Sunday, May 25, 2008

Flight Time or Flight Quality?

At the university flying programs they measure flight experience in hours.  Of course: you need 40 hours to become a private pilot, 250 hours to become a commercial pilot, 1500 hours to become an airline transport pilot, 500 hours of turbine time in order to get a type rating in a simulator; hours, hours, hours.  As windsor noted in a comment to an earlier post, the "Jet-U'ers" have a few hours, but not much experience.

What's the difference?  Yesterday was a glider day.  My student André has a power private pilot certificate, with instrument rating, and wants to add a private glider rating. This was the route that I took to soaring, and someday I will write something about the advantages and disadvantages of going from power to glider or vice-versa (but see my Windy Evening article for a little about this).

André had an easy time with steep turns and stalls, but it took him a little practice to master the tow.  He now does a good job staying in position, boxing the wake, and handling slack line recoveries.  So it was time to concentrate on the traffic pattern.

Yesterday was windy, gusty in fact, and the forecast was not promising for good soaring.  But we were not soaring, we were training.  The south wind was directly across the crosswind runway, and gusting to 17 or so, making it unusable for us.  Worse, since we keep the glider at the south end of the field, we had to tow it to the north end.  At first I wanted to use the full length of the runway, but it occurred to me that if we had a rope break we would not have enough runway behind us (due to the steeper climb in a headwind) to land, so we went about 2/3 of the way.  Adam drove the golf cart we use as a tug, and both André and I walked the wings.  We walked a little more than a mile.

The first flight was a 2000' tow with some practice with slack line and turning the towplane.  André did a great job with the takeoff.  Then some stalls and orientation for an accuracy landing.  Nice.  We flew 0.2 hours.

Next I had planned a simulated rope break, but there were other airplanes in the pattern, so we just did another pattern tow and accuracy landing.  Another tenth of an hour.

Next came the rope break.  There is an old control tower on the airport, and I was concerned about clearing it, but at 200' we were well above it and I pulled the release.  He turned into the wind, did a little teardrop to align with the runway, and we landed downwind with a high ground speed but definitely under control.  We stopped right where Adam was waiting to attach the tow line.  What a rush!  Another tenth of flight time.

Finally, we did one more pattern, although we circled in some weak lift for a while, and an accuracy landing at the south end of the runway.  He hit the spot and "flew" the glider through the turn onto the taxiway at the south end.  Another great job, another 0.2 hours.

And we were done.

Now, if you are a Jet-U'er, you are saying "Wait a minute: you drove 3 hours, walked more than a mile, and flew for 0.6 hours?  What a waste!"  But to me that is wrong.  I drove 3 hours and walked more than a mile to see my student's skills and confidence increase dramatically.  We flew in tricky conditions that demanded absolutely full concentration, and flew well.  The rope break is always fun, maneuvering without power at low altitude in high wind.  It was a great day of flying, even if it only added 0.6 to our logbooks.

One of my fishing buddies flew MD-80s for TWA.  He had the seniority to fly the big jets, and I once asked him why he stuck to the Mad Dog.  "It's simple," he said, "those long trips across the ocean are boring, even though you get lots of flight time.  I went into this business to fly; I would rather have 4 short legs - takeoff, climb, maneuver, land - than one long one."

It's quality, not quantity.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Young Eagles Day

I am a long-time enthusiastic supporter of The Experimental Aircraft Association [EAA]. Their Young Eagles program gives kids an opportunity to fly.  For one reason or another I have never been able to participate until today.

I took the club Archer, accompanied by one of our chapter members, to Gooding, Idaho, the home of the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind.  This is the third year that our chapter has given flights to the kids at the school.  As the name implies, most of the kids have some kind of developmental difficulty, but I still believe that everyone loves to fly. 

The airport was like a mini-Oshkosh, with planes continually taxiing out, launching, and returning.  We used Oshkosh call signs too, to keep the radio chatter under control.  I was the white Archer, Mike was the Red Cherokee, Austin was the Pulsar, and so on.  We kept the pattern pretty full, and it didn't take long to give something like 50 kids airplane rides.  (The rides were substantial; mine averaged 18 minutes.)

[By the way, everyone did a full 360 before taking the runway at this uncontrolled field. There have been way too many midair collisions in the pattern this year, with tragic consequences.]

When I taught computer science, I used to say that "a good computer scientist is interested in everything;" now I am beginning to think that "a good pilot is interested in everything," too.  For example, at some point I learned sign language letters.  My friends and I used this on multiple car road trips before there were cell phones.  "Next exit," we'd sign, and the like.  Today I flew two girls who were completely deaf, so the only way to communicate with them was by signing.  I felt inept: their signing is so graceful and fluid.  But mine worked.  The girl in front was fussing with her shoulder harness during the taxi out, and not wanting to get distracted during a "critical phase of flight," I stumbled through signing "W A I T."  Which she did.

So you may never fly with a passenger who cannot hear.  But think about this: two guys I knew were flying a King Air that lost a door in flight.  They kept it flying, and landed at an airport in one piece.  In their later talk about the incident, they said that one of their big problems was that it was too noisy to hear each other.  

A little bit of sign language would have helped.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Look Who's in the Left Seat

The departure area for the "regional" I was flying home is kind of noisy, so I was sitting with my iPod.  "You coming home with us?" a voice said over the music; it was one of my friends, who was to be the Captain for my last leg home.  He sat down to chat for a bit.  He says they are "holding the line" at 1000 hours total and 100 multi, but that other carriers are not.  Their washout rate is pretty low, but a few pilots have been let go during their first year for not coming up to the airline's standards, even after extra training.  That's a relief two ways: first, deficient pilots get extra training, and, second, that does not lead to an automatic "pass."

So maybe the world is not going to end.

The last group on the airplane was another friend, a Captain with the same carrier, whom I had not seen in years.  He had his whole family along, and they were heading home to visit Grandma.  A nonrev day trip.  The idea that there were enough empty seats for a family to make a day trip is scary in a different way.  Maybe someday my home field will have no air service at all.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Look Who's in the Right Seat

School's out, which made it easy for me to arrange a trip Back East for Mother's Day. Trips like this are expensive, but I had plenty of frequent flier miles piled up through credit cards and the like (not, heaven forbid, from airline flying).

The first leg was on what is still called a "regional airline," despite a route map that includes Oregon and Florida. They're the kind who have been hiring very low time pilots. Rumor has it that some are hiring pilots who do not even have enough flight time for a commercial certificate, with the plan to give them the flight time before they send them out on the line. A cold shiver just passed through me, but I doubt that a ghost inhabits my parents' new apartment building...

In fact, it is nearly impossible to hang on to a flight instructor, and I get regular job solicitations in the mail. (These aren't personal; they just buy the list of CFIs and send them out. Well, one was kind of personal in that it included a picture of their very attractive office manager, kind of an implicit hint that successful candidates might get to date her.) The flight schools I know are populated with CFIs who have 400 hours total time and only need a few more minutes to get that regional job. Don't get me wrong: I once had 400 hours total time, too; looking back, I was not ready to fly a jet then. In the meantime, I have spent a lot of time training 1200 hour pilots to fly small twins under instrument conditions, and finding that many of them were not up to the task.

I called home from the gate to chat with the wife and kids. Sometimes it feels like I chat with them more when I am on the road than when I am at home, all of us being typically busy 2008ers. I mentioned that I had seen the flight crew walk out to the airplane, and expressed relief that none of the pilots from my former company were flying.

But I was wrong; the FA announcement included a familiar name. I growled to myself, since I had not thought much of his knowledge level when I had flown with him (in fact, I had to take over the radios while on approach into a Class B airport, which should not have been a problem for a CFII). But the regionals invest a lot in training and are supposed to be washing a lot of people out, so I stayed in my seat (maybe I did it for my mother). The airplane handling was a little rough: we were uncoordinated on the turn to base, and we were both above and below the glide slope on the approach, so I figured that the pilot with lesser experience was flying.

Of course, every time I criticize an approach the guy greases it on.

I stopped to chat after the flight, the FA stepping aside when I called him by name. He had put on some weight, which is why I hadn't recognized him, and said he was having fun flying. I figure that if he made it through training he must be OK. I hope.

Which brings me to James Fallows' recent article in The Atlantic about DayJet, the innovative VLJ operator in the southeast. Dayjet has assembled a bunch of software innovators, including mathematicians, who have refined the business model to bring the cost of jet charter into the affordable range. I am all in favor of this: one of my worries about aviation is the general unwillingness to make explicit models and test them before launching, the unwillingness to calculate. This tradition goes back to 17th Century sea captains, with James Cook being the notable exception, and it is good to try to reverse it.

But I think they have left something out of the model: where are they going to get pilots with the skill and experience to fly jets, albeit small ones, on a tight schedule in demanding weather? Pilots are not getting experience through flight instruction, and even those who have the hours have no experience with things like weather radar or how to plan an efficient trip (what I call "synoptic planning"). The simulator centers concentrate on the important skill of getting the airplane safely on the ground when something breaks, but ignore daily operations, where small improvements in efficiency make a big difference in profitability.

Maybe I should call the place with the pretty office manager...

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Insurance (Or Not)

We completed the purchase of the glider!

My co owners can fly it, but I can't. Why? I am the only one with high performance glider time, I am the only commercial glider pilot, I am the only CFI-G. So why can they fly but not me? They got a cockpit check (required by the insurance carrier) from a CFI-G, namely, me! But there is no local CFI-G to check me.

I think this means that I am grounded for being too qualified...

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Transitional Times

A nexus of three things got me thinking;
  1. aviationmentor's post "Where have all the pilots gone?". One of his points is that the FAA Knowledge Tests are behind the times in requiring knowledge of NDBs;
  2. a discussion about NDB approaches with a student;
  3. trying to design an extended IFR cross-country program, like  Doug Stewart's or
    Morey's West Coast Adventure
aviationmentor's posts are always thought-provoking and detailed, and he has some good points about the knowledge tests, which are really points about the way we teach flying. I still believe that there is something to be learned from NDBs, but the test questions don't test that, so books and instructors don't teach it, so the point is well taken.  I'll tell you what I think you should learn in a bit.

aviationmentor also points out that NDBs are disappearing quickly, but we should expect that: after all, there was a CONSOLAN station operating on Nantucket in my memory [What's that?? CONSOLAN was a clever low frequency long-range navigation system so obscure now that Wikipedia doesn't mention it, which also means that it wasn't in the Eleventh Britannica.  You can read about it in Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, if you can find an older edition.]

Just like CONSOLAN, lost between Brittanica and Wikipedia, I feel lost between the NDB and the Garmin G1000.  Where have all of the instrument students gone?  That's why I started to think about the multi-day IFR cross country program, as a way to attract students.  I have done this in the past, and it is a great way for people to learn instrument flying in the real world, either as initial or recurrent training.

But lack of a good syllabus isn't the problem.  The problem is that there are no NDB approaches nearby anymore, and the school where I teach has no airplanes that can be considered IFR trainers.  I'm caught in between.  

What makes a good IFR trainer?  A working ADF is nowhere near as important as a good IFR GPS.  You don't need a G1000 all-glass panel, nor even a Garmin 430, just a working IFR GPS, complete with current database.  [The school has one airplane with a King IFR GPS, but it is not working.]  The work of picking a good sequence of airports and routes and approaches and places to stay and eat is just make-work without an airplane that can do the flight.

So what's the use of studying NDBs?  This afternoon I was with a private pilot student who is starting cross-countries.  He had a lot of good questions, and I was trying to emphasize the basics of heading, heading, and heading.  Although I am sure that he will never, ever see an NDB approach, I found myself drawing the following picture.  I'm including it hand-written, not because I am a Luddite but because that's the way I use it.  Part of the pleasure is drawing it.

The picture shows a typical NDB approach from above.  You start over the beacon, and it will take about 2 minutes, or 1/30 hour, to get to the runway.  Imagine a screaming direct crosswind, one you would be willing to land in after breaking out at minimums.  I'll pick 15 knots, because that's what the Cessna 172 POH says the Skyhawk can handle with average pilot technique.

Imagine that you ignore the screaming crosswind and fly without any wind correction.  In  the 2 minutes it would take to fly from the beacon to the runway, a 15 knot crosswind would only blow you 1/2 mile to the side.  Since the visibility should be at least a mile to do the approach, you will see the runway and be able to land.  That's the red line: you land successfully with no wind correction.

If you pay attention to the wind and put in a little crosswind correction, say, 5 degrees, you will go directly to the runway.  That's the green path. 

Notice something: I never mentioned the needle, the relative bearing, the relative azimuth, pulling or pushing the needle, or mental arithmetic.  All you need is to fly a smart heading.

So here's the lesson: be a little aware of the wind and hold your heading.  But keep in mind that this analysis was for 5 miles or so; you need to be more precise about choosing a heading to cross the ocean.

But you still have to hold the heading.  That's the most important thing, and that's what NDBs teach us.

So what's our heading when we teach instrument flying? It's not the relative bearing stuff on the FAA Knowledge Test, but it can't be just the knob-twisitng and button pushing required to get the FMS to fly the approach.  Where's the judgment?

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