Archive for October, 2013

The missing link in simulation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the "virtual" tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the “virtual” tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.

Williamson Flying Club inspires the love of flight, educates business community

Friday, October 25th, 2013

It is not every day that we hear about dedicated volunteers who think outside the box to inspire the love of aviation and to educate members of the business community. However that is just what the Williamson Flying Club has done in western New York. I dare you not to be inspired after reading about this engaged group of volunteers at KSDC Williamson-Sodus airport. Take their lead and find ways at your local ‘drome to get into the spotlight.

The Williamson Flying Club

Founded in nearly sixty years ago by five local pilots, the Williamson Flying Club [WFC] purchased land in the nearby town of Sodus to establish an airport in 1957.  Beginning as a small grass strip, the airport now is the 7th largest General Aviation airport in New York State, with approximately 70 based aircraft, 50 hangars, a 3800′ runway with GPS RNAV approaches, AWOS and a fuel farm. Managed by the Board of Directors of the Williamson Flying Club, the airport is a public-use reliever airport and is the only hard-surfaced runway in the county.  It boasts over 25,000 operations per year.  On field business include the club-managed FBO, and two maintenance facilities.  According to New York State economic development reports, the airport contributes $2.3 Million to the local economy and $115,000 in school, property and state and local taxes.  All of this comes at no cost to the local towns, county or county taxpayers.

In 2013 the Williamson Flying Club created the Williamson Flying Club Aviation & Aviation Sciences Scholarship awarded to a graduating high school student who chooses post-secondary study in an aviation-related field at a college, university or trade school.  The scholarship is $1,000, payable in $250 amounts each year over four years, or $500 each year for two-year programs.

Williamson Flying Club

Pictured, left to right, Jake DeGroote (Founding Member), Stephen Murray (Secretary), Sheila Sperr, John Sperr, Paul Sperr (Scholarship Winner), Joe Ebert (President) and Bob Herloski (Treasurer).

Scholarship winner Paul Sperr received a certificate and will be receiving $1000 over the course of his four years of study at the University of Buffalo. Paul is a 2013 graduate of the Williamson High School.

Paul was valedictorian and he will be majoring in Aerospace Engineering.  In addition to the scholarship funds, Paul also received a membership in the Williamson Flying Club, and they have invited him to use his membership to learn more about aviation, meet pilots and mechanics and maybe some day, start taking flying lessons.



The WFC shows the value of an airport to the business community

Photo Credit: Joe Ebert

Attendees received a promotional bag, pen and wine with custom label.

Williamson-Sodus Airport [KSDC] was invited by the Wayne County, New York, Economic Development/Industrial Development Agency to present an overview of the airport’s economic impact to the region to a group of about sixty decision-makers which included local town and government leaders, state and federal representatives, county tourism, planning and economic development officials.  Local business leaders,bankers and real estate developers also attended.

The day-long event began at the airport, with County Supervisor Jim Hoffman welcoming the attendees.  The airport presentation followed, which discussed the size, scope and capabilities of the airport, the airport land that is available for compatible non-aviation development, as well as the obligations the airport has to remain an airport “in perpetuity”, due to grant assurance obligations.  As club President Joe Ebert remarked, “from an economic development standpoint, it’s important that potential investors who make decisions based on the presence of an airport have confidence that the airport will be there in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years or more!”

Each attendee boarded the bus that took the group on a tour of the region to learn more about the region’s economy and opportunities for economic development.  Attendees were given a canvas airport logo’d bag to carry all the items they would gather that day, a copy of the presentation and a nifty airport logo’d pen.

Custom wine labels featuring airport

Custom wine labels featuring airport. Photo Credits: Joe Ebert

When the group returned to the airport, having just completed a wine tasting at Young Sommer winery just a few miles down the road,  each participant was surprised with a split of an award-winning fruit-blended wine from the winery, custom labeled for the airport.

The “Fab Five” who created the Williamson-Sodus airport had vision, passion and perseverance.  It seems to me that nearly sixty years since its inception, the flame has not flickered.  The scholarship entices the youth, the wine might entice the long in the tooth, but the educational and economic value to the community is boundless.  Airports such as KSDC prove that they are good neighbors and an asset to the surrounding communities.

Now it is time for you to think out of the box.  As I am fond of saying, there are three kinds of people: those who watch their lives happen, those who make their lives happen, and those who wonder how life happens.  The Williamson Flying Club made it happen.  You can too.


Flying Silently (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

The GA industry has been treating noise like the automobile industry has been reacting to calls for better fuel economy.  Even though it is reported that every automobile sold in China must get at least 35 miles per gallon in fuel economy, major American manufacturers launch all of their lobbyists on Congress every time the hill wants to raise the average CAFÉ standards to something like 28 miles per gallon . . . by 2025!  They say they can’t do it and it would cost jobs, etc., etc.  Can you believe that if American and Japanese and German engineers suddenly were required to build more fuel efficient engines they couldn’t equal the efforts of Chinese engineers?  (Well, the fact probably is that some of those cars manufactured in China are engineered by GM engineers and other folks a little closer to home, so maybe it’s not just an engineering issue after all.)

The same certainly is the case with engine and propeller noise in aircraft.  If we wanted to do it, we could certainly find solutions.  We just don’t think that it is important.  I once suggested to an aviation association VP that aircraft noise had the potential to be a major issue threatening the future of GA and got not much more than a shrug in response.  Regardless of the reality, the public already thinks that we’re a bunch of rich guys who either own or operate airplanes.  Why do you think they’ll cut us some slack downstream when they finally get really mad about all of this when most every other polluting industry is working on eliminating their effluent and we’re not.

Once it seemed that it might just be possible to convince my wife that flying an ultralight out of one of the fields of our farm in West Virginia would be a reasonable idea.  So, I went to Oshkosh and checked it out — but I didn’t want to hassle the neighbors with the noise from the Rotaxes that they all use.  Remember, people like the country in part because it is quiet.  The manufacturer’s rep said that there was nothing they could do to make the engines quieter (something about them being 2-cycle, or something), but I knew friends who were doing exotic aircraft design for spooky government agencies who were producing little lawn chair construction aircraft (and helicopters, for that matter) for sneaking into dangerous places around the world that made almost no noise . . . so I knew it is possible.  The incentives are just not in place. Commercial aircraft have certainly gotten much quieter.  Why can’t we?

Airplanes are not just noisy, they’re more expensive to operate because they’re noisy.  We have to burn gas to make that noise.  It costs more and doesn’t do anything for us.  It’s like waste heat, or sulphur dioxide coming out of the stack of a coal-fired power plant. If engine and prop manufacturers put their heads to it , they could produce more fuel efficiency and less noise at the same time.  That’s a particularly good idea in the face of an almost certain global decrease in the production of petroleum in the coming years (which is another piece of this puzzle).

So every time you look up with interest to the sky (as I always do) when I hear an aircraft two or three miles away, think about the future of aviation, the pollution of the environment, citizens who want to live in peace, the cost to operate an aircraft, and the decreasing availability (and therefore increasing cost) of fuel. Just think about quality of life.  That might convince you that it’s high time that we in the aviation business began to seriously work on silently pursuing our wonderful profession.

#CampBacon: A celebration of airplanes, technology and the Sus scrofa domesticus

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The #avgeek crowd at #CampBacon enjoys spirited talk no doubt centered around airplanes, technology, beer or bacon. Photo: Ron Klutts

Everyone in the aviation family is responsible in their own way for doing whatever it takes to strengthen the bonds that hold this close community of aviators together. Some of us throw hangar parties, while others willingly offer their left seat to senior pilots who have lost their medicals and are thrilled to take to the sky one last time. And during the last week in July, all of this is on full display along the shores of Lake Winnebago.

At aviation’s annual summer family reunion in Oshkosh, the blissful camaraderie we share as pilots gets amped up to insane levels. Walking the lanes in Camp Scholler on the EAA grounds at Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH), you can literally feel the love as thousands of people visit old friends and make new ones. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the corner of 43rd and Lindbergh, where the succulent aroma of freshly-cooked bacon wafts through the air, drawing crowds to #CampBacon. That’s where Oshkosh’s most “connected” collection of #avgeeks, podcasters, pilots and enthusiasts gather to celebrate a common love of technology, flying machines, beer and bacon.

#CampBacon – yes, you DO have to always type that with the hashtag – is the perfect example of the way we pilots can draw upon our appreciation of airplanes to do something extraordinary. On the surface, this week-long accumulation of tents, campers, bacon and cell phone chargers might appear to blend in to the row upon row of other people who call Camp Scholler home for a week.

But as you step inside the imaginary perimeter that separates these few campsites from the rest of Scholler, you feel a different and very positive energy. And that’s exactly the way #CampBacon founder Martt Clupper (@AirPigz) wants it.

“Aviation is all about ‘passion’ to me,” Clupper says emphatically, “a passion for the amazing opportunity that allows a person to leave the earth and take flight. That passion drives my interest in aviation, and it drives my efforts to share this amazing thing we call flying with everyone that I can.”

A Warsaw, Indiana pilot, Clupper soloed a sailplane on his 14th birthday and spent countless hours with his father learning to fly in a brand new Citabria 7KCAB, attended his first annual EAA Convention and Fly-In in the late 1960s, and joined EAA when he was nine-years-old. “My first ‘Oshkosh’ was actually Rockford 1969 when I was just 8 years old,” Clupper said. “I think my total Oshkosh count is now around 36 plus that the one convention in Rockford.”

#CampBacon founder Martt Clupper is also the owner and publisher of the popular Airpigz website

#CampBacon founder Martt Clupper is also the owner and publisher of the popular Airpigz website. Photo: Ron Klutts

Clupper is also the force behind his website,, which is “a mix of aviation entertainment with a measure of education,” he says. “Back in 2007, I was following the automotive blog Jalopnik, because I like cars and because the website was very entertaining. I wondered why aviation didn’t have a great website that could talk serious and industry-oriented one minute and be whacked out funny the next. I realized that aviation wasn’t doing the best job of reaching the younger generations (teens thru late 20’s) so I wanted to pick a name that better fit the modern mindset. AirPigz just seemed to make sense. When you can’t get enough of something, you ‘pig’ out on it. AirPigz allowed me to take my slightly above average graphics skills and my desire for fun creativity and extrude it all through a wildly varied aviation mindset.”

#CampBacon evolved out of Clupper’s idea to promote AirPigz in a grass roots manner at Oshkosh. “In 2011, Clupper explains, “I had come up with the idea of having some “Bacon Parties” at our Camp Scholler campsite as a way of making people more aware of AirPigz. By that time, I had met Larry Overstreet (@LarryOverstreet) online and we decided to merge our Oshkosh camping experiences together, and agreed that we should invite like-minded #avgeeks to join us. For the last three years, the name #CampBacon has been used for our growing compound of OSHgoers who gather together in the same location each year in Camp Scholler. These days I host evening Bacon parties during show week and we usually get about 50 people to stop in to ‘chew the fat’. It’s all pretty laid back, but everyone seems to enjoy their time at an AirPigz Bacon Party.”

Overstreet, of Sussex, Wisconsin, is an instrument-rated private pilot who has flown J3 Cubs, a DA-40, an Archer, a C182RG, and even gliders. He’s made visits to EAA’s Oshkosh shows a part of his life since 1979, and his work to help organize #CampBacon is on many levels, all part of the fun of this required summer aviation ritual.

“Oshkosh is family. It’s home. It refreshes my soul,” said Overstreet. “It’s where I go to see friends I only get to see once or twice a year. We have fun, tell stories, and I get inspired. And I remember once again what a lucky guy I am to be involved in this great thing we call Oshkosh. I could spend the whole week of Oshkosh just hanging out in Scholler – walking around, seeing friends, listening to the music the South Africans play every night, or checking out the coffin beer cooler in Paul’s Woods.”

For Oshkosh 2013, Overstreet provided a large white tent for shade and common space with tables and chairs, along with a generator that anyone could use to work, charge mobile devices or run computers. That extra “juice” came in handy too, because when you have this many #avgeeks in one place, there are always plenty of ‘pads, ‘pods, tablets and camera batteries that need recharging.

Along with Clupper’s Bacon Parties and numerous social campfires during the evenings, #CampBacon became Ground Zero for the #avgeek community at #OSH13. “We’ve had a lot of podcasters and other social media folks join in over the years,” Overstreet explains. “At #OSH13, Other People’s Airplanes did a lot of video podcasting and editing from there, and three of the four In the Pattern Podcast hosts were there. They did a great series of “BaconCasts” – great interviews emanating from #CampBacon. We had #avgeeks from Pilot’s Journey and Pilots of America, plus lots of folks from all over the U.S. and even as far away as New Zealand.”

There is a definite new media flavor at this Oshkosh camp, and as excitement builds throughout show week, the buzz comes alive through heavy use of social networking. While not a written rule, it’s safe to say that if you do not understand Twitter, you might not “get” what all the #avgeekery is about. In fact, there is now so much original content coming out of #CampBacon during Oshkosh, Overstreet says it is almost a certainty that at some point “visitors to the camp will find a microphone or a camera in their face, and they might even be caught on a live broadcast or podcast.”

As plans come together for #CampBacon 2014, both Clupper and Overstreet are clear that this camp might not be for everyone. “#CampBacon is a controlled-access campsite within the bigger campground,” Clupper explains. “That’s not because we don’t love everyone, but because we’re trying to keep it somewhat managed so we can ensure a good close-knit experience for everyone. It’s somewhat self-limiting in that people need to be willing to spend nearly three times as much for the camping registration, since we have to register well in advance of the event to be able to mark out the desired camping area.”

You don’t have to spend very long at #CampBacon during Oshkosh to realize that this is the aviation family at its very best. Standing around the camp’s fire washing tasty slices of smoked Sus Scrofa Domesticus down with ice cold Leinenkugels, talking airplanes and technology with old pals and new friends…there simply is nothing better in the world.


Getting it for free: Really?

Monday, October 21st, 2013

How a scholarship can make the difference, and why you should help.

I once interviewed an airline pilot who absolutely did not want anyone to know that a scholarship for a jet type-rating had been the catalyst for that person to reach the right seat on a Boeing. That pilot feared reprisal from the other pilots at work, and for good reason. There were pilots at the airline that were known for hazing those they felt had not “earned” their way to the jet cockpit.

If those hazers had only spent a little time on a scholarship committee with any one of the numerous organizations, including AOPA, that solicit and administrate these aviation scholarships, then they might change their tune. I spent years reading and “grading” applicants for Women in Aviation, International’s scholarships and I can tell you that 90 percent of those who apply, especially at the upper realm (Boeing 737 and Lear 45 type ratings) are prodigiously over-qualified for that which they apply. And 100 percent of those who are awarded said scholarships are not just deserving of them, they typically perform well ahead of their peers in both the classroom and the cockpit. It is too bad the scholarship winners can’t challenge the hazers to a “fly-off.” I think we’d see who the best pilots were, then.

Airlines, by the way, know all this—which is why they offer scholarships. One year, during the awards ceremony for the Women in Aviation, International scholarships, then Chief Pilot at American Airlines Cecil Ewell awarded the four type-rating scholarships that the company had promised, and then called the 10 runners-up onto the stage. He smiled at them, and applauded them for applying for the awards, and told them that they all were over-qualified for positions as pilots at American Airlines. “So,” he said, “I can’t offer you scholarships, because those have already been awarded. I can, however, offer you jobs. Show up Monday, fly your simulator test, and if you pass that you’ll be processed.” That was that. Ten new airline pilots. All qualified or better for their positions. He’d saved his company both time and money by hiring them from their scholarship applications and interviews.

Some people have also quietly bemoaned to me their worries that these scholarship winners don’t appreciate the leg up that they are given in the aviation training world, and don’t advance the way someone who had to pay out of their pocket would. I’d beg to differ there, too, and I’ve got years worth of “Where are they now?” stories that I’ve collected and published to prove it. Scholarship recipients are moving ahead, persevering longer in the profession, even, during economic downturns, perhaps because they might have just a little more in reserve, since they didn’t drain every last penny out of a savings account to obtain their training. Or maybe it is just that they are so determined to make it in aviation. I’m not sure, but I’d bet their success ratio is a heady mix of both, and maybe even a few more reasons. But know this: they succeed in aviation at a rate higher than the general populace.

If we are serious about growing the ranks of aviation and sustaining a vibrant general aviation culture into the next 100 years, we’ve got to pay it forward again and again. There are terrific opportunities for qualified individuals of all walks in life to step into aviation and advance out there. Look them up at,,, and more. Google “aviation scholarships” and send the results to someone you know with a dream. Then take your place among the ranks of those who want to help.

I had no idea…

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

I’ve been hearing that rejoinder a lot lately. When I speak to groups or individuals about how aviation impacts high school students, providing direction, a sense of responsibility, a requirement for lifelong learning, and mentoring from the sort of impressive men and women who spend time at that airport, I often hear in response, “I had no idea.”

In September Polk State College, which operates two campuses here in central Florida, was approved to provide a four year degree in Aerospace Science. That opens the door to a Bachelor Degree program in pilot science for the students who are currently enrolled to earn an Associates Degree in that field. Similarly, students who were pursuing an A.S. in aerospace administration can also go on to earn their B.S. at Polk State, too. All at a fraction of the cost of a private instituion. That news also elicits a lot of, “I had no idea,” responses.

Here in my neck of the woods a high school student with a GPA of 2.75 or better is eligible for the James C. Ray Scholarship which can pay up to seventy-five percent of the cost of training for a sport or private pilot certificate. For those who cannot fill the twenty-five percent gap, there is a supplemental scholarship available through Sun ‘n Fun (the host organization for the second largest annual aviation event in the nation) that will trade sweat equity for the remainder of the cost. That means a high school student who has an itch to fly can earn a pilot certificate in this county for very low cost, or at no cost to them at all. To which people, including high school teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators often say, “I had no idea.”

Add to that news the Airframe and Powerplant courses offered at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy. This is a high school located on the grounds of the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport where students can begin their education and training to earn Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic certificates. As a magnet high school that falls under the purview of the Polk County public school system, the cost for that education and training is borne by the taxpayers in the community, not the students. This results in a program of study that leads to certification and employment in a high wage field – at little to no cost to the student. And again I hear from those who will listen, “I had no idea.”

Oh yes, and that high school has a graduation rate of one-hundred percent! You already know what people say when they hear that news. I won’t bore you with the phrase again.

These opportunities are not available to high school and college students in Polk County, Florida because there is something in the water or in the air that makes my neck of the woods appreciably different than yours, or any one else’s. These opportunities exist because of the dedicated efforts of people with vision, and drive, and a sincere belief that aviation can elevate our educational system and our economy. And they’re right. It can.

By taking a collaborative approach to doing business and sharing resources, the communities, businesses, and individuals in my county have begun to do something remarkable. We’re growing the pilot population, developing an aviation-centric culture that inspires students young and old to strive for success and achieve it, and tying our educational system to our economy in ways that will provide real growth and opportunity for generations to come.

We have banded together willingly to provide the mentoring necessary to reach these ambitious goals. We find the funding. We develop the programs. And perhaps most important of all, we work together to provide talent, resources, facilities, marketing, and sincere cooperation between our partners to do something that has never been done before. We’re creating the most aviation friendly destination in North America – and we’re just getting started.

So who is, “we?” We are the Polk Aviation Alliance, and we’re more than happy to share the blueprint for how we’re doing what we’re doing, so you can do it too.


Bluer skies are ahead. Believe it.

The Importance of Hitchhikers and Fence Lice

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

A few weeks ago I found myself at the airport on a beautiful Sunday afternoon after helping out at a practice for OSU’s NIFA competition Flight Team. It was one of those days where everything lined up near-perfectly (save for some annoying haze) that it seemed like the universe itself was begging me to fly. All I needed was an excuse, and that justification came from the fact that it had been two weeks since I had last flown, and that was just too close to the 90 day currency limit on our school’s insurance. With that reasoning in mind, I knew it was time to cheat gravity in our school’s Cirrus SR20.

As I finished the paperwork and waited for the plane to be pulled from the hangar, I noticed two students loitering in the school after Flight Team practice. While I cannot confirm nor deny that they loitered closer to the dispatch desk when they heard I was flying, it seemed like a waste  to let seats go empty for what was to be a flight for the sake of fun and currency. Magically, headsets appeared, and release forms were signed.

The flight itself was remarkably uneventful…a few landings at a satellite airport and a landing back at KOSU. The students had the opportunity to see their professor in action (and whiff a landing) and experience the side-stick controls of the SR20. Both are certified pilots who showed the child-like wonder of flight in a new type of airplane. This child-like wonder that is far-too-often lost on harried veterans of the aviation field.

I’ve spent the last several weekends out at the airport for Flight Team practices, where I see that same child-like wonder displayed on the faces of actual children who literally hang onto the airport fence watching our flight operations. Parents bring them to the airport to watch anything and everything from a Cessna 152 to Gulfstream V taxi by.

For many of us in the industry, this is how we got our introduction to the field–attaching ourselves like lice to the goings-on of the airport at the fence, or getting to hop along on a ride in a new airplane once we move to the other side of the fence. For many people I see at airports around the country, these young (and old, as the Fence Lice phenomena knows no age limits) are considered a mild annoyance or are ignored outright. We walk by, as vaunted insiders to the world behind the fence, not stopping to say “hi,” to point out an airplane taxiing by, or to engage those on the “wrong” side of the fence in our super-awesome aviation experience.

I make it a goal when walking from our flight school at KOSU to the FBO along a fence line to, at the very least, say hello and make sure to direct our airport visitors to a dedicated observation tower with a better view of the airport and information about the airport, including coloring books. If I have time, I’ll even offer to bring young visitors and their parents to the other side of the fence for a brief tour of a flight training aircraft.

How many of those kids, if given the chance at an impromptu tour, would return home that day ready to return in 10, 15, or 20 years to join those of us on the “right” side of the fence? It is our responsibility, as current aviators, to pass along the passion for flight to the younger generation. As I’ve written about before, we pilots are, on average, getting significantly older. We should make it our goal to engage these fence-lice and hitchhikers every time we see them at the airport. It represents a long-term investment in our community and our industry.


The universal headset

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Nothing ruins an otherwise pleasant flight faster than a throbbing headache brought on by the weight and clamping force exerted by a cheap, beat-up, or poor-fitting headset. Perhaps my noggin is just unusually sensitive, but I find that vice-grip pain especially frustrating because one of the primary reasons for wearing a headset in the first place is to avoid such maladies.

I’m fortunate to fly a wide variety of aircraft on a regular basis—it’s one of the things that keeps aviation fresh and exciting—but unfortunately, it also means a big pile of equipment, especially where headsets are concerned. In the Gulfstream, for example, the 3 ounce Telex 750 is perfect. Lightweight, simple, and virtually indestructible (Lord knows I’ve stepped on, sat on, bent, tossed, and twisted that thing every which way!).

Hop into an open-cockpit Pitts, however, and that 750 is quite worthless. A loud, aerobatic biplane demands serious passive noise reduction, so out comes the trusty David Clark H10 series with their gel-filled ear seals, and a leather helmet to keep the thing on. If I’m donning a DA-42 TwinStar, RV-6 or a King Air 90, my go-to option is usually the comfortable Bose X ANR headset because of the excellent low-frequency noise reduction.

At the risk of sounding like my wife as she stands before a closet full of clothes, it took quite a while to figure out what to wear for each occasion. Headsets are a very individualized choice because of the varying size and shape of each person’s head. A model which might be comfortable under normal circumstances can be quite different when, say, sunglasses are worn. They can dig into the side of one’s skull under the clamping pressure of a traditional headset. Who hasn’t felt that wonderful sensation or been frustrated by the ANR disturbances and increased noise allowed past the headset seal by the temples on a pair of otherwise top-notch shades?

It’s interesting to see how various people solve this issue. My friend Dean Siracusa came up with a creative solution via his Flying Eyes sunglasses. Me? I’ve tackled it from the headset side. A few years ago I discovered the Clarity Aloft headset and have never looked back. It (along with other in-ear headsets like the Quiet Technologies Halo) is the only solution I’ve seen that work in every single aircraft. It looks perfectly at home on the flight deck of a jet, yet has sufficient passive noise attenuation and low enough mass that I can wear it during strong negative-G aerobatics in an Extra 300 without it flying off. In-ear headsets have no traditional head band, so they can be worn with any type of hat—perfect for the follicly-disadvantaged (ie. me!) when flying RVs and other glass canopy style aircraft. They’re light and compact, so they store easily when not in use.

I also appreciate the fact that they don’t require batteries. As much as I love the Bose X, when the batteries run dry it goes from being one of the best headsets to one of the absolute worst. Even when the circuitry is getting good power, the headset doesn’t always cooperate. I once ferried a King Air across the country, unpressurized, at Flight Level 250. That was the day I discovered the Bose’s altitude limitation the hard way: coast-to-coast with no ANR. In their defense, Bose does publish this data—if you know where to find it.

Anyway, in-ear headsets are not a solution for everyone. Some people don’t like having foam earbuds in their ear canals for hour after hour. The design also has a few difficulties. The Clarity is also a pain to put on and take off because the earpieces take time to expand and create a good seal. And speaking of those ear buds, any oil, dirt or grease on my hands seems to end up on the foam—and probably in my ear canal, too, come to think of it.

But if they work for you, they’re a wonder, and it’s always comforting to know no matter what I’m flying on a given day, the “right” headset is always at hand.

A Future with More Government Shutdowns?

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Government Shutdown FAAAs of this writing, the 2013 government shutdown, the first in 17 years, has been in effect for a week with no signs of ending. If it only continues for another week or two and doesn’t reoccur in the near future, the many people and organizations affected by it will give a collective sigh of relief and it will soon be forgotten. But what if government shutdowns become the new normal?

It wasn’t that long ago that filibusters in the Senate were rare, but since 2009 they’ve become routine, requiring 60 votes whereas in the past a simple majority vote was sufficient.  If government shutdowns become routine, we may be in uncharted territory.

From the important to the mundane, here’s what’s not happening at the FAA during the government shutdown:

  • The Aircraft Registry Branch is closed, so new aircraft sales have halted since the planes can’t be registered. A GAMA survey indicates that 12 deliveries were missed in the first two days and a total of 135 deliveries totaling $1.38 billion if the shutdown lasts a couple of weeks. Interestingly, the Aircraft Registry Branch was deemed essential and left open during the shutdowns in the 1990s. Why not this time?
  • The Flight Standards Service is down from 5,000 people to fewer than 200 essential people, mostly managers. So the inspectors who provide safety oversight of maintenance and operations are mostly sidelined. Expect virtually no ramp checks, ferry permits, CFI renewals, or approval of applications, such as a new Part 135 certificate for a new charter operator. “Limited” certification work, such as on new aircraft under development, will continue according to the DOT.
  • Written exams for knowledge tests have halted, an inconvenience for anyone who put off taking their written exam until just before a now delayed checkride.
  • Major new initiatives are delayed. Remember Part 23 reform that according to AOPA will “overhaul small-aircraft certification rules to double safety and cut costs in half.” Not happening right now. Development and testing of NextGen technologies is also halted. And if you’ve taken a written exam and wondered why you saw lots of questions about ADF receivers, but few on GPS, be aware that the current overhaul of knowledge tests has stopped.

Some things that are essential to protect life and property continue to be in place. That includes air traffic control facilities, the FSS services provided by Lockheed Martin and the web site (which is actually part of NOAA, not the FAA). And DOT reports that 2,490 employees from the Office of Aviation Safety will be incrementally recalled over a two-week period. FAA practical tests (checkrides)  continue for now, except for those that require a ride with an FAA inspector, such as CFI checkrides in some FSDOs.

The 2013 FAA budget involved reductions of $486 million and the Fiscal Year 2014 target includes a reduction of $697 million. A future FAA with a shrinking budget is likely to take longer to implement new rules, to reduce the services it currently provides, and to outsource more of its functions. I expect it to also attempt to charge for previously free services (e.g. the $447,000 bill for ATC service at AirVenture).

So what are the near-term implications for General Aviation? For starters, people working in GA will need to start planning further ahead to minimize the impact of future government shutdowns. Some things will be easy, like encouraging flight students to take their written exams when they first start flight training. Others, like getting a new Part 135 charter certificate approved when the FAA is open will be difficult because of backlogs.

Looking further down the road, GA should be involved in the dialog on how to restructure a changing FAA. If you have a good idea on how they can cut waste and improve efficiency, send it to the Administrator. Do you have an idea on how they could outsource a service, like the Flight Service Stations (FSS) that were outsourced through Lockheed Martin? Send them a note or a proposal.

The worst possible outcome would be if other, better-funded agencies step in to help the FAA with their mission. I can only imagine how awful GA flying would become if, for example, the TSA took primary responsibility for ramp checks. If government shutdowns ever become the new normal, many things will change. And it will be up to all of us to make sure that GA as we know it doesn’t get swept under the carpet in the process.