Archive for the ‘Training advice’ Category

Money in the tank

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Fuel-Management_squareWe are a society that lives and dies by oil and gasoline. Nearly every American has a car, if not two or three, and very few cities have what can be called a robust public transportation system. We think nothing of filling our gas tanks and driving aimlessly or wastefully. This concept also applies to the way in which we fly.

The airlines long ago perfected the art of only carrying enough fuel to get from the point of departure to the point of arrival while landing with the IFR fuel reserve of 45 minutes. In the general aviation world, though, we tend to top off and go. When is the last time that you really made an effort to see how much fuel you burn?

Many of us fly the same routes fairly commonly on our cross-country flights, which means that we are in a good position to get some solid data on our fuel burn habits. Those data should be based on altitude, weight, wind, and temperature.

It’s one thing to guesstimate your fuel burn, or to rely on the numbers in your pilot’s operating handbook (POH) or in the computer software you use for flight planning. But what about keeping more accurate data based on your airplane, and your engine, and your leaning habits? How closely do you maintain the book power settings? Speeds?

I used to flight plan for eight gallons an hour in a Cessna 172, and that was pretty accurate, but I also know that when I paid closer attention to what was going on, or flew a longer-than-usual flight, I could get as much as a gallon an hour more out of the tank—and in the end, that means money in your tank. The difference in total travel time wasn’t enough to worry about, but the efficiency can be nice. It can get you several miles farther down the road or buy you some time to spend loitering over a picturesque area where you just want to sightsee.

Consider creating a table that you can use to more closely track your actual fuel habits, and see if you can’t “buy” fuel simply by changing your habit patterns. For instance, if your tailwind will be greater near your destination, consider delaying your descent a bit. If there is warmer air somewhere, try cruising at that altitude (if the ride is smooth). Get wind reports at various altitudes as you fly. Even if you rent, you can try this across various ships in the fleet to find the one that is best (and worst). These are tricks that the airlines and corporate flight departments use to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize costs, all with little impact on the overall bottom line. Fuel in the tank, after all, is money in the bank.—Chip Wright

Report your position, please and thank you

Monday, June 8th, 2015

fdk-towerFrederick Municipal Airport (FDK) became Class D airspace in May 2012. (Three years already? Where has the time gone?) Judging on feedback during a friendly get-together last week between control tower personnel and local pilots, we pilots need to brush up on our communications and directional skills.

Here are some of the issues our controllers raised. While these are specific to FDK, your local controllers may have these on their wish lists as well.

  • Taxi instructions: Make sure you read back your taxi instructions and runway assignment, “else we’re going to pester you until we get those.” Also, when calling for taxi instructions, be ready to actually start taxiing.
  • In the pattern: FDK controllers will invariably instruct us to report mid-field downwind at each pass. They would also like us to indicate how the approach will terminate—is it full stop? touch and go? full stop taxi back? Each of these has an impact on traffic flow. “You’d be surprised how many people get in the pattern and never express their intention.”
  • Position reports: Be as accurate as possible. FDK controllers don’t have radar and can’t easily spot aircraft until they’re three miles from the airport. If we tell them we’re northeast of the airport and we’re actually north (or—worse—northwest), that affects their ability to locate and sequence us. Along these lines, the controllers suggested giving an altitude report so that aircraft in our vicinity, who may not be communicating with the tower but are monitoring the frequency, will know where to look for us.
  • Position reports, part two: “If you’re in the west practice area heading back to the airport, and your compass reads 090, you are not east of the airport.” ‘Nuff said (though I sometimes have to remind myself to look at the bottom of the directional gyro when reporting my position).
  • Read airport notices to airmen. “You would not believe how many people do not.”

I’m glad we had a chance to hear from the folks on the other side of the microphone. If you fly out of a tower-controlled airport, what do you think is on your controllers’ minds? Controllers, we want to hear from you.—Jill W. Tallman

Flying like a professional: Talking on the radio

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Orlando Showalter MentoringThere are many marks of a professional that can be attributed to airline pilots—whether it’s the way they wear their uniforms, or brush their hair, or use the checklist. Another one is the way in which they talk on the radio.

The radio is essentially a party line, meaning that everyone on the frequency can hear you. How you conduct yourself says a lot about you.

I’ve been flying now for more than 25 years, and I’ve heard more than a few things that have made me cringe. That isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few things that were funny, even if they weren’t always appropriate; I have, and I’ve laughed heartily. But I’ve also heard pilots (and even controllers) belch, swear, bloviate, lose their temper, and otherwise make a fool out of themselves.

For many new pilots, using the radio is intimidating and even a bit frightening.

But radio-speak is a skill that gets better with practice, as well as with listening. If you live near a busy airport, one of the best things you can do is turn on a handheld transceiver and listen to a local frequency—especially if it’s for a tower or approach control.

You can achieve the same thing using, a popular website that has a link to hundreds of live ATC audio streams. You can also study the examples in the Aeronautical Information Manual and the Pilot/Controller Glossary, but it isn’t exactly exciting reading.

Pay attention to the airline pilots. The most professional-sounding ones will speak with an even cadence and tempo, and they will not allow a high level of activity affect the way they transmit. This is important, because a controller doesn’t want to spend a lot of time repeating transmissions—and often does not have that time.

It doesn’t take long to pick up how a few tidbits, such as how a transmission is to be structured; or what commands to expect at a certain time; or when it may be acceptable—even if it isn’t always right—to just respond with a call sign or some other verbal shorthand. You’ll also learn that the true professionals limit themselves to what needs to be said and do not add extraneous filler to their transmissions. It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Talking like a professional and sounding like one is not hard, but it does take practice. Listening to LiveATC or a handheld will help tremendously. Practice giving your responses in your car, where nobody can hear you. You’ll get the hang of it before you know it, and when you begin to tackle more complex airspace, you too will sound like a pro.—Chip Wright

Videos of traffic patterns? Yes, please

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Flying to a new airport is great fun, but it poses its own set of challenges. You can study the sectional chart, the airport diagram, and the Airport/Facility Directory for an hour, but when you’re up in the air 10 miles out, searching for that strip of asphalt, sometimes it’s tough to put those pieces together and pick out your destination. (Ask any student pilot in the Northeast who’s had to spy an airport in an urban area, seemingly buried in a maze of buildings and highways.)

Short final to Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.

Short final to Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.

A new website aims to help you. was created by California pilot Tony Arbini, who says he was assigned an airport he had never flown to for his long solo cross-country. He went online to try to look up the airport and learn as much as he could about its airspace, but he didn’t find much. He created in a quest to “find a better way to communicate” airspace and traffic patterns for a given airport, according to the website.

The airspace around OAK is depicted graphically.

The airspace around OAK is depicted graphically.

Arbini and his team visit airports and videotape the flight, but the site’s collection of videos is much more polished than what you’ll typically find on YouTube. Each video introduces the airport by showing you its location on a sectional chart, with traffic patterns, airspace, and nearby navigation aids highlighted. Static photos display pertinent landmarks to help you spy the runway before you’re directly over top of it. There’s also info on traffic pattern altitudes, noise abatement procedures, terrain obstacles, and other good-to-know stuff.

Traffic patterns at OAK are highlighted. (

Traffic patterns at OAK are highlighted. (

All of this can be found in traditional sources, of course, but I like the way presents it in a neat and graphically attractive package. Note that the use of the website should enhance—not replace—your due diligence when digging up “all available information” about your destination.

Right now the website covers airports in California (plus one lone airport in Alaska). But that’s where you come in. The website urges you to “fly it—film it—share it.” You can upload your own footage to the site. Arbini provides tips on how best to present it, and he even includes a tutorial on how to use his preferred action cam—a Garmin Virb—to get that great footage.—Jill W. Tallman

Learn the local weather, wherever you are

Monday, April 13th, 2015

weatherOne of the most important variables in the day-to-day life of a pilot—if not the most important—is weather.

It’s easy to fixate on learning weather patterns in your hometown. After all, it’s where you live, so it just makes sense. But as you expand your horizons, you will learn that weather is called a “variable” for a reason: No two places are the same.

I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and there’s a definite annual pattern to the weather. The summers are either hazy, hot, and humid or absolutely gorgeous. There isn’t a lot of in-between, unless you count the torrential rain storms. Lines of thunderstorms can be hit or miss as well, because the Appalachians will affect the extent of continued development before they hit my front door. Falls are brisk; winters are damp and miserable; and spring is the season in which Mother Nature can’t make a decision. Fog is rare, but we had it.

Move forward to my move to Florida, both in college and at my first airline job. There are two seasons in Central Florida, and thus two weather forecasts: pop-up thunderstorms in the summer—as opposed to the fast-moving lines of fury that I’d grown up with—and morning fog in the spring and fall. This was as predictable as Charlie Brown missing the football. And the fog was often so thick you could cut it with a spoon. Carrying extra fuel for holding patterns on morning arrivals was a necessity, as the fog could burn off as quickly as it formed.

In the Midwest, I learned to deal with the same lines of summer storms I’d grown up with, only this time I had to deal with them when they were at maximum strength and fury as they would move across the flat central portion of the country with tremendous speed, unimpeded by terrain, with tops that often exceeded the service ceiling of nearly all jets. I learned firsthand what severe and extreme turbulence feels like, and I don’t need to experience either ever again.

The Midwest also gave me my first exposure to deicing operations, especially with hoar frost, which is extremely common as temperatures begin to fall, even if the precipitation doesn’t. The winters can produce pretty thick fog. This is a major issue in some mountain valleys, especially in the evenings and early mornings. Our late-night flights to Tri-Cities, Tennessee, frequently had to race time to beat the fog that would roll in. Ashville, North Carolina, had similar issues.

Nowadays, my flying takes me around the Pacific. In the winters, the weather is virtually non-existent, and what little there is lends itself to easy visual deviations. In the summers, the storms are much more extensive, but the convective energy is much less concentrated than that in the storms over land. They simply don’t have the heating source. That said, they are to be taken seriously, yet at the same time we are much quicker to pull the trigger on diverting because airports—the islands—are so far apart, and we can only carry so much extra fuel. It’s not unheard of for the weather over or near one of the islands to be just sketchy enough that a crew won’t even attempt an approach. The fuel wasted is better saved for a possible missed approach at the alternate.

Weather and its patterns are unique, and while I don’t profess to have the most intimate understanding that others do, I have stored enough information away in my memory bank that I can put together a plan in fairly short order. Understanding what to expect based on local geography and terrain is a key component to that. In my case, more learning shall occur. I will eventually transfer back to domestic flying, and I have relatively little flying experience west of the Rockies. I’ll be relying on what I’ve read to get by, but not as much as the wisdom of those I’m flying with along with my own eyes.

Wherever your experience takes you, pay attention. It’s information you’ll need later.—Chip Wright

Applying flying skills to life, and vice versa

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Learning to fly is a complicated pursuit. For many, it is the first real foray into the three-dimensional world. It requires learning a complex series of skills in a machine that never stops moving. There is no pulling over at a gas station to ask for directions or use a restroom. Every flight involves at least a rudimentary level of planning.

One of the neat things about learning to fly is that many of the skills are transferable to other endeavors. Likewise, there are skill sets from other hobbies that can be transferred to flying. Take flight planning, for example.

At its most basic, flight planning requires at least a look at the weather and the fuel gauge even if you are only planning a flight in the local area. But longer flights or flights over more challenging terrain, require more attention. There is a close correlation to two common activities here: scuba diving and traveling by car. Divers often use mnemonics or even checklists to make sure that they are prepared for diving. Pilots do the same thing. Divers have to plan their air supply so that they return to the surface with a minimum amount of air in the tank. Pilots are taught to always keep fuel in reserve. Flights, like the traditional family vacation, are often broken up into legs in order to minimize fatigue or plan fuel and/or food stops.

A good percentage of flying involves preparing for emergencies or “non-normal” situations. This is pretty intuitive, considering that we are not in our natural environment. Where pilots learn to plan for engine failures and electrical malfunctions, divers learn to cope with flooded masks or leaky regulators. Teenage drivers learn early on how to change tires and use jumper cables (or they should, anyway).

When I was an active flight instructor, I always tried to correlate what I was teaching with something from everyday life or from the students’ personal background that would help them grasp and retain the essence of what I was teaching. Many hated using the checklist because it was so foreign to them. Some of them learned to look at it as a step-by-step recipe, as if they were cooking, and a few looked at it as the only way to avoid trouble with the FAA (the lawyers). People whose career consisted of working with numbers would approach flight planning from a numerical perspective: We have X amount of gas, which we’ll burn at Y gallons an hour, so we should be able to fly for Z amount of time (math teachers and accountants).

Flight planning can be a consuming task, as I mentioned. I’ve known pilots who have traveled in general aviation aircraft around the globe. Planning such a trip can take a year or more, and it involves a tremendous effort to coordinate because of the various laws of flying over certain countries. These folks tend to carry over much of the mindset to their non-aviation lives: They carry extra oil in their car; they always seem to dress for worse weather than they expect; there are several maps or GPS units available, et cetera. As one of them told me, planning for an emergency in the middle of an emergency is no place to plan for an emergency. Everything he did followed that mantra.

Use flying to broaden your thought process for other arenas in life, and use your own personal experiences elsewhere to enhance your decision-making skills in the airplane. And, plan ahead for the emergencies!—Chip Wright

Is flying VFR with an iPad prudent?

Wednesday, 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

Teaching your problems

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Cessna 172 LandingThink back to the subject or subjects that gave you the most trouble in school. There was, I’m sure, something that you just could not seem to understand, no matter how hard you tried. It happens to the best of us.

Now, think of where you are in your training. If you’re lucky, things are going well. If not, you may be in one of the inevitable training slumps that we all endure.

Landings are one example. Certain ground reference maneuvers are another, especially some of the commercial maneuvers. The same thing happens in instrument training.

One of the best tools to learn whether or not you fully grasp something is to try to teach it. Sit down with your instructor, or with another pilot, and try to teach the subject that you are struggling to comprehend. This will force you to go through all of the steps, and use the tried-and-true building-block process.

Take Eights on Pylons, which is a ground reference maneuver. With the Eights On, you have to compute your pivotal altitude, which is based on groundspeed. To know what the groundspeed is, you need to have an idea of what the winds are, which might require a check of the weather. Once the pivotal altitude is computed, you need to explain how to set up the maneuver, followed by what is going to happen based on the winds.

When NDB approaches were common, the failure rate on NDB approaches on checkrides was relatively high, because it isn’t the easiest maneuver to fly or understand. But, if you can discuss it and teach it, the NDB approach suddenly becomes much easier, and that kind of confidence is something you want to have when you are flying one in low IFR conditions for the first time—especially if it is the first low IFR approach you are flying by yourself, as it was for me.

It doesn’t matter if the subject is practical or academic. The reality is that somewhere along the way, you will likely have a bump in the road. By trying to teach the topic, you are forced to study it in a different way, and further, you are forced to try to fill in the gaps you have versus just trying to gloss over them.

I’ve used this approach for myself as well as for students with great success, and a good instructor will also let you use it as an opportunity to get the most that you can out of your learning experience.—Chip Wright

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.

Beat the heat

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Summer is here—boy, is summer here. After the winter we’ve had, it’s nice to welcome the sunshine. But relentless rays aren’t always a treat when you’re flying–ask any flight instructor.

How can you keep cool while flying? Here are some tips:

  • Water. Can’t say this enough—you need to keep hydrated. Drink water, carry water in the airplane, and drink it while you’re flying.* And when I say water, I mean water. Coffee is not water; it has caffeine, which is a diuretic that can cause you to become dehyrated. Soda is not water; it has sugar, which can make you thirsty. I’m not a fan of sports drinks, but if you are fond of those, by all means. Here’s more on the importance of keeping hydrated.
  • Wet towels. Wear one on your head or around your neck.
  • Loose, lightweight clothing that absorbs perspiration and allows it to evaporate quickly is best. Think cotton, not polyester or wool.
  • Sunblock. This won’t help you keep cool, but you do need to wear it in the cockpit.

*Drinking lots of water in the airplane can lead to the need for a bathroom break. I have a bladder with about a three-hour endurance, so I plan my flights accordingly. Here’s a blog from the male perspective on other ways to handle the problem.

What are your tips for keeping cool? Please share in the comments section and I’ll do a follow-up.—Jill W. Tallman


The power of the written word

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Orlando Showalter MentoringThey say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Having been stabbed by a pen and poked by a knife, I have learned that taking the phrase literally is at your own risk. But, taken metaphorically, we can apply the wisdom imparted by these words to aviation.

In the early days of flying, a brief walk-around was followed by  starting up the engine, adding some power, and away we go. That still happens to a lesser degree with aircraft like the Piper J-3 Cub, but for the most part we’ve gotten away from such a cavalier approach to making approaches.

Starting with the Boeing B-17, pilots have been conditioned to use a written checklist for nearly every phase of flight. And why not? If we make a grocery list, we don’t have to worry about forgetting the one thing that sent us to the store in the first place. Using a checkbook register keeps our finances organized. I’ve used checklists that had only two items, but they were important items. Quickly done, too.

It’s easy to get complacent in an aircraft with which you are intimately familiar. I have enough hours flying in a pre-GPS, pre-fancy-schmancy 172 that I could undoubtedly walk up to it, get in, start it up, fly it from A to B and back, shut it down, and walk away looking at the checklist. And I used to do that.

Until the day I got a phone call from the flight school informing me that I had left the master switch on and drained the battery.

We are supposed to use the checklists that the manufacturer gives us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tweak them or add to them. Many do. As you fly bigger, faster, more advanced airplanes, there are more checklists. Quick Reference Handbooks (QRHs) are go-to books filled with all manner of checklists for nearly every conceivable scenario. Airlines and flight departments routinely add to them. Mine has included some supplemental information on various approaches (setting up the avionics), de-icing procedures, and other rarely used procedures.

The key here is the initials: QR—Quick Reference. It’s just that. It’s an easy-to-find, easy-to-use cheat sheet to make sure that an expensive airplane doesn’t get damaged by doing something wrong, even if at first glance the pilot believes it is “obvious” what needs to be done.

There are other examples of the written word. Placards are a great example. You are being given free information, right in front of you! Jets and turboprops are loaded with placards. Use them!

Airline pilots typically fly 80 hours a month, and if they skip a checklist, they feel…uncomfortable. They know something isn’t right. They will not feel OK until they know it has been done. So, they do it, even if they’ve done it thousands of times. If a pilot who makes a living flying more hours in a month than most pilots fly in a year is dedicated to the use of the written word to fly safely, shouldn’t we all be the same way?

Even if you have “memorized” the checklist, you need to use it. In fact, when you memorize it, you need it more than ever, because your complacency will eventually catch up to you.

The written word is a powerful tool. Don’t be afraid to use it.—Chip Wright