Saturday, February 28, 2009

Over The Hood

Instrument instruction is its own world, because doing it right requires the instructor to do so many jobs.

First, the instructor has to understand instrument flying. Well, that's impossible. Instrument flying is an infinite series of small realizations that eventually sums to something huge. While you can leave ignorance behind you, mastery never gets any closer. So really the first job of the instructor is to have the desire to understand instrument flying.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that the instructor once had a good start toward understanding instrument flying, but that has stagnated or even backslid. Almost every instrument instructor I know has, at one point, confessed "I thought I was staying sharp by watching, but I was wrong." The cure for this is for the instructor to fly instruments regularly, but that may be difficult on what CFIIs usually earn. In my case, though, I have the two club planes and a day job, and while money is tight at our house (see my last post), I can afford to take some time to at least fly under the hood, barely performing to ATP standards.

Next, the instructor has to be patient. We are teaching something difficult; a lot of pilots start instrument training but don't finish, and a lot of pilots look back over a long career and declare instrument training to have been the most difficult part. We need to remember how difficult it was for us.

And so the iPhone version of XPlane has been kicking my ego around. A couple of the aircraft have EFIS panels. I have a few hundred hours of experience in various EFIS aircraft (not a lot by some standards), but each one is different. For XPlane, the iPhone itself is the yoke: tilt it toward you to pitch up, tilt it away from you to pitch down, and rotate it left or right for aileron control. Hold it rotated to the right and it simulates an aileron roll. This is a little twitchy, so let me just say that I seldom fly it to ATP standards (it includes a few ILS approaches). I am struggling just as hard as my students. (The HUD is a different matter: its velocity vector enables you to fly with extreme precision.)

So, the little simulator in my pocket is great. But it's not a real airplane! And that leads to the hardest part of the instructor's job: safety pilot. Because all the time that the student is under the hood, it is up to the instructor to keep the airplane from hitting something. (The FARs require that the safety pilot has a medical certificate to be sure that the guy keeping watch meets the vision requirements of 14CFR67.) It doesn't matter how insightful and fair your critiques of your student are if he does not live to try it again at a later date.

And now I find that being safety pilot takes up a large part of my instruction time. This was my inspiration from Jim Ralph, the FAA inspector who gave me my initial CFI checkride. Jim was so quick and so funny that it was exhausting to be around him. He had no stomach for BS, whether from the FAA (which he called it the "F'ing A A") or from anyone else. He was a great stick and a great student of every corner of aeronautical knowledge.

Jim's pet peeve (besides Hilary Clinton, who was First Lady when I met him) was midair collisions. "I am not going to die in a midair collision," he said, "and when we're flying I'll bet I see 10 airplanes that you don't see." This was not a statement about his perfect vision: it was a statement about his perfect lookout.

I made Jim very happy once. He had come to watch me give training in GPS approaches for a 135 operator, one of the first to take advantage of the new technology. The Director of Operations was flying the 414, and I was in the right seat. Jim sat in back, and, as is customary, several airport bums were riding along. One of them was a new CFI, working on his CFII, and as we did our procedure turn I said, "Hey, Ben, see how the procedure turn is right over the freeway? You know lots of pilots follow the freeway, so you need to keep your head out of the cockpit through here because there's bound to be lots of traffic." Jim smiled.

Well, Jim was right, he died of cancer, not in a midair collision. But now when I have a student under the hood I act like Jim is in the back seat, critiquing my lookout and spotting more planes than I do. And I do a good scan for traffic.

A funny story, at least to me. I was at a local safety meeting, sitting next to one of my instrument students who has his own airplane, a very nice twin. We're upstairs in the classroom, sitting in the same ratty chairs that were there when I moved here in 1991. Some of them are a little wobbly, so I didn't notice that I had set mine down on his foot.

"Ow!" he screamed, "you're on my foot!"

"Hey," I replied, "when I said 'dead foot - dead engine,' I meant it!"

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Friday, February 20, 2009


Before we get to what I had intended to discuss, one of my students said something today that is the kind of thing a flight instructor never wants to hear.

He had asked if he could borrow Ernest K. Gann's Fate is the Hunter. Sure, I said, just don't start reading it after dinner, or you'll be up all night. He had some solo practice planned this afternoon, and it's payday, so I decided to go out to the airport to deliver it. But he wasn't expecting me, so I called his cellphone.

"Hey Wilbur [not his real name], it's me, are you at the airport yet?"

"I'm on the runway."

I'm on the runway?

(Actually, he was taxiing, but when I got to the airport we had a little talk about priorities.)

All of a sudden we realized that the neighbors' dogs had stopped making a mess of our yard. Then we realized that their house was dark all evening. Then we realized that the RV and boat and four-wheelers weren't in the driveway. Had they moved? Why was there no "for sale" sign? I investigated: they had been foreclosed.

Your situation might be better, but admit it: you're flying less, aren't you?

With the current economic situation, we need to rethink our approach to keeping our flying sharp.

Here are some suggestions that I know work, but they require some discipline. Many years ago, I was a new assistant professor with a wife still in graduate school far away. My salary was low and my expenses (two households) were high, and money was tight! There was certainly no way that I could continue to put in the number of hours that I was used to.

I figured that with a little luck I might get to do one or two longer cross-countries each year. I decided to focus on currency and proficiency. So, once a month I found a buddy to act as safety pilot while I practiced instrument work (the rules for instrument currency were different then, and required a minimum number of hours of practice). Every couple of months I took an evening for night proficiency.

So far, I had flown 15 hours in a year, but I was always legal to take advantage of any flight opportunity that came along. So, when I was invited to talk at another university, I filed IFR and flew. I spent a few afternoons browsing journals that my university didn't get at another library 100 miles away. I was always ready to fly.

I was a private pilot at the time, so paid flying was out of the question, but I had a standard offer to my friends: I'll take you flying if you buy me dinner. A nice dinner. So, Tony and Wanda and Dean and Dave and Kendall and Buzz and others took me out to dinner after fun sightseeing flights. I paid for the flights, but the budget wasn't so stretched because they paid for dinner.

I spent a sabbatical year in Canada, and while I had a little more stretch in the budget money was still tight. I had a temporary Canadian private pilot license (no instrument privileges, though), but most of my flying consisted of touch-and-goes (oops, I mean circuits) in a Cessna 152. This was fun, and the callsigns (try saying India Oscar Sierra six times, fast) were a challenge. I did a little instrument proficiency, too, but in the whole year I made two cross-country flights.

But I did something almost as good. A local group, the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association, had access to four Harvards (the RCAF version of the T-6 and SNJ trainers), and offered a ground school at a nominal fee. There were some silly visa issues, but once those were taken care of I made my way to CHAA's hangars once or twice a week, either for ground school, or to unscrew inspection plates and clean parts or the like while the engineers gave the airplanes their annual inspection. I met some wonderful people and learned a lot about airplanes and flying, and even got a little stick time in a Harvard. (Silly trivia: I'm pretty sure that I was the only CHAA member ever to graduate from the eponymous university.)

So, if you're flying less, you need to make it count more. Trade instrument time with a friend. Stay night current. Be ready for any opportunity that comes your way (Young Eagles, business trips, distant errands, ...) But do more than just bore holes in the sky.

Enroll in a ground school of some kind; it almost doesn't matter which. If you are instrument rated, an IFR ground school will keep your sharp, and there's always plenty to learn about the rapidly changing world of IFR flight. (I'm offering an IFR ground school starting next month, and I think my job will be easier if a couple of instrument rated pilots enroll and share their experiences). A commercial pilot ground school will have something new for everyone; you'll learn about aerodynamics and navigation and regulations in more depth.

Plus, you'll get to hang out with pilots. Sounds like fun!

I got to the airport and watched Wilbur fly a couple of patterns. He was doing well, which made me feel pretty good, too. He taxied in with the nosewheel centered on the painted line, too. But next time we fly I will ask him to put his cell phone on "silent."

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Thursday, February 12, 2009


My friends and family were not surprised when I got an iPhone, considering the number of Apple ][s, classic Macs, Mac IIs, PowerBooks, MacBooks, MacPros, and iPods that I have owned or used over the years. The real cognoscenti also remember that for many years I used a NeXT workstation. I really learned Unix from the NeXT's version (called Mach), which evolved into Mac OS X.

My aviation activities, though, have either been analog (I owned a Taylorcraft, and now have a glider) or super digital (Collins 5 tube EFIS, Universal UNS-1 FMS, that sort of thing).

And while I have written about the value of a computer weather briefing, I haven't done that much with computers in the cockpit.

(I used to fly King Airs, alone, with my laptop in the baggage area. When the exploding battery news came out, I checked: I had one! A fire in the baggage area when you're alone in a King Air, 35 feet away, is ... you know what? I don't want to think about it. I was lucky.)

The iPhone is changing that. Here are a couple of hacks that I have worked out.

Weather A nice little app called AeroWeather keeps a short list of airports. It sniffs the ether for METARs for these airports, and if you click on one you get the TAF and a little airport information, too. I have always wrestled with how much weather I need to carry in the cockpit. I used to carry a printout of relevant METARs and TAFs, but I can't remember looking at them very much, even on long legs. I can remember calling Flight Watch a lot for updates.

When I flew Life Flight, I would begin the shift by getting the METARs and TAFs for the airports we served, and download them onto my iPod (which I enabled as an external hard drive). My rationale was that it was entirely possible to be someplace where there was no computer available and asked to fly someplace else. In retrospect, people were probably right to think this a little obsessive-compulsive.

So now I use the iPhone's screen capture to store a copy of my destination and alternate weather. I haven't had to look at them, yet, but it's nice to know they are available.

Another nice hack involves PICBrief is an OK website when you are at a computer, but the mobile version is very nice (it detects when you connect from an iPhone or Blackberry). You can look up NOSC instrument approach plates, and at first I thought it was too bad that you needed the internet connection to do so; wouldn't that make a great backup. But, using the screen capture feature, I can download and save the plates I need on the phone. The plates are a little small, but of course the iPhone allows you to zoom in. So now, instead of carrying the approach plate book, I just have the home approaches in my iPhone.

PICBrief also includes FARs, a little route planner (it's manual, but works out distances and radials), an N-number search, and basic information from the Airport/Facilities Directory, all available on-line. This is a little more convenient than's A/FD app, because you need to update the latter every 8 weeks. But I have both, because I can use in the air.

Alas, I am not happy with the iPhone's GPS. The antenna is tiny and buried, and I am not aware of any external antennas. So, you would have to hold the unit where it can see the sky. This is difficult enough in a car, but impossible in a high-wing airplane. The GPS works adequately for tracking runs and bike rides (I use RunKeeper).

During a recent trip as a passenger, I got the route from FlightAware, did a screen capture, and refered to the map to help with my sight-seeing.

And, finally, for those who object to breaking any rule at any time (Red Boarders, please raise hand), the iPhone has an airplane mode that turns it into a PDA. Southwest airlines, for one, says that it is OK to use it in flight in airplane mode, and above 10,000 feet MSL.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Something Old, Something New,...

This week brought an unusual opportunity for me and a couple of my students. The flight school's 172 was due for its annual, and a different 172 appeared on our ramp. They had brought it over from a different location (they have three locations) to cover.

And different it was, a 1975 model with the full 40 degrees of flaps that are manually controlled without any detents.

"How do I get 10 degrees of flaps?" each asked. That was easy to answer. "Just count, One one hundred two one hundred three." They looked at me funny, but it worked every time.

They also got to see that one cannot judge an airplane by its paint alone. We should have learned this from the Yarmouth Castle disaster. All that new paint made the ship look great, but helped fuel the devastating fire. This airplane flies quite nicely behind a solid mid-time engine, but the paint is about a 4 on a scale of 10.

Better yet, they got to play with an IFR capable GPS. As one might expect, the database was grossly out-of-date, so we could not use it to fly IFR, but they were able to see that one can load a route into the GPS and watch it guide them along the route. They also got to see the track display (notice in the picture that the desired track is not straight up, so we were flying to the right). And, I got to give myself an indirect refresher on loading an approach from the database. My last logged RNAV approach was a year ago, and although I could not log this one I still got to experience it; better yet, I did this by talking Dan and Dennis through pulling the approach out of the database, putting it into the flight plan, and following the route. This was a lot for them to chew on, and all I could do was introduce some of the concepts. The airplane will go back to its real base tonight, and "our" 172 has no GPS. Nor is it likely to get one soon.

It was interesting to work with them, because they do not have years of habits to unlearn. The big deal with GPS isn't the ability to know your position. The big deal is the database, and the unit's ability to sequence along a route. I told them both by common sense and the Aeronautical Information Manual, that they needed to load a complete route before launching, In the past, a lot of pilots had scoffed, saying "I've been flying IFR for years and never needed to load a whole route, so why should I do it now?"

The winter scenery was an added bonus. The reservoir near our practice area is still covered with ice. The ice gets rough as the winter goes on, with lots of leads and pressure ridges. But today there was a dusting of snow in the morning, just an inch or two, making the surface smooth and uniform. The scattered clouds above us made shadows that danced along the snow. The air was smooth, making it easy to feel the more pronounced stall buffet. I had them try to climb with full flaps, and of course it wouldn't, an important lesson.

They found their way back to the airport using the GPS, and did good landings in this new (to them) machine.Both had struggled and worked hard to master the new environment, but in an enjoyable way. What more can an instructor ask for?

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Thursday, February 5, 2009


Winter in the desert means really big changes in the weather, even over the course of a day. It's not unusual for us to have a morning temperature of 5F/-15C and late afternoon temps of 38F/3C. High pressure sits over the region for days, causing temperature inversions and freezing fog (the source of the rime in the picture) with really low visibility. I remember one winter a few years ago, flying an ILS into Salt Lake City when the visibility was 1 mile and finding that I was a little distracted by having so much to look at outside the airplane. When the visibility is 1/2, it takes longer to ask "Are those approach lights or touchdown zone lights?" than it takes to reach the ground.

The fog is so thin that the chance of "airframe icing" during the approach is negligible: your time in the clouds is best measured in seconds. It's also common to have a low ceiling (200 to 400 feet) with good visibility, with cloud tops only 2500 feet above the ground. That puts the tops at some of the intermediate altitudes for instrument approaches, and it's always a little eerie to fly an approach in severe clear with the wheels dragging through the clouds, especially at dawn.

In these conditions it doesn't take long to climb through the clouds, and even if you did pick up some ice coming through it would sublimate quickly in the intense sunshine above. Still, a lot of pilots with good instrument skills hesitate to launch into these conditions, not because it is dangerous, but because it is illegal unless the airplane is certified for flight in "known icing conditions."

Now, the FAA has clarified their interpretation of "known ice" in a letter from the Chief Counsel's office. (You can read about it here.) The short of it is what will be called the "reasonable and prudent" rule: if a reasonable and prudent pilot would consider that the current conditions imply negligible risk from icing, then "known icing conditions" do not exist.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the positive side, I may now launch through the morning fog, confident that there is severe clear a few miles away, sometimes. Or consider a day with a scattered-to-broken layer at 1,200 feet AGL. We had one of these the other day, and my student and I flew a circuitous route toward clear air that kept us in class G airspace so we could fly at 1,000 feet AGL (this is impossible in much of the world, but we can do it). We flew our maneuvers in the clear, and descended for the return home. The clouds were only about 1,000 feet deep, but by the old rule that would have been known icing conditions and we would have been in violation. With the new interpretation, I would fly an instrument approach and be done with it.

On the negative side, a few years ago a friend was giving some instrument instruction in a 172 near Rexburg, Idaho. The cloud cover was far from thin, but there were no pilot reports of icing. My friend and his student did the instrument approach into Rexburg, which is based on the Idaho Falls VOR; see the chart to the right. They got no ice, and took off IFR, planning to fly the ILS 20 into Idaho Falls. It's only 20 miles or so, but they didn't make it to Idaho Falls. They had so much ice that they could not hold altitude, and stalled attempting to land in a field. They were both badly banged up, and the airplane (which, by the way, was the first airplane I was ever paid to fly) was destroyed.

I'm pretty sure that my friend (now an RJ captain, his license suspension forgiven by his company) would claim that he had been reasonable and prudent: he had just flown the route without ice. But there was still too much ice for that 172.

So what is a reasonable and prudent pilot to do? First, use your head: you can't climb through 5,000 feet of ice in a 172. You can almoist surely climb through 500 feet, though. Maybe you can climb through 2,000 feet, and maybe not. What else?

Check pilot reports, either in your preflight briefing or at If there's a control tower, call them and ask what others have reported. You need to do this, because pilot reports don't always make it through the system to the pilot. I once flew an Archer from Washington National Airport to Griffiss AFB, NY, at night. I was on top and the air was smooth. At every handoff, I asked if there were pilot reports of icing, ready to make a new plan if there was going to be a problem. "No ice tonight" was the universal reply.

Finally, NY Center handed me off to Griffiss Approach. "Any ice tonight?" I asked. "Oh, yeah, everyone's had ice tonight." The controller was almost laughing. Grrr.. (Actually, it wasn't bad until I landed and found braking action nil on the ramp.)

Finally, you can check the Experimental Icing Forecasts at

Even with this, you need a plan. Ask yourself what you would do if there is more ice than a reasonable and prudent pilot would expect?. Knowing that there is clear weather a few miles away, or that the surface temperature is well above freezing, or that the tops are low makes launching reasonable.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009


Flying is easy when everything goes right. We train for the things that almost never happen. It almost never happens that transport category airplanes lose both engines at low altitude; but it happened last month.

Some of the things that almost never happen attract the attention of the FAA or other regulatory bodies. The FAA collects some of this information in the form of Safety Alerts for Operators, or SAFOs. They are on the here. The target audience is operators of transport category airplanes, but some of the information applies to everyone.

For example, SAFO 09001 addresses "Effects of Aircraft Electrical Faults Resulting in Main Battery Depletion," following an incident involving an airliner. They had an electrical failure, and rather quickly ran out of battery power. They decided to land before things got worse, and did so safely. A little time reading NTSB reports will convince you that airline pilots handle these events well.

But what about our flying? Private pilots are taught to handle electrical problems, and instrument-rated pilots are taught again. It seems to me that most pilots retain this information pretty well; I can't recall anyone getting a BFR who didn't have a reasonable answer to "What do you do if your alternator fails?" I have had a few alternator failures, and am not bragging when I say that I handled them easily.

But let's think this problem through again. There you are in your high-performance single, traveling from Boise to Portland. You use one of the online flight planners, which sends you along V500 to Kimberly. It's 166 nautical miles from Boise to Kimberly, and then another 112 from Kimberly to HARZL.

What's the issue? You can probably carry more than enough fuel (today that route works out to about 3.5 hours in my club's Cherokee Six, which can carry an effectively infinite amount of fuel). But what if that single alternator fails? I would go through the checklist and reduce the electrical load. If VFR, I could continue using a watch and a sectional (I have flown from eastern South Dakota, all the way across Wyoming, and well into Idaho without any electrical power, and another time from Idaho to the California coast and back. I thought it was fun.)

But what if it's IFR?

Looking over the enroute chart, there is nothing between Ontario, Oregon (which is essentially a suburb of Boise) and the Portland area that has an instrument approach that the Six is equipped for. I could end up flying for hours, in the clouds, across the Cascades, with no way to navigate.

So I need to change my thinking from "I didn't plan on that happening" to "I planned on it happening." So instead of going over Kimberly, I go over Baker, Pendleton, and Klickitat, basically following the Columbia River. There are many more alternatives, and it only adds 15 minutes to the trip.

I remember one night in the King Air, Boise to San Jose. I had one of the less-experienced pilots along. The passengers were strangers. We were cruising along in clear night air at FL280, but a large area of high pressure covered the northwest, and ceilings were low.

"Brian," I asked, "check Reno weather, please." Visibility 1/4 mile, vertical visibility 0. It was the same with Lovelock, and Battle Mountain, and Winnemucca. The fog didn't go very high: we could see the Hilton in Reno as we flew overhead, sticking out of the fog. But there was no way to land there. "I don't like this," I said.

"What are you worried about?" he asked, "We're at flight level 280. What could go wrong?"

I gave him a long list. Engine failure. Pressurization failure. Bleed air failure. Passenger medical emergency. Who knew what else?

A truly risk-averse person would make a personal rule "always have an alternative airport within 20 minutes flying time," kind of like the old overwater rules. In most parts of the USA this is easy; where I live it is not. In fact, where I live it is sometimes impossible. So we have to accept that "almost never" is almost never. The risk can be minimized, but never completely removed.

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