, and limitations for each type. I've found ForeFlight Checklist Pro a handy and powerful way to create check lists and aircraft reference material for the various aircraft I fly. What's the main tire pressure for a Cessna 206? Piece of cake ...

Flight instructing isn't glamorous and to endure you must have two main qualities: An interest in what motivates people and a desire to help others succeed. No one is a professional flight instructor for the money because flying is not something just everyone can afford and there is a ton of downward pressure on instructor wages (sorry AOPA).

It's no wonder few people stick with instructing or rely on it as their primary source of income. In keeping with our national obsession of living for the future, many pilots train to become instructors so they can teach for a while, then move on. Others keep their CFI current while flying other aircraft as a sort of retirement plan. Some instructors teach on the side while working a day job that provides stability (like health care benefits), but they aren't really living the dream.

As with teachers in other fields, flight instruction is seldom respected by other pilots or potential employers. If there's little money, prestige, and respect, why do the handful of dedicated instructors out there stick with teaching? It's hard to say. Speaking personally, there are few walks of life remaining where you get to work one-on-one with dedicated, goal-oriented people. You help them through their roadblocks, their rough patches, their doubts and fears. And the majority of the time, you will see them succeed. It may sound corny, but you just can't put a price tag on knowing you helped someone find their wings.

The popular aviation myth, especially among younger pilots, is that getting a job with an airline or charter operation means you've made it to the top of the heap. Flying a big, shiny jet represents respect and power while working as a freight pilot is like being, well ... a dog. The thing is, these perceptions are themselves myths, something we tell ourselves to explain our place in the world, help us keep our dreams alive so we can reach our goals. If flying freight is a dog's life, that must make the freelance flight instructor the wolf at the door.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

ADS-B Catch-up

Anyone who's not been asleep the last threes years has probably heard that ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) is a key component in the FAA strategy known as NextGen. In addition to reducing airport traffic delays and preventing tooth decay in dogs, NextGen will purportedly use ADS-B to replace traditional, expensive, old-fashioned radar used by air traffic control (ATC). I'll pause here to give my readers a chance to stop laughing before I point out the obvious - ADS-B as it currently stands has more security holes than an old pair of work pants. Good old radar is and will remain critical to our national defense, helping to thwart smugglers, terrorists, and other airborne criminals who don't want to be detected. In spite of all the hyperbole, PR whohaa and design problems, ADS-B is nevertheless a cool and appealing concept.

Before getting into the two halves of ADS-B, let me point out that only bureaucrats and propeller-head engineers could come up with a name like Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. Don't you like how it just rolls off the tongue? Moving on, there's ADS-B In and ADS-B Out.

ADS-B In is simply the passive reception of traffic data sent from appropriately equipped aircraft and weather information broadcast from local, ground-based stations. ADS-B Out is more complicated (read expensive) for aircraft owners because it involves purchasing and installing new ADS-B transceivers that can transmit and receive GPS-derived position and altitude. The cost of equipping all aircraft with ADS-B is the big hurdle that seems to get glossed over, but such equipment will be mandatory for aircraft that want to use most controlled airspace by January 1, 2020.

In the meantime, there clearly is a void in traffic avoidance technology for light aircraft. Many GA aircraft have equipment that supports the current and useful TIS (Traffic Information System). Unfortunately not all ATC radar sites support TIS and when you're in those areas your TIS equipment will tell you traffic is unavailable. In classic FAA fashion, no sooner had TIS technology become widespread than there was the announcement that TIS would be phased out at some indefinite point in the future (back in 2005, the phase-out was said to be in 2013).

TIS is very useful and has saved my bacon on many occasions. Lately, some local controllers have gotten irritated when instrument pilots practice holding at some airway fixes. One fix in particular has been used by yours truly for holding practice over a decade, but we're now told to practice holds much farther to the East where there is supposedly less traffic. The irony here is that we're often flying TIS-equipped aircraft and in the area we've been asked to avoid we get TIS alerts and visually acquire the traffic, often long before the approach controllers point them out. When we hold further East as requested, we're in an area where ATC's radar does not support TIS, we actually  experience more traffic conflicts, and we have to resolve these with just our eyes. To my mind, some procedures that are implemented in the pursuit of safety actually end up decreasing safety.

GNS 5890 USB Stick ADS-B Receiver

My firsthand experience with ADS-B was nil until the kind folks at Global Navigation Systems (makers of the GNS5870 bluetooth GPS receiver) recently allowed me to test-drive their new GNS 5890 ADS-B Receiver USB-Stick Receiver. This receiver comes with Windows software that allows you to display the position of ADS-B Out equipped aircraft on a map. The software itself is pretty simple and more a proof-of-concept than anything else. This device is small, purportedly the smallest ADS-B receiver made. And GNS has plans to release a Bluetooth ADS-B receiver with weather capability that could be very useful with the iPad, provided iPad EFB software developers introduce support for ADS-B Bluetooth devices. A combination ADS-B/GPS Bluetooth receiver would be an ideal solution. If the hardware and software align, ADS-B on the iPad could become a very useful, cost-effective, and subscription-free alternative to XM weather.

In order for ADS-B traffic capability to become a reality, all aircraft will need to have ADS-B Out capability and that will require an appropriately certified (read expensive) transceiver installed in each aircraft. In short, ADS-B traffic technology just doesn't seem to be something that can be accomplished with a portable device and installing ADS-B transceivers in all GA aircraft will be a huge, expensive, and time-consuming undertaking.

In an imperfect world where safety often seems to take a backseat to cost, ADS-B is a cool and promising technology.  In the meantime, I sure hope that the FAA's proposed phase-out of TIS will be delayed.