Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If it's Tuesday, It Must Be...


Tuesday night is IFR ground school night. This will be the fourth session.

I put a lot of emphasis on weather. Each student picked a route, and is supposed to get a weather briefing for that route every week. This was impossible the first week, when the class was interrupted by the loud bangs of the hail to the left on the metal hangar roof.

The next week, we mostly worked on getting good weather briefings.

The next week we had mountain obscuration in light rain (RASH-) and mist (BR). We looked at the winds aloft and the circulation around highs and lows. A low near Washington, DC was bringing warm moist air, and weather in New York and New England was predictably messy.

I teach students to judge the forecast, not just read it. "What's wrong with this forecast?" I ask. "Why are they forecasting mountain obscuration? Where is the freezing level?"

I personally find undecoded METARs and TAFs easier to read, because in many cases passing your eye down a formatted column tells you what you need to know. With the decoded forecasts, you have to read the whole paragraph, which is kind of purple. The phrase "automated station with precipitation discriminator, sea level pressure 29.79" Hg (1008.8 hPa), 0.04 inch (water equivalent) of precipitation in the previous hour" takes much longer to process than "A02 SLP088 P0004." And remember that for a long flight you will read "0.04 inch (water equivalent) of precipitation in the previous hour" many times.

This week it is raining, and I'm afraid that my students are going to come to a conclusion about forecasts: it doesn't matter what they predict for Tuesday, it will be wet.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

It shows

Glider season is almost here almost here almost here. It seems like I've been saying that for weeks, but, really, glider season is almost here. The other morning I watched some migrating raptors fly north for a full minute without flapping a wing. There were five of them, outlined against the overcast too high to identify. They drifted lazily, in loose formation, with an occasional circle. Then one dove to the southeast, flying with a Macready of +10 or so, and started to circle, climbing quickly. The others sped over, and within seconds they had easily doubled their height.

(For those not in the know, a Macready ring is a simple device that glider pilots use to fly faster. It is a calibrated dial that surrounds the variometer (vertical speed indicator), indicating the optimum airspeed for the anticipated conditions. In one method, the pilot sets the Macready ring to the expected strength
of the next thermal, so a Macready of +10 indicates that the pilot, or bird, in this case, anticipates very strong lift.)

The word from the club is that the Blanik might fly as early as today. But I was doing a Biennial Flight Review with a local pilot. He is retired engineer who built his own airplane, but we did the BFR in a Cessna 172. I knew it would go well when he showed up with two logbooks: a regular logbook and a soaring logbook.

My rule during BFRs is to let the pilot show me what he knows. It's OK to instruct, but it's a review, not instruction, so if someone has a reasonable way of doing things I say "Good job!"

We did the usual stalls and steep turns, and then we had the engine failure. He turned toward a nearby airport, and established a good glide speed while simultaneously saying "I'm checking the magnetos, I'm checking the fuel, I'm checking the mixture...," pantomiming the motions as he did so. He was the first pilot I've flown with in quite a while who did not need to be reminded to try to restart the engine. Good job!

He looked for wind markers, and entered the traffic pattern for the uncontrolled airport. There was a strong tailwind on the downwind, but he turned base and pointed for the runway.

"You look a little high," I said, "Aren't you afraid of overshooting?"

"Yeah, maybe we should slip." And he did a great slip!

Back at my airport, his patterns were continually high by power standards. On the first, I thought "We're too high and too close and I'll bet he'll have to go around." I said nothing. He touched down at the aim point. That's when I finally figured out that he was flying a glider pattern, while I was looking for an airplane pattern. And of course he was right, and I was the one who was learning something.

One of the things that instructors tell pilots over and over again is to fly the pattern within gliding range of the airport. But this is talk. Glider pilots learn to fly the pattern closer and higher, because while it is easy to lose altitude it is hard to regain altitude.

This pilot's glider training showed.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spring Weather

It's been a wonderful Spring day, and as soon as my classes and office hours were done I made an excuse to pop out to the airport. It wasn't hard; I had to pick up my paycheck.

The wind was pushing my little car around during the drive, but still I was disappointed that nobody was flying. Nobody. A little wind never hurt anybody! (The METAR said 27016G22Kt, pretty calm for this part of the world this time of year.)

The last airplane to move had been me, last night, having fun renewing my night currency.

With no flying, I did a little visiting and headed back to town. The clouds were building in all quadrants; the METAR said CB E-S MOV LTL, i.e., there were cumulonimbus clouds east through south, moving little.

One storm was building right on the airway to Salt Lake City. I reached for my phone to listen to Salt Lake Center to see who was diverting. This is not such a dumb idea, but we don't have that capability, yet. Maybe I should suggest it to LiveATC.net?

A better idea was to snap some pictures of the storm, as well as a screen capture of the National Weather Service radar.

The storm at left is the yellow blob by the 'M' in Malad City. The storm with the red at the left was hidden by the mountains; I only saw the tops.

The idea of a new GPS with XM weather sounds better and better.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Free Flight

My flying club does something smart: part of your monthly dues are forgiven if you do some flying. The idea is to encourage members to stay current. But in my mind it's still free flying.

After all this time, I still love that free flight. I love any free flight, except seat 32F in a Boeing 737 with a seat pitch so short that my knees are against the seat in front of me. A few years ago I needed to go to Salt Lake City to do some training of a pilot for the charter operator I worked for. It was a Saturday and my family had tickets to a play. I could have driven, but that would have meant having two cars in Salt Lake. I had jumpseat privileges on a regional that flew from home to SLC, so I got up early, went through the check-in rigamarole, and landed in Salt Lake in plenty of time to do the training flight. Then it was off to the theatre, with all of us in one car. And I got a free airplane ride!

(Jumpseating is reserved for personal use; if a company needs to move a pilot they are supposed to buy him or her a ticket. But the reason I jumpseated was for the play.)

With the club, I use the "free" flying for my IFR and night currency. But we had a recent change in insurance, and now club members also need to maintain currency in the Cherokee Six; if not, a flight with a CFI is required. So, I decided to switch my IFR and night currency flying to the Six. But I wasn't current.

But that's easy to fix; I headed out to the airport, knowing that there would be a CFI available, and of course I was right: the Chief Instructor was happy to ride around with me while I did some steep turns, stalls, and IFR approaches.

Maybe that wasn't a good idea? Why fly with the Chief Instructor and risk him finding out how bad I am? Ah, but I had signed him off for his CFI checkride, so maybe he owed me?

It was gusty and so the flying was fun. I stayed within ATP standards, barely. But I kept up my instrument currency and had a good time.

The bad news: the club is having some financial trouble, and we're stopping the dues discount. I'll have to look elsewhere for my free flights.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

I Can See Clearly Now

One of my favorite teaching techniques is not in the syllabus, but lots of instructors do it: find some aviation-related event a reasonable distance away, load up an airplane with students, and fly there. The students get a little extra practice with cross-country flying, they get to fly near maximum gross weight, they get to fly with an aft (but legal: I have them check) center of gravity, and we always have a good time.

One of my students asked about attending Dr. Michael Crognale's seminar on vision and flight, and suggested flying there. He liked the idea of taking someone else along, and plans were made.

The plans did not include the thunderstorm sitting along the route of flight. This was going to make things interesting.

We met and went over the weather. Destination and departure were forecast to be good VFR for the rest of the night, with showers in the vicinity. There was no weather forming behind the storm, and I ran my finger over a route that would miss the storm but get us there.

In my mind, this is "real world application of Aeronautical Decision Making." But this is a mouthful of educational jargon, which is usually a sign of trouble.

But that's when I did the smart thing. "Some airlines have a rule," I said, "that the most uncomfortable pilot makes the decision. Who's the most uncomfortable about this weather?"

This takes discipline: if I had been alone I would have flown. But the teaching point was more important than the flight.

"Call me chicken, but I don't like it," one said. "You've always said not to trust the forecast too much, just like on our cross-country." His long dual cross-country had involved a weather diversion, which was fine by me. Otherwise I would have had to make something up to force a diversion.

"Do you want to drive?"


So we drove. In his car.

The seminar was fascinating, and I highly recommend it. A few years ago I was involved in an image processing research project, so I thought I knew a lot about vision, but Crognale was knowledgeable and entertaining at the same time. He included a lot of fun demonstrations of the effects of accomodation on what we can perceive.

One take-away point was about cockpit lighting. Everyone's eyes react differently to color, and red lights really bother some pilots. His recommendation is to shorten the wavelength of the cockpit lighting as little as possible to make you comfortable; that is, try orange, then yellow, etc. But in any case, never use blue-green lighting; that destroys the most night vision, because of the response curve of the rods. Even white is better than blue-green.

I stopped carrying a red light a long time ago, and use a trick I learned reading Fate is the Hunter. I hold the flashlght between my fingers, and just let a small slit of light through. A lot of the light has to go through the webbing between my fingers, which means that the light I use is yellow-orange, an acceptable wavelength.

His explanation for the prevalence of blue-green cockpit lighting was as a spin-off from the requirements of military pilots wearing night vision goggles, but I'm not so sure. The King Airs I flew had blue-green cockpit lighting, and their design long predates NVGs. The King Air lighting always bothered me. I could turn off one of the panel floods, the worst offender, but there was still plenty of blue in the cockpit. And, I could never turn the lights down as far as I liked.

I was also reminded about a conversation I had with my eye doctor a few years ago. Referring to IFR charts, I said that I had trouble reading small print in dim light.

"Then don't do it!" he exclaimed. But I had no choice.

What I have yet to try is reading one of the charts I keep in my iPhone at night. These are mostly white, with some brown tints, but I'm afraid that the phone will be too bright and ruin my night vision. Oh, hey, this is an excuse to go flying some night soon!

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009


The Chief Pilot asked me into his office. I knew what was coming: he's had to furlough a couple of pilots, and I am due for recurrent training, and there's no room for a part-timer, and the training budget is tight, and ... in other words, I'm laid off.

Well, not really. One of my partners in the Jantar is really laid off and looking for a new job. (Anyone need an aeronautical engineer/CFIG?) I'm still a professor, and my family still eats if I don't fly. Besides, I am still instructing, and that is more fun.

Still, I would like to make this into an opportunity. I have done that before. A few years ago, I was chipping away at finishing my glider rating, complaining that I was flying too much to do any flying. Then I hit a medical certification stumbling block, and was on the beach for six months. That was the opportunity to finish my glider training.

Now I have the opportunity to explore all those great places I flew over from the ground. We already began with a hiking trip to Zion National Park over Spring Break. Then, my son and I took a nice hike the other day. The meadows were unusually green; they turn brown in early summer. We found a deer carcass. I reminded him to stay close to me, since we were in mountain lion country. I've flown over this valley dozens of times, but I never worried about mountain lions before. We also got to watch tumbleweeds circle overhead, pulled aloft by a rotating thermal.

I don't mean that I have never stopped to explore. It's just that exploration requires being in someplace for longer than a quick-turn, and there are cool places like Telluride and Sandpoint and Kallispell where I have only spent an hour or so. When I had more time on the ground, I really took advantage: trips into the Sierras meant snowshoeing, back-country skiing, and mountain biking. I've rented bikes in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, just to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I've gone on countless day hikes and been to countless museums. (Can you tell that I am in uniform in the hiking picture to the left?)

It's just a matter of seizing the opportunities.

The CP balked when I said "If I'm not on your certificate then I can fly for anyone I feel like." The owners don't like "moonlighting," but it's not moonlighting when they let you go. So, if you need a corporate pilot give me a shout!

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Just around the Corner??

The glider club had its first meeting of the season Wednesday night. Predictably, we raised the dues and complained about how expensive insurance is and speculated on the price of gas. We talked about winch launch, to relieve our poor tow pilots Larry and Kim from the their never-ending duty. (Larry did 211 tows last year with no incidents, quite a record!)

We have a bunch of prospective students, which is a problem for the tow pilot. In soaring, students fly in the morning (before the thermals start poppoing) and the more experienced pilots wait until later in the day aftert he thermals start popping. So when does the tow pilot get a life?

The problem right now is the weather. I drove home through snow, glad I hadn't flown (well, actually, the decision not to fly was pretty easy, given the forecast). I shoveled snow yesterday. We need to trailer the gliders to the airport and tie the Blanik down. I need to get current. We need to wait for the outlanding fields to dry out.

My EAA chapter is planning its first $100 hamburger run for this weekend. I think most of us will shovel the driveway and drive.

It's hard to be an optimist about the weather in the Rockies. But, really, it's just around the corner.