Archive for October, 2011

When pilots get arrested

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

There are certain categories of people that, when they get in trouble with the law, garner a lot of headlines. Movie and TV stars (see Sheen, Charlie, and Lohan, Lindsay) seem to always attract media attention when they get into even a whiff of trouble. Likewise with professional athletes and high-profile business people, not to mention elected officials.

Add pilots to the list.

Whenever a pilot gets involved with law enforcement, it’s usually bad, and it tends to put the media in an uproar. The reasons are pretty simple. First of all, unlike the people listed above, we pilots actually have to worry about our actions not just affecting others, but also causing harm, destruction, and death. In short, people trust us with their lives.

Remember the crew of the America West flight in Miami that was actually taxiing out for departure before being called back to the gate, where they were found to be drunk? The outrage was justified and real. Likewise with other crew members who have shown up to the airport under the influence. Every airline has their own policies for handling this sort of behavior, but I don’t know of any airline that has adopted the FAA’s eight hour bottle-to-throttle rule; it’s more like 12 hours, and the 0.04 percent allowance given by the FAA is likewise superseded by a zero-tolerance policy. The flip side is that most airlines and pilot unions will do whatever they can to help get pilots into treatment programs and put their lives back on track when they ask for help. Further, they will also gladly accept a sick call and a cancelled flight over having crew members try to fly when they shouldn’t.

Social drinking is fine when it is done responsibly. Pilots with enough time on a layover frequently have a beer or cocktail with dinner, and the overwhelming majority act responsibly. That extends to their crew members cutting them off when necessary.

But it isn’t just drinking that causes problems. Remember the pilot who was found running naked through the woods after a dalliance with a flight attendant a few years ago? I know of pilots who have done one of the following: urinated in public; got caught trying to steal something from the clubhouse of a major league baseball team (he lost a fight with the police); been arrested and charged with corruption of a minor and having intercourse with girls as young as 13; failed a drug test. Another accidentally shot his gun in the cockpit of a USAirways flight. He wasn’t arrested, but he had some explaining to do.

People get arrested for mind-numbingly idiotic actions every day. But with pilots, there is a fascination with what we do. In addition to the responsibilities of our jobs/hobbies, we are expected to have above-average intelligence and the ability to use common sense in everyday matters. We are viewed as fairly straight-laced, conservative people who simply do stupid things. We have, like it or not, an image and a stereotype.

Whether you fly professionally or not, or just aspire to, accept that others have certain expectations, and if you make a mistake, you will likely face a harsher judgment from others, if not from the law. Further, if you are hoping to make a living as a pilot, bear in mind that in the post-2001 world, there are number of criminal activities that will render such a career impossible, as you will not be able to get the appropriate security clearances.

Remember, too, our individual actions reflect on all of us, not just ourselves.–Chip Wright

Everyone knows it’s windy

Thursday, October 20th, 2011
As a pre-solo student, I turned up at the airport one morning for a lesson on a day that was a bit windy. I don’t recall what the winds were, but they were probably above 10 knots. My instructor took a look at the winds and canceled our flight. “You wouldn’t learn anything,” he said.
What he meant was that the newish sensations of an airplane moving around in reaction to strong, gusty winds would be daunting for a pre-solo student, and he was absolutely right. I’d likely have spent the entire lesson reacting to and then overcorrecting the movements of the airplane, and wouldn’t have retained anything we were trying to accomplish. He did me and my wallet a favor that day. We spent the hour in ground school.
Later, of course, as I got a few more hours under my belt, we launched in breezy conditions. Even then–even though I knew what to expect, because we’d briefed it–I felt unprepared for the way the airplane seemed to rock and roll without control inputs from me. It was unnerving and uncomfortable. It was a little scary.
I asked a colleague–a CFI–if it was normal to feel this way, or was I being a baby? She could have laughed, but she didn’t. She took the question seriously and told me to think about the airplane as if it were a boat, reacting to the movement of the water that surrounds it. This helped–a little. Hours of flight time and more exposure to winds helped too.
If we wait until it’s absolutely calm to fly every flight, we’ll stay on the ground a lot. Pilots who live in Oklahoma and Texas, where the winds seem to be a fact of life, get acclimated to them very quickly. Others may not. I’ve seen many new pilots confess they’re still uncomfortable with the way the airplane feels when it bobs around. Are they being babies? No, but when the discomfort remains and starts to interfere with the learning process, that’s when you need an intervention.
If something’s bothering you in the cockpit, don’t let it get the better of you. Tell your CFI, or a pilot friend, and get a second point of view. Schedule a flight lesson to tackle that particular issue. If the fear and anxiety start to outweigh the reward, and we don’t do anything about it, we might be tempted to give it up. And that would be a shame. There are nice days ahead, beautiful days just beckoning you to take to the sky. Don’t let a little wind stop you from enjoying them.–Jill Tallman

The gospel, according to Jobs

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Of the many eulogies that have come out since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ death last week, perhaps none is better than his own. At a 2005 commencement speech to graduates of Stanford University, Jobs told three stories, the events of which came to shape his life and beliefs.

The final story centered around Jobs’ battle with cancer. He said that when he was young he read a line that said something like, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” From that point on, Jobs said he looked in the mirror every day and asked himself if he wanted to do what he was about to do that day. If the answer was no too many days in a row, he changed.

Although Jobs’ story came from a somewhat fatalistic point of view, I think his message was incredibly poignant, and surprisingly relatable to flight training. The research on flight training that AOPA conducted about a year ago framed the ideal flight training experience. A series of major themes emerged, not the least of which was that the instructor is the key factor in flight training. This isn’t particularly surprising, but the level to which it was reinforced was.

It became crystal clear from the focus groups and extensive survey that a good instructor gets students through the process with ease, while a poor instructor does not. Other contributing factors included the performance of the flight school, training value, and how engaged in the aviation community the student is. But ultimately, it all boils down to the flight instructor.

Another thing that was readily apparent from the research is that the majority of people learn to fly for recreation. They have a friend who flies, they  are fulfilling a childhood dream, or they think taking an airplane on vacation would be a good time.

That’s important because it says to me we can emulate Jobs easily by simply asking ourselves if we are having fun. Do you still enjoy going to the airport? Do you enjoy reading about flight? Do you feel good  after a lesson, especially after paying the bill? Does all of this training seem worth it to you? If you look in the mirror before every lesson, and you don’t want to do (or spend) what you’re about to do, don’t quit training–quit your instructor or school. Thousands of pilots have great training experiences where they enjoy virtually every minute of the process, and come out the other end with a certificate and a smile. You can too. But you need to make sure you are learning in the right place and with the right person.

There’s no question it’s hard to “fire” someone who may be nice and honest, but who just doesn’t mesh with you. But here’s the secret: A professional instructor will likely agree with your decision. Instructors worth their salt know that a proper CFI/student match is vital, and they should willingly give up a student if it’s not working. Because a good instructor’s goal is to get you to the finish line, not pad his or her logbook.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun, and a means to an end. It will be worth it.

–Ian J. Twombly

Boy, that was dumb

Monday, October 10th, 2011

In most aspects of life, we often learn by experience, and often the best teachers are dumb decisions or dumb mistakes. You learn the hard way not to rub your eyes with soap on your hands, or not to bite into a slice of pizza straight out of the oven. In flying, you may learn the hard way to verify that you really did untie the airplane before leaving the parking spot. If not, the rest of us will enjoy laughing not with you, but most assuredly at you. Did you forget to switch tanks in your Cherokee? The silence you soon will hear will guarantee you that you will not make that mistake again.

I’d like to use this post to hear from you, the readers. I will admit that I have done a few dumb things that will remain my knowledge alone (none of the above were mine). Unfortunately, I don’t what the statute of limitations is on a few of my mistakes (translated: I am a bit embarrassed by them), but I will admit to one that goes back to my student pilot days. I could make a strong argument that I had some implicit help in this one, but I will also take responsibility for it as well.

When I was ready for my long solo cross-country (the rules were different then), I was told to plan a flight from Bay Bridge Airport to Charlottesville, Virginia (CHO), to Williamsburg/Jamestown and return. The easiest leg was clearly going to be the one from Jamestown back to Bay Bridge. All I had to do was follow the Chesapeake Bay. It was so simple a blind man could have done it. It’s also the only part that went according to plan.

The problem with Charlottesville is that the airport was at the very bottom corner of the sectional. The arrival from the north was supposed to be made easier by a rather unique-looking lake, whose shape (I was told by my instructor) would make it nearly impossible to miss. Key word: nearly. It never even dawned on me to take the adjacent sectional…and nobody suggested to me that I should. I mean, just because one has a road map of Ohio in the car does not mean that one needs a road map of, say, Pennsylvania. Right? Right?? Right!

So, on the (hazy, summer) day in question, I got down to the CHO area with no problem. But the lake on the ground…well, it was blue. But I could not convince myself that it was the lake I wanted. As I looked at the sectional and the ground, I began to suspect that something wasn’t right. I also realized that I had to be very careful about not flying off the sectional, or I’d be an airborne Christopher Columbus, with no idea of what was out in front of me, and unlike Chris, I didn’t have an extra three days with which to work. To make what could be a very long story short, I called Flight Service, and with their help (and with me being asked to squawk 7700), I came to realize that I was right where I needed to be. In retrospect, it was obvious I should have had the Cincinnati sectional in addition to the Washington chart, and in this case, I should have trusted my instincts. But I did trust in and use my training in getting resituated. Ironically enough, CHO soon became one of my favorite airports to visit, both via general aviation and with the airlines. Go figure.

So, what’s your story?–Chip Wright

There’s a reason that ‘C’ stands for ‘confess’

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

A student pilot on Twitter sent me a private message recently to tell me he’d completed his solo cross-country. At the end of his Tweet, he said, “I got lost for about 10 minutes but I made the loop.”

Boy, did that trigger memories! I got lost on my long solo cross-country. I’m not sure whether it was 10 minutes or 20, because once I realized that I was not where I thought I should be and wasn’t sure exactly where I was, I didn’t let things distintegrate any further. I swallowed my pride and called on ATC for help.

This happened in the weeks following September 11, 2001, after student pilots were permitted to return to the air. Prohibited Area P-40, which covers Camp David, had been widened from its usual five nautical miles to 10, and remained that way for awhile, as I recall.

The first leg, from Frederick Municipal to Lancaster, went fine (unless you count the dry mouth and shaky knees). The second leg, from Lancaster to Hagerstown Regional, was where things fell apart somewhat. Trundling along in the Socata TB9, I began to get nervous when I didn’t spy York airport, one of my checkpoints.

That second leg was to was to take me north of expanded P-40, skirting the prohibited area by a generous margin, and then to Hagerstown. As I started looking at my sectional and checking my course heading, images of F-16s pulling up alongside the Tampico flooded my brain. As I saw it, there was a distinct problem with continuing on my present course and hoping for the best. For all I knew, I was headed directly into P-40.

After a couple more minutes of trying to find something recognizable on the chart, I keyed the mike and called the Hagerstown tower. A controller listened to my concern, gave me a transponder code, and when she had me on radar provided vectors to the airport. Simple as that. I think she said something like “good job” when I landed. I was so grateful for her kind treatment of a worried-verging-on-scared student pilot that I called the next day to thank her. The leg back to Frederick went without a hitch.

Moral of the story? Controllers are there to help all of us. Second moral of the story? Don’t wait to ask for help. Painting yourself into a corner will only limit your options, or the controller’s, when at last you see the light.–Jill W. Tallman

The simulator

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Simulator training is the backbone of airline and biz jet training. Early Link trainers worked by allowing a student to learn how to navigate solely by reference to the instruments. Half the battle was not getting sick. The basic procedures of instrument flight could be trained, learned, and understood, but little about the Link was airplane-model specific.

These days, some simulators cost more than the airplanes they represent, and the degree of realism is uncanny. The Brasilia sim that I flew in 1996-97 was extremely realistic, but the visuals only showed night-time scenarios. Needless to say, my first several day landings were…interesting. But the sounds of the engines, the bounce of the tires on the lights, the incredible amount of leg effort to handle a V1 cut were all spot-on accurate. I’d come out of a day of V1 cuts with my legs just shaking.

The CRJ sim that I use now has both daylight and night capability (twilight is most realistic), and every part in the sim (save a few) could be put in the airplane–and vice versa. The visuals are much more realistic, including the depictions of other aircraft, the ramps and terminals, even fire trucks.

Like the Link trainers, the modern sim is primarily a procedures trainer. Unlike the Link, it is specific to the airplane, and it can be—and is—used to teach basic, everyday operations as well as a slew of emergencies. In airline or corporate flying, it is assumed that you can already fly IFR proficiently, so the normal procedure training concentrates on the specific way in which your company operates the aircraft, using company flows, checklists, protocols, et cetera. Further, each company will outfit the sim so that it looks like their own cockpits. While a CRJ is a CRJ and a 737 is a 737, there are some differences in avionics (or in avionic locations), displays (especially on screens, which can be programmed in a multitude of ways), and even in the style of seats. Realism counts, especially if the operator is seeking FAA approval to do initial type rides in the sim without ever making the student get in the airplane.

Sims are popular for three reasons. First, it is safer to learn in the sim than in the airplane. If you crash a sim, it’s no harm, no foul (and at some point, you will crash). Second, it’s cheaper than doing it in the airplane. You aren’t burning fuel or wasting time on the ground waiting for takeoff or vectors to final. You also aren’t putting wear and tear on the bird, and cycles are minimized. Finally, the sim is efficient. The instructor can immediately flight-freeze the sim and start a discussion. He can also back the sim up to any given point and start a maneuver again. No go-arounds are required. Weather possibilities are endless. You can practiced all manner of crosswind takeoffs and landings, and choose from among dozens of windshear models to fly, some of which are designed to make you crash. In an airplane, you simply cannot replicate malfunctions and emergencies safely. In the sim, you can throw whatever you want at the students, and if they work it correctly, great. If they make it worse, the instructor can smile sadistically as the crew tries to go from worse to bad before working on getting on up to good.

Sims and sim technology steadily improve as computing power improves, and the flying qualities are improved as more data is collected and added. As realistic as sims are, they do not fly “exactly” like an airplane, especially on landings. But they are awfully close, and they are tremendous tools for teaching and learning. If you have never been in a full motion sim, and the opportunity presents itself, jump on it!–Chip Wright