Alyssa Miller Archive

3D audio: HD for the ears

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

When HD came along, everyone wanted to switch from traditional or standard-definition TV because of the better resolution. Well, the audio world is offering an HD experience for our ears. At Sun ‘n Fun, Garmin set up a demonstration center for its digital audio panel that has 3D audio processing. I tried it out after a press conference to see if it was really that spectacular. It is.

First, I listened to normal ATIS broadcasts, intercom communications, and ATC clearances with a Bose headset (that alone was a step up from the $150 headsets I’ve been using for the past 10 years). Then, I listened to the same communications, with the same headset, in 3D. I was shocked. Each communication was clearer and easier to process.

With this technology, the audio comes from different directions (based on which comm it is streaming through), as if you were listening to your passengers, ATC, and the ATIS carry on a conversation in a room with you. ATC clearances came in through my right earpiece, while the ATIS broadcast came in through the left. Although both were broadcasting at the same time, the ATC clearance came through clearer. Initially, I thought the volume was louder for ATC than ATIS, but the Garmin representative explained that they were the same volume–my brain had picked which transmission to prioritize. In that case, ATC won. Without the 3D audio, however, I just heard a jumble of ATC and ATIS, making it difficult to distinguish the clearance.

Now for the intercom communication. When talking to your pilot or co-pilot, you’ll hear him or her clearly from the respective side. For example, if I were flying with my flight instructor in the right seat, I’d hear him predominately through my right ear. And if I had passengers in the back, their conversation would sound as if it were coming from behind me…just as it would if I weren’t hearing headsets.

The directional audio makes it much easier to process information by eliminating the strain of trying to separate multiple transmissions that are given equal weight.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case a short audio clip is worth a thousand words. Check out the sample Garmin has posted on its website. Listen to the 2D before the 3D. Make sure you are listening through earphones or have two speakers hooked to your computer in order to get the experience.

Tales of a logbook

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

At the end of each year, I like to take a long look at my logbook and flight receipts for the previous 12 months, calculate how much money I spent, how many hours I flew, and what type of flying I did. That tradition also brings with it a flood of memories, as various flights filled with special meaning grace the pages of my logbook.

Road and Runway RallyThis year was a mixed bag. I spent less money per flight hour, but I also flew a lot less—only 53 hours in my logbook this year. However, I had many opportunities to do different types of flying.

The year started out on a high note, with earning my commercial pilot certificate in January. In April, I had the opportunity to race in AOPA’s Road and Runway Rally, driving a Smartcar and flying AOPA’s 2010 Sweepstakes Fun to Fly Remos GX from Maryland to Florida for Sun ‘n Fun. The highlight? Opening the show April 13 with a low pass. I experienced flight in a couple of new aircraft—a Helio Courier and a hot air balloon.

But the year also brought my most difficult moment in aviation, the death of my boss Chris O’Callaghan. Chris was killed in a midair collision during a soaring competition in Texas in August. (See AOPA’s tribute to Chris). Losing someone I had worked with for two years and saw more often than my family was extremely painful. In addition to the personal loss, the fact that he was a fellow pilot and was killed in an aircraft accident made the situation even more difficult. The first few weeks after the accident, I lost all interest in flying. When I would force myself to fly, I would get nervous if more than one aircraft was in the traffic pattern at once. However, I continued to go flying, whether with my father or with my friend and flight instructor I worked with to earn the commercial certificate, until I once again felt comfortable in an aircraft. I knew it was what Chris would have wanted.

Chris O'CallaghanAfter that, I tried to honor Chris in my own way by taking others up for their first flight in a general aviation aircraft (Chris was very passionate about introducing people to aviation). Sharing the gift of flight—with a sixth grader, my grandmother, and a nonpilot coworker—helped to bring back the joy of flying.

This fall, I experienced a new high—aerobatics—while working on an upcoming feature for AOPA Pilot. After each of the three lessons—filled with loops, hammerheads, rolls, Immelmans, Cuban eights, snap rolls, spins, and the split-S—I walked away with a grin almost as big as the one I wore after my first solo.

As I reflect on the year, I can’t help but look forward. I’m already planning  for the challenges I hope to face next year.

Loops and rolls have proven so enticing that I want to work toward my tailwheel endorsement and sharpen my aerobatic maneuvers so that I can rent the Citabria and introduce some fellow friends and pilots to aerobatic flight.

I also plan to earn my flight instructor certificate next year. The first step—passing the Fundamentals of Instructing written exam—is already complete. My hat goes off to all of you flight instructors out there. I’ve been lucky to work with professional instructors who inspired me to go further in aviation, and I plan to work my tail off to make sure I do just as well for my future students.

What were your highs and lows in aviation this year? What are your aviation-related end-of-year traditions? And most importantly, what do you hope to add to your logbook in 2011?

Wonderful Waco

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

As the final hours of the AOPA Foundation’s A Night for Flight auction wind down, the one who ends up with the highest bid on the custom-made Waco YMF-5D biplane will be one lucky pilot.
Waco biplane
I had the opportunity to fly the 300-horsepower Waco that’s on display at AOPA Aviation Summit with AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman before he ferried it to California. We flew Serial No. 46, but it looked brand new. LED lights and a Garmin moving map display add a modern touch to the classic aircraft. But the details of the leather-lined open cockpit, wooden tipped control stick, and leather pouch for charts and other pilot supplies made me feel as if I were flying the aircraft right after it came off the line years ago.

The Waco is the first tailwheel that I’ve taxied in which I needed to do S-turns along the taxiway because I couldn’t see in front of me. I was probably a little overzealous in my rudder control on those turns, as I felt more like I was doing aerobic exercises, going from full left rudder deflection to full right rudder deflection. (I think Dave was just so happy to be giving time in the Waco to a low-time pilot that he didn’t mind the huge turns I was making…as he didn’t say a word.)

Takeoff was amazing. I watched as Dave barreled down the centerline, or what I presume was the centerline since we had the same amount of runway and grass on either side of the aircraft. As he lifted the tail, I could see over the nose and feel the air rushing before we lifted off. About 300 feet agl, Dave handed the controls back to me and we flew to a nearby practice area where I performed steep turns, stalls, a lazy 8, and a loop (as Dave walked me through it). And with that, sadly, it was time to return to the airport.

As we flew back, I couldn’t help but pretend I was a barnstorming pilot flying over the Mid-Atlantic fields near our home base in Frederick, Md. My years of dreaming of flying in an open-cockpit biplane had finally come true, and it was everything—perhaps more—that I had dreamed it would be. In fact, it wasn’t until Dave had landed and we turned off on the taxiway that I remembered I had my camera with me the entire time to document the flight. Pictures from the ground will have to suffice, but I have a feeling I won’t soon forget that flight. Judging by how long I smiled after that flight, it ranks close to my first solo.

I hope whoever wins the custom-made Waco in the A Night for Flight Auction enjoys flying the classic as much as I did! For a taste of what it’s like, watch this video created by the Recreational Aviation Foundation.

For the joy of flight

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

As I soaked up the changing autumn leaves during a leisure flight before work this week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the freedoms we enjoy flying in the United States. I woke up early, drove to the airport, performed a pre-flight, and listened to the ATIS before departing Frederick for a short, local flight. Visibility was unrestricted, and the winds were calm. I didn’t need to call flight service for a briefing or file a flight plan. I didn’t need to worry about being denied access to the airspace that morning.

Alexander during a test flight.

My thoughts turned to two pilots I met in Russia a few months ago during a mission trip. Alexander and Nikoli have been flying since the 1970s and are part of a flying club in Ryazan (just south of Moscow) that builds aircraft and has an aerial application operation. They build the Mikc500 (pronounced Mix), a part composite, part metal aircraft powered by a 100 horsepower Rotax engine and equipped with a ballistic parachute. Alexander performs the test flights.

He is a former military pilot with more than 10,000 hours and has flown the Tupolev 95. Nikoli, a civilian pilot, has more than 14,000 hours and has flown cargo, aerial applicators, and crews of geologists to northern Russia. But to have so much flight experience, both have to undergo a 24-hour process now every time they want to fly.

They must submit an application for their flight 24 hours in advance. Then, they call to see if the application has been received. They call again two hours in advance of the flight to see if they have been granted permission to fly. They’ve been denied many times. If their flight is approved, the calls don’t stop there. They must call every hour in addition to announcing their departure and landing times. They have to do this every time they fly.

Nikoli explaining how they build their aircraft.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d still be flying if I had to go through that process day after day. Then, Nikoli explained to me why he keeps flying, “It’s a kind of drug.” Alexander added that “after the stress of earth, it is relaxing” to be in the air. When they can’t be in the air, building aircraft serves as a release. “Making our own airplanes brings us joy,” Alexander told me, adding that it is exciting but scary during those first test flights. But how many times had their anticipation of a test flight been delayed because their application for a flight was denied?

However, as we continued to talk (with the help of an interpreter), I noticed the same familiar bond that I have with other pilots in the United States who don’t face these same restrictions day in and day out. The twinkle in their eyes as they talked about flying made me realize that, if I had to, I would endure those same hardships for the same reason they do…for the joy of flight. I’d venture to say that many pilots, worldwide, are the same. Once we’ve tasted flight, we can’t turn back or give up.

‘Tailwind’: Up and away

Monday, October 4th, 2010

As balloonists from around the world gather at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico to compete and show off their balloons to hundreds of thousands of spectators, I can’t help but feel a longing to be a part of the magic with mass ascensions and night glows.

I recently experienced my first balloon flight with AOPA Pilot Information Center Aviation Technical Specialist Patrick Smith and his instructor, Ron Broderick of West Friendship, Md. Patrick, who recently invested in a hot air balloon (Tailwind), initially became interested in ballooning when he and other AOPA staff assisted Broderick, who was incorrectly hit with a Maryland “amusement tax.”

Burner test

Photos by Bob Knill

The first major adjustment in my introduction to ballooning was the new definition of “windy.” Patrick would repeatedly check the winds and keep his trusty crew—other AOPA colleagues who didn’t mind a pre-dawn wakeup—informed. In ballooning, 7 knots is windy (quite a shock to someone who thinks 20 knots is windy, and I’m sure that is mild to a lot of other pilots). However, 7 knots is the maximum wind limit, which makes sense when you consider how even a light wind of a couple knots can move a hot air balloon.

“Preflight” was the next big eye-opener. As a handful of us sat the basket out of the trailer and stretched out the envelope, Patrick followed a checklist and then began testing the burners. All it took was a sudden burst of heat coupled with a loud gushing sound to kick in my fight or flight responses. Once I was back from the basket about 20 feet, I looked up to see the burner shooting a wall of fire 10 feet in the air. The adrenaline rush compares to nothing of the preflight actions on a piston single!

As we began cold filling the envelope with a fan, I immediately felt like a kid at the circus, especially when I got to walk around inside with the colorful balloon expanding around me.

But none of these experiences compared to the moment we lifted off from the ground, and our support crew gave us little nudge. Floating silently over the terrain I’d flown over hundreds of times in single-engine aircraft revealed an entirely new perspective. I could see the details of the leaves in the bean crops, reach out and grab a walnut from the top of a tree, watch sheep run across a hill, and, best of all, talk to people on the ground as they waved and shouted while we passed by slowly overhead.

Interestingly, ballooning requires a great deal of pre-planning. Not just noting the winds and selecting the appropriate launch site, but even while airborne. Balloons have an eight-second lag in response time, so bursts of gas from the burners need to be timed properly to fly over an obstacle or plan a smooth touchdown.

Since that first flight, I’ve helped crew for another one of Patrick’s balloon lessons. He and his instructor landed in an elementary school yard, giving students and teachers the opportunity to talk to the balloon crew and watch the envelope being deflated.

Based on my limited experience with ballooning, the magic of floating beneath a giant balloon seems to bring out the best of all involved, from the pilots to the ground crew to the spectators, land owners, and neighbors on the ground. Those who might complain about aircraft flying overhead say nothing as a hot air balloon floats by–even with bursts of gas from the burners–or lands on their property. And I realized, what a great way to introduce the public to general aviation.

Whether we fly fixed-wing aircraft, a helicopter, glider, jet, or hot air balloon, we all experience something magical—the gift of flight. And it’s a gift we need to share with others. The magic is too awesome to contain.

Wing-off at Wings Field

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I’m not an early riser, but it didn’t take long for me to jump out of bed at 5 a.m. Saturday morning to get ready and head to Frederick for a pre-dawn departure to fly to Wings Field near Philadelphia. The day would offer many opportunities I had never before experienced.

I lifted off under the dark, starry sky, admiring the splotches of city lights and a few patches of fog floating by underneath. I kept my eyes peeled to the horizon though, not wanting to miss a minute of the sunrise. This would be my first sunrise from a GA aircraft (like I mentioned, I’m not an early riser). The dark sky slowly lightened at the horizon, the colors changing from a dark blue-grey to a bright orange, the sun quickly rising from a sliver to a bright blazing ball. As the sun continued to rise, the reds and oranges faded into light blue.

With the first of my anticipated excitements for the day behind me, my thoughts drifted to the Wings ’n Wheels Old ’n New event at Wings Field (the birthplace of AOPA) where I was flying AOPA’s 2010 Sweepstakes Remos GX to be on display. The event served as a fundraiser for Angel Flight East. There, I would experience another first—being a food tasting judge.

The “Wings Gozilla Cookoff” featured restaurants from the local area: Lee’s Hoagie House, P.J. Whelihan’s, Phil’s Tavern, Whitpain Tavern, and Michael’s Restaurant (if you ever fly into Wings Field, definitely check out one of these restaurants for lunch or dinner). Attendees bought tickets to taste the wings and vote on their favorite (50 cents bought one voting ticket and one wing). All of the proceeds were donated to Angel Flight East. Four lucky attendees, including myself, judged the wings based on their taste, aroma, tenderness, and overall quality, although after tasting the wings, I think “eye watering” should have been added to the scorecard. Crackers, celery, and water allowed us to “cleanse our palates” between wings. After a few wings, though, my lips never stopped tingling from the spices! One of my top picks, the wings from Lee’s Hoagie House, made it into one of the winning categories. (I was so inspired after tasting the wings that I later attempted to make my own. “Extra crispy/slightly burned” would needed to have been added as a category to judge mine. At least now I know the batteries in my smoke detectors still work.)

But the highlight of the day, by far, came from the pilots, Angel Flight East volunteers, AOPA members, and aviation enthusiasts who stopped by AOPA’s Remos GX (see “Nonpilot magnet”). Pilots who have flown around the world, evacuated families in advance of an approaching hurricane, or transported a baby for cancer treatments shared their love for aviation and for the mission of Angel Flight East with more than 3,000 visitors. For the visitors that day, there was no misperception that GA aircraft were “toys for the rich.” It was clear that these pilots focused on the families they had helped and the future missions they would fly.

To all volunteer pilots—Angel Flight East and other organizations—thank you for your testament to GA and, more importantly, for your service.

‘It feels good’

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

It’s not often that I get to take someone on his or her first GA airplane ride, but when I do, I’m not sure who is more excited—me or my passenger.

During Labor Day weekend, I took up my youngest passenger, Sara Moore, a sixth grader in Reedy, W.Va., a rural farming community where I grew up. My dad had made sure that he put plenty of sick sacks in the pilot side pouch of his Cessna 172… just in case.

After walking Sara through a pre-flight, briefly explaining how the Cessna 172 worked, and talking through the passenger briefing and runup, I had one final piece of advice: Let me know if her stomach started to feel queasy.

Once we were about 300 feet in the air on the climbout from Jackson County Airport, soaring above the trees and the snaking Ohio River, Sara looked out at the clear blue sky—zero haze and 50 miles visibility—and then back at me, with her brown eyes wide open and a grin spreading from ear to ear, and said, “It feels good!” I knew I wouldn’t have to reach for those sick sacks on this flight!

Sara recorded video and photographed the West Virginia foothills, her house, and the elementary school. Then, I asked if she wanted to fly. After a bit of hesitation, I offered to fly with her for a while until she felt comfortable. A few climbs, descents, and gentle banks later, I slowly moved my hand from the control wheel unbeknownst to her.

She’s a natural pilot! Soon, I was taking pictures of her flying straight and level and letting her navigate toward the airport, using a powerplant in the distance as her aiming point. She flew for about 10 minute before asking me to fly so that she could take more pictures. After landing, she gave me a Silly Bandz—in the shape of a jet, no less—as a thank you for the flight. (Now I feel really cool—they are the most popular trading item among students.)

When asked the favorite part of her flight, she was speechless—understandable for seeing your home and town from the air for the first time.

I’ve always loved flying, building camaraderie with fellow pilots, and tackling new certificates and ratings. But nothing compares to the feeling of giving someone his or her first experience in the air or in a GA airplane. Flying is truly a gift, and those first flights are some of the best gifts I’ve ever given to people: It feels good!

Jungle flying with JAARS

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Helio Courier
JAARS Helio Courier on display before demo flights.

Deep in the heart of the Carolinas, JAARS is transforming Waxhaw, N.C., just south of Charlotte into a remote jungle location. That’s where the group trains pilots for service in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Cameroon, and other areas where Wycliffe missionaries are working to learn new languages to translate the Bible.

One of the training aircraft is the Helio Courier, a workhorse that can haul five passengers, fly low and slow or high and fast, and takeoff and land in 600-foot grass strips with obstacles on both ends. The aircraft also can be modified with a cargo pod to haul even more, including medical supplies and Bibles. I got a chance to see the Helio Courier in action May 1 during JAARS Day, an open house and fly-in event the organization hosts quarterly.

While no one near Waxhaw could tell you where the airport was located (I drove), everyone could tell you were JAARS was (and it just so happens that it’s based at the privately owned, public-use JAARS-Townsend Airport). The airport has a single paved runway (4/22) that is 3,309 feet long by 40 feet wide. But it has three grass strips, including one that parallels the paved runway, one that is diagonal, and one that is 600 feet with trees on both ends to simulate some of the conditions that pilots will be flying into on their assignments. The organization is looking for other landing sites on the sides of hills or mountains that could better prepare the pilots for the terrain where they’ll be flying.

Grass strip
Pilots practice on this 600-foot-long grass runway with trees on both ends.

During the open house, everyone from toddlers to adults perused the hangars filled not only with aircraft but also with the latest technology that missionaries are using on the field, including equipment that provides enough bandwidth to allow Internet access and streaming voice capabilities (not enough for video though). Children even got to try their hand at riveting.

Pilots performed two Helio Courier demonstrations. A crowd learned about the basics of how an airplane flies, along with some of the special features of the Helio Courier, including a large rudder and slats the drop down on the leading edge of the wing to increase aircraft control when it is operating at slow speeds. The slats are so sensitive that when flying a figure eight, the slat on the slower wing will drop down while the one on the faster wingremains up.

With a light headwind, the aircraft could takeoff in five of its lengths (it’s about 31 feet long); as the wind picked up later in the day, it took off in only three—a pilot on the ground helped the crowd count the lengths. Landings varied between five and six lengths of the airplane.

After watching the demonstration, I couldn’t wait to purchase a ticket for my chance to ride in the aircraft. For just $22, I got two rides—one in a four-wheel-drive vehicle on paths created to teach missionaries how to drive over rough terrain, and the other in the Helio Courier.

Driving over stairs and tree roots and in ruts that made the vehicle almost stand on its side was exciting, but the true fun came when I switched to the aircraft. I got stuck in the back of the Helio Courier because I was the lightest of the four in my group. But that was OK because a teenager got to fly in the copilot seat (I kept telling myself it was probably his first flight so he should get to experience it from that seat).

Final approach
Tabs on top of the instrument panel serve as the pilot’s checklist.

From the back, I watched the main landing gear of the tailwheel aircraft actually move inward as the Helio Courier accelerated and the wings began to generate lift. This boosts the pilot a little higher off the ground before rotation. Another unique characteristic of this aircraft is the way the checklist is integrated. A row of tabs on the top of a traditional instrument panel allows the pilot to systematically flip them up or down to signify completion of a particular part of the checklist. Flaps (40 degrees) and trim were controlled by hand cranks overhead between the pilot and copilot seats. Whereas pilots in many aircraft today have mechanical leavers or electric switches to select the desired flap setting, the pilots of these aircraft have to know how many turns of the crank it takes for a specific flap setting. After landing, the pilot explained to me that the Helio Courier is designed to land and take off with flaps, and that no-flap takeoffs and landings are a part of their emergency training.

Riding in the back also gave me a unique perspective on the operations these pilots perform. I was able to imagine that I was one of their passengers flying into a remote area for the first time, getting ready to set up a new life among a new people group to try to learn their language. I thought of all the questions and emotions that I might have on my mind. And then, I thought about my pilot. He was calm, kind, and reassuring (and this was just for a flight around North Carolina). How wonderful it would be to have such a well trained, confident, personable pilot flying me to my new location. I would be completely unaware of the difficulty level with which the pilot would be grappling with to land on such a short strip or on the side of a hill.

After reflecting on just how much these pilots do for missionaries in remote locations–from transportation, to emergency evacuation, to supply restocking–I think these and other missionary and bush pilots must be some of the best in the world, not just because of their skill level, but also because of their pride and professionalism in creating a safe, comforting environment in the aircraft under such difficult circumstances.

My favorite sneakers…with wings

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Do you have a favorite airplane that you absolutely love to fly—not just because it’s fun or exciting, but because it is so familiar, like a pair of ratty, worn sneakers that are extremely comfortable but you can’t wear in public?

For me, that’s a Cessna 172. It was my training airplane of choice for the recreational, private, instrument, and part of the commercial. I feel more at home in that aircraft than any other. But, I haven’t flown it very much this year. Most of my time has been divided between an Arrow and a Remos. I enjoyed flying both, but it wasn’t until I recently went up in a Skyhawk with a CFII to get instrument current that I realized how much I had missed it.

I must have missed it big time. I was as happy as a clam running my hands over the bug-crusted leading edges and greasy landing gear. I cherished the smelly cockpit (it’s a trainer, so it gets lots of sweaty students). And I loved checking all 13 fuel sumps! Pure joy…and that was just the preflight.

Flying it was so easy. My approaches came right in line even though I hadn’t done any hoodwork for seven months. My speeds were right on. My instructor and I had fun shooting an approach and landing at a 1,840-foot-long, 30-foot-wide runway that sloped downhill (yes, that’s excitement for someone based at a flat 5,220-foot-long runway).

Part of the fun was flying purely for pleasure, not training toward a certificate or for business, which has accounted for 90 percent of my flight time this year. But most of the joy came simply from being in a Cessna 172, my favorite sneakers with wings.

Goodbye, Bill

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Bill’s sparkly eyes, messed-up sandy hair, and friendly smile framed by years of wrinkles welcomed pilots to Jackson County Airport in Ravenswood, W.Va., for years. He was a jack of all trades: He pumped the fuel, ran the counter, and mowed the grass. He lived on the airport property, making sure the field was always secure.

I met Bill when I was a teenager helping my dad build a hangar at the airport. Every time I saw Bill, he was quick to catch up on my plans for college and flight training and to provide encouragement, along with a few laughs. When I finished college and told him that I was going to be an aviation journalist at AOPA, he treated me like I had hit the big time. But Bill had a way of treating everyone that way.

I was just at the airport a couple of weeks ago flying with my dad and noticed that Bill didn’t come out to talk. I thought he must be doing something else since it was after hours. Later, my dad learned that Bill had recently died from cancer. I never knew Bill was sick, and he probably didn’t want to burden airport visitors like me with that knowledge.

I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to let him know that he’s the one who made me feel like the airport was my second home, even though I had only made it to Ravenswood irregularly during the past few years. Bill seemed so much a part of the airport, I guess I thought he’d endure as long as the airport itself.

So, Bill, goodbye. Thank you for making my introduction into the general aviation family so welcoming. Those of us lucky enough to know you will never forget your spirit. I hope someday I can make just one person feel as welcome in the extended family as you did for so many.