Archive for July, 2008

In praise of single-seat airplanes

Friday, July 25th, 2008

I’m not anti-social and truly enjoy sharing the cockpit.

I’ve done thousands of hours of flight instructing and like the personal interaction and teamwork.

But aesthetics, economics (and maybe even selfishness) have almost invariably led me to choose single-seat aircraft for personal ownership. And that’s likely to remain the case in the future. Here’s why.

First and most obviously, single-seat airplanes just look and fly better.

A Pitts S-2B is a fine airplane–but an S-1 is more proportional and has lighter, more harmonized handling characteristics.





The same is true for the Sukhoi 26/29, or Extra 300s/300. 




Sure, those are all highly specialized aerobatic planes. I can’t comment on the flying qualities of military planes, but an F-5 looks better than a T-38, an F/A-18C is cooler than a D, and so on.




Single-seaters just look so much more right than their two-headed step-siblings.

On to economics:

A single-seat sport plane typically costs about half as much as a similar airframe with two seats. A good Pitts S-1S costs about $35,000, and a comparable S-2A (with a similar four-cylinder, Lycoming engine) sells for $70,000. An S-2B with six cylinders is even more. A Vans RV-3 with one seat can be had for the low-to-mid 30s. Double that for two-seat RV-6s, 7s, and 8s. Double it again for a four-seat RV-10.

In terms of performance and handling qualities, single-seat planes are usually better because they’re lighter. My single-seat RV-3 weighs 800 pounds, for example, and it’s powered by a 150-hp engine. It’s rate of climb, cruise speed, ceiling, range and fuel economy are as good or better than most two-seat RVs with larger engines because those planes typically weigh at least a couple hundred pounds more–and that’s before a passenger straps in.

Insurance in single-seat planes costs less, too, because there’s no risk of harming a passenger.

But what about dual instruction? How does anyone get checked out in a single-seat airplane?

Usually, similar two-seat planes are available for this task (Pitts, RV, etc.).

But aviation history is full of examples showing an instructor may not be necessary to have in the cockpit on a first flight. Every World War II-era student pilot flew solo the first time he or she got in a P-51, P-47, P-38, Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, etc. There were no two-seat trainers for those airplanes. Even now, first-time F-22 pilots fly solo from day one. Sure, they get lots of simulator time.

But when was the last time an instructor had to physically intervene when checking you out in a new airplane?

Finally, the selfishness question: Isn’t owning a single-seat plane selfish? Especially for a guy like me who has a wife and two kids (one of whom really likes flying).

This is a tough one.

But I rely on the experience of my friend Eddie Ruhl for guidance. Eddie owned two planes, a single-seat Pitts (which he loved and flew as often as possible), and a four-seat Piper Clipper (which had room for his wife and two kids). He decided one plane had to go and, selfless guy that he is, Eddie said goodbye to his beloved Pitts. The result: he flew much less frequently. It turns out Eddie’s wife and kids really didn’t like flying all that much, and the Clipper sat unused for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Eddie (and his family) agreed that he sold the wrong plane.

The downside to single-seat planes is that they can make flying a solitary activity–and we all know it’s shared experiences that make flying so special.

But I’ve found a remedy for this in formation flying.

The RV community has been particularly active in teaching this dynamic and demanding art form to civilian-trained pilots like myself. And being in a single-seat plane doesn’t seem like a drawback when you’ve got similar planes and like-minded pilots nearby . . .


Into thin air

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Tingling hands. Dizziness. Blurred vision. Those are my hypoxia symptoms. Do you know what yours are? There are a couple ways to find out. You could fly a non-pressurized airplane above 14,500 feet without supplemental oxygen and see what happens, but I know you wouldn’t do that. Here’s a better idea: Take the FAA’s physiological training class and experience hypoxia in a controlled setting.  

Yesterday I joined 14 students in the altitude training chamber at the Eighty-ninth Physiological Training Flight at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. Wearing helmets and oxygen masks that covered everything but our eyes, we were there to see how our bodies would react to oxygen deprivation. The altitude chamber simulates flight to 25,000 feet, at which point you’re instructed to remove your mask and try to complete a series of tests, such as writing your name, solving a maze, and computing multiplication problems. (Heck, mazes and math are a challenge for me when I’m not oxygen-starved. Watch the YouTube video below or click on this link to see how these trainees perform.) I put myself back on oxygen fairly soon (it’s called “gangloading” in Air Force parlance), but some in our group stuck it out the three minutes of useful consciousness to see how they’d fare. One student seemed fairly coherent–until he was asked to count backwards from 100 by 7. He came up with the first one, 93, on his own. Then he gave incorrect answers for the next four numbers. (He did protest that he isn’t good at math, but he wasn’t allowed to count backwards by 5 or 1, as he suggested.) 

We’re schooled in basic aerospace physiology when we learn to fly, but how many of us give it much thought beyond the IM SAFE assessment? Give yourself a birthday present and take the FAA training. It costs $50 and is offered at 14 locations. You can read a detailed account of what goes on in Jeff Pardo’s article, “Going Up: The Elevator to the 2,500th Floor,” in the May 2001 issue of AOPA Flight Training. But when it comes to understanding how your body reacts to physiological stressors, there’s no substitute for the real thing.



Waco Classic finds markets in Africa

Monday, July 21st, 2008

“The [economic] malaise has dampened sales [in the United States], but European and African customers are beating our doors down,” said Peter F. Bowers, the new owner of Waco Classic Aircraft Corp. in Battle Creek, Michigan. Bowers, formerly the owner of an aluminum extrusion company, sold two Waco aircraft to a Kenyan sight-seeing company. “Our delivery pilot saw tribesmen with a blackberry in one hand and a spear in the other,” Bowers said.

Here is a video of one of the new Wacos at play in Kenya.

Photo by Peter F. BowersWaco Classic in Battle Creek, Michigan

Jetpack secrets revealed here

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

Want a commercially available personal jetpack to loft you into the heavens like a hovercraft on steroids? It will be flown Tuesday, July 29, at EAA AirVenture before a no-doubt astonished crowd. But right now it’s a secret. Rocket man/person? Piston-engine man/person?

I think I know what it is. In September of 2006 Glenn Neil Martin of Christchurch, New Zealand, patented a backpack featuring rotatable, belt-driven ducted fans–one off each shoulder–powered by a gas or turbine engine. (Shrouded propellers can be used, too, but Martin didn’t seem to think much of them in his patent papers.) That’s the same guy who is giving the demo. It may look something like the Milennium Jet Solo Trek .

It can’t really be called a jetpack, because that implies a standard James Bond rocket-power jetpack that typically only gives you 26 seconds of flight. Martin is reportedly promising 30 minutes of duration, so he must be thinking avgas or Jet A fuel, not rocket fuel. But if Martin’s unit uses a small jet engine to power the ducted fans, maybe it can still be called a jetpack. Bet it makes the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog.

The “Vision” thing . . .

Friday, July 18th, 2008


Take a close look at Cirrus Design’s prototype SJ-50 “Vision” jet–and then glance at Alan and Dale Klapmeier’s original VK-30 from the 1980s and the similarities are impossible to miss.

The sleek, five-seat, low-wing, composite airplanes are true to the same design philosophy with technology that’s 20 years apart.

“This is the natural maturation of the same exact idea,” said Mike Van Staggen, Cirrus Design’s vice president for advanced development, a leader in Vision design and testing. “Both airplanes were meant to be the ultimate in personal transportation machines.”

There are plenty of differences in the planes, too.

The Narwhal-like Vision has wider curves for more interior space, a thicker wing with greater area for a slower, 61-knot stall speed, and a distinctive V-tail to accommodate the biggest difference: a single, top-mounted, Williams FJ-33 jet engine.

Cirrus CEO Alan Klapmeier said he and brother Dale first met with engine designer Sam Williams in 1989 seeking a jet to power their kit-built VK-30. But nothing was commercially available at the time that was small or fuel efficient enough to fit their airplane. (more…)

Fowl play

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Recently, I noticed a large bird ahead of me on downwind. I was flying a twin and wondered if the bird could distinguish the difference between an aircraft with an engine on each wing versus an aircraft with one engine on the nose. I figured local birds get to become savvy about those things, especially flying around at our busy field (FDK).

Not trusting the bird, however, I had to think about the best strategy: Do birds dive or climb when they see an aircraft? Turned out the bird was no longer a factor by the time I concluded it might dive. Luckily I’ve never had a fowl foil my flight. I’ve seen pictures, though, of bird-strikes–not a pretty sight.

I’m curious if the bird-diving theory has been verified.

It found the strikes

Friday, July 18th, 2008

XM datalink weather is really cool. You only have to look at the amount of Garmin 496s that have been sold to realize that. And the subscription isn’t cheap, which further confirms its value to pilots. But I think there’s an even better on board weather tool, and chances are you’ve already heard of it.

The Stormscope is my new friend. Yesterday AOPA Photographer Chris Rose, another adventurous staffer, and I flew the Association’s Bonanza to Penn Yan, New York, to shoot some photos for an upcoming issue of the magazine. There was a warm front in central New York that was pushing some significant storms through central Pennsylvania. In fact, Harrisburg tracon (a fantastic, helpful facility) said they were painting the precip as extreme. The Bonanza has a Garmin GMX200 with XM weather that includes datalink lightning. It was nice seeing the rain and lightning hits, but my new friend really carried us through.

It has me wondering why we think datalink info is so much better. Yes, it offers METARS, TAFS, and other great stuff, but there is no replacement for a display of real-time electrical discharge. Combine the eyes, the Stormscope, ATC, and datalink, and you have one potent package of weather awareness.

Is this the promised $50,000 airplane?

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Not too long ago, ok, 26 years ago, $30,000 would buy a new Cessna 152 and $60,000 would buy a new Cessna 172. Things got more expensive but then the light sport airplanes promised to bring back a $60,000 new airplane. Most light sport aircraft are generally $90,000 to $140,000. Now comes the X-Air at that goes out the door with all the options (transponder, handheld GPS) for $51,000. It could be called “minimalist.” Xair

Traveling airplane salesman

Friday, July 18th, 2008

The Diamond Aircraft dealer for states from Delaware to Kentucky has a new approach last seen in the 1950s–the traveling salesman.  John Armstrong of Dominion Aircraft Sales came up with a list during the June AOPA Fly-In of people that wanted a demonstration, then followed up in July.

John Armstrong, Dominion Aircraft Sales

He is seen here as he made a stop for customers in the Frederick, Maryland, area, demonstrating enhanced vision in the Garmin G1000 aboard a DA40 Diamond Star.

Is it real, or is it Gibson Boulevard?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

I laughed when I saw the sign for Gibson Boulevard, which runs just north of Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ). It’s a real place! After 16 hours in the simulator at Eclipse Aviation earning a type rating in the Eclipse 500, I was very familiar with the simulated Gibson Boulevard, but it hadn’t really sunk in that it was real.

A circling approach is one of the requirements for a type rating. At Eclipse, it’s usually done as an approach to ABQ’s Runway 8, circling to 17. One of the tricks you learn is that once you turn north for circling, you quickly cross Gibson Boulevard (with its simulated cars and trucks zipping by)–then count to about 8 and then make a left base leg turn and the end of Runway 17 will magically appear.

Eclipse 500 Level D Simulator

Author at the controls of the Eclipse 500 simulator.

So by the time I was driving to ABQ to airline it home after the checkride I had flown the circling approach a half dozen times. And there was the sign announcing the exit for Gibson Boulevard–it was a weird moment of realization of just how real the Level D simulator is.

It was a surreal moment a few weeks later when I touched a real Eclipse 500 for the first time. Sitting in the cockpit in Maryland, I expected to see only ABQ’s taxiways through the windshield.

Check out the video to see what it’s like to move from the high-zoot full-motion simulator and its spectacular visual system, all of which costs tens of millions of dollars, to the real thing, priced at a seemingly reasonable $2.15 million. For more on the Eclipse 500, see the August cover story of AOPA Pilot and my previous blog and videoThink you can fly the Eclipse 500?”