Archive for August, 2011

Have you ever been really scared in an airplane?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

It is often and truthfully said that a pilot’s certificate is but a license to learn. What is not as frequently said is that it is also a license to scare oneself to death, or nearly so (hopefully no worse than that).

Scaring yourself can come in almost any form, and at any time. Common areas of trouble include high (or high to you) crosswinds, VMC to IMC, short fields, obstacles on takeoff, low fuel, low visibility (which might just be haze), ice, or thunderstorms.

I have had one experience in flight that truly terrified me, and it occurred about 10 years ago. On a flight from Cincinnati to Milwaukee (at night, no less), the weather turned out to be far worse than expected. We had expected to need to deviate around some thunderstorms. What we did not expect was for more than one low-pressure system to come together at the same time (a la the book and movie The Perfect Storm). The result was a 20-minute ride through severe and extreme turbulence that was so bad that we could not maintain altitude or heading. At times, we couldn’t even tune the radios because we couldn’t see the screens. The amazing thing was that we did not experience a lightning strike. When we came out of the weather, the ride was so smooth and the skies so clear it was surreal.

That experience has defined my approach to flying in or near weather ever since, especially convective weather, and especially at night. When we landed, my shirt was soaked and my arms were sore from gripping the yoke so hard. I could very easily have let the experience prevent me from flying for a while, but as the old saying goes, I had to get back on the horse. Further, I also recognized two important factors: the weather had been changing all day, and the severity of the changes was not predicted by anyone, so this was not the fault of any one person or organization—two planes had flown the same course ahead of me just a few minutes before, with nowhere near the adventure we had. Second, this was a rare event, not one that occurs every day that I just messed up.

Pilots sometimes make mistakes that they are forced to learn from, and sometimes they learn from unique experiences, both positive and negative. Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it does not need to be a dream killer. In my case, I had a heart-to-heart with myself, as well as my crew and other pilots I trust. I remain firm in my conviction that our experience that night was unpredictable, and it was an anomaly. But I also hold on to my determination that such an event will never happen to me again. I may deviate more than necessary and burn more fuel than needed, but some experiences–no matter how worthy–simply don’t need to be repeated.

–Chip Wright

Airplane noises and the messages they send

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Flying is a very sensory activity. In fact, at times, it can lead to sensory overload, especially in the beginning. But over time, you begin to learn what things are supposed to look like and how a few things are supposed to feel.

The view of the runway during a landing, for example, is probably one of the most difficult things to learn because it all happens so fast, and no two attempts to land are ever the same. That is, in fact, what makes teaching the art of landing so challenging as an instructor.

As for feel, you develop that as well. Think of the effort you need to put into flying a steep turn, or the mushiness of the controls that develops as you approach a stall. You learn to feel not just normal control force tension, but also deviations from the norm. It’s all part of the learning curve.

But how much do you pay attention to the sounds around you? The sounds of aviation—both normal and not-so-normal—are something you pick up on with experience as well, though you may not realize it at first. When I was teaching full time, I tended to put a lot of emphasis on listening to what was happening around us. For example, the engine makes varying levels of normal sounds throughout its operation: idle, during the runup, full power operations, cruise, et cetera. Each should sound a certain way. Even the mag check has a proper “normal” sound.

During flight, you probably subconsciously use the sound of the slipstream around the airplane to give you hints. It gets quiet when you are slow, loud when you are descending, and it changes in pitch when you extend flaps. In fact, the flap motor has a normal sound as well.

As you experience more complex aircraft, all the noises actually become even more important. On the Embraer Brasilia, the 30-passenger turboprop, there was a certain rhythm to extending the gear and adjusting the propellers. It had to sound a certain way, or something was wrong. On the CRJ, I once called for the first officer to extend the gear. The gear extension on the CRJ has a definite sound and normal sequence of events that all starts with opening of the nosewheel doors. On this occasion, there was a very abnormal thunk instead. I immediately said—well, I can’t type what I said—and the FO asked what was wrong.

“Just wait,” I said. That was immediately followed by the warning telling us that the gear was unsafe. Within seconds, the problem had resolved itself, and the gear was properly extended. But it was my experience that let me know that we would have at least an indication of a problem before that indication every showed up. Fortunately, it was all a non-event.

On another occasion, I walked on to an airplane parked at the gate. When I went to power it up, the normal sequence of clicks, clacks, groans, and avionic cooling fans coming on was replaced by what sounded like R2-D2 getting tasered. It turned out to be a faulty ground power unit. Again, it was the change in normal sounds that caught my attention first.

While your sight and feel can tell you much about your bird, pay attention to the hints that it is giving you by way of your ears. Chances are that if it sounds different, something is indeed different, and that should give you pause. But as always, fly the airplane first!

–Chip Wright

How we get the photos

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Although many readers of aviation magazines such as AOPA Pilot probably have a vague idea at this point what it takes to get a picture like the one below, chances are that as a new student the concept is fairly foreign. But it’s good to know because there are lessons in it that pertain to everyone.

Mooney Acclaim Type S

Here’s how it works: Prior to the flight, the photographer, platform airplane pilot (we’ll call it lead), and subject airplane pilot brief what’s going to happen. They talk about frequencies, aircraft speed, plan for the shoot, and safety and emergency procedures. Therein lies the first lesson. Even if you’re not flying formation, it’s a good idea to mentally go over what’s going to happen on your flight, and review your planning before you get in the airplane. Many people also brief similar to this just before take off. Items may include expected speeds, when to abort the takeoff, and so on.

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Is it Here?

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Five years ago, the FAA raised the mandatory retirement age to 65. The FAA will try to convince you that this was done for two reasons, the first being to bring the United States in to ICAO compliance with other nations around the world, and the second being that after more than 40 years of an age 60 rule, scientific data from around the world supported an increase to age 65, so long as only one pilot on a crew is older than. The reality is that for 40 years the various unions did not want to raise the age because of the impact it would have on the career progression of the younger ranks, and the airlines didn’t want it because that was five more years of paying top dollar to senior pilots while also running the risk of high-cost medical insurance claims.

Reality set it in, however, when airlines began to dump their traditional pension plans. When that happened, senior pilots suddenly faced the possibility of not being able to afford retirement. Further, while one branch of the government mandated retirement (FAA), another (Congress) would not allow an exemption allowing said pilots access to full Social Security benefits even though they were no longer allowed to work. The unions, realizing that a huge wave of soon-to-be-retired pilots would be hitting the streets with no pension and no way to work, hastily conducted “studies” that in a matter of weeks overturned decades of resistance, and voila, they suddenly supported an increase in the retirement age to 65. Funny how that happens.

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