Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Active 8s

The authorization for my medical arrived Friday, but I couldn't see the AME [Flight Surgeon, for those overseas] until Tuesday. Success!

I could see thunderstorms moving in as I drove from his office directly to the airport. The radar showed that the cells might pass to the west. Nope, that was wishful thinking. As I took the highway exit I drove right into the gust front with it gusty winds and blowing dust that made me fear for my car's paint. Nope, not tonight.

But I went out this morning and did steep turns, lazy 8s, and a few landings. All by myself.

The turns were easy for a glider pilot, and the Lazy 8s got better as I went along. What do you do to knock the rust off?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Old Times

My club washed the airplanes the other evening, and, especially when the weather is nice, airplane washing is inevitably followed by airplane drying, in other words, airplane flying. Since my medical is still in limbo I had another member ride around with me while I did some practice approaches. Even though I flew to ATP standards there was a lot of rust evident, but that's another story.

When flying an Instrument Landing System approach, it's nice to know your groundspeed so you can pick a proper descent rate. Since this was spur-of-the-moment, I did not have my GPS, and the DME readout on our Archer is a little bit, ah, flaky. How did I determine my groundspeed?

Take a look at this picture of my watch (Yes, I wear a Breitling, thanks to a generous wife!) The outer scale is a tachymeter, which is Latin for "speediness measurer thingy." You start the stopwatch and run it for one mile; at that point, the hand points to the speed made good. In the picture it's about 97 units, and in the airplane I know that the units are nautical miles. So my groundspeed was about 100.

(The principle here is the same as a ship's log: the number of seconds it takes the ship to travel its (known) length is translated into an actual speed. In ships they threw a log overboard at the bow and calibrated the knots on the rope so that each knot represented one nautical mile per hour. That's the basis of our modern terms "log" and "knot." I suppose you could do the same in an airplane by releasing a balloon and seeing how long it took to pass the balloon. This would give you a direct measure of true airspeed.)

This was the first time I had ever actually used the tachymeter in flight. In the early days of DME they were popular, because the early units only gave you distance, so it was nice to be able to determine a groundspeed quickly.

It's even nicer to be able to fly!

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Attitude Check

A lot of flight instructors (CFIs) give advice on Twitter (I am @DrATP, by the way), and this week a lot of it was wrong. Well, not exacly wrong, but it was not helpful.

I teach Mathematics, Computer Science, and Flying. Only the last one involves muscles and only the last one can kill you (despite how you felt in any Math class you took). I take a different approach to each subject, and think hard about how to do each one better. Here's one big rule of flight instruction that I picked up along the way and adopted quickly:

Don't teach what to do: teach how to do it.

This means something different for each student. For a presolo student, it's "Don't pull so hard." Around solo, it becomes "The nose is too high." A Commercial student might hear "You're pitching up too quickly." For an ATP it could be "V2 is 121 knots." In flying, the instructor changes to accomodate the needs of the student, not vice-versa.

(This is part of what I like about Part 61 flight instruction. At the university, or in a more-structured Part 141 program, the student changes to accomodate the needs of the instructor, who represents the needs of the program. In a structured curriculum the instructor must move on, even if some students don't understand.)

So all of a sudden I'm reading a lot of CFI tweets about flying the right airspeed in an emergency: that's telling you what to do.

I teach my students to fly the right attitude in an emergency: that's how to do it, but it's also easier and safer. And more of interest to the instructor than the student is that the lesson transfers to other parts of flying: fly attitude, not airspeed. So when I teach a multiengine student about Vyse, the proper speed for best climb performance after one engine fails, I teach him or her to fly the right attitude, not the right airspeed.

Of course it would be irresponsible of me to stop there. First of all, it's difficult to nail the attitude exactly, although usually people are too fast (which has a minimal impact on performance) rather than a little too slow (which really hurts performance). So, at some point the pilot has to fine-tune the airspeed. In the meantime, he or she has started to look for a place to land (better yet, turned toward the place they picked out before the engine failed), or even started to troubleshoot the problem.

The alternative goes like this: I fail the engine. The student raises the nose and stares at the airspeed indicator, looking for 60. When the indicator says 60 the airspeed is more like 55. "Too slow!" they think, so lower the nose until it reads 60. But by then the speed is back to 65. "Too fast!" they think. This continues ad impacto.

The hard part about instructing is seeing that what is so blankety-blank-blank obvious to you is not at all obvious to the student. This one certainly applies in Mathematics! But it applies to flying, too. We instructors need to look at things through the student's eyes, not our.

I'll close with a funny dialog between me and a student I was training in a 182. He pulled the throttle back a loooooong way on descent.

"One inch a minute, remember?" I said. This is the desired change in manifold pressure.

"I did that," he replied.

"No, that was more like five inches."

"No, I pulled it back one inch!" he insisted, and mimed the throttle travel.

And he was right: there was only one inch of throttle travel. Ever since then, I tell pilots "One inch of manifold pressure a minute." You get the idea, I hope.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making Mountains out of Molehills

I hate personal whining in blogs, but allow me to say briefly that the FAA "has done a lot of work" on my medical; I might hear something as soon as next week.

In the meantime I have gone to work resurrecting and redesigning a mountain flying course that I used to give. I created it for retail customers, and later made it part of the single-engine 135 syllabus. The new-hire charter pilots usually had about 600 hours and were active instructors, so they were sharp on the CFI stuff like short field landings and steep turns, but weren't ready for flying the fire patrols and Fish and Game flights that were the source of the single engine charters. So we reviewed mountain flying techniques ("Always be in a position where you can turn toward lower terrain"), then headed to the airplanes (182s).

The flying part was fun, and eye-opening. I would fly them into a bowl (there was a nice one within 10 miles of our home airport), and have them pick an escape heading; that would be where the terrain was most manageable. Mountain flying is like a pact with the Devil, and like "Shoeless" Joe Boyd in Damn Yankees you always need to have an escape clause in the contract.

We'd fly around the bowl for a while, admiring the scenery. Then "Put on the hood."

"What?" They all said that.

"Put on the hood."

And so they did.

Then came the eye-opening part. I hoped that they would immediately climb and turn toward the escape heading, but no pilot I ever trained did both, and many did neither. They just flew along, holding heading and altitude, as if all of a sudden this had become an instrument lesson. I would let the mountain get really big in the windshield, then have them take off the hood.

It was like the reveal in Trading Spaces. "Oh my God!" they all said, even the most devout non-swearers.

"That's why you pick an escape heading," I would say, and then we would go on to the next exercise.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oh, the Humanity!

The day after the Hindenburg accident, the Boston Globe ran a small story under the head "18 Major Dirigible Disasters Have Marked Last 23 Years." The list included the 1935 crash of the Macon (the site was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places), the 1930 crash of the R-101, and so forth, the first being the 1912 crash of the Akron.

And while the latest disaster involves no bodily harm, I was saddened to read on the blog that the Nippon Airship Corporation had ceased operations. Their website returns a bogus 403 error (it's actually their webpage, not a server response). I can't find any news about what will happen to the ship (NT Serial Number 2).



Friday, June 11, 2010

Manifest Destiny

Family vacations these days mean lots of 737 time, in the back. And since the FAA seems to be in no particular hurry to grant me a medical certificate (150+ pages of "normal" evidently not being enough), and since we do not have any soaring weather predicted until next week, 737 time is all I'm going to get.

My daughter is a little bit of an airplane nerd. As we settled in for the first leg, she asked "How much does the airplane weight right now?" What a great question from a 7th grader!

"Oh, I don't know, maybe 120,000 pounds. We'll ask in the cockpit after we land."

So we settled in with our books and iPods and watched the scenery go by. For the life of me I can't explain why before an airline trip I go to Flight Aware and get our clearance (I do it on my iPhone, and take a screen capture of yesterday's route), so I sometimes look out the window and pretend to navigate. Back in the VOR days (Doesn't that make me sound old? How about "Back in the days of the four-course range..."?) you might actually spot a VOR, but now we pass RNAV waypoints like KAADE that are really defined as x-, y-, and z-coordinates in an Earth Centered-Earth Fixed coordinate system.

As we filed out of the 737 she got shy so I went to the cockpit by myself. Only the FO remained.

"Do you happen to remember our takeoff weight? My daughter, who is getting shy, wanted to know. And I had a guess."

"What was your guess?"

"About 120."

"Not bad." He started to go through the little bag of trash that airline pilots always manage to leave behind. "Here, here's our loading schedule. It was 125,658 pounds. You should have bet her!"

He handed me the loading schedule. "Keep it," he said, "And, oh, here's our dispatch, keep that, too."

During my days flying Part 135 I was a perhaps too much of a stickler for paperwork. "Pilots get busted for paperwork," I told everyone, "so protect yourself." Our systems were manual and more than cumbersome. You had to get the aircraft configuration out of the maintenance log, enter that onto the manifest, read off the empty weight and empty moment, and then start the weight-and-balance calculation. If the maintenance log didn't agree with the manifest, the FAA could bust you. If you were over maximum zero fuel weight, the FAA could bust you. If your listed takeoff time happened to be a time when the field was below minimums (another complex calculation), the FAA could bust you. As check airman I made sure that everyone did this all correctly, once, but who knew what happened when I wasn't watching?

I kept trying to design new forms that pilots would actually use. There was a "Life Flight Shift Briefing" form, which summarized weather at our typical destinations, MEL items, and the like. Looking at it now (I changed the names to protect the innocent) it seems rather simple. But nobody used it. Nor did they use the passenger briefing cards, flight planning forms, duty time calculators, altitude optimizers, or any of the other stuff.

(To make up for this, I did a monthly newsletter with the subtitle All flying, no paperwork that covered emergencies, weather, and other techniques. People read that one. It was the precursor to this blog.)

This airline gave the pilots everything I would have wanted. ICAO and FAA flight plans. Mode S transponder code. Minimum Equipment List items. Fuel planning. Takeoff and landing data. A navigation log, just like the ones you did as a student pilot. Information comparing terrain to service ceiling. Plus company contact information and company NOTAMs.

A person could get used to flying that way. Even if it is from somewhere in the back.

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