Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

The A&P Exam

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Although I’ve been an aircraft owner since the late 1960s and heavily involved in GA maintenance since the late 1980s, I didn’t actually become an official card-carrying A&P mechanic until 2001. By the time I decided to go for my A&P ticket, I was already a pretty seasoned aircraft mechanic with a reputation for encyclopedic knowledge of aircraft systems and an aptitude for being able to troubleshoot thorny maintenance issues that had other mechanics stumped. I figured that passing the A&P exam would be a piece of cake.

I figured wrong.

An applicant for an A&P certificate must take and pass three multiple-choice 100-question knowledge tests.

An applicant for an A&P certificate must take and pass three multiple-choice 100-question knowledge tests.

By way of background, an applicant for an A&P certificate must surmount three sequential FAA-imposed hurdles. First, the applicant must prove to his FSDO that he has the minimum required experience performing maintenance on civil aircraft: 30 months on a full-time basis, or 4,800 hours on a part-time basis. Second, the applicant must take and pass three multiple-choice 100-question knowledge tests—mechanic general, mechanic airframe, and mechanic powerplant—and score at least 70% on each one. Third, the applicant must submit to an exhaustive (not to mention exhausting) oral and practical test with a Designated Mechanic Examiner—the mechanic’s equivalent to a checkride—which is normally at least a full-day affair.

When I started studying for the three A&P knowledge tests, my first surprise was the study syllabus, which struck me as being firmly anchored in the 1940s. For example, in preparing for the powerplant test, I reviewed more than 1,000 multiple-choice questions from the FAA’s “question bank” and found that the overwhelming emphasis was on radial engines, pressure carburetors, Hamilton Standard hydramatic propellers, and similar subjects of unquestionable interest to warbird buffs but of absolutely no relevance to contemporary GA aircraft of the sort that interested me. There were only a handful of questions about horizontally-opposed engines, perhaps two or three about fuel injection, only one about modern Hartzell compact hub propellers, and nothing at all about McCauleys.

The question bank for the powerplant test contained not a syllable about any technology that was less than 30 years old. Nothing about engine monitor data analysis, borescope inspections, spectrographic oil analysis, or scanning electron microscopy of oil filter contents. Nothing about compression ignition (Diesel) engines or electronic ignition systems or FADECs or lean-of-peak operation. Similarly, the airframe test was devoid of questions about composite construction (unless you count wood and fabric, which I suppose is the original composite).

To be fair to the FAA, there were actually lots of questions about “modern” 1960-vintage technologies, but they were all related to turbine and transport aircraft. To score a decent grade on the tests, it was obvious that I would need to master lots of material about turboprop and turbojet engines, air cycle machines, Roots blowers, and other esoterica that I knew I’d never remember or have any use for once the test was done.

Mastering the wrong answers

I took my three A&P knowledge tests at a local computerized testing center.

I took my three A&P knowledge tests at a local computerized testing center.

This was frustrating enough, but what really bugged me was that the “official FAA answer” to many of these multiple-choice questions was often the wrong answer. It became obvious that if I wanted to get a good score on the mechanic knowledge tests, I’d have to commit these “FAA answers” to memory even though I knew that they were the wrong answers.

Would you like to see some examples? Here are some actual questions from the 2001 FAA mechanic exam question bank, with the “official FAA answer” that would be used by the FAA to grade the exam:

#8072. Which fuel/air mixture will result in the highest engine temperature (all other factors remaining constant)?

A—A mixture leaner than a rich best-power mixture of .085.

B—A mixture richer than a full-rich mixture of .087.

C—A mixture leaner than a manual lean mixture of .060.

FAA-approved answer: C.

Discussion: Stoichiometric mixture (peak EGT) is around 15:1 or .067, so the FAA-approved answer C (“leaner than .060″ or about 17:1) would be very lean-of-peak, far leaner than most engines can run without unacceptable roughness (unless they are fuel-injected and have tuned fuel nozzles). This is definitely a mixture at which the engine would run cool, not hot. Of the three choices given, the “most correct answer” is A. The FAA-approved answer (C) is just plain wrong, and perpetuates the Old Wives’ Tale that rich mixtures are cool and lean mixtures are hot. With training like this, is it any wonder so many A&Ps blame almost every cylinder malady to LOP operation?

#8678. Why must a float-type carburetor supply a rich mixture during idle?

A—Engine operation at idle results in higher than normal volumetric efficiency.

B—Because at idling speeds the engine may not have enough airflow around the cylinder to provide proper cooling.

C—Because of reduced mechanical efficiency during idle.

FAA-approved answer: B

Discussion: None of the given answers is correct, but the FAA-approved one is the probably the worst possible choice, because it suggests that pilots should keep the mixture full-rich during idle and taxi in order to obtain proper cooling. Do you suppose that OWT explains why so many pilots taxi around at full-rich and foul the crap out of their spark plugs? Are they learning this from their A&Ps? Here’s the correct answer: “Because a very rich mixture is required for cold-starting, and aircraft carburetors don’t have a choke to provide such a rich mixture (the way automotive carbs do), so the idle mixture has to be set extremely rich … which is why as soon as the engine starts to warm up, you need to come back on the mixture control.” Of course, that answer isn’t one of the choices offered.

#8773. Carburetor icing is most severe at…

A—air temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees F.

B—high altitudes.

C—low engine temperatures.

FAA-approved answer: A

Discussion: Are you kidding me? The AOPA Air Safety Foundation briefing on carb ice states, “Icing is most likely to occur—and to be severe—when temperatures fall roughly between 50°F and 70°F and the relative humidity is greater than 60%.” It shows a gory photo of the fatal crash of a Cessna 182 caused by carb ice that formed at OAT 80°F and dewpoint 45°F. If the FAA genius who wrote this question was a pilot, it’s a sure bet that most of his experience is flying Gulfstreams, not Skylanes. (Keep in mind that to get a decent grade on the A&P knowledge test, you have to memorize these FAA-approved wrong answers, or risk failing!)

#8829. Which of the following defects would likely cause a hot spot on a reciprocating engine cylinder?

A—Too much cooling fin area broken off.

B—A cracked cylinder baffle.

C—Cowling air seal leakage.

FAA-approved answer: A

Discussion: Once again, the FAA offers three possible answers and then claims that the “wrongest” one is the one they consider correct. Every IA I’ve asked agrees with me that by far the most likely cause is a bad baffle (answer B), and none has ever seen a case where a cooling fin was broken off badly enough to create an issue.

#8982. If a flanged propeller shaft has dowel pins…

A—install the propeller so that the blades are positioned for hand propping.

B—the propeller can be installed in only one position.

C—check carefully for front cone bottoming against the pins.

FAA-approved answer: B

Discussion: Well that’s interesting. The Continental TSIO-520-BB engines on my 1979 Cessna T310R have flanged propeller shafts. Each flange has a pair of identical dowel pins spaced 180° apart. This permits my three-bladed McCauley C87 props to be installed in two possible orientations, one that results in the vertical blade pointing down when the engine stops, and the other that results in the vertical blade pointing up. According to the Cessna service manual, only one of these orientations is the correct one, so you need to be careful when installing the prop. The FAA-approved answer (B) is just plain wrong. So are the other two answers.

I could go on, but you get the idea.



Here’s irrefutable proof that I was able to remember all those FAA-approved wrong answers long enough to score 96, 99 and 99 on my three mechanic knowledge tests.

Well, it took me many hours of study, practice and drill to memorize all of the FAA-approved wrong answers to the thousands of multiple-choice questions in the question bank. As you can imagine, going through this mind numbing exercise was a character-building experience that greatly expanded my vocabulary (of expletives) and bolstered my respect for the cutting-edge mindset of our favorite friendly federal agency.

I guess I must’ve done a workmanlike job of studying and memorizing, because when I finally took the three FAA knowledge tests at my “Don’t try this at home, kids” LaserGrade computerized testing center, I scored 96% on the general and 99% on both the airframe and powerplant. (See Figure 1.) I don’t want to brag, but it’s a rare skill to master so many wrong answers so consistently in such a short period of time, if I do say so myself.

Once the exams were done and my scores were in the bag, I celebrated with the obligatory overnight soak of my brain’s medial temporal lobe (seat of long-term memory) in a 50-50 mixture of cheap champagne and methyl ethyl ketone, just to make absolutely sure all those FAA-approved wrong answers and Old Wives’ Tales were permanently purged from my gray matter. After all, it would certainly be embarrassing to inadvertently pass any of them on to the next generation of A&P mechanics, wouldn’t it?

Perspectives on GA safety

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again: as summertime recedes in the rear-view mirror, I’m packing my computer bag, a few snacks to eat on the (Air)bus, and heading back to school.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did graduate from high school. And college, believe it or not — I’ve got the diploma to prove it! No, this late summer tradition is my annual trip to Dallas for recurrent training on the G-IV: five days of classroom learning and simulator sessions, ending with a formal checkride.

One of the questions typically asked by the instructor on our first day of class is if anyone has experienced anything in the previous year which was particularly noteworthy or unusual. A system failure, something of that nature. I’ve been pretty fortunate; the company I fly for does a bang-up job maintaining the fleet.

But while mentally reviewing the past year’s trips, my mind drifted off to the place where my heart truly belongs: light general aviation flying. Maybe it’s because the latest Joseph T. Nall Report was recently released by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute. Anyway, I don’t mind admitting a bit of wistfulness that GA can’t claim the same safety record that air carriers — even non-scheduled ones like mine that fly all over the world at a moment’s notice — enjoy.

Nevertheless, in an odd way I take comfort in the fact that the Part 91 safety record isn’t as good. That probably sounds awful, but look at it from a logical standpoint: Part 121/135 represent very specific kinds of highly structured and limited flying, whereas “GA” represents everything from airshow acts and experimental aviation to medevac and ultralights. It covers a wide and vibrant variety of aviation activity.

GA has a higher accident rate than the airlines for many reasons, but the primary one is that GA pilots have the freedom to do many things that the airline guys do not. And I hope that never changes. To paraphrase Dick Rutan, where would we be without those who were willing to risk life and limb using their freedom to do these things? We’d be safe and sound, on the ground, still headed west as we look out over the rump of oxen from our covered wagons.

Whether it’s cruising down the coast at 500′ enjoying the view, taking an aerobatic flight, flying formation, flight testing an experimental airplane, or landing on a sandbar, beach, grass strip, or back-country field, it’s important that private individuals not find themselves restricted to the ways and means of Part 121 operations. We do the stuff that makes flying fun! Doing it “like the airlines” can only drive up the price and suck out the fun of aviation. For better or worse, part of that cost is in increased risk.

Richard Collins stated this quite elegantly when he said, “Lumping general aviation safety together is an accepted practice but it is not realistic. The activities are too diverse and need to be considered separately. There is instructional flying, recreational flying, agricultural flying, private air transportation flying and professional flying. The airplanes range from ultralights to intercontinental jets. Even in the same area, different airplanes have varying accident rates. The only safety concern that spans everything is crashing but the frequency of and reasons for the crashing vary widely according to the type flying and even the type aircraft flown. In each area, the safety record we get is a product of the rules, the pilots involved, the airplanes, and the environment in which the pilots fly those airplanes. To make any change in the record, one or all those elements would have to be modified.”

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Collins, but this is a case where we are in violent agreement. One of the beauties of our Part 91 is that the pilot gets the freedom to choose how far he wants to go in that regard. If you want to file IFR everywhere and only fly with multiple turbine engines in day VMC, fine. That’s your choice. For others, flying in the mountain canyons in a single-engine piston and landing on a short one-way strip on the side of a steep hill is well within their risk tolerance. There are some (I’m looking at you, Team Aerodynamix) for whom a large group of owner-built airplanes flying low-altitude formation aerobatics at night is perfectly acceptable. Whether we are personally engaged in that activity or not, how can one argue that these activities don’t benefit the entire GA community? What excitement and passion they engender for aviation! And how they set us apart from the rest of the world, who for the most part look on with envy at something they will never be “allowed” to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not opposed to better equipment, more training, or higher standards for general aviation. Those things are all important, and I advocate for them constantly. But if experience has taught us anything, it’s that these measures will only be effective when they come from within rather than being imposed from a bureaucracy which already demands so much.

Choosing the Express Lane…using your private aircraft for business

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Recently I was set to travel from the Central Coast of California to Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and on into Kalispell, Mont. for a business meeting and a business consultation.

Ready for business

Ready for business

Had I opted to fly commercially the following scenario seems likely: Looking at commercial flights from San Luis Obispo Airport I would have needed to get to the airport an hour early for security, and then fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco for a connection.  From there, I would probably lay over for an hour or so, and connect into Portland.  Since Hood River is 45 miles east of Portland, I would have to rent a car and drive to the business meeting, which would add another two hours to the process.

Imagine that the initial flight leaves San Luis Obispo at 6:00 a.m.  My day would have started around 4:00 a.m. to get to the airport by 5:00 a.m.  The short, 45 minute flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco would be followed by a layover and change of planes.   Let us say I arrived in Portland at 10:30 a.m. and got to the rental car counter about 11:00.  The one-hour drive to Hood River puts me at my meeting at noonish.

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

Contrast that scenario, which has not even gotten me to Kalispell, to what I actually did in my private aircraft.  I drove twenty minutes to Santa Maria Airport and pre-flighted the Mooney.   I was in the air by 7:30 a.m. and made the 3.5 hour flight right to Hood River Airport, arriving at 11:00 a.m.  Instead of starting the day at 4:00 in the morning and arriving at noon, I had a wonderful flight up through California and by Mount Shasta.  The route took me over Klamath Falls, Sunriver, Bend, and Redmond, Oregon and then I flew down the Columbia River Gorge to the destination airport.  I was also able to take a full tube of toothpaste, water bottles, and even my hair cutting scissors!

After business was complete in Hood River, I departed the following morning for Kalispell, Mont.  Again I chose to land at Kalispell City Airport [S27] versus the larger international airport.  In under two hours my Mooney and I were in Montana ready for the next business consultation.

Besides saving time, are there other reasons to fly your private aircraft versus commercial travel for business?  You bet there are!  Not only do we avoid long waits, security screening that robs us of even a water bottle, and inflexible scheduling, but also we exercise our privilege to fly and help others to see the value of General Aviation. The view from the Mooney was spectacular and I arrived refreshed and ready for business. I also was able to fly. As pilots we get to live in the world 3-D, a view that most don’t get routinely.

General Aviation and General Aviation airports serve America and our business community.  If your business takes you to smaller communities not served by commercial flights, private air travel might just be the ticket for you.

The End

The End

Networking 101: A Very Necessary Class

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Meeting and staying in touch with the people who can help us personally and professionally – networking – is much like discussing the weather; everyone talks about it, but hardly anyone does anything about it, or more succinctly, most people have no idea how to network successfully.

Aviation’s no different from any other profession though. The best opportunities go to the people who seek out people who are connected to the kinds of jobs they’d like to have. Then you just, well … connect with them and ask the right questions to help you land the job you want.

OK, so maybe it’s not all quite that simple, but as I mentioned in last month’s story about mentoring, industry newbies need to start somewhere and the best way to be successful is to met people who are further up your ladder. Like a kid peering through the window of a candy store clearly knows what they want when they see it, a future aviator, technician, airport manager, or any of another dozen other jobs, needs to begin by hanging out at the airport, or at least at the place where airport people hang out like conventions or organization meetings.

Biz CardsWhat stops people these days of electronic communications is that many young people have no clue how to break the ice with the people they don’t know. Here are a few tips. First realize that like you, everyone started out as a new kid somewhere along the line. Of course, while most professionals are willing to help someone searching for answers, not everyone will. That’s human nature. The point is not to take a rebuff personally. Approaching a pilot at an FBO or a maintenance technician in a shop and being told they don’t have time to talk might mean simply that. You’ve caught them on a bad day or just as they’re walking out the door. It happens. Move on to someone else.

But since I’m a pilot and a writer, let’s assume you want to focus on a pilot career and are wondering how to start the conversation. Assuming you’re at an airport and you notice a crewmember in uniform standing around, the key is to take a deep breath, walk up to them and say, “Excuse me. I really want to fly professionally and I wondered if I can ask you a couple of questions?” You just broke the ice. If they say yes, introduce yourself and ask away. But be respectful of the person’s time. Ten minutes is plenty unless the pilot offers more. And remember, it’s a conversation. That involves listening, not simply talking.

Ending the conversation can seem a bit tricky, but it doesn’t need to be if you’re prepared. Long before your approach your first pilot, or mechanic or air traffic controller, go spend $20 and print some business cards with your contact info and maybe a snappy marketing phrase like “airline pilot wannabe,” or “future aviation maintenance technician.” Then when you say thanks for this first conversation, offer a card and ask for theirs in return. A week or so later, send a nice e-mail that says, “Thanks again for the career advice in the FBO lobby at PDK. I’m always on the lookout for that next job, so if you hear of anyone looking for someone like me with 800 hours and 125 multi, I’d appreciate you letting me know. Thanks, Rob.”

These days, I’ve found an easy way to maintain my contact database is to carry it with me all the time, hence the value of a good smart phone since it’s always in my pocket. I use an app called “Sam Card,” to scan in people’s business cards as soon as I receive them too. The app allow me to add in comments such as, “This is the NetJets pilot I met in Aug., 2015 at PDK,” so I have some context when it’s time again to reach out.

Finally, I have always found that ending that first conversation well is critical to that long-term value. I’d try to end with a good question like, “If you had it to do all over again, would you still pick flying as a career?” If they say no, ask why. Another session ender could be, “What do you think is the best thing/worst mistake you made in your career?” Sometimes I Make people rally think and they offer some incredible advice. Then there are those who are pressed for time and might say something like, “I really need to think on that one. Why don’t you follow up with me next week and I’ll have a better answer.”

And so ends your first day of practical networking 101, a skill everyone needs but few pull off successfully in their career search. Good luck. Feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] with your questions.


GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

I’ve been on the hunt since AirVenture for evidence that ADS-B is really the future of air traffic separation and services. And, having flown from south Florida to Lake Superior, to Kalispell, Montana, and back, I’ve got news.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

ADS-B is designed both to separate traffic and provide inflight weather information.

Aviators are adopting ADS-B. Not in droves, mind you, but being ADS-B equipped myself, I can see the other ADS-B aircraft on my display screen, and there are more of them than ever before. Along the entire trip there was only an hour in Wyoming, at low altitude, where I did not have ADS-B coverage.

No, we aviators are not keen on dropping money for avionics we aren’t certain we’ll be required to use. I mean, we resisted Mode C until the veils were dropped over Class B airspace and spun down to the ground (I actually know a couple of anarchists out there still flying Mode A transponders).

ADS-B is particularly problematic because the specs kept changing. They are, according to the FAA, set in stone now, though. For aircraft operating above 18,000 ft and/or outside the U.S. a Mode-S ADS-B transmitter (1090ES) is needed. If you stay in the U.S. and below Class A airspace you can stick with a UAT transceiver. Of course, we’ve seen stone change, too. And ADS-B is not without its weaknesses. That said, the most recent interaction I had with the FAA was on point–adapt, or you’ll be left out of controlled airspace above 10,000 ft and Class B and C airspace, they told me. On January 1, 2020. The date’s not moving. That’s the FAA’s story and all manner of individuals I spoke with are sticking to it.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

The L-3 Lynx installed in a typical general aviation avionics stack.

These kinds of rock-solid statements by the FAA have begun to bring consternation to the people who run the avionics companies. Why? Because with less than five years left to meet the mandate, they know it will be a struggle to equip all of the aircraft in the U.S. that might need this technology with this technology.

There are only so many avionics shops. And when it comes to the higher end equipment, business jets and helicopters sporting integrated digital avionics, for instance, there are even fewer designated service centers that can handle the job. Really, though, that isn’t the crux of the problem.

At the core of the problem are older high-end integrated panels. A TSO authorization, issued in accordance with 14 CFR 21 subpart O, is not required to upgrade them. Yet, ADS-B Out systems and equipment installed or used in type-certificated aircraft must have a design approval issued under 14 CFR 21 (or must be installed by field approval, if appropriate). To upgrade these legacy avionics is proving to take far too long. That’s a lot of lost revenue and inefficiency for the companies, mostly small-to-medium businesses, that own them. And that is before the cost of equipping is considered in the mix.

Some OEMs are actually trying to persuade these aircraft owners to trade up to ADS-B and ADS-C equipped aircraft–new aircraft. Great idea on the surface, if it wasn’t for the economy. Companies are cautious after 2008. They are not easily coaxed into new acquisitions. They might be more easily convinced by their own finance departments to shed the flight department altogether instead of buying new equipment–something they did in droves in 2008-9.

Back in my light airplane world the news is not quite as bad, until you get to older light aircraft, that is. No one wants to put 10 percent or more of the value of the airplane back into the avionics, particularly for one key piece of equipment.

And experimentals? They had the advantage of being able to use less expensive, non-Compliant ADS-B boxes, until recently. The FAA is now telling us that as of January 2016 those early transceivers will no longer receive accurate traffic information. Yes, the FAA is going to make flying LESS safe for those users, at a time when there are still hardly any users on the new system. All without proving that the non-Compliant boxes are a hazard.

I think it is time to get the pens out and start complaining, to your congressman, to your local FSDO, to the FAA at 800 Independence Avenue. There are a lot of good things about the way ADS-B can change our National Airspace System, but recent declarations from the FAA have me feeling squeamish about the execution of the transition to this new system. What do you think?

Special Mission Aircraft

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

My last flight assignment consisted of four days in Hawaii. It was one of those trips which make me (almost) feel guilty for associating it with the word “work.” Of course, there are plenty of journeys which are the polar opposite: long overnight flights, challenging weather, and minimum rest. But when you’re relaxing on a warm tropical island, those thoughts are easily banished to the back of one’s mind. For the moment, at least, the life of a charter pilot is a charmed one indeed!

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory's W-band cloud radar.

This external pod really caught my eye when we passed it on the ramp. It contains the Earth Observing Laboratory’s W-band cloud radar.

As we taxied onto the ramp at Kona International Airport (PHKO) after a beautiful flight out from the mainland, one particular aircraft caught my eye. It wasn’t the brand new G650 perched majestically at the front of a line of business jets but rather the aircraft next to it, a colorfully painted Gulfstream V equipped with pointy, silver-tipped under-wing-mounted pods. If it wasn’t for the words “National Center for Atmospheric Research” painted above the cabin windows, one might have wondered if this wasn’t some sort of weapons system.

I suddenly remembered that Hurricane Guillermo was slowly churning toward Hawaii from the southeast. The storm was still nearly a thousand miles from the archipelago and hadn’t impacted our flight that day in the slightest. As they say, “out of sight, out of mind.” I assume the G-V was there to conduct research on the storm systems (there were several large ones) brewing in the Pacific Ocean. And if the crew was able to spend a bit of time laying out by the pool… well, that’s just a cross they’d have to bear.

That uniquely outfitted airplane got me thinking about “special mission” aircraft and how business jets serve millions of people who never get to ride in them and are probably not even aware of their existence. Even among the general aviation community, I’d imagine plenty of folks would be surprised how many of these highly modified airplanes are out there and what they do for us on a daily basis.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

NOAA operates several special mission aircraft, including this highly modified Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies hurricane and winter storm missions.

I first became aware of Special Mission aircraft when I was in initial Gulfstream IV training. There were five pilots in my class. Most of us were employed by typical charter or Part 91 operators, but the youngest member of our cadre worked for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He had been flying the agency’s DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter for a couple of years and was offered a slot flying either the Lockheed P-3 Orion or the Gulfstream IV-SP. He really loved the idea of flying the big turboprop, but the only training available for the Orion was through the military. As I recall, it was a two year long process, whereas training on the G-IV was available through civilian providers and wouldn’t take nearly as much time.

NOAA’s Gulfstream is one of those Special Mission airplanes which benefit everyone. The jet has twice the altitude capability of the P-3 Orion, which allow it to drop instruments known as Omega dropwindsondes into the storm from higher up. The data collected has improved landfall prediction accuracy by more than 20 percent, saving lives and property in the bargain.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

This Lockheed-modified G-III is used for ISR missions.

I’m most familiar with the Gulfstream special mission aircraft because that’s the type I fly. At my home base, I’ve come across a Lockheed-Martin DRAGON, a highly modified Gulfstream III which serves as an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform for military, homeland defense, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance needs. The Israeli air force’s airborne early warning aircraft is a modified G550. It’s so radically altered, in fact, that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Savannah product.

The U.S. government operates a large fleet of Gulfstreams to provide airlift for senior U.S. government officials, members of Congress and military leaders. The current fleet includes the G-IV (military designation C-20) and G-V/550 (C-37) models, which are operated by every branch of the military as well as the U.S. Coast Guard.

One of the most famous Special Mission business jets served our nation’s space program for more than three decades. NASA operated four Gulfstream II jets which were heavily modified to simulate the space shuttle’s descent profile. Officially known as the Shuttle Training Aircraft, the right half of the cockpit was standard bizjet; the left side replicated the orbiter’s flight deck.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft flight deck: half space shuttle, half Gulfstream.

Shuttle approaches were so steep — 20 degrees! — that the jets had to be operated with the main landing gear down and both Spey engines running in reverse at 92% N2. This YouTube clip shows the STA in action. Aside from a downline or spin in an aerobatic aircraft, I’ve rarely seen an altimeter unwind that quickly.

You’ll find Gulfstreams, Citations, Lears, Hawkers, and many other business jets used for signals intelligence, moving cargo, towing targets, medevac, oceanic patrol, search and rescue, and just about anything else you can think of.

Oh, and that airplane we saw on the ramp in Kona? A bit of internet research reveals that it’s called HIAPER (High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research) and is owned by the National Science Foundation. It took more than $81 million and nearly twenty years from conception to delivery. After Gulfstream finished building the airplane, it spent two years undergoing heavy modification and testing at Lockheed before entering service. That’s pretty typical, because adding sensors and pods often requires cutting holes in the pressure vessel, and that means the basic structure has to be re-engineered to ensure adequate safety. You’re taking an aircraft that was designed to do one thing and rebuilding it to accomplish a completely different mission.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

The SOFIA airborne observatory.

I recently flew with a guy who was the test pilot for the SOFIA airborne observatory. It’s essentially a Boeing 747 retrofitted with a massive telescope in the tail. There’s a lot more to it than just clearing out the passenger seats and sticking some equipment into the fuselage. The cabin has to remain pressurized, but the telescope must be exposed to the open air. A new rear bulkhead had to be fabricated and installed for the pressure vessel, along with an 18-by-13 foot door for the telescope itself which was strong enough to open and close while flying at 41,000 feet and 500 knots. I don’t know much about the telescope, but the work that went into retrofitting the airframe is awfully impressive.

In a world of bespoke aircraft, the Special Mission variants take customization to a whole new level. Next time you see a business jet on the ramp with odd or exotic modifications, take a moment to appreciate the time, effort, money, and engineering that went into what is surely a one-of-a-kind machine.

The next revolution in general aviation

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Just about exactly 103 years ago, Nikola Tesla said: “I am now planning aerial machines devoid of sustaining planes, ailerons, propellers, and other external attachments, which will be capable of immense speeds”. Tesla ran out of money and wasn’t able to produce his craft but it now appears that maybe, just maybe, that his airplane– certainly by other means – may be on the not too distant horizon.

And the first terrestrial application will probably be a general aviation aircraft – at least, that is what the inventor of a radical new engine is saying.

Now this is a long shot – but that’s what thinking about the future involves. And everyone doesn’t agree about it. That too is integral to thinking about potential breakthroughs. But if this one works – and NASA has duplicated the basic concept – then we could be seeing the early indicators of the emergence of a new world

This one is different (like I said) because the EmDrive doesn’t use any traditional fuel. It generates thrust by the reaction of electromagnetic fields in a shaped cavity. You’ve got to generate electricity, for sure, but after that there are no moving parts. The electricity is converted directly into thrust.

Under the headline NASA’s impossible warp EmDrive proves possible: accelerates beams faster than light in a void, said: “Last summer, NASA made international headlines after finally testing British scientist Roger Shawyer’s ludicrous EmDrive, otherwise known as “the impossible engine,” and determining that the engine produced a minute level of thrust without any propellant. This is major, because it goes against the very laws of physics as defined by Newton’s third law, that is, that every action has an opposite and equal reaction; hence the nickname “the impossible engine.”  “Nearly eight months later, Paul March, an engineer at NASA Eagleworks, reported in a thread on (a website devoted to the engineering side of space exploration) that NASA has successfully tested the EmDrive in a vacuum and demonstrated that laser beams fired through the EmDrive’s resonance chamber exhibited fluctuations in velocity, with some beams appearing to surpass the speed of light.”

Now that should get you to the stars . . . or at least Mars. Shawyer thinks Mars is just a couple day flight with his engines.

NASA EmDrive test device

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

Shawyer says the first terrestrial applications will probably be for general aviation vehicles. The EmDrive website elaborates:

“The ultimate spin-off from space technology will occur when second generation lift engines are employed in terrestrial transport applications. Typically 3 tonnes of lift could be obtained from 1kW of microwave power. Liquid hydrogen would be used for cooling the lift engine and for powering the auxiliary engines. Thus the essential low cost, non-polluting components for large scale utilization are readily achievable. A future low energy transport infrastructure, no longer dependent on wings and wheels would now seem possible.”

Did you follow that? They say 6,000 pounds of lift could be generated by about the equivalent of 1.4 horsepower of generation power. That would change things.

Here’s an interesting interview with the inventor. Click on the picture below to watch it.

So you’ve got great new engines – now, what does the rest of the craft look like?

In the last couple of months a new breakthrough in the design of structures has been announced that has direct applications to future airframe construction. As in the case of the EmDrive, this invention is showing up in another sector – this time automobiles – but you don’t have to be a futurist to see that it could certainly be coming our way.

Here’s the picture that tells the story.


Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.


This handsome beast comes from Divergent Microfactories and is interesting by itself (700 HP // 0-60 IN 2.2 SEC // 1,400 LBS).

But the way that they have designed and built this car points directly toward the GA market – starting particularly with experimental airframes. They’ve designed a chassis that is 1/10th the weight of that in a conventionally made car and costs about 10% of a steel one.

Here’s a shot from their website that shows the 3D printed aluminum “nodes” that, coupled with carbon fiber tubes makes a frame (in about 30 minutes), that is stronger than steel ones.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Take a look at this video. The whole chassis is in that bag!

Divergent Microfactories Blade DEBUTS #SOLIDCON 6/24/15 from Divergent Microfactories on Vimeo.

So, one way or another we’re on our way to a revolution . . . and it may be sooner than we think.

If you like this kind of stuff, you might find the talk that I’ll be giving on the future of aviation at NBAA this fall of interest. Come by and say hi if you’re there.

Talk of the town

Monday, July 27th, 2015

EAA’s AirVenture air show is one of my favorites, because it provides the attendee a chance to intersect and study the broadest cross-section of the aviation industry that I know. What can one see? There are ultralights and sailplanes, balloonists and blimps, military and commercial jets, and helicopters to fixed wing general aviation aircraft.

My favorite sections of the show include the Innovator’s tent and the row upon row of home built aircraft. Want to study alternative fuels? Looking for a groundbreaking propulsion system for your next aircraft? How about investing in one of several flying car (or road-able aircraft) concepts? You can do that, too.

AOPA displayed three beautiful yellow aircraft at their “disruptively” yellow tent this year. The Piper Cub was #1 off the line and pristinely restored. The two Cessnas, a 152 and a 172, were also completely remanufactured and ready for new lives as economical flight training or cross-country machines for new pilots.

While I was at the AOPA tent I stopped to sign the petition to rescind the Third Class Aviation Medical certificate requirement for private pilots in the United States. This past week during the event the legislation was appended to the highways bill in the Senate, which many involved in aviation advocacy feel is a good development.

There was much conversation centered around the privatization of air traffic control in the United States, too. The consensus was that general aviation pilots should be contacting their political representatives at the national level right now to let them know that a fee based privatized ATC is not the way to fix the national airspace system’s problems. Well, certainly not if they are going to keep fuel taxes as they are now, and dissolve the aviation trust fund we have all been paying into for airport improvements around the country. Dissolve is their word, by the way, not mine. I fear that money will be absorbed into the general fund and simply disappear, never to be used for what it was originally intended.

Overall AirVenture 2015 will go down in the record books for its fine weather, full exhibit halls and packed flightlines. It will be remembered as the summer of relatively low avgas and jet A pricing, which seems to be moving people to fly a little more, or a little farther. That is certainly the case for me, personally. It was a treat to see so many of my aviation friends in one place. Here’s hoping we can all return safely same time next year.

Is Your Aircraft Okay to Fly?

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Who decides whether or not your aircraft is airworthy?

Airworthy steampEarlier this year, I wrote an article titled “Fix It Now…Or Fix It Later” that was published in a major general aviation magazine. The article discussed how to deal with aircraft mechanical problems that arise during trips away from home base. It offered specific advice about how pilots and aircraft owners can decide whether a particular aircraft issue needs to be addressed before further flight or whether it can safely wait until the aircraft gets back home. I considered the advice I offered in this article to be non-controversial and commonsense.

I was surprised when I received an angry 700-word email from a very experienced A&P/IA—I’ll call him “Damian” (not his real name)—condemning my article and accusing me of professional malfeasance in advising owners to act irresponsibly and violate various FARs. Damian’s critique started out like this:

After reading Mike Busch’s commentary “Fix It Now … Or Fix It Later,” I must take exception to most, if not all, the points made in his column. I believe his statements are misleading as to the operation of certified aircraft, to the point of being irresponsible for an A&P to suggest or imply that it’s up to the owner/operator whether or not to fly an aircraft with a known discrepancy. The FARs are quite clear on this matter, and there have been numerous certificate action levied on pilots who have operated aircraft with known discrepancies.

Damian went on to state that the FARs require that any aircraft discrepancy, no matter how minor, must be corrected and the aircraft approved for return to service “by persons authorized under FAR 43.7 (typically the holder of a mechanic certificate).” He went on to explain that the owner/operator may only approve for return to service those preventive maintenance items listed in FAR Part 43 Appendix A. He went on:

It should be noted that the FAA does not take into consideration the inconvenience or cost related to addressing a known discrepancy. Nor is it up to the owner/operator to determine the significance of a discrepancy as the FARs do not confer this discretion privilege to the owner/operator.

Damian’s attack on my article continued at great length, making it quite clear that his believe is that pilots and aircraft owners are mere “appliance operators” in the eyes of the FAA, and that only certificated mechanics are empowered to evaluate the airworthiness of an aircraft and determine whether or not it is legal and safe to fly. He ended his diatribe by saying:

I hope that others in the aviation community such as FAA Airworthiness Safety Inspectorss and aviation legal professionals weigh in on this commentary. I believe all will agree that this commentary is misleading and uninformed to the point of being irresponsible even to publish. At the very least, pilots that follows the advice of Busch’s commentary should enroll in the AOPA Pilot Protection Services plan because they’re likely to need it!

Whew! Strong stuff! If Damian is right, then the FAA had better lock me up and throw away the key. Fortunately for me, I believe he isn’t and (at least so far) they haven’t.

Where Damian Has It Wrong

Damian and I do agree on at least one thing: FAR 91.7 does indeed say quite unequivocally that it is a violation to fly an unairworthy aircraft, and that if the aircraft becomes unairworthy in flight, the PIC is obligated to discontinue the flight. I would never suggest for a moment that any pilot fly a known-unairworthy aircraft, at least without a ferry permit. That’s a no-brainer.

The much more difficult question is: Exactly how does the PIC decide whether or not an aircraft is airworthy or unairworthy, and therefore whether he is or isn’t allowed to fly it? On this question, Damian and I part company. In fact, his view and mine seem to be diametrically opposite.

Damian’s view is that almost any aircraft discrepancy requires the involvement of an A&P mechanic to evaluate and clear the discrepancy and approve the aircraft for return to service. I see absolutely nothing in the FARs to support such a position, particularly when it comes to non-commercial aircraft operated under Part 91.

To begin with, the basic airworthiness rule (FAR 91.7) is crystal clear about who is responsible for determining whether or not the aircraft may be flown. It says:

The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight.

The regulation places the burden squarely on the shoulders of the PIC. I don’t see anything there about A&Ps or repair stations having to be involved, do you?

Looking a bit deeper into the FARs, I can find only three circumstances under which a mechanic is required to get involved in making any sort of airworthiness determination on a Part 91 aircraft used for non-commercial purposes:

  1. Exactly once a year, FAR 91.409 requires that an annual inspection be performed by an A&P/IA or a Repair Station. But the other 364 days of the year, it’s the PIC who determines whether the aircraft is airworthy.
  2. When an Airworthiness Directive or Airworthiness Limitation becomes due, FAR 91.403 requires that a mechanic must certify that the AD or AL has been complied with (with rare exceptions where the PIC may do so).
  3. When an owner actually hires a mechanic to perform maintenance on an aircraft, in which case the mechanic is required to document his work and sign it off to testify that the work was performed properly. Note, however, that the mechanic’s signature in the logbook entry does NOT signify that the aircraft is airworthy, only that THE WORK PERFORMED by the mechanic was done in an airworthy fashion.

This third point is one that is frequently misunderstood by mechanics and owners alike. When I teach this stuff at IA renewal seminars, the hypothetical example I often use to illustrate this important point involves an owner who takes his aircraft to a mechanic for repair. The mechanic immediately observes that the aircraft has two obvious discrepancies: the right main landing gear tire is flat, and the left wing is missing. The owner asks the mechanic to fix the flat tire. The mechanic does so, makes a logbook entry describing the work he did on the right main landing gear, and signs it. His signature denotes only that the work he did (fixing the flat tire) was done properly. When the owner picks up the aircraft, the mechanic tells the owner, “I couldn’t help but notice that your left wing is missing. If you’ll permit me to offer you a word of friendly advice, I would not attempt to fly the aircraft until that issue is resolved.” But the missing left wing does not prevent the mechanic from signing the logbook entry. In fact, the mechanic is required by regulation to sign the logbook entry, regardless of whether the aircraft is airworthy or not. The mechanic’s signature addresses only the work performed by the mechanic, and nothing else.

The PIC’s Burden

If you’re on a trip and some aircraft discrepancy occurs – assuming the aircraft isn’t in the midst of its annual inspection and there’s no AD involved – it is up to you as PIC to determine whether or not that discrepancy makes the aircraft unairworthy or not. If you decide that it does, then you can’t fly the airplane until the airworthiness issue is rectified (and that might require hiring an A&P). On the other hand, if you decide that the discrepancy doesn’t rise to the level of making the aircraft unairworthy, then you’re free to fly home and deal with the issue later.

Under the FARs, it’s totally the PIC’s call. There’s no regulatory obligation for the PIC to consult a mechanic when making such airworthiness determinations. Having said that, however, it would certainly be a wise thing to do if you feel uncomfortable about making the decision yourself. It’s your call.

The FARs provide considerable help to the PIC in making such airworthiness determinations. FAR 91.213(d) describes a specific algorithm for deciding whether or not it’s okay to fly an airplane with various items of inoperative equipment. FAR 91.207 says that it’s okay to fly an aircraft with an inoperative ELT to a place where it can be repaired or replaced, no ferry permit required. FAR 91.209 says that position lights needn’t be working if you’re flying during daylight hours. And so on.

If your experience is anything like mine, what most of us call “squawks” are common occurrences, but the majority of them don’t rise to the level of being airworthiness items that cause us (in our capacity as PIC) to conclude that a fix is required before further flight. Even if you do encounter a genuine airworthiness problem – say a flat tire or dead battery or bad mag drop – that still doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to get a mechanic involved. The FARs provide (in Part 43 Appendix A) a list of roughly three dozen items that a pilot-rated owner or operator is permitted to perform and sign off on his own recognizance (without getting an A&P involved).

If you have a flat tire, for example, you (as a pilot-rated owner) are permitted to repair or replace it yourself. If you have a dead battery, you can charge it, service it, or even replace it. If you have a bad mag drop, the most common cause is a defective or fouled spark plug, and you’re permitted to remove, clean, gap, and replace spark plugs yourself. You are also allowed to make repairs and patches to fairings, cowlings, fabric (on fabric-covered aircraft), upholstery and interior furnishings. You can replace side windows, seat belts, hoses, fuel lines, landing and position lamps, filters, seats, safety wire, cotter pins, and more. You can even remove and install tray-mounted avionics from your panel.

Now, you might well prefer to hire an A&P to do some of these things rather than do them yourself, especially when on the road, far from your hangar and toolbox. I know I certainly would, and I’m an A&P myself. But Damian’s contention that you are compelled by the FARs to place your aircraft in the hands of an A&P any time any sort of discrepancy arises is simply not supported by the regulations.

Contrary to what Damian and many of his A&P colleagues may believe, the FAR’s place the responsibility for determining the airworthiness of the aircraft squarely on the PIC, except for once a year when an IA is required to make an airworthiness determination after performing an annual inspection

My colleague Mac McClellan pointed out to me that this closely resembles how the FAA determines whether a pilot is “airworthy.” One day every year or two or five, we pilots are required by regulation to go get an examination from an Aviation Medical Examiner who pronounces us medically fit to fly, or not. The remaining 364 or 729 or 1,824 days in between, the FAA expects us to self-certify that we’re medically fit. “Can you imagine,” Mac asked me rhetorically, “if we had to go to see an AME every time we got a sore throat or runny nose?”

Can a Mentor Really Help?

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

EAA1Where better to think about mentors – people willing to share their industry expertise with newbies – than as I unpack my car at AirVenture 2015. This place is crawling with mentors.

One of the secrets to success, of course, is connecting capable mentors with the people who need a little mentoring … maybe even quite a bit of mentoring. Since this is my 50th year as an EAA show attendee, allow me to share a few tips.

First, I think almost everyone can benefit from the help of a good mentor. There is simply no reason an aspiring mechanic, pilot, air traffic controller, or anyone else with a keen interest in aviation, should fall into the same dark holes the rest of us have over the decades. Allow us to help you steer clear.

A good mentor listens and makes suggestions to help a student overcome most any hurdle, whether they’re struggling with a particularly troublesome knowledge course, a too-often empty checkbook or the search for a cure to a bad case of the, “I’ll never get this …” We’ve all been stuck at one time or another by “Now what do I do,” too.

The only difference between long-time career people and you is that somehow we’ve already figured out the way around some of the obstacles that been dropped in front of us … and so can you, if you ask for help.

Assuming you’re receptive to the idea, finding a good mentor is often where associations like AOPA, EAA and Women in Aviation can help. If you’re on the road to becoming a professional pilot, for instance, check out ProPilot World for advice from men and women who’ve already been successful climbing various rungs of the career ladder.

mentorIt’s important to realize that a student shares some of the responsibility for a successful relationship, because it’s a bit like dating. It’s apparent pretty quickly when everything clicks and almost as quickly apparent when the chemistry’s not right.

Look for a mentor who’s patient and curious about your life, your story and your goals. Connect with someone who’s more interested in telling war stories than offering help with resources to pass an FAA knowledge test, for example, and you probably have the wrong person. Pose a question that brings only a shrug of shoulders rather than help finding the answer and trust me, it’s just not a good fit. Say thanks to the person and move on to someone else.

I think the key to success in any career is knowing when to ask for help and then being relentless until you find it. I know I’ve only scratched the surface here, so if you find yourself stuck along the way, e-mail me and I’ll help. [email protected]

Rob Mark is a Chicago-based business-aviation pilot, flight instructor and journalist. He publishes the award-winning industry blog, and spent 10 years of his life as an air traffic controller for the FAA. He claims to have been lucky enough to know a couple of great mentors in his life and believes he could have had more if he’d only asked.