Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Fans of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recognize the number 42. It's one of our cultural memes, like the crash of the Hindenburg or King's "I have a dream" speech. It's the answer to "Life, the universe, and everything."

The fictional Hitchhiker's Guide... had two words on the cover: Don't Panic. The kind of solid but generic advice a hitchhiker needs.

And a pilot.

I was in the glider with a new student. He already has a commercial power license, and although this was our first day of real training he was making fast progress. On his second takeoff, I gave him the flight controls, and he tracked the towplane pretty well. (That may sound like an insult, but it's not. New students, even transition students, even yours truly, find following the towplane to be Very Hard.)

Our first landing had been on the runway but without enough energy to reach the launch point, but the second had us stopped exactly on the line. Cool! (And it was his landing, by the way, I only offered encouragement.) So we turned the glider around and got ready to launch again. I got in, redid my belt and shoulder harness, and locked and checked the canopy. Check. Check. Check. I wiggled the rudders, called "ready" to to the tow pilot, and started my stop watch.

We started to move, but something didn't feel right, and didn't sound right. Did the the tail come up a little too easily?

"Oh, no, we still have the tail dolly attached!" The tail dolly is a large fiberglass cuff with a large castering wheel that fits over the tail. It makes ground handling easier. Taking off with it attached would give us an aft CG, perhaps aft enough to negate or even reverse the glider's natural pitch stability. It would also hurt our glide ratio, in an unknown amount. Bad idea!

So I aborted. I was surprised how surely my eyes focused on the release handle and I pulled. The rope went with the towplane.

"Glider goes to the right, towplane goes to the left," I told Bill, steering rather gingerly toward the right side of the runway. I was really working the stick, keeping the wings level and the nose at the right attitude. We slowed, so I reached for the wheel brake and braked gently. With this much speed dragging a wingtip could lead to a groundloop, and pulling the brake too hard would dump the glider on its delicate nose.

But we stayed poised, balancing on that one big wheel, and came to a gentle stop at the side of the runway. I stopped the clock. The tail came down, on the tail wheel. The tail dolly was still at the launch point, where it belonged.

True confession: in all of my glider training (remember that I am still a newby) I had never done an abort on the runway. Oh, we talked about it, we prepared for it, we had low altitude "rope breaks" and landed straight ahead, we had "rope breaks" at 200' and turned around to land downwind, we had "rope breaks" on downwind and landed. In twins an "engine failure" on takeoff is a standard maneuver, so I've done it or taught it or evaluated it hundreds of times. But I had never actually aborted on the runway in a glider.

A glider on the runway is different from an airplane: there is only one point of contact, so there is less wheel drag, and the glider is more aerodynamically efficient, too. It takes more flying to stay in control. (I know; I tried it in a Cessna 172 this morning.)

I had done the right thing: decided to abort at a reasonable time, pulled the handle, made sure that the rope really released, and maintained control of the glider. The last one is the most important; losing control bends metal and breaks bones. So, following Douglas Adams's advice, don't panic!.

OK, "don't panic," there's the Douglas Adams connection. But where does 42 fit it?

I looked at my stopwatch. The elapsed time, in seconds, was...


Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Weather Man (and Woman)

With this week's awful weather I have been spending more time at my university office, doing research and getting ready to teach a new course in the Fall. The work expands to fill the available time...

The graduate director came by to introduce a new graduate student. "He's a retired meteorologist," she said.

She turned to him "Jim is a pilot." She has flown with me to several conferences, and her husband has flown with me for fun.

And this is where it gets weird. "'Mister, I met a man once,' it always begins."1 The man (it's always been a man) is a professional or military pilot. "The weather was awful and I said 'Do you want to fly in this?' I don't think so..."

"What was the weather?"

"Really low. 300 overcast." It's always 300. Going to an airport with an ILS. Not 100; that's below minimums, so nobody would go. Not 200; that's at minimums, increasing the pucker factor. But always 300. Now, depending on who you are and what you fly, 300 overcast may or may not be low. To a military pilot in a jet, it's no problem (assuming there's an ILS). To an ATP in a turbine airplane, it is definitely no problem. To a student pilot, or to a guy in a J-3, it's probably a big problem. But they're never briefing a student in these stories.

In defiance of all logic, meteorologists and pilots can't communicate. I got a hint of this in November, when a student and I visited the local Weather Service office. A couple of other encounters reinforced the feeling, because I keep hearing the same story.

Their point is that we don't listen to them; mine is that they don't listen to us. Conclusion: they don't know much about flying. We don't know much about weather. Yikes!

I've had lots of wacky briefings from meteorologists. There was the Base Meteorologist (I flew with an Air Force Aero Club). He spent his day briefing C-5s and B-52s. "I dunno," he shook his head, "moderate ice at Flight Level 230." But I was flying an Archer!

I told one of our local forecasters a story about a flight over town. "There was a rotor cloud, and I had my student fly along the edge of it so he could get a feel for the turbulence."

The forecaster turned white. "You flew below a rotor? You're lucky to be alive!" Well, I disagree. Pilots fly into rotors all the time (glider pilots routinely do it when towing into the wave, and that's in formation). They are very rough, but airplanes are very tough. When I was flying turboprops I would go out of my way to avoid rotors, only because it might make the passengers uncomfortable. But I least I knew where to look.

It seems like to most meteorologists we still fly "Piper Cubs" into dirt strips, and that's their idea of a G-1000 Turbocharged 206. But of course the 206 can reach that ice at 2-3-0 (that's bad), and the 206 at least has XM weather so has a chance to dodge those thunderstorms (that's good). And a proficient instrument pilot can shoot an ILS to minimums in an Archer while pouring a coffee and telling a dirty joke. I don't think they know about LPV approaches with a 250 foot decision height.

But we pilots are worse. We don't turn white when they tell their stories; we just nod off.

Whose fault is this? The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but within ourselves.2. The fact is, pilots are not demanding that the National Weather Service provide quality briefings, and we are not helping them give us quality briefings. We have not told them what we need, and what we can and cannot do.

And it's too late.

Since the privatization of Flight Service, the National Weather Service is not allowed to do pilot weather briefings. They make aviation forecasts; they enjoy discussing the weather with us; they make the observations (or, should I say, supplement the observations?). But they may not brief us!

And so we have reached the era where pilots brief themselves. We use DUATS or DUAT or, supplemented with NWS's Aviation Digital Data Service. These give us the facts, but we also need that extra insight from the experienced weather guy.

Sometimes, he's right.

2Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Filing IFR

You probably follow one or more online forums. They can be a good source of information, and they can be a good source of mis-information. I skip any post that starts with "I'm not instrument-rated but..." or "I'm not an instructor but..." or "I'm not a doctor but...". At least they are honest.

Today's discussion began in a website newsletter and in an online forum, so use some judgment. The Aeronautical Information Manual may or may not change based on it. But the final advice is so compelling that I am sure it worthwhile. It's about one of my pet peeves,

Filing Direct


Look back this post about lost communications. One of the many big puzzles is what to do when the clearance limit is the destination airport, for example, "You are cleared to the Boise airport via as filed, climb and maintain 12 thousand, departure with Salt Lake Center... ."

Boise airport is not an initial approach fix (IAF), so what do you do? The rule (14CFR91.185) is almost clear: you should go to the Boise airport, then fly to and hold at an initial approach fix (IAF) until the appointed time. Strictly speaking, you are supposed to go to the clearance limit, and then go to the IAF. In principle, you can go to the clearance limit by following the approach path at the lowest of the 91.185 altitudes (that is, not descending at all). But then what? How do you get the to the IAF without compromising your safety (don't hit anything) or someone else's airspace?

The punch line: some people now recommend that you include an IAF in your flight plan route. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The alternative is to just file "direct" to the destination; one wag justified this particular bit of laziness by saying that "filing direct tells ATC that they can put you wherever they like." This is fallacious in two ways. First, ATC puts you wherever they like no matter what, so they gain nothing. Second, if your destination airport is in a different center's airspace, the computer may not know where it is, so a controller will have to go look it up and enter your flight plan by hand. Filing direct doesn't save ATC from work; it gives them more!

Let's pin this down by considering an IFR flight to Scottsdale, AZ from the north. In a non-GPS aircraft, the basic route must be V257 to Phoenix: V257 takes you down the PHX 336 radial. The only - the only - IAF for Scottsdale is the PHX VORTAC, so the proper route to file ends with V257 PHX. If you are lost comm then you hold at PHX until it's time to start down.

(One of the automated online routers uses V257 BANYO; BANYO is a fix on the PHX 336 radial, but it is not an IAF. Their route leaves you scrambling if you lose radio contact.)

The IAF route takes you well south of the airport, but that's the way things go in the IFR world. Unless you can get vectored for a visual approach, you are going to go to PHX anyway. If you want to stay north of Scottsdale, you have to invest in an IFR GPS, and include POURS in your route.

Picking an IFR route is work, but it is artful work. Enjoy the journey; the destination becomes that much sweeter. This applies to finding the route as much as it applies to flying it.

Labels: , ,