Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Seeking Economy, Playing it Safe: Why I fuel up more often than most GA pilots

After 31 years as a flight instructor and considerably longer as a certified pilot, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents and incidents caused by aircraft running perilously low on fuel. In the latest data (2012) listed on the NTSB.gov website out of 988 general aviation accidents (personal flight), some 50 were attributed to fuel (or lack thereof). It is impossible to tell how many out-of-fuel incidents actually happened that year, or any year, in general aviation, because most pilots who get away with landing the airplane on an airfield after losing power never mention it to the FAA. (Would you?) The good news is that the graph lists no fatalities attributed to such accidents in 2012; but going back a decade from there not all pilots were so lucky.

Read the rest of this blog entry at AOPA's Opinion Leader's Blog here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Solar Impulse Flies, and Electric Sees its Day in the Sun Coming

Whenever you see the term proof-of-concept in front of an aircraft designation you need to think:
extremely experimental, might never come to fruition, and of course, probably going to break. The two pilot-geniuses behind the Swiss Solar Impulse perpetual motion flying machine (I say that because frankly, it never has to stop flying), Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, have been holed up in Hawaii for months now with their proof-of-concept Solar Impulse airplane because they broke it on the five-day non-stop flight across the Pacific from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii. That put their proof-of-concept flight around the globe on perpetual hold. New batteries had to be manufactured for the aircraft and the battery cooling system, which was determined to be inadequate for such a long flight, had to be completely redesigned and manufactured, as well.

Read the rest of this blog entry at AOPA's Opinion Leader's Blog here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When you are Right....

Sometimes my inspiration comes from the traveling I get to do in my airplanes, and sometimes it comes from sitting still on rainy, windy days. And yet sometimes still it comes from reading other pilot's blogs. This week my inspiration is really an enthusiastic "att'a Girl—go get 'em!" tossed out to Karlene Petitt for her entry on reducing the 1500 hour rule at her blog Flight to Success.

Petitt argues that what pilots really need is not more flight hours before they reach the right seat of an airliner, but more quality flight hours. And by quality in this blog entry she suggests a glider rating. (Where have you heard that before? Perhaps an earlier blog of mine?). Gliders are, frankly, more
challenging to fly than other fixed wing craft (I leave the rotary winged crowd out of this because they are entirely different beasts).

I am in full agreement with Petitt that the 1500-hour rule was no fix for the issue that brought down the Colgan flight in 2009. That flight's captain had many other challenges, one of which was most likely confusion over when / when not to use the autopilot and  how to manage a stall recovery. If he had been properly trained to begin with (law of primacy: what's learned first is best remembered) then the accident might not have happened. Same goes for Asiana, Air France and Air Asia. Simple as that.

A proper and rigorous basic flight training program with strict standards for promotion would go a long way to preventing these tragedies from happening ever again. If pilots can fly, and know and believe in the old adage "fly the airplane first" it would go a long way toward increasing safety in our ever more automated industry.

Yes, of course they will have to learn how to program the automation—but lets focus on building pilots first, computer programmers second. Petitt, a senior airline captain and flight instructor with decades of experience in the realm thinks, as I do, that starting young pilots in sailplanes is an excellent technique. Funny, the US Air Force thinks the same way, and gets good results with the technique. And it makes sense. Taking the powerplant out of the picture allows the student to experience the pure basics of fixed-wing flight. It also allows him/her to develop confidence in the science of physics and the forces that make flight happen.

This technique of layering complexity as the student acquires confidence builds a pilot with quality flying skills first. From there he/she learns to operate an engine in flight, and after that, how to program the computers that control navigation and ultimately, the complex autopilots that make aircraft nearly autonomous robots. Put enough computers to work and yes, the airplane will fly itself. But we aren't there yet. If pilots would aviate, then navigate and communicate (in that order) we may just fend off the day when we become the unnecessary extras onboard. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Right Moment, the Best First



This is a story about newbies and flying. Sooner or later you may have the opportunity to give someone his or her first experience in a light airplane, and whether you realize it or not, that person will never forget you for doing that.

We all know that there are "memorable" experiences we cherish and "memorable" experiences we'd pay to forget. Your goal as a pilot is to make any person's first experience in a light aircraft one of the former memorable ones. For kids or adults alike, your best tack is good, but not TMI, explanations.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much information for a first timer. It may not look like it, but somewhere in each of us is a vast repository of primordial, instinctual fear of the unknown. So, a bit of information about the flight in general (say, "we are going to fly over your house today at 1,000 feet above the ground") is good. Getting into the detail of how a piston engine works, when and why it might break, and all of the emergency landings you or your friends have done over the years ("but look! I'm still here!" you say) — probably TMI. How to buckle and unbuckle the seatbelt, how to open and close the door, the right time (in flight) and the wrong time (on takeoff or landing) to talk to you—these are good points to make with your nascent fliers.

But what if those fliers are so young they can't really process this information? Well, then you'd better have room for a parent or adult guardian to come along and do the processing for them.

This is a pet peeve of mine when we are doing Scouting airlifts or EAA Young Eagles days. Some of the kids presented to me for their first flight in my little two-seater are just too young to be let loose unsupervised with a stranger. Now, I may be a responsible adult. Heck, I'm a qualified mom, having raised two of my own. But I'm not ready to take flying one-on-one a curious, possibly frightened four or five year old I have never met before.

That child really should be placed in a Cessna 172 or other aircraft with adequate seating for an adult guardian or parent to come along. After all, my job is to fly a good flight. I can't do that if I'm babysitting a total stranger, too.

If I've got my bigger bird available, will I put that little kid up front next to the controls, and right next to the handle of my door (sometimes the only exit in the cockpit)? It doesn't sound like such a good idea when you put it like that, does it?

So how old is the right age for a Young Eagles ride? If the child is to ride by himself in the airplane I suggest no younger than 10. If an adult guardian can come along, I'm game to take kids as little as three, but not in the front. Whoever sits next to my exit must be cognizant and capable of both guarding the door in flight (mine will depart the airframe if opened in flight) as well as getting it open in an emergency. They have to be mature enough to handle my cockpit briefing and strong and tall enough to both reach the door (mine is gull wing) for closing it, and managing the latch for opening it.

One more thing: I've taken many, many folk, young and old, on their first flight in a light airplane. On perfectly smooth days I can usually wow them with the ease and beauty, even intimacy of flight. I've learned, however, to scratch flights on windy, bumpy, rainy or low-ceiling days. Remember, you never get a second chance to make that first flight special. Bumps as a rule are freaky for those who have never been off the ground. Low visibility can give people claustrophobia, or just the willies. There is rarely a situation where the benefits of the pro bono first flight on a marginal day outweigh the cons. Go for sunshine and soft breezes.

If you take away anything from this diatribe know that I truly believe it is up to all of us pilots to be the best public relations and community outreach that general aviation can provide. One way we can do that is with our generous Fly a Controller, Fly a Community Leader, Fly a Kid, Make a Wish, you name it programs. Through them we can grow GA one new pilot at a time. That's why its so important to make those flights the best memories a person can have.


Friday, November 7, 2014

A Checklist Conundrum

I'm saying it right here and now, and the OEMs might not like it. The standard OEM checklist in most light general aviation aircraft is a longwinded action-dulling repetitive piece of detritus. It is also often the only FAA-approved checklist for the aircraft. 

These unwieldy booklets and lists breed contempt among pilots, who are often found skipping repetitive items or generic procedures that no longer apply to their aircraft because of customization or equipment differences. 

There was a time when aircraft didn't come with these elaborate booklets designed by the engineers and test pilots to cover the manufacturers from any possible liability. Before World War II aircraft checklists were simple enough to be a placard on the instrument panel or a mnemonic, CIGAR TIPS or GUMPS. 

The push to produce pilots that came with the ramp up and rapid entry into World War II, combined with the rapid increase in the complexity of the aircraft, demanded that visual checklists be generated to help the pilots get through the critical moments of flight. Designers understood that the checklists had to be visually verifiable, and created mechanical means for doing just that. Many classic airliners had scroll type or flip type checklists, where the co-pilot could flip a switch or scroll a knob as the captain completed each item he called out on the list. 

Even for general aviation the days of having a complete memorized normal operations checklist are long gone. Yes, you do still have to memorize “red box” items, such as engine fire procedures and emergency landing procedures. That said, if there is time to attempt an engine restart you'd better grab your checklist. And you won't pass even your private pilot checkride without brandishing the OEM  checklist and demonstrating your slavish execution of its direction. It's in the Practical Test Standards, so examiners have to care.

Here's why they do. NASA did its research in the 1990s and uncovered that otherwise excellent professional pilots have been seen to regularly “chunk” whole sections of checklists, glancing at the list, performing a series of tasks, and then perhaps glancing back to look over what they just did. Except a lot of times they never look back. They just “chunk” onto the next set of items. It might work some of the time, but skipping and chunking eventually leads to skipping something important, such as controls free and correct, or autopilot tested, fuel selector to fullest tank or flaps in position. These are the items that have killed pilots and passengers on general aviation aircraft and airliners alike. 

You can help yourself by doing what the airlines do: customize your checklist so that it perfectly matches your cockpit, and is doable. If that means digitize it on your iPad with one of the many excellent apps out there that allow you to actually touch-to-check each item, well, do it. You'll be using technology akin to that used in a Boeing 777, which allows pilots at a glance to see if they have missed an item, but is smart enough to know if they completed an item earlier in the flight and will show it as checked. If you have an integral MFD in the aircraft you fly there may already be a digital checklist programmed in. Take the time to learn how to customize and use it.  Even a good paper checklist that is set up with a logical flow for your aircraft is better than an OEM booklet that forces you to skip items that aren't applicable or jump around to accommodate the logistics of your aircraft. 

Treat checklists as the safety tools that they are, and they can do their job.  Just remember, they are proven to work when they make sense and they are used. So, make a sensible one for your aircraft, and use it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sitting One Out

Another chapter of flying the long cross country in a light aircraft


Sitting sipping my yerba matte tea I see the light rain washing the road dust off my vehicle in the parking lot outside this roadside hostel. The leaves of the maple outside my window rustle gently, but by looking up I can see that the trees on the hill above the road are swaying to much more than a gentle breeze. By my estimate it is blowing 20 knots or better at hilltop height, and probably much harder than that if you climb to the mountain top that frames this verdant valley. Oh, and it's cool, near 50°F here at 1500 MSL. I don't need the weather channel talking-head to tell me it's close to freezing level at the top of some of those 4,000 MSL mountains this morning.

These are the days I am more than happy to sit out flying. Why? Simple. My airplane, a light, single-engine, piston-powered four-place machine, is not outfitted for this weather. Sure, I can fly it in the clouds if I want to—both the airplane and the pilots are qualified and equipped for flying on instruments (IFR). Ice, however, we don't do. The airplane is simply not equipped to deal with an inflight icing encounter. We've got pitot heat, and that's about it.

Days like today, when a slow-moving occluded front is dumping more rain than anyone has seen in decades on the northeast, and a bubble of chilly artic air is pushing in over the top and behind this mess, well, aircraft equipped as ours is are best left tied down tight or tucked in hangars.

The good news is that we planned for this. Anytime we take a long cross country excursion in our airplane we make sure to pad each stop along the way with potential bad weather days. We pick airports that won't box us in too much (that is, won't force us to wait for a perfectly sunny CAVU day for a safe exit); and we pick fuel stops and destinations where there are both fair weather and foul weather activities to keep us busy. That way we take all gotta-go and get-there-itis pressure off we pilots.

The result of this wise planning is that I've discovered wifi in the tininest libraries, in the tiniest towns in the USA. Cosy coffee shops are my friends...as are art galleries, museums, and even this efficiency by the side of the road meets muster for rainy day activity (well stocked with DVDs, give-a-book / take-a-book library, elliptical treadmill and satellite TV).

I've learned that just about every FBO can get you a rental vehicle or loan you a crew car to get into town. And where there are no spare vehicles I've been chauffered by line crew and even an FBO manager or two. Airport folk (and hotel folk, too) are great about recommending a good spot for chow and negotiating preferred hotel rates for the night. There have even been a stop or two where people have taken us into their homes, feeding us and providing us respite from the storm. That's inspired me to return the favor more than once. It is all part of a sort of pay-it-forward attitude in aviation that never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

By creating our trips with routing over many possible stop off points, and by building time-padding into each long leg; and by knowing ahead of time that we'll find good folk to help us along the way, we can rest easy as the storms pass over us. To me there is nothing so soothing as watching weather I'd rather not fly in from the ground. It is infinitely better than experiencing that heart-wrenching moment where your realize you'd rather be on the ground than in the air; trust me.

And when the storm clears? Expect glorious skies and some sweet performance out of your light bird from this spot to the next. I've managed to hopscotch from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans and back again without missing a date or a deadline using this kind of long distance flight planning. The best benefit of all from our flight plans? If the winds and weather always blow in your favor you are left with extra vacation days at some of your favorite spots. And who is ever not in favor of a little more fun?   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Just Fly There!

I have a confession to make: in my bathroom there is a bookshelf. Yes, this is one of my contemplative zones. And of the many books and manuals on that crowded shelf is one that is fairly unique: John F. Purner's 101 Best Aviation Attractions. Flipping through the contents of this 101 chapter book one is quickly struck by how many of Purner's “attractions” are actually air shows,
airfests and fly-in adventures all over the world.

Out of date though my copy may be, it is still relevant, and when I'm looking for an excuse to go flying it is perfect. I cross-check the information in the book with more recent data found on the Internet and more times then not I can find the perfect excuse to pull my airplane out of the hangar, fuel up, preflight and be off.


Flying in to an event can be an experience all on its own. It's one worth preparing for, too. Don't discount information from friends who have been there! Some of my most fun fly-in experiences, from seafood fests in the Everglades to glider competition weekends, to an all-women's backcountry fly-in educational weekend were tips from good friends who were in the know. And those good friends who have been there are also knowledgeable about how those arrival/departure/parking procedures work in real world conditions, such as a misty marginal visibility morning arrival, or departures scrambling rapid-fire in the moments after the last performer lands and the first crack of summer lightning and thunder strikes.

I remember with an eerie clarity the opportunity I had to be a backseat passenger in a French Robin (think of it as a Grumman Traveler), one of four, who flew in formation into Paris' Le Bourget airport, where Lindbergh landed nearly a century ago. We waited with impatience half the morning in front of a roaring fire at the tiny FBO in the countryside for the Paris skyline to clear of low cloud before we could takeoff. Once airborne the whole of the city of lights spread below us; the Seine a jeweled belt winding through its middle, sparkling in the sudden sunshine of mid-morning.

We were vectored onto downwind and glided deftly over the gritty industrial buildings and apartments that now surround Le Bourget. Scenery? Nothing to write home about right around the airport. But getting to land where Charles Lindbergh landed? Where the Paris Air Show is held every other year? Even from the backseat it doesn't get any better than that.

All fly-ins have these items in common: arrival and departure procedures. If you do anything in your
preparations to go even to the smallest of fly-ins, please, check the NOTAM for your destination airport. Even if the fly-in is small, check web information and, if you find nothing there, call the principal listed for the event. They all have a plan for how to get the bulk of traffic safely in and out of their airfield. You need to know that plan before you takeoff. Why?

Fly-ins are notorious for bringing aircraft much closer together than what is normally encountered in a traffic pattern. Most of us are accustomed to seeing a couple of airplanes in the airport traffic pattern, but at a fly-in of any size you are more likely to encounter as many as a dozen aircraft converging on one point in space (say, the entry waypoint on the arrival procedure). Some will be eye-popping close! Be ready. Bring an observer to help you spot and avoid traffic. And study your arrival procedure carefully before your flight, so that you can focus on flying the airplane. Finally, spot landings are often necessary when airfields are crowded with incoming airplanes. Practice a few before you venture out, so that you can be flexible and capable of helping ATC get all those aircraft safely on the ground.

Am I making you itch for an excuse to go flying? Autumn can be the best season of all for flying in much of the country with events such as Triple Tree and Petit Jean affording you wonderful venues for cross country flying. If you don't have Purner's book, you can still find great ideas for fly-ins on the internet. Browse to Socialflight.com, Funplacestofly.com and Flyins.com. Don't discount your AOPA or EAA calendar, either. They are also loaded with national and sometimes international fly-in treasures. You'll want to check next via direct email or telephone call to confirm the dates and get detailed information on each event. Then practice your pattern skills, study your NOTAM or arrival procedures, and go fly!