Archive for the ‘Amy Laboda’ Category

FAA Reauthorization from a Global Perspective

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

This year’s Regional Airline Association (RAA) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, was a fascinating place to be if you are at all interested in how the various interested parties in the U.S. and abroad are thinking about the up and coming FAA Reauthorization. (And if you aren’t interested you should be. GA pilots have a stake in how the FAA’s limited resources are parceled out.)

FAA mission shift, delays caused by ATC inefficiencies and TSA inefficiencies, noise, environmental concerns: they talked about it all. RAA interim President Faye Malarkey Black sat stage center surrounded on both sides by association leaders that included European Regional Airlines Association Director General Simon McNamara; Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio; Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke, and Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman. Each brought a different angle on the issue, all of it fascinating to me, a user of regional airlines, and a general aviation pilot who wants to keep using my fair share of the system that my taxes pay for.

Leading the concerns was the fear that there will be no pilots to fly regional airliners in the U.S. if an effective career pathway is not both clearly established and marketed to high school students on a national level.

Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman is deeply worried. “Our carriers guarantee overnight service in cargo. We depend on our regional cargo partners to get the packages to those outlying communities, and from them to our gateway hubs for transit to destination. If we don’t have the pilots we can’t guarantee service to those small communities. That changes our whole business model. We’ve got to be more creative. I think it is in all of our interests to form a partnership between the academic community, military, regionals and mainline carriers to work together to create a track for pilot training.”

On the subject of air service frequency, Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke said, “We’ve seen loss of air service at smaller fields. We don’t want to hand over the business to buses and trains. These small air fields are gold for their communities.” He probably wasn’t thinking about the opportunities for Part 135 charter aircraft services that open up when the airlines pull out of a small community airport. But then, Part 135 operators don’t offer the volume of people buying tickets that airports are becoming dependent on for revenue.

Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio thinks big change is necessary. “ATC is key,” he implored. “In every other regulatory government body, they don’t have ATC and FAA under one roof. We think we should have a nonprofit commercial entity for ATC that is funded not by taxes but some other format, and has an independent body that manages it and has industry representation and a pure safety focus to its objective,” he said.

ERA Director General Simon McNamara chuckled and said, “In Europe we’ve got 28 regulatory bodies, different languages, different cultures and one safety body that sits on top of air traffic control. Yet the FAA delivers a service with a 34% less per unit cost than Europe. We’re quite jealous of how simple you have it, so consider yourself lucky.”

When he put it like that, I certainly did!

A Tale of Two Air Shows: Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Springtime after the longest winters are often times the most special, and spring 2015 is no different. Both the flowers and the dormant fliers, particularly of light aircraft, bloom anew. Two April-based air show / fly-ins fire up what may prove to be a most interesting season: Aero Friedrichshafen, in Germany, and Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, Florida. And the two shows could not be more different.

Aero’s highlights this year were electric—literally! The show focused on electric propulsion and capturing power from the sun to fly. Why? In Europe pilots have suffered through decades of unnaturally high fuel costs that have effectively tamped down their enthusiasm for general aviation. Green fuel initiatives, from bio-diesel to electric are offering thousands of pilots and would-be pilots hope that general aviation can thrive again by bypassing fossil fuels completely.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. we are celebrating a winter of lower fuel pricing, and a springtime that has those prices holding steady. New legislation eliminating the need for a Third Class medical for some GA pilots is in committee and could help keep older pilots flying while encouraging more recreational fliers to join the flock. On the professional side of the aviation industry labor shortages are beginning to sting. A dearth of both airline-ready pilots and mechanics are putting the stops on growth at regional airlines around the U.S.

As I write this Sun ‘n Fun’s Fly-in is in full swing and vendors at the event are excited that real buyers are on the Lakeland Linder Airport with money in their pockets ready to spend. To spur them on Piper Aircraft and Mooney Aircraft are both offering new airframes, at the top for Piper (the M600 single-engine turboprop) and at the bottom for Mooney (a diesel-powered trainer). Superior Aviation set forth a three-cylinder, 100 hp diesel engine replacement for the Rotax 912 piston-engine, and revealed plans to scale up to larger diesel powerplants.

Interestingly, several airlines, both regional and national, and a dozen aviation training centers (universities to FBOs) were recruiting onsite, too. Where to find more commercial pilots, A&P mechanics, and certified dispatch professionals was a big topic of conversation there. The good news is that the Sun ‘n Fun charitable arm and its funding partners are working hard on the problem, reaching out to youth through educational projects and scholarships in high school and colleges around Central Florida (and beyond) to teach them the wonders of aviation, and all of its potential.

The best news, though, is that even with their differences, both Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun are revealing the upbeat, optimistic sentiment prevailing among general aviation pilots this spring. Hey, it’s getting warmer, the sun is shining a little longer every day, and the skies are showing their blue. There is no time like the present to start working on the future. Get up and get flying!

When the Answer is No

Monday, March 30th, 2015

I did not go flying last weekend despite the gorgeous weather. Not even last week. It was not for want to do so. It was because I flunked a test.

What test can a pilot at my experience level flunk that could ground me? The FAA’s IMSAFE test, that’s what. The pithy mnemonic stands for:
Illness – Is the pilot suffering from any illness or symptom of an illness which might affect them in flight,
Medication – Is the pilot currently taking any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter),
Stress – Psychological or emotional factors which might affect the pilot’s performance,
Alcohol – What has the pilot consumed within the last 8 to 24 hours,
Fatigue – Has the pilot had sufficient sleep and rest in the recent past, and
Eating – Is the pilot sufficiently nourished?

It seems like a simple test that every pilot can perform, but it only works when we are honest about it (NTSB accident reports reveal that is sometimes not the case).

When I ran the test last week item #1 doomed me. I had a nasty case of the common cold. At first it was a tickle in my throat, then a burning in my ears that carried through each swallow. And then I woke up and I simply could not breathe through my nose, my chest ached and felt like I’d been left for dead by the side of the road. No fever. Just malaise. Ugh.

I had two “really want to go” flying trips and two that were flexible last week. I considered medication. I even went online to AOPA.org’s Online Medications database  and looked up the many possible medications that I might take to relieve my symptoms without risking the wrath of the FAA coming down upon me.

The database is extensive (although its disclaimer is quick to tell you it is neither guaranteed nor complete), and pinging it for “cures” to the common cold gave me a few ideas, even as it warned me off a few, too. For instance, who knew that heavily advertised Zyrtec is limited to two (2) weekly doses and a 48-hour waiting period post-dosing before flying? That was useless to me: the drug only works for 24 hours at a time. Nyquil was out, too, requiring a 60-hour wait before flight. The old standby Sudafed was in there, but not so easy to get (it sits behind the pharmacist’s counter these days).

In the end I stuck it out with Vick’s VapoRub, vitamin C and chicken soup. I succumbed to Nyquil a couple of nights, too, just to catch some healing winks.

Oh, and I did not fly, at least until the weekend, when I was beginning to feel better. I tested the air by asking my regular co-pilot to be PIC for me on a short, low-altitude journey. The leg out went fine, but the leg back? As we began to descend back to our home field I heard a crackling, and then one ear went muted.  It “hung” at 1,000 feet agl, even as my pilot deftly touched wheels to grass at home. The pressure hurt. Experiment results? Failure. I was not ready to be PIC, in fact I should not have gone up at all, even as a passenger.

One dose of decongestant brought the ear back to sea level and no permanent harm was done. My co-pilot turned-PIC flew off a couple of hours later to cover for me at my last obligation of the week. Sorry guys.

As I type this I am breathing easy and free again without medication, and I’m ready to give flight another try. This time, however, there is no doubt in my mind—IMSAFE today. Are you?

Where Dreams Take Us

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

I have a secret: When I was a little girl, way, way back in the ancient 1960s, I wanted to be an astronaut. I followed everything and anything that had to do with Space, and that included watching Star Trek (yes, the original Star Trek, starring William Shatner, George Takei, and Leonard Nimoy). You may remember these guys for their later work, but I knew them when they were idols. But they weren’t my role models.

No, that went to a woman who wasn’t even sure she wanted to keep the part of communications officer on the show. Nichelle Nichols played Nyota Uhura and she was something else. A beautiful black woman in a role of responsibility on a space ship with a mission to discover. It simply doesn’t get any better than that. She told an interviewer that she had, at one point, wanted to move on to other roles, but in a chance encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King she learned something that had never occurred to her; he told her she had become a role model to little girls everywhere, and that she simply could not quit. King was compelling. Nichols stuck with the role.

If I’d been more of a history buff than a child wont to sit around and watch TV I might have admired Jerrie Cobb, Janey Hart or Wally Funk. All three were women who were part of a nascent and highly experimental program to see if women could become astronauts. They and several other women with aviation experience were invited by William Lovelace II to participate in Phase I astronaut physiological and psychological testing at his clinic, using the same equipment that had been used on the Mercury astronauts (all men).

Thirteen of the women (sometimes known as the Mercury 13, although they prefer the acronym FLATs, for Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees) passed all the tests in Phase I. Three women went through Phase II testing, and after passing, waited patiently for an invitation to Pensacola, Florida, for Phase III. At this point the women were beginning to get excited; perhaps NASA really did want women to fly in Space. Except the invitation never came.

Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb testified to their fitness for Space flight before the U.S. Congress in July 1962, but to no avail. The United States was simply not ready for women to put their lives at risk by climbing in a capsule on the tip of a massive rocket and blasting into space.

Instead the country let its then arch rival, the USSR (now Russia) pick up the gauntlet. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, an expert parachutist, was launched into space with much fanfare barely one year later, in June 1963. She went on to positions of note in the communist party, and was last seen carrying the Olympic flag at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

I wish I’d known about these women as a child, when my father used to take me in our Mooney up to Titusville to watch the Apollo launches. He let me fly right seat, and even take the controls. When I was old enough, he bought me flying lessons. Because of that I managed to follow my dreams into aviation.

I never became an astronaut. Then again, I never stopped yearning for space.

Instead I became a cheerleader for others, from Sally Ride to Eileen Collins to Mae Jamison, Barbara Morgan and beyond. I turned up for numerous Space Shuttle launches, as excited as ever to watch each one thunder to the heavens. The astronaut corps today is a multiracial, multinational group; a lot like us. And opportunity? It’s still there. Hollywood is still inspiring kids, and good souls such as my father are still offering curious children a chance to fly.

Want to know more about upcoming events that are designed to inspire? Fly It Forward is happening March 2 through 8 in locations all over the world. Click here for more information.

 

Flying When the Big Game is On, with a Twist this Year

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Super Bowl Sunday is but two weekends away, now, and with that in mind pilots planning to fly in the southwestern United States (and even a touch of northern Mexico) need to take note. A high profile TFR encompassing the bulk of the Phoenix, Arizona, area will be in effect the day of the Super Bowl. Plus, a special flight notice out of the Las Vegas, Nevada, area denotes that GPS testing (click here for the advisory) will occur before and after the big game.

The GPS outages could come anytime during the GPS testing, slated for January 23rd to February 15th, 2015.

Well, not anytime. Last week AOPA Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger contacted the FAA, who contacted the Air Force, who have now agreed to suspend GPS testing the day before, day of, and day after the Super Bowl.

But why is the conjunction of these two events still something to watch for? Well, just read the gist of the flight advisory:

GPS (including WAAS, GBAS, and ADS-B) may not be available within a 522nm radius centered at:

The expanse of GPS testing going on in the southwestern US this winter is astounding.

The expanse of GPS testing going on in the southwestern US this winter is astounding.

371900N,1155023W 

FL400-unlimited decreasing in area with decrease in altitude defined as:

482nm radius at FL250,

449nm radius at 10000ft,

378nm radius at 4000ft AGL

365nm radius at 50ft AGL

The impact area also extends into the mexican FIR. Pilots are strongly encouraged to report anomalies during testing to the appropriate ARTCC to assist in the determination of the extent of GPS degradation during tests.

Yep, you are reading this right. There will be GPS outages at the same time that there will be a concentration of aircraft arriving and departing one of the southwest’s largest urban areas. Pilots operating to and from the Super Bowl, or just around the general Phoenix area need to take the time to review their ground-based navigation skills.

I question the commonsense of running GPS testing that could result in outages in the days leading up to an event such as the Super Bowl, but it looks like those arriving a few days early to enjoy Arizona’s sunshine, or lingering more than a day after the big event will have to deal with it.

So how should you prepare? You could brush up on your knowledge and usage of VOR based navigation, for one. Remember Victor airways? You’ll probably get cleared to an intersection or two. Might even have to hold! If you haven’t used the ground-based navigation devices in your aircraft for a while, or even shot a ground-based navigation non-precision approach, now is the time to practice.

And for those of you who operate VFR? Some of the best ground navigation devices out there are actually not attached to your airplane. I’m talking about your eyes and a good old fashioned sectional. Yes, pilotage. Even if you decide that you have too much invested in your iPad charting to ante up for a paper version you can use your app—you may have to pan your way across the chart manually, though.

The FAA recently updated the special security notam relating to sporting events (find it here). If you haven’t had time to look it over here is the short version: all aircraft operations, including parachute jumping, unmanned aircraft, and remote controlled aircraft, are prohibited within three nautical miles and under 3,000 feet of any stadium or racetrack having a seating capacity of 30,000 or more people. You can find a list of stadiums and speedways here. The standard TFR is in effect an hour before to an hour after each event.

For the upcoming Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium the notam for its special TFR is out. Within the 30 nautical mile TFR ring around the stadium there will be no flight training, practice instrument approaches, aerobatic flight, glider operations, parachute operations, ultralight, hang gliding, balloon operations, agriculture/crop dusting, animal population control flight operations, banner towing operations, sightseeing operations, model aircraft operations, model rocketry, seaplane/amphibious water operations, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and commercial cargo carrier operations unless they comply with their respective TSA approved security program. Within the TFR area: all aircraft must be on an active IFR or VFR flight plan with a discrete beacon code assigned by ATC; aircraft must be squawking the discrete code prior to departure or entering the TFR and at all times while in the TFR; aircraft are not authorized to overfly the inner core while attempting to exit the TFR; and two-way communications with ATC must be maintained at all times. Only approved law enforcement and military aircraft directly supporting the Super Bowl and approved air ambulance flights, all of which must be squawking an assigned discrete transponder code and on an approved airspace waiver are permitted within the 10 nautical mile inner core of the TFR.

Please check the current notam for updates.

Intercept proceduresBe ready with a good rendering of the TFR and the ability to navigate around it or receive a squawk code and stay in communication with ATC when you are anywhere near it. And if you are intercepted by U.S. military or law enforcement aircraft, remain predictable. Do not adjust your altitude, heading, or airspeed until directed to by the intercepting aircraft. Attempt to establish radio communications with the intercepting aircraft or with the appropriate ATC facility by making a general call on guard (121.5 MHz), giving your identity, position, and nature of the flight. If transponder equipped, squawk 7700 unless otherwise instructed by ATC. Comply with interceptor aircraft signals and instructions until you’ve been positively released. For more information, read section 5-6-2 in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). Fly safe out there!

Rulemaking Adjusts Training Device Credit for Pilot Certification

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

On Wednesday, December 3, 2014, the FAA issued a direct to final rule that will increase the allowed use of aviation training devices (ATDs) for instrument training. The rule will double the allowances under 14 CFR section 61.65(i) to 20 hours for credit in an ATD and allows flight schools operating under part 141 Appendix C to have a 40 percent training credit in an ATD for the instrument (IFR) rating. Previous allowances for ATD use were capped at 10 hours under part 61 and 10 percent under 141. The rule also removes the requirement to use a view-limiting device in the ATD. The comment period for the direct final rule will close Friday, January 2, 2015. The rule will become effective Tuesday, January 20, 2015, if no adverse comments are received.

In concert with this rule change is an update to Advisory Circular 61–136A, FAA Approval of Aviation Training Devices and Their Use for Training and Experience, which has been revised to improve guidance for the application and approval of these training devices. The AC also provides additional guidance on ATD use for training and how to properly log the time.

Finally, it looks like the FAA is coming around to agreeing with what we CFIIs have known for years. The airborne cockpit environment is a horrible classroom in which to teach. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.

Ground school evolved from these realizations. Most flight instructors will acknowledge the learning benefits of imparting knowledge in quiet, well-lit, calming environments.  On the ground, in an ATD, CFIs can control how any flight lesson is going to play out.

Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. That is, unless the CFII programs any of those anomalies into the ATD. Total control. Every teacher I know, no matter what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.

Students may not know it (they are often aching so badly for flight time that the thought of being in an ATD turns their stomachs) but flight simulation by computer is truly an extension of all the good things that ground school imparts to students. Doubling up on the ATD time, especially for IFR students, can easily shorten training time, sometimes cutting it in half, because it is easy for the instructor to program the ATD to quickly set up for repetition. Want to fly seven ILS approaches in an hour? No problem? Need to practice four different holding pattern entries? We can slew you instantly to any location, altitude, attitude—and you can take it from there. Over, and over, until you fly it right.

Cutting training time, however, is just one benefit of the ATD. The other is its cost. Most FBO-owned ATDs cost less to operate than an aircraft. That cost savings is passed to the student, who can save from one third to one half what it would cost to perform the same lesson in an aircraft.

Yes, this time the FAA knows what it is doing and has the stats to back up the decision. So make sure you get on the Federal Register site and let the FAA know we like the new ATD regulation. Do it before January 2!

Here is the link: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/12/03/2014-28485/aviation-training-device-credit-for-pilot-certification

Dreams Deferred?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

If your heart is tied to aviation then you probably felt a little bit crushed, deflated, last month, when the aerospace world took one step forward, then two big steps back, all in one week.

Google executive Alan Eustace rose to, then fell from 135,000 feet on October 25, breaking a fairly recent record of just under 128,000 feet set by Felix Baumgartner in a much publicized Red Bull-sponsored stunt just a couple years ago. Eustace, unlike Baumgartner, performed his feat in relative obscurity. He told the press afterward that he wanted to make sure the gamble worked before publicizing it. What was unusual about the skydive was that Eustace used only a pressure suit and an 11 million cubic foot balloon to ascend—no fancy pressure capsule needed.

Eustace had clearly studied the Baumgartner jump, because he chose a different freefall position, and wore in his pressure suit a forced-heated-air system to keep his faceplate from fogging. The result was a much more stable five minute freefall to earth—one he could actually watch from inside his pressure suit. The gambit was a risk, and it worked out. One step forward.

On the other hand, just five days later Orbital Sciences had to destroy an Antares rocket and payload seconds after liftoff when one of the rocket’s venerable engines failed. The company had been purchasing the engines from Russian sources. Company CEO David Thompson told press that the company will find different engines for its rockets from now on.

Hot on the heels of this news came the inflight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, killing the co-pilot, Michael Tyner Alsbury, and injuring its pilot, Peter Siebold. The aircraft was in its final flight testing regime, and was expected to begin taking passengers into near-earth orbit sometime in 2015.

There is no question of that happening now. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, is clearly heartbroken and deeply concerned as the crash investigation progresses. The NTSB hints at possible causes, but I won’t be an armchair investigator and go into any details about an ongoing NTSB investigation here. The lay press are bad enough at that.

One step forward, two big steps back. The result is that the budding commercial space industry had a very bad month in October; and we are left with questions about the wisdom of how NASA contract monies are being spent; and even whether the dream of space tourism is a reasonable possibility, given today’s technology.

Personally? I want to see Branson shake it off and get back to the task of innovating, for the sake of humanity. Sure, those first flights are going to be little more than joyrides, but think of the possibilities that kind of technology may have for our future. Aerospace is about speed and altitude and moving people and materials as quickly and efficiently as possible. It always has been about that, at the core. Branson’s dream could jump us forward—something that hasn’t happened since the days of Concorde.

Or it could be a false path, as Concorde turned out to be. The thing is, we won’t know until we try. I hope he keeps trying until the universe finally grants him success.

Nearly Empty Skies

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

This morning I heard an airplane take off. It was a throaty roar of a single engine piston airplane, and though I didn’t see it, I’d swear it was a Cessna 182. It was a wonderful noise. It was a noise I associate with home.

You see, I’ve been traveling on the Iberian Peninsula for a month, and in that time I saw or heard general aviation aircraft less than a half a dozen times. It was the oddest sensation, asking locals if there was an airport in the area for small aircraft, and seeing faces draw a complete blank. The question wasn’t being lost in translation. The small airports are so quiet these days that the people had no real experience with light aircraft.

I’d researched general aviation in Portugal and Spain before I left the U.S., and had high hopes of encountering at least some aeroclub flying, similar to what I had found traveling in South Africa, but it was not to be. Even the flight training going on in the countries seemed anemic in comparison to the activity here in the U.S. Sad, too, because in both countries the GA airports were there. They were just seriously under utilized.

In Spain the complaint is that handling fees, a combination of security restrictions and onerous, unnecessary services (bus rides on the ramp to and from the general aviation terminal) are strangling general aviation pilots. Even though mandated tariffs are relatively inexpensive, the companies providing the services are padding these fees so much that, according to AOPA Spain, they approach the cost of operating the airplane for the cross country flight.

The most aviation I saw over the course of a month traveling the peninsula north to south, was in the little town of Evora, where Skydive Portugal had a Cessna 206 running all day one Saturday, taking neophytes up for tandem jumps. It was great to watch the airplane head off, climbing to 13,00o MSL, and then disgorging its load. There is nothing quite like the snap and swoosh of a chute opening above you, followed by the hoots and laughter of the tandem riders, who seemed unanimoScreen shot 2014-10-10 at 4.48.04 PMusly thrilled both by the freefall and by the fact that the chute opened on command. They’d live to jump another day!

But other than the Cessna 206 hauling skydivers there was just one or two general aviation movements on the field over the four days I was there. This, even though Embraer has a large, modern metal and composite factory just off the north end of the runway, where it is making parts for its Legacy 450/500 aircraft, along with parts for military aircraft.

I have to admit that it made me sad to see so few aircraft flying in two countries where the weather and the terrain is perfect for general aviation. It seems that onerous fees, combined with struggling economic trials have put serious challenges to pilots in Portugal and Spain.

My hope is that they can overcome the trials and re-emerge as great countries for general aviation flying in Europe. That way, the next time I visit, I can see the Iberian Peninsula the way I most enjoy, from the air.

 

Judgment, and the Day

Monday, August 18th, 2014

It was windy yesterday—blowing hard out of the south and gusting to near 40 knots, according to the anemometer mounted on the top of the FBO building that sits midfield at our little airport tucked into the Mad River Valley, near Warren, Vermont. Weather was inbound. But for the day conditions were still high overcast, with just a few scattered, scraggly cumulous. Nothing towering. Maybe some wave action from the wind flowing over the undulating Green Mountains and White Mountains to the south and east.

Sometimes it is better to be on the ground than in the air.

Sometimes it is better to be on the ground than in the air.

Definitely some turbulence.

All that, and I wanted to fly. No, seriously, I was aching to fly. Just two days before I’d had the opportunity to get back into a Schleicher ASK-21 two-place fiberglass sailplane. A sexy ship if there ever was one, with an excellent 40:1 glide ratio and plenty of capability (even for aerobatics, if you are skilled in that realm).

Sunday’s flight with Rick Hanson (who has been with Sugarbush Soaring so long no one I know can remember the place without him and his wife, Ginny) was all about re-familiarization. I’d flown a ship just like her the year before, in Minden, Nevada. Vermont’s conditions, on that Sunday, at least, were tame compared to the way I’d gotten my butt kicked by rising thermals and developing dust devils in the high Nevada desert. This year staying behind the tow plane, even boxing its wake was just an exercise, not a wrestling match.

Thermaling came back to me pretty quickly, too. Last year the thermals were leaning towers, tilting with the afternoon valley winds. This year, though they moved with the prevailing flow, they seemed a little wider. Finding that ball of rising air in the middle seemed easier, more intuitive. Maybe it is just that I’ve only let a year go by. Before Minden I’d had a two year hiatus from soaring. It could be that two years is just too long, leaving me just too rusty and out of practice.

In any case, by Monday’s flight I was feeling competent. My instructors that day were John and Jen, and they were a dream to fly with (as they all have been, really). It was an excellent day for soaring, with light winds and towering cumulous streets of clouds that did not over develop. One expert soaring pilot riding a capable steed made his way to Stowe, Vermont, and back. And yes, someone else called (actually he had his wife call for him, hmmm…) to ask for an aero-retrieve from 40 miles east. The good news was that he’d landed at an airport.

Landing out. That’s soaring-speak for not making it back to your point of origin. An aero-retrieve means you pay the tow plane to fly to you, and then give you a tow home. Some pilots combat this problem by flying a motor glider, firing up the engine when they get to the point where they are too low to return to their home base, perhaps because they misjudged the lift conditions, or how long the lift would hold out at the end of the day. Other pilots use better judgment to make sure they get back to home base every time.

My instructors on Monday spent plenty of time helping me “see” all of the possible acceptable off-airport landing sites in the valley, and just beyond. We were high enough to see the Adirondacks looming over Lake Champlain, and hear the Québécois’ French chatter in Canada, which I could see clearly to the north with every circle as I climbed to cloud base, rolled out, pushed over for speed, and commenced to glide to the next decent thermal.

We crossed the valley practicing wing-overs, crazy-eights, stalls and steep turns, until they felt I knew all the possible quirks of the fine machine I’d chosen to master. Landings required another skill—understanding that I was much closer to the ground at flare than in my usual ride, the RV-10. That took a bit of coaching, too, but ultimately I got the visual picture and our touchdowns were smooth and on the mark. The thing about sailplanes: though you can control your trajectory to landing nicely with dive brakes, you don’t get to go around if you come up short or long. Making it back to home base from altitude is all about calculating your inertia, choosing your descent speed, setting your trajectory with your dive brakes, and making your initial pattern entry point, downwind, base, final and landing spots on speed and on altitude. Add airport traffic into the mix and you’ve got a great scenario for teaching any pilot great judgment skills.

By day’s end on Monday I’d thermaled, reviewed primary skills, proven my pattern, landing, and even emergency landing prowess, and received my sign-off for solo in the ASK-21. Tuesday’s conditions, however, were nowhere near what I’d proved myself in, and I knew it. The sailplane sat ready for me at the end of the runway, and the tow plane pilot, Steve, eyed me, waiting to know what I wanted to do. The wind was whistling through the gaps in the window frame of the not-ready-for-winter FBO. Sure, I’d flown in some gnarly winds in Minden. But not solo. In fact the last time I’d soloed a glider was in benign conditions over flat land.

“Um…no. I’m not going up today,” I said definitively.

Steve smiled. Good call.

That afternoon I hiked up a cliffside to sit on a sheltered hunk of granite that provided me a view of  half the Champlain Valley. It wasn’t quite as splendid as my perch in the sailplane, but it did sooth. The clouds streamed by, harbingers of the rain that would follow. I was happy to be on terra firma, and ready to fly another day.

Money Well-Spent

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I won’t lie to you, owning an airplane will lighten your wallet. As the owner of multiple types of light airplanes over multiple years I consider myself an expert on flying budgets. To minimize the pain and angst involved in budgeting I separate my expenses into known and unknown, fixed and variable, and I do my rough budgeting by calculating an equation on an annual basis, with quarterly check ups. That way I don’t fret over expenses on every flight, because, frankly, fretting takes the fun out of flying. 

My fixed budget items for my light single engine aircraft include insurance and maintenance, oil and storage. These are items I can easily get an annual bead on. I add them up and call them “F”. Variables include fuel and miscellaneous trip costs, plus unexpected maintenance; but even these I can rough out a year in advance based on prior knowledge (I’ve been at this for two and a half decades, which helps). These each get their own designation in the equation, since they can change independently.

It helps that my operating hours are pretty consistent every year. I know I’ll probably put 150 hours on the traveling machine, and 50 hours on the “kick-around-the-patch” bird. That gives me another constant in my equation.

Yes, fuel is a sticky variable. It goes up, it goes down. Even my best estimate can fly out the window when world politics play havoc with supply and demand (or the perception of supply, in many cases). That’s why I tend to go fat on my estimate. This year, for instance, I ball-parked my fuel costs at $6 per gallon, even though the fuel at my home base runs more than a dollar a gallon less. By overestimating by about 15% I give myself a little room.

Same goes for maintenance. If I ball park using a 15% markup on my mechanic’s hourly rate to pad for unknown costs on the road I’m in better shape. Parts, well, that can get interesting. Best to throw, say $3,000 in the pot and if I don’t use it, well, that’s $3,000 more in the reserve for the “next engine pile” next year.

FBO costs are next. I know some FBOs waive parking fees with a fuel purchase, but rarely for every night of your stay. And there are times, particularly when weather threatens, that you want your airplane in a hangar. That’s gonna cost you. By building those costs into my flying budget ahead of time I take the stress out of saying “yes” when I’m offered the protection of a hangar on a stormy night in the hinterlands.

Frankly, the entire exercise each spring is about eliminating my money-stress around flying. That way I can simply enjoy the privilege of being airborne in my own private craft, as PIC. It’s a privilege I worked long and hard to afford, then to qualify for, and, finally, it is a privilege I cherish and advocate for. The last thing I want to do is let the anxious smell of money to get in the way of the very activity that brings me peace and serenity.

Want to take the sting out of your operations? Here’s my formula:

Flying cost = (Time aloft x Fuel used)+ (FBO cost x Trip legs) + (Parts + maintenance cost) + Fixed costs (insurance, oil, storage)

Don’t forget to keep that pile of money growing for your next engine, too. Happy contrails!