Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Aircraft Owner Again (Please Cross Fingers)

I sold my Taylorcraft BC-12D about two years ago, and it is finally time to buy another aircraft.  While there are still a few details to check out, I am buying a Standard Jantar SZD-48 with two partners...that's right, a glider.  A single seat glider, at that.

The current owner has not flown it in several years, but it is in annual and we got Tim, who has some experience in type, to fly it for us on Sunday.  Here is his takeoff.  He had a great two hour flight, which is pretty short for him.  The owner has agreed to our price.

My previous aircraft were a Mooney (with a partner) and the T-craft, which I owned by myself.  I wasn't flying the T-craft much, and it needed some expensive engine work, so I sold it to a guy who put in a new engine and is having a great time flying it.  I still keep in touch with the guy who bought the Mooney, too;  he still has it, although he bought it in 1987.

The irony is that a year ago I was flying turboprops, complaining that I was so busy flying that I had no time for flying.  I was disappointed when the company decided that they did not need a part-time pilot anymore, but I am enjoying the combination of fun personal flying, glider flying, and basic instruction so much that soaring feels more like a step up than a step down.  

Yesterday, a bizjet crew was hanging around while I flew with a student.  They were sprawled on the couch, looking logy, jumping every time the cell phone rang.  (One of them used the same generic ring tone that I use, so I jumped, too.)  They had come from someplace pretty far away back East, and the track of their flight home, which would have been 4 hours or so in the turboprop, was a straight line.  I am sure that they had fun, but I am also sure that a 4 hour glider flight (which I have yet to do) would be more fun.  Those 4-hours-in-the-flight-levels-on-autopilot flights were my least favorite.

Once, I longed to be in their shoes, longed to the extent that I spent a small fortune keeping a first class medical certificate (required for a charter jet captain).  Now I long to fly, period.  The only fuel I need is brain fuel; I need a lot of that.  The phone is off; the radio is on 123.3, comparing my view of the sky with what the other glider pilots see.  Nobody questions my lunch expenses, or my rental car expenses, or my fuel order, or my manifest.  The only question is "Did you have fun?"  I like that one.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

So many electrons, so little time

A local turboprop operator called me because they were short a pilot.  Their trip to the coast fit my schedule, so I took it.  Get paid to fly a nice airplane to a nice destination with a nice guy?  Sure.

Their airplane has a mixed avionics suite that includes steam gauges all around, an older IFR GPS, but a modern KMD-850 Multi Function Display (MFD) that includes terrain, traffic, weather, and moving map functions.  I have flown this kind of MFD before, and I have to admit that it took me a few flights with it before I became comfortable with it. 

[The photo here is from _Night_Flyer's_ flickr collection, and I believe that it is legal.]

I was a little surprised at how little their pilot knew about the system.  Remember, I just got handed my lunch by the Garmin G1000 system a few weeks ago, so I am pretty sympathetic.  All of these avionics systems have little goodies and quirks, and we have all read over and over again how important it is get to know the avionics before you fly.  The thing is, something like a G1000 hits you upside the head to warn you that it is different, while little incremental changes (add a function here, a few months later add a function there) that leave so much unchanged make it easier not to see that something more is needed.  I think that this pilot had been lulled by the familiarity of everything else in the cockpit.

Here's a picture of another airplane of the same type, but with EFIS.  The EFIS is obviously different, so it's obvious you need to learn how to use it.  This particular airplane doesn't have an MFD, though.

So what can the MFD do?  My favorite function is the terrain function, although it must be used with caution.  Its position depends on GPS position (not some internal position, as my friend thought), and any error in GPS position leads to an error in the display.  It is also subject to abuse.  I wrote an article for comp.risks about this in 1998 which you can probably find by searching for EGPWS; I also wrote a letter to the editor of Aviation Week that appeared around the same time.

Despite the problems, I appreciate having a terrain display during departure and arrival, and it has been my routine to put the MFD into terrain mode before takeoff and during the descent.  

The radar in this airplane is nice, too.  In radar mode, one of the soft buttons on the right says "VIEW", and pressing it gives you a vertical profile in one direction.  If there is a thunderstorm, you can see just how far above you or below you it goes.  We used this during one of those "Are we going to be above that?" cockpit discussions.  He had never seen it before.

You can also use the radar to show traffic.  This takes a little knob twisting and button pushing, but most weather radars can do it.  You need to put the gain up as high as it will go (in this unit, the weather mode has automatic gain, so you have to go into map mode), and set the range to 20 miles or less.  You need to play with the tilt a little, too.  But try it when Center calls traffic 12 o'clock, 1000' above, opposite direction.  You'll see a smudge that gets closer with each sweep of the antenna.

Traffic mode will show you a little icon of a nearby airplane with its relative altitude and derived track.  Switching back and forth between this and the radar will convince you that the radar really saw the traffic.  Since the traffic functions depends on the secondary reply to ATC's radar, you really have two radars showing the same thing, which is quite comforting.

To me, the moving map mode is the least useful.  Some units allow you to superimpose the moving map onto the radar picture, like below, but the MFD we were flying that day with won't do it because the airplane's GPS isn't sophisticated enough.  (The picture was taken a few months ago in the bumps, as you can see.   There are multiple course lines because I was using the FMS offset function to go between the cells.) 

The map is nice to show the passengers just how far away New York is, or to give a more intelligent answer than "White Pigeon" to the "What town is that?" question, but the useful moving map is on the GPS.  The MFD just duplicates the GPS map, anyway, so it provides no new information.  Plus, it's easy to make the map so cluttered that it is useless, by displaying every VOR, NDB, intersection, airport, MOA, restricted area, alert area, class D, class C, class B, and airway.  

I like Jackson Pollack's paintings, but not in the cockpit.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008


Saturday was not forecast to be the first good soaring day of the spring, but it turned out that way.

I fly gliders with a club 90 miles from home, which is more reasonable here in the West than it would be in, say, New England. There's always the "fly down or drive down" debate, and I had opted for flying. The club Archer was gone, and I was too cheap to take the Six, so I rented a 172.

The flight down was smooth. That's a bummer when your aim is soaring. The only hitch was a VFR King Air that kept making position reports right on top of me. This 172 has eyebrow windows, so I was looking straight up, with no contact. In the end, I had to extend my downwind for him. (It was an older B200, three-bladed props, not as nice as the ones I have flown.)  This month has seen too many tangles with confused pilots flying turbine airplanes VFR.

I had two students for the day. One was ground only: he had a new single-seat glider, and his insurance required a ground check from a glider instructor. This had been a source of some worry to me: how do you check someone out in an aircraft you have never flown, and could not fly with him? I came up with a list of questions about speeds, limitations, and operating procedures, had him show me everything in the cockpit, and suggested a first flight profile from The Joy of Soaring.  I also held the tail boom up off the ground so he could get an idea of the landing attitude.  

His first flight was a joy to watch.

The second was a power pilot working on a glider transition.  I was not current in gliders, so I would have to do three solo patterns before we could fly together. I showed him the preflight (including a positive control check) and went over what the transition involves.

We towed the glider to the staging area, and as soon as it got off the tug we all said "Uh-oh...". The tailwheel assembly was loose; it had broken during the tow. We put the glider away thinking that there would be no flying today. But, one of the club members found the part we needed in one of the hangars, so the two of us went to lunch while a mechanic did the installation.

Lunch was a disaster at the nearest fast food establishment. We had to wait for them to grow the wheat for the buns.

My three patterns were fun, but quick. Now that I was legal, I moved to the back while my student got in front. His first tow was as bad as my first ever tow, and I had to take over a couple of times while we swung left to right and back behind the tow plane. At altitude, we found some lift right away and used it to climb 800' above our release point. He had never managed to climb in a glider, so I was pleased to be able to give him this experience.

Then the stupid instructor [me] said "OK, enough fun, let's try some steep turns." He was not smooth yet in this new machine so we lost a lot of altitude. We could not find the lift so we landed again; his landing was pretty good.

The second flight was about the same, except this time the stupid instructor had him do stalls. The lift was a little weaker and the lack of smoothness made it difficult to stay in the thermals.

At this point we had been at the airport for 7 hours, and we were all too fatigued to fly.  Except I still had the flight home in the 172. All of the lift had died so it was silky smooth, and the low sun angle sent horizontal shadows from the mountains through the haze up ahead. I turned down the radios (I was in a valley, well below radar coverage, so nobody would call me anyway) and watched the mountains slide by. Closer to home, the mountains to the east were red with alpenglow, and I saw the last little ray from the Sun disappear below the horizon as I turned base. A lovely flight to end a lovely day.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Class B silliness

I had some mathematical business in Salt Lake City, a great opportunity to fly the Archer. I invited my friend and student Dennis along so he could see what the big leagues are like. His radio work is excellent, so I knew he would pick things up quickly. But ATC kind of gave him the wrong impression...

[I will leave the Lockheed-Martin-FSS-bashing to others.]

We got flight following from Center on the way. I asked the last Center controller to arrange a handoff to Salt Lake Approach, which he promised. He sent us to the IFR arrival frequency. So far, so good.

It took a while for approach to answer, and then it was "Say request." Wasn't this a handoff? We got a new squawk code and a request for our position, but never heard "radar contact," although he acted like he saw us.

VFR arrivals from the north can choose the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake or Mountain Road, which passes very close to the mountains east of Salt Lake City. I asked the controller which he wanted, and he told us to "turn toward Point of the Mountain, make that Mountain Road, remain east of Hill AFB." Point of the Mountain is south of KSLC, 45 miles away, not an appropriate place for us to aim, but, hey, he caught the error himself.

He did not say "Cleared into the Class Bravo airspace." Dennis confirms this.

There were lots of F-16s in the air, launching from and recovering at Hill, and the frequency was busy. A Citation came on the frequency, headed to Ogden, but did not clue in to how busy it was, reading back in a slow drawl "Ohkay, y'all want Citation XXX to descend and maintain six thooouuuuuuuuuusand feet M S L?" And he was VFR! He missed a couple of turns, and the turn onto final, keeping the controller busy while we sped toward the Class B without a clearance. With two miles to go I spun myself, advising that we would circle "awaiting Class Bravo clearance." I honestly thought that his would jog his memory and he would give us the clearance, but I had done three full turns before a new controller came on. "I can't leave you on that heading," she said [WTF? We were circling!], "Fly heading 210 so I can get you west of Hill. Didn't the last controller give you Class B clearance?" I just read back "Two-one-zero, eight thousand, and negative on the clearance." I was a little peeved that the previous controller had ignored my request for clarification, sent me to the wrong place, and omitted the Class B clearance.

We crossed the Hill localizer, with lots of F-16s darting below us, while a pair cavorted in the airspace we had just vacated. Once west of Hill. she turned us back to the south, and as she handed me off to the next sector said "Thanks for your help."

That, I told Dennis, was the closest thing to an apology you'll ever get.

Things smoothed out after this, until landing. "Turn left at K7 and contact Ground point-niner," the tower controller said, using the previous aircraft's call sign. "Was that for us?" I asked, using our call sign, and he replied "Say request." I made the turn and called Ground.

Then came a mixup with a King Air, who did not understand the ground controller's request to call at the appropriate spot, as marked both on the taxi chart and on the pavement. "I cain't see no blue spot," he said. The controller told him to remain clear of the taxiway and give way to us.

We taxied closer but did not see the King Air. I guess the controller didn't either, for a while, and when he figured it out he asked with clear surprise in his voice if the King Air was "...still facing the hangar?!?" No wonder the guy saw nothing: he was looking the wrong way.

So, here are the results

ATC Errors

  • No-handoff handoff
  • No "radar contact"
  • vague clearance...
  • ...to the wrong place
  • No Class B clearance, at least not out loud
  • long vector to correct side of valley
  • wrong call sign from tower

    Pilot Errors

  • Slow-talkin' VFR Citation
  • Bass-ackwards King Air

    All in all, not the greatest day on anyone's part.
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    Tuesday, April 1, 2008


    One of those pesky insurance forms sent me to my logbook, and I noticed something about last month's flight in the Diamond Star: the checkout instructor had entered the airport identifier as KLGB, rather than just LGB.  This is embarassing: I always write the full aircraft identifier in my and my students' logbooks.  Why not write the full airport identifier?  

    I've had the privilege of flying many aircraft whose registration marks did not begin with 'N'.  I lived in Canada for a year, so flew a bunch of different airplanes.  My favourite [sic] was C-GGGZ, and I tried to avoid C-GOIS, because "Oscar India Sierra" is too much of a tongue-twister for a Bostonian.  

    In England, I flew a Tiger Moth, G-AHIZ, surviving an open cockpit in January.  I didn't have a car, so I bicycled to the airport.  I ate an apple before bicycling back to town.

    I toured the Mediterranean coast in Archer F-GGMH with an instructor who spoke little English. My French is pretty good, but a whole day of French so exhausted me that I fell behind the airplane.   I ate couscous at an Algerian restaurant that night.  

    My wife and I took a memorable overnight trip in an Australian Skyhawk, VH-LIO, visiting out-of-the-way places in Queensland as well as Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef.  None of these were accessible by road, especially the island: no airplane would have meant no visit.  In Cooktown we ate giant crabs and crocodile ravioli, and were kept awake by a couple fighting outside our hotel room.  She had caught him with another woman and we were both afraid that she might hurt him (I have never heard such anger, or such cowering) and afraid to interfere for the sake of our own safety.  

    Most recently, I got to fly a Wilga, HS-SSR, in Thailand.  That's the picture in my profile.  I was so excited that I skipped lunch, and later ate street food in Bangkok.  (No, I did not get sick.)

    When I've flown overseas, in Alaska, or in Hawai'i, I have written the full airport identifier.  From now on I will  use it for all of my flying, whether cross-country,  a session of Lazy 8s, or instrument approaches.  If nothing else, using KSLC instead of SLC or KBOI instead of BOI will remind me that I hope to fly in exotic places again.

    There is one big exception: what do I use if I land out in a glider?

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