Thursday, July 29, 2010

Through A Glass, Darkly

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in 2006-7 the fatal accident rate for conventionally-equipped ("steam gauge") aircraft was 0.45 per 100,000 flight hours, while that for glass-paneled aircraft was 1.03 per 100,000 flight hours, more than double! [Aviation Week and Space Technology, July 26, 2010, p. 66]. The FAA and the NTSB have squabbling in their mutual genes, and the FAA says that it has done something about the problem by revising the Practical Test Standards (which detail the level of skills that pilots must show to get a new rating) and the Instrument Flying Handbook [H-8083-15A].

Of course both are right. The Instrument Flying Handbook does a great job of explaining how to use glass, but aside from instrument instructors, few pilots read it, although they should. And most pilots, even may professional pilots, forget all about the PTS once the check ride is passed. So maybe the next generation will use these tools more effectively.

The problem is with legacy pilots like me. I got my instrument rating in 1985, while EFIS was nothing but a gleam in some engineer's eye. I used VOR, ILS, DME, and ADF. I lost my instrument rating in 1993 when I became an ATP. To do that I used VOR, ILS, DME, and ADF, supplemented by a VFR-only GPS receiver that had no moving map.

Then one day I found myself going to Santa Monica (KSMO) in an EFIS-equipped King Air. The company had just bought it, and I had read the manual backwards and forwards. But between the early departure, the unfamiliarity, the pace of flying in the LA Basin, and the empty right seat, the odds were stacked against me. I programmed the route before I left, and enroute I managed to load the approach. It was a morning arrival and SMO was predictably under the marine layer. There was traffic everywhere, my airspeed was high at ATC's request, I was descending, and I was busy squinting through the haze looking for traffic and the airport. I was way behind the airplane.

But no matter; it just turned final without me.

The key to this (just barely) success story was that I had spend hundreds or even thousands of hours flying with various IFR-certified GPS units. My habit was to load an approach every time I arrived, whether IFR or VFR. "It's clear and a million!" people flying with me would chide. "It will be winter someday," I answered.

The great chef Escoffier said that one does not know how to cook a dish until one has cooked it 1,000 times.
I say that one does not know how to load an approach until one has loaded an approach 1,000 times.

The key to flying glass safely is practice and training. New pilots get it, because they are new; old timers like me need to make sure that we get it on our own. And, judging by the people at my home field who have glass cockpits, they are not doing so.

The same applies in the glider world. At a recent SSA contest, one of the contestants was selling the latest glass for sailplanes. These are complex units, incorporating the ship's performance, the terrain, and the winds aloft, and after each day's flying I saw him sitting and demonstrating what the unit he was selling could do. He was super-proficient at navigating the pages and punching the buttons.

But he landed out at least once, too.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Tanking Up

Yesterday's training flight brought me a lot closer to total instrument proficiency, although I still have a way to go. My goal is perfection, a goal impossible to reach; the value is in the trying. With the medical problems both my currency and proficiency lapsed, despite some work with various Flight Training Devices (aka simulators).

I did not make things easy for myself. First, all of our club planes are tied up, so I rented a 172XP. I've flown this XP a lot, but never IFR. Unfamiliarity with avionics is a link in a lot of accident chains. In this case I said "Where is the ADF needle?" out loud, but that's the same kind of confusion you see when someone doesn't understand what, say, a Garmin 430 is showing, or how to get it to do what you want. Time spent looking for a needle in a haystack is time not spent managing the airplane. And, with no autopilot, not managing the airplane meant that my heading control was by no means perfect.

Of course it was hard to tell what my heading was: This XP's heading indicator precesses too quickly.

The airplane has no DME and I was using a handheld GPS as training substitute. Between the NOS approach book and the GPS my lap was pretty full. The polite phrase for this disorganized behavior is what the Practical Test Standards now call Single Pilot Resource Management. I'm planning to buy a new GPS, so this area will need some more work. I can use my struggle with it to help my students, especially the ones with their own planes, which tend to have every portable toy available. (The worst I ever saw was the owner of TBM-700 who, despite having every Moving Map, Primary Function Display, and Multi Function Display known to humanity installed in his panel, got lost while being vectored for an ILS.)

The wind was an issue, too, in a good way: a strong westerly flow that distorted my mostly north-south approaches, and made timing in the hold tricky (outbound groundspeed 80, inbound groundspeed 140). That's just good practice.

I flew one approach to an airport just north, planning to intercept the transition for the ILS back home. The first approach went fine, despite the spinning heading indicator and large wind correction angles, because I used the GPS "track" display to make sure that we were moving in the right direction. I started the published missed approach, and tried to tune the VOR for the transition. The NAV flag stayed visible and there was no ID, although I didn't remember seeing a NOTAM in my DUATS briefing.

It was time for plan B. I tuned the ADF to the outer marker for the ILS and headed there. This was a fine plan, except for something else that was not in my briefing. Fire season has begun, although due to El Niño and a late monsoon it is starting late. There were two heavy tankers (P-3s) and two SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) working the fire, and they were coming back just a little east of the localizer. I had a good safety pilot and we spotted everyone, but I have done a lot of fire fighting and know that the tanker crews are busy; holding at the marker would definitely be in their way. (I checked: there was no Temporary Flight Restriction last night, although there is one this morning.)

So now it was time for Plan C: hold at the VOR, then head out for the ILS.

You just don't get this kind of rapid decision making in any of the simulator scripts I have followed. The simulator has a lot of value, but in any case you have to fly to get the full picture

After we were done, Dan (who is not instrument rated) asked me how often I fly approaches in IMC. The answer was embarrassing: the last one was about two years ago. My medical difficulties explained a lot of this, but still...two years? I had filed IFR in that time, and flown plenty in IMC, but always got a visual approach. When I flew King Airs or freight I flew a lot of approaches, but I haven't been PIC of a King Air in a few years. My personal flying is in airplanes that cannot handle ice, so the winter is dicey at best. We tend to vacation to the east; if we took a trip to the Oregon coast there would be plenty of approaches.

Be that as it may, I am current and ready. The trick will be to keep the tank full and stay that way. I wonder if my wife would like a trip to Oregon for her birthday?

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Missed Approach Fix

With the explosion of RNAV approaches, which end at a "Missed Approach WayPoint", the phrase "Missed Approach Fix" has become deprecated. But yesterday's training flight brings to mind two new meanings.

Many of us think of flying as an addiction, and with my new medical certificate I have finally been able to get a "fix." Yesterday, another pilot-professor at my university and I rented a Cessna 172 and headed out for the proverbial $100 hamburgers. Actually, I chose the heart-healthier $100 turkey sandwich. Anyway, one of my great passions is instrument flight, and I needed a couple of approaches to stay current. Boy, I've sure missed my approach fix!

Training without a debrief is almost useless, so this morning I went over the approach plates to see how I'd done.

The hold at the marker and the ILS went pretty well: I blame the one-dot deviation at 400' AGL on wind shear [insert sheepish grin here]. Then I headed out for a VOR approach. I've posted the libretto to the left so you can follow along. I was a little rushed (after all, it was lunchtime and I was hungry), but intercepted the radial and flew the procedure turn as charted.

I consistently asked Dan to clear my turns. This is one of my markers for instrument proficiency and situational awareness: when a student warns me about an upcoming turn I know that she or he has enough mental capacity left over for some situational awareness. If the student is saturated, there will be no warning.

I called the tower procedure turn inbound, got established and descended to 4920' MSL way too early, so Dan got a nice view of the tree tops as we flew along. I figured that 3DME would make a good visual decent point (VDP), and things were a little busy so when I got there I took off the hood and landed.

Looking back, I completely ignored the AZAJI fix minimums! I had DME (actual DME, not a GPS!), so I could have descended to 4640' MSL! So while my approach was "legal", it wasn't efficient because I had missed a fix on the approach!

Two missed approach fixes on one flight, one positive, one negative. So the day was neutral, right? No: when I got out my log book I realized that I needed three approaches for currency.

That means I get to go flying again!

By the way, I have really learned a lot from the newsletter. It highlights changes and trends in procedures for aircraft with more advanced avionics.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Hate It When That Happens

Someone on my twitter feed recommended a video on flying missed approaches, and I was all set to cut-and-paste it into the blog right here. But I watched it first and decided to reject it. The video, not the landing, that is.

Missed approach - when you get to the bottom of an instrument approach and don't see what you need to see (which, in the USA, is set out in 14CFR91.175, or, more colloquially, "THE RUNWAY") - is a tricky maneuver. From my first day as an instrument instructor I emphasized what was at stake: you are low and lost. But this does not mean that you panic: every approach ends in a missed approach, and "briefing" [airline pilot talk for "preparing"] the missed approach is part of briefing the approach. In fact, during my one-and-only-airline interview, some of the pilots in the sim check had to fly the missed approach, because they had not briefed it. A clear case of appropriate consequences for misbehaving.

With this in mind, the missed approach is not a panic maneuver. But this video recommends "cramming" the throttle forward, and the pilot's hand reaches for the flap handle much too quickly. Plus, my sensibilities are offended when someone in training utters the phrase "going missed." This is no time to sound cool; this is time to be cool, meaning disciplined, and using the proper phraseology.

What's wrong with cramming? A lot of my IFR time is in Senecas and King Airs; in either one of those, "cramming" the throttles (or power levers, as appropriate) will hurt something. Advance the power slowly and smoothly.

And the clean up? Barring engine failure, there is no hurry to reconfigure. In fact, you often have to wait. In the Seneca we typically flew the ILS indicating 120 knots, but the maximum gear retraction speed is 107. If you try to raise the gear right away, you will hurt something.

As for flaps, raising flaps induces a pitch change and, in some airplanes, causes some sink. Neither one of these is much fun when you are in the clouds down low.

So, climb to a safe altitude, then clean up.

I'm flying some practice approaches tomorrow, for the first time in a while. That is an appropriate time to cram!

[Addendum] After the original post, I checked some other videos of missed approaches on YouTube. One in a B737 simulator has the Pilot Flying calling "Flaps Up! Gear Up!" while the voice from the radio altimeter is saying "100 feet [AGL]." Now I'm not qualified in the 73, so maybe this is correct, but I doubt it. Correct me if I am wrong.

I was once a passenger on an MD-80 that had a bird strike seconds before touchdown at Oakland. The crew went around, and flew the whole visual pattern with gear down and landing flaps. Why? They were afraid of structural damage, so wisely decided to leave the airplane in a known flyable configuration.

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