Monday, August 31, 2009

Poker Run

It was time for some end-of-summer fun flying, and my EAA chapter decided to celebrate with a Poker Run. Despite more years in aviation than I care to admit (remember, I have that AOPA 25 year pin, and didn't join AOPA the minute I started), I had never done one.

Here's how it worked. One of the chapter members flew around to five local airports in his gorgeous RV-10A, depositing envelopes containing playing cards at each. (The fact that his airplane is gorgeous is completely irrelevant to the Poker Run, but still worthy of mention.) Then other members like me flew to each of the airports, picking up an envelope at each. We all met at Tom's hangar in the end, had lunch, told lies, and played our poker hands.

I took one of my students along. At the end he offered to pay his share of the expenses, but I told him that he had given me so much flying that I was happy to return the favor. I had him make a generous donation to the lunch kitty, though.

The weather was much better than it appeared in the photo. The overcast was pretty high (16000 MSL, as I recall), which meant smooth air and lots of hands-off flying. You might enjoy looking up some of the airports on Blackfoot (U02), Soda Springs (U78), Alpine (46U), St. Anthony (U12), and Rigby (U56). While Alpine is listed as being in Wyoming, the runway crosses the Idaho border. Blackfoot is a nice airport, and I routinely endorse students for solo practice there.

Soda Springs is more difficult. The threshold starts at the highway, and was the site of a bizarre (no injuries) accident a few years ago. (See the NTSB report.) A Canadian twin on short final to Soda lost its landing gear when it hit a truck. The airplane still flew OK, and they finally landed in the grass next to the runway in Pocatello. I happened to be there to watch. They landed with the door open and ran away from the airplane for all their lives. There was no fire.

Alpine is narrow, and has close terrain.

After these two, my student remarked that he understood why I did not send solo students to these airports. St. Anthony and Rigby are more straightforward.

Rigby is south of St. Anthony, and the wind was from the south, so a lot of pilots departed St. Anthony on runway 22 and landed straight in on runway 19 in Rigby. I disapproved, and flew a pattern, but I was in a tough situation. I don't want to be the nasty old instructor telling everyone their business on a fun Saturday flight, but I don't want anyone to do anything dangerous. Everyone was making good radio calls and accurate position reports. So, was it dangerous? It's hard to say. I will say that it was annoying to see an airplane two miles ahead at my altitude, 12 o'clock, saying that he was on final. He must have slowed down early, because I passed 1000' above him as he touched down. So, flying the pattern cost me no time.

As for the poker, my hand was so bad that I won. I didn't know that we were playing high-low. Of course I had already played that game in the pattern.


Thursday, August 27, 2009


I mentioned earlier that I have been fooling around with SPOT. SPOT makes a little device that includes a GPS receiver and a satellite transmitter. The receiver keeps track of your position; four buttons on the front control the transmitter. The unit has the footprint of an iphone and is about twice as thick, although it is lighter. It has a solid belt clip that seems to hold it in place well. (I have been clipping it to my shoulder harness in the glider, and it has not budged.)

With a receive-only module and a different transmit-only module, SPOT does not do much. But, that's plenty. If you press and hold the 911 button, SPOT sends your GPS coordinates (via satellite) to its headquarters. They take your GPS position, figure out where the nearest Search & Rescue facility is, and send them to get you. It's for life threatening situations. [For those of you outside the USA, 911 is the nationwide telephone number for contacting emergency services.]

The HELP button sends email and text message alerts to a group of people that you specify on the SPOT website. The path is the same, but instead of "calling 911," it calls your Mom. Or wife. Or glider buddies, who find out where you landed out and come get you.

The advantage here is that satellite coverage is much broader than cellphone coverage.

I am pleased to say that I have not needed these features.

But SPOT offers another service: tracking. When in track mode, the unit sends a message with your current location every ten minutes or so. These appear on a (password-protected, if you like) web page, so your buddies can get a good idea where you are.

We used this a lot during the recent Region 9 North SSA contest. The contest director had access to everyone's SPOT page, and therefore had a good idea where the gliders were and when to expect them back.

The picture on the left shows three of my tracks. The low-numbered fixes heading to the southwest were from a night cross country with a student. The clump to the southeast was a glider flight in weak conditions (so I never got away from the airport, although I flew 2.9 hours). The ones to the northeast were from Tuesday's flight home from our satellite campus.

Some people have complained that SPOT service is, well, spotty, and should not be relied on for rescue. I have noticed that a few times the tracking message was never received, so they may be right. But the vast majority of the messages got through. For now, I'm concluding that SPOT really improves the chances that you'll be found sooner.

Recently, a Stemme motorglider went missing after departing an airport in eastern Idaho headed back to California. I was peripherally involved in the search as one of the few glider pilots in eastern Idaho; the searchers were looking for advice on glider tactics. Another part of the search was a lot of calling around to see if he had a SPOT; that would have made the search much quicker. Alas, the pilot was killed.

The other "complaint" is that SPOT needs a clear view of the sky to reach the satellite. So, if you are upside-down in a wreck, or stuck in a slot canyon with a boulder on your arm, it will be difficult to get the rescue message out. But, again, difficult is better than impossible.

I'd choose difficult over impossible any day.

The company strikes me as a company of true believers. They believe, with good reason, that their product will save lives. they seem to believe this so strongly that they have frequent promotions in which they give the unit away! You have to buy the tracking and messaging services, of course, but you pay nothing for the hardware.

Seems like a good deal.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Low Flush Toilets

One of the soaring email newsletters I subscribe to came out with something interesting the other day. The newsletter's usual content is "looks like a ridge day next Thursday," or "get a free SPOT transceiver using this code." (That one was a good one; I did it. I'll write about SPOT sometime soon.) But this issue featured an essay on low water use toilets. This is less absurd than it appears. Soaring flights tend to be long, and while toilet discussions don't happen every time I go soaring, they don't happen never, either.

I have a lot of time in King Airs, another long-legged aircraft. KAs have a relief tube up front. (Boys only, sorry.) There is a funnel with a venturi arrangement that sends liquids out the bottom of the airplane. I learned the hard way that the button to open the funnel is directly connected to air traffic control. This must be so because every time I ever tried to use it (alone on the cockpit, of course), ATC immediately called with a complicated reroute, leaving me copying my clearance in a compromised and uncomfortable state.

This essay wasn't about any of that; it was about health care reform. The gist of the argument was that the government had mandated the use of low flush toilets in a well-intentioned way; but the author went into somewhat graphic detail about how poorly his toilet handled, um, solid waste. His conclusion was that health care reform was bound to fail.

Now, this is an aviation blog, although occasionally I stray into other areas. That's because aviation is related to everything, at least in my mind. Still, I avoid writing about other aspects of my life, even though they are quite interesting to me, unless they have something to do with aviation. But since the editor of the newletter strayed into politics, I will, too. Well, not really, we are not going to discuss my position on the health care debate going on right now in the USA. We'll talk about logic, and preparation. You can appreciate what I have to say no matter which side of the health care debate you are on.

The logic of the argument is already weak, but the real problem here is lack of preparation by the author. I remember reading about these toilets in Consumer Reports. The authors of the report seemed to take great joy in their delicate description of the problems of removing solid waste, and their methods of testing a variety of toilets. Some toilets did the job much better than others.

Clearly, the author had not done his homework before buying the new toilet. The problem wasn't the government mandate, the problem was that he bought a bad toilet. This reduces his argument to "Health care reform won't work because I didn't do my homework."

And that's the problem with much of the public debate in the USA: both sides have failed to do their homework before making base accusations about the other. [As an aside, the article refered to the President of the US as "comrade Obama." That's just name-calling.]

We cannot do much to remove this behavior from public life, alas. But let's keep it out of aviation.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Three Grounders

Flying the past couple of days has been like watching the slumping Red Sox...lots of grounders. In fact it's been a one-two-three inning.

Yesterday I flew down to Logan to help with the SSA Region 9 North Soaring Contest, sponsored by my club. About 30 gliders are competing. The only airplane available was the Six, which would cost more, but there were two deciding factors to taking it. First, I could take a bicycle, which would come in handy. Second, I'm a pilot! I should fly places!

Launching 30 gliders (there was one relight) is a lot of work. The gliders were arranged on the runway (which was NOTAMed closed) in launch order. The three tow planes landed on the grass next to the runway, and two rope runners grab the rope with boat hooks and run in opposite directions, bringing the tow ring to the glider. The ring is attached and the tow plane goes. In the meantime, the next tow plane has landed, and the runners meet it and bring the ring to the next glider in line. It's the closest to the deck of an aircraft carrier I'll ever be.

Strike One! One of the tow planes hit a soft spot and bottomed out; its prop hit the pavement. The result: airplane grounded until its crankshaft is inspected.

Three hours later, the gliders were landing and we pushed them toward the parking area, making room for the next landing. My triathlon training for the day consisted of an unmeasured amount of running and 8 miles of bike riding. The bike came in handy.

I got home just a hair after sunset. I was back at the airport 12 hours later to fly with a student. He is doing final prep for his checkride, and things are really coming together, for him. For the airplane, it was a different story. The engine seemed weak during the takeoff roll, but that might have been the high density altitude. Coming back from the practice area, though, I noticed that the engine was only producing 2200 RPM or so, even though the throttle was at cruise setting. I played a little, firewalling the throttle and flying level. I only got 2400 RPM, not the 2700 RPM one would expect.

Strike Two! I called the maintenance office and explained. The Director of Maintenance sounded sad. "It's getting weak," he said. I was hoping for something different. But a Designated Examiner had also complained about it last week, and I guess my call was the final straw: the airplane is out of service for a month while they replace the engine.

The next student had some visiting family and wanted to do some sightseeing. In a different plane, of course. Except he had asked that the airplane be topped, and the extra fuel meant that we would exceed the maximum takeoff weight, by a lot. Two rides got turned into three ("The easiest way to carry a big load is to carry a lot of little loads").

We helped his mother into the back and he started up. I looked at the tachometer and noticed a little sticker saying "Oil Change Due 8131;" the tach read 8132. I told him to shut it down.

I called maintenance again. I was lucky: someone else answered. "Did the oil change get done without the sticker being updated?" I asked. This has been known to happen, although usually I discover it at 0400 and have to wake someone up to resolve the issue.


"Can we fly it?"

"Let me check. Are you in the office?"

"No, we're in the plane."

A couple of minutes later he called me back and gave us the OK. But Strike Three!, as soon as we landed they towed the airplane over to the maintenance hangar.

That's three grounded airplanes in less than 24 hours. A record worthy of the Red Sox.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

More on Faking It

Thank you, everyone, for your online and in-person comments on the last post. Obviously there is more to say.

Two stories leap to mind. The first isn't about flying per se, but it's still relevant. (Sorry, but I cannot remember where I read it.) It was about a high school football coach, who remarked that this generation's players were smarter than those he had worked with previously. They were experts in football strategy, could understand complex plays, and had a good sense of where they were in the game and what was appropriate (in aviation, we call this situational awareness). They learned all this from the fabulous video games now available. There was only one problem: they had never been hit. Real football players get hit, a lot.

Ironically, that reminds me of a pilot my company hired when I was a check airman. He and I got along great, personally, until I flew with him. That was a nightmare.

The company's worst accident had been a ground collision, and we were extra careful about clearing all turns. (I don't fly for them anymore, but by the time I left this culture had disappeared, alas.) Anyway, I flew the first leg. The tower offered a 180 to the ramp, and as I turned I reflexively asked "Clear left?" He lit up, using a lot of language that would be inappropriate here, but basically calling me an idiot because why would you clear a turn on the runway? I listed unauthorized vehicles, animals, and debris to begin with.

As we waited for the passengers he continued his rant, now directed at a copilot who wouldn't tune the localizer. This is a standard practice in in flying turbines, because of 14CFR91.129(e)(2), which requires turbine aircraft to stay above any electronic glideslope, but it's a good idea for everyone. It's one of those "just to be sure" things, like clearing all of your turns. One hand brags about thinking this way while the other hand slaps you for thinking this way.

But the best was yet to come. He described some Second-In-Command training in a simulator, and how the instructor had praised his situational awareness. And that's the problem: there's no such thing as 'situational awareness' in a simulator. There is no traffic. There are no mistakes by controllers. Often, there is no terrain. There are no thunderstorms.

My simulator sessions generally consisted of a takeoff, a departure procedure, a hold, an approach, and a missed approach. Many included engine failures, equipment failures, and the like, which was the value of the training. But never once did I have to think "Hey, ATC just put that Lear at our altitude, and they're behind us and faster." We never turned on the weather radar. We never had the boss yell at us for no reason just before takeoff (someday I'll write something about this kind of thing and its negative effect on flying). We never did a real circling approach. We never settled into cruise to find that the headwind was too strong. We never did more than tip our glasses at the word 'icing.' We never had unknown, elderly passengers, just out of surgery, who insisted on flying without a caretaker. (There is absolutely nothing that a lone pilot can do to help an ailing passenger.) There was never the shock of discovering that the laptop you've been carrying around in the baggage area had one of the batteries that were prone to spontaneous explosion. The list is nearly infinite.

The video games seem to teach young football players something about situational awareness, but the more sophisticated video games called 'simulators' do not do that for pilots. The First Officer in last winter's Colgan Air accident in Buffalo basically admitted "I've never been hit" when it came to icing: the airline's simulator training did not provide the visceral experience. I'm sure that all Colgan pilots knew the amperage draw from propeller deice (the kind of thing you learn in at the big simulator schools), but the sim didn't include the eerie sound of handfuls of gravel hitting the side of the airplane as a sound confirming that the prop deice was working. You can see the effect on the left.

The thing is, realistic simulator training depends a lot on the instructor. For example, I try to use standard phraseology and intonations when playing ATC for my students. It must be good because every now and then one of them keys the mic and reads the clearance back! But I recently realized that my final clearance when vectoring someone onto the ILS was missing an element. The instructor needs to stay sharp, too.

An instructor can tell the "there I was..." stories in training: an inch of ice and the windshield heat failed! it stalled at 95 knots! It just wouldn't climb! I asked to stay at my present altitude because I was between layers! I descended at 1500fpm to get through the icing layer! (That assumes that the instructor has some "there I was..." stories, although many do not.)

But even with a great simulator, you cannot actually hit the student, and in flying being hit is what helps you develop siutational awareness. In football, the sim teaches situational awareness, but in flying it cannot.

Flying is the opposite of football. Good thing, too; at my age, I don't think it would be good for me to get hit.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Fakin' It

I've been thinking a lot about simulators lately, both positive and negative thoughts.

It is clear that simulator training is the future of flight training. FlightSafety and Simuflite and others make convincing arguments that simulator training - this means full motion simulators - are both more effective and safer than airplane training.

My first simulator training was at Simuflite, a big facility in Texas that has more students at any given time than my high school (only Simulflite's lunch room is way better). One day my classmates and instructor and I were walking down a hallway that was decorated with pictures of "difficult" airports. I don't remember all of them, but I had been to most. Nobody else, the instructor included, had ever been to any of them. This did not strike me as a good sign.

But the training I got there was pretty good. At the end of two weeks I knew the airplane systems inside-out, and had been through a lot of "emergencies." They also had a large collection of broken airplane parts for us to examine. I found this very educational, and when I shattered a windshield at FL 280 I was less shocked than you might imagine, having played with a shattered windshield in the classroom. (To put your mind at ease, the windshield had two layers, and only one shattered.) I also got some good training at FlightSafety.

But lately I have been working with a new student who has spent a lot of time flying one of the better desktop simulators at his friend's house. His friend is not a flight instructor, and has been showing him the fun stuff. He is pretty good at reading the instruments, and knows how to bank and climb and descend. But when we put him into the air he got sick. Not just the first time, either. Not just the second time, come to think of it.

I told the friend that he had dug me a big hole: he takes the student out for joyrides, while I am the mean old instructor repeating the three key questions over and over.

  • What makes an airplane fly?

  • What makes an airplane turn?

  • What is a stall and how do you recover from one?

  • He is starting to give good answers to these.

    Despite this, I have been thinking of buying a desktop flight training device (the kind that the FAA certifies for training) and installing it in an RV (that is, a motor home, not a product of Van's Aircraft) and taking it around to local airports, or even to people's houses, to offer instrument training. Does this make me a hypocrite? I don't think so; I imagine mostly working with private pilots, who know that the airplane actually moves. Most of the training would be instrument training, including the required hood time for private pilots. So I'm not digging anyone a hole. The idea is to prevent a smoking hole. (Also, since I have a history of medical problems, I would still be able to help people master instrument flying even if my medical certificate takes a leave of absence.)

    So what I would be doing would combine the best of the simulator schools - instrument procedures, regulations, systems - and the best of actual flying experience from flying into places like Thermopolis, Telluride, Fallbrook, Lander, and Cabin Creek. Combining that with actual experience flying into San Francisco, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and the like might make for a very effective simulator experience.