Monday, May 28, 2012

New Private & Commercial Practical Test Standards

New FAA practical test standards (PTS) for commercial and private pilots will take effect on June 1, 2012 and an instructor candidate asked how the FAA notifies the pilot/instructor community when changes are made to the PTS. I received emails from the National Associated of Flight Instructors (a great organization for flight instructors) and from FAASafety, though I'm honestly not sure which FAASafety notification preference resulted in that email. These new standards are a mix of good news and bad news, so I'll start with some gripes and constructive criticisms and then provide a summary of the more important changes. If you'd just like to access a PDF comparison document for each PTS, click here for the Private and here for the Commercial.

Formatting Issues

Perhaps this is a case of "you can take the pilot out of technical writing, but you can't take the technical writer out of the pilot," but ... Wouldn't it be nice if the FAA consistently used change bars to indicate new material? In some places they used change bars, in others they didn't. And the summary of changes at the beginning of each PTS is classic FAA:
Added criterion number 9 to Section 1, Area of Operation IV, Task A Objective. Reason: Inadvertently omitted during last revision.

You'll have to flip a bunch of pages to discover that area of operation IV is "Takeoffs and Landings," task A is "Normal and Crosswind Takeoff and Climb," and the criterion number 9 that was added is "Rotates and lifts off at the recommended speed and accelerates to Vy." This sort of indirection is especially maddening if you are using an electronic device like an iPad to read the PTS, where flipping pages is tedious.

Interestingly, the FAA preserved a few blank pages to indicate material that was removed. Some of the pagination choices are poorly chosen, not ensuring the title of a section is kept with the bulk of the material that follows. Did I already mention this is annoying when viewing the document on a computer or iPad? I think I did ...

Introductory Material

The introduction to all of the PTS really need to be rethought (or at least edited) because they are a mishmash of mostly boring, repetitive boilerplate, occasionally peppered with useful and relevant information. For example, mentioning the importance of scanning for traffic and collision avoidance in a multitude of places is not an effective way to emphasize the importance of not running into other aircraft and may very well have the opposite effect.

The requirement that the oral portion of the test be competed before the flight portion, that the examiner develop a written plan of action, that a scenario will be used as part of the examination, that either the examiner or the candidate can terminate the test at any time, and that the test can only continue if the candidate agrees could all be stated much more clearly and with fewer words. Heck, it might even make candidates more likely to actually read the darn thing.

The judgement assessment matrix has been removed from both the private and commercial PTS. Next, the FAA is continuing an unfortunate choice they started with the Instrument Rating PTS: Including conceptual items on things like Risk Management, Aeronautical Decision-Making, and CFIT as part of the introductory narrative instead of listing them as Tasks within Areas of Operation. The intent seems to be that these items will be evaluated throughout the flight test as part of a scenario or "mission" created by the examiner, but why bury it in the introduction?

Significant Private PTS Changes

Private pilots candidates will now need to demonstrate an emergency descent, which could be interesting since some manufacturers of trainer aircraft do not provide specific guidance on how to accomplish this task.

The PTS now specifically says that an approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent must be used. I have a big problem with this because many of the manufacturer's checklists are ... well ... crap. Ever look at the Cessna 172 AFTER LANDING checklist? It consists of one item - "Flaps UP."

Private pilot candidates will now need to be able to demonstrate specific knowledge of risk management, task management, and automation management. This should be a wake-up call for instructors who refuse to teach their students how to use the GPS or the autopilot installed in the plane because it is "cheating."

I expose my student pilots to a rejected takeoff early in their training so that they are spring-loaded to abort a takeoff rather than to takeoff regardless of what may be happening. This task is still missing from the private single-engine PTS, which I think is an unfortunate oversight.

Here are some other changes:
  • Some new items added to the bibliography of references
  • A list of abbreviations has been added
  • The examiner must develop a scenario incorporating as many tasks as possible
  • Some new special emphasis areas, including wire strike avoidance
  • For multi-engine airplane, engine failure will not be simulated below 500' AGL
  • For multi-engine airplane, the feathering of one propeller must be demonstrated unless the manufacturer prohibits it
  • Specific details on issuing a Letter of Discontinuance
  • Change Crew Resource Management (CRM) to Single-pilot Resource Management (SRM)
  • Added requirements for Aeronautical Decision Making, Risk Management, Task Management, Situational Awareness, CFIT, and Automation Management
  • Requirement to use approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent
  • Requirement that stall demonstrations recoveries be accomplished at or above 1500' AGL for single-engine or 3000' AGL for multi-engine unless the manufacturer recommends a higher altitude
  •  Inclusion of runway incursion avoidance criterion in several tasks
  • Added "If a crosswind condition does not exist, the applicant’s knowledge of crosswind elements shall be evaluated."
  • Addition of Emergency Descent task
  • Addition of a new Runway Incursion Avoidance task in the Preflight Procedures area of operation

Significant Commercial PTS Changes

Stalls for commercial applicants have an important change:
In accordance with FAA policy, all stalls for the Commercial Certificate/Rating will be taken to the “onset”(buffeting) stall condition.
One assumes that some recent transport and commuter category aircraft accidents were the genesis for this change.

Several years ago, the FAA replaced the Emergency Descent in the commercial single-engine PTS with the Steep Spiral. Most examiners I've talked to think the Steep Spiral task is silly. Now the PTS has restored the Emergency Descent, which has real-world application. And the steep spiral? It's still in there and it's still silly.

Both single- and multi-engine commercial candidates must be prepared to demonstrate accelerated stalls, something that was previously a maneuver just for CFI candidates. Kudos to the FAA for a well-written description of how the accelerated stall is to be demonstrated.

For multi-engine applicants, the feathering of one propeller is now explicitly required:
The feathering of one propeller shall be demonstrated inflight, unless the manufacturer prohibits the intentional feathering of the propellers during flight. The maneuver shall be performed at altitudes above 3,000 feet AGL or the manufacturer’s recommended altitude, whichever is higher, and positions [sic] where safe landings on established airports can be readily accomplished.

Some new items added to the bibliography of references

  • Addition of new abbreviations
  • The examiner must develop a scenario incorporating as many tasks as possible
  • Some new special emphasis areas, including wire strike avoidance
  • For multi-engine airplane, engine failure will not be simulated below 500' AGL
  • Specific details on issuing a Letter of Discontinuance
  • Requirement to use approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent
  • Addition of the Emergency Descent task
  • Addition of the Accelerated Stall task
Preparation is Key

This is just a basic summary of the changes. If you are a commercial or private pilot applicant, now is the time to get the new PTS, break out your highlighter, and make sure all you've covered all the bases.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not in Vain

Try as I might, I couldn't seem to convincingly re-write the lyrics to Carley Simon's You're So Vain, replacing "Lear Jet" with "Grumman Cougar," "total eclipse" with "annular eclipse," and "Nova Scotia" with "Redding, California." Oh well, Sunday's pleasure flight (my first in a long, long while) did involve a Grumman Cougar and a trip a few hundred miles north in pursuit of ideal eclipse viewing conditions.

Eclipse-chasing crew ...
A carbon-based autopilot (Gadberry model) comes in handy when taking photos

Handed off to Oakland Center, 40 miles south of Redding, it was clear others had the same idea. Numerous requests for VFR flight following to Redding were rebuffed by the controller due to workload. Nearing the airport to enter right downwind, we could see the transient parking was packed.

After landing, we found an empty space near some other twins but soon learned that space was reserved. The kind folks at Air Shasta allowed us to park on the ramp in front of their hangars for the hour or so we planned to be there. Nice, friendly folk, great facilities, pretty good fuel prices, too. If you find yourself in Redding, stop by.

We set up camp in the grass, under a nice shade tree which helped dull the 33 degree C heat. Soon we were joined by another group who had flown in.

Todd, setting up his eclipse viewing apparatus just outside Air Shasta

And there were other interested parties, too.
Start of the eclipse.

The viewing equipment had to be adjusted every few minutes to track the sun.
Our neighbors had a pretty good setup, too.
Soon we noticed that even the sunlight through the trees showed the eclipse.
Almost annular with the ASOS reporting a 1 degree C drop in temperature.
Annularity dude!
Amazing, annular shadows through the tree leaves.
After angularity was achieved, we headed for the plane and beat a hasty retreat to Oakland. As fate would have it we were the first to depart sound bound in a line of aircraft doing the same. And again, we acquired flight following from Oakland Center just before they got busy again.

Returning home, near Lake Berryessa.
About to start a VFR descent to the Bay Area
Thanks to Todd and Emma for joining us, bringing the viewing equipment, and supplying some tasty snacks. Given that I fly for a living, I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to fly somewhere. There's a lesson in there for all pilots: Don't forget how to go flying, just for the fun of it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Case of the Missing Waypoint

If you never use a KLN94, this post might not be of much interest to you.

Situated south of Sacramento, California are four television broadcast towers, locally known as the Walnut Grove Towers. Over 2000 feet tall, these four masts are among the tallest in the US, let alone the world.

The Sacramento Valley has few natural obstructions that would affect the design of an instrument approach, but these tower have done just that. When it comes to TERPs (the design standards for instrument terminal procedures) I'm no expert, but these towers undoubtedly affected the choice of altitudes at WAGER and WIMUP.

If human-made obstructions weren't enough, avionics designers have created insidiously convoluted interfaces. But that's only part of the complexity equation. In addition to TERPs, you may need to factor in the way instrument approaches are coded in the GPS database. The shortcomings and complexities in these designs have a combinational effect, resulting in a mess that pilots and flight instructors must live with on a daily basis. In some cases, we bet our lives on this stuff.

Flying this approach with an instrument student, imagine our surprise when we noticed that WIMUP was not displayed by the KLN94. After passing WAGER, the current waypoint was GIFME and it required some fast thinking to figure out how to determine when we'd passed WIMUP. Assuming this was an error, I decided to ask the folks at Honeywell and their response was enlightening.

Turns out that some GPS receivers (the KLN94 being one) can't handle intermediate waypoints between the Final Approach Course Fix (FACF), the Final Approach Fix (FAF) and the Missed Approach Point (MAP). For the KLN94, Jeppesen coded the database with WAGER as the FAFC, GIFME as the FAF, and RW25 as the MAP. Since WIMUP is located between the FACF and the FAF, it's not in the database. If you're a dive-and-drive kind of pilot, this bit of information may give you pause. You'd need to descend pretty rapidly and be waay off course to get into trouble, but running into the guy wires that hold up those tall antennae would not be pretty.

Staying up-to-date on these bits of minutia is a challenge and it's unclear how many other approaches out there are affected by this issue. So always cross-reference what your GPS says with the approach chart and remember that when it comes to RNAV, it's a jungle out there.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Something to Squawk About

Note: This is my first attempt authoring a post with blogsy on the iPad, sooo ....

Several years ago a class C tower controller chided a student I was instructing for mistakenly squawking altitude while taxing, remarking that doing so "cluttered up" his screen. Recently an astute reader pointed out a change to transponder operation procedure contained in the February 2012 Aeronautical Information Manual 4-1-20, to wit:

Civil and military transponders should be turned to the “on" or normal altitude reporting position prior to moving on the airport surface to ensure the aircraft is visible to ATC surveillance systems.
This is a significant change from the previous procedure of keeping the transponder in "stand by" mode and squawking "altitude" just before departure. If you're operating an aircraft with a transponder that provides a "gnd" or "ground" mode, my understanding is that mode meets the new requirement.

The motivation for this change would seem to be to prepare pilots and controllers for the deployment of ground surveillance systems, current and future (NextGen/ADS-B). But there might be some problems and here's why.

ATC Not up to Speed

After learning this change had taken effect, I queried two different ground controller (one class C in northern CA and on class D in southern CA). I was startled to hear that neither controller had heard anything about the change nor had they been briefed on it. This leaves dilligent pilots and instructors in an odd position: Should they adopt and teach the new procedure or not? I'd be interested in hearing from other tower or ground controllers on their experiences.

Traffic System Conflicts

The other issue has to do with TIS and other traffic alerting systems (TAS) installed in aircraft. For instance, my initial experience in Cirrus aircraft several year ago revealed an annoying problem: All it took was a pilot holding short with their transponder turned on and the cockpit would be flooded with enough aural traffic alerts to drown out all other radio communications. Thank goodness newer aircraft with TAS have a mute function. TIS-equipped aircraft can suffer from the same issue, barking "TRAFFIC" at inoportune times. G1000 aircraft provide a means to turn off traffic, but this isn't the best use of time in single-pilot operations.

Unintended Consequences

Being a tech nerd who's had my share of close encounters during ground operations, I'm all for technological solutions. What should a pilot do if instructed to taxi before being assigned a squawk code? In these cases I'm planning to set the transponder code to 1200 set the mode to "on." It may take some time to work out the wrinkles and get the FAA, ATC, pilots, and aircraft equipment working toward the same goal.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Livin' the Dream

More substantive posts are still in the oven. In the mean time, here are some recent photos ...

Flight of the Cougar

Inbound KPAO
It's always sunny in SoCal, Right?
Unusual Attitude with Contrail
"End Fire" glide slope antenna for the new KAPC ILS 36L
Talkin' to "Show Time" (Lemore MOA)
Is it always cloudy over Panoche?
Sikorsky Skycrane at rest
Vectors KSEE LOC D
San Pablo Bay
One of the few aircraft where an iPad yoke mount actually works.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Out on a Limb, G1000 Style

As the FAA continues the inexorable march toward eliminating most ground-based radio navigation aids it would seem pilots who learned radio navigation with NDBs and VORs have two choices: Continue to deny the ever-growing dominance of Area Navigation (RNAV and GPS) or jump in and start swimming with the rest of us. While there's a lot to like about RNAV, the complex implementation of these systems and procedures makes for a steep learning curve. And the learning never stops because RNAV rough edges always seem to crop up when you least expect them. Here's a situation that may leave even a seasoned G1000 jockey asking "Why's it doing that?"

Late Missed Approach

Getting a late start on the missed approach is risky business, especially on a non-precision affair when the missed approach point is some distance from the runway threshold. You might think this could never happen to you, but here are just a couple of scenarios where you could find yourself executing the missed approach late in the game.

Scenario #1: You break out of the clouds well before the missed approach point (MAP), and continue descending. Soon you realize you're behind the aircraft and you won't be able to land in the touchdown zone. So you decide to climb back to the circling MDA and circle to land, but as you climb, you re-enter the clouds and must execute the missed approach.

Scenario #2: You break out on an approach and have the required visibility to continue for a straight-in landing. Only on short final do you realize there's a disabled aircraft on the runway. If you prefer, substitute a herd of elk for a disabled aircraft. VoilĂ ! Late execution of the missed approach.

You Want Me to Do What?

When starting the missed approach beyond the MAP and below the minimum descent altitude, the guidance given by a WAAS GPS can be confusing unless you know what to expect. I first noticed this while supervising a pilot flying a practice RNAV RWY 32 into Cloverdale. This brings up a third possible scenario: Flying a practice approach with the plan to do a touch and go landing and then fly the published missed approach. At the MDA, I asked the pilot to look up and continue visually so as to continue a stabilized approach for the touch-and-go. Note the 881 foot altitude nestled between TAKUY and NATIC? More on that later.

At the MAP, below MDA, on glide angle to runway.
During climb out after the touch and go, the pilot pressed the SUSP softkey on the G1000 Primary Flight Display (PDF) and we both expected instructions to execute a climbing left turn to 6000 feet. Instead, the G1000 wanted us to climb straight ahead to 881 feet, significantly below the circling MDA.

Past the runway, waay past the MAP, G1000 says to climb to 881 feet.
The pilot donned his view-limiting device and dutifully complied with the machine's instructions while I monitored the situation (squirming in my seat, I might add). After reaching 881 feet, the G1000 finally told us to start the climbing left turn to 6000 feet. Ironically, this put us right over some of the highest terrain in the airport vicinity at an altitude that was just barely sufficient for VFR.

Good climb rate to 6000 feet, but still a lot of yellow and red showing ...

Why Would a GPS Do That?

The first important lesson has to do with why a G1000 (or presumably any WAAS GPS) would exhibit this behavior when operating below the MDA, near or past the MAP. Instrument approaches are coded using ARINC-424 by the company who creates and supplies the database (Jeppesen, in this case). The GPS in your panel executes the instructions contained in the database when you execute an instrument procedure. When I learned this I had a deeper appreciation of the complexity of creating GPS databases and found myself less likely to complain about database subscription prices.

While I don't claim to possess detailed knowledge of ARINC-424, a brief explanation from the folks at the FAA's Instrument Approach Procedures division did shed some light. When you pass the final approach fix (FAF), descend well below the MDA, and then press the SUSP softkey, a CA leg (climb-to-altitude) becomes active as a sort of glue between the final approach segment and the missed approach segment. The altitude for the CA leg is computed at the MAP as if you were on the final approach segment, descending from 2500 feet at the FAF at an angle of 3.09 degrees. Since the MAP is 4.9 miles from the FAF, performing a little math shows that you would descend to about 880 feet at the MAP. This computed altitude is even shown in the flight plan, between the MAP and the missed approach holding waypoint. Some pilots mistakenly confuse this altitude with the MDA when, in fact, it is considerably lower. Don't be one of those pilots!

Keep in mind that whenever you choose to operate below the MDA, you are required to have one or more of the visual references described in 14 CFR 91.175.

If you descend below the computed altitude of 881 feet and press SUSP, the CA leg becomes active and the GPS will first instruct you to climb straight ahead to 881 feet. After reaching 881 feet, it will then tell you to start the climbing left turn to NATIC. If you remain at 1440 feet all the way to the MAP and then press SUSP, the GPS will skip the CA leg and immediately instruct you to start the climbing left turn to 6000 feet and proceed to NATIC. Remember that a computed altitude can be displayed in the flight plan and should not be confused with the MDA.

Keep it Straight and Simple

Which brings us to the second lesson: Anytime you find yourself operating below the MDA, especially in rapidly changing weather conditions, you'd be wise to have an escape strategy of your own and not just blindly do what your GPS tells you to do. In the approach cited above, it may be safer to perform climbing turns over the airport until you  reach the MDA, then press SUSP and follow the GPS's instructions. Lastly, remember to fly the procedure as published and that any computed altitudes displayed in the G1000's flight plan should not be confused with the MDA. You may be saying to yourself that this sort of thing could never happen to you, but never say "never." Someday you could find you and your G1000 out on this very limb.