Is flying VFR with an iPad prudent?

October 1st, 2014

At the risk of sounding old school, I’m going to address a topic about modern flight instruction. I got this particular idea while perusing an internet bulletin board. The issue was the practice of using an iPad for VFR navigation once the private pilot checkride is over. Is this a good idea?

The argument in favor of using the iPad comes down to one of convenience. Simply put, with electronic charts and GPS capability, it essentially renders obsolete the need to use paper charts or to keep a paper log. The pilot can simply follow the magenta line between points A and B. And all of this is true. Cockpit clutter is decreased, and theoretically so is workload. In the airplane in question, the panel does not have modern “glass” avionics nor a GPS; it features steam gauges and two VORs.

I believe that a private pilot should rely as little as possible on such electronic gee-wizardry, even when it’s mounted in the airplane. The reason I say this is that part of basic airmanship is learning, using, and understanding—truly understanding—the art of navigation. This includes the concept of calculating and using wind correction angles, compass corrections, and isogonic lines. Simply following a course line on a screen is not understanding; it’s rote, and rote is not a skill.

The skill of computing courses and distances and wind correction angles is not to be taken for granted. It needs to be practiced for awhile to be fully ingrained, and since new pilots generally only fly on good VFR days, there is no reason not to complete a flight log and use it (along with a sectional) while looking out a window. I have no issue with using an electronic sectional with no courses on it, because it is easier than using paper, and as a simple resource, it does indeed reduce workload.

Once the basic skill of filling out the blocks on a paper nav log are mastered, transitioning to a computer-generated one is not only reasonable, but on a long trip, prudent, as the computer is the most accurate method available. However, the pilot should still practice steering the proper course on the DG while using a VOR (when applicable), and should most definitely keep track of times and fuel burns. Where there is a discrepancy, you need to know how to account for it, and to come up with an alternate plan of action when one is called for (usually an unplanned fuel stop in a headwind).

Flying VFR with your head buried in the cockpit is not only a bad idea, it’s unsafe. There is a value in being able to fly from A to B using nothing but a chart, a watch, and a pencil. Besides, most of us learn to fly in part because we want to enjoy the view. The best way to do that is to use it to help you aviate and navigate.—Chip Wright

Owner-assisted annual is a wrap

September 23rd, 2014
Look Ma, no spinner!

Look Ma, no spinner!

Last week I told you that I was going to help out with my very first owner-assisted annual. The annual is in the logbooks, the airplane is all back together, and it was (in my opinion) a very good experience for this owner.

Boy, those seats look uncomfortable.

Boy, those seats look uncomfortable.

A longer article will appear in a forthcoming issue of AOPA Pilot. But for now, here are the highlights and some of the lessons learned:

  • Get parts in advance. Oil filter, O-rings, anything that you can buy up front will save you time during the actual inspection.
  • Same goes for the ELT battery. Check its expiration date and get a fresh one ready to go for the annual.
  • It’s weird to see your airplane in pieces. Kind of like watching someone you know on the operating table. Maybe.
  • You might be tempted to start a new project. Pulling out the seats, I realized that the foam rubber inside had to be 30 years old and hard as a rock. Hmmmm. Time for an upgrade?
  • Is stuff starting to wear out? You’ll see for yourself.
  • Have you been leaning on the ground? Don’t bother lying; the spark plugs will tell the truth.—Jill W. Tallman
Nosewheel removed.

Nosewheel removed.

 

Rolling up my sleeves

September 17th, 2014
Not me and not my A&P, but I'm looking forward to performing my first owner-assisted annual.

Not me and not my A&P, but I’m looking forward to my first owner-assisted annual.

Since purchasing my 1964 Piper Cherokee in 2010, I’ve gone through three annuals. The process has been something like this: Gather up the logbooks; hand them over with keys to the A&P; note any squawks to be addressed during the annual; cross fingers and hope for the best; pick up airplane in about a week’s time; write check.

The annuals for my older, piston-powered airplane have been fairly routine and manageable from a budget standpoint. (2013′s was an exception; there was a somewhat complicated airworthiness directive to comply with, plus the discovery that fuel lines in the wings were original–and getting pretty brittle.)

This year I get to roll up my sleeves and help out. The federal aviation regulations permit you to do what’s called an “owner assisted” annual inspection. As an owner who does not have an airframe and powerplant certificate with an inspection authorization rating, I cannot perform any part of the annual inspection. But the FARs do permit me to participate in the maintenance portion under an IA’s supervision and approval. (C. Hall Jones writes a very nice description of the pertinent regulations and requirements in this article.)

How did I get this opportunity? A local flight instructor I’ve known for years recently handed me a new business card. He’s a mechanic–it’s his full-time gig with a government contractor–but I hadn’t known he performed inspections independently. “Would you be up for an owner assist?” I asked. And that’s all it took.

The ball gets rolling this week. I’ll let you know how it goes in an upcoming blog post.—Jill W. Tallman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The probationary year

September 15th, 2014

For new airline pilots, the first year is one with a very steep learning curve. There are myriad new rules, policies, procedures and regulations to learn. On top of all that, you must learn the systems of your new airplane and how to safely fly it. Once you get out on the line, you get to learn the the day-to-day grind of being a pilot, with all of the benefits and pitfalls included therein.

One of the concepts that you are introduced to right away is that of your “probationary year.” In essence, it works like this: Because nearly every airline is unionized, the collective bargaining agreements (contracts) include a grievance process for the pilots to contest certain decisions, including terminations. It usually involves some sort of arbitration process that varies from company to company, but the principle is the same in that the union can fight back if it believes that a pilot was improperly disciplined.

There is one exception, and that is the probationary pilot. Every airline puts new-hire pilots on probation for a period of time, usually 12 months, but a few use six months. When you are on probation, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with no recourse.

The intention of the probationary process is for the company to see how the pilot fits in with new co-workers and the work environment. This isn’t to suggest that someone is following you everywhere you go or measuring the length of your pant cuffs above your shoes. Far from it. All that the airline asks is that you keep your nose clean. It’s often said that the best relationship a pilot can have with the chief pilot is no relationship at all. In other words, if the CP doesn’t know who you are, it means you haven’t been in trouble, and that’s good.

Most of the time, there are only three ways you’re going to get in trouble. The first is via another work group, such as the gate agents or flight attendants. The second is through your fellow pilots, i.e., the captains with whom you fly. The third possibility for an early ticket out the door is poor performance in training—in this case, recurrent training. A number of airlines will deliberately schedule new hire pilots for their first recurrent checkride at least a month before their probationary period is up. That way, if the pilot isn’t up to snuff, he or she can be terminated “without cause.”

It’s important to understand, though, that the company will offer retraining or help in nearly every case (even seasoned veterans make mistakes). To get yourself terminated means you showed up totally unprepared or acted inappropriately during training. In my 18 years of airline flying, I’ve never known a pilot who was terminated during the first recurrent training event…but we all worry about it!

While companies will not hesitate to rid themselves of a “problem child” who is on probation, termination is not the first choice. They’ve already made in an investment in you, and they want to see it pay off. However, if the behavior in question is severe enough, or if there is ample reason to question the maturity or judgment of the pilot involved, you can count on turning in your badge.

A few examples of pilots getting terminated early include drinking; theft (one pilot at a previous carrier took the window shades out of the plane and used them in his car—and they had the company name silk-screened on them. The CP wrote down the license plate, and the rest is history); excessive sick calls and/or no-shows; and sexual harassment. All of these are extreme behaviors, and no company would tolerate them.

Probation is a rite of passage for all of us. Fortunately, 99 percent of pilots have no problem at any time during their careers, including in the first year. Those who do generally don’t belong in the front of an airplane in the first place.—Chip Wright

Just ahead in the November issue

September 10th, 2014

ian helicopterIt seems ridiculous to be thinking about ice, snow, and frigid temperatures when the rest of the region is still experiencing summerlike weather, but those are the vagaries of our publishing schedule: Our November issue goes to the printer this week. And so we bring you at least one winter-centric article (“Weather: Just Say No—A zero-tolerance policy for snow, ice, and frost,” by Jack Williams).

The rest of our issue concerns topics that could affect your flying no matter what the temperature is.

  • Go Vertical: No more excuses not to fly helicopters. Watch out! Editor Ian Twombly has gone over to the fling-wing side, and in this highly entertaining article he’s determined to take you with him.
  • Escape Plan: Keep a go-around ready whenever you need it. Jamie Beckett wants you to understand not just how to execute a go-around, but when you’ll need them, and why it’s so important.
  • Practical Weather: Five tips for putting your weather knowledge to good use. It’s one thing to memorize weather theory for the checkride, but pilots need to know how to put that theory into practice when it’s time to go on a trip–lest you remain forever in the traffic pattern.

Our November issue hits digital devices on Sept. 24 and starts in-home delivery Sept. 30. Happy reading! As always, we welcome your letters to the editor (flighttraining@aopa.org).—Jill W. Tallman

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Training contracts

September 8th, 2014

Embraer 190 AzulAfter spending thousands of dollars on your training, and getting paid an unpredictable income as a flight instructor, you’ve just gotten a call from a regional airline offering you a job. You’ll be flying a new, state-of-the-art regional jet, complete with autothrottles. There is just one minor detail to be discussed: the airline wants you to sign a training contract. It states that if you leave before a specified date, you will be required to repay some or all of the cost of your training—a figure that might exceed $20,000.

What do you do?

Many pilots have just shrugged their shoulders, grabbed a pen—probably with the company logo on it—and signed on the dotted line.

At least two airlines in the United States are using these training contracts today, both of them on the Embraer 170/190 series of jets. The rationale is that cost of training is so high, and the availability of simulator time so low, that they do not have a choice. It is a means of hedging their investment and preventing a pilot from going through training, getting a type rating, and leaving as soon as possible for greener pastures. Those greener pastures are often overseas, where American pilots on the 170/190 step into starting pay that is well north of $100,000 a year, and often includes subsidized housing or a positive space ticket back home once a month. U.S. airlines’ concern abou pilots leaving is not unfounded.

The problem with these contracts is many pilots assume that they aren’t enforceable, especially since they are not a part of any union collective bargaining agreement. However, the airlines are beginning to pursue legal actions against pilots who try to leave early. “Early” is usually defined as two years.
If all goes well, the contract isn’t a problem. With the new rules in effect, a pilot can’t upgrade to captain of a U.S. airline until he or she has at least 1,000 hours as a first officer. Taking into account the time spent in initial training, the typical pilot will hit that 1,000 hours about the time the two-year commitment is up, give or take a few months.

As for the amount to be repaid, it behooves you to pay attention to the details. The contract may allow for prorating the amount owed based on the amount of time serve—but it may not. You may be on the hook for the entire amount if you leave just one day early.

Other details to be studied include your obligations if the company goes out of business or if you are furloughed. Likewise, if you lose your medical, is there any relief available?

Training contracts are not new (“pay-for-training” used to be very common), and they are commonly employed overseas. However, they are not the norm in the United States. I doubt that they will become the norm either, but if you find yourself entertaining—or needing—a job from a company that utilizes such a tool, it is worth discussing the language and commitments with an attorney. As for enforceability, it could cost you a ton of money just to get that question answered. If you’re going to sign one, assume you will have no choice but to honor it.—Chip Wright

Simple terminology

August 26th, 2014

When I changed jobs from my previous carrier to my current one, I needed to learn some new lingo. What was frustrating was having to learn new terminology for fairly mundane things.

At my old carrier, a printout of my four-day trip would be called a “DSL,” for daily schedule log. DSL referred to the actual printout, which we carried around to keep track of what we were doing. When talking about the actual flying that we were doing, it was referred to as a trip. Perfectly logical.

My current company, however, commonly refers to trips as “pairings,” because pilots are “paired” with one another…except when they aren’t. We used the word “pairing” at Comair as well, but only in the process of producing the trips, because the tool in the computer program was called a “pairing generator,” which worked with the “trip optimizer.”

Other carriers often refer to trips or pairings as “rotations,” which I assume comes from the original military use of rotating in and out of duty cycles. NetJets often refers to its seven-day excursions as “tours,” which is an interesting way to put it, and is probably the best choice of words for them. At least nobody calls them “sorties.” Yet.

Even something as simple as checklists can be called by various names. I’ve used the “acceptance check” and the “receiving check,” which are essentially the same thing: a checklist to make sure that the airplane is properly configured and set up prior to doing anything else. The “before start” and the “preflight” checklists are also similar, as are “parking” and “terminating,” except when some companies use both for different things.

For pilots on reserve, there is one assignment that is dreaded above all else, and that is the one that has you going to the airport and sitting for a period of hours in case your services are suddenly needed. At Comair, we called in “ready reserve,” but some companies call it “hot standby” (DHL), some call it “airport available,” and my current company uses the term “field standby.” No matter what you call it, it isn’t a lot of fun.

There are different terms for passengers too. At my current carrier, we refer to children as “half-weights.” At Comair, traveling on your day off was considered “non-reving,” because you were flying for free (producing no revenue), but I’ve since learned that it’s OK to say “SA,” for space available travel. Hey, whatever, just get me where I want to go! Pilots can be either “dead-heading” or “repositioning.” Either way, you are riding in the back from one airport to another as a part of your assignment.

Historically, I’ve always referred to a flight that takes off, then needs to return for some reason, as a “diversion” or a “mechanical.” The new term, I’ve come to learn, is “air return,” which strikes me as silly. After all, where else could the airplane be but in the air when it is determined that it needs to return?

The stack of paperwork we got for each flight at Comair was called the “dispatch release,” or just the “release.” It was a bit of a misnomer because the actual release was a couple of pages. The other 30 feet of printout was weather, performance info, et cetera. At my current carrier, this is all referred to as the “flight papers,” which doesn’t sound very professional in my opinion, but it is a much more accurate description of the whole mess.

This just scratches the surface, but it gives you an idea of how an industry that strives for harmonization manages to do all that it can to avoid it. Either way, you need to learn the language and the various ways to refer to the same thing…or to things different.—Chip Wright

Surprises all around

August 19th, 2014

Jean Moule last wrote for the Flight Training blog about flying with different instructors. She is an emerita faculty member of Oregon State University, and a published writer and artist. Visit her website.—Ed.

glacierYou have spent months planning, days hiking. Your tents are pitched on a finger of land that sticks out into Bench Lake in the wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Suddenly a floatplane lands on the water and comes to a stop in the middle of the small lake you had thought your own. The plane taxis to the end of the lake to again face into the wind and takes off. You stand with others in your group wondering, as you always will, why did that plane land here? What was that all about?

Watching the airplane fly off into the distance, you see it even more mysteriously take a turn in the air. Is it wildlife? Unknown to you, the airplane circled around a snowmobile abandoned in this wilderness.

This introduction to floatplane flying by a new, young CFI certainly had its moments for both me and life on the ground. The bear we circled was as surprised as the people. My sense is that a more experienced CFI would not have caught such attention from both the wild and people life. And while he never scared me exactly, flying close to the mountains to catch the updrafts for flight caused me to not take the controls as much as I might. In the end, I controlled the flaps and the water rudder because, in the Super Cub, he could not reach them anyway. The bottom line: Did I have fun? he asked after we returned to the dock. Oh yes.

tailnumberThe views were awesome. Could I say anything but “Wow!” asked the pilot in the other airplane that held most of my family. We took off and landed together on Trail Lake; I circled Paradise Valley while my family flew over the Harding Ice Field in a bigger, faster airplane.

Alaska will never be the same for me now that I have seen the backcountry, which makes up most of Alaska anyway, from the air. So many lakes, almost always a place to land—or maybe “land” is not the correct word, when you finish up on water.

My family and I have a lively conversation the night before about how a floatplane pilot gets to the dock. Carefully, and with experience, I find out. My CFI is embarrassed when our airplane goes quiet and still several feet from the dock. Only the presence of someone who could throw him a rope saves us from other ways to make that dock.

His mentor, the 75-year-old pilot who took my family up, stands just a tad mortified as the airplane is pulled into place.

bench lake with tentsI don’t mind. I was along for the ride and scenery anyway. And I did learn a bit about floatplanes. My first pleasure was the water taxiing (no yellow line to nail) and the views, especially the images of the other airplane carrying my family were incredible. Our hour in the sky was well worth our weeks of planning, days of travelling, and getting seven people up and out on schedule for our flights. The Alaska weather cooperated. No rain and the clouds rested at about 5,000 feet. The group on the Cessna 206 sometimes seemed a tad squeezed between the Harding Icefield and the clouds. Our smaller airplane played in the hidden valleys and did a practice land and takeoff for those surprised hikers. They wonder why we landed. I wonder if I will ever get in a floatplane again. Mysteries.—Jean Moule

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Why be normal?

August 15th, 2014

Why indeed? We often preach the gospel of consistent, frequent flight lessons because research says that’s what works best.

But for some of us, it just isn’t possible. Take Bill Adams, whose travel for work conflicts with a regular flying schedule. But he hasn’t let that stop him. Here’s what Bill says has worked for him:

Bill Adams soloed this Aeronca Champ, and says flying six different airplanes hasn't hampered his flight training experience.

Bill Adams soloed this Aeronca Champ, and says flying six different airplanes hasn’t hampered his flight training experience.

 

Why be normal? My job takes me all over the country for short periods of time. So, my instruction cannot be normal. I have to take what I can get. In my case it turned out to be better than normal.

By the time I soloed, I had flown six different airplanes and had about half my time in tri-gear and half my time in tailwheel. I have flown high wing and low wing, tandem and side-by-side, a glass panel and a plane with no electrical system that had to be hand-propped (my personal favorite). I just completed my first solo in a taildragger at a tower-controlled airport—a 1940s-era Aeronca Champ at Livermore Municipal in Livermore, California. My instructor was Pete Eltgroth, with Red Sky Aviation. I had just as much fun (or more) as the person soloing in a tri-gear at an uncontrolled airport.

While all these differences did extend the length of my training a little, so far, they have also provided a more comprehensive (and more fun) learning experience. And, I am much farther along than if I had waited for more ideal circumstances.

To which we say, “Congratulations!” Because, at the end of the day, whatever works to get you into the sky.—Jill W. Tallman

Are you interested in learning to fly? Sign up for a free student trial membership in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and receive six issues of Flight Training magazine plus lots of training tools and resources for student pilots. Click here for more information.


 

The cover letter

August 13th, 2014

As you start looking for your first job—or even if it isn’t your first one—you might be working on your resume and cover letter. What goes on a resume is pretty straightforward: It’s a quantitative and qualitative summary of your experience and the skills you bring to the job.

What about the cover letter? What do you put in the cover letter? What do you not put in the cover letter?

Some of the greatest advice I got about cover letters came from someone who makes a living reading them: A cover letter should not just be a regurgitation of your resume. If that’s all it is, then it is a waste of your time and the time of the person reading it.

Instead, your cover letter should be used to talk about what is not in your resume. Use it as a chance to talk about other experiences or skill sets you offer that may not necessarily be a part of the job, but will help contribute to your performance. For instance, if you coach a sports team or volunteer in a local school, you are demonstrating leadership. In fact, any kind of volunteer work should be highlighted, because companies—not just airlines or flight departments—like to see candidates who do something to give back to the community. It might be that you volunteer in a church, at an animal shelter, or a zoo; it doesn’t matter. You are demonstrating a desire to make a difference and a willingness to give your own time.

Mention other achievements or skills that you might be able to offer within the work place. If you are a certified trainer in something (besides flying), it demonstrates a desire to continue learning and pass on what you know. That, too, is impressive and important.

A cover letter is also a great place to briefly (as in two to three sentences) describe why you want to work for that particular company. That’s hard to do on a resume. Maybe you want to work there because your parents did, or because you grew up in the shadow of its headquarters (or, in the case of an airline, in the shadow of one of its hubs). This is your chance to show your loyalty to a company before you ever set foot in the door. It won’t always work, but you have nothing to lose by trying.

If you are still shy of the minimums for a particular company, use the cover letter to explain what you are doing to close the gap, and give an estimate of how long it will take you to get there. Sometimes, just the enthusiasm and work ethic that you demonstrate can be enough to get your foot in the door.

The cover letter is a bit of a lost art, so if you do it well, it will help you stand above the rest. Use it to your advantage, and keep it to a page or less. And whatever you do, don’t just repeat what is on your resume!—Chip Wright