Friday, April 1, 2016

Foolin' Around

April 1 is a special day in aviation history, at least at my house, because it is the anniversary of Flight Lesson 1.  My first instructor -- I remember his name but won't mention it -- quit sometime before Flight Lesson 2 (I heard he went to United Air Lines), so I did the rest of my training with a man named Tom Carroll at Palomar Airport.  Tom claimed that a pilot would hear his first flight instructor's voice for the rest of his or her career, and he was right (Tom died a few years, but in the hospital, not an airplane).

Maybe he got to teach me at a vulnerable or receptive age (late 20s), but his lessons really stuck, and I often quote him word-for-word with my students.  Sometimes it even works!

But not always.

I was reminded about this the other day when I gave a BFR to a pilot who started flying just a few years before I did.  Why did he appear so old?  But no matter: it was clear that he was the master of this airplane and based on our talk he had mastered many others.  He'd even survived a double engine failure (induction icing with a faulty alternate air design).

As we started maneuvering I almost instinctively gave him my "flaps down trim down" speech (this was in a 182; other airplanes are "flaps up trim down") but if I have learned something as an instructor it is that, at a safe altitude, you can wait and see.  Sure enough, as the flaps went down the trim went down, even as he continued to slightly bawdy story about a pilot we both knew.

I trained in Archers and Warriors.  Tom taught me to jam my elbow into my pelvis when lowering flaps; this enabled me to keep the nose from rising until I had a free hand to retrim.  The seats in a 172 don't quite allow most people to get into a good position to do this, so I have to chant, over and over, "flaps down trim down."

I take students out and do the demonstration stalls.  Near the top of the white arc, I lower full flaps all at once, and the nose rises to about as high an angle as a student ever sees, or wants to see.  "If you don't do something you'll stall, and since you usually go to full flaps at low altitude, you won't recover."  Or a hundred other things.

Maybe I should try to attract Tom back from the dead and have him run a flap clinic?

Or what about this: one of my friends told me that his primary instructor did not teach the use of flaps until after solo: "That's for the short- and soft-field stuff," he'd say.  Then there's no worry of watching a solo student's nose rise just before turning final.  Maybe he could teach us a thing or two.

So the point is that on this anniversary of a flying lesson, I think I need a flying lesson.  It never ends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


It is difficult to predict what kind of knowledge is transferable, whether in aviation or in any other realm.  Sometimes it's obvious one way or the other: a Course Deviation Indicator reads the same in a helicopter as it does in an airplane, and you can't bring an airplane to a hover except in the most unusual circumstances.

But I have also written about using the no-rudder-pedal Ercoupe to teach some stick-and-rudder skills.

Yesterday was to be my first helicopter training flight in a month, and when we last left our hero he was wondering how to smooth out his approaches and noticing that his airplane approaches had become sloppy, too.

Was holding a constant glide path a transferable skill?  If so, shouldn't I practice in a $75/hr airplane rather than a $300/hour helicopter?  And isn't practice part of the reportoire of a craftsman?

So before my helicopter flight I took an airplane and spent nearly an hour flying extremely precise approaches.  Let me rephrase that: I took an airplane and spent nearly an hour trying to fly extremely precise approaches.  I was most concerned with the portion from 500AGL to 30AGL, because you can't hover an airplane.

I told my instructor what I had done, saying it was really smart or really stupid and we would have to see which.

After an hour in the helicopter he concluded that it had worked and my approaches were much better despite a month's worth of rust.  A few more autorotations and it will soon be time to solo.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Last Leg

The IFR system is not kind to the unprepared.  And I suspected that I was one of the unprepared: I can count on one hand the number of times I've filed IFR in the last few years.  I have been scrupulous about staying instrument current, and have regularly spent time reviewing charts and procedures and regulations.  But not in the system is not in the system.

Until this week.  Regular readers may recall me writing about a Cessna 414 that we would be operating for the owner (ie, under Part 91, rather than Part 135, for those savvy about US regulations).  I had been training other pilots to fly it, but with the university in session I had not taken an actual trip.  It had been so long that I needed 3 landings to be legal to carry passengers.

But now school was out and I was scheduled for my first 414 trip in 9 years.

Pick a day 3 weeks in advance and you know the weather's gonna suck, right?  The morning of the trip arrived with marginal VFR conditions and a pretty significant chance of icing based on the icing tools at  I hadn't blown a boot since 2009, but icing was an important part of the training package I had prepared.  But the system is not kind to the unprepared.

I flew a short leg to pick up the owner and his colleagues, mostly IMC, and was waiting for them in the FBO lobby when they drove up (this is very important in the charter/corporate world).  He had some concerns about the weather but I reassured him that the airplane could handle it.  Could I?

The departure was a little bumpy and I was in IMC for almost an hour.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

Luckily I had played with the radar during training and it showed safe air ahead.  Still, the system is not kind to the unprepared.

I was at 16,000 and did not think FL180 was available because of the low altimeter setting, and Center confirmed that.  But maybe I could get on top?  I had to try to get to FL200, which the airplane could do, but I spent a lot of time staring at the pressurization controller, because the system is not kind to the unprepared.

After 15 minutes at FL200 we were in the clear.  Actually, we would have been in the clear at the same time at 16,000, but who's counting?  We were going to the KPDX area and the whole Presidential range was in view.

But the system is not kind to the unprepared.  "I have an amendment to your clearance, advise when ready to copy."  I had not heard those words from any mouth other than mine, in training, for years.  It seems I had picked the wrong IAF for the approach in use, and the new clearance involved an intersection that I couldn't find.  With a crossing restriction.  You see, the system is not kind to the unprepared.

This 414 has a good pressurization controller, but I didn't have any way of knowing that until I had to descend from FL200 to Sea Level.  (Other 414s I've flown had touchy controllers.)  I spotted the airport about 12 miles out and made a competent landing.  (For that I was prepared.)

Oh, one more thing: this was my first actual trip flying a Garmin 530.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

OK, flight levels, radar, reroutes. Garmin 530, crossing restrictions.  Nice trip.

The next day dawned with a weather inversion: Idaho weather in Oregon, Oregon weather in Idaho.  Time to see if I remembered how to dodge thunderstorms in IMC.

But the system is not kind to the unprepared.  I fired up and called for a clearance and of course it was nothing like what I had filed, so I quick had to program a DP into the Garmin and into the VORs just as a backup.  And Foreflight as a backup to the backup.

The takeoff and climbout went well.  I have family in the Portland area and I think I flew right over their house on the departure but my hands were full with altitudes and reroutes and traffic.  ATC knows when you are single pilot and wait until you start the level off before clearing you higher, as usual.

The air smoothed out climbing through 7,500' and I spent a fair amount of time just watching the time tick down on the Garmin FPL page.  There was a cloud deck ahead and it looked like we would be higher (we were) but a big thunderstorm was also in sight and on the radar.  Everybody was deviating and I told Center about my plans, but the thunderstorm was actually moving away from the destination.  I did some step-down descents trying to stay out of the clouds but eventually had to go through with both radar and stormscope showing that I had picked a good route.

Approach control at the destination told me to expect a visual to 26, but the tower put me on left base to 8.  The system is not kind to the unprepared.

Just one more leg home, and the last leg is special.  No passengers.  No schedule.  Airline pilots don't know this pleasure, and most people flying for themselves miss out, too.  It happens when the passengers go to an airport other than the home base, or you are returning empty.  Sure, we'll fly a King Air home VFR from Salt Lake City, indicating 199 knots under the Class B, or across the desert at 1,000AGL.

I decided to finish the trip VFR, dodging thunderstorms, and hand flying.  There is a difference between eluding (what you do with passengers) and dodging.  It was time to dodge.

There were two big ones straddling the course.  With passengers I would pick a single heading, but in an empty airplane it's much more fun to turn the airplane at the storm and see what it looks like on radar.  And take a picture.  And then turn away.

And, of course, the best landing of the trip is in an empty airplane at a deserted airport.  Sometimes, the system is kind to the unprepared.

Monday, April 27, 2015

It creeps up on you

I am the world's worst helicopter student: my full-time job and my other flying obligations have me flying helicopters once a week or so.  This was just like my glider transition, only with the gliders I had a 3 hour drive each way so flew even less than once a month until I decided to knuckle down and go to a big commercial operation and finish the darned thing.

But the helicopter school is on the field, and the helicopter itself is in our hangar, so I have spent a lot of time sitting in the thing working on my scan and procedures.

And like all bad students, I fly better when the conditions are more difficult, like a beach landing with a maximum performance takeoff.  Try that in an airplane!
But when I come back to the airport my patterns suck.  Worse, I don't think they suck, which means that I am not perceiving something.  You've seen your students do so can you!

Then one day last week I was returning from a photo flight in an airplane and decided for once to pay attention to my approach, since I was flying rather than a student.  You know what?  It sucked!

And now I realize that after a few years of flying focused on Something Else (and maybe a few friendly BFRs from CFI buddies who know that I can fly) I have gotten sloppy.  Sloppiness creeps up on you, through some mixture of complacency and ego.  I fly great!  Why should I pay attention to my approach angle!  

Yeah, right.

The sloppiness wasn't visible until I pushed myself into the helicopter, where someone paid attention and critiqued me.

So here's the plan: I'm going to take my helicopter CFI flying in an airplane while I work on flying a constant approach angle.  The airplane costs 1/4 of what the helicopter does and we're working on an eye problem, not a hand problem, so this seems like a practical approach.

I'll fill you in on the results.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Harder Than They Make It Sound

Lots of people have lots of things to say about aviation safety, myself included, and it might surprise you to hear me say that I am sick of it.  No, I'm not sick of the message, but I am sick of saying and hearing the same things but not seeing any effect in the safety record.

(Today the internet is awash in horrifying pictures of a large turboprop with only one engine turning hitting a bridge in what appears to be a Vmc rollover.  Are we spending enough money on training? How often has this question been asked?  And how often answered: the lack of effectiveness of training programs is addressed in 14CFR135.225, which specifies that low-time (ie, just out of training) captains of turbine-powered airplanes must use higher approach minima.)

My recent forays into helicopter flying have reinforced how difficult training is.  Despite nearly 6,000 hours of flight time in fixed-wing aircraft I am an 8 hour helicopter student: the R-22 pre-landing check (carb air temp, engine gauges, rotor RPM, and warning lights) sometimes costs me 10 knots of airspeed.

One of the big ideas in safety is "Situational Awareness," a phrase old enough to be nearly a cliché. Those rather dry manuals urge students to practice "SA", but actions are more than words. A recent SA situation illustrates how difficult SA really is. (BTW, despite my struggles with the aircraft I perceive that my helicopter SA is about where my airplane or glider SA is. But I could be wrong...)

Here's the set-up: I was getting ready to fly with a student who needed some pattern work, but the field was IFR at 900 overcast.  I told him that I was willing to wait, since the TAF suggested clearing, and had him get the airplane ready so we could have our fingers on the start button when the field went VFR.

I thought about asking for a Special VFR, but hesitated for two reasons: first, Special VFR is usually a tool for getting into the airport, and should only be used to get out of the airport with extreme stupidity, or at least caution.  I hesitated (Law of Primacy) to have my student's first exposure to SVFR be backwards.  Second, there were inbounds fairly close (I checked this on flightaware), so we wouldn't get the SVFR clearance even if we asked.

Soon enough, the clouds began to part, and we walked out to the airplane.  The beacon was winking at us from the tower, but it was clearing rapidly so I called the tower on the phone to suggest a tower observation of 900 scattered.  "We were just looking at that," the controller said, and I said "From here, and I'll swear on a stack of meteorology texts, it's only 45% coverage.  I swear!"

He wasn't buying it right away, but pretty soon the beacon stopped and we heard "Attention all aircraft, Pocatello is now VFR, ATIS Bravo is current."  Oddly enough the ATIS said runway 3 was in use, even though 21 is the calm-wind runway, so we taxied to the hold short line of runway 3.

For some reason I got curious about the location of the inbound and monitored Salt Lake Center while we did the runup.  Sure enough, a SkyWest CRJ checked in, with ATIS bravo, and asking for the runway 21 ILS instead of using runway 3.


"SkyWest 7429, Salt Lake, the tower says there's a Cessna in the pattern for runway 3, expect the VOR-3 approach."

That didn't sound right, so I called ground and offered to depart runway 3 and maneuver to use runway 21 for landing.


"SkyWest 7429, Salt Lake, the Cessna is willing to work with you if you still want runway 21."

"7429 thanks, but it looks like it's clearing quickly and we'll be able to do a visual."

Ground relayed the same message to us a few seconds later.

Look back over this event: the situational awareness involved the internet, face-to-face communication, telephones, and the radio.  Throw in some lights, because I turned all of ours on to help the inbound see us.  And the transponder, which is now permanently on ALT since the recent change in the Aeronautical Information Manual.  And the eyeballs.  (I will omit sixth sense, ESP, and synchronicity as contributing factors.  Or should I?)

This is all in addition to flying the airplane!

This is all in addition to flying the airplane!

The moral is simple: SA is hard, it takes a lot of knowledge, and it takes a lot of practice and experience.

Friday, January 2, 2015


I got this NOTAM today:


This looks like a good thing: the ability to make various calls (including 911) on the ground control frequency when the tower is closed.  Since KIDA tower closes very early it is especially useful (the fueler stays open after the tower is closed).  And 911 (emergency services) dispatch might come in handy, considering that there was a New Year's Eve murder in Idaho Falls.

Using the ground frequency is much better than using the CTAF, because that would interfere with Pilot Controlled Lighting.

How many airports have or will have this feature?

Friday, November 14, 2014

New New Old

I was checking a pilot out in our "new" Cessna 414.  He has a lot of time in multiengine turbojets but none in cabin class piston twins, so none in the 414.  We had done a lot of ground instruction on systems and their operation, and now it was time to start the engines in anger (we had done a practice start already: the starting procedure for a Continental TSIO540 is nothing like that of a JT8D...).  We went over my 414 transition mantra: pumps pressure props & pedals.  (I say this a lot flying 414s to make sure the right things happen during a transition, say from cruise to enroute climb: boos Pumps on, check the Pressurization for the climb, Prop synchrophaser as required, and yaw damper (Pedals) as required.)

Since this would be his first flight at our airport, we would need to do some area familiarization, too.  Knowledge of the local roads and creeks is worth at least another Garmin 530.

But the weather was marginal.

We taxied out (I taxied while he studied the airport diagram) and did a careful, detailed runup; we did some items twice, to cement the ideas into place.  We programmed the Garmin 530s for an approach that we hoped to practice after doing some steep turns and stalls.

A Caravan (C208) taxied out, and we told the tower to let him go first since we weren't quite ready and didn't want to rush.  Besides, he was on a schedule.  But I also asked the tower to solicit a base report from the departing 208.

New pilot, new airplane, new airport, right?

As we were taxiing to the hold short line the Caravan called back to say that the bases were 4000AGL.  Sweet!

But not for long.  After a nice takeoff it seemed to me that the ceiling was a tad bit lower than the Caravan had reported, like 1200AGL.  Not the right situation for airwork in a high-wing-loading cabin class twin.  We decided to stay in the pattern.  You know, the pattern he had never flown before?

This is where I got stupid.  I thought it would be nice to put the final approach course for the approach we had programmed into the pilot's HSI, since, after all, he wasn't familiar with the airport.  It would have been nicer to keep my head outside to help him stay oriented in the rapidly-decreasing visibility, but with my head inside (and not just inside the airplane: my head was someplace where the Moon seldom shines) I was not as aware of the decreasing visibility as I should have been.

He got us onto final without my help and noted that we were a "little fast" at Vref+50.  This was our chance to try the spoilers, but this pattern was so screwed up that no amount of spoilers would help.  We went around.

This time I was flying the airplane, or helping him do so, rather than flying the 530, and we turned 1 mile final on speed and altitude and with the proper configuration.  Then came another surprise.

"I think you should do the first landing so I can get the sight picture."

Not one to refuse a landing, I complied.  One of the things I notice when I am flying and teaching simultaneously, though, is that I exaggerate things a little to bring the point home.  I held the airplane in the flare position with a little power, so we landed long.  Better to taxi back then do a touch-and-go: you know, new pilot, new airplane, new airport?

As we did a 180 on the runway and the tower called and told us that the field had gone IFR.  We looked at each other and easily decided to call it a day.

If I hadn't landed long we would have been a new pilot in a new airplane at a new airport and scrambling to get a clearance.

I was reminded of a flight many years ago at the former Oneida County Airport in Utica, NY, which has since closed.  I was in the pattern in a 152 on a winter day.  POOF: a snow shower hit the field and it was suddenly IFR.  The tower played the "say intentions" game but I couldn't just air file IFR because he had General Electric's DC-4 radar testbed airplane inbound, so his airspace was full.  I continued "VFR" on the downwind as the snow increased and was shocked by the sight of the DC-4 with all of its lights ablaze emerging from the snow just short of the threshold.  With no thought of wake turbulence I turned base as close as I dared behind it and landed.

The moral?  Snow showers happen quickly and with little warning.  The fact that the bases were 4000AGL only 5 minutes ago is not helpful.  Be ready to change your plans and abort, especially in training flights or in aircraft that can't handle ice.

And keep your head where it belongs.