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.