Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Flight Instructor's World

Midfield Downwind

Near Mt. Hamilton

Pretty plane, but why do they run that noisy APU for hours and hours?


Steep turns at dusk

Sonoma Valley Sunrise

Circuit Breakers and Sunlight

Don't see these everyday

Another Bay Area Sunset

Over SFO, vectors EUGEN ...

Four Fundamentals, under the hood ...

Somewhere near Healdsburg

Hang on, hang on!

DME arc to CCR

Old stomping grounds, different airplane

Santa Rosa Six, over HWY 101 
Stalls at Sunset

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pilot Population Conundrum

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Organization (AOPA) just wrapped up this year's Summit in Palm Springs and one of their latest initiatives is to increase the active pilot population is by touting flying clubs. This seems more productive than their earlier fixation on the flight training drop-out rates and dubious market surveying techniques because flying clubs are one way to reduce the cost of flying. Even if AOPA won't admit it, the expense of aircraft, fuel and instruction are probably the greatest impediments to keeping a pilot flying and active in aviation. Flying clubs can also provide a social activities that may otherwise be missing from the average private pilot's flying experience.

Pilot Certification Facts

A curious claim in AOPA's press release is that there are about 500,000 pilots with "lapsed certificates." What's odd about that statement is that pilot certificates in the US do not expire. That's right, once you earn a pilot certificate it's yours until the day you draw you last breath unless you voluntarily surrender it (14 CFR 61.27), are deemed a threat to national security (14 CFR 61.18), or do something so dangerous and stupid as pilot-in-command that it draws the ire of the FAA and the NTSB.

There is no such thing as a pilot's license in the US because pilot-in-command (PIC) privileges derive from a specific combination of features. To act as PIC you must 1) hold a pilot certificate for category, class and type (if a type rating is required), 2) for powered aircraft you must possess a valid medical certificate (a valid driver's license will suffice for sport pilot privileges), 3) not have any medical impairment that would prevent you from meeting the requirements of a medical certificate (14 CFR 61.53) and 4) have completed a flight review within the last 24 calendar months (14 CFR 61.56).

So what does AOPA mean when they use the phrase "lapsed certificate?" It's hard to know, but reading between the lines it would seem they mean a pilot whose flight review has expired and/or a pilot who does not hold a valid medical certificate (or driver's license for sport pilot privileges). How they were able to acquire the necessary data to arrive at the number of half a million pilots has not been disclosed as of this writing.

The Flying Club Equation

There are several factors that allow flying clubs to be more economical than a flying school or private aircraft ownership, but some of the cost-saving features may give you pause. Maintenance can be less costly for flying clubs. If a flying club's members are, as a group, the owners of the club's aircraft, then the aircraft are not considered "for hire" and 100 hour inspections are not required. Just because 100 hour inspections are not required does not mean that the aircraft won't require regular maintenance in order to be in a condition for safe flight. It's advisable for club aircraft to still have 50 hour oil changes and regular maintenance, even if that maintenance is a subset of the 100 hour inspection criteria described in 14 CFR 43 Appendix D.

Flying clubs may also benefit from free or low-cost labor from volunteers who help with bookkeeping, administrative duties, and the other work needed to keep the club going. If the club uses volunteer labor, there is no payroll to maintain, and no tax withholding to compute. This keeps a club's overhead low when compared to a full-service flight school or FBO.

Saving money is good, but it may lead to unintended consequences. If a club scrimps on maintenance, it may be at the expense of safety. Just because the regulations may not require inspections does not mean that aircraft can fly with reduced maintenance. There is a tension between affordability and safety that must be carefully managed.

Other Costs

Another set of factors that can drive up costs is often beyond the control of the flight school or flying club. Airports are usually managed by a local city or county government and it's common for larger airport to charge more for rent, fuel, and most anything else you can think of. It makes sense that larger airports, particularly 14 CFR 139 airports (ones that provide the necessary infrastructure for air carrier service) will have higher operating costs and greater federal oversight. The presence of air carrier service may impose security and badging requirements that are absent at smaller, non-towered airports.

Fuel costs can vary widely, but generally fuel costs less at smaller, non-towered airport than at bigger airports. The reasons for this are many, but usually there are extra per-gallon fees tacked on at larger airports which, in theory, go toward maintaining the airport's more complex infrastructure.

Time Equation

In addition to cost, another issue that keeps many pilots from flying is their busy work schedules. Staying gainfully employed may not afford pilots the time required to stay current and, more importantly, proficient. Hamish has a cogent description of this very predicament you can read here. Joining a flying club will likely have little if any impact on the problem of not having enough time.

Actual Cost Savings

It's unclear whether or not there are many effective strategies left for reducing the cost of general aviation flying. About all the value that can be squeezed out of flight instructor, mechanic, and line-worker salaries has already occurred. Based on their publications and press releases, it's seems AOPA is working several fronts to try to increase the number of active pilots: Eliminate the need for a medical certificate, reduce aircraft certification requirements, and prevent ATC user fees from being implemented. I'm all for keeping the pilot population at a reasonable level, but not at the expense of safety. AOPA's goal of garnering more members may be good for AOPA, but it's not clear that it's necessarily good for the aviation community or aviation safety. And how AOPA arrived at the number of 500,000 "lapsed" pilots remains a mystery as of this writing.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Crossing the US in a Light Aircraft

Take a look at an aviation chart for most any part of the US and you’ll see something amazing: A multitude of small airports in small towns offering a refreshing antidote to the crowded skies, huge runways, and bustling taxiways found at big city airports. A dream of many a pilot is to load up a airplane, top off the tanks, and head out across the country: Not just a long cross-country flight, but a long cross-country flight. I’ve been fortunate to fly across the US in a small plane on several occasions and have some thoughts on planning and experiencing a multi-leg, multi-day trip.

Lay Out a Course

On a quiet, cozy night, curl up with your iPad or a selection of paper charts and start researching, planning, and imagining. Dozens of factors will eventually narrow the route you choose and there are many ways to solve this aviation puzzle, but for now just answer this basic question: Are you trying to get some place as efficiently as possible (perhaps for a wedding or family gathering), or do you want to explore and have fun, or do you desire a combination of business and pleasure?

Great circle route for a recent trip from Columbus, OH to Oakland, CA

When efficient travel is the goal, lay out a direct, great circle route to from point A to point B. ForeFlight is a great tool and will provide a rough estimate of the total time and fuel burn for the entire trip (minus time and fuel to climb as well as time required for intermediate stops). Weather specifics come later, but overlaying NEXRAD radar on the VFR chart will provide a good idea of where the weather might be ... uncooperative.

Same route, with NEXRAD overlay

For complicated reasons, a stop in Illinois was required on my last trip across the US and a direct route from Columbus would have been to Vermilion Regional Airport in Danville (KDNV). I learned to fly in De Kalb (KDKB), a small town about 110 miles north of Danville, and have some close friends who live there. So why not wander north, catch up over lunch, and avoid having to rent a car or hire a taxi to get to and from the airport? Choosing a destination like this would be impractical, time-consuming, and expensive when traveling by airliner, but this diversion was easily accomplished in a small plane. Spontaneity is one of many advantages of traveling by light aircraft.

Drag-n-Drop diversion

After a stop in Illinois, the name of the game was to hightail it back to Oakland. We agreed that two or three hour legs would be the most comfortable approach for bio-breaks. Using ForeFlight’s pop-up ruler made it easy to estimate that we could cover about 350 miles in a reasonable amount of time with an acceptable fuel reserve. So we came up with intermediate stops in Omaha, Cheyenne, Ogden, and Reno.

Measuring legs for bio-breaks

ForeFlight makes it easy to store flight planning for each flight, but you can do the same sort of thing using DUAT, DUATS, FltPlan or most any other flight briefing service. If you plan to file an IFR flight plan and are good at sticking to a schedule, FltPlan lets you schedule the legs several days in advance and automatically file each flight plan. The user interface is a bit convoluted, but you get used to it after a while.

 Planning Meets the Real World

The best laid plans may need to change for weather or a host of other factors. If you’re going to have fun, maintain a low level of risk, and maximize your fun quotient you’ll need to be flexible and patient. If you have external pressures you may make choices that you’ll regret. Unexpected delays can crop up so take your time and handle them. Bring a good book or use the down-time to explore and learn more about the place where you find yourself delayed.

Our first hiccup resulted from arriving too late to connect with the maintenance folks. Our goal was to prepare the night before so we could depart by 9am or 10am the next morning and make it to Cheyenne for an overnight. By the time we made it to the shop they were closed. It didn’t matter that we’d been up since 3:45AM PDT in order to catch the earliest flight out of SFO. Oh well, we headed out and had a nice dinner.

The next day started with breakfast, surprisingly good local espresso, and some early morning sightseeing on the main street before arriving at the maintenance shop to survey of all the equipment that needed to be loaded. Armed with a weight and balance spreadsheet on the iPad, we still faced an interesting puzzle. It took time to weigh each item and decide how to arrange everything so that the CG would be within limits. Our final weight would limit the amount of fuel we could take, so the aux tanks stayed empty.

An annual inspection had been completed and a shake-down flight around the pattern immediately uncovered a G1000 gremlin. It was just after 11:30am when we decided to head to another airport to visit the avionics shop. We took on fuel before departing since a top-off at the Big City airport was going to cost more. The avionics tech eventually uncovered the problem, but the delay would prevent us from making Cheyenne the first overnight stop. When life hands you lemonade, make margaritas! Should have packed one more change of clothes, though.

More Curveballs

Flying over Illinois and Iowa in clear skies the next day provided ample opportunity to regale my companion with bits of trivia I learned growing up here. We flew over Ronald Regan’s hometown as well as the college from which he graduated with a C+ average (not a fan, sorry). Ulysses S. Grant’s home was just north of our course. A friend had attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. We did the best to relieve the monotony of the flatlands.

Arriving at Council Bluffs Memorial Airport (KCBF) we discovered the only Jet-A available contained PRIST, something not allowed for the DA42. Oh, bother! A few phone calls and we were headed to nearby Eppley Field (KOMA) where the fine folks at Signature topped off the main tanks with unadulterated Jet-A. Thinking ahead, we called the FBO in Cheyenne and found their Jet-A was premixed with PRIST, too. Several calls later, we decided that our next stop would be need to be Denver Centennial where we would once again visit the nice folks at Signature. Our oxygen bottle needed refilling and they were able to arrange it for a reasonable cost, even on a Saturday.

Weather or Not

The atmosphere had been reasonably nice to us so far, but then convective SIGMETs popped up to the north and south of our course. The route west toward Rifle looked reasonable if we stayed VFR under the clouds and avoided the scattered areas of precipitation. We needed to be able to turn around or divert if things got uncomfortable or icing conditions were encountered and the diversion airports would need to have Jet-A, negative PRIST. After some more phone calls we were armed with a reasonable plan and departed with three viable alternatives.

Crossing the Rockies, the DA42’s performance was confidence inspiring. Climbing to 14,500 feet, 900 feet/minute climb rates above 10,000 feet were easy to achieve. The DA42’s long wings easily soaked up the turbulence we encountered (the wing loading on this plane is much better than the DA40 or DA20). Add in the G1000’s synthetic vision and XM weather capabilities and you have a comfortable, reliable airplane. I would have avoided this leg of the trip in a non-turbocharged single. In addition to XM weather, we had a Stratus ADS-B/GPS unit on board. We discovered there is little ADS-B coverage over the Rockies and were very glad that we had both ADS-B and XM weather on board. We were fortunate that the weather didn’t delay us or provide too much unwanted adventure. We were prepared to delay our flight or even park the plane and fly back commercially. It goes without saying that get-there-itis and other external pressures need to be managed very carefully on a long trip.

Parting Thoughts

The best flights are the ones we share with others: Friends and family will enhance your traveling pleasure whether you take them on board or visit them along the way. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The best ornament of any flying adventure is the friends you are fortunate enough to include.”

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Flying Home

More photos from a recent cross-country flight with the owner of a newly purchased aircraft.

Flying into the setting sun, somewhere over Ohio. Or is that Indiana?

Back home again ... over Indiana, I think.

First overnight stop.
Overnighting in DeKalb, Illinois provided a unique opportunity: Got to have dinner and breakfast with a good friend and I got to reminisce. This was my first landing at DeKalb in many years. I soloed at this airport, decades ago.

Early morning start ...

In my day, there was Rwy 9/27 & no instrument approaches. Now there's Rwy 2/20, too.

Pretty sedate weather over Iowa and Nebraska until heading into Colorado.

Lions & tigers & SIGMETs, Oh my!

Climbing higher in search of a smoother ride.

Departing Denver Centennial, there was a lot of stuff to dodge.

Some deviations, but a mostly smooth ride.

Elected to stay VFR, underneath the stuff the airlines were dodging.

Lots of virga.

Thank goodness for Rosen visors.

Approaching Utah at sunset.
Arriving at our next overnight.

Guess where?

Another early departure ...

Big body of water, in a desert?

Over the Great Salt Lake.

Heading toward Battle Mountain.

Approaching Lovelock.

Pyramid Lake, near the last fuel stop - Reno-Stead.

Ironically, the bumpiest ride was over the Sierra Mountains. Lots of traffic in the California Central Valley reduced photo opportunities, but we made our arrival into Oakland via a practice approach and this DA42NG's flexibility in approach speeds paid off: A Learjet on a visual approach to the same runway was instructed to follow us. How cool is that?