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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fishing for Students

I've always felt -- well, OK, maybe even preached -- that everything a pilot does is a preparation for flight.  Like many investments, though, you never know what, exactly, it is that you're preparing or what, exactly, you're preparing for.  You just have to trust that you're preparing something.

Take what happened in this story: at one point I decided it would be fun to learn the American Sign Language alphabet; many years later it came in handy when giving a Young Eagles ride to a trio of deaf girls.

So, you never know.

Something similar happened today.  I was scheduled to do a "Discovery Flight," you, know, the half hour introductory lesson at a reduced price.  These are invariably fun, even if the pay works out to be approximately minimum wage.

Sometimes people want a half-hour of sightseeing while they try out the controls, and I am always happy to let them try to fly to see their house or some other favorite landmark, as long as we stay within 25NM.

Today's couple wanted to look at some of the streams south of town; they had a special interest in beavers.

Beavers?, I said.  Let me show you the beaver pictures I took this summer.

They got all excited.  I think they liked the pictures better than the flight, which was pretty nice.  I emailed them pictures of the beaver pond, dam, and the beaver himself.

So, what's the story here?  Last summer my wife and daughter wanted to take an Australian friend hiking, and I decided that fishing would be more fun.  The access was a little difficult and I was fishing small pocket water with just a little success.  I went from opening in the willows to opening in the willows, fishing each stretch for a couple of minutes before moving on.  This fishing requires a little stealth and a delicate presentation.

One opening took me to the beaver pond, and I could see the beavers working.  So I took some pictures, posted them to facebook, got a few likes, and forgot about the whole thing.

Until today.

Mike enjoyed the story and pictures, and he really seemed to enjoy his time at the controls, too.  He asked lots of questions about the syllabus, the controls, and the like.  This might turn into a new student!

CFIs, including me, sometimes complain that it's hard to find new students.  It seems unlikely that we will find them hanging out at the too-quiet airport.  The way to find students is by being out-and-about, letting your joie-de-voler about flying spill into your joie-de-vivre about life.

In other words, if you want to attract new students, go fishing.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Irony isn't what it used to be, but still, only a few weeks after resurrecting memories of flying a Cessna 414, one has arrived on the property, and I have been designated to train everyone in it.  It's pretty; it has the RAM VII conversion; and it has winglets.   It has dual Garmin 530s and weather radar.  I like it!

I don't know much about winglets, so I asked a friend who flies for an all-737 airline and he shared some information (this always impresses the guys who don't know you: "My friend at XXX says that winglets...")

The interesting part is that none of the pilots I am training have much time in piston twins, and there is a lot to learn here.  They have been flying King Airs (with autofeather and rudder boost) and Citations (almost centerl-line thrust, and nothing to feather), so the piston-engine drill is new to them.  This puts me in a dilemma: proper training is hard on the engines, but a little must be done in any event.  When I first flew it to regain my multi-engine currency I waited until the final pattern to fail an engine on myself and flew a singl;e-engine pattern to a full stop landing with a slow taxi to parking to make sure the turbochargers cooled adequately.

The RAM conversion adds 25 horsepower a side, but that's only 100 feet per minute of extra climb on one engine (see this post).  Which might be enough in a crisis.

OK, time to go to the airport.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

RNAV Navigation

John Ewing knows a lot about navigation and writes well.  Read this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Radio spreads essence through the √¶ther, causing action at a distance.  The intent may be directed toward one spot on the ground, or toward one craft aloft.  But the effect is universal, the call "left base to final'' eventually reaching  another planet where a pilot cranes its necks searching for the unseen and invisible.