Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Solar Impulse Flies, and Electric Sees its Day in the Sun Coming

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Whenever you see the term proof-of-concept in front of an aircraft designation you need to think: extremely experimental, might never come to fruition, and of course, probably going to break. The two pilot-geniuses behind the Swiss Solar Impulse perpetual motion flying machine (I say that because frankly, it never has to stop flying), Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, have been holed up in Hawaii for months now with their proof-of-concept Solar Impulse airplane because they broke it on the five-day non-stop flight across the Pacific

Solar Impulse arrives in Hawaii after flying five days  nonstop from Nagoya, Japan.

Solar Impulse arrives in Hawaii after flying five days nonstop from Nagoya, Japan.

from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii. That put their proof-of-concept flight around the globe on perpetual hold. New batteries had to be manufactured for the aircraft and the battery cooling system, which was determined to be inadequate for such a long flight, had to be completely redesigned and manufactured, as well.

It turns out the mission needed $20 million to make that happen, which meant funds needed to be raised, as well. Fundraising, however, is something Piccard and Borschberg’s idealistic group is quite good at. They have worked slowly over a couple decades, to date, to bring the experimental Solar Impulse program to life. In the process they’ve constructed and flown several aircraft that, by virtue of their electric engines, batteries and solar cells, can stay aloft essentially indefinitely. April 15, 2016 they announced that the airplane is ready to relaunch its mission. Next stop? Somewhere east of the California coastline. What are they waiting for? The perfect VFR day, or close to it. Yeah, there are still limitations. But remember, it’s just a proof-of-concept machine.

Once upon a time people delving into electric-powered flight were considered the outliers of experimental aviation. That is no longer true. At Sun ‘n Fun 2016, which concluded earlier this month, the CEO of the Colorado-based Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation (AEAC) announced that its all-electric powered two-place trainer, the Sun Flyer, was expected to fly within weeks. The Sun Flyer is powered by a single tried and true Emrax 268 electric motor putting out 100 kilowatts, which is basically 135 hp.

AEAC's proof-of-concept Sun Flyer is nearly ready to fly.

AEAC’s proof-of-concept Sun Flyer is nearly ready to fly.

“Because the nose of this airplane is so sleek and narrow, however, the propeller is not blocked, giving you so much more power,” Bye explained to the Sun’n Fun crowd. “For instance, a typical Cessna 172 loses 30 percent of the power generated by the prop because it is blocked by the flat plate surface of the nose of the aircraft,” he said. “On the Sun Flyer 95 percent of the propeller energy can be used to convert torque to thrust. That’s how you get to an equivalent horsepower of more like 160 hp.”

The all carbon fiber construction of the Sun Flyer keeps it light, and South Korea’s LG’s chem batteries provide 260 watt-hours per kilogram of electricity for the engine, which adds up to three hours to empty. Except this airplane has regenerative energy capture technology in its propeller. What that means is that energy is recaptured when the airplane descends at more than 400 feet per minute. That energy recharges the batteries. This is how the Solar Impulse stays aloft each night, when its solar cells cannot capture light and turn it into energy. The pilot climbs in the late afternoon to 28,000 feet, and then descends all night long in parabolic arcs. It is proven technology, and AEAC’s Sun Flyer intends to use it to stay aloft for, well, who knows how long?

“It is certain that students who train in a Sun Flyer will have totally different fuel planning skills,” Bye chuckled. The Sun Flyer also sports solar cells on its upper wing surfaces, for recharging on the ground and in the air on sunny days. Bye stated that two days on a sunny ramp may be all a Sun Flyer needs to fuel up for its next sortie. In any case estimated operating costs, including maintenance and ground power refueling, is around $11 per hour. That compares to an average flight school Cessna 172’s estimated operating costs of $66 per hour in 2016 dollars.

AEAC intends to certify the Sun Flyer in 14 CFR Part 21. It will have a Standard Airworthiness certificate, a 1654 lbs max gross weight,  two seats, a single engine, and a 45-knot stall speed.  The payload will be 440 lbs, according to Bye. It’s sound footprint at 500 ft AGL? Nearly nil, at 55 decibels. If the upfront price tag is right (and there is all kinds of speculation there) it could revolutionize basic flight training, making it affordable for a larger swath of people, and more profitable for flight schools, all at once.

AEAC will have competition in the all-electric trainer market from Slovenian Pipenstrel, Chinese Yuneec and behemoth Airbus. Both companies are well into their two-seat electric airplane programs. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the flight training fleet looks like in 2025.

Hangnails and Hand Transplants

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016
Engine teardown

Here’s what happens to your engine when you send it in for major overhaul. Do you really want to do this?

You know me. I believe in running engines as long as they’re demonstrably healthy, even if that means going beyond the manufacturer’s recommended TBO. Nothing disturbs me more than when I hear about owners who get talked into (or talk themselves into) euthanizing engines that are running just fine.

Case in point: Here’s an email I received from a Bonanza owner seeking a second opinion on what to do about his Continental IO-520 engine:

“The engine is now at 1500 hours (TBO is 1700) and it seems to be running very well. But here’s the bad part: it’s using a quart of oil every 4 hours, and putting a LOT of oil on the belly of the aircraft, even with an air/oil separator installed.

“So what should I do? Should I get a field overhaul, or opt for a factory rebuilt engine? (The engine does NOT have a VAR crank.) Should I consider an STC upgrade to an IO-550? I’m leaning toward using Superior Millennium cylinders, do you agree?”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten. This owner just told me that he as a fine-running engine, yet he’s already concluded it needs to be overhauled or replaced. What was he thinking? It sure wasn’t clear to me that this engine had any major issues, much less anything requiring immediate euthanasia.

Where’s the beef?

So what if it’s using a quart in 4 hours? Is that so terrible?

No, it isn’t. Continental SID97-2B is the bible when it comes to determining the airworthinss of Continental cylinders, and here what it has to say about oil consumption:

Oil consumption can be expected to vary with each engine depending on the load, operating temperature, type of oil used and condition of the engine. A differential compression check and borescope inspection should be conducted if oil consumption exceeds one quart every three hours or if any sudden change in oil consumption is experienced and appropriate action taken.

This guidance indicates that the Bonanza’s oil consumption of a quart in four hours is perfectly acceptable. Even when Continental’s oil consumption threshold of a quart in three hours is exceeded, Continental simply calls for a borescope inspection to determine if there’s really a problem. If the cylinders look okay under the borescope, the engine can remain in service despite the high oil consumption.

SID97-2B also indicates that in February 1997, Continental actually reduced the tension on the oil control rings in its cylinder assemblies to increase oil consumption to achieve improved lubrication of the cylinder bore. A certain amount of oil consumption is essential for maximum cylinder life. When it comes to oil consumption, less is not necessarily always a good thing.

Bottom line is that it’s quite likely that there’s nothing at all wrong with the engine in this owner’s Bonanza. At worst, perhaps it has a couple of worn cylinders that might need to be replaced eventually. Even that’s not clear, since the owner didn’t mention low compression readings. Maybe all he needs is some new piston rings.

A worn jug is like a hangnail

Cracked cylinder head

Cylinder problems (like this head crack) call for cylinder work, not euthaizing the whole engine.

Even if a borescope inspection reveals that the engine has a worn-out jug or two, so what? Both Continental and Lycoming cleverly designed their engines so that the cylinders were bolt-on accessories that can be repaired or replaced without removing the engine from the airframe or splitting the case. If the engine actually does have badly worn cylinders, that’s a reason to repair or replace the jugs, not to tear down the whole engine.

Think about this for a moment. If some other bolt-on engine accessory went bad—say an alternator or vacuum pump or magneto or prop governor—would you let your mechanic remove the engine and have it major overhauled? Of course not.

If you had a hangnail, would you go to a surgeon for an amputation and hand transplant? No, I didn’t think so!

Why would an aircraft owner even consider major overhaul or engine replacement just because one or two cylinders might be worn out? To my way of thinking, it doesn’t matter whether an engine is at 100 hours since new or 100 hours past TBO—a sick cylinder calls for cylinder replacement, not engine replacement.

Euthanasia is a bit much

Here’s what I emailed back to the owner:

“I would NEVER consider overhauling an otherwise good-running engine just because it has high oil consumption. There’s nothing wrong with burning a quart in 4 hours, so long as your sparkplugs aren’t oil-fouled and your compressions are within acceptable limits. If things get bad enough and you find one or more cylinders with unacceptably low compression, you may want to consider replacing them. That’s why Continental makes its engines with bolt-on cylinders: so you can change them without having to overhaul the engine. The ONLY valid reason for overhauling an engine is a problem with the “bottom end” (crankcase, crankshaft, camshaft, gears, main bearings, etc.) that cannot be cured without splitting the case.

“Have you simply tried running the engine at a lower oil level on the dipstick? Big-bore Continental engines are famous for throwing out excess oil if the crankcase is overfilled. The TSIO-520s on my T310R have a 12-quart sump, but I typically run them at 8 quarts on the dipstick.

“Excessive oil on the belly is usually caused by excessive crankcase pressure. Sometimes this is due to worn cylinders that permit excessive blow-by past the rings (in which case your cylinders will show low compression readings and your oil will get dirty very quickly after each oil change). But it can also be due so something as simple as an oil filler cap that isn’t sealing properly (when did you last check the oil cap gasket?) or a leaky front crankcase seal (which is not difficult to change).

“It sounds to me as if you may be a long way from needing to major-overhaul this engine. If you do decide to overhaul it anyway, drop me another email and I’ll offer some suggestions. But I really think that any consideration of rebuild/overhaul at this point is way premature.”

Don’t obsess about the manufacturer’s published TBO. It’s just a suggestion, not a requirement or a life limit. (The engines on my Cessna T310R are made it well past 200% of TBO and were still running magnificently.) When your engine is ready for overhaul, it’ll let you know by starting to make metal or to leak oil or to crack their crankcases or spall their cam lobes or something else obvious to let you know that “it’s time.” That’s the time to overhaul them. Doing it earlier always strikes me as being a capital crime.

Moving to Germany with a Piper Cub

Monday, April 11th, 2016

If I had half of a clue how most things in life would actually turn out, I probably wouldn’t do them. Most people react to the news of our move to Europe with a fairly standard interrogation, culminating with the question that is hardest to answer: “So, um, why did you move to Germany?” The answer is inexact and almost inexplicable, and boils down to following some hazy and poorly thought out version of instinct. Maybe flying around the wilderness of the Rockies and writing books about it got a bit too easy.

Pragmatically speaking, it had much to do the sale of the house we were renting on Alpine Airpark in Wyoming, the availability of a house to rent from a friend in Germany, and the support of said friend who had purchased a Piper J-3 from my grandfather a few years ago and shipped it to Germany. All caution and standard rationale aside, my wife and I realized that it was now or never, so we decided to head to Europe for an unknown length of time.

PA-11 on final, Alpine, Wyoming. (Photo: Adam Romer)
Apr 8

Somehow, we had not discussed whether the Cub would come along. Ever the pragmatist, my wife assumed it would stay in America for a while. Ever the flying maniac, having just flown the thing 25,000 miles and 330 hours during the 2015 summer flying season, I had a spiritual union with the airplane and decided that it had to come, and leaving it behind would be like leaving a child in another continent.

Willfully ignorant, I rationalized that the process would be easy and that years of glorious adventure would await, flying in Europe with an iconic American family Piper PA-11 Cub Special. Practically speaking, there was much more to it than that. Driven by fear of getting sliced in half by a Citation at Alpine, I had gotten a radio in June of 2015, so that was solved. Out of fear of being eaten by a bear 48 hours after a wilderness crash in the Rockies, I had upgraded my ELT in summer 2015 to a 406.9Mhz version, which is mandatory in Europe. Transponder mandatory zones proliferate, and many of them require Mode S, so I purchased a brand new transponder for installation. There was the matter of being able to power it, so we went with a ground charge battery and all of the associated wires, relays, and circuit breakers. I had been hand cranking for 18 years, and it was time for a starter, because Europeans really only tolerate hand cranking at public airports if the battery was dead. All told, it was many thousands of dollars and merciless aggravation to get it all to work. This was just so I could get off the ground, and I hadn’t even done so yet! My grandfather, who restored the airplane in 1996, simply stated: “I don’t know why you’re trying to turn the Cub into a Super Cub.”

Disassembly in Alpine, WY.
P - 1

On the European side, rigging was everything a person would expect it to be. Eight hours on paper, yet eight weeks in reality, chasing little squawks and aggravations along the way, learning such basic things as who to order parts from, where to get missing tools, how to replace all of the lubricants, glues, paints and other chemicals that I couldn’t ship, dreading learning about yet another German regulation that seemed to make no sense. Many times, I walked to the car from the hangar and wondered what I was thinking, and why I didn’t just move somewhere else in Wyoming and leave things simple.

Reassembly – Egelsbach, Germany.
Flugzeug 8

There were some simple things to do for compliance’s sake. I had to dig up my FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator’s Permit, last carried in 1999. Then I had to shell out $165 to get an aircraft radio station license from the FCC. Insurance was an interesting discussion, hearing horror stories of German carriers that greatly dislike negligence and try everything to avoid paying for accidents that could have been prevented (can not they all be prevented?). I opted for Lloyd’s of London. It’s in English, and my German is as sophisticated as that of a two year old.

The airplane stays on the US register, because I am a US citizen, so it is operated and maintained under US regulation unless superseded by the airspace and airport regulations of whatever country I am flying in. That reality is an extreme matter of convenience, as German aircraft regulations are so strict that it can make an American’s heart skip a beat. I will be sharing some of the differing realities that our friends here on this side of the pond have to deal with in the future, as it is a lesson in just how far common sense can get legislated out of aircraft operation.

There was the matter of the landing fee. If I had a “sound certificate,” the fee would be €7.98 ($9.10) based on the weight classification at my new home airport. That is the lowest possible fee due to the small size of the Cub, and is a bucket of cold water in the face. The only place I have historically paid landing fees regularly is in Jackson, Wyoming, and it was $3.45, which was worth it in my opinion for an executive FBO and stunning views of Grand Teton. This was a regular airport, and I learned through my research that the purpose of the fee is not to specifically fund the airport, but rather to discourage aircraft operations due to noise. Europe has tried to maim, decapitate, and kill general aviation with the existing body of law and procedures, and yet this fee is openly to try to reduce flying! Even more awakening was the reality that the fee would be €16 ($18.24) if I did not have a “sound certificate.”

Digging into this mysterious sound certificate, I found out that all German aircraft have an approved propeller, engine, and airframe combination, with sound tested decibel levels. It is part of the process to allow an aircraft to be placed on the German register. For example, a Cessna 172, manufactured in America, can only be registered with a “D” tail number in Germany if Cessna has filed for and received a German type certificate for the model of the airplane. If they stick with an American type certificate, the aircraft can never be registered here, though it can be operated under the N-register. That is fine for Americans, though it is getting harder and harder for Germans to own and operate an N-registered airplane in Germany. As part of the type certificate process, the aircraft undergoes sound testing.

I thought that I would need a sound test done. I found out that such a thing runs thousands of euros, and is not worth it for an individual aircraft, rather only for a manufacturer. Sadly, my airplane and engine combination was not on the magic list in Germany. I was then given some advice to look on the US side, as “basically, they just need a piece of paper.” That is common advice over here. Every German knows that paper is important, thinks its silly, and they all just say: “That is Germany!” when an innocent and silly American asks if there is a way around a document that is well known to be useless. After all, the airplane makes the same noise regardless of the presence of the piece of paper.

Researching an FAA circular, I found out that American aircraft have sound regulation (who knew?) and that they are approved by virtue of the type certificate being issued in the first place. By having a Certificate of Airworthiness, our airplanes are sound certified, end of story, and we don’t have to carry a separate piece of paper to confirm reality. I finally found a section that spoke of international operations, and the FAA, using abstract legalese, basically says: ‘We are not in the business of making sound certificates, but you can make one that looks like this officially-looking sample.’

Unsure of how the whole thing would go over, I submitted the form to the airport office. They advised eventually that they “normally do not accept these kinds of forms” but “it’s such an old airplane and it’s so quiet that it should work.” I can only wonder what the rest of the N-registered aircraft on the field do, or if they are all paying rather high fee categories, as to my knowledge, there is no other way to get a sound certificate. That is one of a long list of questions I have for how the place operates here.

A few weeks ago, I took a ground lesson to go over airspace and regulatory differences, which I will be sharing in the future. Armed with a paper map, a newly rigged airplane, and a load of trepidation, I decided to make the test flight, even though I am in the busiest airspace in one of the strictest countries in the Western world.

I have flown this plane over all 58 peaks over 14,000’ in Colorado, 40 peaks over 6,000’ in the Southeast, every glacier in the US Rockies, most major mountain ranges in the West, have crossed the country three times, have made two emergency landings, have flown in every conceivable weather and terrain condition, and have spent more time than I can remember skimming mountain peaks above the clouds, and what I was feeling at this moment was something I am not used to: fear. There can be nothing good about taking a plane apart and putting it together, and to make matters worse, this environment of flying for the first time in a new country, no, a new continent was like being a student pilot wondering if he should take off on a windy day. There is one cure for such fear, and I liberally applied the recommended dosage: full power.

After the initial terror of wondering if key flight systems had any issues, it settled at about 300’ AGL that I am flying, and I am flying in Germany! The test flight ended successfully, and I felt nothing short of absolute glee that this poorly-thought out, ill-fated, and naïve scheme to move 6,000 miles from home finally worked, 4 months after I took the last flight in the USA.

Success! Northern Odenwald, Germany.
IMG_0186 (173 of 278)

Rhine Valley, Germany.
IMG_0255 (242 of 278)

Needless to say, that is just the beginning of many adventures, both in geography and jurisdiction as I fly around Europe working on a number of books on the subject. Each of the vagaries of flight here in Germany is enough to inspire every American pilot to take an active interest in maintaining the freedom to fly as it is. I didn’t even begin to imagine that general aviation could get as savaged as it is here, and yet there are countless countries in Europe with all levels of differing regulation, not to mention the European Aviation Safety Agency, a pan-European regulatory body that functions like a second FAA equivalent to deal with. Sometimes the only relief is to laugh when hearing of almost fascist regulations, though when it comes to back home in the USA, its no laughing matter if these regulations weaseled their way westward across the Atlantic.

Author’s Piper PA-11 (Photo: Adam Romer)
PA-11 Alpine

 

 

 

Learn like you are going to live forever

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Tell me and I forget.

Teach me and I remember.

Involve me and I learn.

—-Benjamin Franklin

maggie upside downIn mid-August of 2003 I attended an AOPA Air Safety Institute [ASI] pilot safety seminar in Portland entitled “Take Offs and Landings.” Little did I know that a few days later I would be putting both those skill sets in use when I had an engine failure at take off in Hood River, Oregon. My story was used in AOPA’s 2004 Nall Report and as well in AOPA’s seminar series called: ­­­­­­Real Pilot Stories. I credited my flight instructor, the ASI seminar, and my training for turning a potentially life threatening situation into an “off-airport” landing.

 

 

 

 

Recently I got the opportunity to talk with Mark Grady. Mark has presented safety seminars all over the country. A veteran with nearly 20 years of experience, Mark has seen it all. I hope that this interview is helpful for you, and will inspire you to attend one of the many AOPA or FAAST safety seminars offered.Mark&Allegro2-Crop1

How long have you been teaching Mark?

“I’ve been presenting aviation safety seminars for almost 20 years. I started doing seminars for the North Carolina Division of Aviation. I was then signed by the Aviation Speakers Bureau. Shortly thereafter, I became one of the AOPA Air Safety Institute presenters.”

Why do you feel called to teach aviation safety seminars?

“My father was a very safety-conscious man. I think I got a little of that from him. What really sealed the deal for me was during my ten years of being a traffic watch pilot and reporter in Raleigh. I did that from 1980 until 1987. Seeing the number of traffic accidents I covered, I thought often that drivers could learn a lot from pilot training and that pilots who may drive too aggressively have the potential to be unsafe aviators. It really is all about human factors. “

What do you do at your seminars to promote the active exchange of fears/ideas/education?

“The large amount of content in the AOPA Air Safety Institute seminars prevents too much time being taken by the attendees during the actual two-hour seminar, but we certainly promote the continuing education of all pilots. That doesn’t have to just take place during flight reviews. In fact, I think the more we try to stay safety conscious during all we do, including driving, the more likely we are to be better pilots. In addition to the online seminars, AOPA ASI has really great online courses for pilots who take information, training and safety seriously.”AOPA-SAC-12Jan2016

Who is your typical attendee?

“That’s a good question. While most of the attendees have appeared to be over 40, I have been encouraged over the number of younger pilots who have been coming recently. As far as the experience level of the attendees, it’s far reaching. We’ve had people attend who are just becoming interested in learning to fly right on through ATP pilots and even pilots who flew warbirds in World War II.”

 Do you ever hear any stories from attendees about how they have put the seminars to use in the sky?

“Absolutely! It’s rare I’ve given a seminar where a pilot does not come up at the end and tell me a first-hand account of how something he had heard at a seminar helped him in an emergency situation or kept him from getting into one.”

If you had a piece of advice for a lower time pilot in regard to education or safety, what would it be?

“It would be to strive to be a pilot of excellence. In fact, I’m writing a book titled “Pilot of Excellence” now. There is no such thing as a perfect pilot, but we can strive to be excellent. That requires a big commitment to remain aware during all phases of flight. Just one example is when we are going through a checklist. If we are not focusing on each checklist item and why we are doing that item on the checklist, we are simply giving ourselves a false sense of security that everything is ok. There is no reason to be bored on a flight. There is always something to do, especially playing the what-if game.”

Is there anything you would tell your younger, pilot-self that you wished you knew?

“To not look at a flight review as a test, but an opportunity. We ALL have weak areas. None of us knows it all. So, if we want a great flight review, I recommend spending at least 15 minutes the day before we meet with the instructor to be honest and write down our weak areas. Then ask the instructor to help us work on those. Now, that’s a good way to become an excellent pilot! By being honest with ourselves about our weaknesses. “

“I had one guy at a seminar ask me, “How do I decide what my weak areas are?” I told him to use the same thought process he probably had going for his private pilot checkride. I think most of us went to that ride praying the examiner would not get too deep into a subject area we thought we were a little weak on”.

“When you think about it, I find it amazing we can take to the sky, with family and friends on board, and fly all over the U.S. with only 40 hours of flight training. That’s why the examiner always says, “This is your license to learn” when he gives you that first temporary airman certificate. It may seem like a long time, but I recent experienced something that really put it in perspective. I was getting my hair cut when I noticed the young lady had a North Carolina Board of Cosmetology license in her cubicle. I asked her, “Does that take a lot of work to earn that?” Her response really shocked me. She said, “Oh, yes! Twelve hundred hours of training.” Wow.”

 

I suppose if it takes 1200 hours to be licensed to cut your hair, as pilots , we should strive to get as many hours of quality education as possible. Whether you opt for an online training course, a safety seminar, or calling up your local CFI and getting some dual, make sure you are learning like you are going to live forever. It might just be that learning that ensures you do so for many years to come.

Image - Version 2

AOPA Air Safety Institute Events: http://www.aopa.org/Pilot-Resources/Air-Safety-Institute/Events

AOPA Webinars: http://www.aopa.org/Pilot-Resources/AOPA-Webinars

EAA Webinars: http://www.eaa.org/en/eaa/aviation-education-and-resources/aviation-videos-and-aviation-photos/eaa-webinars

 

Blurred Lines

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The advent of smartphones and apps has led to a variety of creative new businesses which are reinventing how we shop, work, and communicate. They’re also changing how we travel by bringing private aviation to the masses.

Some of these concepts, like SurfAir, seem to be doing well, while for some reason east coast equivalent Beacon never really got off the ground. Others — Flytenow and AirPooler — were quashed by FAA determinations about their legality.

It was probably inevitable that this phenomenon would make it’s way into my own flying life. The company I work for has entered into a partnership with JetSmarter, a mobile marketplace for private jet charter that the Wall Street Journal described as the “Uber of the air”. We’re flying scheduled service between the coasts and other major cities as part of their “JetShuttle” program. Instead of chartering an entire airplane, you can now book a single seat of your choosing.

A typical Gulfstream interior.  This layout isn't just more comfortable -- it's also designed to facilitate discussion and interaction among the occupants.

A typical Gulfstream interior. This layout isn’t just more comfortable — it’s also designed to facilitate discussion and interaction among the occupants.

I’ve done a few of these trips so far and the passengers seem delighted with the ability to avoid most of the hassles typically associated with air travel and large hub airports. A business jet’s interior looks more like a living room than a typical airliner, so it tends to facilitate discussion and interaction between the passengers. Flight attendants have told me that by the end of the flight, strangers have become friends. And some business connections are probably being made as well.

The JetSmarter membership isn’t cheap. It costs $9,000 annually and requires a $3,000 initiation fee. On the other hand, when you compare it with the cost of chartering a large cabin business jet for even a single cross country flight, the price seems downright thrifty. It’s even competitive with first class airline travel, especially for those who travel frequently.

At first I wondered how this sort of thing would be legal. Wouldn’t scheduled service require a Part 121 certificate? Apparently not. JetSmarter’s model has been validated under 14 CFR Part 380, which requires those who wish to arrange public charters to have their prospectus approved by the Department of Transportation. JetSmarter doesn’t operate the aircraft or have “operational control” over the flights; they simply help facilitate the placement of individuals onto an approved Part 135 certificate holder’s airplane. In that regard they function more like a broker than a charter company. Incidentally, brokers are not regulated by the FAA, DOT, or anyone else that I’m aware of.

I never would have expected to be flying scheduled service while working in the charter industry, but that’s the sort of thing you get when disruptive technologies begin to work their magic. It blurs the lines between what we traditionally think of as airlines and charter companies. For most folks, the primary distinction has been the fixed schedule of the former versus the non-scheduled, or “on-demand”, nature of the latter. But times are changing, and the aviation industry with it.

I can think of several other examples of this phenomenon. I learned to fly about 20 years ago, and back in “the day”, a training airplane was almost invariably a 152/172 or Cherokee of some kind. Oh, you’d find the occasional Tomahawk or Citabria in use for that purpose, but for the most part it was a Skyhawk/Cherokee game. Today’s trainers come from an impressive fleet of Diamonds, Cirruses (yes, people do learn to fly in them), prototypical Cessnas and Pipers, and more LSAs than you can shake a stick at. If my experience is any indication, tailwheels are seeing a resurgence in training roles—something regular readers of mine will know I’m happy about. And there are probably ten thousand more homebuilts are out there than when I took my first flight.

Do I even need to mention about how the general aviation cockpit has changed over the same period? In the corporate aviation world, we’re seeing the first hints of supersonic aircraft on the horizon with the Aerion AS2, Spike S-512, and whatever Gulfstream has got up it’s sleeve after partnering with NASA, Sukhoi, and parent General Dynamics.

JetSmarter also made a deal to purchase my company’s empty charter legs for the next few years. Traditional charter flights are priced round-trip, because even if the passengers only want to fly one way, the company has to get the plane back to its home base. The ability to offload those empty flights to a third-party for resale helps the bottom line and connects passengers with flights that meet their needs.

Any way you slice it, this is an exciting time to be part of the aviation world. I can’t help but wonder what they’ll think of next.

10 Million Reasons to Smile

Monday, March 21st, 2016

I’ve just come back from an annual event that is by far one of the most inspiring gatherings in aviation and aerospace these days: the International Women in Aviation Conference. Before you click past this page give me a second to tell you that the name of this organization is misleading. Women in Aviation, International’s (WAI) conference is a gathering with as many men as women (some would argue this year at times it seemed as if there were more – there were not, I checked the actual count in the database, but it was close). The organization was founded 27 years ago to encourage women to take up careers in aviation and aerospace. It has always had among its membership men who believe that any business is a better place when its staff is diverse.

Now that you understand WAI’s goals I’ll share the best moment of the conference with you. It was during the grand finale

The stage at WAI was crowded with previous scholarship winners.

The stage at WAI was crowded with previous scholarship winners.

banquet, when some of the largest monetary value scholarships and leadership awards are given out each year (this year’s tally of awards given out by WAI was more than $660,000). The recipient of the Martha King Scholarship for Female Flight Instructors  ($18,120 worth of training) was Lindsey Dreiling of Salina, Kansas. But here’s the thing: Lindsey’s scholarship took the dollar amount of scholarships awarded through WAI’s clearinghouse program to a sum total of $10 million disbursed during the last 20 years. Yep, that’s a lot of flight training, dispatch and operations training, and maintenance training. There are also a couple of aviation management degrees completed among that list, too.

How many people benefited from all that money? More than 1,400 individuals. Were they all women? Nope. You just have to be a member of WAI (and of course, you have to apply) to be in the running for one of its many scholarship offerings.

What made the moment so special was that when the announcement was made for all those previous scholarship winners in the room to come forward, it was as if half the room stood up and began to swarm the stage. Nearly 100 people climbed the steps to surround Lindsey, John and Martha King to a groundswell of applause. Among those onstage were airline captains, flight instructors, Directors of Operations, Maintenance supervisors, all people who got their start, that leg up, that little bit of help, the nudge they needed, right there at a WAI Conference. And also among those on the stage that night were several people who have paid it forward, developing scholarships of their own that they fund through WAI’s scholarship clearinghouse. Because that’s what you do when aviation is very good to you. That’s how we enable the next generation of aviators to soar.

 

What’s That Going To Cost?

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Beechcraft 55 BaronOn a winter Friday evening, a Texas-based aircraft owner loaded three family members into his Baron and flew to Kansas City to attend a weekend function. One of the aircraft’s vacuum pumps failed over Oklahoma. Upon landing at Kansas City Downtown Airport (MKC), the owner asked the FBO on the field if they could replace the failed pump over the weekend, in time for his planned departure late Sunday afternoon. They said they could, and the owner gave them a go-ahead.

When the owner and his family returned to MKC on Sunday afternoon, the owner was pleased to find that the pump had been replaced as advertised. But when he gave the FBO his credit card to pay the bill, he was told that the invoice wouldn’t be ready until Monday when the bookkeeper returned to work. The FBO insisted that the owner sign a blank credit card slip to cover the work. The owner was initially unwilling to do this, but ultimately capitulated when it became obvious that was the only way to get the FBO to release his airplane.

When the FBO’s charge finally showed up on the owner’s credit card, it turned out to be over $1,900. The pump was invoiced at $1,400—well above the manufacturer’s published list price of $1,090 and almost twice the usual “street price” of $800. The labor charge was about $500 for a job that shouldn’t have taken more than an hour. The owner was upset, of course. He fired off a nastygram to the owner of the FBO and vowed never to patronize them again. But in the final analysis, the owner was stuck paying a bill he appropriately considered outrageous.

This sort of thing is hardly uncommon. I know one owner who was charged nearly $1,000 to have his Cessna 210 deiced in Memphis, another who was charged $350 for one hour in a heated hangar to melt the snow of his light twin near Boston, and yet another who was charged $180 at Washington Dulles to have two tires aired up on his Skylane.

Most of these incidents occurred at large FBOs that cater mostly to the bizjet set. But such FBOs certainly aren’t the only offenders. I heard about a mechanic who removed a leaking fuel selector valve from a Bonanza and sent it off to a well-known FAA-approved repair station for overhaul. After inspecting the valve, the repair station quoted $2,000 to overhaul it. At this point, the aircraft owner wisely intervened, directed the repair station to return the leaky valve, and sent it to another repair station in California who overhauled the valve for $375.

While these may be extreme cases, I sincerely doubt there are many aircraft owners among us who haven’t felt blindsided by what we considered to be an unreasonable maintenance invoice from time to time. (Been there, done that, got the bloodstained tee-shirt to prove it.)

The First Commandment

How much?In almost every such case, these unpleasant surprises occur because the aircraft owner authorized the work to be done without first asking what it would cost. In doing that, the owner broke the first commandment of aircraft maintenance:

Never permit a shop or mechanic to perform maintenance on your aircraft until you have received and approved a work order and cost estimate in writing. If and when you approve the work to be done, instruct the shop or mechanic explicitly not to exceed the cost estimate without first obtaining your explicit approval.

I find it amazing how often this commonsense commandment is broken. In almost every other sort of commerce, it would be absolutely unthinkable for someone to purchase goods or services without knowing what they will cost. Most of us would never buy a headset, a pair of sunglasses or a gallon 100LL without checking the price. Nor would we consider hiring a plumber to install a new water heater, a roofer to fix a leak, or Midas to replace the muffler on our car without first obtaining a quotation or estimate.

Yet more often than not, aircraft owners put their plane in the shop and authorize work to be done without obtaining even a verbal estimate, much less a written quote. Frequently, the first time they learn what the work will cost is when the work is finished and they are presented with the invoice. At that point, it is too late for them to influence the outcome; they can only complain and lick their wounds. (Show me an aircraft owner, and I’ll show you an expert complainer and wound licker.)

Why do we do this? I can think of three reasons:

  1. We’re uncomfortable asking the shop or mechanic for a cost estimate.
  2. The aircraft has a known problem, but we don’t yet understand what’s wrong sufficiently for the shop or mechanic to estimate how much work needs to be done or what parts need to be replaced.
  3. The aircraft is in the shop for an inspection, so we don’t yet know what problems are going to be found, much less what parts and labor will be needed to fix them.

Let’s consider these three cases in turn.

Case 1: Uncomfortable Asking

UncomfortableI suspect the Baron owner was uncomfortable about asking the Kansas City FBO for a cost estimate to replace his failed vacuum pump. Perhaps he felt the FBO was doing him a big favor in agreeing to do the work over the weekend. (They weren’t—their labor rate was top-dollar, and they charged time-and-a-half for the weekend labor.) Or perhaps it was because this big city FBO was one that catered largely to the bizjet crowd—you know, the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” guys.

Perhaps the Cessna 210 owner was uncomfortable about asking the FBO in Memphis what it would cost to deice his airplane because he thought it couldn’t possibly be enough to worry about. (He found out otherwise.) Or perhaps it was because he felt he had no alternative but to have the airplane deiced, no matter what it cost. (There’s always an alternative.)

Whatever the precise reason for their discomfort, their failure to ask what the work would cost before authorizing it cost them dearly. It never makes sense to purchase goods or services without first asking what they will cost.

Purchasing aircraft maintenance is just like any other purchase. The fact that it is not your field of expertise should never intimidate you into failing to asking key threshold questions like “what’s that going to cost?” In fact, the less you know about something, the more questions you should ask before making a decision.

Never feel embarrassed to ask for an estimate before authorizing work to be done on your aircraft. The only time it’s bad form to ask the price is when someone gives you a gift!

Case 2: Don’t Know What’s Wrong

DunnoSure, but what if you don’t know what’s wrong? Say you put the airplane in the shop because the engine has started running rough, but you don’t know why. How can you possibly ask your shop or mechanic for a cost estimate under such circumstances?

My answer is simple: Never ask a shop or mechanic to fix a problem unless you know what’s wrong. That’s like going in for surgery before your illness is diagnosed. Aircraft owners do this all the time, and it’s an expensive mistake.

Aircraft owners need to do as much troubleshooting as they possibly can before putting their aircraft in the shop. In my view, it’s primarily the owner’s job to troubleshoot and the mechanic’s job to fix. It’s often difficult or impossible for a mechanic to reproduce problems in the maintenance hangar. If we owners don’t diagnose a problem before we put our aircraft in the shop, our mechanic often has no choice but to resort to guesswork, trying various things and hoping he gets lucky. When mechanics guess, owners pay through the nose.

Returning to your rough-running engine: In a perfect world, you’ll use your digital engine monitor and well-honed troubleshooting skills to diagnose the problem: e.g., a clogged fuel nozzle or faulty bottom spark plug in cylinder #3. Then, you’ll put your aircraft in the shop and obtain a cost estimate to fix the problem.

But what if you can’t figure out why the engine is running rough? In that case, you put your aircraft in the shop and authorize your mechanic to spend up to two hours (or whatever seems reasonable to you) troubleshooting the problem, and instruct him to report back to you with his diagnosis. (NEVER give the mechanic carte blanche; always specify a troubleshooting budget!) Only then, when the problem has been diagnosed, do you ask for a cost estimate to fix the problem and (if the estimate is acceptable) authorize the repair.

Case 3: Annual Inspection

Annual InspectionIn the case of an annual inspection (where by definition you don’t know what problems will be found), my advice is similar. Put your aircraft in the shop and authorize your mechanic to perform the inspection (which is normally done at an agreed-to flat rate) and prepare a detailed list of discrepancies with a cost estimate to fix each one. (Make sure he understands that he is NOT authorized to perform any repairs or order any parts yet!) At this point, sit down with the mechanic, go over the discrepancy list and estimates in detail, and come to agreement on exactly what repairs are to be done and what they will cost. Only then should you authorize the repair work to proceed.

No matter what the situation is, there is never a good reason to authorize a shop or mechanic to perform maintenance on your aircraft until you have received a detailed written estimate of what it will cost. If the shop or mechanic won’t provide one to you, you’re your airplane elsewhere. Always know what it will cost before you say “go ahead.”

When it comes to aviation maintenance, it’s not impolite to ask what something is going to cost. It’s mandatory.

Flying Through Life… pursue your impossibly big dreams

Sunday, March 6th, 2016
Meeting Zen Pilot

Meeting Zen Pilot, Robert DeLaurentis

On a windy day at Whiteman Airport in the LA basin I had the pleasure of spending some time with Robert DeLaurentis, the “Zen Pilot” and met the Spirit of San Diego [Piper Malibu Mirage] in person.   Often in the air more than on the ground, Robert  lives and breathes the adventure of flying while spreading the message of abundance, connection, and safety.

He is a noted speaker and author with a successful real estate business and over 1250 flight hours as a private pilot. Robert has his private, instrument and multi-engine ratings and holds a commercial pilot certificate and an advanced graduate degree in Spiritual Psychology.

His recently completed circumnavigation of the globe in his Piper Malibu was part spiritual journey, part fundraiser for programs at Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA] Spirit of San Diego scholarship fund. He attributes the ability to pursue this lifelong dream of flying around the world to his use of applied spirituality principles.

His first book, Flying Thru Life focuses on helping businesses and individuals go far beyond what they ever believed was possible financially and personally. Robert believes applying the principles outlined in Flying Thru Life allows the manifestation of time and money for people to pursue their sometimes impossibly big dreams.

Spirit of San Diego Students

Students get to meet the Spirit of San Diego

Robert puts forth that we should honor our desires from childhood and our passion. Allowing those desires to unfold helps to manifest them.  “If you ask Spirit to become a painter, you are given a canvas and paint. This is about manifesting. The first step is to ask” Robert says.  He suggests that we be open to what we receive and that it perhaps is a different path than we imagined.  We could be following a path that our parents want us to follow instead of what we are passionate about. “When I honored passion, purpose and Spirit, my life accelerated” he says.

 

When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

The book outlines 19 strategies to avoid negative self-talk and to re-frame fear and doubt into passion and purpose in life.  He believes that when we are in alignment with our deepest dreams, desires and hopes, that we will  receive gifts of time, money, and peace of mind. The gift of time manifests into more hours to fly and train. Financial gifts might be the source of money for an airplane, equipment or new rating.

Fear is oftentimes what holds us back from living our authentic life in a peaceful way.  Robert also believes that what shows up in your plane is also reflected in your life, as the cockpit is a schoolroom. Fear manifests itself in so many ways. These fears hold us back in the life and in flying.  Technology makes flying safer and less expensive. Preparation is the key to reduce fear. Practice makes practice, competency comes with practice.

Flying Thru Life

Flying Thru Life

Flying through Life has some great examples for “Type A” personalities.  One example was when an expensive and critical piece of management software not working for his company. The initial discussion with the president of the software company was met with “You didn’t follow the instructions!”  Robert then paused and communicated with the president in a thoughtful way where he told her his fears and then asked for help. The president then became very helpful and together they co-created a solution.

 

Last weekend I flew into San Carlos Airport in the San Francisco Bay area. My arrival was easy enough even though there was a TFR over San Jose Airport for the democratic convention, and San Carlos lies under San Francisco’s airspace and is very near Oakland and San Jose. I told ATC that I was unfamiliar with San Carlos and they were very helpful. The tower guys were super nice when I landed. On the way home I thought I would just fly reverse my steps for arrival. As I was taxing out the tower asked me if I wanted the Bay Meadows departure or the Belmont Slough departure quickly giving me details of each. The Bay Meadows departure sounded closest to what I wanted so I said I would choose it. As I got to the run-up area, I felt a little insecure about the instructions. I didn’t have a copy of the noise abatement procedure in my stack of paperwork I had for the trip. So I did what a lot of pilots maybe don’t do, I asked for clarification and help. “San Carlos Ground, 6619U would like to get clarification on the departure as I am unfamiliar and want to get it right.” “N6619U, San Carlos Ground, we love it when pilots ask questions. Thank you. Fly runway heading to 1200 feet, we will call your left turn to the 101 freeway.” I was so proud of myself for not faking it and asking for needed help.

What’s next for Robert? In addition to being a featured speaker for AOPA at Sun n Fun and their regional fly-ins, Robert is releasing his second book, Zen Pilot in the Summer of 2016.  Robert muses on he latest book which details his trip around the world, “I think to some people it might sound strange, but I believe that flying can be the most spiritual thing that you do. Passion and purpose in alignment with Spirit. For me the spiritual component is enormous. The plane takes you from point A to point B, that is a destination, but flying through life is a journey. When people  asked what I learned about flying around the world, I talk about the dream state. When I was flying there was a point in which I didn’t know if I was flying or dreaming [over North Africa]. It is the place I feel most connected. Planes are magical places.”  A true ambassador of general aviation, Robert’s enthusiasm and goodwill is contagious.  I believe what he wants most is for us all to know that if we can dream it, we also possess the ability to make those dreams come true.

 

To watch the video for Flying Thru Life click here

To purchase the book  click here

earth meets heaven

 

Manual Flying Skills: Keep ‘Em Sharp

Monday, February 29th, 2016

I’ve taught aerobatic and upset recovery courses to many aviators over the years, and almost without exception am told at the conclusion of training that it represented the best investment of time and money they’d ever spent on improving their skills and confidence as a pilot.

In recent years, the corporate, charter, and airline pilots have begun seeking out this kind of skill set as well. It’s a good thing, because as the Department of Transportation recently reported, some of today’s pilots may not have The Right Stuff.

Where the cockpit is concerned, modern light GA aircraft have a lot in common with the latest crop of business jets and airliners. Under normal circumstances these advanced cockpits add to safety. But when things go awry? Well, as our airplanes become more advanced, they also become more complicated, and that can lead to situations which are not covered by handbooks, manuals, and type-specific training.

We’ve all seen the result of unexpected system failures which were not handled properly by the crew. In recent years, Air France 447 suffered from pitot icing which overcame the tube’s heating element and caused air data errors. During the resulting confusion, the crew entered a stall at 38,000 feet which did not end until the Airbus impacted the ocean. Last December, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501’s crew responded to a malfunction of the aircraft’s rudder limiter by pulling a Flight Augmentation Computer circuit breaker, which had the unintended consequence of disabling the autopilot. The pilots stalled the aircraft and it ultimately crashed into the Java Sea.

Just to show you that this isn’t something that only happens to “other people,” let me give you two examples of my own. I was flying a Gulfstream IV one afternoon when a wide variety of seemingly unrelated components began to fail. Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we lost air data computers, autothrottles, both autopilots, mach trim compensation, yaw dampening, pitch trim, the flight guidance panel, one altitude encoder, cockpit displays, a display controller, symbol generator, TCAS, an inertial reference unit, and many other elements.

Some of these items dropped offline completely. Others froze or began to malfunction. Some were annunciated on the Crew Alerting System, others were not. Now I knew these components were not on the same bus, nor did they have much in common except that they were electrically powered. Yet the electrical system appeared to be operating normally. We were in visual conditions and not far from landing, which added to the pressure. There’s no checklist for this situation, nor was it ever discussed or simulated during training. Do we land? The aircraft’s braking system is electrical. Should we hold?

Without getting into too much detail, this flight ended uneventfully, but by the time we did touch down, I was basically flying the world’s largest Piper Cub: nothing but a stick, throttle, a couple of analog gauges, and a window to look outside. And that was all I needed. As I recall, the failure was traced to a series of malfunctioning relays under the cockpit floor. Our success was a result of focusing on the basic task of flying the airplane. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do when you’re busy and unsure of what’s really going on with your (normally) trusty aircraft. Failures of this kind cause a rapid loss of confidence in the overall airplane. You’re constantly wondering what will fail next.

The second example was related by a friend of mine. After departure, she lost the #1 comm radio. Not a big deal — the jet has two of them. A little while later, that radio also failed. Over the next few minutes, the flight data recorder failed, followed by the slats, flaps, an AHRS, and other associated componentry. The crew was in instrument weather and flew according to lost communication rules, finally making a high speed, no flap/no slat landing at their destination. Their troubles were caused by a cracked potable water tank, which flooded an electrical equipment bay under the rear floor of the aircraft. Gravity being what it is, one might wonder why important circuit boards are located underneath a water tank… but that’s an issue for another day.

So what does this have to do with upset recovery training? Plenty. The odds of coming out of these scenarios in one piece is directly related to the pilot’s ability to retain control of a malfunctioning aircraft, and that’s when the workload falls heavily on his or her manual flying skills. Truth be told, today’s highly automated airplanes don’t help prepare us for situations of this kind. They do the opposite, physically flying the airplane for us most of the time.

Dassault's Falcon 7X

Dassault’s Falcon 7X

You never know when sharp manual flying skills will pay off. In May of 2011, a Falcon 7X on approach into Kuala Lumpur experienced a rapid nose-up runaway trim condition which could not be stopped. The Falcon 7X was the first fly-by-wire business jet and had been in service for only four years, so this incident caught the attention of many people. It was serious enough that the entire 7X fleet was subsequently grounded. The final accident report was not issued until February of 2016, almost five years later, which should provide an indication of how complex the accident chain was on this event.

Oh, and the crew? They did it right, using a manual flying technique which, while it’s not taught in any type rating course I’m aware of, is taught by myself and others with an aerobatic background. In this case, the pilot learned it while flying Dassault’s other line of airplanes for the military:

While descending through 13000 feet, towards Kuala Lumpur, the elevator pitch trim began to move from neutral to the full nose-up position in 15 seconds time. This resulted in a sudden pitch up of the aircraft to 40° and the aircraft entering a climb. Initially both the captain (Pilot Monitoring) and the copilot (Pilot Flying) were both using the side stick in an attempt to regain control. The copilot then used the priority button to override the captain’s side stick inputs and asked him to stop. The copilot, a former military pilot with experience on Mirage IV and Mirage 2000 jets, then put the aircraft in a right hand bank to a maximum of 98 degrees.

Sudden, uncommanded full nose-up trim is about as bad as it gets when you’re talking about loss-of-control scenarios, yet the pilot was astute enough to remember that he could offset the unwanted lift by banking the jet. Have you been trained on this technique? The pilot had to deal with a beyond-knife-edge flight attitude, load factors as high as 4.6 G, and altitude which ballooned from 13,000 feet to 22,500 feet. What a ride that must have been!

I wasn’t able to locate an English version of the final BEA report, but the French original notes that “the Pilot Flying had performed this maneuver many times during his military career.” After 2 minutes and 35 seconds, the trim motor overheated and was finally cut off, allowing the crew to regain pitch control.

The investigation determined that a small soldering defect on one pin of a computer chip in the Horizontal Stabilizer Electronic Control Unit (HSECU) caused the nose-up instruction to be sent to the Tail Horizontal Stabilizer trim module. Think about the sheer volume of pins, solders, computer chips, and wiring in a modern airplane and you’ll start to realize that these aren’t far-fetched stories borne out of a science fiction novel.

As I said at the top, our aircraft are becoming more complex, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. This increases the likelihood of failures and scenarios for which we have not trained. If you’ll pardon the pun, when the chips are down, it’s usually the person behind the controls who determines whether the situation ends with a classic there-I-was hangar story or a fatal accident report.

Time and time again, we see that manual flying skills are as critical to safe flight as any powerplant or airfoil. Let’s keep ’em sharp.

Seeking Economy, Playing it Safe: Why I fuel up more often than most GA pilots

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

After 31 years as a flight instructor and considerably longer as a certified pilot, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents and incidents caused by aircraft running perilously low on fuel. In the latest data (2012) listed on the NTSB.gov website out of 988 general aviation accidents (personal flight), some 50 were attributed to fuel (or lack thereof). It is impossible to tell how many out-of-fuel incidents actually happened that year, or any year, in general aviation, because most pilots who get away with landing the airplane on an airfield after losing power never mention it to the FAA. (Would you?) The good news is that the graph lists no fatalities attributed to such accidents in 2012; but going back a decade from there not all pilots were so lucky.

NTSB statistics on personal flying accidents in 2012

NTSB statistics on personal flying accidents in 2012

I have to say, I work hard so as not to be one of those pilots. In my career I’ve flown plenty of airplanes with fuel gauges placarded “INOP” or with gauges so clearly inaccurate that one just knew not to trust them. I was brought up in aviation to visually inspect, and even measure (with a calibrated dipstick) the fuel in my tanks, and to use a calibrated time/distance method of tracking my fuel burn in flight. So, yeah, I’ve got a lot of tools on my checklist to prevent me from running out of fuel on a flight. So do a lot of other pilots I know.

Then why do they still run out of fuel? There are a few out-of-fuel accidents caused by shrinkage of the fuel tank bladder from age (even though senders registered it full, and visual inspection showed it full, the bladder could not hold as much fuel as indicated). Those are, however, rare. And even in those cases I’d question the pilot, wondering why he didn’t notice that the tanks didn’t seem to hold as much as they used to hold. There are a few out-of-fuel incidents from leakages (a stuck gascolator quick drain, for instance). Again, I’d question the pilot on his/her preflight thoroughness (always step back and look at the airplane top to bottom one more time before you climb in to fly away).

Then there are the math errors and buttonology errors. Essentially the pilot miscalculates actual fuel burn, and, knowing his fuel gauges are generally inaccurate s/he ignores them until the engine starts to sputter. This problem can occur if the pilot forgot to consider his fuel burn on climb, in a full-rich mixture configuration. Or, he may have completely forgotten to lean the mixture.

Buttonology errors are more of a modern airplane’s problem. Perhaps the pilot did visually inspect his tanks and noted that each seemed to be down a few gallons. But it is tricky with some fuel totalizers to program in the exact amount of fuel in each tank. Maybe the pilot just taps the “full” button but promises she’ll remember the tanks aren’t full. And then the headwinds are stronger than predicted at altitude. Yet her fuel totalizer tells her not to worry—she’s got enough gas to get to her destination. Except she doesn’t.

Another pilot just pushed the throttle up, figuring he could go faster into the headwind and solve the problem that way. He did not, however, account for the extra fuel he was burning at the higher power setting.

Interestingly enough, most of the pilots who miscalculate fuel at the end of a long flight leg land just short (say, within 10 or so miles) of their intended destination. Sometimes on another airfield. Sometimes not.

I maintain that in most out-of-fuel accidents and incidents the real culprit is poor preflight planning. Pilots simply calculate the fuel exhaustion point of their aircraft, maybe slap a reserve on there (the FAA minimum on a VFR day is just 30 minutes) and then draw a line (most of the time with a flight planner app) that represents that time/distance on a chart and pick an airport near the end of it as their refueling point. Maybe they use an app to find the most competitive fuel in the area and fly to that airport. I get what they are doing. Pilots who fly light general aviation aircraft tend to want to fly long flight legs because they are perceived as most efficient. Many aircraft engines burn twice the fuel in climb as they do in cruise. They want to limit the amount of time they spend at those high power and fuel flow settings.

Well, efficiency be damned. When you are planning a flight, or for that matter, preflighting your fuel system, it makes no sense to set yourself up for failure by pushing the limits of your aircraft’s capabilities. Out-of-fuel accidents can be prevented so easily. Plan to land with twice the FAA minimum in fuel—the reserve recommended by the AOPA Air Safety Institute. Period.

Plan for unanticipated headwinds by underestimating your aircraft’s performance. I flight plan at a lower speed and higher fuel burn than what my airplane typically does. It is my cushion. I like cushions because they give me the wiggle room I need on days where the weather doesn’t play into my hand.

AOPA's newest version of its flight planner provides members with an excellent tool for preventing out-of-fuel accidents and incidents.

AOPA’s newest version of its flight planner provides members with an excellent tool for preventing out-of-fuel accidents and incidents.

And do what I do: use a sophisticated flight planning tool such as those found in moving map apps, or browser-based tools such as AOPA’s flight planner, which

offers easy-to-use graphic tools for choosing good refueling points along any flight path. When programmed with your aircraft’s performance parameters and departure time the planner will color-code your course to indicate where you’ll need to land for fuel, based on the forecast wind. The magenta route line will turn yellow to represent the caution zone segment in which you have 60 to 90 minutes of fuel remaining. The course segment will turn red if less than 60 minutes of fuel remains. Current fuel prices at airports on or near your route pop right up on the planner. Just select one along the yellow section of your course and the planner reroutes you and includes the fuel stop. Best of all, you can email the route to your iPad or android tablet and it will interface into several popular moving map apps with a few clicks.

Then go fly your plan. You’ll thank me for counseling you to land a little more often on a long cross-country about the time you step out onto the ramp and stretch your legs a bit. Or maybe when you are availing yourself of those free homemade cookies and a fresh cup of coffee served up with a smile in so many of our wonderful independent FBOs. The difference in your overall en route time won’t change much, but the quality of the day is likely to be just a bit higher.

Give it a try. Let’s work to make 2016 the year that out-of-fuel accidents suddenly disappear from the NTSB’s graph of stupid-pilot-tricks.