Sunday, October 26, 2008

Everybody soloes!

One of the strange things about aviation is the non-uniformity of events. Excepting regulatory matters, the space between events is random.

Take Steamboat Springs, Colorado. As a charter pilot I have been there three times. All in the same week, and for different customers! Monterey, California is similar. I used to be a regular there; I knew what to order at the airport restaurant, I knew where to go running on a layover, it even got to the point where my wife thought that it sounded like one of the women at the FBO was hitting on me. But that was over a period of a few months, and I have not been there for years. I had regular restaurants in Oakland, but really only went there for a year or so. Cedar City, Rock Springs, Montrose, go there a lot for a short time, then never again.

A lot of my flight instructor experience, probably most of it, has been training commercial pilots with instrument and multiengine ratings to fly IFR under 14CFR135, the charter rules. So the last time I soloed a primary student, the last time that I sent someone up in an aircraft all alone for the very first time in their life, was 1999. (I soloed a glider transition student this year, but he was already a private pilot in airplanes.)

Given the random nature of aviation events, it seems completely predictable that if there is a student ready to solo then there are going to be two students ready to solo, probably on consecutive flights. And that's what happened today. The details are far less important than the glow of achievement that filled the FBO lounge.

The thing is, flight instruction is in a parlous state right now. This week, I spent 16 hours or so at a Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic. In the USA, a flight instructor must renew his or her "certificate" every two years. There are several ways to do this. When I did 135 training the renewal was automatic, and last time I renewed by adding a glider rating. But the clinics put you into a situation where you can learn from your peers, something that I always enjoy. Besides, it was free, because the organizer from the state Transportation Department offered to trade my renewal for doing part of the teaching.

Anyway, the distribution of the ages of the flight instructors there was less random than anything else in aviation: one in his 30s; one in his (late) 40s; two in their 50s; two in their 60s; and 1 in his 70s. Including the leader and the FAA guy who gave a presentation, there was well over 50,000 hours of flight experience in the room. Fifty Thousand Hours!

But where were the young instructors?

It may be true that some of the more gung-ho young instructors are renewing another way, but I suspect that many of them don't renew at all. Why? They move on to that dream job, or to a job that might lead to the dream job. The reason they instruct is in order to build time.

But the people I studied with this weekend had transcended that. For me, I already had my turbine job. Before that, when I got into an airplane with a student, at least part of the purpose of the flight was to increase my experience. Now when I get into an airplane with a student it is 100% in order to enhance the student's experience.

So soloing two students means that I have made a lot of progress toward my goal as an pilot and instructor, which is to help people to have fun flying safely. Soloing them is kind of like soloing myself, because just as the solo student is no longer depending on my judgment about his progress, I am no longer depending on a chief pilot's or director of operations's judgment of my progress.

Lots of experienced pilots decide not renew their instructor's certificates. They whine about the schedule and the hotels and the food on the road and the pay. And they miss out on a day like today.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008


"LOCAL MAN FOUND ASPHYXIATED," the headline screamed. Oh no, I thought, who was it this time? Please let it be someone I didn't know.

But it was someone I knew, a local pilot who owned a very nice vintage airplane. Someone I knew pretty well, an uncle of a friend's wife. He had a spot of trouble with the FAA a couple of years ago, and realized that it had been quite a while since his last Biennial Flight Review. Way more than two years. He called me and asked me if I would put a fake BFR endorsement in his logbook to ease things with the FSDO, and of course I refused. No hard feelings.

So, what happened? He drove his car into the garage and left it running. The investigators say that it was 100% clear that this was accidental. But carbon monoxide does not care whether it fills the house accidentally or on purpose, and there was enough there to kill him.

I cannot draw a lesson from this tragedy, other than a stark reminder that carbon monoxide kills.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rudder and Stick

We all know that the "good old days" when you flew instruments using needle, ball, airspeed, and altitude are long gone. The "good old days" of flying by the seat of your pants and feeling the slipstream on your face are even longer gone. Oh, there may be a few wackos, myself included, who have spent some time flying sideways in a tube-and-fabric airplane in order to stay over the road they're following in a strong crosswind, feeling the wind through the open window (or, in may case, the bad door seal), but the trend in aviation these days is to deploy a simulator-and-classroom trained crew in a highly automated airplane. Some countries have already implemented the MPL, or Multi-Crew Pilot License, whose privileges do not include solo flight. MPL holders may fly as part of a crew, but may not be PIC in a single pilot airplane.

So now we come to the saga of 9M-MRG, a Boeing 777-200 operated by Malaysia Airlines. In 2005, it left Perth, Australia, headed for Kuala Lumpur. Climbing through FL360, things went very wrong. You can find the Australian Transportation Safety Board report here.

Modern aircraft have pitot-static systems, just like my old Taylorcraft, but blend the data with data from accelerometers, GPS, and the like. In many cases, the magnetic compass display is actually computed from the true heading, using a mathematical model of the Earth's magnetic field. So an in instrument is no longer just an instrument; it is a summary of a lot of data, much of it hidden from the crew. Furthermore, a flight control is no longer just a flight control. Autothrottles mean that a crew asks for, say 65% power, and the computers do the rest.

That day, an accelerometer (#6, to be exact) failed. Accelerometer #5 had previously failed, and a software error combined with the two failures led to chaos. The crew got simultaneous overspeed and underspeed warnings, and the airplane pitched up nearly 20 degrees. Airspeed decayed rapidly, but the autothrottles kicked in. The crew disconnected the autopilots and autothrottles and hand-flew back to Perth, where there was a 25 knot gusty crosswind. The bureaucratic jargon for "sweet" is "uneventful landing."

The highest that I have hand-flown is FL 310, where the air density is about 35% of its density at sea level. Even at that relatively low altitude the air is noticeably thin, and hand-flying takes a deft touch. Perversely, with so little air hitting the control surfaces, it is very easy to overcontrol; I have watched a lot of guys try to handfly in the high 20s and spend the afternoon chasing their tail. So I admire the crew that got this airplane on the ground safely.

The reports say nothing about the experience of the crew, but I would like to think that at least one of them had spent a few hours on a sunny morning chasing his or her shadow in a Taylorcraft, or squeaking the maximum performance out of a glider, or shooting touch-and-goes in a Champ, or even flying a Cessna 152 for a $100 hamburger. Because whether you are at 1000 feet and 60 knots, or 38,000 feet and 360 knots, when all else fails you can stick the nose at the right place relative to the horizon and spend the rest of the day enjoying the scenery rather than glued to the gauges.

I love instrument flying, the mental visualization of my position, the getting ready at the right time and no sooner, the precise descent, and the perfectly timed turn to intersect a DME arc. And I love visual flying, trying to make the perfect pull on a chandelle or crabbing along the ridge in a glider. I would like to think that when I am watching the world go by in seat 26A someone up front feels like I do.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

CO conspirator

Man, has it been a tough week.

Friday's front page screamed "Pair Found Dead." But I don't usually read the newspaper until evening, so didn't notice that the pair was one of my friends and his wife; worse, it was a murder-suicide, although those close to the case on the medical side opine that the "murder" was euthenasia. My friend was devoted to his wife, and I'm sure felt that he could not live without her. I am, of course, in shock,

Saturday brought some relief, but Sunday's front page screamed about another shooting, this time a random one. The wife of a former president of the university, standing in a friend's driveway, waiting to go on vacation. Killed by a crazed stranger, who later killed himself.

And today when I got to my office I learned that another friend's wife had died suddenly over the weekend.

So I really needed to fly this afternoon. It snowed over the weekend. Planes on the ramp still had snow, but I had called ahead to have the 172 pulled into the hangar and preheated. We pulled the clean airplane out of the hangar, and I talked about the danger of airframe ice and tailplane stalls with my student while we waited for fuel. The wait took a long time, but I really needed to fly, so I was patient.

We started up and taxied out. The runup was uneventful. The wind was dead calm. Someone else had the airplane reserved in 45 minutes, so we just stayed in the pattern.

The mountains were snow covered with bare spots showing. The snow-covered ground and the overcast clouds and the mountains had the same texture, making the area look more like Mars than Idaho. My student was smooth on the controls and sure on the radio, and I just watched this alien world go by. That's what I needed right now.

He flared too hard and we popped up out of ground effect. Oops. I recovered, set us straight, and gave him the controls for another try. Much better. This is progress!

But something was bugging me. "Do you smell exhaust?" I asked.

"A little."

A little. Exhaust means Carbon Monoxide, which is nothing to mess with, but I really needed to be flying. I played with the vents and heater controls while he flew another good pattern, with the same conclusion. Was the exhaust smell going away?

We took off again, the exhaust smell stronger than before. Then I remembered that someone had left a CO detector in the jockey box. I pulled it out: "DARK SPOT MEANS DANGER," it said, and the spot was dark. I scraped at it with my thumbnail, with no effect. We landed and called it quits. I telephoned maintenance from the airplane as soon as we landed, making sure that nobody would fly the airplane until the exhaust system was checked out.

No matter how badly you want to fly, some days you just have to say no. Especially when all of the funeral homes in town are booked up anyway.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Gusty crosswind

There was no school Friday, so my kids and I lazed around the house a little, watching the news. They were fascinated by the fluctuations in the stock markets, even if they did not fully understand. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was way down, crept up into the positive range, and then fell. My son, hearing the cheer when the Dow went positive, asked if I was watching a ball game.

I had extra time because one of my students had cancelled. He was heading out, by car, for a long-anticipated hunting trip, and he wanted to get on the road early because of the weather coming in. In retrospect, he did the right thing; the intermountain west got a lot of snow this morning, right when he would have been leaving. "By the way," he added, "I've lost enough in the stock market to buy my own 172." At least he was smiling.

But I had a second student, and eventually headed out to the airport to fly with him. He is close to solo, but I have found that people at his stage do a little better in the pattern if they go out and do some other flying first. This might be something simple like going to a nearby airport, or something more involved like a review of stalls and slow flight. Both give me opportunities to simulate an engine failure...

But Friday's ceiling was too low for any of the high maneuvers, and there did not seem to be enough wind for the low maneuvers, so I suggested that we stay in the pattern. I have a method for this, as well: student does two landings, I do one. This gives the student a chance to mull over any difficulties and shake them off, and gives me a chance to emphasize some aspect of the process. And I get to actually fly a little, too...

What little wind we had was gusty, and the wind sock was swinging back and forth like the stock market. We had crosswinds from the right, then from the left, then none. During one of my patterns he asked which way I was correcting, and I honestly replied that I did not know. I wonder if Ben Bernanke understands how I felt?

The pattern was quiet. One airplane arrived from the west, and I praised Dan for understanding the radio calls and watching for traffic, even while flying the pattern. This is a good sign.

We had a good session, and landed to leave the airplane for the next student. The wind calmed as we walked across the ramp. Inside, there was little of the buzz that one might expect on a nice day. Why was it so quiet? Was this the calm before the storm, and if so, which storm?

One of the keys to aviation is risk management. We control the variables within our control, but we train to handle those that are outside of our control. Adding flaps in a 172 requires nose-down trim. In King Airs and Mooneys, running the electric trim while the flaps are in motion just does the trick. Nice! We check the forecasts, and anticipate times when the weather may be more than we can handle. But there are the things we can't control, weather being one, but the economy being another.

I imagine that if the economy deteriorates too far, then people will fly less. This is natural: it takes money to fly, and if there is none then there will be no flying. But I hope that somehow people can still touch the joy of flying, even if they have to rent a smaller airplane, or share their flights with a friend. At a minimum, stay night and instrument current, because you want to be ready when opportunity arrives. Seek out the gusty crosswind, and stay sharp.

Seek out the gusty crosswind; I've done that before (see one of my first posts). That's what I want in the air; it is not what I want from the economy.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

What Year is This?

I'm sure that many bloggers go back and edit (or improve) old posts. I find lots of typos (sorry) and some real whopper errors, and fix them. Not for posterity, but for my own satisfaction.

So there I am am fixing my mistakes, trying to be as up-to-date as humanly possible, and a pattern starts to become clear:

  • I wrote about Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, mentioning Amelia Earhart;
  • I wrote about The Hindenburg;
  • I wrote an essay on preflight briefings accompanied by a George Gershwin song;
  • I wrote about encountering a B-17 and a B-29.

  • There were also mentions of NDBs and CONSOLAN. I didn't write up every encounter with history; I saw another B-17 while driving to my sister's house in New Hampshire last summer. I used to own a 1946 Taylorcraft, and was always disappointed that the EAA would not classify it as an antique.

    In aviation, history is always with us.

    One of my goals as a pilot, and as an instructor, is to stay absolutely up-to-date. I have subscribed to Aviation Week and Space Technology for over twenty years, and actively seek out the newest and shiniest gizmos. I was one of the first pilots at my home field to buy a hand-held GPS.

    But I was the only one who bought a sextant. I stood on the ramp and calculated quite precisely that the airport was in a different time zone...those old navigators were good!

    Like I said, in aviation history is always with us.

    The 1930s produced some amazing aircraft, but it also was the time of the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, and horrible war in Asia. Another time of turbulence is approaching. Let's be positive and hope it brings us lots of fascinating aircraft for the next generation to ponder.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008

    Looking in the Wrong Direction

    My student and I were approaching Pocatello, Idaho, for some touch-and-goes with the tower. He is presolo. He tuned the tower in time to an interesting dialog. The weather was clear with visibility 10.

    TOWER: "SkyWest 24W, we have a disabled aircraft on runway 21, can you accept runway 35?"

    SKYW 24W: [after a short pause] "Sorry, no, we aren't authorized runway 35." That's not unusual; SkyWest operates under Part 121, which requires lots of runway analysis and the like.

    TOWER: "SkyWest 24W, roger, hold over Pocatello VOR, maintain 6500."

    You can see what happened on FlightAware, the best aircraft tracking site. The jet was
    on downwind for runway 21, overflew the runway, and headed to the VOR. But this is where it gets interesting.

    First, Pocatello is a VFR tower, and I imagine that they informed Salt Lake Center. Radar coverage is spotty and too far from the antenna; the tower does not have a BRITE display. I imagine...

    Second, it was not a proper holding clearance. I assumed that it meant "hold as published," and was looking for the jet to the west of the VOR. The charted hold is "hold west on the 269 radial, left turns." I assumed...

    Third, the jet got to the VOR and made a direct entry. They assumed that the AIM advice that in the absence of further holding instructions they should make a direct entry applied. They assumed...

    Fourth, as we entered downwind at 5500 MSL, the RJ passed directly over us at 6500. Where did they come from? This is legal separation between a VFR and an IFR, but it was a surprise. I asked the tower ("What holding pattern is that RJ flying? I thought they'd be on the 269 radial."), but he did not sound surprised. So if he knew where they were why hadn't he called us as traffic for them and vice-versa?

    And so I conclude: Everyone was wrong.

    Tower: Did not issue a proper holding clearance, which should have been "hold as published," or maybe "hold northeast on the 030 degree radial." See the Aeronautical Information Manual, 5-3-7b. Tower did not inform converging traffic (altitude separated though we were, although he had no way of knowing that.)

    Me: Did not catch the improper clearance, and assumed it was"hold as published." Looked for the RJ west of the airport, when actually it was northwest through west.

    SkyWest 24W: Took lack of proper clearance to mean "enter a standard pattern on the course on which the aircraft approached the fix," to quote AIM 5-3-7c. But that applies if unable to get holding instructions. [I admit that I am mind-reading here, but would prefer to give the RJ crew the benefit of the doubt as far as regulations go the alternative being that they just made it up as they went along.)

    Instrument regulations are maddeningly subtle. Important things are buried in the same banal prose as unimportant things. For example, are you required to have a visual descent point (VDP) on an instrument approach? (A VDP is the point on the approach after which a normal descent is impossible.) The regulations do not say directly that you do, but according to 14CFR91.175 "Operations below Minimum Descent Altitude" you need to have a descent rate that would allow touchdown in the touchdown zone if you are operating under part 135 or 121. In other words, a part 135 regulation is only listed under part 91. And this appears in the same bureaucratic prose as "truth in lending." There are many blank areas of interpretation to jump, lots of blank areas that do not seem to matter much, and little guidance on how to decide whether or how to jump them.

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