Posts Tagged ‘FAA’

Where is my DeLorean?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Back to the futureThirty years ago, Marty McFly and Doc Brown got into a garage-modified DeLorean, activated the flux capacitor, and took off for…well, this year, to try and save Marty’s son from himself. Back to the Future played on a long-standing wish: flying cars.

As 2015 winds down, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t have flying cars. The easy answer is that the FAA would make such a dream a bureaucratic nightmare. That’s undoubtedly true, and if you throw in the Federal Highway Administration, you can see how such a great idea would be dead on arrival. But let’s take those two entities out of the equation.

Driving is two-dimensional. You move forward, backward, left, and right. Driving is also pretty easy. It’s not totally skillless or brainless, but we’ve done everything we can to make it so. Still, tens of thousands of people die every year on the highways in spite of some pretty impressive safety mechanisms and rules. Seatbelts are required (and their use is enforced, which wasn’t always the case); cars have roll cages, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and more. Still, no matter how idiot-proof we make a car, we manage to find ways to crash.

Flying, on the other hand, is three-dimensional, and that transition to and from the ground is, statistically, the most dangerous part of the flight. In the air, we have to deal with turbulence, even close to the ground. Imagine semis trying to fly next to a Camry. Unlike the DeLorean, we need to accept that a flying car will have wings, and those wings will be sized based on the payload. Semis and Camrys would be at constant risk of hitting each other because of the necessarily long wings on the semi, not to mention the wake turbulence. If you think on- and off-ramps are crowded now, imagine what it would be like trying to merge such disparately sized vehicles on and off the ground.

Infrastructure would be an issue as well, as we’d have to have much longer merge lanes to allow vehicles to get up to rotation speed. Consider that highways are designed to try to contain certain elements of a high-speed wreck (even if the only design element for this is building it in an isolated area). With skyways, we’d have to take into account that an in-flight collision would spread debris over a much larger area—which would necessitate additional safety enhancements for the drivers not only traveling quickly but now also falling to the ground. Buildings would need to be built to account for potential falling debris on the roof or through the windows.

In the end, flying cars just aren’t practical. In fact, if the skyways got too crowded, you’d be better back on the road, which is right where we are now. As fun as it is to daydream about defying gravity in every aspect of our lives, the truth is that without a quantum leap in strong, lightweight materials and powerful engines, it’s just not the way. But if you stick with flying airplanes, then where you’re going, you still don’t need roads.—Chip Wright

What kind of training does your CFI get?

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Senior StudentAs a student pilot—as a student anything, really—you may not think much of what goes into becoming a teacher of a particular…well, anything. How often as a child did you think about the training it takes to become the teacher that was standing at the front of the classroom? Chances are, not much. I’m married to a teacher, and in the last 18 years I’ve gained new respect for what a school teacher has to know and do.

Your CFI is no different. Becoming a flight instructor is a lot of work. Of all the checkrides I’ve taken over the years—including 10 or so different ratings or certificates—the CFI ride was by far the most stressful, and for many people, it’s the hardest. Aside from the private pilot checkride, it’s the one ride where you are not just responsible for everything you know about flying, but you may get asked about anything you’ve ever learned. Worse, you have to be able to explain everything with equal confidence and mastery, from the workings of a wet compass to the nuances of a lazy eight.

Like most instructors who are certified by any kind of agency, be it government or private industry, CFIs are required to go through regular recurrent training. In the case of CFIs, that training is required every 24 calendar months. In order to remain an active CFI, the FAA has several avenues that can be used, but the most common one is for the CFI to enroll in a Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic (FIRC).

Back in the day (the older I get, the more I say that), FIRCs required in-person attendance and took up a whole weekend, as the requirement is 16 hours of training. An alternative was to use home study with VHS video tapes as part of a package supplied by companies such as the former Jeppesen-Sanderson, now known as Jeppesen. Today, the FIRCs can be done online, including through the AOPA Air Safety Institute.

Actual flight time is not required in the refresher training, because the purpose is to use the time to emphasize overall training, including new material that has become prevalent (such as happened with GPS), new regulations, policies, and concepts.

In addition, there is some review on topics based on trends that the FAA sees. Some of these are areas in which the pilot population as a whole has had trouble, and others are general review. For example, several years ago, there was a realization that pilots were involved in far more runway incursions than they should have been. In this case, while general aviation pilots were the worst offenders, airlines were having issues as well. As a result, everyone—and I do mean everyone—had to go through some training to prevent runway incursions. CFIs were at the head of the pack, because of their ability to spread the message to a large number of pilots.

The post-September 11 world also brought some changes. CFIs now have to take special security training that is mandated by the Transportation Security Administration, and all pilots are more aware than ever before of temporary flight restrictions. Those on the East Coast also have to be especially knowledgeable of the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) around Washington, D.C.

Other training emphasizes the actual act of teaching. There are various laws of learning that we are all subjected to, and the training often includes a review of those laws. With all of the new avionics that have flooded the market in the last 10 years, it’s important to emphasize that we can’t teach the way we used to, and we certainly can’t be effective—let alone safe—teachers in a cramped airplane on a hot day.

I don’t mind the biennial training that CFIs are required to get. I don’t get to fly GA as much as I would like, let alone teach it, so the review is good for me. One of the things that I like about both GA training and my refresher training that I receive as an airline pilot is that neither wastes a lot of time on stuff we do every day. It instead hits the areas we might be weak on, and it covers a broad array of things we may have forgotten or don’t use often. In my case, both training events make me a better pilot.

Don’t take what your CFI does for granted. It’s a lot of hard work to get that certificate, and it takes a certain dedication to keep the certificate active. And the learning never stops.—Chip Wright

Operations specifications

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

If you talk to pilots from different airlines, it becomes pretty apparent that they are very different in many ways, and in other ways, they are exactly the same. The reason is that they each must operate under their specified operations specifications, commonly called their ops specs.

Every Part 135 and 121 airline has an ops spec, which is essentially the blueprint that has been approved by the FAA for that airline. Ops spec C55, for example, deals with certain required weather criteria for determining the suitability/requirement for an alternate.

Every airline has some form of C55, but there may be exceptions within the ops specs. The details are negotiated between the airline and the principal operations inspector, or POI, the individual at the FAA who is responsible for the oversight of the airline. As you might imagine, that alone is a huge job, and it’s one that requires a staff of experts in all areas of airline operations. There are folks who work in flight operations, maintenance, in flight (the flight attendants), security—you name it. The POI is the head honcho.

How much latitude an airline gets depends on a number of things. If the POI is comfortable with the managers of the airline, he or she is more likely to grant some leeway and relax some of the restrictions. However, if the airline is fairly new, or has a questionable safety record, or is staffed by relatively inexperienced pilots, expect the requirements to be a bit tighter. Likewise, if the company is mature and has a long history of solid operations, you’ll see less resistance in doing more complex operations.

Some POIs are just conservative and are very reluctant to approve of changes that the airline believes it needs. Others are pretty progressive. The pace at which airlines are moving toward electronic flight bags, or EFBs, often is a reflection of the personalities of the POIs and whether they are willing to do away with paper charts.

Another good example might be Category II ILS approaches. CAT II approaches are much riskier than CAT I, and they have a slew of extra maintenance requirements, along with pilot training needs that need to be met. Financially, it’s an expensive program to have, and so many regional airlines opt not to pursue the CAT II certification, even if the equipment is capable. I was at Comair for nearly 10 years before we finally pursued CAT II operations. When we started doing a lot of flights into Atlanta, we experienced a lot of delays, cancellations, and diversions caused by fog that had the ILS approaches down to CAT II. Delta owned us, and finally agreed that it was costing more money not to have the option than we were saving, and the investment was made.

But we didn’t just start flying 1,200-foot runway visual range (RVR) approaches right away. We had to train pilots, dispatchers, and mechanics.The pilots had to fly a certain number of approaches at 1,600 RVR to test the equipment in the airplanes in real-world conditions. It was months before we could fly CAT II without restriction.

Ops specs also spell out everything from approval for EFBs to what airports an airline can use, and for what purpose. Some airports may not be approved for regular service but can be used for refueling or diversions. Still others can’t be used at all except in an emergency.

If you pursue an airline career, you will become intimately familiar with ops specs, POIs, and the relationship they have with your carrier. Most sections of the ops specs will mean little to you as a pilot. Others will be your bread and butter, and you’ll memorize them chapter and verse. After all, we’re talking about the FAA here!

Fly safe!—Chip Wright

Record foul-ups

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A friend of mine was recently terminated while in training with a regional airline. In the regional sector, it’s not unusual for an airline to terminate a new-hire without giving a specific reason. That was the case here, and the only explanation he received was that “there was something in [your] application.”

That’s vague, and he was convinced that it was bogus. One of the reasons he was so sure is that he had been employed by another airline for over a decade with no problems. He had disclosed his lone Part 121 checkride failure. But, just to be sure, he began a dialogue with the FAA. He was shocked at what he found.

To make a long story short, he had started an oral exam for a checkride, but he had been sick. The event was going well, but he had to bail out because of his illness. The next day, he finished the oral (and passed), and took the checkride (and not only passed, but got high praise from the examiner). However, that event was almost 20 years ago, and he had forgotten that he had signed a second 8710 for the oral. The first one was recorded as a failed event. Right or wrong, agree or disagree—that’s what went into his file.

Fast forward to now. The records that he had in his possession prior to starting this job did not include the 8710s and did not indicate that he had a failure of a checkride (remember, it was the oral, not the ride), and it cost him.

The lesson from this for any pilot is two-fold: Never lie on an application, because it will be found. He didn’t lie; he simply didn’t realize the full ramification of what was going on when it happened. But, the point is the same. If you try to hide something, it’s going to get uncovered. Second, when you start the process of applying to airlines, whether it’s a regional, a major, a foreign carrier, or anything in between, get in touch with the FAA in Oklahoma City, and get copies of everything that might be in your file. Ask questions.

You should keep your own detailed records with regard to ratings, certificates, et cetera. Whenever you take a checkride, make a note of the date, time, place, and examiner. If there is a mistake found later, you will know where to start. In this case, the school was long gone, and the examiner had passed away.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to get a job with checkride failures, even after the Colgan accident. The thing to remember is that you need to fully disclose your past, and you need to own up to your mistakes. If you aren’t sure of something, get it taken care of.

In a case like this, if it happens to you, your best recourse is to write a detailed description of everything that happened. As you apply to airlines, you can attach this to your application or take a copy to the interview.—Chip Wright

The best and worst of 2013

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Hard to believe an entire year has rolled by since I last posted a Best and Worst of Flight Training blog (you can read the 2012 one here). This is my fourth annual Best Of/Worst Of list, and while I fully expected to see some of the same names on the roster (Hello, City of Santa Monica!), this year’s tally brings some brand-new players to our flight training game.

On an uplifting note, it took some digging for me to find five “worst” candidates for 2013.  In previous years, it seems there was more bad than good.


  • Federal budget cutbacks prompted the U.S. Air Force to reduce flying time071014-N-5476H-721 for pilots, meaning fewer training hours. A Wall Street Journal article maintains they’re flying fewer hours than military pilots in some European allies, India, and China.
  • The same budget cutbacks kept the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds from making appearances at airshows across the nation. What does this have to do with flight training? Well, I may be grasping here, but we know military aircraft are a huge draw at airshows, and it’s likely that reduced attendance means fewer people (children in particular) got to forge bonds with aviation that could pay off down the road with the creation of new pilots.
  • Another “self-taught pilot” a la the Barefoot Bandit was accused of flying a stolen airplane that belonged to a soldier on deployment in Afghanistan. What makes this story doubly sad is that the 18-year-old who allegedly took the Cessna 150 was studying to be an airframe and powerplant mechanic. The teen has pleaded guilty, and sentencing is set for Jan. 6.
  • Santa Monica Airport makes the list for the third year in a row. A fatal accident in which an airplane crashed into a hangar (but did not cause any fatalities among people on the ground) has added fuel to the City of Santa Monica’s ongoing campaign to close the airport, which is home to at least six active flight schools. The city is now involved in a lawsuit to gain control of the airport.
  • The FAA has decided that overweight pilots are a cause for concern, even though there apparently aren’t any safety statistics to back this up, and has issued a proposed rule that would require pilots with a neck size of greater than 17 inches or a body mass index greater than 40 to be screened for and possibly treated for sleep apnea. [UPDATE! The FAA announced it is putting the rule on hold—but that doesn’t mean the issue is going away.]


  • Thousands of student pilots told us the good, the bad, and the ugly aboutDisneys planes their flight training experiences, and helped us to find the Best Flight School and Best Flight Instructor in the Flight Training Initiative Awards. The winners—San Carlos Flight Center and Conor Dancy of Aviation Adventures—are profiled in the upcoming February issue. We’ll be doing it all again in 2014, so make sure you vote!
  • After the FAA stonewalled repeated requests from AOPA and EAA to consider a movement toward a driver’s license medical for private pilots, two members of Congress introduced a bill that would allow pilots of noncommercial VFR flights to use the driver’s license medical standard to fly aircraft of up to 6,000 pounds and no more than six seats.
  • The airlines are hiring. This means regional pilots will have an opportunity to move to the majors, and flight instructors will be moving on to the regionals, leaving flight instructor openings for new CFIs.
  • Disney’s Planes landed in theaters in August (and a real-life Dusty Crophopper visited EAA AirVenture). We’ll take any opportunity we can get to introduce children to aviation. A sequel is planned for release in 2014.
  • Shell Aviation has been working on a lead-free “performance drop-in” replacement for 100LL that could power any aircraft in the piston fleet. The new formula has passed preiminary tests on Lycoming engines on the ground.

Now it’s your turn. What would you add? How was your 2013, flying-wise? Please let me know in the Comments section. Thanks for reading the Flight Training blog, and I wish you blue skies and lots of flying in 2014.—Jill W. Tallman

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Wet is dry

Friday, September 6th, 2013

wet runwayAs you move into bigger and faster airplanes—especially jets—you need to become aware of things that didn’t necessarily matter as much before. There are new definitions that you need to learn. Besides the various V speeds—V1, V2, V-REF, et cetera—there are terms that probably didn’t really catch your attention before.

Take the runway, for instance. In the United States, most every airport that provides airline service has runways that are grooved. The grooves run perpendicular to the runway direction (that is, across the runway) and are evenly spaced from one end to the other. Further, whenever possible, there is a bit of a crown to the runway. The purpose of the grooves is to provide drainage and runoff for rain, snow, and deicing fluid that flows off aircraft upon takeoff.

This is need-to-know information for pilots, because performance data takes into account whether or not a runway is wet or dry, or if it has standing water. To add to the confusion as well as to the paychecks of the engineers, the standing water (and snow) categories are broken down into various depths, each succeeding level of which will further degrade the performance (read: payload) of the airplane.

What initially might catch you off guard is the seriousness with which these terms are defined. For instance, a runway that is grooved but has water on it is not necessarily wet. Depending on the airline and the aircraft manufacturer definitions, a wet runway may be defined as dry if it is grooved, and a runway that is physically dry is dry (you can’t make this stuff up). Generally speaking, if a grooved runway has water on it, it is considered wet only if the surface is reflective or if a certain percentage of the surface has standing water. Otherwise, it is considered damp or dry because the grooves carry away the water that might induce hydroplaning.

When it is raining hard enough that there is clearly standing water, performance numbers begin to suffer. There are three major concerns. The first is rejecting a takeoff without skidding or hydroplaning. The second is continuing a takeoff after an engine failure on a slick runway that is not only slick, but produces drag thanks to the puddles. The third is the use of reduced thrust. It is common for jet aircraft to take off at well less than full power, but in certain circumstances, full power is required. Contaminated surfaces are one of those circumstances.

As I mentioned, in the United States, this is rarely a problem. However, if you go to Canada or Mexico, most runways will not be grooved. This is also a common problem overseas. Don’t be lulled into a trap. Pay attention to the wet versus dry issue, and know when—and when not—to apply the various penalties.

It may not be the dictionary definition of the words as you know them, but you will learn that the industry and the FAA can be very specific in how words are used or defined.

In fact, I think they have a specific definition of “used…”—Chip Wright

Handling a failed checkride

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Overcoming FearFor any training that you complete as a pilot, you will be evaluated on a checkride. The ride represents the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of both you and your instructor. People are often their own worst critics, and it must be part of a pilot’s DNA to get that characteristic in double doses. Whenever pilots get ready to take a checkride, it seems that they begin to develop a lot of doubt and concern about how prepared they are.

It is imperative that you trust your instructor here. If your instructor is telling you that you’re ready, you can be sure that you are (it’s very, very rare that an instructor will send a student for any kind of evaluation if that student is not ready). Likewise, if the instructor is telling that you are not ready, then rest assured that you really do need more practice. Just because you have done a maneuver to the Practical Test Standards once or twice may not matter. It needs to be consistent.

Once you begin a checkride, your nerves should calm down. If they don’t, then just slow down a bit and take your time. Relax. The examiner wants you to pass. More than one has been known to help a bit more than they should, so long as they have overall confidence in the applicant.

But what if you totally blow something? What if you are doing an emergency landing and come up short of the runway? What if you totally screw up an ILS?

The beauty of the system is that you can finish the rest of the tasks that require evaluation, and that’s what you should do. If you know you failed something, or even if you just think you did, then put it behind you and press on. Get as many items done as you can, so that when you are re-examined you can just concentrate on the one or two areas that need to be revisited.

It’s very rare that an examiner will not allow an applicant the opportunity to finish the balance of the ride. If the rest of the ride is stellar, you may get a free pass on something that was otherwise questionable. If you totally blew something, you will have to retrain on it, and go back up. But if you’re lucky, you may be able to finish that day.

I’ve always made it a point to enjoy checkrides. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, you should. It’s a chance to show off your hard-earned skills, and the best examiners will also try to genuinely teach you something.

And there is nothing like having a new certificate in your wallet!—Chip Wright

Chasing the PIN, part 1

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Flight Training Technical Editor Jill Tallman is applying for a personal identification number that will permit her to fly into the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) and land at historic College Park Airport. It’s a three-part procedure involving visits to the FAA, the TSA, and the airport within the FRZ.—Ed.

The FAA’s Baltimore Flight Standards District Office doesn’t resemble a barb-wire-fenced fortress so much as a plain-Jane industrial-complex office building, which it is. The clay-colored, one-story complex is located not far from Baltimore-Washington International, and occasionally a Southwest jet rumbles by overhead.

When you enter the FSDO’s main entrance, you’re asked to present a photo ID and sign in. You cannot just drop by to see the FAA inspector who will review your paperwork for the PIN. You have to make an appointment.

After you’ve signed in, do you then gain entrance to the FAA’s inner sanctum? You do not. You wait in a sort of a hallway outside the main office while the FAA inspector is summoned. You also transact your business in this hallway.

In my case, the FAA inspector arrived promptly and waited while I presented the required documents: my pilot certificate, original copy of my medical certificate; a government-issued ID; and a copy of a certificate indicating that I had completed the FAA’s online course that explains the Special Flight Rules Airspace and the Flight Restricted Zone. As he gathered these things, he asked, “Why do you want to fly to College Park?”

I must’ve looked askance at him, because he said, “It’s not against the law to ask.”

College Park Airport…then

No, and I guess he wondered why anyone wants to fly within the FRZ, knowing as he does that, if you break the rules, the consequences are severe. The airport, built in 1909, is the oldest continuously operated airport in the United States. It’s also a nice little place, the type of airport that, in the days before Sept. 11, 2001, would’ve been a favorite hangout. The folks who manage and operate the airport work hard to keep it open, in spite of the restricted access. They wrote and posted a plain-language, step-by-step guide to getting the PIN, which I have followed from the moment I first decided to do this.

My daughter attends the University of Maryland’s College Park campus and often jogs

College Park Airport…now

or rides her bike near the airport. Her friends are often startled and intrigued when she tells them her mother is a pilot. Even if I can’t take them all up sightseeing, as I would if they were to come out to my home airport, I can still fly in and out, purchase fuel, and help keep this historic piece of aviation remain where it is.

The FAA inspector took my paperwork into the office to make sure I had no violations on my record and came back a few minutes later. We talked for a few more minutes about airspace violations, and that was that.

Next stop: The Transportation Security Administration’s offices at National Airport, where I will be fingerprinted.


A brief explanation of the Whitlow Letter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.

But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.

Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.

Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.

Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.

While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright

Got a medical coming up?

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Is it time to put in your medical application? Whether you’re a first-timer getting ready to solo or a long-timer who’s been around the pattern a few times, take some time to familiarize yourself with the form, the information you’ll need to provide to the FAA, and what you can expect throughout the process. I’ll provide links to AOPA resources throughout this blog that hopefully will help grease the skids a bit.

  • Need an aviation medical examiner? We’ve got a searchable database of AMEs. If none is in your area, ask other pilots or flight instructors whom they visit. A good, knowledgeable AME is like owning a bar of gold. Some are better than others; a bad one (that is, somebody who doesn’t really understand how the FAA works) can trip up the proceedings and delay the issuance of your medical. And in general, your family physician should not be your AME.
  • Is that medicine OK? Some prescription and over-the-counter medications are fine. Some are not fine, and you won’t fly if you’re taking them. Some are permissible once you provide documentation to the FAA that you can function safely while taking the medication in question. Our comprehensive database of medications can be accessed here.
  • It’s all electronic. Did you know that once upon a time, you filled out a paper form and took that to the AME’s office? As of Oct. 1, 2012, it’s all done via the FAA’s MedXPress website. AOPA Director of Medical Services Gary Crump explains how you get online in this article.

Everybody’s health situation is different, and it’s impossible for me to address all the possible permutations of health scenarios in this blog. But a single piece of advice holds true for all pilots: Know before you go. If you have a health issue, find out how to address it to the FAA’s satisfaction before you make that appointment with the AME. If you have questions, call AOPA at 800-USA-AOPA. AOPA Pilot Protection Services can be especially helpful for complicated issues; find out more on the website.—Jill W. Tallman