Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation focuses on business flying, mostly, with articles about the performance of light and medium jets, regulations, and the like.  It's usually technically correct and, even though I have no aspirations of flying jets, it is worth reading.

Sometimes it is a little dry, and that's what I expected as I started reading "Gearing up for the Go-Around" in the September, 2012 issue.  Go-arounds are a problem at every level of aviation from pre-solo trainers to heavy jets.  I think part of the problem is that, well, let me see, when was the last time I had to go around?  It's been years.  I fight the complacency by making go-arounds (in the form of missed approaches) part of my usual instrument practice, but the pilots I see for BFRs usually haven't tried to do a go-around since the last time I saw them for a BFR.

Luckily, most people do OK.

But I'm getting away from the article.  Buried in the statistics and proscriptions and prescriptions and analysis is a rather nuanced discussion of pilot personalities and the continuing failure of Crew Resource Management (CRM) ideas to influence how people fly.  The airlines have embraced CRM with all four arms (get it? Two pilots in a crew, so four arms?), but the corporate and charter worlds, by-and-large, have not.

I was as guilty of this as anyone when I was flying King Airs, although since my "first officers" were not legally qualified in the airplane there was a limit on what they could during a revenue flight.  But in trying to pay back the people who gave me experience, I gave them all of the experience I legally could.  This caused me a lot of trouble.  The worst spot for most of these pilots was Class B airspace, and a handful of them became catatonic (no exaggeration) trying to keep up with the rather calm and understanding approach controllers in Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.  So CRM went out the window and I had to do everything myself.

But I'm getting away from the article.

One sentence really caught my eye: "Pilots tend to be highly intelligent, but not intellectual, and concrete, linear thinkers, rather than abstract theorists."

Those are subtle distinctions, so let's look at them in more detail.

Of course pilots, especially instrument-rated pilots, are highly intelligent.  Instrument flying requires mastering a vast set of regulations, procedures, and rules-of-thumb in addition to the cognitive skill of interpreting instrument readings and the physical skill of manipulating the controls to put the airplane into the right position.  This would almost seem to be a good working definition of intelligence.

But are we intellectual?  That is the exclusive we, not the royal we, since as a mathematics professor who plays jazz, reads poetry, and regularly reads newspapers and on-line sources in four languages (only three of them well, mind you, but I try to read four), I like to think that I am an intellectual.

What does it mean to be intelligent but not an intellectual?  Here's one example, a chief pilot who told me to train his crews on "need-to-know, but not nice-to-know."  That's a difficult distinction for me to make, since in my flying history a lot of ideas have suddenly transitioned from the latter to the former, like some of the subtleties of handling the rush at a Class B airport.  Every CFII I flew with could quote the regulations and guidance on Class B operations, but without the "big picture" they had trouble putting this rote knowledge into action.

Remember, the FAA's Aviation Instructor's Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9A) defines four levels of knowledge:

  • Rote
  • Understanding
  • Application
  • Correlation
Need-to-know doesn't get much past the Understanding level.

Another way to put this: the powers-that-be (Chief Pilots, Chief Instructors, etc) were discouraging pilots from being intellectuals.

The abstract theorists (Guilty-as-charged!  I'm a mathematics professor, and my research is extremely abstract) can let theory get in the way of practice; I have often seen it done.  The thing is, a pure theorist makes a lousy or even dangerous pilot.  One of my favorite admonitions to pilots is "Fly the airplane you're in."  Just because you saw someone do something in a Boeing, whether Dreamliner or Stearman, does not mean that it is a good thing to do in an Aztec or Mooney.  And, just because you can get away with something in a Centurion does not mean that you can do the same thing in a Citation.

I once had a pilot insist in flying under a sparking thunderstorm because the cloud over the diversion I suggested looked like it might develop into a thunderstorm.  His theory would have put us into a known risk to avoid a potential risk.  

I made him fly toward the blue sky.  That almost always works.

The bottom line is that pilots need to develop all aspects of their personalities to increase their chances of success.   That's right, I said personalities, the very core of each of our being.  It goes that deep.  If you can't see the big picture, you'll find yourself struck dumb by a simple request from a controller, and if you can't read the chart then all of your theories about navigation will steer you into a mountain.

And so you have to be prepared to go-around, both in approaching the runway and in approaching flying in general.  The plan you made may not get you successfully to the runway, so be ready to change it.  Keep studying the situation and looking for the correlation between ideas in aviation and ideas in life, and your career in each will be long and fulfilling.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


An article (Weather Aware)  in the September 3, 2012 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology (try to read it here, but I suspect it's behind paywall) highlights new research on automating radar use to avoid severe weather.

Here's what happens when an airplane hits hail:

Yes, I have flown this airplane, and no, I was not flying when it hit the hail.  The top picture shows one of the exhaust stacks, which are made from some exotic metal in order to handle the extreme heat of the exhaust.  In this case, "exotic" is a synonym for "expensive."  All four stacks got dimpled, as did the leading edges, air intakes, and radome (below).

This is an interesting article, despite the author's snarky tone about flying in a "small" aircraft, namely Honeywell's Convair 580 radar testbed.  (When I lived in central New York I used to watch GE's DC-6 testbed, revelling in the sound of radial engines, but that's another story).

Honeywell has added new turbulence- and hail-avoidance software to the RDR-4000 InterVue weather radar.  This stuff is cool!  For example, it warns of radar attenuation, which has trapped many pilots.  Heavy precipitation can completely block even heavier precipitation from the radar signal.  When this happens the screen looks clear behind the heavy storm, but may contain damaging turbulence.  Too many pilots have flown into such holes.

The software also superimposes little emoticons denoting possible hail or lightning onto the radar display.

The first radar set I used was a monochrome unit in a Cessna 414A.  I got no training in its use.  I got no training in its use.  The POH had a supplement describing it, but that didn't help much.  So I had to learn by reading, experimenting, and watching intensely boring commercial videos.  Intensely boring.  Later, during my King Air IOE, a senior pilot spent about 15 seconds discussing tilt management.

"Experimenting" means that I once flew the 414 into pinhead sized hail despite the radar, stormscope, and my eyes indicating that the way was clear.  No damage.

Experimenting means that I read a 1950's version of the USAF navigator's handbook, which described how bombardiers could use radar for targetting.  I practiced painting cities and lakes.

Once while firefighting I was watching a thunderstorm approach.  The Air Attack wanted to stay on scene for as long as possible.  So I froze the radar screen at the same point in each orbit of the fire, and used this to estimate the time we had left before it got too close.

And Honeywell knows this.  Honeywell analyzed damaging inadvertent weather encounters, and concluded that pilots don't know how to use radar.
"Poor antenna tilt management and misinterpretation of radar returns were revealed as major factors, as well as a lack of knowledge of radar fundamentals and large variability in pilots' use of radar[,] and in training standards."
Like I said, pilots don't know how to use radar.  Because they are not trained to use it!

If you go to FlightSafety or Simuflite to train on a turbine powered airplane, you might find a few incredibly boring videos on radar management lying around the break room, but there won't be any training.  And with air carriers (Part 121 and Part 135) cutting back on training, and hiring less-experienced pilots, we end up, literally, with the blind leading the blind.   I'm not talking about the fascinating theory of the cavity magnetron, just how to adjust the tilt and gain and display mode to keep yourself out of trouble.

And, yes, I tried a few years ago to train the pilot who did the damage above, but he was often so far behind the airplane that there was no time to teach radar management, even after several near-misses.  I have taught several airline captains how to use weather radar to see traffic, but they've already survived being thrown into the deep end of the pool.  

That's no way to run an airline, or even a Cessna 414.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Air traffic is usually pretty light in my corner of the world, but usually is not the same thing as always.  At one point today I was number four for departure, not a record, but unusual  by local standards.

When traffic is light, pilots get complacent and maybe even a little rusty.  My annual flying is 20% of what it was at its peak, so I have to work hard to stay sharp.  This sometimes means doing a little bit extra, which annoys some people.  But an unpracticed skill is no skill at all, so even though something is not necessary for this flight, the longer view is that since it will be necessary at some time in the short unspecified future I'd better practice it while I can.  Case in point: while approaching an airport with an instrument approach, I brief and set up the approach, even if the weather is perfect and I'll be landing straight-in on a runway I spot from 15 miles out.

So I have made it a habit to get flight following for my weekly commute.  The flight is short - generally less than 30 minutes - and I'm sure there are those that would say that the extra workload isn't worth it.

But it is.

Yesterday while I was turning out on departure, a Cessna 210 called ready.  "Hold short awaiting IFR release," the tower said.  "How far out is the traffic?" the 210 driver asked.  The tower asked the inbound, who was twenty-one miles out, which makes no sense but that's another story.  "We'll cancel IFR and go VFR," the Centurion said.

Which makes no sense.  He could depart VFR and pick up his clearance in the air.  But he didn't.

Or he could depart VFR and get flight following.  But he didn't.

But I did.  After levelling out, I called Center and gave my position and altitude.  I didn't just talk the talk: I squawked the squawk.

"Radar contact," the controller said, "traffic off your left side at 9 o'clock, 2 miles, same altitude, same direction of flight."

The 210.  I couldn't see him, but knowing that he was 30 - 40 knots faster, I turned on the autopilot and focused the majority of my attention off the left wing.

"Center, can I have an update on the traffic?"

"Now he's one mile off your left, don't you see him?" The controller's voice had that I-don't-like-this edge to it, and the extra request highlighted his concern.

I started to turn right to get my poor belly button out of the unseen 210's way. As I called Center to report the turn, I spotted the traffic.

The 210 it was.

I watched the 210 pull ahead little-by-little, and now felt comfortable putting some attention into setting up the approach.  I listened to the ATIS and tuned the tower in my second radio.  Sure enough, pretty soon the 210 called the tower, reporting 14 miles out, and by golly I was 14 miles out, too.  I cancelled flight following, telling the Center controller that the traffic had just called the tower and I wanted to switch to tower to coordinate separation.

The controller sounded relieved.

I was set up for left downwind, and was surprised to hear the tower controller, a guy I know, send the 210 to left downwind as well, crossing him in front of me.  I knew he had to have a good reason to do this,  and that he didn't know that I was there yet, so adjusted accordingly.  As soon as there was a hole in the unusually thick radio chatter I called and told the tower that I had "that guy who called 14 out in sight."  The tower told me to follow the traffic.

The 210 crossed well in front of me and turned downwind.  So far, so good.  But then I lost sight of him.  I stayed high, searching for the 210 in the ground clutter, but nothing nothing nothing.  Where was he?

The tower was wondering, too, and I think everyone was surprised when the 210 reported "maneuvering to enter on a 45."

Maneuvering to enter on a 45?  At an airport with an operating control tower?  Read the A-I-M, fella!

This guy had crossed in front of me and done an unexpected maneuver in the pattern to cross in front of me again.  Worse, he had slowed down to do this, and our separation was gone.  When I finally caught sight of him they were much closer than I had anticipated.

We all landed safely (there was a helicopter in the pattern, too), and I taxied to a tie-down, grabbed my schoolbooks, and headed for the FBO.

I passed the 210, saying nothing to the pilots -- pilots -- but didn't really feel safe until I had a chain-link fence between me and them.  And I certainly didn't cross in front of them.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Summer in southeast Idaho means gentle weather.  Take that with a grain of salt, or even a salt tablet or two.  Gentle means no IFR, but with field elevations at or above 4,500MSL and temperatures over 90F/32C, the density altitude is off the scale.  But we also have long runways. Take a look at the New York sectional with its low elevations and you'll see a large number of runways shorter than 3,000ft; we have few, if any.

There were no long cross-countries this summer, mostly because my twins are learning to drive and we made a bunch of road trips to give them practice.

So I had been wishing for a more challenging flight.  Be careful what you wish for.

You might remember that my university has two campuses, and when I teach at the other campus I like to fly there.  The state reimburses us for private aircraft use as if it were a car, so the current auto rate is muliplied by the "book" mileage.  This is less than the cost of flying but it helps quite a bit.

The big problem with flying is that there is no reliable method of ground transportation from the airport (KIDA) to campus.  I have discovered an elegant work-around to this problem, however: I walk the 2.5 miles.  A good chunk of the walk follows the Snake River, so it's pretty; and, given my health history, exercise is important.

My first KIDA class was Friday.  After weeks of clear and dry weather, though, our monsoon had arrived.  A monsoon in the desert?  Isn't the Indian Monsoon a source of massive amounts of water?  Yes, but a monsoon is just a seasonal shift of prevailing winds, so this is a dry monsoon.  But a monsoon nevertheless.

Change of plans: this year the monsoon is wet, or at least wetter, and there was a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Aha!  This would be my more challenging flight!  Scattered storms like that require some diversion, but there would be lots of room and lots of gas to divert.  Fun!

The flight up was very smooth and quick.  Too quick.  The winds aloft were more southerly than forecast, which is always a bad sign in the Northern hemisphere: that's warmer air, capable of carrying more moisture.  As I walked to campus I couldn't help but notice some buildups to the East, over the mountains.  I tweeted "Hoping builups E of  due to orographic lift and desert will remain clear for trip home. Lots of moisture & instability ."

One of National Weather Service tweeps replied "Don't count on it. :-)".

I ate lunch, walked to campus, taught my course, did a get-to-know-you with the students there, and started to walk back to the airport.  The view was a bit unsettling:

This was headed south along the river, looking down the trailing edge of a line of thunderstorms.  There was one clap of lightning.

One of my mottoes is "Sometimes, you just have to fly toward the blue sky," and there was blue sky to the West.  So I was not worried, although the prospect of a challenging flight did put a little spring into my step for the final mile or so.

Well, let me amend that: I wasn't worried about the flight.  I was worried about my tablet-computer-which-must-not-be-named, or TCWMNBN.  You know, the one with all the charts.  The sky started to spit a little rain...

...but I was prepared, dug out my raincoat, and kept going with the TCWMNBN under the coat, happy and dry.

But now I was getting over heated.  The rain stopped, and I took off the raincoat.  But then it started up again.  Grr...

It was dry when I got to the airport, so I did a quick online standard briefing and walked out to the airplane.  KIDA has airline service so I suppose that I should have had an escort, but there was nobody from the FBO around and weatherwise it was time to go.  Nobody challenged me, I did the walk-around, started up, and launched.

I held Vy (best rate-of-climb airspeed) to 500' AGL in case of wind shear, and planned to slow to Vx (and no slower) if there was.  But there was none.

Despite my NWS friend's dire prognostications, I was right.  The buildups stayed east, there was blue sky to the west, and I flew the seam between them with few bumps and just a couple of raindrops: VFR with lots of visibility.  I did take the precaution of keeping the TCWMNBN under my leg, in case of sudden bumps.  But there were none.  There was a rain shaft to the west, which Center warned me about, but I was able to reply with a laconic "Yeah, we've been watching it, thanks."

Things looked good for a straight-in approach.  I did not fly through the localizer this time, because I was paying attention [see the previous post].  I kept my speed up, because this was costing me money.

Inside the marker, Ken, in the tower, came on to say that the wind was shifting, and was now 350 at 4.  An acceptable tailwind.  Gusting to 15.  Oops.

Many years ago I had an incident with Ken that taught me a lesson.  I was on left downwind to 21, and Ken came on to say that there was a thunderstorm in progress overhead.  It was a western thunderstorm, with a high cloud base, and I decided that Ken didn't know what he was talking about.  Mistake! There was a 2000+ fpm downdraft on base, and I struggled to keep from shining the bottom of the airplane on the potato plants below.  This time I listened.

"Tower, change of plans, we'd like to enter left downwind for 3."

"Approved as requested.  If you like, long landing approved." Remember, we have long runways, and it's a long way from the threshold of 3 to the FBO.  I was below pattern altitude, closer to circling minimums.

"That sounds good to me," I said, then added, "Or, as you guys would say, approved as requested."

We had a good laugh, I landed, and called it a day.