Wednesday, July 25, 2012

ForeFlight Adds Advisors

The iPad has become very popular with pilots in just a few short years, due in large part to the folks at ForeFlight and their industry standard electronic flight bag application. Many companies create new software versions on a regular basis, but ForeFlight's developers have been rolling out new features at an astounding pace. The price of the ForeFlight app has remained rock-steady, something unusual in the price-gouging world of aviation-related equipment. And unlike some other EFB companies, the ForeFlight developers really seem to listen to their users, as witnessed by the new features in the latest release.

Routing, Made Easier

If you're a big-picture kind of thinker, the new route advisor in ForeFlight should be right up your alley. Say you're planning to fly IFR from Oakland to Burbank. Just enter the two airports in the new route field and they appear as colored blocks in the route advisor. This may seem like a trivial change, but have you ever tried to position the iPad's cursor on a long route field just to edit a single waypoint? 'Nuff said.

Route Advisor makes editing waypoints easier

Once you've entered your departure and destination airports, tap on the Routes button to see recent ATC routings (if any exist for your airport pairs). The routing history can go back up to a year.

Routes recently assigned by ATC

If you want to add a SID or a STAR, just tap on the Procedure button. The list shows SIDs for your departure and STARs for your destination, but instrument approach procedures for your destination are not shown.

Departure and Arrival procedures
Select an arrival, then the desired transition

Altitude Advisor

Tapping on the altitude button on the lower left side of new route field provides a quick way to choose the IFR or VFR altitude for your direction of flight that offer the most advantageous winds aloft. Simply select VFR or IFR, then Westerly or Easterly (or All), and you'll see an estimated time en route and fuel consumption. Remember these times and fuel figures do not account for fuel- and time-to-climb.

Altitude advisor could save you some $ on gas.

Diversion Planning

An earlier release of ForeFlight introduced a ruler showing the distance between two points on a chart as well as an estimated time en route and cruise fuel consumption. The new ruler is even better because it persists when you move your two fingers off the chart until you tap again on the chart. And the ruler now shows a magnetic heading, too. Nice!

New ruler makes diversions a snap

QICP Approval

For part 91 subpart K, part 121, and part 135 operators, ForeFlight's preflight briefing has now received Qualified Internet Content Provider status from the FAA. QICP doesn't make much different to the average part 91 flyer, but could be crucial to other operators.

Feature Suggestions

Since the time of departure affects the winds aloft displayed, the time button should appear higher in the route advisor hierarchy of buttons.

Everyday I encounter pilots flying WAFDOF - wrong altitude for direction of flight. ForeFlight already knows the magnetic course for the selected route, so why not automatically suggest appropriate VFR altitudes based on the initial departure course? Maybe it would help some of those confused pilots out there to fly the correct altitude for direction of flight. Couldn't hurt.

The route advisor doesn't support the concept of alternate airports, which is a bummer. However this is consistent with Garmin's G1000 and earlier GPS implementations, which do not provide any support for entering an alternate airport (except for the now discontinued CNX80/GNS480). Why this hasn't been addressed by Garmin and others is a bit of a mystery.

The Procedure feature needs to be enhanced to provide automatic chart binders for departure, destination and alternate. Jeppesen Mobile FD supports two alternates and it one of the few innovative things they've done with their app.

Time- and fuel-to-climb and time- and fuel-to-descend support is still not provided. Implementing this feature is complicated since different aircraft manufacturers have different ways of providing climb data. Many aircraft manufacturers don't provide any descent planning data. Still ...

This may be beyond ForeFlight's control since they get briefing data from DUAT, but (this just in) the NOTAM display is a mess. Until the FAA get's their act together and separates ADS-B and TFRs into separate NOTAM categories, it would be nice if ForeFlight could do some filtering. Having to wade through meaningless ADS-B boilerplate and semi-permenant TFRs just to get to changes to instrument approach procedures is an accident waiting to happen.

The briefing window needs two panes: One on the left side showing all the briefing categories and one on the right showing the content of the selected category. And it would be cool if the categories changed color to help you remember the ones you've already reviewed.

Lastly, it would revolutionary if ForeFlight could find a way to integrate the graphical display of AIRMET/SIGMET and TFRs into the briefing output. Trying to assemble a connect-the-dots, mental picture of AIRMET or SIGMET boundaries based on VOR identifiers is soooo 1960's.

Considering Upgrade or Purchase?

If you're a current ForeFlight subscriber, upgrading is a no-brainer because it's free. If you're considering the purchase ForeFlight, it's hard to see how you could go wrong. ForeFlight offers a ton of features and the improvements just keep coming. Check it out!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Frame of Reference

Many a student pilot has asked, aloud or to themselves, "When will I get really comfortable demonstrating stalls?" and the best answer is "Hopefully, never." Unless you're an aerobatic performer or a flight instructor, intentional stalls are abnormal events. Feeling a certain amount of anxiety or discomfort with stalls is common among pilots regardless of their level of training. Pilots train to do stalls and stall recovery so we can demonstrate an understanding- and application-level of knowledge during a check ride. And stall demonstrations are required on check rides because - surprise, surprise - pilots continue to kill themselves, their passengers, and people on the ground in stall/spin accidents.

Three stall-related accidents involving professional flight crews that occurred in the last few years may explain the FAA's recent changes in how stalls are to be demonstrated in Private Pilot and Commercial Pilot practical tests. Two of the accidents are familiar to most pilots: Colgan Air 3407 and Air France 447. A third accident, Empire Air 8284, garnered less attention perhaps because the aircraft was destroyed yet the flight crew escaped with their lives. What all three accidents share are a flight crew, made up of pilots who had gone through numerous check rides and, one would assume, numerous stall demonstrations, who allowed their aircraft to enter an aerodynamic stall.

Like many accidents, the Empire crash involved multiple factors - icing conditions, asymmetric flap extension, a contaminated runway with crummy braking action, and a captain who seemed committed to getting the aircraft on the ground. Watch the simulation of the accident and you'll find it eerie that the pilot flying (first the FO, then the captain) appeared to adjust power and airspeed for a normal approach to landing instead of what was essentially a no-flaps landing with a contaminated wing.

People learn to fly for a variety of reasons, but it's reasonable to conclude that student and certificated pilots tend to be goal-oriented people: They want to learn something challenging and, by doing so, exhibit skill, confidence, and competence. Becoming a pilot is deeply intertwined with self image, but some pilots may have a need to prove themselves in a way that goes beyond the average desire for recognition. Perhaps they are secretly afraid of flying and in a reaction-formation sort of way are trying to free themselves of their fear. Whatever the reason, they want to convince themselves and those around them that they are not afraid. The problem may not be fear, but the fear of being afraid.

Discomfort with stalls can lead pilots to try to fight fire with fire. They may put themselves or their students on a steady diet of stalls in a desire to build confidence. They may undertake aerobatic training (not a bad thing, in itself) or specialized upset training. This sort of training may lead to unintended consequences, what the FAA refers to as an operation pitfall - flying outside the envelope in non-aerobatic aircraft. I was going to link to a video of a hot dog in a Citation doing an aileron roll, but it's been removed by the poster. Whatever mechanism is at work, accident history indicates that spin training and upset training does not immunize a pilot from being involved in a stall-spin accident. The pilot may feel enhanced self-confidence, but that does not necessarily translate into a safer pilot.

So the FAA has changed the language used to describe stalls in the Private Pilot PTS to "fully-developed stall," which makes sense because early training experiences make a strong impression, two characteristics that flight instructors should recognize as the Law of Primacy and the Law of Intensity. These early experiences in stalls are mimiced in larger aircraft by stick shakers and stick pushers - equipment designed to remind a pilot they are dangerously close to an aerodynamic stall by tapping into their earliest flight experiences.

When a pilot transitions to commercial training, the goal is not to prove courage with regard to stalls but, rather, smarts in avoiding stalls altogether. And so the FAA changed the language used to describe stalls in the Commercial Pilot PTS to "onset (buffeting)." And commercial pilot applicants are now required to demonstrate accelerated stalls and, to the FAA's credit, the PTS contains a clear and concise description of how these stalls are to be demonstrated.

This is a step in the right direction because stalls can involve multiple variables - angle of attack, airspeed, load factor, aircraft configuration and wing contamination - and these variables may not be fully understood by an overloaded pilot or flight crew in the moment. Yet even with these changes, it's likely that stall-spin accidents will continue to occur because flight training often involves artificial and highly choreographed maneuvers that may not prepare pilots for real-world stall situations.

The only PTS that requires an applicant to demonstrate a variety of stalls - trim, cross-control, accelerated, secondary - is the flight instructor PTS. If private pilots (or at least commercial pilots) were required to be familiar with all of the stalls that flight instructors are required to know, it could significantly reduce the trend in stall/spin accidents. If you're a pilot who wants to deepen your understanding of stalls, there's no need to wait for the FAA to act. Ask an instructor to teach you all the stalls they were required to know for their flight instructor check ride. And if you feel nervous or anxious with any or all of these stalls, that's okay. Stalls are abnormal events and if you never experience one during normal flight operations, you're not a chicken, you're smart.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Tracking Training & Proficiency, the Hi-Tech Way

Critiquing a proficiency or training flight has been made a little easier, thanks to GPS, some creative app developers, and Google mapping technology. For iOS device users there's CloudAhoy (an odd, yet memorable name) and for Android users there's My Tracks. I won't be reviewing My Tracks since I don't own an Android device, but conceptually these apps do similar things: They record GPS track data (or breadcrumbs, if you prefer) to your mobile device so you can upload them and review them on a web site using your browser. If this all sounds boring, the results are anything but.

Getting Started

To use CloudAhoy, first go to their web site and create a free account. Next, visit the iTunes store and download the iOS app. While the app was designed for the iPhone, it runs fine on an iPad in 2x mode. If you own a 3G/4G enabled iPad, CloudAhoy will used the built-in GPS receiver. If you own a WiFi iPad, you'll need an external bluetooth GPS like my new favorite, the Dual XGPS150A.

A reminder if you're planning to use this app on an iPhone: The FCC prohibits the use of mobile telephones in an airborne aircraft. To comply with this regulation, you'll put your iPhone in airplane mode. Unfortunately, airplane mode disables the phone as well as the internal GPS. Kinda makes you wonder why the CloudAhoy developers made this an iPhone app, but it would seem that many people think that following the rules is like stopping at a stop sign: So 1980's ...

Once you've installed the CloudAhoy app on your iPad, launch it and enter the registration information you used on their web site. You can use the Settings feature enter one or more aircraft registration numbers for later use.

Recording A Flight

Before you takeoff (heck, even before starting to taxi) open the CloudAhoy app on your iPad, select an aircraft, enter who's in which seat, enter comments about the flight, then tap Start. The indicator above the start button shows which GPS source is being used and its relative accuracy. After starting the app, you can switch to another app or put your iPad to sleep, forget about it and go about flying the plane.

At the conclusion of your flight, after you've taxied clear of the runway and it is safe to do so, open the CloudAhoy app and press Stop. You'll need to have a network connection for the tracking data to be uploaded to their web site. If one isn't handy, wait until one is available. You'll see an indication of when data is available to transmit and when data is actually being transmitted.


Once the tracking data for a flight have been transmitted, return to the CloudAhoy web site, login, and look at the list of flights that have been recorded. To debrief a flight, click on the link next to the flight's description and you'll see that CloudAhoy attempts to decipher what you were doing at each phase of the flight; taxiing, takeoff, en route flying, maneuvers, even touch-and-goes. Their analysis software makes some very good guesses about what the track data mean and can identify steep turns, chandelles, touch-and-go landings and so on. You can click on the play button to see the track replayed and even speed up the playback from 2x to 10x normal.

Turns around a point ...

If you use the iPad's browser, you'll be limited to the 2D view because there is no GoogleEarth plugin support. If you use a desktop browser, you'll be able to see 3D views of takeoffs and even bring up a rendered cockpit view.

Steep turns, rendered with Google Earth ...

Useful? You betcha!

There are numerous training benefits that can be gleaned from CloudAhoy. For one, it makes critiquing ground reference maneuvers and holding patterns a piece of cake. It can even help determine how well a candidate flew an instrument approach procedure and perhaps even uncover problems in the design of a procedure.

A CFI-I candidate pointed out what he thought was a problem in the recently redesigned KAPC ILS or LOC 36L. Specifically the missed approach instructs the pilot to make a climbing right turn to a heading of 200 degrees and intercept the Scaggs Island 230 degree radial and track that to BURDE intersection. He used CloudAhoy to clearly show that a Category A aircraft properly flying the missed has little chance of intercepting the 230 degree radial on a 200 degree heading because they'll be on the wrong side (northeast) of the VOR.

Track of the missed approach in Category A aircraft ...

I can see a lot of benefit from pilots using CloudAhoy on iOS devices and My Tracks on Android devices, too. If LogTen were to find a way to integrate this sort of data, it would make logging flights in an electronic logbook so much easier.

If you fly a helicopter, CloudAhoy's heuristics for determining flight maneuvers, takeoffs and landings may not work so well. They're reportedly working on a solution.

If you live outside the US, CloudAhoy is not yet available:
"The debriefing relies heavily on access to aviation and weather information which is country-specific, and currently CloudAhoy receives such data only from the FAA, i.e., only in the US. In the future CloudAhoy will be available in other countries as well."
Used properly, this should be a great tool for instructors, students, and certificated pilots. Check it out!