Features Archive

Chrissy’s Vinyl Wrap

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

When Alex Kosloff, owner, builder, and pilot of an experimental Pulsar based in Santa Paula, Calif., saw the vinyl graphics on the AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22, he decided to one-up us.

Instead of parroting the distinctive, eye-catching scheme designed and installed by AirGraphics LLC, he decided to get an entire vinyl wrap for his airplane. It’s tempting to say he parroted our design, but his inspiration is actually his own pet Cockatoo—a bird named Crystal. (That’s a photo of Crystal on the Pulsar’s tail.)

Kosloff said the graphics cost less than aircraft paint and avoided much of the down time.

“The cost was about 10 percent less than a paint job,” he said. “It was done in one-tenth the time, weighs about half as much, is eco-friendly, and is more impact resistant.”

Koslov plans to fly his Pulsar to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., at the end of this month.

Flying the Soldier

Monday, June 22nd, 2009
Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Paratroopers tend to regard airplanes as good for takeoffs only. So it was no surprise that Sgt. Joshua Ben, a youthful, former cavalry scout in the 82nd Airborne Division, cast a wary eye on AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22 before boarding it at Florida’s Orlando Executive Airport.

Ben, 22, an Afghanistan combat veteran, won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart there in 2007 after losing his right leg in an ambush. He’s in the process of moving from the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., to Orlando where he’ll become a full-time student at the University of Central Florida in the fall. But on this warm June night, he needed to return to Walter Reed for some additional medical treatment—and that’s where the Let’s Go Flying SR22 came in.

The Veterans’ Airlift Command, a group founded to link general aviation volunteers with wounded veterans in need of transportation, put us together via the Internet. Ben and I met at the Showalter Aviation terminal, and I gave him a quick introduction to the Let’s Go Flying SR22.

“I’ve jumped out of C-130s and C-17s before, but I’ve never flown in anything quite like this,” he said.

When I told Ben that our aircraft was equipped with a ballistic parachute that could bring the entire aircraft down safely in an emergency, he warmed to the idea immediately.

Climbing up the step and onto the wing was no problem for the compact, square-jawed soldier with the athletic build, and he quickly eased his body into the right seat. Getting his prosthetic leg inside the airplane, however, required a trick that only a modern amputee would know. Ben pushed a button on his high-tech leg that allowed him to rotate the knee forward and fold it like a pocketknife. He was soon strapped in and we were taxiing to Runway 7 for departure on a marathon five-hour flight to Frederick, Md., AOPA’s headquarters (about 40 miles from Walter Reed).

It was already 9 p.m., and the sun had just disappeared as the Let’s Go Flying SR22 got off the ground.

Ben had flown in a Cessna 172 once as a young teen near his family’s home in Columbia, Mo. He asked a few questions about the futuristic, glass-panel SR22, and caught on to the GPS navigation system immediately. A moving map showed our route would take us over Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., then inland over the Carolinas and Virginia to Maryland.

Level at 11,000 feet and 160 KTAS with the engine using 11.4 gallons an hour, the Avidyne Entegra avionics system showed that we’d arrive at our destination with nearly two hours of fuel remaining, despite a 20-knot headwind.

“Once you take off, it looks like there’s not much to do until it’s time to land,” Ben said.

Even though not required by regulation, we strapped on the clear nose hoses from a portable, two-place Mountain High oxygen system. Ben had spent 12 months at high elevations in Afghanistan before being wounded in October 2007, and he said he was beginning to recognize the physiological effects: colors on the moving map were getting less vibrant, and the small numbers on the screen were blurry. The oxygen cleared that up right away.

We had originally planned to make the flight the following day—but a forecast calling for violent weather prodded us to move up our departure time. The XM Weather on the Avidyne multifunction display showed monstrous thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley, but we were scheduled to arrive at our Mid-Atlantic destination well before the nasty weather.

Ben plans to study forensic science in preparation for a law enforcement career. It’s a big change from military life, and one he didn’t plan for before being wounded.

While serving as a gunner atop an armored Humvee, Ben and his platoon were ambushed on a narrow road by scores, possibly hundreds, of Taliban fighters. A dozen U.S. soldiers including Ben were wounded in the attack. A rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the side of his vehicle and wrecked his right leg in an instant. It happened so fast, he said, that he felt no pain at the time. Ben’s body armor protected him from most of the bullets that struck him, but one pierced his abdomen. Fortunately, it didn’t damage any organs, and doctors were able to remove the bullet during surgery. Ben, the future forensic scientist, keeps the nearly perfectly preserved AK-47 round in a specimen jar at home.

Ben credits a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt pilots for helping save him and his fellow soldiers with well-timed strafing passes.

“The sound of those Gatling guns was like music to us,” he said. “No one who hears them that close ever forgets the sound.”

Ben reclined his seat and slept for parts of our marathon SR22 flight. I was a poor host with few snacks or beverages to offer. Ben declined everything but a half stick of Doublemint gum.

The flight was the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s first in actual darkness since its new Forward Vision infrared camera system was installed at Lancaster Avionics, and it worked beautifully. There was little to see at altitude except a few scattered clouds. But as we descended over the Catoctin Mountains, the image on the glareshield-mounted, pop-up screen clearly showed the Catoctin’s curvy contours.

And on an ILS approach to Runway 23 at Frederick with visibility reported as four miles in mist, the lone obstacles—a pair of grain silos a mile from the threshold—showed up as bright as daylight.

“Just like NVGs,” Ben said, referring to the night vision goggles U.S. soldiers commonly wear in the field.

We tied the airplane down on the vacant ramp and loaded our bags in my car. Ben spent what remained of that night in our guest room, and my wife and two kids, ages 10 and 13, were excited to meet him at breakfast. Ben gave my son a few skateboarding tips before we began the hour-long drive to Washington, D.C.

The drive turned out to be the scariest part of our entire trip as the storms we had avoided with our early departure finally caught up with us.

“I’m glad we’re not flying through this,” Ben said during a cloudburst on Interstate 270.

Ben guided me among the winding roads at Walter Reed and soon had us at Malogne House, the temporary home of America’s wounded warriors as they remake themselves for the next phases of their interrupted lives. It’s a place of indescribable tragedy and triumph, and Ben appeared instantly at home among his brave fellows there.

As a member of the GA community, it’s a privilege to use the mobility we so enjoy on behalf of a young man who has made such a terrible sacrifice for his country.

Peeing in airplanes

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Airplane designers have gone to extreme lengths over the last 100 years to make airplanes fly faster, farther, and more efficiently.

We’re now blessed with general aviation airframes capable of flying four or five hours or more at a stretch – far beyond the bladder capacity of most pilots and passengers. Do the designers mean for us to squirm and grit our teeth? Dehydrate ourselves? Should we stop every couple of hours for bathroom breaks and forgo the smooth air, cool temperatures and operating efficiency that come with high altitude?

Of course not.

Pilots are supposed to stay hydrated and comfortable on long flights – even in airplanes without lavatories. But it takes a little planning. And a few bottled sports drinks, an autopilot, and ride reports that warn of turbulence ahead sure can help.

Still, many general aviation pilots absolutely refuse to pee in airplanes, and they plan cross-country trips with the endurance of their bladders – not aircraft performance – in mind. After completing a recent four-leg, 16-hour, cross-country trip, several experienced pilots wrote to say that such a journey would have been impossible for them due to required potty stops. When I landed and shut down after a particularly long flight, the person who met the airplane (and had been watching its progress on FlightAware.com) volunteered to tie the airplane down anticipating that the pilot had to sprint to a bathroom immediately.

Cross-country flights are complicated enough without putting potty breaks in the equation.

Here are a few tips that (although kind of gross) can make long-distance flights a lot more bearable. But first, a couple of qualifiers: I’m a guy, and I approach the subject from a male perspective. Also, this article doesn’t address questions of etiquette for multi-crew airplanes or what’s appropriate when flying with your mother in law.

Relief tubes

World War II-era military airplanes, even trainers with limited range and endurance, almost all came with “relief tubes” as standard equipment. The arrangements were brilliantly simple: a funnel clipped to the bottom of each seat was attached to a rubber hose that drained out the bottom of the fuselage.

The contraptions were hard to miss, easy to use, and relied on gravity alone. They weren’t perfect. Hoses got kinked, blocked, separated, or frozen. But they worked well for many years, and it’s a mystery to me why long-range GA airplanes never incorporated them.

The high-tech solution

A variety of firms make “piddle packs” that contain a sponge or powder meant to absorb urine. Military pilots use them on long trips.

But they’re more expensive, harder to find, and problematic than other means of solving the same problem. Also, the powder inside can spill or lose its absorbency.

I was on a long flight with a fellow AOPA staffer once who was planning to write a review on one such product. He put it to the test over Lake Michigan (funny how the large bodies of water affect us). To say it didn’t work as advertised would be an understatement.

I hope no one who ever flies that airplane knows its history. (Your secret is safe with me, Nate Ferguson!)


I don’t have any preference when it comes to flavor or electrolytes. But sports drinks are perfect for the cockpit due to the shape of the bottles. They have large openings, so their advantages for guys with poor aim are obvious.

Bottled water is easy to find at most FBOs these days – but their small openings can be problematic, especially in turbulence.

The downside to these kinds of plastic bottles is that they’re clear. Once you’ve filled one, you’ve got to find a way to discreetly dispose of it (and dropping bottles from airplanes in flight is extremely tacky). I usually slip the full bottles into a canvas bag and empty them in an FBO bathroom, but I’m ever fearful a cap will come undone.

Also, beware changes in atmospheric pressure. A bottle filled and capped at high altitude will tend to crumple in a descent. That’s usually not a big deal – but watch out for the reverse situation. If you fill, or partially fill the bottle, then climb, the air inside will expand and build pressure inside the bottle. If you’ve ever a bag of potato chips explode at 10,000 or 12,000 feet, you know what I’m talking about.

Empty one-quart oil bottles have the advantage of being opaque, and such bottles also have a clear seam meant to show fluid levels. They would be ideal for in-flight relief — except for the fact that they, like water bottles, have small openings. (Murphy’s Law also creates the real and unpleasant possibility of mistaking a repurposed bottle for actual oil the next time your engine’s a quart low).

Say your intentions

There’s an ongoing debate about the proper times to use autopilots – but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re a godsend when it’s time to go.

Still, no matter how long the radio frequency has been silent, it’s virtually guaranteed that ATC will call with an advisory or reroute at your most exposed and vulnerable moment. That’s why it’s a good idea to let ATC know you’ll be leaving the frequency momentarily (no, they don’t want or need to know why) before getting too far into the process. ATC will ask you to “check back on” in a few minutes, and that’s what you should do. Your voice is likely to sound noticeably lower and more relaxed when you call.

ATC also can be helpful in providing ride reports for the area ahead. Smooth air definitely simplifies matters, especially if getting down to business requires loosening or unlatching seatbelts.

XM Weather on some GPS units and multi-function displays also show areas of turbulence, so plan accordingly.

Half full

Flying at relatively high altitudes dehydrates you faster and increases fatigue levels, so it’s important to keep drinking on long trips. But it’s better to have one or two half-full sports drinks than one full bottle for a simple reason. When the time comes, you don’t want to have to guzzle an entire sports drink just to free up the bottle. This isn’t a zero-sum game. If you drink 12 ounces, make sure you have an empty 16- or 24-ounce bottle nearby.

This is one of those times not to press your luck – and a half-full bottle is better than a full one.

Let’s Go Flying SR22 gets AmSafe airbag seatbelts

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Pilots have long been known to harbor an incongruous mix of fatalism and optimism.

We’re fatalists in the sense that we know aircraft accidents will happen. We’re optimists because we believe they won’t happen to us.

Consider the case of airbags for airplanes.

Even though seatbelt-mounted air bags have become standard equipment in many new airplanes—including new Cirrus SR22s—I was pleased by the fact that AOPA’s 2009 Let’s Go Flying SR22 didn’t have them. The seatbelts in the 2005 model SR22-G2 are made from soft material, and they’re comfortable to wear on long cross-country flights. You can cinch them down firmly in turbulence. They’re just normal, the way aircraft seatbelts have always been.

But a visit from the folks at AmSafe, the world’s leading seatbelt supplier, changed several minds at AOPA about the safety value of airbag seatbelts, including mine, and I’m pleased to say the Let’s Go Flying SR22 is getting a new set of seatbelts, with airbags, in June when Landmark Aviation, a Cirrus service center in Frederick, Md., installs them.

AmSafe has been making automotive seatbelts for many years, and they’ve been installing them in aircraft since 2001, mostly in airliners and business jets. They’ve also moved into general aviation, however, and their products are now found in new Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, and Mooney singles. Seatbelt airbags have already saved several lives in GA, and they’ll doubtless save more as the technology becomes more widespread.

I always assumed that aircraft accidents took place at such high speeds that the presence of an airbag was unlikely to make a difference in survivability. It turns out that’s not true. Many aircraft mishaps would be survivable with airbags. And pilots and passengers could walk away from some pretty horrendous takeoff and landing accidents if their airplanes were airbag equipped.

I didn’t have to look outside my immediate family for an example. My brother, Harry, was a passenger in a Cessna 180 that crashed high in the Sierra Nevada a decade ago. He and a friend were returning by air from a camping trip when they decided to take a close look at a high-elevation landing strip. The problem came when the pilot (a highly experienced aviator) lowered the Cessna’s flaps in preparation for a touch-and-go landing. The airplane started to settle, and in the thin air, it wouldn’t hold altitude even at full power. They were heading toward a clearing and had almost made it when the airplane hit a tree and cart-wheeled.

Harry’s face hit the instrument panel, and he’s got an impressive scar in his forehead and some missing teeth as a memento. The pilot fared worse with a broken wrist and jaw. Their rescue was a story in itself, but afterward, they both spent the better part of a week in intensive care. Had their airplane been equipped with airbags, their injuries almost certainly would have been less severe.

AmSafe belts can now be installed as a retrofit on most existing airframes including SR22s. And I’ve got the feeling that they’ll become an even more popular product in the future—especially if aircraft insurance companies get on board and offer lower rates for airbag-equipped airframes.

There’s never been an inadvertent or uncommanded airbag deployment on an aircraft. They don’t pop out in turbulence, or firm landings. It takes bent metal to fire them, and the deployment is virtually instantaneous—much quicker than the blink of an eye.

Let’s hope the future occupants of the gorgeous Let’s Go Flying SR22 never use the AmSafe airbags we’re installing; but I’ll feel better flying it knowing they’re there.

Launch of an all new sweepstakes

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

As pilots we understand the complex tapestry of emotions associated with guiding an airplane through the skies and safely back to a gentle landing—the romance, challenge, and utility of aviation. Over the past 15 years we’ve touched on them all with our annual sweepstakes project airplanes. Who doesn’t understand the romance of skimming over the countryside on a warm summer evening in an open cockpit biplane, such as the pristinely restored 1940 Waco UPF-7 we gave away as part of our celebration of the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003? There’s a challenge to flying such an airplane, too. Utility—well, not so much.

Romance snuck up on us—as romance tends to do—when in 1998 we began touring around in the perky 1958 Piper Tri-Pacer that became our Timeless Tri-Pacer. There’s not a lot of glam in the ungainly little airplane, but it sparked a passion among many pilots who had their first flight in such an airplane. Oh, the nostalgic stories we heard from misty-eyed members who came over just to lay their hands on it.

We went for the bling with our 2001 project, a V-tail Bonanza with an all-glass cockpit, the first of its kind. But get beyond the bright lights and it was an airplane all about the romance of the legendary V-tail traveler and the utility afforded by a TKS anti-ice system and a turbonormalizer that could propel the speedy Bonanza well into the flight levels. (more…)

Now with WAAS on board

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

When we at AOPA said we weren’t going to refurbish the 2009 “Let’s Go Flying” Sweepstakes SR22, we didn’t say we wouldn’t upgrade it.

So, not being able to leave well enough alone, we brought the plane to Penn Avionics at Brandywine Airport in Pennsylvania in November and asked them for a WAAS upgrade. Both Garmin 430s will now be able to direct the future AOPA Sweepstakes winner through WAAS approaches, and the guidance information shows up beautifully on the Avidyne PFD and MFD screens.

AOPA has been a vocal and consistent backer of WAAS technology because of the safety, utility and economy it brings to general aviation. WAAS allows even the humblest airports to gain instrument approach capabilities with accuracy that rivals traditional ILS – without the expensive infrastructure or maintenance-intensive ground equipment that comes with legacy systems.

We’ve flown a couple of practice WAAS approaches in clear skies to learn the WAAS approach procedures, and it works as advertised. We look forward to using them for real when the “Let’s Go Flying” Sweepstakes SR22 begins its North American campaign this spring!