Friday, February 24, 2012

Captain Steve Jobs

Kent Wien's Huffington Post article shows how essence in the form of preflight planning makes a trip smoother. Read it here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

LIke a Rat in a Maze

Some of you must be old enough to remember the torture of the full-procedure ADF approach. The only navaid is a non-directional beacon, really a homing device, and the secondary devices were a stopwatch with a sweep second hand and your own mental map. Those of you who are older may remember flying a lost quadrant procedure off a four-course Range, a complex maneuver involving flying parallel and perpendicular to the range courses (not at the same time, of course), listening for the fade of the Morse Code 'A' or 'N' signals. (This procedure is now so obscure that the Wikipedia article on Low Frequency Radio Ranges omits it.)

At least the ADF approach gives you a needle pointing to the station; the range procedure didn't even provide that: your only cue was the volume of the Morse Code.

Learning these procedures made most people feel like a rat in a maze.

Aviation lore is everywhere, and an article in today's New York Times Magazine makes some important points about what the brain goes through while learning these approaches. How Companies Learn Your Secrets (author Charles Duhigg) might not catch your eye as pertinent to flying, but work with me on this.

Duhigg writes about how companies like Target mine their vast store of information to send consumers targeted (sorry, no pun intended) advertisements. People's consumer choices are pretty habitual - I chafed when my wife brought home the wrong brand of toothpaste recently - but habits are loosened during certain life events, like having a baby. How could Target know that a customer is pregnant without being told? Researchers found that women who were known to be pregnant (by participating in a baby registry, for example) had predictable changes in their consumption patterns, and, reversing the find, Target looked for those patterns to identify pregnant women and personalize the advertisements sent their way. This took some care, which is interesting but not relevant to flying, but suffice it to say that if you stick a lawnmower ad next to a diaper ad, people take both to be random.

Part of the insight behind this research is in the neurophysiology of habit formation, as studied by Ann Graybiel at MIT, who monitors brain activity in rats. The brain of a rat exposed to a new maze lights up all over, as the rat, sensing a chocolate reward awaiting down the correct path, studies and processes the maze, although the rat's behavior appears disorganized. But as the rat learns the maze, the brain becomes less active, leaving more rodent cognitive ability available for other rodent tasks.

Neuroscientists call this behavior "chunking," and note that it can be " complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all." Duhigg's "complicated" example is backing a car out of a driveway Hah! That's nothing compared to a partial-panel NDB approach.

One of the things I find most frustrating in flight instruction is encouraging pilots to form good habits, and this research convinces me that it's important to get better at this. "You won't invent something new when you're on fire," I used to say, but that didn't work. "Tune the localizer for every approach to an ILS runway," I used to say, not just because it needed to be a habit, but because "When you step up to turbine equipment it's an FAR that you stay above the glideslope." But neither my Promethean fire stick nor my shiny-jet carrot convinced many people that the habit was worth the effort.

I try to set a good example. If I'm approaching a runway with an instrument approach, I set the approach up, even if the weather is perfectly clear. It's a habit, and after 25 years [!] of instrument flying it is such an embedded habit that it takes no effort at all. That was not the case at the beginning of my career: the approach plate was a maze, I jumped around sniffing for the chocolate, my brain was lit up all over the place and, as is typical of new instrument pilots, I could barely keep up.

Habit? My training airport had an ILS with a VOR to the right of the course, one of whose radials defined the Final Approach Fix for the Localizer-only approach. On one of my first actual IFR flights, the ILS had a VOR to the left serving the same function. Starting down the glideslope, it appeared to me that the needle was on the wrong side, and thinking I was past "the marker" I stopped my descent. I figured it out in time to save the approach, but it was not the cool-as-a-cucumber approach I wanted my girlfriend to see.


Part of the difficulty is that habit comes from experience, which is exactly what new pilots lack. But that's what makes conscientious training more important. You don't have to make a big deal of it, but a quiet insistence that certain important things be done right every time might set the tone for a career of good habits. (Pilots with the 14CR135 minimum of 1200 hours total time should already have good habits, but that was not my experience.)

And I think the best thing for developing and keeping good habits is frequent instruction. Professional pilots get checked one or two times a year, depending on the equipment and rules, but private pilots (like me, these days) are only required a biennial flight review. (Speaking of which, mine is due next month.)

But the same applies to the instructor, even more so. The instructor's habits have to be perfect, or else the student won't see the lesson.

But then there's the money question. If you find a CFI like me, with a day job, you might be able to get a little check of your habits by offering a free lunch after a flight someplace interesting in an unusual airplane (hint, hint...).

Or here's another idea: find a like-minded pilot and share the expense of a habit-forming flight. We all know what the good habits are, so maybe if we watch out for each other we can reinforce them and keep ourselves safe.

Good habits? Let's see..

  • Get a standard weather briefing
  • Plan the flight - a computerized plan is more than enough
  • Do a thorough preflight inspection
  • Do a weight-and-balance for anything other than the most routine load ("two adults in front")
  • Carry current charts (this is easy with an EFB
  • If IFR rated, set up an instrument approach. If there's a safety pilot, fly the approach under the hood
  • Pick your landing spot, announce it, and hit it
  • Fly the airplane all the way to the tie-down (no texting, etc)
  • Tie it down properly

And make sure you enjoy the chocolate at the end of the maze.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Time for Essence

Finesse is without dimension, a timeless ratio.

Essence is a condensation of many quantities. We use essence, departing full, finding little enroute, and arriving depleted. Essence, converted, changes with time.

The glider pilot finds the day full of lift, rising air adding essence with ease. At sunset, or perhaps before, the lift ends. Playing far from home, the pilot's essence is spent deciding that it is time to return lest this essence evaporate.

The pilot's sense of time is not regular. A crisis passes in a second by the clock, in a week by the mind. What does this mean for essence?

When the crisis takes a long time, the craft seems to slow, perhaps hover. Height stays the same but speed goes to zero, and so it seems less essence is burned. Slowing time requires
energy from the pilot, so his essence is burned, not the craft's.

When events rush by, the pilot burns more and more personal essence but may never be able to think as fast as the craft is moving. The pilot's tanks may empty soon.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Under The Radar

A recent batch of home improvement projects has kept me on the ground far more than I would like, but in moving all of the books out of the bedroom then back into the bedroom a few forgotten gems (in other words, books I bought and forgot about) worked their way to the surface like the way winter forces rocks to the surface of a Vermont hayfield.

This book was among them. I don't remember where I bought it, but it looks like a remainder, which is odd because it is still available on Amazon. Trust an academic to buy books on the cheap.

Buderi writes about the development of radar, an important topic for aviation. My own appreciation of its difficulties has grown over the years, and the more I study it the more I realize there is to learn. That makes it a good topic! And, although I am not an electrical engineer, I actually do play one on T.V.

(This requires a little explanation. First, for those not in the US, long ago there was a television advertisement for an over-the-counter medication, whose name is long forgotten, featuring an actor who played a doctor in some television drama proclaiming "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on T.V...." The phrase "...but I play one on T.V." has become a meme. Second, I teach a course called Advanced Engineering Mathematics which a lot of EE students take, and the lectures are televised to our other campus. So, I play an EE on TV...)

Buderi doesn't go into a lot of engineering detail, so the wannabe engineer in me will have to continue to learn the technical details elsewhere.

An odd coincidence in the Buderi book is the prominence of the former Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was built to house the Radiation Laboratory, where much of the US work on radar development was done. (Buildings at MIT are generally numbered; the iconic building (left) at the North end of the Mass, Ave. bridge is simply "Building 7".)
An article by Jonah Lehrer in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker also discusses the development of Building 20 in the context of architectures that favor creative interactions.

This brings to mind two flying stories.

First: when I was flying 414s and King Airs, the airplanes were equipped with weather radar. My training consisted of "Leave the gain on auto and adjust the tilt so the outer third of the display shows ground clutter." No more than that.

But as a curious type I read up on airborne radar, especially the Air Force's navigation manual, which taught bombardiers how to use radar to find targets. I fooled around with putting the set into "map" mode, and developed a plan to find my home airport if on some dark IFR night the radar set was the only piece of working avionics. This was fairly straightforward, because the airport is next to a lake, and it was easy to pick out the lake on the display, unless it was really windy. Then there would be radar returns from the waves.

One day I was alone in a King Air going from Salt Lake City to San Jose. Even at FL260 the route is narrow, surrounded by military airspace on both sides. You can fly J154 or J154, no other options being available.

I was tired and maybe a little groggy from the usual oh-dark-thirty wakeup and bad coffee. I started to have a little trouble staying awake, and there were no passengers or copilot to talk to. I remembered many years ago riding in the jumpseat of a United 757 and hearing the First Officer wondering aloud how come the radar picked up other nearby airplanes. She knew those smudges were other airplanes because they were right under the TCAS symbols.

"King Air blah-blah, traffic, 12 o'clock opposite direction is a 737, 1000 above." This is just a courtesy, since it's Class A airspace. But it put me into action. I turned up the radar gain to its max, reduced the range to 10 miles, and tilted the antenna up just a skootch. I watched. A blob appeared! The next sweep it got closer! And even closer the next sweep!

And there was a 737, flying 1,000' above me!

I spent the trip "painting targets." Even King Air drivers like to play Top Gun. "Mav! The bogey's at 11 o'clock, 6 miles, time to do some of that pilot stuff!" I had no trouble staying awake. Maybe I was violating some limitation of the radar set, but then there was that lack of training.

(For the record, I never would have done this with passengers on board.)

Second is a little less satisfying. I already wrote about it here, so this time I'll quote my NASA ASRS report.

"My planned flight with a student was cancelled due to weather, and he wanted to look inside one of the King Airs in the hangar. The hangar was closed and there were three aircraft packed in fairly tightly. I put him in the left seat of an EFIS King Air that I used to fly, although I am not current in it. I guided him in powering up the Avionics bus and EFIS, but heard a strange noise from the front of the aircraft that sounded like a fan or motor. I commented on it, but could not determine the source of the noise until the MFD powered up. I immediately saw on the MFD that the weather radar was ON, and turned it to the standby position. The sound I heard had been the radar antenna scanning. Luckily, there were no personnel in the hangar, and although we radiated directly at the fuel tank of an airplane in front of us, it was far enough away that there was no danger. But that was just luck.

"Turning the weather radar to standby is part of the after-landing checklist due to the radiation danger to personnel and equipment, and when I flew the aircraft I was extremely careful about this hazard, checklist or no. Frankly, it would never occur to me to check that the radar was in standby before start; that was as sure as that the wings were attached. Whoever flew the aircraft last had neglected this important item, and I was not aware of his omission until I had radiated indoors."