Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Champion Aerospace: From Denial to Acceptance

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Champion Aviation Spark PlugsAccording to the model popularized by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal 1969 book On Death & Dying, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is apparently what Champion Aerospace LLC has been going through over the past six years with respect to the widely reported problems with the suppression resistors in its Champion-brand aviation spark plugs. I last discussed this issue in my August 2014 blog post Life on the Trailing Edge.

I first became aware of the Champion spark plug resistor problem in 2010, although there’s evidence that it dates back to 2008. We were seeing numerous cases of Champion spark plugs that were causing bad mag drops, rough running and hard starting even though they looked fine and their electrodes weren’t worn anywhere near the retirement threshold. The thing these spark plugs had in common were that they were all Champion-brand plugs and they all measured very high resistance or even open-circuit when tested with an ohmmeter.

We also saw a number of cases where high-resistance Champion plugs caused serious internal arc-over damage to Slick magnetos (mostly in Cirrus SR20s). If the damaged mag was replaced without replacing the spark plug, the new mag would be damaged in short order. The cause-and-effect relationship was pretty obvious.

In researching this issue, I looked at the magneto troubleshooting guide on the Aircraft Magneto Service website, maintained by mag guru Cliff Orcutt who knows more about aircraft ignition systems than just about anyone I know. Cliff owns and operates my favorite mag specialty shop, and that’s where I send the mags on my own airplane every 500 hours for inspection and tune-up. In reading Cliff’s troubleshooting guide, I came across the following pearls of wisdom:

  • Take an OHM Meter and measure the resistance value from the connection in the bottom of the barrel to the clean center electrode at the firing end, electrode must be bare metal.
  • A new Champion plug will have a value of 800 to 1200 OHMS. New Tempest (formerly Unison-Autolite) will measure 1000 OHMS.  Replace any plug above 5000 OHMS.
  • A spark plug bomb tester can test a bad plug and lead you to conclude it is serviceable. The OHM Meter check is simple, readily available, and amazingly accurate in finding misfiring plugs.

We started asking the maintenance shops we hired to maintain our clients’ aircraft to ohm out the plugs at each 50-hour spark plug maintenance cycle. The number of plugs that measured over 5,000 ohms was eye-opening. Many plugs measured tens or hundreds of thousand ohms, and it wasn’t unusual to find plugs that measured in the megohm range or even totally open-circuit. Here, for example, is a set of 12 Champion plugs removed for cleaning and gapping from a Cirrus SR22 by a shop in South Florida:

Champion spark plug resistance

Notice that only two of these 12 plugs measured less than 5K ohms, and one of those had to be rejected because its nose core insulator was cracked (a separate issue affecting only Champion fine-wire spark plugs, and unrelated to the resistor issue that affected all Champion plugs).

Why spark plugs have resistors

Worn spark plug

A worn-out spark plug.

Early aviation spark plugs didn’t contain resistors. They didn’t last long, either. The reason was that each time the plug fired, a significant quantity of metal was eroded from the electrodes. Magnetos fire alternate spark lugs with alternate polarities, so half of the plugs suffered accelerated erosion of their center electrodes, and the other half suffered erosion of the ground electrodes. Eventually, the ground electrodes became so thin or the center electrode became so elliptical that the plug had to be retired from service.

Spark plug manufacturers found that they could extend the useful life of their plugs by adding an internal resistor to limit the current of the spark that jumps across the electrodes. The higher the resistance, the lower the current. And the lower the current, the less metal eroded from the electrodes and the longer the plug would last before the electrodes got so worn that the plug had to be retired.

Adding a resistor to the plug also raised the minimum firing voltage for a given electrode gap. The result is a hotter, more well-defined spark that improves ignition consistency and reduces cycle-to-cycle variation.

The value of the resistor was fairly critical. If the resistance was too high, the plug would fire weakly, resulting in engine roughness, hard starting, excessive mag drops, and (if the resistance was high enough) arc-over damage to the magneto and/or harness. If the resistance was too low, the plug electrodes would erode at an excessive rate and its useful life would be short. Experimentation showed that a resistance between 1K and 4K ohms turned out to be a good compromise between ignition performance and electrode longevity. Brand new Champion-brand aviation spark plugs typically measure around 1,200 ohms fresh out of the box. New Tempest-brand plugs typically measure about 2,500 ohms. Both of these represent good resistance values right in the sweet spot.

Denial

As word of these erratic and wildly out-of-spec resistance values began reaching aircraft owners and mechanics (primarily via the Internet), Champion went on the defensive. At numerous aviation events and IA renewal seminars, Champion reps dismissed the significance of resistance measurements. They explained that the silicon carbide resistor in Champion-brand plugs is made to show the proper resistance whenever a high-voltage pulse is present, and can’t necessarily be measured properly with an ohmmeter. Further, they stated that the proper way to test a spark plug is on a spark plug testing machine (so-called “bomb tester”), and claimed that if a plug functions well during a bomb test, it should function well in the airplane.

Champion old insulator assembly

Champion old insulator assembly.

Of course, this “company line” from Champion didn’t agree with our experience. We’d seen numerous instances of high-resistance Champion plugs that tested fine on the bomb tester but functioned erratically in service. Nor did it agree with the Mil Spec for aviation spark plugs (MIL-S-7886B) which states clearly:

4.7.2 Resistor. Each spark plug shall be checked for stability of internal resistance and contact by measurement of the center wire resistance by the use of a low voltage ohmmeter (8 volts or less). Center wire resistance values of any resistor type spark plug shall be as specified in the manufacturer’s drawings or specifications. 

One enterprising Cessna 421 owner named Max Nerheim performed high-voltage testing of Champion spark plugs, and found that plugs that measure high-resistance or open-circuit with a conventional ohmmeter also had excessive voltage drop when fired with high voltage, and required a higher minimum voltage to produce any spark. Max Nerheim wasn’t just an aircraft owner, mind you, he was also Vice President of Research for TASER International, Inc. and was exceptionally qualified to perform high-voltage testing of Champion spark plugs. Nerheim’s findings flatly contradicted Champion’s company line, and agreed with what we were seeing in the field. Nerheim also disassembled the resistor assemblies of a number of high-resistance Champion plugs and found that the internal resistor “slugs” were failing.

Anger

What's your resistance?The spit really hit the fan when Champion’s primary competitor in the aviation spark plug space, Aero Accessories, Inc., launched a marketing campaign to promote sales of its Tempest-brand aviation spark plugs by highlighting the resistance issue. (Aero Accessories acquired the Autolite line of aviation spark plugs from Unison Industries in 2010, an re-branded them under its Tempest brand.) In February 2013, they issued a Tempest Tech Tip titled “The Right Way to Check Spark Plug Resistors,” started selling a fancy spark plug resistance tester, and launched a big “What’s Your Resistance” advertising campaign in the general aviation print media.

Predictably, this provoked a rather hostile response from Champion. Their field reps ratcheted up their public relations campaign claiming that the ohmeter check was meaningless, and insisting that Champion spark plugs didn’t have a resistance problem that affected the performance of their plugs.

Bargaining

In the face of both overwhelming technical evidence from the field that their spark plugs had a resistor problem, and a virtual blitzkrieg from their principal competitor that was starting to erode their dominant market share, Champion began having some self-doubts. Max Nerheim discussed his high-voltage test findings with Kevin Gallagher, Manger of Piston and Airframe at Champion Aerospace, and Gallagher acknowledged that Champion was looking into the issue with the resistor increasing in impedance, but did not have it resolved yet. Meanwhile, the Champion field reps continued to insist to anyone who would listen that claims of resistor problems in Champion spark plugs were false and that the ohmmeter test was meaningless.

Finally…Acceptance

Sometime in late 2014, it appears that Champion very quietly changed the internal design of their spark plugs to use a sealed, fired-in resistor element that appears to be quite similar to the design of the Tempest/Autolite plug. They didn’t change any part numbers. So far as I have been able to tell, they didn’t even issue a press release. The Champion Aerospace website makes no mention of any recent design changes or product improvements. But the cutaway diagram of the Champion spark plug now on the website shows the new fired-in resistor. Here are the old and new cutaway diagrams. Compare them and you’l clearly see the difference.

Click on images below to see higher-resolution versions.

Champion spark plug cutaway (old)

Champion spark plug cutaway (old)

Champion spark plug cutaway (new)

Champion spark plug cutaway (new)

I checked with a number of A&P mechanics and they verified that the latest Champion spark plugs they ordered do indeed have the new design. It’s easy to tell whether a given Champion spark plug is of the old or new variety. Simply look at the metal contact located at the bottom of the “cigarette well” on the harness end of the plug. The older-design plugs have a straight screwdriver slot machined into the metal contact, while the newer-design plugs do not.

As I write this, it’s still too early to tell whether Champion’s quiet resistor redesign will cure the drifting resistance problem, but my best guess is that it will. If I’m right, this is very good news indeed for users of Champion aviation spark plugs. I applaud Champion Aerospace for improving its product.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why it took six years for the company to work through its grief from denial to acceptance. I suppose grief is a very personal thing, and everyone deals with it differently.

How Far is Far Enough?

Monday, March 9th, 2015

There’s an old saying about fuel: unless you’re on fire, you can never have enough. I wonder, is the same thing true of an aircraft’s range?

With a 7,000 nautical mile reach, Gulfstream’s G650 was already an ultra-long range business jet before the ‘ER’ edition tacked on an additional 500 nm of capability. The G-series flagship recently set two records while flying around the world with a single fuel stop.

To be fair, Steve Wynn’s G650 flew eastbound from New York to Beijing and continued east to Savannah, Georgia for a total distance of 13,511 nautical miles. While that may satisfy the practical definition of the phrase, it doesn’t come close to the actual 21,600 nm equatorial circumference of the planet. Lest you think I’m picking nits, consider that you could fly “around the world” near the north pole with a Cessna 172 and do it on a single tank of gas. Get close enough to the pole and you could walk around the world in a few seconds. Doing so wouldn’t necessarily make you Superman.

Clearly, some kind of definition would be helpful. For the purposes of aeronautical records, a circumnavigation is considered by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to be a flight which a) covers a distance no less than the length of the Tropic of Cancer, b) crosses all meridians, and c) begins and ends at the same airport. In other words, the FAI’s criteria requires a minimum flight of 19,853 nautical miles, or 6,342 further than Wynn’s G650 traveled.

This is not to denigrate the G650’s achievement. They flew a long way, and did it at a high rate of speed — Mach 0.87. The city pair records it set on this trip will probably stand for a long time. But I can’t help but wonder, how much further could a person want to go? How much range is “far enough”? Since the globe is 21,600 nautical miles in circumference, one might be tempted to assume the answer is 10,800 nm. If airplanes were used to travel between random geographic points, that might make sense, but they’re using to travel between airports. Usually the ones near major cities.

One of the longest city pairs is Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, about 10,000 nautical miles. Auckland to London is about the same. If that was the typical mission, the G650ER’s 7,500 nm range could still be improved upon by a longer-range airplane. But for the vast majority of pairings on our little blue marble, the ER can already do it on a single tank.

It seems to me that eking out those final miles may come at a steep price. Beyond the monetary cost, it would involve heavier weights, longer wings, the requirement for additional crewmembers, and so on. Even if the only thing needed was greater efficiency via winglets, incremental engine improvements, aerodynamic cleanup, and so on, it would still require vital resources like time and money — limitations every bit as real as the ones we face with smaller aircraft.

So should we expect to see longer range airplanes being developed, or will future emphasis be placed on speed and comfort? As always, the market will dictate the answer. Nobody develops a $60 million conveyance without extensive consultation with their client base. It’s worth noting that the G650 is such an exceptional product because it made significant strides in speed, range, and comfort simultaneously. That’s rare. By contrast, the upcoming G500 and G600 don’t break new ground in terms of speed or range, but do provide improved technology and most of the 650’s hallmark capabilities at a lower price point.

I’ve gone on record as predicting that the next big jump will be an increase in cruise speed — namely, a supersonic business jet. At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal: compressing time. Eliminating fuel stops is certainly one way to do it, but that only takes you so far. What comes next when the need to refuel is gone? Once the sound barrier is broken, the race will really be on. You’ll see officially recognized circumnavigations occurring on a much faster and more frequent basis, and business aviation’s value will rise exponentially.

Think outside the traffic pattern: If you build it, they will come!

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Find ways to make your home ‘drome unique and reap the dual benefits of increased activity & fun.

Santa Rosa-Route 66 Airport [KSXU], NM  A Ride from Police  Flying home from AirVenture last year on flight following with Albuquerque Center when the controller asked me if my destination was Santa Rosa-Route 66 airport [KSXU]. I said, “Affirmative KSXU.”  He then said, “If you are in need of a courtesy car make sure to check the bulletin board in the FBO for instructions.”I thanked him for the information, although I thought it was a little odd for ATC to offer suggestions on ground transportation. Landing about 3:30 p.m. after a long flight, I was a little dismayed not to see a car outside the FBO.

Getting a ride and a little history of Santa Rosa-Route 66

Getting a ride and a little history of Santa Rosa-Route 66

Santa Rosa airport is about 4 miles out of town and the idea of walking in to town wasn’t so appealing.  There were a few other planes on the ramp and a small concrete block FBO building. When I went inside and took a look at the bulletin board I was surprised to see a sign that said to call the Santa Rosa Police Department for a ride in to town. Even though I was a little nervous about it, I called the number on the sign and told the dispatcher that I was at the airport and needed a ride.  “We will send a cruiser out for you in a moment.”  she said.

Sure enough, in about five minutes up rolled a police cruiser and driven by a very nice young officer.  He helped load up the bags and I got in the back of the car.  A little caveat that I have never been in the back of a police car.  The funniest part was when I tried to open the car door to get out when he stopped at the hotel.

Here are some more examples of bringing some fun to the airport, which in turn brings visitors and economic gain.

Pecos, Texas [KPEQ] Homemade Burritos for All  The FBO managers of Pecos Texas offer their visitors homemade burritos, chips and salsa.  This airport gets a fair share of military and business customers.  Texas hospitality and the yummy food entices folks to stop, stay and buy fuel.

Beaumont, KS [07S]  Taxi Plane to Town  This $100 Hamburger stop  in southern Kansas allows you to land and taxi in to town. The runway of prairie grasses about a quarter mile east of “town” such as it is north-south orientation, about 2,600 feet long, sloping downhill from north to south.

Twin Beech taxi to town, Beaumont KS.

Twin Beech taxi to town, Beaumont KS.

You land, taxi off the south end of the runway and turn west onto 118th street , taxi west, uphill, to a three-way stop at the intersection adjacent to the jerkwater tower, across the intersection and south to the aircraft-only parking…walk north across the street and you’re there….they have a monthly fly-in breakfast, a monthly ride-in breakfast (for the motorcycle crowd), and other events through warmer months.

Priest Lake Idaho [67S]  Donuts and Coffee for Campers  Located near breathtaking Cavanaugh Bay is Priest Lake airport which has a grass strip and camping. There is a courtesy golf cart to help unload the plane and transport gear to camp site.  Each morning the caretaker brings fresh coffee and donuts out to campers .

Burning Man

Burning Man

IMG_20140823_112911

Black Rock City

Black Rock City Airport [88NV] Burning Man  In 2009 Black Rock City Airport was recognized by the FAA as a private airport and designated 88NV. With all volunteer labor, once a year a portion of playa of the desert is transformed into an airport. Fly-In guests get to land on an airport that only exists one week per year.

Alton Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire [B18]  Only FAA Ice Runway in lower 48 Since the 1960s airplanes have flocked to the “ice airport”. If you are actually the PIC and land at the airport, you are eligible to purchase a commemorative hat.  According to one pilot who landed there, they are strict about the one hat per pilot rule and keep a log. 

Land on ice, get a hat

Land on ice, get a hat

We can all do a little something to make our airports attractive to guests.  The fun-factor the airports I have listed above helps increase good-will and numbers of visitors. Check out the comment section on AirNav and you will see that pilots like to leave feedback and tips for other pilots.   What can you do at your home airport?  Or better yet, what has your airport done already?  Please use the comments section below to add the unique service, attraction or treat that your airport offers.   I think that pilots are inherently kids at heart.  Let’s get the movement rolling here.  Be unique, think outside the traffic pattern. If you build it, they will come.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Look Ma … No Hands

Monday, February 23rd, 2015
trim_tab

Photo courtesy FS-Force

As a kid, telling your mom you planned to try something without holding on was a tipoff that something dangerous was surely in the offing.

But when I tell flying students to try letting go of the control wheel or stick at times when I first get to know them, I’m actually trying to help them become better pilots. In my case, it’s all about learning to trim the airplane. Pilots who fail to learn the purpose of the trim tab – that little piece of hinged metal on the end of the elevator – or the movable horizontal stabilizer really are doomed to work way too hard at becoming truly good pilots. I often find though that many instructors don’t take enough time to explain the “why” behind trimming an airplane.

Most simply put, trim tabs help maintain an airplane’s state of balance where all four of those basic forces we learned about as student pilots — power, lift, drag and gravity — come together. Alter any of the forces and you’ll need to re-trim the aircraft to reestablish that balance.

Failure to reestablish balance and the pilot’s forced to hold back or forward pressure on the control wheel to maintain altitude or airspeed. That might not seem like a big deal, but it’s just one more brain function that’s not available for other important things like navigating, looking out the window for other airplanes or drones, or keeping an eye on the weather. (more…)

Owner in command

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Every pilot understands the notion of “pilot in command.” That’s because we all had some certificated flight instructor (CFI) who mercilessly pounded this essential concept into our heads throughout our pilot training. Hopefully, it stuck.

As pilot-in-command (PIC), we are directly responsible for, and the final authority as to, the operation of our aircraft and the safety of our flight. Our command authority so absolute that in the event of an in-flight emergency, the FAA authorizes the PIC to deviate from any rule or regulation to the extent necessary to deal with that emergency. (14 CFR §91.3)

In four and a half decades of flying, I’ve overheard quite a few pilots dealing with in-flight emergencies, and have dealt with a few myself. It makes me proud to hear a fellow pilot who takes command of the situation and deals with the emergency decisively. Such decisiveness is “the right stuff” of which PICs are made, and what sets us apart from non-pilots.

Conversely, it invariably saddens me to hear a frightened pilot abdicate his PIC authority by throwing himself on the mercy of some faceless air traffic controller or flight service specialist to bail him out of trouble. How pathetic! The ATC or FSS folks often perform heroically in such “saves,” but few of them are pilots, and most have little or no knowledge of the capabilities of the emergency aircraft or its crewmember(s). They shouldn’t be placed in the awful position of having to make life-or-death decisions on how best to cope with an in-flight emergency. That’s the PIC’s job.

Fortunately, most of us who fly as PIC understand this because we had good CFIs who taught us well. When the spit hits the fan, we take command almost instinctively.

Owner in command

When a pilot progresses to the point of becoming an aircraft owner, he suddenly takes on a great deal of additional responsibility and authority for which his pilot training most likely did not prepare him. Specifically, he becomes primarily responsible for maintaining his aircraft in airworthy condition, including compliance with all applicable airworthiness requirements including Airworthiness Directives. (14 CFR §91.403) Unfortunately, few owners have the benefit of a Certificated Ownership Instructor (COI) to teach them about their daunting new responsibilities and authority as “owner in command” (OIC).

Consequently, too many aircraft owners fail to comprehend or appreciate fully their weighty and complex OIC responsibilities. They put their aircraft in the shop, hand over their keys and credit card, and tell the mechanic to call them when the work is done and the airplane is ready to fly. Often, owners give the mechanic carte blanche to “do whatever it takes to make the aircraft safe,” and don’t even know what work is being performed or what parts are being replaced until after-the-fact when they receive a maintenance invoice.

In short, lots of owners seem to act as if the mechanic is responsible for maintaining the aircraft in airworthy condition. But that’s bass-ackwards. In the eyes of the FAA and under the FARs, it’s the owner who is responsible. The mechanic is essentially “hired help”—a skilled and licensed contractor hired to assist the owner carry out his regulatory responsibilities.

General Contractor

An aircraft owner-in-command acts as the “general contractor” for the maintenance of his aircraft.

I find it helpful to compare the proper role of the aircraft owner in maintaining an airworthy aircraft to that of a general contractor in building a house. The general contractor needs to hire licensed specialists—electricians, plumbers, roofers, masons, and other skilled tradesmen—to perform various tasks required during the construction. He also needs to hire a licensed building inspector to inspect and approve the work that the tradesman have performed. But, the general contractor makes the major decisions, calls the shots, keeps things within schedule and budget constraints, and is held primarily accountable for the final outcome.

Similarly, an aircraft owner hires certificated airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics to perform maintenance, repairs and alterations; certificated inspectors (IAs) to perform annual inspections, and other certificated specialists (e.g., avionics, instrument, propeller and engine repair stations) to perform various specialized maintenance tasks. But, the owner is the boss, is responsible for hiring, firing, and managing these various “subcontractors,” and has primary responsibility for the ensuring the desired outcome: a safe, reliable aircraft that meets all applicable airworthiness requirements, achieved within an acceptable maintenance budget and schedule.

Who’s the boss?

The essence of the owner-in-command concept is that the aircraft owner needs to remain in control of the maintenance of his aircraft, just as the pilot needs to remain in control of the operation of the aircraft in-flight. When it comes to maintenance, the owner is supposed to be the head honcho, make the major decisions, ride herd on time and budget constraints, and generally call the shots. The mechanics and inspectors and repair stations he hires are “subcontractors” with special skills, training and certificates required to do the actual work. But the owner must always stay firmly in charge, because the buck stops with him (literally).

Since most owners have not received training in how to act as OIC, many of them are overwhelmed by the thought of taking command of the maintenance of their aircraft. “I don’t know anything about aircraft maintenance,” they sigh. “That’s way outside my comfort zone. Besides, isn’t that my mechanic’s job?”

Such owners often adopt the attitude that it’s their job to fly the aircraft and the mechanic’s job to maintain it. They leave the maintenance decisions up to the mechanics, and then get frustrated and angry when squawks don’t get fixed and maintenance expenses are higher than they expected.

But think about it: If you were building a house and you told your plumber or electrician or roofer “just do whatever it takes and send me the bill when it’s done,” do you think you’d be happy with the result?

No one in his right mind would do that, of course. If you were hiring an electrician to wire your house, you’d probably start by giving him a detailed list of exactly what you want him to do—what appliances and lighting fixtures you want installed in each room, where you want to locate switches, dimmers, convenience outlets, thermostats, telephone jacks, Ethernet connections, and so forth. You’d then expect the electrician to come back to you with a detailed written proposal, cost estimate, and completion schedule. After going over the proposal in detail with the electrician and making any necessary revisions, you’d sign the document and thereby enter into a binding agreement with the electrician for specific goods and services to be provided at a specific price and delivery date.

You’d do the same with the carpenter, roofer, drywall guy, paving contractor, and so forth.

Cars vs. airplanes

If you’ll permit me to mix my metaphors, when I take my car to the shop for service, the shop manager starts by interviewing me and taking notes on exactly what I want done—he asks me to describe any squawks I have to report, and he checks the odometer and explains any recommended preventive maintenance. Once we arrive at a meeting of the minds about what work needs to be done, the shop manager writes up a detailed work order with a specific cost estimate, and asks me to sign it and keep a copy. In essence, I now have a written contract with the shop for specific work to be done at a specific price.

The service manager doesn’t do this solely out of the goodness of his heart. He’s compelled to do so. In California where I live, state law provides that the auto repair shop is required to provide me with a written estimate in advance of doing any work, and may not exceed the agreed-to cost estimate by more than 10% unless I explicitly agree to the increase. If the shop doesn’t follow these rules, I can file a complaint with the State Bureau of Automotive Repairs and they’ll investigate and take appropriate action against the shop. Most states have similar laws.

Discrepancy List & Repair Estimate

Aircraft owners should insist on receiving a detailed written work statement and cost estimate like this one before authorizing any mechanic or shop to perform repairs or install replacement parts.

Unfortunately, there are no such laws requiring aircraft maintenance shops to deal with their customers on such a formalized and businesslike basis, even though the amounts involved are usually many times larger. Aircraft owners routinely turn their airplanes over to a mechanic or shop with no detailed understanding of what work will be done, what replacement parts will be installed, and what it’s all going to cost. All too often, the aircraft owner only finds this out when he picks up the aircraft and is presented with an invoice (at which point it’s way too late for him to influence the outcome).

It always amazes me to see aircraft owners do this. These are intelligent people, usually successful in business (which is what allows them to afford an airplane), who would never consider making any other sort of purchase of goods or services without first knowing exactly what they were buying and what it costs. Yet they routinely authorize aircraft maintenance without knowing either.

Often, the result is sticker shock and hard feelings between the owner and the shop. There’s no State Bureau of Aircraft Repair to protect aircraft owners from excessive charges or shoddy work. The FAA almost never gets involved in such commercial disputes. A few owners even wind up suing the maintenance shop, but generally the only beneficiaries of such litigation are the lawyers.

You can’t un-break an egg. You’ve got to prevent it from breaking in the first place.

Trust but verify

I hear from lots of these disgruntled aircraft owners who are angry at some mechanic or shop. When I ask why they didn’t insist on receiving a detailed work statement and cost estimate before authorizing the shop to work on their aircraft, I often receive a deer-in-the-headlights look, followed by some mumbling to the effect that “I’ve never had a problem with them before” or “you’ve got to be able to trust your A&P, don’t you?”

Sure you do…and you’ve got to be able to trust your electrician, plumber and auto mechanic, too. But that’s no excuse for not dealing with them on a businesslike basis. Purchasing aircraft maintenance services is a big-ticket business transaction, and should be dealt with as you would deal with any other big-ticket business transaction. The buyer and seller must have a clear mutual understanding of exactly what is being purchased and what it will cost, and that understanding must be reduced to writing.

In the final analysis, the most important factor that sets a maintenance-savvy aircraft owner apart from the rest of the pack is his attitude about maintenance. Savvy owners understand that they have primary responsibility for the maintenance of their aircraft, and that A&Ps, IAs and repair stations are contractors that they must manage. They deal with these maintenance professionals as they would deal with other contractors in other business dealings. They insist on having a written work statement and cost estimate before authorizing work to proceed. Then, like any good manager, they keep in close communication with the folks they’ve hired to make sure things are going as planned.

If your mechanic or shop resists working with you on such a businesslike basis, you probably need to take your business elsewhere.

Flying Backward

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

Aviation insurance pioneer A. G. Lamplugh uttered that oft-quoted phrase more than eighty years ago, and it’s as valid today as it was back then. Like Newton’s Laws of Physics, it’s one of the basic, unchanging truths about flying: certain things simply must be done properly if we’re to avoid disaster in the air. One of the best examples would be dealing with a low-altitude engine failure.

Last week’s TransAsia ATR-72 accident is a potent reminder of this aphorism. While we don’t know the cause yet and probably won’t know the whole story for a year or more, it got me thinking about how oddly things are done in aviation sometimes. For example, airline pilots move “up” the food chain from turboprops to jets. If safety is the paramount concern, that’s backwards. Shouldn’t the most experienced pilots should be exercising their skills on the most challenging aircraft rather than the least?

While jets certainly have their pitfalls and perils, a low-altitude engine failure is generally more challenging in a turboprop. The dead engine’s propeller creates tremendous drag until it’s properly secured. Many multi-engine turboprops are equipped with mechanisms to automatically feather the offending prop, but if that system doesn’t function properly, has been deferred, or simply doesn’t exist, the pilot is faced with six levers in close proximity, only one of which will do the trick. It’s easy to pull the wrong one.

Worse yet, if the craft has an autofeather system, the pilot would logically expect it to function as advertised. He or she would have to first detect the lack of feathering, then run the identify-verify-feather drill. Unlike training scenarios, there’s a major surprise factor at play as well. In a simulator, is anyone really surprised when the engine quits? Of course not. In the real world, pilots make thousands of flights where a powerplant doesn’t fail. As much as you tell yourself with each takeoff that “this could be the one”, empirical evidence in the form of a pilot’s own experience suggests against it. That makes preparation for a low-altitude emergency a constant battle with oneself. Are we always honest about how we’re doing in that fight? Probably not.

When I flew ex-military U-21A turboprops for a government contractor, we did all our training in the actual aircraft. I’ll never forget how marginal the aircraft’s performance was, even when engine failures were handled properly and expediently. We would fly a single-engine approach into Catalina Airport, where the missed approach procedure takes you toward the center of the island and some fairly high terrain. On one training flight the autofeather system initially worked as advertised, but then started to slowly unfeather.

Turboprop flying also comes with increased risk exposure due to the flight profile. A jet pilot might fly one or two legs a day versus five, six, or seven flown by the guy in the turboprop. With more legs comes an increased statistical opportunity for that engine to quit on takeoff. Turboprops also fly at lower altitudes where they tend to be in weather rather than above it.

The reciprocating twin pilot has it even worse when it comes to performance. Most of them have no guarantee of any climb performance at all on one engine, especially with the gear down, and few are equipped with automatic feathering systems. Yet that’s where we all start out.

Contrast this with engine failure in the modern jet, where the pilot need do nothing but raise the landing gear and keep the nose straight. In my aircraft, at least, we don’t even add power on the remaining engine. Unless the plane is literally on fire, we just climb straight out for a minute or two, gaining altitude and doing… nothing. No checklist to run, and only two levers in the throttle quadrant rather than six.

John Deakin described the contrast between prop and jet quite colorfully when he transitioned into the G-IV:

“If you hear a Gulfstream pilot whine about poor performance when high, hot, and heavy, please understand, he’s whining about less than 1,000 feet per minute on one engine. I sometimes feel like slapping a chokehold on, and dragging one of these guys out to the old C-46, loaded, on a hot day, and make him do an engine failure on takeoff, where he’d be lucky to get 50 feet per minute.”

There are other places where you can see this same phenomenon at work in aviation. Consider the world of flight instruction. The least experienced CFIs typically start off by teaching primary students. Again, that’s backwards. It would seem more logical to start instructors off with checkouts and endorsements for experienced pilots or commercial certificate training. Putting the best, most experienced CFIs with the neophytes might help accelerate their progress and alleviate the high student pilot drop-out rate.

The Law of Primacy — something every CFI candidate learns about — tells us that “the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” Primary flight training literally sets the foundation of an aviator’s flying life, to say nothing of the fact that teaching primary students is one of the most difficult jobs a CFI can undertake. So why is this critical task mainly entrusted to the newest, least experienced instructors?

The answer to these questions usually comes down to money. The almighty dollar frequently plays a powerful role in explaining the unexplainable in aviation. While it would be unrealistic to deny the importance of financial concerns in defying gravity, whole sections of the aviation ecosystem run backwards and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps safety suffers because of it.

Wings and Wheels: Encouraging visitors to be guests in our communities

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

We fly for pleasure, business, recreation and charitable purposes. Wouldn’t it be nice if after the wings are done flying we had some wheels to get us to a nice restaurant for lunch, or to our hotel or nearby scenic attraction? My hope is that after reading my little blog a couple dozen of you might add to the list of airports that have bicycles available for pilots flying in.

Oceano Airport Fly 'n Ride

Oceano Airport Fly ‘n Ride

At L52 Oceano Airport in California we are, to the best of my knowledge one of the closest public airports to the Pacific Ocean. Long ago bikes were available for guests. They were painted orange and said “Oceano Airport.” They were leaned up against the fence and folks would take them and ride to Pismo Beach for some clam chowder or a walk on the pier. I was told that if any of the bikes were found in town abandoned, someone would throw them in a truck and bring them back to the airport. Fast-forward to 2010. Friends of Oceano Airport in conjunction with an airport-based business Empirical Systems Aerospace brought back the Fly ‘n Ride, only this time contained in a Rubbermaid shed that is locked to keep children from accessing without parent supervision. The bikes have combination locks, and there are helmets and a tire pump in the shed.

Fun Wheels for the Beach

Fun Wheels for the Beach

Our Fly ‘n Ride works on a donation basis. Folks are pretty generous, dropping a few bucks in the bucket, which allows us to buy tubes and tires as needed. We have a liability waiver that we ask folks to sign. I distinctly remember the conversation with the risk management lawyer of San Luis Obispo County. Initially she wanted us to insure the bikes, in case someone was injured or even died. I asked her, “If your friend loaned you a bike and you fell off and broke your ankle, would you sue your friend?”  “Yes” she said and I replied, “Then you do not understand the culture of General Aviation and G.A. Airports. When we fly to some airports and you need a ride into town someone will throw you keys to the courtesy car, with no questions asked.” We compromised with the waiver. It basically says if you fall down, you are in charge of getting your own Bactine.

Our local University and Sheriffs department collect hundreds of bicycles every year that are abandoned, recovered or impounded. Initially we applied for several of those bikes, which were free. For our purposes however a multi-gear bike with hand brakes was way too much maintenance for a beach-side airport. Now we have three or four beach cruisers for our airport guests. Yes, I call them guests. I think we should all treat folks who fly into our airports as guests. Make them feel welcome, speak to them, offer a ride to town. Better yet, why not set up a Fly ’n Ride at your home airport. It really doesn’t cost much, and it will increase not only traffic to your local businesses but will increase your airport’s goodwill factor. Below is a table of the airports that I know about around the country that have bikes available. If your airport has them and is not on the list, please take a moment to put the details including identifier, name/state and any notes in the comments section.

Airports with Bikes

Airports with Bikes

I grew up in the right or back seat of a Bellanca then a Mooney. While the bikes wouldn’t have worked for a family of four necessarily it would have been something fun to do while waiting for my Dad to do the pre-flight or fuel up. We can all do something at our airports to make it more welcoming to our guests. If you come into L52 Oceano California, make sure to grab a bike head left out of the airport and make your first left on Pier, a few blocks down is one of the prettiest beaches in the world, our little slice of paradise.

Fly HighThis blog is dedicated to the memory of my father, James Lucas who flew West this week. Godspeed and tailwinds, Dad.

 

Data, Data … Who Has the Data … and What Will They Do With It?

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Whether an airplane slides off the side of the runway during takeoff or disappears behind some tall trees on final approach, the reaction is pretty universal. People want to know, “what happened?” In the heavy metal airplanes like Boeings, Airbus’ or Gulfstreams, the investigation of what went wrong begins by retrieving the flight data and cockpit voice recorders that typically survive almost every kind of mishap. The data on those recorders help investigators re-create the moments before the chaos began … what control was moved in which direction, where the power was set or what one pilot said to the other. The data becomes the basis for the Board’s final report that offers valuable insights to the industry, many that quickly make their way to the pilot training providers.

But on the GA side of flying, that kind data and analysis is almost non-existent. We need to fill that GA vacuum for the same reason large aircraft carry data recorders … to prevent the same accident from reoccurring.

Stratus 2Thanks to the glass avionics now standard on just about every production airplane in the U.S., the job of capturing operational data is becoming easier. Unknown to may pilots, both the Garmin and Avidyne avionics offer downloads of operational data by simply inserting an “SD” memory card in a front panel. ForeFlight users can also capture their flights on their iPad. Add a Stratus 2 from Sporty’s and pilots can download enough data to create a simulation in X-Plane. Imagine watching your performance as if you’d been flying alongside as your own wingman. Hook up an Iridium Go! to a Stratus 2 and you can download the data via satellite while the aircraft is still airborne. The University of North Dakota is already deep into testing data capture systems on its flight training fleet to better gauge both aircraft and pilot performance.

And not a moment too soon since the NTSB reminded us a few weeks ago that loss of control inflight (LOCI) is enough of a GA to land LOCI on the Board’s Top 10 List of Transportation worries for 2015.

Of course the real value in trend analysis evolves by analyzing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of flights. But will the GA industry take the steps needed to capture more data and, after scrubbing it clean of any identifying tags, share it with the world for analysis? The airlines and business aviation are beginning to learn the value of identifying these kinds of trends before an accident occurs.

A few stumbling blocks to using the data from today’s airplanes include worries about cost, privacy and enforcement. The cost issue is actually an easy one though, despite the huge requirement for ADS-B Out looming in 2020, because data capture isn’t required by the FAA. It’s just valuable information. The equipment is either already on board, or can be added pretty inexpensively. A Stratus 2 that sells for $899 and an Iridium Go! listing out at $799 represent the top of the line for data capture options. The Stratus also gives an aircraft ADS-B In capabilities at no extra charge. Many data capture options cost much less. The MITRE Corp. worked closely with the FAA to produce a handy app — called GAARD — you’ll find at iTunes store that is a pretty slick tool for basic data capturing just using your iPhone. Don’t be surprised when insurance companies begin offering discounts to pilots who monitor their data like auto insurers are trying right now.Iridium Go!

Certainly privacy and enforcement go hand in hand with everyone worrying about who might view their last flight and what action they might take. For the commercial and business carriers, service providers already exist that scrub the data of identifying information while they focus on the issues the data identifies pretty much the way we’ve grown accustomed to using the ASRS forms through NASA.

With the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 2012-2013 Accident Scorecard chronicling 948 fixed-wing accidents in 2013 that cut short the lives of 165 people, I’d say we have our work cut out for us. The question is whether enough pilots will gather together to take advantage of a system that might help GA vanish from the NTSB’s list in the near future.

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!