Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mirror Image

The arrival of a large check brought my Accounts Receivable balance to zero, and flush with cash I set out to keep my instrument currency.  Instrument practice on a CAVU day requires a safety pilot, and so I started calling my flying friends.  Dale was eager to join me, so we made the arrangements.

Dale and I are among the most prolific contributors to our EAA chapter's newsletter, so I should have expected him to write a flight report. With his permission I present it below.

For me every moment is a teaching moment, and I recommend that you do what Dale and I did: Fly with a friend and read his or her report about your flying. It's good to get that kind of perspective on how you do it.

Oh, skip the 'teaching moment' stuff: It was a fun afternoon!

I went flying with Jim Wolper today as his safety pilot. This is a last minute deal and I have to rearrange some other commitments, but it works out to meet halfway at Blackfoot at 3:00. I arrive a little early when Jim calls to say the Cherokee Six won’t start, so he will have to fly the Archer, like a rich guy deciding what plane to fly today. I drop in on Richard Neves and chat with him and some of his students until I hear Jim announcing on the radio so I go to meet him. He is very cheerful to get some ‘flight therapy’ and eager to try his new GPS, programming it while we wait to take off. Jim gives a running narrative on his actions, probably from his background as an instructor. The sun is straight ahead and causes Jim problems with the glare and with his foggles. These are problems that don’t occur in real instrument conditions. The first approach is an ILS at PIH. Tower asks if he has the current information after he already told them we did in his first call. This is routine anymore. Is there a problem with the localizer and glide slope? The needles seem stuck in the middle. I accuse Jim of having done this before and he says the Archer is an easy instrument platform, but not as easy as a King Air. He elects to touch and go; the first time I have seen this done to finish an instrument approach. We fly nearly to American Falls and turn back in, making an approach that does not seem to be designed to be followed by a landing. Then back to U02 for a GPS approach. On the way Jim flies some VFR, and we divert under a small cloud to prove a point but the outcome is indecisive. We are set up for a straight in, but Jim decides to fly the pattern instead. Richard Neves waits for takeoff with a student while we go around. By now it is a little bumpy with a crosswind but Jim ‘chirps it on’ and we retire to the lounge for snacks and conversation. Richard comes back in the 150 and makes a good landing himself. After chatting with the new owners of the 150 we all get out of the wind in Richards’s hangar for some more hangar flying. I’m glad I was able to take part in this adventure.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The recent tragedy in Tucson has left six dead and many injured, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. This is an aviation blog (more recently, more of an aerospace blog), and I am not going to add any more ignorance to the public debate about political rhetoric and violence. But this tragic event has an aerospace connection: Congresswoman Giffords is married to astronaut Mark Kelly.

I met Mark once. Driving up to the airport for a flight with a student, I saw a NASA T-38 parked on the ramp. This is not unheard of, but it's not common either. There had been some mixup about whether a pneumatic starter was available, and after a fuel stop the T-38 was stuck.

"Boy, that guy's really angry," my student said. Not knowing who was on board, I opined that anyone who had a T-38 as personal transportation was probably headed Someplace Important, and the government was losing a lot of money.

I took a picture of Dennis standing next to the airplane and we headed out for our training flight. The NASA plane was still there when we returned. We debriefed the lesson and headed to the lobby. Mark was sitting there at the weather computer.

I walked up and introduced myself as a local instructor. "Look," I said, this isn't the kind of airport we abandon a stranded pilot. We're headed out to lunch -- it's decent Mexican food -- do you want to join us?"

He graciously declined, saying that the needed equipment would be there soon.

And now Mark's wife lies in a hospital room with a questionable prognosis. The availability of a pneumatic starter is trivial in comparison. He is scheduled to command the final mission of the shuttle Discovery, which was supposed to launch late last year. The prospect of a family catastrophe must weight heavily on the minds of those who head to orbit. But Discovery has cracks in its fuel tank and is grounded until sometime later this Spring, so Mark is at her side.

Certainly nobody has asked my opinion, but I have one: I think Mark should stay behind when Discovery is ready. Let me explain.

Many years ago I was intensively training for my Airline Transport Pilot practical test. My training plan was unusual, but it seemed like it was going to be successful. The company had several scheduled freight runs in Senecas, and every morning I would wait for one to return and go fly one instrument approach with the freight dog as safety pilot. The idea was to simulate day-by-day operations as closely as possible, and in that way develop the intuitive connection between pilot and airplane one needs to fly with that level of precision.

As the great chef Escoffier said, a chef must prepare a dish 1,000 times before he knows how to prepare it.

And I was ready. The week before my checkride, though, my mother fell ill and was in the hospital. I called and told her that I would postpone the test and come visit her during her recovery.

"No, no," she said, "This is nothing. Go ahead and take your test."

Unless your mother is a CFI you should ignore her advice on flying. But I didn't. The morning of the test arrived. The Examiner and I tussled about Minimum Equipment Lists (he had clearly never worked with one) and I fumbled a question about prop de-ice, so we were even and went flying.

"Steep turn!" he commanded.

I rolled into a steep turn, just like the thousand steep turns I had done before. Only this time was different: I lost control of the airspeed, then the altitude, and ended up losing 300 feet, a performance worthy of a pre-solo student. I guess he chalked it up to nerves and we continued the test. But everything else went the same way. I flew home at low altitude with my first (and only) pink slip. I failed.

A couple of weeks later my mother had recovered and I took the test again, passing easily.

We teach our students to be aware of the effect that emotions have on flying, but there are more forms of get-home-itis than just scud running. I was in a hurry to get my ATP. I rewrote the lyrics to Dire Straits's "I want my M-T-V" to "I want my A-T-P", and sang it will scooting across the desert in my Taylorcraft. My wife was pregnant with twins. School was starting. I pressed and pressed and pressed and, in the end, I broke.

Mark's wife is sicker than my mother was, and the final mission of the shuttle Discovery is much more important than my ATP. He's getting pulled hard in both directions. The chance of failure on his part is high.

Should he fly?

How can he pass up the chance for a last ride to space, the last chance for a long time? How much training time will be lost if the commander calls it quits?

But he is no more fit to fly than if that bullet had passed all the way through his own brain. It will take the kind of selfless courage we expect of our best leaders for him to ground himself. As much as it will sadden me to hear of him doing so, I hope he does.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Math Myths

Bruce Landsberg wrote about Math Myths in this month's AOPA Pilot. Here is the letter to the editor I sent about the column.

Since I am both a CFI and a mathematics professor, I was intrigued by Bruce Landsberg’s “Math Myths” column in January’s AOPA Pilot.

The FAA’s Aviation Instructor’s Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) details four levels of learning: rote, understanding, application, and correlation. Landsberg emphasizes the rote part of learning, which is unusual in a safety-oriented column. Safety comes from application, which comes from understanding.

To see the value in understanding, consider the role of formulas, which express a lot of information in compact form. In Landsberg’s example of the increase in landing distance from increased speed, he presents a rote rule, but that application comes from under- standing the equation for lift. Correlation occurs when one uses the same equation to understand minimum control speed (Vmc) in a multiengine aircraft.

Many former myths about aviation were dispelled by mathematics. For example, pilots who did not understand the difference between true air speed and indicated air speed thought that they flew faster at lower altitudes. It took the mathematical model of the International Standard Atmosphere, as outlined in the beginning of Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators, to set us straight.

The real danger lies in not understanding that mathematical problems like computing takeoff distance, endurance, and landing distance must be solved before flying. No amount of mathematical skill can compensate for inadequate preflight planning. Flying well demands that we use our whole intellect, not just part.

The mathematics of flying is still not fully understood, especially in the area of atmospheric phenomena like icing and microclimates. We have to rely on “conceptual understanding” to handle these phenomena safely. But the line between conceptual understanding and superstition is very thin. Tackling these problems does not mean that every pilot needs to study more mathematics, but understanding and applying their solutions means that many pilots should.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011


Why not make the first flight of the year a proficiency flight?  Commuting was fun, $100 hamburgers are fun, instrument practice is fun, but too much straight-and-level is too much.  Only one of my 13-year-old twins has expressed any interest in aviation, but maybe what her brother dislikes is too much straight-and-level, and while I would not turn him upside down, maybe a few lazy 8s would help him get the picture.  He said he would come, but he's still struggling to recover from mononucleosis and backed out at the last minute.  I gave him a raincheck and went alone.

The first pair of lazy 8s only served to show the poor farmers below that I was rusty, but after a few I started to get the feel.  Big grin.  Next I set off into the hills to find my daughter's ski trip, but the ceiling was a little too low.  I overflew the house on the way to a bunch of accuracy landings.  (I quit a little early to save some room in the checkbook to take my son out next week.)

We're already on the fast part of the analemma, so the days are getting longer quickly. I left the airport as the tower turned on the rotating beacon. Nice night...

Now that 2011 has begun, what happened in 2010? I didn't have a medical until late June, and my day job has become noticeably harder, and the glider club's Blanik was grounded by an Airworthiness Directive, so the total was pretty ugly: 57.6 hours, not exactly "professional pilot" territory. That included my personal record glider flight (3.8), one $100 hamburger split with a friend (who has since moved away), one family vacation, one trip to the glider port, and a handful of commutes to our other campus.

I flew no actual IFR (I filed once), and while I am current I am beginning to doubt my proficiency. My idea of proficiency is more exacting than most of the CFIIs I know, so maybe a good Instrument Proficiency Check someplace else would do the trick? At least I'd get a little cross country time.