Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Calling home for weather

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

There are a handful of approved weather sources that pilots and airlines can use. Approved, that is, by the FAA. There are countless that are not approved, such as Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and my favorite: calling home.

Airlines use dispatchers to disseminate weather info to the flight crews. The dispatchers in turn use approved sources of meteorological information to develop big weather pictures. But, as any rational person knows, the best tool for analyzing nearby weather is to look out the window. The next best tool is to call someone who can actually look out the window where you want to go.

At my previous job, the dispatchers did not have a real good view out the window because of the design characteristics of the building they used. Even during a bad storm, if I called them, I would get the computerized information, which wasn’t always as new as I wanted it to be. Quite often, I would call my wife or a few other people who lived in specific locations and could give me an immediate sense of what was going on. My father used to get mildly amused when I’d call him for updated info if I was in his neck of the woods.

Officially, I could not/cannot use this information to plan my flight, or determine a suitable alternate, or do much of anything other than to say that I talked to my family. But for getting immediate, accurate information, it works, even if it isn’t “officially” accurate. My dad was especially helpful because, as a pilot himself, he knew what I wanted to know. My wife was a great source of severe weather input because we lived so close to the airport.

Even now, living in another location in the middle of the Pacific, my wife is a good source of here-and-now information—especially with rapidly changing rain conditions. I am not a captain, so I’m not the one who ultimately makes the decision about what’s going to happen, but being able to talk to someone who is “in the know” provides a bit of comfort. It may not be a true pilot report as defined by the FAA, but it is a pirep of another sort: People In REal (close) Proximity.

Again, it isn’t official, and it can’t be used in a court of…well, anything, but talking to people who are really there can be useful. Just use such information as a supplement to the official version, to help build the best big-picture view you can get.—Chip Wright

Student or teacher: Which is harder?

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

So which is harder: learning to fly, or teaching people how to fly? I’ve been on both ends of that spectrum, and looking back, it’s hard to say.

There are a lot of things in life we have to learn, some which we don’t see the immediate value in or have an interest in, such as learning rote math facts or the difference between verbs, adverbs, and dangling participles. Other things that we learn are the result of optional endeavors, such as learning to play an instrument, painting, and flying. Those optional endeavors are not necessarily easy to learn, but because we choose to do them, they are either fun to learn, or “easier” to learn, because we are motivated to learn them.

Let’s face it. Some parts of learning to fly are easy, and some parts are downright hard. Learning the FARs is rote memorization, and much of it is common-sense stuff: Don’t fly too low over houses and highways; stay out of clouds; and get a good weather briefing. All of these are pretty simple.

Other stuff is much more work-intensive and more difficult to learn, landings being the most obvious one that comes to mind. Everyone has more trouble learning to land than anything else because you simply can’t replicate the same approach (or even the same control inputs and hand-eye reactions) on each attempt. That’s also one of many variables that make teaching landings so challenging.

Every student has certain maneuvers they struggle with more than others. I recall one who was absolutely terrified of steep turns, but had no trouble with stalls and slow flight. Another—a teenager, no less—had so much trouble learning to taxi that we spent an hour one day just following yellow lines and working on using his feet to turn. Talking on the radio comes naturally for some, but creates stage fright for others.

As a student, it’s possible that you will complete your certificate and possibly never take another organized lesson again outside of a flight review.

The CFI, on the other hand, must master not only the private syllabus, but also those of the commercial certificate and the instrument rating. Further, the CFI must also be able to fly and teach these maneuvers all from the right seat, which can be a challenge.

Learning the various maneuvers is one thing, but being able to break down all the material into bite-sized chunks that students can digest is something else. We’ve all had instructors who were better than others, whether it was because of patience or the ability to convey the subject in terms that student can understand. Having had it both ways, I think that learning to fly is more difficult, only because you are getting your initial exposure to so much. You need to learn the terminology, the acronyms, the skills, and so much more. Teaching flying forces you to slow everything down, but at least you already have (or should have) a basic grasp of the material.

Of course, it would be more accurate to say that one of the bigger challenges is learning how to teach people how to fly. Unfortunately, the first several students become the guinea pigs, and the airplane becomes the lab.

What are your thoughts?—Chip Wright

Which comes first: flying or ground school?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

It’s a classic aviation topic of discussion: Do you start with ground school or flying lessons?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Back in the day, pilots-to-be overwhelmingly sat in a classroom and learned the academic side of flying the same way they learned algebra, English, and history. Courses would run several weeks depending on how many days a week it met, and most students were flying concurrently. Nowadays, so many pilots engage in the self-paced home-study courses that it’s probably difficult to find a traditional ground school.

The advantage of starting with flying right away is that you have a much easier time keeping up your enthusiasm, and besides, flying is fun, so why not do it? The truth is that you can do both at the same time, but you need to learn how to do it efficiently and effectively.

The home-study courses available today are a far cry from what was available even 10 years ago, and they are light years ahead of where they were 20 years ago. Jeppesen used to charge a king’s ransom for a series of video tapes that accompanied the private pilot curriculum. Now, online classes and DVDs have replaced VHS, which means you can go right where you want to study, and better yet, it’s all interactive, which keeps you more engaged. The video quality is better as well. And Jepp being Jepp, they still charge a king’s ransom, but the Kings are still doing their thing as well.

There are some areas of study you should start with right away. Aerodynamics, the FARs, and weather are topics that you can’t get a jump on fast enough. Most people are more weather savvy today, thanks to the Weather Channel and the Internet, but aviation weather is still information intensive, so getting a leg up on it early is always a good idea.

But a few areas of study call for caution when it comes to getting too far ahead of where your training is. You should spend a lot of time reading, watching, and studying all of the maneuvers. However, don’t jump into trying to understand all of navigation until you are ready to do your cross-country flying. In more modern aircraft, you may already have a bit of proficiency with the GPS since you use it all the time. In older airplanes, it may just be you and your VOR indicators. I am a firm believer that you will be a better pilot—you’ll certainly be more knowledgeable—if you can do everything the old-fashioned way, and that includes using a manual E6B. After all, it doesn’t ever need to have batteries replaced. As for the panel-mount GPS, a good instructor will take the time to show you all the ins and outs you need to know as you need to know them.

When getting ready for your knowledge test, don’t do it by just memorizing all of the answers. Make sure that you understand the theory and the concepts discussed in each question. Be able to answer them using what you know, especially weight and balance and navigation questions. Some of them are indeed rote memorization (the FARs), but make sure you really know the material and know where to find it!

Learning all that you need to know can seem daunting, but if you break it down into chunks, it is much more manageable. Yes, you can fly before you open a book, but if you combine the two, you will have more effective learning and have a more enjoyable training experience.—By Chip Wright

November “Since You Asked” poll: Would you have canceled the flight?

Friday, November 16th, 2012

The November “Since You Asked” poll was prompted by this question from “No Name, Please”:

I just started taking flying lessons to become a commercial pilot and currently I have about 15 hours logged. Recently on one of my dual circuit flights, I called off the flight based on the weather briefing from the FSS, and my instructor didn’t like that idea. Now he is refusing to fly with me.

We asked digital respondents what they would do if the weather looks threatening for an upcoming dual flight. Eleven percent said they would cancel the flight on their own initiative, much as Rod’s reader did.

Thirty-seven percent said they’d head to the airport anyway to consult with the flight instructor. (Who knows, maybe he or she would have a back-up plan in mind. Flight instructors are resourceful that way.)

Twenty-nine percent said they’d call the flight instructor in advance. And 1 percent chose “Other.”

We don’t know what type of weather prompted the student to cancel the flight, or whether he talked it over with the instructor first, but clearly there was a breakdown in communications on both sides of the fence. If I were that instructor, I’d want to know why the student canceled the flight. And if I were that student, I’d want the instructor to know exactly why I canceled it.—Jill W. Tallman

“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.

That wasn’t in the brochure

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Every job has its upsides and downsides. Flying is no different. I recall a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were both lamenting something common between our companies. I don’t remember what it was, and it doesn’t really matter. But he summed it up very eloquently: “this was not in the brochure!” I couldn’t help but laugh. Fifteen years in the business has shown me any number of learning experiences…many of which are not in any brochure or would find their way into a Chamber of Commerce commercial.

For instance, when I first got into this business, I had the illusion that all of my trips would take me to exotic locales on a gorgeous beaches surrounded by a bevy of Victoria’s Secret models. The sun would always shine, the ride would always be smooth, and I would get paid truckloads of money. It didn’t help that when I started, I was based in Orlando, and I spent a lot of time going to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Bahamas and Key West. Further, I went to college in Florida, and most of my airline travels as a consumer had been to and from the Sunshine State. I got spoiled rotten and quickly.

Fast forward just a few years later, when I’d transferred to Cincinnati. Cold weather ops took on a new meaning. Deicing became a routine part of my work day, and at times the snow would fall so fast that we would not only deice, but we’d be forced to re-deice. More times than I care to remember trucks would run out of deice fluid, or would break down. A new truck has to be called, and the fluid heated (to 140 degrees F). If it happens halfway through the process, then it all has to be started over. Since we deice with the APU shut down (to avoid flooding the APU), the air conditioning is turned off and the airplane gets cold quickly. You can easily fall an hour or two behind before you have flown a single leg of the trip. It makes for long days indeed.

Hotels can often drive crews crazy as well. They can be noisy, either inside (New Year’s Eve is an awful time to fly a trip, not because of the holiday, but because of the disruption to your sleep) or out. Fire alarms go off unexpectedly. I was in a hotel when a bomb threat was called in. Renovations cause issues as well. The biggest hotel issue for airline crews, though, is unreliable transportation. Don’t get me started on that one.

Weather in general will make you shake your head. I fly in weather now that at one time would have been unthinkable. I’ve been in or through more hurricanes than I can count. I’ve had one severe icing encounter, dealt with a extreme turbulence, and picked my way through, over, around, and under enough storms for a lifetime. There is an expression that line pilots use: “It doesn’t matter what the Weather Channel shows….we’re going.” That turns out to be true more often than not. We may wait for the weather to pass, but we usually go.

I once had to go from Cincy to Indy, a flight that is normally less than 20 minutes. But because of a line of storms, we had to fly due south to Memphis, turn west through a break in the line, and head back north. Even if we could have turned early, we would have had to hold because we needed to burn enough fuel to get down to our max landing weight. Low visibility, high winds, and storms on the field are all that usually force cancellations, but more are caused by airplanes that need to divert, which forces the airlines to modify the schedule.

Mechanicals are another story. I once spent 12 hours at O’Hare waiting for a new tire that somehow got lost. Don’t ask…I just work here.

What gets you through these days? Two things. First, they are so rare on the whole. Second, the guy or gal sitting next to me. You have to have a sense of humor—sometimes gallows humor. Bellyaching isn’t going to improve anything, and you have to take the bad with the good, especially when you are getting paid for it. Besides, in my opinion, the good far outweighs the bad.

But I sure do miss my beachside hotels, especially in the winter…–Chip Wright