Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reverse Sensing

I've been flying various models of Piper singles and twins since my first introductory lesson in a Cherokee 140 in 1970 or so.  Most of them have an autopilot, and the autopilot has strengths and weaknesses.  When I was a check airman in Senecas the FAA required everyone to demonstrate a "coupled" approach, that is, an instrument approach flown by the autopilot.  We studied the limitations and regulations (mostly about minimum altitude for autopilot use).  And we knew that they were sometimes flaky, so I always told the pilots I was checking "If you do the right thing but it doesn't then you pass."

So I thought I knew the autopilot well.

But there I was this morning, approaching Idaho Falls from the south. "Make straight-in approach runway 2," the tower told me, and since it is my habit to brief an instrument approach for every arrival, I had the approach programmed both in the VHF navigation instruments and in my GPS, even thought the weather was CAVU. "I'll just follow the back course," I said to myself.

I had the autopilot in heading mode for the approach brief (hand-flying while briefing an approach makes life too difficult) and went to adjust the heading bug to track the back course. "Hmm," I thought, "in all these years I have never put the autopilot into 'LOC REV' mode." This is supposed to track the backcourse by using reverse sensing.

So I tried it for the first time.

It worked great.

There's always something new to learn.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 27, 2010

Who's Got The Touch?

What is it about flying that feels so good? We've both puzzled over this for years, right?

I appreciate a pretty mountain valley, breaking out of an ILS at minimums, sunrise over the Tetons, and the other wonderful sights we see from the air. Circling with other gliders is a beautiful, dynamic (and dangerous: there was a fatal mid-air in Texas in August) delight for the eyes.

I appreciate the wonderful people I've met through flying, and even the not-so-wonderful ones (I remember thinking "Now I know why your wife divorced you" while one difficult student flew.) I wouldn't give that up for anything.

Instead I wonder about how flying feels.

The aeronautical engineer wannabe in me has a rational reply: Flying straight and level means that you don't feel anything. It's no different from sitting in the living room. There are no accelerations or forces. In gliders there is little vibration. No, there is nothing to feel about flying.


Some kind of feeling is coming back to us through the stick or yoke. No, that's not right, you don't even have to have your hand on the controls. Once, back in the pre-9/11 days, I was jumpseating (that is, riding in the cockpit) in a Boeing 737 from San Francisco to San Diego. The 73 was familiar, as were both airports, and I was focused on the transportation (and being in San Diego for Spring Break!), not flying.

We taxied to runway 1L, all very familiar, while the captain and first officer ran their checklists. "United blah-blah-blah turn left heading two-niner-zero, runway one left, clear for takeoff." Oh this is just too boring and routine. Yawn.

The captain advanced the power levers. Wait, there's no flight director; she's staring at a plain attitude indicator. Is this a mistake? Should I say something? I decide to keep my peace. We start to roll. "V1," says the FO, then quickly, "Rotate!"

And then I knew: she had the touch. As I looked out the side window at the familiar GA parking area, although from an unfamiliar angle, I felt that this airplane was in the hands of a master. The rest of the flight went the same way.

So what is this "touch" that you can feel even from the jumpseat? I think it's related to another touch, the healing touch. I've felt this from a few physicians. My childrens's pediatrician is a former big-10 quarterback. Once as I left his office with one my children he patted me on the shoulder to wish me well. He has the touch! He can heal just by "laying on hands." Send your children to this guy.

Most of us don't have this touch. That does not mean that we cannot be good pilots, and it does not mean that we cannot fly smoothly; it just means that we have to to work harder at it.  And it means that we have to find joy in that work.

But what kind of work? I had a recent revelation about this. I have practiced Tai Chi Ch'uan, the Chinese martial art, for many years. I don't make a big deal of this, and many people have no idea that I do it. Tai Chi has improved my balance and proprioception, and I am at least a little more relaxed. I've also made good friends through Tai Chi.

The center of Tai Chi practice is the form. Different schools have slightly different forms, but no matter the specifics the form is essential. One of the too many things we try to be aware of in practicing the form is what one teacher calls "The Tai Chi ball": At certain points, your hands (relaxed into the beautiful lady's wrist position) face each other. You can feel something there, which of course you cannot see. That's the Tai Chi ball. Some days it's large, some days it's smaller, some days it's vibrating. But there's nothing there!

In Aikido there is a similar concept of the unbendable arm: Imagine water shooting out your fingers to a point across the room, and suddenly your arm becomes infinitely strong. I use this during the trickier balance portions of tehe Tai Chi form, shooting water to the ceiling and using that to hold myself upright. I once described this to a teacher as "cheating", but she just shrugged.

Many martial arts have forms that one tries to master, always falling short. Some days I practice the Tai Chi form, some days I practice the ILS. Are these so different? One friend, a straight-arrow farm boy who now captains an RJ, once remarked that he flew a lot better when he didn't let his shoulders tense up. Musicians say the same thing.

And the connection between martial arts and Chinese calligraphy go back for centuries. My friend's relaxed his shoulders before hand-flying an ILS in 1/4 mile visibility (yes, I was in the airplane), and the great calligraphers have to reach that same state in order to draw that expressive line.

The point? Flying can be an art like any other. And while we need to master the technicalities, we also need to master the art. As the current cliche goes, "right brain - left brain." Or "yin-yang." Take your pick.

Dave English uses his site hikoudo.com to explore the Zen of Flying. It's worth a look.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guidance Counsellor

Well, kids, school's starting up again and it's time to pay a little visit to the guidance counsellor. At my high school we didn't have one; it was private and academically-oriented and all of us went to college; in fact, more than half went on for advanced degrees. College guidance was handled by the Headmaster's secretary who had an uncanny ability to size us up without us noticing that she had done so. And, she provided beautiful calligraphic transcripts to support our applications. My high school transcript looks like a medieval manuscript, although I'm thankful there are no dragons in the margin.

I recently spent a day at the Eastern Idaho State Fair, working the booth for the FBO where I teach. Even during slow times you hear interesting flying questions. Being a State Fair there were a lot of "How can I become an Ag Pilot?" questions, which I answered as well as I could. There were no questions about other aviation careers, which didn't surprise me because people with Shiny Jet Syndrome don't usually like to associate with goats and chickens until they get along in their careers and realize they miss life on the farm. I take that back: one of the instructors from our other base, who is also a freight dog, talked about how satisfying he found that work, and we reminisced about some of the old freight dogs whose happiest flying days were before they took the airline job.

All of the other questions were more difficult. I ran into two kinds of pilots and pilots-to-be: people who wanted to fly for the sheer joy of it, and people who wanted to fly to support a travel bug, whether professional or personal. For example, out here in the empty part of the country a lot of medical people either fly or get flown to hold clinics in towns too small to support a full-timer. Businesses have far-flung clients, and retailers have far-flung stores. It's not Alaska but in the aviation sense you can see it from here.

So I made up the following list of pilot ``tracks." I think they all sound terrific, but many people find that one of them fits best.

  • Professional Pilot Corporate, Charter or Airline pilots must go through the rating sequence private, instrument, commercial, multiengine
  • Travelling Pilot This is the person with a far-flung business or a golf addiction, someone who has to get there as often as possible. He or she needs to be a private pilot with an instrument rating
  • Working Pilot This person does agricultural work, banner towing, heli-logging and the like, and needs private and commercial, but no instrument rating.
  • Family pilot This is someone who wants to load the family into the airplane and head out to Disneyland or the beach or the back-country. This flying requires a private pilot certificate, and an instrument rating is nice.
  • Fun pilot These are people like homebuilders, sightseers, and $100 hamburg addicts. They fly day VFR only, like to keep their skills up so do a lot of local flying, and maybe take one or two long cross-countries a year with a buddy. This flying requires a light sport certificate only!

Every year at the Fair I hear a lot of people say "I would love to fly but they won't let me." This refers to some medical condition that would have been grounding even a few years ago. They don't know about the Special Issuance process (which enabled me to fly a King Air after bypass surgery), and it's too expensive for what they want to do anyway. And they haven't heard the news about Light Sport flying. There is so much fun to be had without a medical certificate and with no danger to the public, as long as the Light Sport limitations are observed: two seats, day VFR, not in furtherance of a business, etc.

I've owned a light sport airplane (Taylorcraft BC12D) and fly another (Ercoupe) regularly. These airplanes are fun, and an adventurous soul with the time can do some travelling, too. I never took my T-craft to Oshkosh (although I dearly wanted to), but I did take it to Montana and to the California coast and all over Idaho and Utah. The Ercoupe is a little faster and with no pedals a little more comfortable, and the CT that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago is even faster.

The dilemma? My FBO doesn't offer any light sport flying, and I dutifully steered people toward the private pilot certificate. We'll see how many get the word.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Source of Lift

I was supposed to fly to our other campus today, as usual. The weather is low VFR to IFR with some rain, but I am instrument current and proficient. There might be a thunderstorm but the trip is so short that I am sure that I can avoid them based on preflight radar checks. There is no chance of icing.

So why did I decide to cancel the flight and drive?

Because I ran out of money.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

CT Scan

I showed up at the airport for my weekly commute to our other campus and found a Flight Design CT parked on the ramp. I knew right away that I would be impressed because it was parked facing in the opposite direction from everyone else, which was into the wind.

Flight Design claims a cruise speed of 115KTAS at 75% power, which means burning 5.5gph. It has a 6 hour range. This is not a toy. Better yet, it had an all-glass panel, so one could really learn to fly 21st Century style. It's certified as a Special-LSA so you can't fly it IFR, but you could still learn a lot about modern IFR flying.

The pilots -- two of them -- were delivering it from Michigan to Oregon. Despite the fancy glass, through, they had a bunch of sectional charts laid out on a table and were picking a route through the mountains of Idaho and Oregon. I offered some local advice, which turned out to be exactly what they were planning. Like I said, smart guys!

The sectional charts intrigue me, because as much as I am enjoying my new Garmin I find that I can't let go of the paper. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to get across the Wyoming Range, and couldn't find the route I liked on the Garmin; a quick look at a sectional reminded me of the route I had used many times.

The other day I was in a similar situation (mountains between here and there) and tried the Terrain page to see if that would helped. I didn't need help; I could see my house, and I knew how to navigate back to the airport. But the only way to get to know a new tool is to use it in a situation where you know the right answer and then compare what it says to what you know.

In this case, the correspondence was good enough, but I'll still need more practice before I get to be more confident in it.

Another thing about the Garmin: I'll be flying along and get some bright idea (in other words, stupid idea) about something I would like it to do for me. So I start searching the menus for the "Airport Restaurant Tip Calculator" or some other obscure feature. This is a good time for the autopilot to be on; otherwise the heading will wander. Substantially.

But none of the airplanes I fly regularly has altitude hold. So far, every bright idea for the Garmin costs me 200 feet. That has to improve...

Labels: ,