Archive for November, 2010

‘Flight of Passage’: Dos and don’ts

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

On a recent trip to Long Beach, California, aboard a JetBlue Airbus, I finally cracked open Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage. It’s an engrossing story of two brothers who flew a refurbished Piper Cub from New Jersey to California in the summer of 1964.

I say “finally” because this was long overdue. I’d recently interviewed a pilot who was so inspired by the book that he completed a Flight of Passage of his own. You’ll read more about Nate Foster in the January issue of Flight Training.


The Bucks completed their trip at the tender ages of 17 (Kernahan, the pilot in command) and 15 (Rinker, who was the navigator). They flew the entire trip using pilotage and dead reckoning. (Chew on that the next time you hit “direct to” to go 40 nm for lunch.)

The Cub they flew didn’t have radios–not for communication, nor for navigation. Even at that time, when aviation was a lot more accustomed to NORDO than it is today, older pilots couldn’t believe they had the nerve to do what they did.

It wasn’t a completely uneventful flight. Without ruining it too much in the event you plan to read it, here are some places where the Buck boys could have been headliners in a “Flight Lesson” column:

  • Mountain flying. They had never done it before, and they had never learned about density altitude. The part where they tackle the Guadalupe Mountains will stand your hair on end.
  • External pressures. The boys’ dad, a gregarious former barnstormer who understood the power of the press, had engineered a media campaign that dogged the Bucks as they made their way west. Keeping on their dad’s schedule created a lot of pressure to be certain places at certain times, so they could be interviewed by the local newspapers.

There’s a lot to learn from the Bucks’ trip, and a lot to absorb from Rinker Buck’s snapshot in time. It was the 1960s, after President Kennedy was assassinated, and aviation was quite different. But it was also kind of the same, as you’ll learn if you read the book.

Would you like to make a trip like the Bucks and Nate Foster? Maybe you already have? Tell me about it in the comments section.

–Jill Tallman

Tip of the week #4

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Use simulators

Although the FAA only allows 2.5 hours of simulator time to count toward the total required for the private pilot certificate, you are selling yourself and your training short if you don’t utilize one for this reason. Various studies have found that in almost every required pilot knowledge and flight task, time spent in the simulator before getting in the airplane equaled less time in the air. And in the world of flight training, time is literally money.

What can you do in a simulator? Anything. From preflight inspection to navigation, a simulator is a great resource. And just because your instructor isn’t sitting beside you doesn’t mean the time isn’t valuable. Take navigation as an example. Intercepting and tracking VOR radials can be an abstract skill to learn. But in any simulator, even those considered games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, the transfer of knowledge comes quick and easy. You can easily reposition the airplane, look at your ground track from a bird’s-eye view, and pause the simulation as much as you want to work things out in your head.

Remember, flying is more of a mental exercise than a physical one. You don’t need to feel like you’re inside an airplane to advance your learning.

If your school doesn’t have a simulator, make the minor investment for a piece of home software. And forget about the logbook. Because if you learn how to do many of these things in a simulator first, your logbook will be much closer to 40 hours when you take your practical test.

–Ian J. Twombly

Let’s get together

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

The big era of consolidation that was predicted with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act is finally taking place. Delta and Northwest have pulled off one of the smoothest corporate mergers—let alone airline mergers—of all time. Continental and United have a chance to do the same, though the process is just getting started. The latest is AirTran and Southwest, which no doubt sent shockwaves through the Delta headquarters in Atlanta. It should have anyway.

The regionals are getting in on the mix too, as Skywest has turned themselves into a quiet juggernaut with their acquisitions of ExpressJet and ASA. They are rumored to be very interested in part or all of Comair as well. Trans States, a much smaller carrier, bought Compass, and Pinnacle bought Mesaba, to go along with their Colgan operation. In some cases, pilot groups and operating certificates will be merged, and in others it won’t be.

What does all of this mean? For starters, it may bring a new level of stability to the airlines in the domestic arena. At the major level, only American, Alaska and USAir will be left of the legacy carriers, and while a merger amongst any of the three probably isn’t wise, it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens anyway. The only low-fare carriers after Southwest will be jetBlue and Virgin. It’s quite possible that the knot tying is not done. In the meantime, everyone has learned much from the disaster that was USAir and America West, which are still two separate airlines wasting huge sums of money because of problems between the unions and between the company and the unions.

At the regional level, American Eagle will be the largest behind Skywest, and after Eagle, there isn’t even a real race for third. Everyone else will be a two-bit player. That means that Skywest/ASA/ExpressJet will set the standards for costs and pay. It also means that they when the pilot shortage hits, Skywest will either be able to weather the storm, or they will be harder hit than anyone. Smaller carriers, where an opportunity for a fairly quick upgrade will be attractive, will attract pilots faster, if not for longer.

As for AirTran and SWA, it will be fascinating to see how the other majors respond–especially Delta–as SWA starts playing those “Bags Fly Free” commercials in ATL. Since SWA doesn’t have regional feed, they will not have a pilot hiring problem, unless you consider an onslaught of applications to be a problem (the stated hiring minimums will be a shadow of what the actual competitive minimums will be). The competition for domestic passengers has now gone to a new level, and as the majors struggle to compete with the mega-low cost carrier, the relatively inefficient smaller RJ’s may begin to fade away, especially if fuel prices spike again as expected.

This is just the beginning.

–Chip Wright

Frost on the pumpkins…and the airplanes

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

It’s that time of year here in Maryland–the cold weather has finally started to settle in, and we’ve had a few mornings when frost on the cars necessitated judicious use of a scraper.

So, CFIs, have you talked to your students about removing all traces of frost from airfoils? And you students, have you paid attention? I hope so. Frost glittering on an airplane’s surface is a beautiful thing to behold first thing in the morning. But that which is beautiful can also be deadly. Here’s the nickel explanation: Frost (or ice, or snow) spoils the flow of air over wings, elevator, or other surfaces, which in turn messes with the flight characteristics. Think higher stall speed, longer takeoff roll, or inability to get off the ground at all. The Air Safety Institute’s excellent Wing Contamination Safety Brief explains it all.

Yesterday I happened to be visiting a New England airport. A flight school Cessna 172 was parked on the ramp in front of the FBO. A flight school employee was hard at work standing on a ladder, removing frost from the top of the wings with what looked like a squeegee on a very long handle. A student came out to preflight, and he had a long-handled squeegee of his own. They don’t let cold weather get the drop on them up north.

You shouldn’t, either. When preparing to fly on a cold morning, leave yourself extra time to do a thorough job of cleaning frost off the entire airplane. I used to carry an old towel in my car–it could then be easily tossed into my flight bag–for this purpose. If your flight school sends out the de-icing fluid brigade, be mindful where you step, particularly if you have to climb up on a wing–that stuff is slippery.

–Jill W. Tallman

Get some sleep

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

The FAA recently issued its long-awaited proposal for modifying pilot working hours. While it is understood that the details in the proposal are likely to change a bit, it’s worth taking a look at the details now. While the proposal was spurred on by the crash of Colgan 3407 in Buffalo, it is one that has been pushed for by the major pilot unions for more than a decade. The airlines have largely resisted because of the possible need to increase staffing.

The proposed rule runs 145 pages, much of which is government legalese that doesn’t apply to us. But at the heart of it is this: At long last, the FAA has put a proposal on the table that takes quantifiable science into account. The 16-hour day currently in use would go away in favor of a 13-hour day, and that only if your duty day starts between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. At any other time, your day would be shorter, which takes into account circadian rhythms in a way the current rules do not.

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