Archive for July, 2010

A poor man’s ANR

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

There are some common denominators among pilots of all skills and ranks. For instance, while the student pilot may carry some form of the E6-B or a sectional, when I am performing my job as an airline captain, I do not. Nor for that matter do I carry my plotter or a copy of the FARs, though I do have some FARs that I can reference. But one thing that nary a student nor a professional pilot—from the smallest LSA to the space shuttle—can avoid is a good headset. For many pilots, this is the first big purchase or investment made once the actual commitment to flying itself is made, and for good reason. Headsets perform three major functions, all of which contribute to safety: they reduce noise-related fatigue, ease communications (both within the airplane and with ATC); and they protect your hearing.

For the first twenty years of my aviation career, my headset of choice was David Clark. And to this day, I love ‘em. They are dependable, rugged, easy to fix and find parts for, and simple to use. But lately, I made a change to a different model, and not because I wanted to. Starting in the last year or so, I began to get some arthritis in my neck. Also, as one who has worn hearing aids for all but three years of my life, I knew that my hearing in one ear had ever so slightly declined, and I want to maintain the balance of what I have for as long as I can.

A few years ago, several pilots at my airline began showing up with Bose headsets, but not your typical aviation headset. Instead, they had stumbled on what might be called the poor man’s ANR. The headset itself is the Bose QC-15, the same product you see people use on airline flights to block out noise so they can sleep. The QC-15 runs $300 plus shipping. The boom microphone attachment is manufactured by UFlyMike, LLC of Colorado, and is priced at $225, plus shipping. The mic plugs into the same hole used for MP-3 players, iPods and cell phones, and when disconnected, fits neatly into the headset case. I tried a couple of the units when I flew with people that had them, and I was stunned at how quiet, light, and comfortable they were. This year, between the pain in my neck, the occasional headache from wearing the David Clark’s for 8 or 9 hours a day, and the need for a tax deduction, I bit the bullet and ordered the headset and the mic.


Establish a network

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Aviation is a relatively small industry, especially for pilots and flight attendants. There are fewer than 100,000 airline pilots in the U.S., and barely half of that number at the major airlines (including FedEx and UPS). It’s no wonder that getting your dream job can be so hard. In spite of the published minimum experience requirements, the reality is that a new hire for a major airline in this environment is going to have at least 5,000 hours of total time (probably closer to 10,000), the majority of which will be turbine time (usually jet time) and at least 1,500 hours of turbine PIC time. Some exceptions are made for pilots with a lot of international experience or wide-body SIC time, but those exceptions are just that: exceptions.

And once you have all of the above, your application is nothing but a computer file on someone else’s hard drive that is just like thousands of other applications. Gone are the days of the paper application that you might be able to personalize and make stand out in some way. Most airlines use either their own on-line system or share in a pool such as, which collects far more information than any one airline needs, but is tailored to collect all the information that at least one airline wants, which allows each one to sort the files for their own requirements.

So, what’s a pilot to do? Remember the fad game “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which the goal was to link an actor or actress to a movie in which Bacon appeared through no more than six other actors or actresses? Aviation works the same way, only it’s called networking.


The barefoot pilot

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Chances are you’ve heard of Colton Harris-Moore, the notorious “Barefoot Bandit.” Harris-Moore has been in the news lately for a string of burgarlies, car thefts, and interestingly, airplane thefts. The 19 year old hails from the Pacific Northwest, and that’s primarily where he operated until just a few weeks ago, when he headed east, allegedly stealing two airplanes. His final flight was a Cessna Corvalis to the Bahamas.

Harris-Moore became infamous on the Internet, raised up to icon status on Facebook thanks to 50,000 followers, and was followed diligently in the media. Outside magazine had a particularly compelling profile earlier this year that gives all the interesting background.

The public’s opinion of Harris-Moore seems to be mixed. Sure he seems to be a criminal, who’s been working against the law since he was 12. But another group likes the fact he was able to allude police for two years, and that he seemed to have a certain criminal style.

I don’t really care about all that. What amazes me is how good of a pilot he seemed to be with zero flight training. Think about his accomplishements for a minute. He was able to get in airplanes (as many as five, many of them different types), start them, taxi, take off, fly a long distance, and then survive the landing. All of this with no formal flight training. And the Corvalis is very high performance. It’s incredible. I think back to my initial flight training, and the thought of taking off, much less landing, scared me even after I started soloing. I can’t fathom doing it with no flight training.

So how did he do it? How could he possibly know what to do? Well it turns out he’s apparently quite the whiz on flight simulators. The realistic nature of today’s sims meant he was able to fly the first time he sat in an airplane. Again, I find that amazing. Most of us have thought about sims as an instrument training tool, but Harris-Moore is a shining example that even the most basic sim can be helpful in flight training.

Now, I don’t know if Harris-Moore was able to maintain the runway centerline and fly straight and level. But he clearly knew procedures, basic airspeeds, navigation, probably some communication, and at least some basics about landing. He crashed every airplane he flew, but the fact he survived the crashes seemingly unhurt illustrates how close he probably came to a decent landing.

I know there are security issues around what he did, and that his crimes weren’t victimless. And I feel terribly sorry for the owners of those houses, businesses, airplanes, boats, and cars. But all that aside, I can’t help but be impressed with his skill. If only he had taken the right path, he would have been a heck of a pilot.

–Ian Twombly

The multi-tasker

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Chances are you’ve heard the expression, aviate, navigate, communicate. It refers to the order in which things should be accomplished in an airplane. Put in more broad terms, it states one should concentrate on first flying the airplane, then ensuring the navigation is correct and the airplane is going where we want it to go, and finally, communicating with air traffic control as necessary.

Aviate, navigate, communicate is good advice, but it’s not a full picture. Multi-tasking in the airplane is one of the hardest skills to learn. It’s an intangible that doesn’t require rote memorization. Instead, it must be developed and fostered over time. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to learn it.

The expression is one way to do that. But I find it to be incomplete. It’s obvious we want to keep the airplane upright all the time (so long as we’re not doing aerobatics). But beyond that, in what order do we accomplish things?