Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's ironic (typical of aviation) that as a full-time college professor and part-time flight instructor I have done no flying since the last day of exams. Most of my students have some kind of affiliation with the university, and all of my students decided that they needed to go somewhere for Christmas. So, just when it becomes easy to schedule flying, there is no flying to do.

And forget about any personal flying: the weather has been terrible.

But today's weather was good, so I grabbed a buddy to act as safety pilot for some IFR proficiency flying. I was IFR current but not feeling sharp, so my mission was clear. But there was also an über-mission: fly like a professional, with discipline. I had noticed a lot of undisciplined flying at the airport lately, like the King Air pilot who jumped out of his pickup and was airborne 4 minutes later. (Out of curiosity, I found out where he was going and got a DUATS briefing for his flight. I hope that Temporary Flight Restriction didn't cause him any problems...)

I got to the airport first, got a standard briefing including a NOTAM check, verified that my charts were up-to-date, and did a careful walk-around.

My discipline got tested right away when the battery proved too weak to start the engine. We called for a power cart, and I got out the checklist, having not done a cart start in a while. "Oh, it's easy," my friend said, "I do it all the time." But abnormals should be done by the book.

When the line guy got connected we heard the battery relay go and said "That sounds good!" simultaneously.

When I flew turboprops we had a standard departure briefing that we learned from a pilot who worked for us while furloughed from a major "network" airline. The acronym is WARTS:

    Wind and weather;
    Aborts and abnormals;
    Runway and route;
    Special items.

With the engine going and the alternator working, we taxied out. I gave the WARTS briefing out loud. There was one special: there were hundreds of ducks in the area, which we had both noticed on the way to the airport. I decided to forego the hood until we were clear of the birds, to keep the landing light on, and to give up any approaches if the birds were a problem.

We used the birds to our advantage. We called ready at runway 3, but the tower advised us to hold short for possible wake turbulence from a turboprop that just departed runway 21. We watched a couple of ducks fly across the runway at about 200 feet AGL. They flew straight and level, with no sign of a wake. So with the birds as sniffers we felt that it was safe to depart.

The first approach was an ILS. It was OK. I got down to decision height and flew the missed approach procedure to the hold.

The next approach was a full-procedure VOR approach. It was a little better. I did a touch-and go.

The last approach was a partial panel VOR approach. I couldn't remember the last time I had done a partial panel approach; we never got them at the simulator centers since the airplane always had another gyro source. The FAA's Practical Test Standards require a nonprecision partial panel approach for the Instrument Rating, so I should have to do one, too.

And it was the best approach of the three. Go figure.

After we landed I checked my phone and had a message from one of my students. He's back in town and wants to fly tomorrow, and the weather looks like it will cooperate. I guess my vacation is over.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Flying

That's the view of my back yard. According to FlightAware.com, nobody has gotten in or out of my home field since late yesterday afternoon. It's a good time to reminisce about Christmas flights from the past. So throw a log on the fire, listen to Ella singing It's Cold Outside, and reminisce.

1993 My then-girlfriend and now wife Terri flew with me to Rapid City, SD on Christmas Eve in an Archer. We were going to meet her mother and sister. We had met the summer before, just in time for me to take a long-planned trip to Alaska in a 182. I guess she thought that I wasn't impressed and wasn't going to call her back...

My log doesn't say much about the first leg except that the altimeter setting fell from 30.60 to 30.15 between Pocatello and Rock Springs. I got a pop-up IFR clearance over the Black Hills for the second leg. That was my first introduction to Rapid City's ATC, which is consistently confusing.

1994 A year later Terri was learning to fly. We tried to fly Christmas Day, but my log says "Unable VFR." The flight time of 0.3 corresponds to about one traffic pattern.

But one of the renters was hanging around the airport with a friend who was headed home to Japan later that day. Ace had hoped to give Koshi a ride, but he didn't have his instrument rating yet (now he's a captain at American Eagle), so I gave Terri, Ace, and Koshi a ride. In solid IMC, including a low approach. They didn't see much but had fun anyway.

1995 I flew with two students and spent an hour dinking around in my Taylorcraft.

1996 The ADF failed going into McCall, ID for a ski vacation. Since all McCall had was an NDB approach we went back to Boise and rented a car. On the way home the snow was so bad we got a hotel room and spent an extra day.

We came home from Boise VFR. It was starting to snow, so I set up the VOR runway 3 approach just in case. IMC was inevitable, but John in the tower kept insisting that his visibility was 3, so I flew the approach. At minimums I barely saw the approach lights and circled to runway 21. [Presumably the statute of limitations has expired for both of us!]

2001 I flew a Christmas eve charter in a Cessna 414 to Delta, Colorado from Jackson Hole. There was one passenger, an outdoorsy woman a little younger than me. She did not say a word the whole way. She just sat huddled in the back. I got the impression that something was really wrong, but never found out what.

2002 I was in the 414 again, this time flying freight from Boise to Spokane. I always tried to take a younger pilot along when flying freight, so they could get some experience. This was my way of repaying those who did the same for me. But this time the autopilot was out-of-service, so I couldn't take any passengers.

I flew up to Spokane early Christmas eve. I checked into the hotel early; I think I was supposed to leave Spokane at 0400 or so. The hotel was empty, and the desk clerk was very nice; if I hadn't been happily married I would have made a pass at her, which would have been a nice Christmas memory. But I behaved and went to bed early.

I got to the airport at the appointed time and everything was locked up tight. No courier. Hangars locked. FBO silent. I had some contact numbers, but nobody was answering. It was cold and I was very far from home on Christmas morning.

Finally I reached someone. "We don't fly Christmas Day; go home," he said, angry, so I did. The two companies fought for weeks about whether they should pay for the flight.

2003 Again I was in the 414 on Christmas eve, flying a family from Salt Lake City to Sun Valley. Sun Valley was below minimums, so I ended up diverting to Twin Falls.

The father asked me if his son could sit up front, and of course I said yes. I found him a headset and tried to explain what was going on, but he slept through the whole flight. Twin Falls was above minimums but it was cold and rainy and there was a monster crosswind. I remember my arms tiring trying to hold the aileron for the crosswind correction; the 414 had an aileron-rudder interconnect which meant that slips required a lot of strength.

The kid slept until the engines stopped.

When I got home the ramp was a mess with blowing drifting snow. One of the line guys ran out to the taxiway and signalled that I should shut down where I was. All of us were shoveling through big drifts, trying to get the airplanes into the hangar. The tug couldn't get any traction, even with three of us standing on it, so we shoveled some more.

That is, all of us shoveled except for the then Chief Pilot, who drove to McDonald's and drove back to the airport and ate while we all busted our butts. That was not a popular move.

The snow persisted through Christmas. On Boxing Day I did a LifeFlight. My log makes it sound exciting: "Blizzard Conditions on departure. Winds gusting to 40 at Burley. Pt w/broken neck." I can't remember it.

2004 The company was doing a lot of extra sections for a major international freight carrier, mostly in Senecas. I talked them into using the King Air, which I had been flying for a whopping 200 hours. (I'm still a little resentful that nobody ever gave me any credit for booking a charter.)

This time I took one of the mechanics along for the ride; he had just finished his Private Pilot license. We went to Sun Valley and unloaded. I started up and did the usual King Air "Two Finger Salute," that is, checking the status of the current limiters. Uh-oh: one of them had blown. This is a no-go item.

But I had Alex along! He fixed it, or else we would have been stuck there for Christmas Eve.

And that's about it. I don't see a pattern (other than lots of IFR). Some fun, some work.

Actually, even the work was fun.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cockpit Videos

A friend sent me a link to these vidoes of a Virgin Atlantic 747 departing Heathrow and landing at San Francisco. These are among the best cockpit videos I have ever seen, and they really show how a crew can do things right. They do not trust to luck, and there is admirable redundancy in their preparation. They even tune the ADFs, even though the Flight Management System should navigate them all by itself. People have criticized me for this kind of behavior, saying that I am too busy in the cockpit, and wondering why I bother to tune the VOR when the FMS will take us there. But in aviation we should depend on preparation, not luck.

These guys know how to do things right. Enjoy!

Departure Part I

Departure Part II

Arrival Part I

Arrival Part II

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Sporty Proposition

Our November and early December were dry, and people were starting to complain. The last two days changed that situation: today, people are complaining about the snow.

And for one of my students the snow was well timed. He had a couple of solo flights in his logbook, so it was time to move on to the "high performance" takeoffs and landings (that's FAA-speak for short- and soft-field). In smaller planes (172s, Archers) the usual landing speed is so low that the concept of a special "short field" procedure is a little superfluous, but it is the standard approach for larger airplanes. I also like the short-field approach at night at an unfamiliar airport because the steeper glide path means more height over unknown obstacles.

Student: Did you ever do a short-field landing in the King Air?
Me: Yes. Every single one.

(One of the local Designated Examiners is fond of pointing out that the short-field technique that we teach (constant airspeed with glide path adjustments by power) won't work in a mid-sized jet like the Hawker 800 he used to fly, although it worked fine in the King Air. Although one of my mottoes is Fly the airplane you are actually in, his perspective is useful. Learning the maneuver gives the student a much deeper understanding of aerodynamics and much finer control over the airplane.)

The soft-field approach is perfect for today's situation. Soft field operations mean being airborne at the minimum possible airspeed. Lower touchdown speed is just the thing for a snow-covered (or other less-than-pristine) runway.

So we set out to do soft-field takeoffs and landings. The ATIS took me by surprise with its mention of MU values; I had missed the NOTAM saying RWY 3 BOWMONK MU 35/36/36 WEF 812151800 [sic]. This is explained in the Aeronautical Information Manual, paragraph 4-3-9 Runway Friction Reports and Advisories. Someone measures the runway's coefficient of friction in three zones, and the numbers (like 37) represent the percentage of maximum friction observed. When the number is below 40, things get sporty. And we were between 35 and 36!

We did the runup well short of the hold short line, just in case we slid on the slick taxiway. Then it was time for the real deal: call for takeoff clearance, yoke all the way back, keep moving in a gentle turn onto the centerline (or, since it was invisible, the approximate centerline). Add full power, stay straight, keep the nose at the takeoff position. Up into ground effect, lower the nose to accelerate, and then a normal climb once the airspeed was safe.

And then it was time for a genuine soft-field landing. Some people say that this is the most delicate maneuver in the private pilot curriculum, requiring delicate control of the airplane. That's what makes it fun, and that's what makes it a good learning tool. But those are secondary considerations; today's primary consideration was to put the airplane safely on the ground. Which we did.

Admitting my ignorance, I had to look up whether the short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings were included in the Sport Pilot Practical Test Standards. The Sport Pilot license only requires 20 hours of training, while a Private Pilot requires 40 hours, so something must have been cut out. A lot of the difference is in cross-country requirements: Private Pilots need 5 hours of solo cross-country, while a Sport Pilot only needs a 75 mile solo flight. Sport Pilots get neither night training nor night privileges. Sport Pilots need additional training to use Class B, C, or D airspace, while Private Pilots need 3 solo landings with a control tower. Sport Pilots get no instrument-flying experience,etc.

But Sport Pilots must demonstrate the short- and soft-field techniques to the same standard as Private Pilots. Stick-and-rudder skill still wins the day.

And, it's more fun.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Defensive Driving

Dan and I were working on short- and soft-field landings when another Skyhawk called in 15 miles east. I like to anticipate when another airplane is going to enter the pattern; it's proactive collision avoidance. So, I started my stopwatch and figured it would be 7 or maybe 8 minutes before we would have to look for the guy. This pilot sounded like a student, so I figured he had flown up the interstate from Logan or Ogden.

Something wasn't right, though. People who call in 15 miles east are usually pretty scratchy, but his radio was crystal clear.

"I'm not sure he's to the east," I warned Dan, "Keep your eyes open." We turned on the landing light, making ourselves more visible. We went back to working on precise control of airspeed.

But eight minutes passed and we had heard nothing. "Tower, 55J," I asked, "Any update on the traffic?"

"I'm just past American Falls," he said. That's southwest, not east, and he was still 10 miles away. I reset the stopwatch. His voice was calm, but he still sounded like a student.

The tower was confused, too. "Where did you depart from?" they asked. The pilot named an airport in Washington. Now I knew two things: this was no student, and he really was somewhere west. I reminded Dan about how to scan for traffic, but left him to concentrate on his patterns while I did most of the scanning.

The appointed time came and went, and this time the tower asked him before I could ask them to ask him. "About 15 west," he replied, "I'll climb up to see if I can get something better from my GPS." This makes no sense. Fifteen miles west is the desert, so there is nothing but air between him and the GPS satellites. Climbing was pointless.

I thought about landing and waiting for this guy to find himself. The chance of him stumbling into the pattern from an odd direction was pretty high. I also thought about bugging out to the practice area for a while, but he was just as likely to be there as here, so that didn't gain us anything.

Eight more minutes passed. "Say altitude," the tower asked him. "Nine-thousand five-hundred," he replied, putting him 5,000 feet above the airport. He would need a steep descent. But at least we weren't going to hit him.

Dan and I landed, and the wandering Skyhawk landed while we were talking. Hazard gone. I sent him back up for some solo practice.

He walked into the FBO and ordered fuel. "Radio problems?" I asked as casually as I could, intending to beat him up. "Yeah, Comm 2 kept cutting out so I couldn't get the ATIS." That's not what I had meant, but I realized that yelling at him would do no good. He seemed like a nice man, retired perhaps. He had filed IFR to a different airport, but the weather there was below his personal minimum (1800 overcast, visibility 10), so he had diverted to ours. Seems like a reasonable decision, and an explanation for being so %^$**&%# lost.

Dan got the best lesson of all: be proactive about avoiding collisions. Be aware of other airplanes in the area, to the extent possible, and consider getting out of someone's way before he gets uncomfortably close.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Decision Attitude

Decision Altitude in instrument flying is the lowest altitude possible on a precision approach (ILS, LPV, LNAV/VNAV). At the specified altitude you either see the runway and land or fail to see the runway and immediately start the missed approach procedure. It used to be called decision height, but height is something we never really know. Altitude is what barometers measure.

But right now I have reached the decision attitude, at least in regard to instrument charts.

In the United States we have two major sources of charts, a government agency called NACO, which is an acronym for National Aeronautical Charting Office and Jeppesen, a commercial vendor. The charts show the same information with slightly different formats, and one pilot I know dismissed a rather loud airport lounge debate about which was better with "Some like chocolate. Some like vanilla." End of discussion.

Other countries have similar situations: charts come from Jeppesen or a government or at least quasi-governmental agency.

I started instrument training in 1985, and some may say that I still don't get it. No matter: since 1985 I have used Jeppesen charts for my instrument flying. A few years ago at the Oshkosh fly-in I bought a pair of beautiful green leather Jeppesen binders with Arabic calligraphy and the English legend "Royal Air Maroc B-737 Operations Manual." I kept the contents for reference; I use the binders for my charts.

[I promise to take a picture and post it over the weekend.]

But lately I have been less satisfied with the Jeppesen charts. First, they moved a lot of their NOTAMs online, which isn't much help in the cockpit. I wrote them a letter, and got a perfunctory response. And this was a big change: it used to be that Jeppesen's customer service was the best there was.

They missed a change of a Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA), which I suppose can happen to any chart service. I found out the semi-hard way when ATC told me that I couldn't be cleared via the airway at the altitude I'd used for many years. "But my [brand new] chart doesn't show an MEA change," I complained. ATC was right.

That was the semi-hard way to discover an MEA change. The hard way would be to hit some rocks.

My flying changed, too. I'm not flying the King Airs anymore, so don't need faraway charts at short notice. The company bought Jeppesen charts for the airplanes, but I never knew who had done the revisions, and some of the pilots were better than others at refiling charts after flights. I didn't want to find myself someplace strange in the middle of the night with the approach chart misfiled. So I carried my own charts, at my own expense.

And expense has become a big issue. I got my Jeppesen renewal notice today; they want $281 for the year. But NACO charts are public domain and are available free online, from sites like FltPlan.com, airnav, or FlightAware. A subscription to NACO charts for 99% of my flying will cost about $105, which I can pay as the charts are issued, rather than all at once. In the past few months, $176 has become a lot of money.

So the decision is made; while I'll miss Jeppesen's approach, tomorrow I plan to stop at a pilot shop and buy a couple of NACO books and an enroute chart or two.

I'll sure miss using those green binders, though. Ebay, anyone?

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Fool Me Twice...

The atmosphere continues to make me feel like an idiot. I had two students scheduled this morning. The weather room is right by the door, and I printed the METAR and TAF before joining Dan in the hangar for his preflight. (I had called and asked the line crew to bring the 172 inside to pre-heat.) "Weather looks good," he said. "I don't believe it," I replied. I have been flying here for over 15 years, so while the official TAF called for good visibility and unlimited ceilings, my internal TAF called for fog. I had even driven through some on the way to the airport.

So we stood in the hangar and talked weather. I reminded him that the TAF was only valid for a 5 mile radius. Was that fog 5 miles away? "Must have been," he said. Hmm...

He had been away for Thanksgiving so I took him upstairs for a little review of the basics. "What makes an airplane fly?" "What makes an airplane turn?" "What is a stall?" Like I said, the basics. Then we went over the plan for the flight (short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings) and headed down to the plane.

"Looking bad," the lineman said as we passed him on the stairs. We headed straight to the door.

Fog. Dense fog. Visibility below half a mile (1000 meters). Can't do pattern work fog.

So we went back inside and worked on real-world flight planning, using computer tools like FltPlan.com and skyvector.com, comparing our results to those a charter pilot had left behind.

Dennis, the next student called. "I just called the ASOS," he said, "and the visibility is 1/2."

"Don't worry, it'll burn off at 11." Again, this is my personal TAF. And at 11:05 the fog lifted and the visibility report went up to 3 miles. "Let's go!"

The first pattern was kind of rough, which was surprising at the time because I normally think of foggy conditions as smooth. He went around, and I flew a pattern. It was flyable, barely. "I'm not doing any solo practice in this," he said.

But he persisted and flew a couple of more good patterns before we called it quits. "Back so soon?" the airport bums asked. "We were really getting beat up."

So why was it so bumpy? I think the main problem was that the fog was just lifting, and there were little pockets of energy, some from condensation and some from vaporization. This heat energy became mechanical energy, which we felt as turbulence. As evidence, notice that there was still some moist air below is in the pattern. As that vaporized it shot little bursts of energy up at us, and each one became a bump. They weren't organized enough to form thermals, just little unpredictable bumps.

We had high pressure and some of the pockets of moisture finally sank to the surface. One of the airport bums stopped me on my way out. "That wind sock is all over the place! That's why you got beat up."


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