Archive for March, 2012

The April “Since You Asked” poll: Talking on the radio

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Rod Machado’s discussion of listening to ATC and ATIS reminded us that we get many, many questions from student pilots about talking on the radio. So that’s why we posed the following question in the April Flight Training: How comfortable are you when communicating with ATC?

If our poll results can be extrapolated, many of us are comfortable in the ATC environment–but only because we train or fly in the system regularly. A good many of us are still struggling to sound like Joe Cool, and some of us won’t talk to ATC at all. Here’s how things stacked up:

  • 50 percent of respondents to the poll said they train at a towered field, so they’re OK.
  • 25 percent said they stumble on the radio.
  • 19 percent said they fly out of a nontowered field, but their communication skills are OK.
  • And 6 percent said they don’t talk to ATC.
It bears repeating, so we’ll pass along several tips we’ve collected over the years.
  • Listen to the pros. Use LiveATC to listen in to any number of airports big and small. (A feed for our own homedrome, KFDK, was just added!) Alternatively, a sunny afternoon and a bench at the airport with a handheld transceiver can be a great way to spend your afternoon and pick up communications tips. If you can, ride along with a pilot friend. Don’t do anything in the right seat except focus on how he or she talks on the radio.
  • Understand what you’re trying to communicate, and why. Bob Gardner’s Say Again, Please, is one of the best books available to help you with this. It’s available at many aviation retailers. ASA also sells a companion tutorial that can be played on a computer or MP3 player. The Air Safety Institute’s Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication is a FREE interactive online course. (It does use Flash.)
  • Practice, practice, practice. You can go whole-hog with something like Comm1’s VFR Radio Simulator, which lets you practice dialogue using a headset and your computer (and is a very neat program that’s been on the market quite a few years). Or you can keep it simple by practicing your radio calls in the car or in the shower. I’m told that you might accidentally tell your spouse that you’re turning base when you crank the steering wheel in the car toward the driveway.

What did we leave out? Share your best tips for improving your radio technique in the Comments section.

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.—Jill W. Tallman



The many ways of doing the same things

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Pilots are odd creatures. We all learn the same basic fundamentals of flying, and we all learn the same set of FARs. We also learn in the same basic set of airplanes: single-engine Cessnas, Pipers, and more recently, Diamonds and Cirruses. But fly with two pilots from a specific group, and the odds are that they will do a lot of things differently. Some may use the checklist diligently, some not at all. Some will always use flaps on takeoff, some won’t. They may use different speeds in the pattern. Yet, we all manage to take off and land safely most of the time.

The airlines and corporate departments counter this by coming up with a rigid set of protocols that allow two pilots who have never even met before to know exactly what to expect from each other when flying together for the first time. The system really is quite extraordinary.

What is truly amazing, though, is to watch two airlines operate a similar airplane in such wildly different fashions. I’ve flown on the jumpseat of the 737 for more than one airline, and while I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties and nuances, I definitely could see some differences. I really notice it when sitting on the jumpseat of another airline’s CRJ, which is what I fly.

Single engine taxi is a common strategy airlines use to save fuel. My company only does single engine taxi on the right engine because the right engine will provide enough hydraulic pressure to all the brakes without a configuration change. Others will alternate engines, and simply use the hydraulic pumps to pressurize the brakes. Neither is more right or wrong than the other. Our system eliminates a potential human error, and the other ensures even run time on the engines, which saves money.

Checklist philosophy is a major difference. My company requires that every checklist be verbalized by at least one crewmember, if not both. That way, in the event of an accident, the CVR will confirm whether the checklist was completed. Other carriers only verbalize certain checklists that are designated as “challenge and response.” There are pros and cons to both methods.

Sometimes, you see items on a checklist that make you say, “Really? Why is that on there?” Somewhere in the management structure is a person or persons whose background provides a reason. Or maybe they just don’t like the way something looks on a screen, so they create a checklist item to clear it. It happens.

More carriers are coming up with ways to deal with cell phones being left on. I never thought I’d see the day. The truth is that we should probably all have that. More than once mine has started vibrating on takeoff or landing…even at 10,000 feet. Oops.
Carriers will also use different flap extension speeds based on their own experience with flap issues that may be related to aerodynamic pressures caused by high speeds. Sometimes crews are mandated by their carrier to have the gear down at a certain point. We even use different maneuvering airspeeds. A carrier that has a lot of low time, new-hire pilots or a lot of turnover will build in more conservatism than a more stable or experienced company.

The biggest problem with checklists is complacency, and the best way to deal with that—in my opinion—is to change them just a little bit every six months or so in an effort to prevent relying them on memory alone. Just don’t count on anybody else using the checklist in the same way.—By Chip Wright

A classic turns 75

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Once upon a time, the Piper Cub was, quite simply, what you trained in if you were learning to fly. The ubiquitous Cub–so recognizable that people who have not the slightest interest in flying know it when they see it–turns 75 this year. Here’s a wonderful little video from Piper Aircraft that explains some of the history and magic behind the Cub.

It’s no surprise that the Piper Cub is holding its own in AOPA’s Favorite Aircraft challenge, and there are some who think it’ll win the top spot over the P-51 Mustang. If you’ve flown or are flying a Cub, please do us the honor of sharing some of your thoughts on this airplane in the Comments section.–Jill Tallman

The best instrument there is

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

When I first started flying, I used to hear a lot of old timers tell stories about navigating with NDBs and the four-course range. VORs were the sexy new toy of the future. I still didn’t understand how one could safely navigate across the ocean, since VORs didn’t exist on water. I knew that the concept of taking star sightings existed, but I also knew that it was premised on a clear night. Conceptually, I think I knew that the speed of jets would make such triangulation difficult, but not impossible. It also didn’t dawn on me that not every nation in the world could just lay out VORs willy-nilly the way the United States did.

I also heard a lot of stories about the development of the flight instruments. Early versions of attitude indicators and directional gyros were primitive by the standards I was used to. The radios themselves were not always very good. It seemed like there were two classes: top-of-the-line Bendix-King…and everybody else. The Cessna radios were pretty good, but they didn’t have any of the “cool” features like flip-flop windows, DME, and the like. DME, by the way, was some kind of cool. Garmin rules the radio world now, it seems.

It wasn’t long before I began to follow in earnest the homebuilt movement. Kitplanes were just beginning to spread in great numbers—early RVs, Glasair, Lancair, and Kitfox dominated the advertising—and they also spawned a great deal of innovation that we now take for granted. A lot of the modern avionics that cost truckloads of money got started in the experimental arena. Certification wasn’t nearly as stringent, and the rapidly improving computer technologies (both hardware and software) invited a great deal of experimentation. A lot of the inspiration was drawn from airline and military “stuff,” but much of it was simply new. The cost was much lower than it would have been had everything been put through the gamut of FAA testing. It was clear that the homebuilders were leading the way. Nowadays, new airplanes with “glass” technology are taken for granted.

GPS, of course, has changed everything. I personally miss the days when pilots learned the intricacies of aerial navigation not just to pass a written test, but because their lives depended on it. But GPS simply makes a mockery of pencil-and-paper travel. With GPS, you don’t need to call Flight Watch for winds aloft; the heading for the nearest airport is a button push away; and the moving map makes a paper sectional seem quaint…but I still like the paper chart.

NDBs are relatively rare, and the GPS overlay approach can provide lower minimums. Other things long on a pilot’s wish list were an RMI, an autopilot, loran, weather radar, and better “orange juice cans” for the Cessna series. Today, such items have either been leap-frogged or accomplished.

But the most important instrument in the plane doesn’t get much attention. It isn’t fancy or sexy or sold by women in bikinis. It is, however, the cheapest in terms of bang for the buck, and it doesn’t let you down.

As fast as computers are, and as nifty as Nexrad weather is; as efficient and reliable as a moving map is; as handy and helpful as a TCAS display is; the fact is that nothing on an aircraft—or even a spacecraft—can hold a candle to the value and utility of…the windows.—By Chip Wright

The March “Since You Asked” poll: That problem student

Friday, March 16th, 2012

“Dear Rod,

“I have a really difficult student problem. This student has been through two other flight schools for an instrument rating, failing the practical exam at both. I am his third instructor and his check airman for his third stage check. It took him four attempts before I passed him (with reservations). I am trying to prepare him for his final stage check and practical.

“I have found many faults that I have pointed out to him, and given him tools and techniques to help him fly better. Under benign conditions he is relaxed and can fly a decent approach. But if there is a wind aloft, he gets rattled and is all over the sky. When I point out his mistakes, he always has a ready excuse. He is a poster boy for defense mechanisms.

“I have told him he will only succeed with a lot of practice, which he feels he doesn’t need (or want). I’ve also tried to convey the seriousness of what we’re doing, that this training is vital because flying in IMC is for keeps. I haven’t gotten to the point of telling him to give up. However, I don’t know what else I can do for him. Any suggestions?”

Wow. That’s a tough spot for a flight instructor to be in, especially when you consider, as he did, that “flying in IMC is for keeps.” We asked our digital subscribers to play the role of the CFII and tell us what they’d do in this instance. Here’s how the 43 responses stacked up.

  • 2 percent said they’d pass the student off to someone else. (Maybe four times is the charm for this student?)
  • 30 percent said they’d hang in there, and keep trying. (A few votes for optimism here.)
  • 60 percent said they’d tell the student straight out, “I can’t sign you off for the checkride,” and they’d spell out the reasons why. (We’d like to be a fly on the wall during that conversation.)
  • 7 percent said “Other,” which we left unspecified.

What would you have done in this instructor’s shoes? If none of our answers is to your liking, what would you suggest? We’ll leave off Rod’s response so as not to influence your opinion.

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.—Jill W. Tallman

Some meandering thoughts

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

It doesn’t take long in any industry, I suppose, to notice certain trends and oddities. My wife is a teacher, and the stories she has of parents and students are enough to make you shake your head. Put together, they are somewhere between a riotous TV sitcom and pure Shakespearean tragedy. My father was an attorney, and the tales of idiocy that he would bring home would make you question the entire human condition.

Being a pilot isn’t any different. I was recently reminded of this when it comes to tourists, especially those from other countries. As a little background, I am huge baseball fan, but not just of the modern game. I love the history, of reading about the great players of years gone by that I never got to see. Of particular interest to me several years ago was the period of integration and the “Wait til next year” era of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Bums, as you may know, had an era of remarkable success on the field, but like Cinderella going to the dance, they just couldn’t beat the clock. Instead, they were beaten consistently in the World Series by the Yankees…until 1955, when they won their only title before moving to LA.

As a fan of the history of the game, I own two Brooklyn Dodgers hats with the distinctive “B” on the front.

On a bus ride recently from the hotel to the airport in Detroit, I saw a young lady from Japan. Delta has a large presence in the Asian country, and a large number of Japanese folks travel through DTW. Many are business travelers (especially for Toyota), and others are tourists. The Japanese tourists are as easy to pick out as it gets: They take pictures of everything! The airport, the airplane, the pilots (me included), sites that catch their attention, food, and anything with Mickey Mouse. Further, they keep detailed logs about everything they’ve seen, and they do so with the seriousness of a student studying for finals. Sometimes, I think we both need to take a lesson from each other…

As for the young gal on the bus, she was wearing a pink and black baseball cap. As many Americans do—and I don’t know why they do this, so if you can explain it to me, please do—the bill of the cap was still flat, and it still had the various this-is-a-new-hat stickers on it. And it had the unmistakable and distinctive “B” of the Dodgers. I didn’t get a chance to speak with her, so I don’t know if she thought it was a Red Sox cap, or if she just got it because she liked it. But it was yet another indicator of just how much the rest of the world looks to Americans for inspiration, style (they do this at their own risk), social norms (ditto), and the ability to make of yourself what you can. This young lady may have been an avid baseball fan herself—the Japanese love the game and have produced a number of exceptional major leaguers, including some signed by the (LA) Dodgers.

I’ve flown with so many foreign-born pilots that I’ve lost count, but the common message that they have is that no other country affords the aviation freedom and opportunity that the United States does, and we do it cheaper than they do. I was struck too by the realization that, in this country, we need to do everything we can to keep that dream alive not just for other nationals, but for ourselves and our kids. She, after all, was counting on a pilot most likely born in the United States to take her home. And we are counting on being able to do that in the future, as well as bringing her back to spend her money in the U.S.—be it at Disney World, a baseball game, or a hat store.

But I still don’t know why she was wearing those stickers…so keep flying, so we can get her back here and ask her.–By Chip Wright

This student pilot is a “Shining Star”

Monday, March 12th, 2012

I collected my registration materials at the Women in Aviation International conference in Dallas last week and slung my name tag on its lanyard around my neck. Heading back to the elevator, I boarded a car with three other gentlemen.

One of the men noticed my name tag and asked, “Are you with Women of Aviation?” I am. “Are you a pilot?” Yes. “How long have you been flying?” Eleven years, I said, and I fly a Piper Cherokee.

The man’s face lit up. “I’m a student pilot,” he said. “I’ve been at it awhile.” He said something about his music career keeps him busy. When I asked if he had ever read Flight Training, he looked quizzical, so I offered to send him a copy of the magazine. Did he have a business card? He didn’t. Did I have a business card? Yes, I did. I started fumbling in my purse for one while he held the elevator door at my stop.

As I handed him my card, he said, “Maybe you’ve heard of our group. Earth, Wind, and Fire.”

That’s when I said something like “OhmygoshIloveyourmusicsendmeyouremailandI’llsendyouamagazine!” And the elevator doors closed.

I went online and found out that I had been talking to Verdine White, who, with his brother, Maurice, founded the group about 40 years ago. I wish we’d had more time to talk about flying, and I kind of think Verdine felt that way too. — Jill W. Tallman

Last day, last leg…always

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Our frienemy, Mr. Murphy, has long held court in the aviation world. In the airlines, he’s on a first-name basis with just about everyone. Try this on for fun: Walk up to a pilot or a flight attendant and query them on the frequency of a glitch occurring on the “last day and the last leg.” Chances are, you will get a wry smile and a tale or two.

It always seems that a trip will go swimmingly right up until the very end…and then fall apart. I offer myself up as evidence, but rest assured that it isn’t just me who suffers from this affliction. Several years ago, we operated a lot of trips that centered on Atlanta. The last day of the trip—I usually bid for four days—would be anywhere from three to five legs, and our scheduling computer would build the trips such that a lot of the trips would end with ATL to ABE (Allentown-Bethlehem, PA) to CVG. In fact, for roughly three months, my last day finished this way just about every trip.

And for three months, the last day of my trip never seemed to go as scheduled. I’d get to ABE…and the aiplane would break. I’d get to ATL…and weather would shut down the airport. I’d get to ABE…hours late because of a problem someplace else in the system. I’d get to ABE…and the fuel truck would break down. I’d get to Allentown…and they’d close all the factories down. OK, that was already done, but I began to feel like a curse. In fact, the station personnel began to see me as such. They’d get my flight release, see my name on it, and begin to rebook passengers! I couldn’t catch a break. But for me, it wasn’t all that bad. I just had to get to CVG, and I’d be home. If my first officer or flight attendant was a commuter, they’d be tapping their feet, concerned about missing their flight home. And, flying with me, they usually would.

Once in DCA—this is a long story, so I’ll spare you the details—we reached the limits of our duty day. We could not fly anymore. Dead in the water we were. It was my sixth day of work in a row, and since I had to have a calendar day off from duty, I got sent to the hotel. Now, I could have gone into “passenger mode” and non-revved home, but I decided to take advantage of the fine summer day and free accommodations. I spent the next day at Mount Vernon, and then met my parents for dinner. The following morning I caught the early flight home and still made it to my daughter’s softball game. Talk about turning a lemon into lemonade.

Nowadays, I am one of the commuters, and so I get to deal with the thrilling stress of trying to get home. I’ve got the foot-tapping thing down cold.

My most recent experience was in December 2011. Again, for three days, things rolled along like a greased wheel. Then, Day Four. Three legs. Easy. YYZ (Toronto)-DTW-MHT-DTW. I’d be done in time to catch the 3:20 flight home. Unfortunately, Mr. Murphy was working that day. We had to deice in DTW. So did everyone else. Twenty extra minutes on the ground for a spray of Type II and then Type IV. MHT tower informs us we have a flow control time to DTW. We also had to buck a headwind to DTW that was well over one hundred knots. In the gate at 3:50. The 5:20 was full. Oversold actually. There were no viable two-leg options to get home. I was tired. Off to the hotel, spent the night, took the early flight, and got home while my wife and kids were still eating breakfast. Not exactly lemonade, but not really a lemon either. Such is life.

The next time your flight is late, and the crew is a bit jumpy, chances are it is the last day, and the last leg, and trust me, they want to be going every bit as much as you do, if not worse. Either that, or I am your captain. I’ll be the one shaking my head and tapping my foot.—By Chip Wright

Spring is just around the corner…and so are birds

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Editor’s note: Thanks to Ron Klutts, who snapped this photo just for this blog. Follow Ron on Twitter (@Captain_Ron).

If you see a bird hanging out on the empennage of an airplane, I have news for you: She’s not admiring the scenery. She is looking for a nesting place. She may have already found one–inside the airplane she’s perched on.

This fake owl is parked on top of an airplane that sits outside in the hopes that it will scare away actual birds from building nests.

It’s getting to be that time of year when birds go from being a lesson in ground school to a practical, hands-on exercise in good preflighting. Birds can and do nest in airplanes. They nest in airplanes that are sitting outside; they nest in airplanes inside hangars. They will nest in the tailcone and the engine compartment and probably would slip inside an open window and make themselves at home in the cockpit if given the opportunity. And all it takes is an opening the size of a quarter or so. As these Bird hazard photos from the Air Safety Institute show, even cowl plugs can prove ineffective.

And they are super-fast at what they do. As Steve Ells reported in AOPA’s Reporting Points blog, he parked his airplane in his hangar and came back 10 days later to find a complete nest and four eggs on top of the engine’s number 1 and number 3 cylinders. (Click the link to see a photo.)

I see barn swallows every year. If I have a decorative wreath on my front door, they will nest in it. Mind you, this is a door that sees a lot of activity–we go in and out of it several times a day.

Another article from the Air Safety Institute explains why some birds build their nests in what you’d think would be dangerous locations. “Birds don’t associate nest removal with predation,” an expert says. “Nesting materials will naturally drop, so they’re used to seeing some disappear.” When a nest with eggs or baby birds is removed, it finally sinks in that this could be a bad neighborhood.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to assume that a bird has built a nest in your trainer every single time you head out to the ramp or hangar. Then prove otherwise.—Jill W. Tallman