Archive for April, 2009

Missing Meigs

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

The Garmin GNS 530 reported a groundspeed of 119 knots while reporting a true airspeed of 162 knots–43 knots of wind on the nose, adding a full hour to the trip from Frederick, Maryland, to Chicago. Even running lean of peak exhaust gas temperature, I was beginning to wonder about fuel reserves. The 530 was showing more than an hour and 15 minutes of fuel on landing, but that’s a straight line to the destination of Chicago Executive, Palwaukee (PWK). And I knew that Chicago Approach wouldn’t allow us a direct route over the city and Chicago O’Hare to PWK.

As predicted, the first Chicago Approach controller had a re-route for us, but at least a choice. Either over the southern end of Lake Michigan–a bit more direct, or south and west of the city before turning back toward PWK–longer, for sure. I chose the longer route because that lake is COLD this time of year in particular and we would be at relatively low altitude by then.

So around Robinhood’s barn we went and ultimately landed with about an hour of fuel on this VFR day, so plenty. Then it was nearly an hour car ride downtown where we really wanted to go. If only there were a GA airport nearer downtown. What a concept!

Standing on the lake shore looking out at Northerly Island, I felt as if I were at a wake–missing an old friend. Once the site of embattled Meigs Field, a perfect GA airport only blocks from the heart of Chicago, the island is now just another park among dozens along the lake shore. Mayor Richard Daley cowardly bulldozed the airport under the cover of darkness, knowing he couldn’t get away with it any other way.

For pilots, the Meigs legacy has become the poster child of the dangers of backroom politics and lack of federal protection for key airports. Legislation since then may reduce the likelihood of such a deed occurring again, but it won’t stop those of us who enjoy Chicago from wishing we had a more convenient choice.

Don’t let this happen to your airport. AOPA has lots of resources to help you protect your airport from the Mayor Daleys of the world and others who would do general aviation harm. But most important, get involved.

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.

Are student pilots declining?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Student pilot numbers are down, and will continue to be if the FAA is correct. The agency released its annual aviation forecast recently, where it said that student pilot numbers peaked this century at 94,420 in 2001. As you might expect, they’ve been in decline ever since, with an estimated 80,989 this year.

That in and of itself is news, but the forecast was created to, well…forecast. The good folks at the FAA expect student pilot numbers to hit a low of 72,050 in 2010 before rebounding to a high of 86,600 in 2025. That’s some sobering, bad news. But there’s a silver lining, actually two silver linings. The first is that the forecast is notoriously wrong so we shouldn’t believe it. Although, now that I say that I remember that it’s usually overly optomistic. Ugh. The second silver lining is that sport pilots are expected to multiply like wildfire, from only 2,623 last year to more than 20,000 by 2025. Will it happen? Refer to the statement above.

So what does the future hold for GA? Will those of us who are left be flying more, thereby negating the negative economic and political impacts? Or will all the baby boomers give up their medicals and fly an LSA at four gallons an hour on the weekend?

Personally, I’m taking the head-in-the-sand approach and will continue on as if GA is doing great. Kids will always love airplanes, adults will always need a safe, expeditious way to get from point A to point B, and weekend warriors will always need a break from life for a few hours. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be proactive. I cringe when I think of all the students who have fallen off the FAA roll, driven away by a lousy flight school or selfish CFI. Hopefully they (we) will wake up one day and realize we can’t take this great thing we have for granted.

Flying in tornadoes

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Last Friday marked the 35th anniversary of a tornado outbreak that history has not yet topped. The April 3-4, 1974, “superoutbreak” produced 148 tornadoes within a 24-hour period. This is the largest number on record, according to the Web site Xenia During the height of activity, 15 tornadoes were on the ground simultaneously. Some 315 persons were killed and 5,484 were injured in 13 states and Canada. Tornadoes traveled a total of 2,598 miles.

Would you fly in conditions like those? Me, either.

But two other pilots did. The late Dick Gilbert, then traffic reporter and helicopter pilot for WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky, was airborne at the time. A transcript of his reports–he followed a tornado by watching the explosions of electrical transformers on the ground–can be read online.

Another pilot’s encounter was inadvertent. Earlier that day Richard Schwarz left Jeffersonville, Ind.–just across the Ohio River from Louisville–for Mad River, Ohio, and was overtaken by the weather near Cincinnati; air traffic controllers helped him find the airport minutes before Xenia, Ohio, was nearly obliterated by an F5 tornado.

While I was too young to fly at the time, I do remember that day–much of it spent below ground, in a Kentucky basement.

Europe as GA bellwhether

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Go ahead and laugh at the alternative powerplants being shown at this year’s AERO convention in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Yeah, they’re tiny and have minimal power outputs. But make no mistake: “Green” is the word over in the Old Country. Cruising along the autobahn, you see entire rooves of farmhouses covered in solar panels. Why? To earn generous energy credits.

In GA applications, I saw several promising powerplant schemes. One, Flight Design’s hybrid electric/Rotax combination, gives you a conventional engine coupled with a 40-hp electric motor. For takeoff, you use the Rotax plus the electric motor. In normal cruise, the electric motor is shut down. Lose your Rotax? The electric engine’s power helps get you to a better forced-landing location than if you had zero power.

Eric Raymond’s Sunseeker solar-powered motorized sailplane has already flown across the U.S., and now Raymond wants to fly his Sunseeker from his home in Zurich to the Pyrenees, and then on to North Africa. Raymond knows solar power. He worked with DuPont’s Solar Challenger in the 1980s. The Sunseeker’s solar panels are covered by a tough protective coating. “If you tried to wax it, the wax wouldn’t stick to it,” Raymond said.

Another neat concept is the solar hangar. Solar power opens and close the hangar door, provides energy to charge batteries, heat and light the hangar, and even preheat engines. Make more energy than you use? Then maybe the Obama administration can come up with a tax plan to credit your eco-savvy.

My guess is that the U.S. will be seeing more of these sorts of new approaches to power generation. The most cynical opinions hold that avgas may go the way of the Dodo bird. Until then, we’re hostage to fluctuating oil prices–and the whims of the oil-producing nations.  The Old Country may be helping to point the way out of that predicament.

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Wiki on how to land an airplane

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

My wife loves to read online wikiHows and subscribes to a newsletter that delivers a “how-to” of the day.  She forwarded me yesterday’s, which was “How to Land an Airplane in an Emergency.” No, this isn’t an April Fool’s hoax–you can read this wikiHow here.

Is it any good? I felt the text was well organized but, as you might expect, the topic was greatly oversimplified. My guess is that much of the information came from one person’s limited experience. For example, step #4, “Call for help on the radio,” tells you to “Look for a hand-held microphone, which is normally to the left of the pilot’s seat just below the side window, and use it like a CB radio.” The handheld mics I’ve seen to the left of the pilot’s seat usually are in a storage pouch on the door, often buried under the POH, not even plugged into the aircraft.

Comments can be found on the wiki’s “Discussion” tab and there was a lot of speculation as to whether somebody without at least some piloting experience would have any hope of landing an airliner. Frankly, I think a lot of that is academic; today, if both pilots of an airliner are stricken, it’s unlikely that any passenger would be able to breach the hardened cockpit door.

Read the Wiki and share your thoughts. Personally, I’ll continue to recommend the Air Safety Foundation’s Pinch-Hitter course, which is also available online.